Carlie: Hey there, it’s Carlie with the Expat Focus Podcast.
Where are you spending your coronavirus lockdown? Are you in a densely populated city? A smaller town, where social distancing is made that bit easier? Are you spending this time away from where you’d normally call home? Maybe you’re on your own property in the countryside, with not a soul in sight …
Danish expat Christian Graugart and his young family are spending their isolation time at home in St Barts, a small French island in the Caribbean.
In this episode, Christian explains how they got there, and what lockdown life is like on a 25 square kilometre island with a pretty small population, only one supermarket and, currently, no swimming allowed!
You’ll also find out why he recommends approaching this time at home like you’re on a really long flight.
Christian, you’re originally from Denmark. How did you and your family end up on an island in the Caribbean?
Christian: Yeah, good question. I’ve been training jujitsu for 20 years, teaching a lot, and there was a point in 2011 where I did a round-the-world trip for six months. And when I came back home, I wrote a book about it. And a while after publishing the book, someone just randomly emailed me.
I remember, I was on my couch in Copenhagen, on my laptop, when someone emailed me, and said, ‘Hey, my name is’ – blah, blah, blah – ‘I live in St Barts and just finished your book. I’ve just put it down. And we’re a small academy with just five members, and we have no one to teach here. So, I was wondering if you wanted to come over for a few weeks to teach jujitsu.
And I thought, Where on Earth is St Barts? I’ve never heard of it before. So, I just assumed it was a city in France or something, but I looked it up, and it was a small French island in the Caribbean. And I’d never heard about it before, but I was like, ‘Hell yeah, I’ll go.’
So I came here for two weeks or something, to teach a small group, and made some good friends and really enjoyed it, obviously. And then I came back here every winter to teach for a few weeks. And yeah, it just felt more and more like … When I came back, it didn’t feel like I was going on holiday, more like I was going back to a place that I knew.
Anyway, I was here for the third time or something, and it was at a point in my life where I had kind of purposely downsized my life a little bit – I’d sold off my business and I’d cut down on everything I owned.
I owned very few things – a bit of clothes and a laptop, pretty much. I cut the ties to my business. I was just teaching there as an employee. I think I had kind of set myself up for being flexible, just in case something happened.
You know, if I got some opportunity, I didn’t want to be stuck – it was just in case something got dumped in my lap. And I, more or less unconsciously, prepared myself for if something offered itself. I didn’t want to be tied down.
So I think I was here the third year, and I was sitting in the airport with a few of my friends here and waiting for the plane. And I remember, I just said, ‘If you guys hear about an apartment or something, let me know, just in case.’ Because it’s absolutely impossible to get an apartment here.
That’s the thing about living here. Finding a job is very easy, but finding a place to live is nearly impossible.
Carlie: That’s really interesting. Why is that the case?
Christian: Let me get back to that.
Anyway, so, I went home, and then four days later, I got an email that said, ‘Okay, we have an apartment, so you just have to say yes now, or it’s gone.’ And that was a little bit nerve racking, because my girlfriend was pregnant, and it is a big decision to leave a country.
Luckily, it’s French territory, so being a European union citizen, I didn’t need any permission or anything to move here. So that was an easy part, but the decision was the difficult part.
But anyway, we thought about it for a little bit, and the deciding factor was that if we didn’t do it, then we would always be thinking, What if? How would it have been if the kids were growing up in the Caribbean? Or, What if we lived there? I would have talked about that for my whole life, and my kids would have hated me for that. They would have heard that story all the time, ‘Oh, you could have lived in the Caribbean.’
Carlie: Yeah, it’s like saying they had an offer to live in Disneyland or something.
Christian: Yes, something like that. So anyway, we took the chance, and I spent about 10 months getting everything ready, selling everything, cleaning out a fifth-floor loft with no elevator, on my own, with stuff that’d been collected there for twenty years.
So yeah, that was it. Then we just came here. And I think the immediate thought was that it could be maybe six months, or maybe even one year, or something. It could have been just a long holiday, but here we are, three and a half years later.
Carlie: I’ve read that St Barts is a favourite among the rich and famous. Can I assume you’re in this club? Or are you among those mortals that just find another way to get there?
Christian: Well, on the outside, it’s definitely like a rich and famous island. It’s based purely on luxury tourism. The hotels are easily €1,000 night, or even €10,000, €20,000 or €30,000 a night. So the average tourist is about 40 and very wealthy, usually. We have no backpackers; no young people come here just for tourism.
But the local community … The locals are mainly normal – I would say middle-class – with normal jobs. You know, this is not champagne every day. There’re completely normal people living normal lives.
This is a small Island, with only 9,000 people, but it still needs teachers and construction workers and supermarket staff. And so, in that sense, life here is very normal. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, even though it might look like that if you just look in the magazines, or on Instagram or something. But that’s just the average tourists.
Carlie: You do have a profile within the martial arts community though, and it’s how I saw your social media post about the “official St Barts quarantine kit for coronavirus, with sparkling wine flag, foie gras, baguettes, cigarettes … So, I’m curious, what sort of coronavirus crisis measures are in place there at the moment?
Christian: They’re just following the directions from France. So, we’re in the same lockdown as you, I think. No gatherings or going out of the house, unless it’s for work or buying groceries. You can do exercise near your house. So, luckily, I live right by the beach, so I can go there a little bit. That’s it.
