Dispatch from Martinique Paris
The buildings are impossibly tall and narrow, diagonal boulevards, circles and lines. A twenty-degree drop in temperature has me don fleece and Mac for the first time in seven months, and I breathe in air, fresh, fresh air. The spring is back in my lungs.
I imagine what it was like for my Martinican friends when they first made the journey, as so many of them do and must, to Paris. Paris, their capital, and not their capital. Paris, the city of light and simmering prejudice. I think back to all the stories I have heard while in Martinique, all the stories of The First Time In Paris: a math teacher mistaken for the cleaning lady by her students; a teacher forcing his student to go on the school skiing trip because ‘I’d give anything to see a black on skis’; a geography teacher who didn’t know Martinique was a part of France and therefore used French currency; an oblivious student at university asking a peer, ‘So, what are you, mixed race? Because your lips aren’t all that full.’ The list is full to bursting, margin after margin etched with anecdotes of ignorance.
I have so many conversations to write about, I can’t begin to do them justice now. In time, perhaps, I will; for now I have to hastily wrap up my mental goodbyes while the yellow-and-rose-hued sunsets glimmer in the front of my brain.
When I wake up and my feet touch a cold floor, I remember gazing out over my balcony at the silhouette of Trois Îlets against the blue sky and sea, little lights glimmering over its green. When I take the metro I remember holding on tight as my bus sped down a narrow hill road; amidst the silence of city transport I remember shouts of ‘À l’arrêt!’ to stop the chauffeur. A tiny little boy once got on, swamped by a red hooded coat, and asked his mum if he could do it. She nodded. Face alight like a candle, he threw back his head and sang, ‘À l’arrêêêêêêt s’il vous plaîîîîîît!’ Next stop, please!
The wonderful, warm, irrepressible people of Martinique. People greeting people they know or barely know or haven’t seen in a while or just saw the other day. People beeping their car horns as they speed down the highway because they’ve seen someone and want to say hi.
People not taking any shit. I saw a French tourist in a ridiculous sailor hat getting angry at a woman serving him in a shop. She raised her voice only a fraction and said, ‘Monsieur. You’re here on holiday, to relax and have a good time, am I right? So why are you behaving this way?’
Another time I went to the cinema to see an English film in ‘version originale’, that is, without French dub, a very popular event. The film started playing, but – ‘Hey, V.O.!’ people started yelling, as the actors’ mouths opened and French came out. Eventually a staff member stepped out and informed us, sheepishly, that they didn’t have the reels for the V.O. version, and we could either watch the film or collect a refund ticket for another show. A woman two rows behind me, right at the back of the cinema, yelled out at him, ‘Vous n’avez pas d’éxcuse! Vous n’avez vraiment pas d’éxcuse!’ You have no excuse! You have absolutely no excuse! Outrage! Defiance! Voices that must, shall be heard!
It’s not only the loud sounds I’ll miss. I’ll miss the sounds of the lychée woman on Rue de la République
Sucrées les lychées, sucrées les lychées
the lychees are sweet, the lychees are sweet
The man selling coconut water out of the back of his van by the supermarket, singing an endless triplet tongue-twister
Dlo coco dlo coco dlo coco! Dlo coco dlo coco dlo coco!
I’ll miss the generosity of strangers; the basic acceptance of a logic that does right by people simply because one should. People would go out of their way, far out of their way, to help me, and when I thanked them, they would say, ‘I know you would do the same for me,’ or, ‘If I do something for you today, you’ll do something for someone else tomorrow, and that’s the way the world keeps working.’
I’ll miss the camaraderie of the friends I made there, and the simple joy and bright complexity of the students I taught. They would wriggle and sing as they drew answers on the whiteboard. They would blow up lab gloves like balloons and bounce them like volleyballs. They would ask questions and work hard and not listen at all and laugh and moan. They were wonderful.
I think the world is a more dangerous place than when I was their age. I was in Martinique when the first round of the presidential election took place. In 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen was running for president. He tried to visit Martinique, and couldn’t. Why? Because Martinicans flooded the runway, forcing his plane to take off again before it could land. Fifteen years later, a northern province in Martinique, Le Prêcheur, voted for Marine Le Pen. Why? Because of fears of immigration from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Nevermind that Marine Le Pen hasn’t even visited Martinique, and will never in a thousand years care about inter-Caribbean immigration concerns, amongst a people she would never call her own, whom she – like many French politicians of less controversial parties – would not consider truly French. Across the island, she received only 11% of votes, but in the métropole she is more popular and powerful than ever before, and went head-to-head with newcomer Emmanuel Macron in the final voting round.
I was in Paris when the final round of votes was counted. Although we can breathe a sigh of relief that Emmanuel Macron is today president of France, not Le Pen, what danger to forget how powerful the Front Nationale are today. 10.6 million people voted for Marine Le Pen. My friend Maiva, the Math teacher, a Mélenchon supporter, shook her head and said to me, ‘I thought I’d never again have to vote against a Le Pen. And here we are. People don’t learn anything.’ 10.6 million, and millions more who didn’t vote at all.
I left a Brexit. I taught a class through a Trump inauguration. I woke up surprised – surprised! – to hear that a fascist has not yet come to power in France. Yes, the world is more dangerous. And yet, if it ends tomorrow, although I haven’t come near to living all the life I have to live, it is probable that I could end contented. I struggled at times, while I was in Martinique, with my own ghosts more than anything, and I managed to pull out of myself a core of resistance, a sliver of solid gold.
Of all the wonderful things I saw and did, none compare with the daily challenges and triumphs of teaching those teenagers, the fifteen-year-olds fresh out of collège, the eighteen-year-olds making plans to study or work or change the world, everyone in between, every quirk and question and silent, watchful, youthful eye. From the gay girls and boys who were not afraid to show their love in public and were accepted by their friends without even a shrug; to the girl who pointed at her friend and told me, ‘Remember her name, she’s going to be president one day’; to the young man who had no family, absolutely no one, but smiled warmly and was determined to study and become a politician; so many of them, all of them, the difficult ones and the brilliant ones, all – they really made me very happy, and very proud. It was bittersweet and quietly magical to say goodbye to them, good luck, take care. So if I must go, I can go contented, because I’ve given something small but precious to them: my time, my effort, my talent and my compassion. And I have much more, far more left to give.
I feel a bit like I’ve been in a strange sort of transit, that my time spent on that island was a meaningful transition from one part of my life ending to another part beginning. And I am less afraid than when I was eighteen, because I have been through more, and so I know better what I am capable of, and how much myself I am and will remain, even in the face of things that shake me.
I’ll remember the textures of the sea, the water, and the clouds against the sunsets.
Now for the next thing.
All names, other than those of public figures, have been changed. Keep an eye out for dispatches on future adventures by following this blog or via the Twitter handle @mariella_hudson. Thanks for reading.