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The expats among us

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An expatriate (often shortened to expat) is a person temporarily or permanently residing, as an immigrant, in a country other than that of their citizenship. The word comes from the Latin terms ex (“out of”) and patria (“country, fatherland”). —Wikipedia

Immigration is a hot topic—the driving force behind the Brexit (UK decision to leave the European Union) and a big, big thorn in the side of nations like Germany, Italy and Greece, buffeted by waves of Syrians flooding in from a war-torn homeland.

But there are other kinds of immigration as well, some, like the influx of “other people from other places” into Halifax County, almost invisible.

They’re not arriving on rafts or with everything they own in bundles on their backs. They aren’t paying “coyotes” to secret them across the borders from Fairfax County to Halifax-South Boston.

More often, they’re driving BMWs, Land Rovers or late model SUVs, hunting for—and finding—their own unspoiled chunk of “retirement heaven,” 30 or 300 acres in rural communities where “everyone has known everyone else since the beginning of time.”

July 2 was a beautiful, rain-free Saturday night at the Motor Sports Club off Old Mt. Laurel Road, and the crowd that assembled there to celebrate the retirement of State Department Executive Philippa de Ramus were, in the majority, “outsiders” ready to make their way into the tight, tribal society of Halifax County.

De Ramus, who bought a 30-plus acre site with an old girl’s school on it about a decade ago, has never lived full-time on her “little piece of paradise,” but she’s visited on hundreds of occasions, adding acres to her parcel (now 200-plus acres), making friends in the community (more than 100 at her retirement party), getting involved in the “local” movement, The Prizery, the art scene and the eating/drinking opportunities across the county.

Is Halifax home?

“You bet it is,” said de Ramus.

The air force kid who joined the Foreign Service 20 years ago has seen enough of the world to know where home is and where it is not: Mozambique, Portugal, Austria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Germany are the names of places she’s lived—not home, she said.

And as exciting as her job has been, de Ramus elicited a round of applause from new friends and old at the Motor Sports Club when she toasted Halifax County and “the special people” who live in the place she will always consider her one and only “home.”

She’s a woman who understands how diplomacy works.

On the come-and-go occasions she’s “lived” on the farm in Mount Laurel she named Liberty Holly, de Ramus has transformed an old house badly in need of repair into a Southern Living cover.

Filled with antiques and other “finds” collected abroad, Liberty Holly rambles across a rolling landscape punctuated by a large pond and divided into fields for the “rescue” horses de Ramus boards.

Then there are the trails she’s cleared for hiking and dog-walking, bee hives and an orchard. The original, detached brick kitchen is now a guest cottage with a wine-cellar-in-progress downstairs.

A spacious deck sets off the back of the house, and a new kitchen, whose log walls were only recently discovered, is home to upscale stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and a formidable chandelier.

Ann Milne, de Ramus’ mother, arrived in the U.S. by boat—she’s from Southport, England, a British beauty who hitched her wagon to a good-looking American doing his stint in the U.S. Air Force.

“I love it here,” she said.

Many of de Ramus’ friends, people she’s met down here, also happen to be transplants.

Take Todd and Andee Boyd—up from North Carolina to inspect the 30 acres they’ve owned for a while on Newbill School Road in Mount Laurel. Eventually, they’ll own a house in Halifax County, but right now, they’re still looking at designs and getting to know the neighborhood.

Todd, a combat pilot at home in an F-15, has flown 500-plus hours over Iraq and Afghanistan. He hails from Grand Junction, Colorado, and his wife, Andee, from Tennessee and North Carolina.

Dick and Rhonda van der Schagt, down the street on Old Mount Laurel Road, met at a watering hole in Amsterdam more than a decade ago.

Dick, a Dutch citizen, and Rhonda, a redhead from our northernmost climes (Minnesota), fixed on the Charlottesville area as an ideal retreat (in his case, from rising waters, and in hers, from frigid temperatures), but the bargains just weren’t there.

Instead, they stumbled into Halifax County (of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world) and ran into Carl Forlines who owned a falling-down house this odd (meaning out-of-town, not strange) couple loved at first sight.

Today the van der Schagt residence, with its bright blue (the color of Amsterdam) roof and impeccably-groomed gardens is a showplace, the result of painstaking labor and love.

Rhonda is almost a native, almost—but her urbane perspective comes in handy at Berry Hill where she handles the wedding trade (a lot of out-of-towners with one-of-a-kind problems).

Dick, a perfectionist in everything—he was in finance in the Netherlands--works at VIR, the “perfect” job it took him a long time to find.

Then there’s Mark and Jeanene Krough, a couple focused on bringing an old Halifax County plantation back to life with relentless accuracy. Jeanene travels to Williamsburg to purchase reproduction lighting that mirrors the original sconces and chandeliers in the house. No detail is too small.

Mark fixes on the bigger picture.

