“C’est pas évident,” the locals and expats told me when I asked how to get more involved in local life: It’s not obvious, self-evident, or straightforward.
It took me two trips to Martinique, one of the French overseas departments in the Caribbean, to figure out that simply being in a place didn’t necessarily mean that I would be able to give insight into what it’s really like. It has taken learning new things, being open enough to put myself in uncomfortable situations, and the strength to overcome the discomfort to discover the tip of the cultural iceberg on this island.
It was upon returning home after the first trip that I realized how superficial my knowledge of Martinique was; I had spent so much time trying to find the familiar — going on hikes and partying with people with a similar language and cultural background — that I’d missed out on what was special about the place.
“Tell me everything! Did you love it?!” Vanessa asked. Finally hanging out in person for the first time in seven months, I wasn’t sure what to tell my best friend of ten years about my time abroad.
“Yeah, I had a really good time,” I replied, my lack of enthusiasm apparent.
A keen traveller, she looked slightly disappointed but pressed further, “What’s it like there? What did you do?” I didn’t know how to answer either of those questions or how to sum up seven months in a few sentences.
How could I tell people that I had just spent all that time away and come back with some friends abroad and funny anecdotes, but no insightful opinion or perspective on a place I had just lived in?
In retrospect, this is how…
I arrived in Martinique on a Sunday afternoon at the Aimé Césaire Airport in Le Lamentin. It was sunny, hot, and so humid I stepped off the plane and into a pool of my own sweat. My supervisor’s husband, a mainland French man who had been living in Martinique for two years, had picked me up from the airport. The vibrant green landscape and smatterings of creole colonial homes perched on hills blurred past me as I looked out the window on the highway. With nearly invisible roads, I couldn’t fathom how people got that far into the countryside.
I was in Martinique to participate in the Teaching Assistant Program in France and had requested Martinique as my preferred Académie to be placed in. I made the selection through a process of investigation and abstraction; I was attracted to the legacy of the scholarship of the island and not, out of ignorance, the realities of the lifestyle and traditions. Within the first week of arriving, I had gotten to know an assistant who was an avid surfer who took me to La Plage des Surfeurs, the most frequented surf beach on the peninsula of Trinité.
I had a picture of me with a surfboard for Facebook (mission accomplished). This became a recurring theme. My time in Martinique continued thus: spending time with American, British, Canadian, and occasionally Spanish assistants; staying in my comfort zone; ticking “musts” off a list; and feeling like I was getting the “cultural experience” I sought.
Back in university, I had a Caribbean history professor tell me that one of my essays about politics in Martinique gave her the impression that I had a rose-coloured view of the country. She informed me that the realities of present-day Martinique are not like what the famous scholars had poetically written years ago, and that I would understand what she meant when I went there.
After those first seven months abroad, I could comprehend that my expectations were wrong, but simply going to Martinique did not help me learn why it was so different from what I had read.
I found out before leaving Martinique that my contract had been renewed but I dithered between going back and moving on. In the end, the question of how and why the island had changed solidified my desire to spend another seven months here; Martinique is L’Île des Revenants, the Island of Returnees, after all.
The second time around, I arrived on a dark and chilly Sunday evening. I was glad to be wearing a sweater. A teacher from the high school where my partner, Tom, would be working at picked us up from the airport and dropped us off in Trinité at the villa we planned to live in for the next seven months while working as teaching assistants. After 14 hours in transit, I was exhausted and relieved when Ghislaine, our landlady, showed us to the ground floor apartment. It was time for sleep.
“Ça sent bon…Il est doué,” Ghislaine remarked after I told her Tom was preparing one of Martinique’s typical dishes: Colombo. He is a gifted cook, and as I walked down the stairs to our door I could smell how good it was too. Colombo is a type of spice mix originating from Sri Lanka which made its way to Martinique around 1853 along with 20,000 indentured workers from the Indian subcontinent. A method of currying meat and vegetables, it is a quintessentially Martinican dish.
