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 ‘versionoriginale’, 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
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.
I saw the queen of England on the bus the other day. I was heading to work and everyone was quiet, tired. She got on and carried the whole universe in her stride – she straddled across, heaving tree trunk legs under a squat, ample body, bright orange shirt against her rich brown skin, wiry glasses, wiry hair pulled haphazardly into two little-girl bunches bouncing off the top of her head in bright pink scrunchies. A young woman moved her legs to make room for her as she made her way down the aisle.
‘Don’t move for me, chérie,’ the queen-crone said, in a shrill voice that rung out through the whole bus like the cry of a bird, ‘I’m not fat yet! I’m still young and beautiful, I’m the queen of England!’
She sat beside a young man in hoodie and headphones and continued talking in her raspy, loud, old-crone voice, to all of us. She may have been from Guadeloupe because she kept saying, ‘The Martinican people are beautiful, beautiful people!’, perhaps in recognition of the young woman’s gesture. She chatted and joked in Creole and cracked herself up – and threw back her head and laughed, but a laugh that erupted out of her like water shooting out of an underground volcano, pierced the air and shot through the whole bus. The young man fell back into his seat melodramatically in a gesture of distaste, his music competing with the old queen’s bird cries. The middle-aged women and me smiled to hear her. No shits she gave. She carried right on her own wave.
When she left, the magic she pushed into all of us lifted up and stayed in the air for a stop, another stop, a few more. I have a feeling the earth is turning thanks to her.
I realise that if I don’t start banging on the door and shouting as loud as I can, no one will hear me. So I start banging with the flat of my hand, and shouting, ‘Florence! Florence! I’m stuck! Florence! I can’t get out! Florence! Florence!Florence! I can’t get out!’
But the storm is thickening out and it is far louder than I am. The flat of my hand goes bang, bang, bang, and my chest starts to strain with summoning this much lung power. It’s three in the morning. ‘Florence! I can’t get out! Florence! Help me please! Madame Robert! Madame!’
Eventually I lean over my desk to unlock the windows, pull them open and stick my head out and call so that the landlady might hear me: ‘Madame Robert! Madame Robert!’ The rain is like a sheet of white noise sinking into every space.
I send texts to Nicole and Madame Robert and try calm down. They’ll see the messages in the morning, someone will come to help me. All I can do now is sleep.
At six thirty in the morning I wake and see a message from Nicole. She’s on her way. Half an hour or so later and she and Madame Robert open my door. Nicole’s face appears.
‘But it works!’ she says.
‘No,’ I say, and show her: from the inside, when you turn the handle, it swings all the way around, and the door stays shut. It’s not even locked; it’s just that the latch holds tight when you close it and you need to turn the handle to release it. I realized this in the middle of the night when I needed to go to the bathroom.
It is my first night in the flat, which is the second floor of Madame Robert’s house. Almost as soon as I saw it I decided this was the one. I had only seen two other places – dingy, unventilated studios further up the mountain where I would have had to live alone – and still had two more viewings scheduled, but this place was beautiful. Furnished not to be functional but to feel like a home: a warmth-coloured kitchenette, a wide open lounge and dining space, reds and beiges and wood and white tiles, three little bedrooms with double beds and air-conditioning (I chose the one with the view of the sea); and for the finishing touch, a generous balcony curling all around the place in an L-shape, big enough for a whole other dining table, washing-machine and chairs. Someone was already living there, a young woman called Florence, so I wouldn’t be alone.
We made our arrangements and I moved in a few days later. During the day, when Florence was out, Madame Robert showed me all the necessaries and began to talk. This talk turned out to be a bit of Talk. It’s a little hard for me to follow Madame Robert at times, as her talk is a bit like the sea waves: they ebb and flow and ebb and flow and sometimes dwindle to a mutter and sometimes roar up into high drama for added emphasis. The movements of waves are fairly repetitive, and unending.
The gist of this Talk is:
‘When you are living here, you’ve got to make sure you keep things clean. Like this – ’ she gestures to the cans of tomatoes and spaghetti packets I’ve taken out for cooking dinner, ‘You can put these away. You have to keep things tidy and ordered. Before you came, I cleaned the whole house, to receive you. And this year, I told the organization, “I don’t want any more language assistants.” Because last year, I had three girls here. One English girl and two Spanish girls. They destroyed the cooker. You see this? I had to buy a new one. And the oven. See? Make sure to clean. I cleaned up the whole house, to receive you.’
