Approximately a year ago today, I left London in a hurry. Not out of choice, that’s just the way things go sometimes. There was an exciting new job waiting for me and a 4 week notice period in the old one. Compared with previous international departures of months (as in 4 or 12!) of advance notice, just under four weeks was kinda fast. There were a lot of goodbyes. No shortage of tears. Sometimes the result of lovely things said. There were no regrets. This adventure called Life had spoken quite definitively, it was time to rock and roll onto pastures new. My longstanding undimmed passionate love affair with the Caribbean had yielded a new fruit: emigration.
While I was adamant it was ‘only’ for 2 or 3 years (maybe even one!) nobody believed me. ‘I have to believe I’m coming back or I’ll never leave!’ I told my loved ones. As loved ones, they are quite accustomed to my flair for the dramatic. A fantabulous send off thanks to Riva bar in Catford, 2 of England’s best soca DJs, and my peeps, and then a final intimate Sunday dinner with the family, including 9 of my closest cousins, plus aunties, uncles, friends of siblings, cos, well, that’s how we roll in my family. So after all the bawling and raving, plus frantic preparation for departure, I reach. Martinique. The sister island to the place a friend dubbed ‘my favourite place in the world’ (St Lucia).
I may have slowed down technically. What with having left the hustle and bustle of that international city, that beautiful beloved hometown I shared with 8 million other folk, the largest city in Europe, ol’ Londinium, for a dot in the Caribbean sea with 400,000 people in the whole country and the accompanying small-town vibe and peculiarities. With glorious views, life by the Caribbean sea and 52 weeks of sunshine as recompense. It’s nevertheless been a whirlwind of a year as you might imagine. As I reflect, here’s a list of ‘things what I hav learned innit’ as a Londoner might say (in no particular order):
1) Independence means strength in London. It’s an admirable trait. In Martinique, it’s cute if annoying (especially to guys). It makes people feel unwanted if you won’t ask for help when you need it. Independence can mean that what is a complicated obstacle for you to solve (on your own, you strong black woman you!), may be entirely caused by your inability to accept that you need a ride. A reframing of the problem can open up the possibility of a far simpler solution than anticipated; a ride. Note: this applies to many situations where needing a ride does not come into play.
2) Bureaucracy can really make your life hell. And ill-administered bureaucracy can make you suicidal.
3) Public transport only works if there is not a culture of strikes. A one day strike is cool, a six week strike is catastrophic if you need to get from A to B on a bus.
4) Martinican people are unendingly generous. Not just in reference to bus strikes, during which you can head to a major bus stop during strike time and someone will pick you up within 15 minutes because everyone’s au courant to the bus strike. But generally. Just warm and kind people abound. There are annoying unfriendly people everywhere and Martinique is no exception. But I have been actually moved to tears by the unmerited generosity of people here at times. It has come with the openly political words ‘that’s Caribbean solidarity!’ and it’s come with the simple ‘it’s no big deal’ (which is a very rough translation of ‘c’est normal!‘) but it has consistently come from the old, young, male and female Martinican people. Generosity. A humbling lesson to learn.
5) Age matters. Packs matter. 7 years is a long time in the life of a twentysomething. But the reception I’ve had this past year, compared to the one I had during my first sejour in Martinique are chalk and cheese. Rien à voir as people are prone to say here. That’s not a translation of chalk and cheese by the way, it means ‘nothing to do with’ or ‘looks nothing like’ to be more literal but still a little imprecise. Simply put, the two receptions are like chalk and cheese.
When I was here the first time, I was different too. I was here for a year and I was just 21 and within a week of arriving I had a crew consisting of 2 other black girls (Americans), a mixed indo-afro Trinidadian, a right-on white English girl and me, and despite being strangers a week earlier, we quickly bonded and rolled that way for the whole time I was there. (Save for the expulsion from the crew of one of the Americans but we were girls, she deserved it, and it was a decision taken very democratically.) We lived together, partied together, debated late into the night together, travelled the Caribbean together. We were a tight-knit crew. Which must have been a little off-putting I now realise.