While settling in during the first few weeks, we would often shop at the large grocery stores and purchase expensive imported fruits and vegetables. Mainly for budgetary and pragmatic reasons, but also ethical and health ones, we decided to start buying items from local markets.
In lieu of tomato sauce, potatoes, and kiwis, we now purchase Colombo paste, dachine (Taro root), and maracudja (passion fruit). Rather than picking up steaks imported from France, we buy red snapper and marlin caught fresh from the Atlantic Ocean near our front door.
To better take advantage of all the new foods available to us, Tom and I have spent time learning about the creole cuisine of Martinique, in the process gaining an understanding of how the flavours and spices, origins and influences, and the dishes themselves fit into the patchwork of Martinican life.
On December 24 (when many Martinicans who celebrate Christmas enjoy their festivities), my supervisor, Sabrina, invited Tom and me to her aunt’s Chanté Nwel cum family reunion. I had eagerly purchased my Cantique, a collection of Christmas carols in French, a week prior and looked up some of the songs on YouTube that my students said I should practice.
Upon arriving at a house in the countryside of Gros-Morne, an agricultural town, we were immediately welcomed, introduced, and led over to the liqueur table to pick our poison. After a drink and some talking, three of Sabrina’s cousins beckoned everyone to stand up and start singing. People grabbed their Cantiques, men picked up the tambours, the ti-bwa, and a cha-cha (a maraca made of a calabash), while a couple of children played improvised maracas made of rice inside water bottles.
Despite being unfamiliar with the tune of the carols, I followed the book and sang loudly in my accented French. I often lost my place or couldn’t say the words quickly enough in French. A few times I became hopelessly lost; not only could I not find the lyrics on the page, but the words they sang became incomprehensible to me.
I scrunched my face in confusion and Sabrina said to me, “It’s a ritournelle, it’s not written.” The ritournelle is a refrain sung in Creole, not published in the Cantique, and can even differ depending on parts of the island people come from.
During the first few songs, I felt nervous and wondered if people were judging me or asking themselves what I was doing there. I continued to sing and started asking people more about some of the food, drinks, instruments, and even accessories they were wearing. The more I participated and asked questions, the more open people became.
I learned that certain songs from the cantique are meant to be sung before midnight, at midnight, and after midnight; Sabrina’s uncle explained to me how to braid a bakoua (a type of hat made from palm leaves); a family member made me a Christmas ti-punch — dark rum with hibiscus flower syrup and lime.
We ate all of the classic Christmas foods and at 3am, full and exhausted from singing, talking, and laughing, we were served traditional pain au beurre, a large braided bread with chocolat de Communion, a spiced hot chocolate. They sent us home with some mandarins that flourish at Christmas time from their tree and a promise to see each other soon.
One of the first ways I decided to get involved in the community and demonstrate my permanency was joining a theatre class and a modern jazz dance class at the cultural centre of my town. I learned the history of theatre in Martinique and have gotten to know people in my classes that I otherwise would not have met. At every juncture, I’ve had to make extra effort and throw myself in and not be fazed by the reactions of other people.
I’ve felt uncomfortable singing unfamiliar Christmas carols and discussing current issues with people in a register of French I have yet to master; I’ve been looked at strangely for wanting to learn traditional bèlè dancing or how to make cacao tea; I’ve had to smile through locals laughing at me, merchants patronizing me with interrogations about how my vacation is going, their looks of astonishment when I explain I live here, and their utter disbelief that I would ever leave Canada for this island.
For all the discomfort and awkwardness, the more I discuss life on this island with people who know it better than I do and are open to sharing it with me, the more I have learned about how the history, lifestyle, and traditions informed the scholarship I so highly valued. From reading the famous scholars of Martinique who were stimulating literary and political movements in the 1930s-1980s, I expected community, solidarity, living off the land and intellectual exchange and resistance to be obvious.
Ostensibly these characteristics have given way to tourism, Carrefour supermarkets, and terrible French television; however, with a little extra effort and a lot of extra questions I have found community, people living off the land, and resistance.