Eventually I have to say to her, ‘Madame, you don’t need to worry. I am very clean.’
‘Well then tell the others to be clean!’ she cries.
When I wake up that night to go to the bathroom and find that the door handle swings all the way around and I can’t get out, I panic. And when I eventually realise that no one can hear me for all my banging and yelling, I decide to use my resources. If I piss on this woman’s floor, she is going to have an aneurysm, and I haven’t signed my contract yet.
Luckily, before going to bed I had brought two glasses of tea and water with me to sip while reading. I quickly down the remaining contents and position myself carefully. I’m lucky – two glasses is just enough. I open the window and toss them out – and then panic again – shit. Have I just thrown two glasses of piss on to her balcony?…Well…it could be the garden. I’m going to say it’s the garden. And I finally go back to sleep.
As Nicole and Madame Robert inspect the door I say, ‘I’m going to get something to drink,’ bustle past them and into the kitchen and find a bottle and drink, drink, drink. It’s a tiny room to be locked in all night.
For all my initial twinges of misgivings, Madame Robert is in fact a very warm and generous woman, full of sparkling energy. She tells long and elaborate anecdotes, complete with sound effects and character development. Like many of the older Martiniquan women I meet, she is fiercely maternalistic. She brings us bananas from their garden; home-made sweet potato and banana jam with all sorts of dark, nutty spices; a huge avocado the size of my hand, to say sorry about the locked-door incident; and her husband sometimes goes fishing and gives us a fresh fish or two. She makes sure to tell us what to do and not do, but she is looking out for us.
Florence is from Louisiana, and I like her immediately. She teaches me to gut a fish.
First, de-scaling with the rough strokes of the back of a knife. The little shiny circles fly up into my hair, my cheeks, everywhere, and they’re sharp and hard like flattened seashells, almost transparent but stained with pink, white and ice-blue.
Then, hooking the knife under the fins and working it around to saw them out
Then a split down the belly and fingers in to stroke out the insides, red pink gloop and stringy sacs of organs.
Florence then goes for the gills, lets me try and work my fingers under those bone-hard razor-toothed semi-circles, pull them out and get to the rest of the gloop inside. It’s immense fun.
As my fingers pull out organ strings, I say, ‘I often think, when I see things like this… This is what the aliens will do to us.’
Flo has a warm and cheering way about her, and we laugh a lot. We soon become comfortable enough to moan and cry and go kind of nuts around each other too. We keep each other going through a week of intensely frustrating bureaucracy. This includes: attending inductions given to all language assistants in which we are given vital documents that will allow us to do things like open a bank account and being told that we must do so within a week or else not be paid our ‘advance’ (ie the first month’s salary at the end of the first month as opposed to the second. What?); opening a bank account; discovering that in France one needs to arrange an appointment to open a bank account and that this process can easily take two weeks; waiting for the housing organization to open again (closed for the hurricane so everything’s postponed a week) so that I can sign my contract and open a bank account; looking for banks that don’t require appointments; finding one and being told to come at a certain time; arriving at said time and being told that it’s the wrong time and to come again at another certain time; being told that we don’t have all the right documents; arranging and waiting for all the right documents; arriving with all the right documents and being told that we don’t need all of those; opening the bank account and being told we have to wait a week before we can use it; going in person to the organization responsible for paying us and begging, crying, and eventually managing to hand in everything later than the deadline in order to be paid at the end of the month like a normal person.
Ah, France. At least I’m not required, as is usually the case, to have a guarantor just to rent a place. Nicole spent seventeen years working in the métropole before returning last year to Martinique; she had warned me of the intensity and thickness of French red tape, even for her living in Paris. ‘And if you’re black,’ she told me (she is), ‘Then it’s not just a matter of having a guarantor; you have to have a guarantor that earns a lot of money.’
The house where I live with Florence is in the next town over from Fort-de-France. We’re at the base of the mountain, a fifteen-minute walk from the beach.