Because the Martinican women in our lives were mostly auntie and older-cousin types. Slightly older women who took us under their wings and looked after and out for us. Or Guadeloupean. I was never really able to explain the phenomenon but the people our own age that we made friends with were mainly Guadeloupeans; I didn’t keep in touch with a single Martinican female after I left. Perhaps cos we were proper foreign, and Guadeloupeans could relate but this time, I’ve made way more Martinican women friends. I’m pretty sure it’s cos I’m not moving with a minimum of one other girl to whom I speak English loudly in public places. Rolling solo, I am much more approachable.
In addition, I’m older and perhaps (perhaps!) more graceful and less uncouth. You know, refining with age now I’m closer to thirty than twenty. Perhaps? Either way, whereas when I was in Martinique the first time there was not a single man in Martinique who took a romantic interest in me, this time my interactions with Martinican men have often begun with an (uninvited) comment on my apparently pleasing physical appearance. It’s rarely crude and compliments are always welcome but it’s something I do not remember at all from my earlier séjour. What I remember is being informed that I was a nègresse, as opposed to a chabine (‘mixed’ looking light-skinned girl). And that there was a colour hierarchy. Contrast that experience with one only a few days ago; a dashing young fellow actually almost fell over himself when clamouring to introduce himself and inform me that I was a ‘belle nègresse’ which in the context I understood to mean a beautiful black woman, with emphasis on the black. I remain somewhat bewildered; has Martinique changed or me? Or do I have really random and unrepresentative encounters with people? (HIGHLY POSSIBLE)….Which brings me nicely to the other thing I’ve discovered:
6) The social hierarchy here is well complicated. I’m pretty sure I don’t really understand it yet. Though it’s very clearly defined. And contested. There’s a money thing, and a colour thing and the two are kinda linked. But not irretrievably. There’s a bit of dark skin = irredeemably black, less attractive thing. And there’s some sort of connection to creole in this. I only understand this because some dude, struggling to believe my accent was British English rather than St Lucian, and thus that I really didn’t speak creole, finally threw up in hands in frustration/disgust and informed me ‘mais noir comme tu es, il faut parler creole!/but black as you are, you should speak creole!’ No Joke.
As my mate pointed out, there’s also a bit of slightly unhealthy pride in ‘métissage,‘ or visibly having white ancestry more specifically. While ‘colourism’ is hardly unique to Martinique, there’s a bit of the phenomenon observed recently in England, which a friend coined as the ‘myth of the mixed super race’. She reckons this was evident where mixed people (and by mixed we mean black and white parentage. If you’re black and mixed with something else you are less valuable. Please turn away now) are considered to be both
a) endowed with superpowers as a result of having both black and white parentage; more beautiful and gifted than black people. Sometimes more beautiful than white people too (such beautiful curls! But not too many! Wink wink…), but also
b) evidence personified that racism does not exist, is ‘over’ and cannot be as bad as people report. That progress in the quest for humanity for all has been made because a black person and a white person loved each other and had kids together. Now, not to knock the history in some parts of the world, like in South Africa, Australia or the US where it was properly illegal for people designated black or white by the state to marry one another, but I’m pretty sure those laws were enacted because of a wider ideology about whiteness and superiority, and it’s cousin, blackness and inferiority. The problem with the ideology was not that it meant people classed as black and white were forbidden to marry. The problem was, and remains, the ideology itself. It is flawed; white people are not infinitely superior to black people, and black people are not inferior to white people. And all the people who fall in between those constructed diametric opposites are just as human as both.
Thus the fact that the laws were repealed and people started marrying and having children with people who looked different is not the revolution we are seeking. If people had never wanted to marry and have children with each other, despite being from different groups, those laws would never have been enacted in the first place. Which brings me to my final point (nicked from another friend who pointed it out to me): Mixed people have always existed. At least in the new world. Black women were raped systematically within the transatlantic slave trade, and the children they produced were mixed. Sometimes they were even acknowledged or favoured by their fathers. This is where much of the problem of colourism comes from. Oftentimes it’s the reason that chabin(e)s even exist. Or in the words of Styles P, ‘I’m black, even though my skin’s kind of light that means my ancestors was raped by somebody white.’
