Home and away

After many years abroad, Zoe Smith is surprised to feel a sense of belonging when she returns to Gre

The old man was well over 70, but he climbed up the coconut tree like a nimble lizard. Barefoot, and with a cutlass strapped to his back, he turned round, holding on to the trunk with just one hand, and waved. When he came back down to the ground and presented me with a freshly picked coconut, I was dumbstruck. This was the first time my great-grandfather and I had ever set eyes on each other, and it was my first visit to the Caribbean island from which my parents had emigrated as children. I was eight years old when I first met him, and the experience was overwhelming.

By the time I was in my teens, however, the novelty of an "exotic" heritage had worn off. To me, Grenada represented all that was mundane, old-fashioned and traditional. All I wanted was a heritage that had a dash of panache, a family tree to trace back to the Domesday Book and a big fat crest with an obscure Latin motto.

Instead I was landed with Grenada, an island 34 miles in length, a place that was, for me, the antithesis of glamour. Nestled at the end of the Windward Isles, it thrives on agriculture, mustering up the second-largest production of nutmeg in the world. It also churns out abundances of tur meric, cinnamon and cloves, to the point where the country, known as "the Spice Isle", actually smells spicy. Or at least it did until it was stripped bare two years ago by one of the most intense Atlantic hurricanes on record.

It was Hurricane Ivan that stirred my desire to go back to the place. I was surprised at the depth of my own empathy with the islanders' suffering, and tried to push it aside - why should I care about a third-world country that I had barely visited? Instead, three weeks after the hurricane hit, I moved to Milan, convinced that I could create my own identity, free from cultural restrictions and without any colonial legacy. But something kept pulling me back, so last year, after a long absence, I decided to return.

I figured a guidebook was unnecessary. Why take a map to find one's roots? Indeed, it is easy to imagine that someone born and bred in England would feel quite at home in St George's, as Grenada's capital is named. Yet as I wandered aimlessly for hours around the central harbour, it hit me, despite my romantic ideas, that it was all an illusion. I didn't have a clue about the country that was supposed to be my "motherland".

What made it worse - and this is one thing to which any British-born West Indian will attest - was the locals' ability to spot an English person at twenty paces. You can be as black as night, sport dreadlocks and eat as much curried goat as you want, but that won't stop locals shouting, "Hey, English" as you walk down the street. At first I thought that they couldn't be referring to me. But after the fiftieth time, I realised that although I was far from white, to them I was "English".

Looking for solace, I caught a bus to the parish of St Patrick in the north of the island to visit my grandfather and his wife, who had returned to Grenada from London in the late Seventies to live in the countryside. On the first morning, a tall dark man in his late seventies who, I remembered, used to walk the streets in Wellington boots and carrying a cutlass arrived at the house after breakfast. He chatted with my grandfather and they reminisced about the hurricane, switching between English and patois. I tried to join in, but received only nods and polite yeses in response - my English accent was too thick. I marvelled that I had been better understood in Italian street markets than I was at the dinner table in my own grandfather's house.

Yet there are different levels of understanding. As the conversation progressed, I discovered that the old man was a cousin of my grandmother who died decades before I was born. The next day, as I prepared to leave, Mr Chappie, as the old man was known, turned up with a bulging black plastic bag. He shyly handed me the weighty package. As I opened it, a citrus aroma tickled my nose. It was full of fruit he had picked from his garden. "We're family," was all he said, with a smile.

I took the opportunity to stroll through St Patrick's focal point, a one-street town called Sauteurs. The place earned its name in 1653 when, in the biggest battle for control of the island between the indigenous islanders - the Kalinago (Caribs) - and the French, the islanders committed mass suicide by jumping off a cliff to avoid capture. The clifftop is now the site of a Catholic church and a picturesque graveyard, where my ancestors are buried. As a child I was taken by an aunt to pay my respects, but I had no idea where to look for their graves on my own.

It reminded me of a quotation I once came across in a book on the 1658 history of the islands, compiled by a Protestant priest who had spent much time in the Caribbean. He recorded that a Kalinago man once said: "We find some difficulty to know ourselves, so different are we grown from what we were heretofore."

Behind the sprawl of houses nestling on volcanic peaks, so green that from far away they look as if they're covered in broccoli, I pointed to land where my family had lived and worked for centuries. They were slaves, not owners, and even though I knew their names would never appear in history books apart from in the "commodities" category, I felt strangely proud. I wondered to myself if the concept of terroir could apply to people and not just wine, if there was some sense of connection to the land that comes through toiling, dying, and being born in one place for centuries.

The night before I left, it struck me as absurd that I had spent the past decade as an unrepentant Italophile without investing energy or interest in the island where my own parents were born. Despite my commitment to multicultural ideals back home in London, this complicated trip made me realise that my identity would be incomplete until I engaged fully with Grenada.

Still, as I looked out over the Carenage, a hint of that spicy aroma I had been looking for wafted across the water. It was like nuzzling into a lover's neck and finding their unique scent. It evoked a sense of warmth, security and, most strangely of all, belonging. I knew it was mad, but I liked the idea that something was trying to tell me that there was hope for prodigal daughters after all.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Trident: Why Brown went to war with Labour