And, oh, the beach. There are plenty around, and Flo has already scouted out a few out-of-the-way ones, but I am pretty content to go straight to the most populated (which is really not that populated). I walk to the rectangle of water enclosed by buoys. The vastness and the power of the sea stills scares me a little, even though the waves here are soothingly crystalline and, when there’s been no storm, clear, calm. No debris or rocks or shadowy uncertainty beneath you as you swim – just fine-rippled acres of sand. Despite the serenity, I stick to the buoys to be safe; besides, they give me a good way of counting laps. And it’s so strange a feeling, doing this exercise that my body is so used to, but in such a different setting, and in such a different way, negotiating with the advance and pull of the sea. No chlorine pool this. It really feels a living thing that abides your presence – for now.
Up, breath, down, up, breath, down, shoulders, arms, legs, feet, neck, waves…I can see hordes of little slender fish move as one, a flashing curtain of colour. One day I see a flatfish on the sand, right there, just beneath me. I’ve never seen one in the flesh before.
The life all around my neighbourhood puts a spark into my everyday and makes me so happy that I chose not to live in the middle of a city. When I drink coffee on the veranda I am level with the tops of the pomegranate and lime trees planted in Madame Robert’s garden, and I see little black hummingbirds fizzing by the flowers. They tremble by me as I eat breakfast, most no bigger than the length of my pinky down to my wrist. Sometimes I see them quite close, small, rich black, a thin curved line of a beak, a dash of pink-red on the breast and a silver green streak under the wing. Then there’s a more slender, subtle green one; some with tufts of metallic blue on the crown; and the most beautiful of all, black with fully-turquoised wings and that thump of bright red on the heart. They’re not alone by the fruit trees: huge hornet-like-things hover by there too.
There are other little birds that often swoop into the kitchen when I’m not there and then swoop out as I step back in. Lime green lizards dance over the walls and white columns of the veranda banisters, long talons curled and slender body curving. And at dusk, out of invisible tunnels in the wet beach sand, little crabs so bright yellow-green tumble out and hurry away into hiding again.
Teaching the teenagers in my eight classes is pretty fun. The level of English varies from okay to pretty good, but I find the key difference is the level of confidence rather than competence. I am at ease with this age group. Even when they are sulky or silly, all the better for it, I can probe and provoke and invite them to express themselves, and if we get some of that done in English, fantastic. To begin with, I introduce myself and the teacher asks them to ask me questions: we go over London (a great source of fascination), tea and if it’s true that everyone drinks it, public transport, music, shopping, and my own particular, non-English heritage. (To give them an idea of how big Peru is, I draw a cube that represents the surface area of France and then, next to it, draw another three of those cubes stacked on top of each other.)
Some of my classes are actually Maths and Physics classes – here, if you reach a certain level of English, you have the option of taking other curriculum classes in English, the ‘Euro’ option. So not only are these kids grappling with, say, algebra, they are also grappling with the fact that in English a decimal point is a full stop rather than a comma. Man. I couldn’t imagine trying to understand chemistry in French.
In one particularly good Euro class, the kids are really interested and engaged, and they ask me loads of questions. They’re also excited because they’ve just come from an awards ceremony where they received one of their diplomas, which their teacher encourages them to show me.
‘Congratulations!’ I say.
‘Thank you!’ they sing.
And singing is one of the questions that come up – do I play an instrument?
‘I used to play piano and bass guitar, but now I mainly sing.’
‘Can you sing something for us?’
So before I know it I am singing a bluesy folk song and getting them to clap along; I medley into ‘Amazing Grace’ and some of them sing along with the little bits they know, and at the end they erupt into those wonderful, whooping, ebullient cheers that I remember filling up my own high school years. Kids are great.