Just to be clear, I bear no grudge against the chabines, and chabins of the world. I just think that the myth of the mixed super race is ridiculous and dangerously close to legitimising the branch of racism which says black people are not inferior to white people, but they are inferior to black people who are visibly part-white. How does that logic even work?
Which brings me back to the point after a long detour (thanks for hanging in here!)
7) Martinique is not just a French-speaking Caribbean island, and a part of a France. It’s actually a whole other world away from the wider Caribbean. I was far more in tune with happenings in the English-speaking Caribbean when I lived in England, than I am now that I live in the French Caribbean. On an island, I should add, where I can see the lights of the cars in St Lucia at night it’s that close. Seriously.
In moments where I let my imagination roam wild, I wonder if this must have been what it was like to live in a dictatorship where information was carefully controlled and so people just get used to not asking questions. Or accepting the television news version of events as truth, even if it contradicts what people have seen with their own eyes. I have come across some certifiably crazy ideas about the non-French islands. And an ignorance which is simply astounding. Which is probably linked.
Sometimes it feels like ignorance about the outside world is a way of life here. As is a lack of awareness of how bizarre that ignorance really is, and its profundity. Not an active choice I hasten to add, but a fact of life. Perhaps a protection against the ever-present political issue which is constantly and never talked about (the uneasy relationship with France). Perhaps. From a student/historian’s perspective, life in present day Martinique makes for an inordinately enriching intellectual experience.
But I am beginning to meander.
8) One massive lesson I’ve learned this year is about personal debt. In the UK, ‘living in your overdraft’ is normal. Before the recession/financial crisis/credit crunch it was normal when you turned 18 to get offers for credit cards with your birthday cards. Huge personal debts are normalised via mortgages and student loans and personal loans and store cards and all sorts of things. A St Lucian friend of mine moved to the US and remarked ‘it’s crazy, these people spend 90% of what they earn!’ I kept quiet about my credit card debt. Which bugs me but is not anything like as dramatic as it could be. Didn’t mention the overdrafts. When your salary may not be paid from one month to the next because of a real or perceived mistake or ill-timed lunch break or whatever on the part of personnel, you make provisions. You save.
I would say debt is a first world luxury, but it seems like the financial system in France, at least as it operates in Martinique, doesn’t permit it anyway. And apparently it was the same in Greece; while the country may be bankrupt, the individuals don’t have huge personal debts so to them it’s an obvious flaw in the system. Whereas for us Brits, we carry huge amounts of personal debt, so we believe the analogy of the household that needs to tighten it’s belt, rather than accepting the more terrifying fact that actually the country’s economy works like a casino, as the New Economics Foundation explained to me. (In another awesome piece Framing the economy: the austerity story). So while you might have a huge unemployment problem, you certainly don’t get 25 year olds with debts in the tens of thousands. Not including student loans. Which don’t appear to exist here anyway. When uni is about €500 a year worse case scenario, and grants (not loans) are available there are not a further few decades of debt around your neck when you finish studying either. It’s quite a unique approach the French way.
9) Digérer. I think this is probably the most important thing I’ve learned this year. To digest my food. Martinicans don’t eat in a hurry. They don’t grab a sandwich on the run, and they don’t eat at their desks after running to the nearest deli and back again while they’re at work. What was absolutely normal and expected of me in London provokes shudders here. People cook here. They eat constantly and they talk about food constantly.
But it’s very much a ‘little and often’ culture. A piece of cake here, a tart there, among the youth some junk food there. Martinicans are a very slender people in an age of obesity. Mostly because they’re taught to love food but disdain gluttony as children. They eat a lot, and rich foods, but they eat regularly. They eat freshly prepared food, and they snack on restaurant-style starters and appetizers in their homes. There’s not even a word for ‘ready meal’ and super/ramen noodles have little to no traction here. People refuse to serve food to friends if it’s not perfect enough. Eating is a social occasion but it’s also a chance to show off a little.
When the eating’s done, there is no culture of ‘exercising it off’. Food is connected intimately to well-being, why would you want to get rid of it?? After food there’s nothing like a good conversation to ensure digestion. Food should be consumed in a warm and happy atmosphere, and prepared with love, or at least joy. And garlic of course. Everything tastes better with garlic. This is what I have learned.