“We have 80 windows,” he said, “and an English basement that was full of snakes when we bought the place.”

But there’s more. Really more.

“And then there were, well, let’s just call them ‘the spirits’,” he said.

“One weekend night, when my son and his girlfriend were visiting, I was in the hall when I saw a young girl in what appeared to be a dingy nightgown travel from one room to the other across from it. At first, I thought this was my son’s friend. But then I looked closer and noticed her feet were about six inches off the ground.”

Jeanene confirms the sighting.

“Now that we’ve done so much carpentry, plastering and painting, we don’t notice much supernatural activity…” said Mark.

OK, but remember, these folks are from out-of-town and may be mistaking normal Halifax County happenings—like “noodling”--for something, well, strange.

It’ll pass.

Joel and Valarie Sherriff—self-described exiles from Manassas, —came to south central Virginia 12 years ago looking for greener pastures, literally. Valarie raises Andalusians, a breed designed to prance (let’s call it “dressage”).

In Manassas, which is famous for its traffic, not its equines, the couple was forced to board the horses.

Not good.

Joel, whose field is communications technology, jumped onto the web and found www.historicproperties.com, a real estate outfit exclusively devoted to making yuppy-dreams come true. The Sherriffs saw the big 19th century manor house, the long driveway, the 30-acre lot, and visions of their designer-dog-pack frolicking in the yard began to dance in their heads.

There was even a place for a stable—the horses, remember?

Joel shakes his head, remembering years of near-constant repairs and improvements.

“Little did we know,” he said.

Today, the Sherriffs, like their expat neighbors, de Ramus and the van der Schagts, have transformed a corner of Halifax County into a replica of the upscale homes in Loudoun County—Middleburg, Upperville, Paris.

Peggy Hammond, another party-goer, and her husband, Graham Ellwood, are well-known figures in Halifax County, but both of them came here from other places—Peggy from Baltimore County and Graham all the way from New Zealand. Peggy is a mover and shaker in the local “history and genealogy scene,” and Graham, whose original plan was marketing fireproof gear to local racers, is turning into a Virginia gentleman (with a Kiwi accent).

Joe Foster was also in fine party form. The immigrant from New Jersey and the Eastern Shore has taught Master Gardener classes in Halifax for years, and while Foster easily hangs with out-of-towners, his love of all things growing has won him entrée to the homes and hearts of county natives as well.

Finally, we have Milt and Sandy McPherson, owners and operators of Hunting Creek Vineyards and escapees from Chesapeake, a place with too many tourists and too much traffic.

The same old story.

The McPhersons came here in search of “peace and quiet” and, of course, another dream.

Today, they have it—acres and acres of vines, a distilling room and a tasting room for a selection of wines Sandy names according to their “moods,” i.e. “Indulgence” and “Temptation.”

But here’s the really interesting part — Sandy said, “75 percent of our business comes from out-of-towners.”

She means, not just visitors, but expats now living in the community.

Question: are newcomers, who are used to a “Northern Virginia lifestyle,” recreating the best of old experiences in a brand-new place?

Sure looks like it.

When asked if there was anything else that might make their “new lives” in Halifax County even better, the responses weren’t unexpected: “a really, really good coffee bar that stays open 24-7,” “a good grocery store, like Whole Foods or Jansen’s Market,” and a “nice, local, family pub like the ones in Ireland or Amsterdam.”

So what’s the moral of this story?

Maybe that no one can stop change, and change begets more change. Could be bad, if you’re not open to new experiences, and could be good, if you like adventure.

The bottom line is that Halifax County isn’t as much of a secret as old-timers may wish it was. Media marketing folks understand that word-of-mouth can be a powerful form of advertising (look at all the sites that depend on “customer reviews” to lure first-time buyers).

That means that new markets are materializing in Halifax County – markets now dominated by expats serving other expats. But this could change—money that circulates is money that grows.

No one has counted the number of “outsiders” that have moved into the county over the last 15 or 20 years, and that’s surprising.

The expat population in Halifax County someday, in the not so distant future, will reach critical mass—right now, it’s these newcomers who are pushing the need for broadband, because they understand how easy it is to work from home.

They’re also sampling the restaurants and checking out the shops, and local retailers, in some cases, realize that this is indeed a “new market,” customers coming in, not just for the food, but for the experience—not just to make a specific purchase, but to “browse,” an activity that is about entertainment as much as it is about buying.

The expats interviewed for this article all said they “love Halifax County—its beauty, its friendliness and…its potential.”

Whether “potential” is something natives of Halifax County are interested in serving up remains to be seen, but one thing is sure—this area is attracting a steady flow of immigrants from places that are too expensive, too crowded and too unfriendly to retain folks ready for a better deal.

Kathy Millar reports for The Gazette-Virginian. Contact her at kmillar@gazettevirginian.com.​