It begins to feel very normal being here. Another place, another job. Rain, buses, people, students. Rent, groceries, flat mates. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. When I don’t have to be in town I am very happy to stay at home, avoid the sun and sudden rain, read, watch Orange Is The New Black, drink coffee, consume unusual amounts of sugar in an attempt to absorb more energy, avoid the sun…
But it is definitely draining. Waking up at 5.30, getting to and from school, the centre of town, home – even though each journey takes no more than half an hour tops on the bus – in the heat – the heat – the heat – the waiting for the buses – especially at Pointe Simon, the bus terminal, a flat expanse of tarmac that Flo dubs ‘the third circle of hell’, where the heat grabs on to your bones and won’t let go, and the bus drivers won’t let you on while you wait and they look at their phones – the heat – the insane heat –
The heat is definitely not normal for this time of year. At seven in the morning it’s already thirty degrees Celsius, and it ascends from there. One day the humidity reaches ninety per cent. Flo meets a man who has been going in and out of Martinique for the past fifteen years, and he tells her, ‘The weather used to be predictable. It followed the seasons. Now it’s totally unpredictable.’ Others tell me that for the past few years there has been this unseasonable heat wave in September or October, when the breeze is supposed to be lifting the spirits a bit. (Credit goes to global warming, as all the countries of the equatorial belt have been aware for the past twenty years.)
The Martiniquans themselves can’t stand the heat. This is the one phrase in Creole I have mastered: mwen cho! I’m hot!
The heat makes dealing with anything a thousand times more agitating and exhausting, be it bureaucracy, bus stops, speaking in my third language, understanding anything in my third language, leaving the house, buying food and toilet paper. Emotions. Thoughts. Hormones. Images. Thoughts. Dreams. Exhaustion.
My third week is a tumult of a week. The mornings and the evenings begin to trap me with my own thoughts that lead nowhere but misery. The people I’ve left behind, some perhaps permanently. The things that feel like failures. The things I am afraid of. The things that feel inevitable, unvanquishable, lodged permanently in the unguarded room of the tired brain. The people I miss. The people that have haunted me. The spectre of ill health that I start to feel taking some kind of tangible something, taking something, taking.
And then I will do something nice, go for a swim in the sea, do some yoga and wake up feeling energized, and then all of a sudden
Can’t face going to the shops to buy groceries. Then all of a sudden, I run out. Miss the bus. Walk all the way down the hill. No bus for twenty minutes. Walk all the way back up. So hot. So sweaty. Wet skin.
Ok, ok, relax, breathe.
Deep breathing, it’s cool, it’s cool…
I go to the bathroom.
There are five mosquitoes in the bathroom.
‘I will kill you all, you motherfuckers,’ I tell them. Only one mosquito shoots away with his little mosquito life.
That day I decide not to go to the grocery store after all. Instead I stay in and Skype two of my old, dearest friends. I talk to my brother and my parents. I cry, for hours and hours. When I’m finally done, I feel better. Something in my chest and my core feels lighter, like a wet cloth has been twisted and twisted and finally wrung out, just about dry. The crying will come back, and I let it come, and go, sometimes wringing out the tight twist in my lungs, sometimes just like a sudden cut to the skin, shocking but shallow, soon over, done.
On Wednesday I accompany Madame Robert to her choir evening at the local church. There are plenty of people, lots of old ladies but also some young ones, and three middle-aged men. The leader of the choir is an old man with a bad voice, but they are a committed lot. The heavy repertoire book weighs my arms down and makes it hard for me to release my lungs and sing right, so eventually I quickly memorise what I can and put the book down. Most of the songs are Our Saviour-themed, of course, and most are definitely not to my taste, but there are a couple great ones, including a fantastic Creole song. One of the men gives a call – the rest of us sing a response. He gives the call – we sing back. It’s wonderful.
They are extremely welcoming, lending me sheet music, pointing out what song we’re at, asking me if I’m alright. They even have a special ‘welcome’ song they sing to anyone new who joins them, no matter how briefly! It is a lovely little group to be in, and despite a couple terrible songs we have to practice over and over, I am half-considering joining every week. The problem is that it’s an evening class, and the next day I have to be up super early for school. I am considering the pros and cons as we put away the chairs, leaning more towards the cons, and one of the ladies taps me on the shoulder. ‘Mariella,’ she says, ‘We’re going to have a little pray now.’
We all stand in a circle and hold hands. They close their eyes as the choir leader gives thanks. I keep my eyes open and watch what is, to me, an interesting and vaguely disturbing spectacle. It is intensely important to them, of course: some of them are probably here not only because they like to sing but because they want to feel like they are a part of a community, a close-knit community that brings them closer to their God and their own hearts. One of the women starts crying as they pray.
