Surfing the channels for something to watch, you can wash up on some interesting shores. The other night, I found myself watching something called “1900 Island” on New Jersey Public Television.
Originally produced by Welsh TV in 2018, it depicts four British families who chose, of their own free will, to spend a month living in a long-abandoned fishing village on an island off the coast of Wales. They agreed to live there for one month as if it were the year 1900.
I have always been fascinated by what we can learn from historical sources. For example, while visiting Colonial Williamsburg many years ago, I noticed that the re-enactors pushed every piece of a house’s furniture to the wall, every sundown, only to set everything back up again every morning. I thought it was ridiculous for the colonists to have made so much work for themselves — until our next blackout back home as I tripped over furniture and stepped on Legos in the dark.
But this time it’s different. Now, when my actual life consists of trying to stretch grocery shipments until the next one can arrive — who will get to that last of the tomatoes first, me or the mold? — it is with pandemic-sharpened interest that I watch these folks.
And I had more than the usual empathy for the father of five who was literally weak from hunger —dropping a barrel of a cargo shipment — because he had let his wife and children have the last of the food. I took notes on how the families learned to stretch their vegetable allotment into soup, even as I was horrified that it took all day to make a loaf of bread.
I got angrier with one teenage girl than her own mother did after the girl watched Mom struggle all day to clean clothes with chips of soap, galvanized tub and water from the pump — but who, when asked to pitch in and do some herself, replied that she still “didn’t know how.” Her father (still hungry) commented that in the real 1900, she’d have been turned out as one too many mouths to feed if she didn’t earn her keep.
One reason food grew so scarce was that an Atlantic storm was raging, making it unsafe for the men to go fishing — especially in the vintage sailing ship that had supplied the village with mackerel in 1900.
But either I fell asleep, or they sailed through a time warp, because all of a sudden I’m looking at the captain and crew of a spic-and-span modern luxury yacht. Only instead of being off the coast of Wales, we seem to be in the Mediterranean. We are “Below Deck Mediterranean,” in fact — a Bravo cable show, part of an apparently never-ending series — complete with captain, crew, and ultra-wealthy clients.
Clearly much has changed in the century I slept through, but one thing has not: there is still a young woman who is very indignant at having to do the laundry! She is the third steward in the crew, and thinks she should be No. 2. “But this is your job,” the captain tells her. “There should be no piles of dirty laundry on the floor!”
What’s her problem, I think? She has washing machines, electricity, probably soap in convenient pods. She doesn’t know how good she has it!
Back in 1900, the women try their hand at digging for mussels on the beach, and eventually find enough of them to sell. I don’t envy any of them because at least when the lights go off here in Port Washington, we still have indoor bathroom fixtures.
But then the Welsh neighbors all go to a tavern-… eating, drinking and singing together by candlelight… and I suddenly feel a pang of envy.
“So, Judy, if you had to choose, which would it be? Running water? Or eating and drinking with friends at a tavern?”
That’s a good question. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.”
And that’s what it’s come to here in the year 2020.