10) Dominoes à trois. I don’t know which tight-knit three-strong friendship group refused to play with other people when dominoes arrived or went mainstream in Martinique, but they have a lot to answer for. I don’t believe there is another country in the world which plays dominoes ‘à trois’. In Guadeloupe, they play with four players. In Guyane too I think. All I know is, I grew up playing dominoes as Caribbean people – and many others worldwide I’m sure – are prone to do. It’s a great game. It’s a simple game. It’s a four player game. Like seriously, everyone knows that except Martinicans. Try suggesting that since there are four of us here, why don’t we play together? See what happens.
I’m not gonna lie, I’ve started to get into it. The evidence being when I played dominoes last weekend until the wee hours of the morning because none of us would stay in the parc des cochons we were building for each other. In Martinique, you don’t just lose a game of dominoes, you become a pig. But only after someone has outright won a round of games. So (in our crew anyway) we talk about opening a space for the pigs. We lay traps, we would walk in, but none of us could close the gate. We nicknamed the battle aikkido dominoes and called a truce in the end. Playing against two seasoned Martinicans without being the cochon I think means I can say I’ve learned how to play dominoes à trois.
Man is that ten already? There’s so much more!!! I’ve learned so much in the past year! How to let go. How to accept my vulnerabilities while continuing to take risks. How to sew. How languages you haven’t spoken in years really do come back when you need them to. That real friendships need nurturing, but they can also be far more solid than you imagine. That travel really does start in the mind. How beauty is everywhere and breathtaking (except when it rains) around here. How optimism is not an option when you think this much and are doing life off the beaten path. How I’m much tougher than I think. And luckier than I’d ever imagine was possible. How fortunate I was to go to be able to go to church and read the bible and pray with and for people in my mother tongue for years. How God knows what s/he’s doing. How the social security structures/system in your country are obvious but mind-boggling in another, and a nightmare in a second language…
How language can be truly political. I realise that my lame creole is being interpreted by Martinicans as a snub as my French improves. Culture, identity and tradition questions, intellectual musings in London, can light a match under a gentle conversation here. I was never one to differentiate between realpolitik and identity politics; as a black girl growing up in London born to immigrant parents, the difference was not apparent. In Martinique they are inextricably linked.
I’ve discovered that I am never satisfied with my language skills. When I first got here I was all, my French is horrible, no one understands me. This was not true, but finding myself suddenly unable to express myself as fully as I’d been used to (i.e in English) on a day to day level felt a bit like trying to make friends after having just had my tongue cut out. I felt frustrated for many many months. I got 80% of what was going on, but that missing 20% was awkward in social situations, and usually contained the punchlines to the jokes that everyone else was rolling around laughing at.
Now I feel like I understand 99% of what’s going on around me and I feel like I’m pretty well understood most of the time. But it’s weird! I’m like English and talking to people in French all day every day and they talk back in French all day every day, but I’m English! And I communicate primarily in French! I’m like bilingual!! This is crazy!! I live life in 2 languages this is soo freaking weird!!! Yes. You are reading this correctly: I spent months stressed out that my French was not good enough. Now I am stressed out because it’s so good I’m having an identity crisis. I am English, but I speak French, but I am English…if I speak French, do I become French?
In short (ha!) it’s been an awesome awesome year.
It has been an emotional rollercoaster. It has not always been fun. However I have had a veritable blast and can honestly say, these adventures – Trinidad Carnival! American road trip! 5 weddings 6 weeks 3 continents! St Lucia! Barbados! Dominica! New York!- this job, this experience was well worth leaving London, England, home for. Homesickness is the price I paid. But when I confided to a childhood friend who’d moved to Mozambique a year earlier that I was thinking about moving abroad, she was unequivocal. ‘Do it!’ she simply stated. She was right.
After a year in a place which confuses and delights me daily, where I do speak the language, but in the full knowledge that I am being judged by the mistakes I inevitably make as a non-native speaker, where I feel eternally foreign and yet so so at home, if you were to ask me, I would say the same thing. If you’re thinking of making a drastic change, whether or not you’ve made one before, do it. And if you’re in or near Mozambique, my mate’s just opened a juice bar in the Natural History Museum in Maputo.