But I know that the energy in that room is not emanating from another presence other than our own. The energy is from within each of these people. But they don’t believe that; or rather, they half-believe that. But the other half is God. And it is not true, no matter how it comforts them. And I feel that I probably won’t come back, at least not every week, because I can neither hold hands with this untruth and pretend, nor insult these kind people by abstaining and explaining that I think their deeply-held inner truth is simply not true.
The next day I wake up at 5.30 and have three classes in a row, I don’t eat enough, I wait in the third circle of hell for a bus. A shabby-looking man, who at first I think might be drunk, starts talking to me. Whenever a man starts talking to me in the third circle of hell – a common happening – I am polite but clearly not interested. However, this man keeps talking to me and after a while it seems like he just wants to talk to somebody.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Ah, you speak English?!’ he exclaims, changing to English, as always happens at this point in the conversation: it’s practice-English time. ‘I used to live in Paris, but I never went to London. I would like to go.’
‘Oh yeah? Did you like Paris?’
‘Yes, yes. I am there for years. I wish I could have stay there.’
‘So why did you come back?’
I wouldn’t say he’s bouncy, but he’s kind of bouncy-in-slow-motion. His voice and his manners are lively but easy. He has an almost-gentleness. But at this point a shot of anger pulses through his words.
‘Because a fucking – ’ He stops. ‘How do you say…I had his trust. And he breaks it. How do you say?’
Eventually we figure out that he’s looking for the word trick.
‘He tricked me. When I went to Paris I was twenty-three. I was a student. I was a good student, I was studying my Masters in Economic Science. And this guy I knew, a friend of a friend, he sold me some… how do you say…’ He mimes.
‘Yes, but it wasn’t. It had crack in it. And it make me go crazy.’
Despite the shabbiness he is a handsome man. Forty years old, he tells me, grey twinkling on his loose afro curls that tumble around his face like a mane. His face is a little tired, but it often loosens into this mischievous child’s grin, even when he’s telling me things like:
‘For a long time I was just… I had to go to a hospital. For a long time they keep me there, make me go to sleep. And then I have to go home, back here… But ever since then I am…’ He gestures again. He can’t keep away from the drugs.
‘I know I can stop,’ he says. ‘I can stop. But it is hard. I stop, and then I go again.’
We talk for a while. At one point he abruptly says, ‘Hold on, I come back,’ and after a while he reappears with the sheepish grin and says, ‘I get my power.’
‘From the, uh…’ Drugs.
‘Yes. It is my weakness. Everybody has a weakness. You see, I don’t change.’
‘You can change,’ I say gently – but in fact he means, it has no visible effect on me.
‘But yes,’ he agrees, ‘I can change. I can.’ He tells me how he found God, and God is the one he trusts now. ‘Because I don’t trust man anymore. I don’t even trust girl. I have been with many girls, and even them…’
‘There are good people and bad people.’
‘No. Only God is good. People are bad. Only God is good.’
‘But people can only be people. Nobody can be perfect.’
‘No. Nobody can be perfect.’
Between him and the Wednesday night choir, I am so glad I’ve lived a lucky life, and I don’t need any God to give me hope.
He gets on the bus with me and we continue to talk, and he tells me all about the great meal he had last night and recommends I try a robinson (‘What?’ I say, not understanding his accent. ‘Like the man who is on an island,’ he explains. ‘Ah! Robinson Crusoe!’ I say. ‘No,’ he says, not understanding my accent. ‘The man who is on an island.’) We move on to Communism, which he thinks should be implemented in order to help all the people who have nothing while there are others who have too much. I make a half-hearted attempt to blandly advocate a half-way system, as in France where there is socialist capitalism, and I listen to myself and think, God, you sound so gutless. You haven’t even read any economics or social theory. You have some high school Russian history, but that’s it.
It has been such a long morning that I am getting exhausted summoning the energy to answer his every remark and make statements about how a little competition is good for the economy but a social welfare system is important blah blah blah. Eventually we part ways.
‘Okay, bye, Mariella,’ he says. His name is Gregoire.