Carlie: And on the day before France imposed it’s lockdown, we saw lots of Parisians rushing for the trains to get to holiday and family homes and other parts of the country. Did the island see a similar mass exodus, or a stack of people arriving?
Christian: There are only 9,000 people here, so there are not that many people going in or out. But I know some friends who had to make sure their kids flew home. I think people want to be here more than anywhere else, really. If a lockdown and isolation work here, then it’s a very small place to keep track of.
It’s not like there’re a million people who can infect each other. I think we had one case during carnival, which was more than a month ago. And he was put in isolation in his home, and that was it. Then nothing else happened. And two people came back a few weeks ago from a cruise, two locals, and were tested positive, and they’re in the house.
We haven’t had any more official cases, since they don’t test a lot, like most places at this point. So, we don’t know, but at least there’s no one in the hospital or anything. So that’s a good sign. But I think everyone here is, at least me and people I know are, glad to be here, because it’s super small, and they’ve cut off all traffic.
There’s no one going in or out, unless it’s for emergencies. There’s just water around us, and the virus can’t really come or go at this point. And the few people that come in are put in super strict quarantine. At least, that’s what they say, so I hope that’s true. But so far, so good.
Carlie: So, how are you getting access to things like groceries and items that would normally be flown or shipped in?
Christian: Oh, there’s no change there. The cargo ships are still coming in with the groceries and stuff. You just can’t come or go unless you have special permission.
Carlie: So you’re not experiencing the great toilet paper shortage of 2020?
Christian: No, I just sent my friend a picture from the supermarket; there is lots of toilet paper here. They also just opened a new supermarket, which is a really big thing on the island, because there was pretty much just one supermarket, and they’ve built a new one close to the old one, which was terribly small.
So, we have, for the island, a very large and modern-feeling supermarket. And they apparently have a really big new storage. So there’s no shortage of anything at this point.
Carlie: And how have local businesses been coping with the shutdown? Here in France, only essential services are allowed to operate. Is that the same in St Barts? Or are the cases there so low that the measures aren’t so strict?
Christian: No, it’s the exact same. Everything is closed. You also need the written certificate to leave the house, and the police are patrolling to make sure people are not on the beach and swimming and stuff.
They banned swimming in the ocean, and French people like to complain, so there was a lot of complaining right there. Yeah, that’s really a shame, because that’s one thing that can really keep you sane here. You can go for a swim, usually, but that’s banned. So now we’re going to have to walk on the beach or run or something.
Carlie: Are they worried about the virus being exacerbated in water, or is it just to make sure they know where people are?
Christian: I think that if you’re allowed to swim, then more people want to hang out on the beach. And when they hang out on the beach, they always meet their friends. It’s a very small place and you can’t go anywhere for two minutes without running into someone you know.
If everybody’s is like, ‘Okay, you’re going to be stuck in your house, but you can go for a swim’, then everybody’s going to go for a swim, and the beaches are going to be full. So I think that’s why they made that rule.
Carlie: Christian, across Europe we’re seeing nightly 8:00 PM gatherings at windows and on balconies to cheer for the healthcare workers. People are playing instruments; they are leading group fitness classes. Is that community spirit being shown on St Barts as well?
Christian: No, not really. I haven’t seen anything, at least. But we don’t have apartment buildings here, or anything like that, so we’re spread out in the hills. If I shouted out my window, not many people would hear me, so maybe that’s why.
Carlie: And how are you planning to spend the coming week or weeks in isolation?
Christian: Well, I have two little kids, and they are home 24/7, so I have my hands full. I have my own job that I’m trying to do, and two kids home-schooling in French, which I don’t speak. So I don’t really have a minute to spare of the day right now.
Personally, I just think about this as a long-haul flight. If you take a really long flight, you don’t think too much about it. You just watch a few movies, take a few naps … Don’t look at the flight map; that’s the worst thing you can do. Then it feels like it’s forever. Right? So we just go with the flow, and one day it’s over and we’re back to normal.
Carlie: That’s almost it for this episode. One thing Christian mentioned at the start of our chat, that we didn’t get back to, is why finding an apartment in St Barts is so impossible. Christian tells me it’s due to a few reasons:
- There’s a housing shortage on the island, with no room to build anything, very strict construction rules (apparently nothing can be built that is higher than a palm tree), and the big hotels are snapping up rentals for their staff
- Christian says there’s also the fact that St Barts is a very exclusive, expensive island with most housing listed on Airbnb – in non-pandemic times at least – for an average of €1000 a night!
- All of the above means that ‘regular’ people only have access to a small portion of the housing market. The smallest apartments sell for at least €1 million. To buy a villa in St Barts, you’re looking at more like €10 to €60 million!
- Those that are building new housing on the island are focusing on that luxury market, rather than a three-thousand-euros-a-month rental return
If you have any questions for Christian, or want to share your own experience of living in an island paradise, head over to Expatfocus.com and follow the links to our forums or Facebook groups.
If you liked this episode, you might also like my interview with Ian Usher, who lived off the grid on his very own island, off the coast of Panama. Please remember to subscribe to the show. Rate us and follow us on Instagram and Twitter @ExpatFocus, and I’ll catch you next time.