One night I slowly make my way back up the hill to go home as the sun is setting, the blood rushing through me and throbbing in my brain. Darkness looms over like a sea wave in slow motion, and I see –
Bats! So many! In couples, it seems, sputtering, twisting, dancing diamonds piercing through the night air. Bats! Amazing. So graceful. So sputtering with energy. Diamonds.
They dance in a tumult, and tumble over each other, and spill into the night descending. I like these new neighbours of mine.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.
‘No, I’m just looking, thanks,’ I reply, smiling at the woman who is smiling at me, scanning the tall bottles of oils stacked in what looks like a tropical makeshift apothecary’s. Avocado oil, nut oil. Then the woman screams. It all happens in a few seconds. I turn, see the two men launching themselves across the emptying market square. Under the afternoon sun in the middle of town. One chasing the other, both jumping over the debris in almost synchronised movements, the silver flash of a gun just like on TV. I turn, run, jump behind a low concrete wall carrying dirt and flowers, there’s an old woman there too, everyone is watching, waiting, half-crouching, behind us is the big boulevard but the cars have stopped and the green man has blinked on, I ask her, ‘Do we run?’ and she looks at me for a second and then says, ‘Yes yes, run, go, run!’ but she herself does not seem to run. I bolt across the boulevard and down the few streets familiar to me, here in the middle of this very small city, head away from that market square that has suddenly turned electric with danger, that whole zone now turned electric with danger, am I safe here? I keep running even though everyone is walking calmly down these central streets, heading home after Friday’s day of work.
I slow and walk, breathing deep, and I’m not shaking but there’s definitely a shake in me, a slow kind of matter-of-fact shaken. Today, getting on the bus and getting into town felt familiar, easier. I saw the market – haven’t been there. I’ll pass by on my way to the Casino supermarket, haven’t been there either. This looks nice, what’s this? Looks like an apothecary’s.
I’ve been in Martinique for one week. My first night I slept under a mosquito net for the first time, thought I’d feel trapped but felt strangely serene, safe under that fine mesh that made me think of four-poster princess beds.
September is the worst for heat, I am told, and it’s fresher in the winter. The apartment where I am AirBNB-ing is a half hour walk in the sweltering humid sun to the city centre. Today I’m going to look for places to live. My colleagues Nicole and Laure (who let me sleep at her place the first night and gave me some of that world-famous Martiniquan rum) and my landlady Béatrice have all been extremely helpful and generous to me. They say my French is good, better than most assistants. I am surprising myself with my confidence in general. I think it’s because I have experience travelling, teaching, speaking words in languages not automatically living in my brain, living. I’m older. I’m not embarrassed to ask questions and say Pardon? as many times as necessary.
My trinity of guardian angels have also all warned me that as a white girl I will be the object of much male attention. It’s best not to ignore it completely, they tell me, but just smile and keep walking, or else the men might get angry and insist. ‘They insist!’ Nicole informs me, ‘They insist and insist. It’s annoying.’
When Béatrice echoes the warnings about ‘them really liking white girls’ I say, ‘Yeah, why is that?’ We have an arrangement where I speak to her in French and she answers in English, so that we can both practice.
‘I don’t know,’ she says, ‘Perhaps because Caribbean women have very hard characters.’
‘They are very independent. And they think that white girls are more…sweet.’
‘Sweet and compliant?’
The drive-by cat-calling I can put up with, but one day I’m waiting for the bus when a car slows to a stop in front of me.
‘Where you going?’ the guy asks me, smiling.
‘I don’t speak French,’ I say in English. So he swaps to English.
‘Where you from?’
‘I’m waiting for the bus.’
‘The bus? Here?’ (At this stop, as with many, there is no sign, it is just commonly known that the bus stops there.)
‘The bus. Here.’
A car comes up behind him and he’s forced to move on. ‘Have a nice day!’ he says as he drives away. They think they’re just giving you a compliment, apparently, and why on earth would you feel offended or threatened? At home I get really angry about cat-calling and the words and intimidation you have to put up with from male strangers when you walk down the street – regardless of what you’re wearing – but here I realize I will lose precious energy getting angry.
At the bus stop I had called over to old man on the other side of the road, sat in front of his house, and asked confirmation that this was indeed the bus stop. He nodded, and when he sees the bus he calls over to me to let me know. I thank him, hail down and climb up the vehicle that hauls its way around mountain corners and into city streets.
I wander through town. Two young men have a black muzzled dog that’s panting in the heat. They see I have a bottle of water and ask me for some to give him. I don’t understand; a man next to them intervenes: ‘Excuse me, madam, he didn’t express himself very well,’ and explains slower. I hesitate at first in case it’s some kind of scam but, I think, it’s only water, and I have my backpack tight against me. I hold out my bottle to the young guy with the dog and he takes it from me, crouches down and trickles the water into the big black dog’s panting, muzzled jaw. He hands the bottle back to me and thanks me.
I’ve been bit a bit by mosquitoes, but I feel fine, so I guess it isn’t dengue or zika.
Béatrice is a lab technician and single mother of Ciel and Olivier, who is ten and shy. B asks me if I can help Olivier with his English homework, and I readily accept; I can’t go out at night alone anyway, and I like helping kids learn. That’s why I’m here: for the adventure, and to help kids learn. Well, there are other tangential reasons, but those two are the ones that I make public.
The family live in an apartment right on the edge of town, next to a neighbourhood which I’m warned away from, and even the name sounds like a bad guy in a fantasy novel: Volga. Once, getting back from the centre of town by bus, I get lost between the alleged bus stop and the apartment, end up hiking up and down the hill called Volga a few times, turning back, turning back, feeling myself stand out like a knife in a box full of chalk. But the people are going about their business being people: the only person who says anything to me is a boy on his bicycle coming home from school. ‘Bonjour,’ he says.
Autumn. Here, rainy season is ending. The heat permeates through everything and more light shines than what seems possible, all of a sudden you look up and there’s rain shooting down, straight downwards like a huge unfolding curtain, pummeling everything into submission, except it’s soft, always soft rain. Lots of it.
We sit two days inside through a hurricane, Matthew is his name.
Everything stops on alerte orange, no one leaves their houses if they can help it. I stay in and do some yoga with Ciel, draw pictures of princesses and snow-drifted forests at her request. She colours in her colouring book and shows me ‘Sophie’.
‘Ah,’ I say. ‘Is she clever?’
‘Yes,’ says Ciel, ‘Of course she’s clever.’
‘Is she brave?’
‘Yes, of course she’s brave.’
‘Is she nice?’
‘Yes, of course she’s nice.’
‘Well then. Those are the most important things.’
Ciel is five. Her mother, Béatrice, is my landlady for one week of AirBNB living. She drives me around on her free days when I don’t have a bus ticket and I need to do things like find a place to live; she even accompanies me to the Young People’s Housing Centre to help do the talking-in-official-French thing. Once or twice hitch a ride when Ciel has to be taken to school anyway; one day we all go to the car together and B says, ‘Ciel, get in the car,’ as she goes to drop off some rubbish. I stay standing outside to breathe the fresh air because I’ve been shut up in the apartment for two days and it’s an oven inside that car.
Ciel sees me. ‘What are you doing?’
‘I like the air. It’s very fresh,’ I say, in my simple French.
She gets out of the car as B is walking back. ‘Ciel,’ B calls, ‘Get in the car.’
‘But there’s AAAAIIIIR!’ Ciel sings.
One day B can’t drive me and I don’t have any bus tickets, so I walk into town to meet Nicole. I’m late and she calls me and it turns out that Google Maps has totally underestimated how long it will take me to get there, and I have totally underestimated what kind of heat I can walk through because it is 37 degrees and by the time we get to the shopping mall to buy me a SIM card I feel sick and dizzy and all of a sudden it’s happening again, I go sit down and put my head between my legs. Low blood pressure. A young woman sees me from across the mall and walks over. ‘Are you okay? Can I get you a fizzy drink?’
‘Just some water maybe,’ I can barely say. My head is fuzzing over and French isn’t working in there anymore. She fetches me water as a security guard walks over, takes my name, talks into his walkie talkie. I can’t explain that this happens to me a lot, it’s just quite bad right now – French not working.
Eventually we get to the doctor’s office on the second floor. I know from experience that my face must be grey, ghost-like. I lie back and the change in temperature is drastic, rippingly cold, but that’s okay, I need the cold, to lie back, not do anything, recover, recover, recover…
The doctor comes. He’s white, so I assume he’s from the métropole (mainland France). He talks to me quickly in French and I can still understand but I can’t make the words in my head anymore. Nicole finds us and speaks to me in English.
‘Do you have any medications?’ the doctor asks.
I shake my head. A sharp instinct pulses through the fuzz: don’t mention the medication. But then he asks about my heart and I think, palpitations are a side effect, maybe I should tell him about the meds, just in case.
Nicole looks at me blankly. ‘Citalopram?’ she asks, ‘What’s that? What’s it for?’
‘Depression,’ I say. She nods. The doctor says to her, ‘Is it hard living here?’
‘No, she just got here!’
I’ve turned away to hide the tear that escapes down my cheek, probably from the whole situation rather than just having to explain about the depression, but that in part, I guess. It’s something I’d like to just say as normally as, ‘I have a heart condition’ or ‘I broke my leg once’, but for practical reasons I cannot. Don’t tell people in the workplace, don’t write about it on Facebook or even your own tiny writing blog, nothing with your name on it or potential employers will find it and not hire you and you’ll never be able to prove that that was the reason why. Don’t tell people your business. It’s not their business. People make assumptions. Don’t don’t make sure you don’t.
Nicole gets me fruit juice and eventually I start to feel like I exist again. But I’ve forgotten my EHIC card so the medical visit costs me €25. Nicole and I have an early lunch, some coffee, discuss Trump and the odd American habit of having loads of really bad coffee instead of a tiny European cup of good coffee, and then it’s on the road again to look for places to live.
When I wait for the bus in Fort-de-France, I see all these high-school kids in uniform messing about with each other, joking, laughing, fooling. It fills me with warmth to see that all high-school kids are the same just about everywhere. I’ll be teaching them soon, absorbing all that stuff again. I like that feeling. It takes me back to a time when I was more deeply part of a community than I’ve ever been since. And young people are great: they’re funny, they’re themselves, even when they feel like they’re not. They have so much potential. They just have so much, even when they have nothing. They bring me back somewhere simple and even, even amidst their drama and the hyper-emotion.
I’m here for adventure, I’m here to teach, I’m here because regardless of the black pit that gaped through the winters and springs for the last two years – but since they were there, especially because of them – it is the time in my life to go out and see the world, be as much a part of the Rest Of It as I can, see what I can see. And I’m here to write.
In order to concern myself with my art I learn not to concern myself with my art but to concern myself with my life.
It struck me about a month ago that I hadn’t felt like I was living – feeling life – in that raw energized creative full-of-the-world, full way – for a long, long time. Had depression drained it out of me? Was it just the wrong time?
I’m twenty-two, I thought. Why don’t I feel that same heightened kind of exalted sense of LIFE anymore? Like I used to feel sometimes just walking back to the flat in the pouring, merciless, pummeling rain that I turned my face towards and smiled into?
One night at B’s I’m reading about Pinkola Estés’ ‘wild woman’ archetype. I guess digesting her words loosens something. I feel the need to write a love letter. I realize I have been feeling that urge in different ways for the past few days, maybe weeks, but as a nebulous, uncertain thing, and it crystallizes perfectly into a letter, those things best written in solitude. No need to worry about etiquette, the shoulds or don’t Is. Just writing. And tears catch me unawares as I write, and I realise that there have been these things, these tears, these feelings, this life inside me that I had needed to express, and it feels good to cry. It feels like something peaceful.
I had wondered if my ability to feel so deeply and passionately had had to die a little, drain out, or at least close off into a dark hidden reservoir, in order for me to get better after being so depressed for that so long a time. But that release and those tears and all of those feelings proved that wondering thought wrong, at last.
I’m back! The poet is back. The feeling is the energy.
And now I’m in this tropical island and I’m going to live in my own place and have a job and deal with bureaucracy and meet people and improve my French and maybe learn Creole and go swim in the warm, clear sea. Even if there are gunmen flashing through market squares in broad daylight after drug money, even if the hurricane chops the sea up into violence and I’m stuck inside. I can read and draw pictures and do yoga and practice everything. I can write.
All names have been changed. The next dispatch will arrive in two weeks.
Mariella Hudson, travelling writer of the heart, brain and world