« Tu es en vacances ici? » (You’re on vacation here?) “No, actually, I live here!”
I get asked this question a lot, and I realized, that with one month left, I have yet to write about what it is like to actually live here in Martinique as a Language Assistant. Let me fix that. Most Americans have no idea where Martinique is, let alone what it is like. It’s in the Lesser Antilles, that string of small islands that arc down from Puerto Rico towards South America. Many people have the idea that it is some kind of 3rd world country. It’s not. It’s a French department, the equivalent of Hawaii being a U.S. state. The living standard is 1st world, salaries are high, and the cost of living is even higher.
When I’m asked what it’s like living here, I usually tell people it’s fabulous, but it is rarely easy. The beaches are beautiful, and winter clothes are a distant memory. I am paid good money to hang out in a sparkling new building and speak my own language with some of the most motivated 18-20 year olds on the island, all of whom aspire to attend the most prestigious universities in France. I was hosted in a million dollar house in the hills for the first week. Outings have included boat parties and fashion shows and SCUBA diving. I have been on the radio once and the TV twice. I’m surrounded by an entourage of other language assistants, eager to make new friends and live it up in a tropical paradise. That is one side of the coin.
The other reality is that we are not on vacation; we live here. We have real responsibilities as well as a new culture to learn and conform to, and Martinique society is a notoriously difficult shell to crack. It is distinct from the culture on the French mainland, and equally separate from the English and Spanish Caribbean. In many ways, it is like a small town, despite its population of over 400,000. Family ties run deep and people are very attached to their individual towns. Friendships are cemented very early in life, and the population is generally stagnant, with very little cross-cultural pollination. There is little need or motivation to form new friendships. By the time we arrive, in our early to mid-20s, disconnected and out of context, it is mostly too late. They are happy to stay in their comfort zone and do not understand why we are not content to do the same.
The other difficulty is transportation. Like the U.S., everybody here owns a car. Or two. Public transportation is extremely limited. Those without cars have parents or children or cousins or friends to help out. As recently-arrived assistants, we have nobody. Not only is a vehicle a necessity, it is also a status symbol. When you think about it, we do the same thing in the United States. With the exception of New York City, a young person, especially a young man, without a car is automatically labeled an indigent slob or some sort of failure. The same rule applies here. The fact that we are only here for 7 months carries no weight. While some assistants will manage to snag a sunbaked used car during their time here, it is no match for the established, well-connected neighbor who has poured all his resources into a flashy new Peugeot, or better yet, a flashy new Audi or BMW. Most of the time, for us, coming to Martinique means both a loss of independence and a drop in social status. For some, the transition is just too difficult. Four assistants have already abandoned their contracts and returned home.
My own living situation is particular, in that I live in a dilapidated house with six other guys in the heart of the island’s red light district. There are drug dealers on the sidewalks and prostitutes on the corners. Even most people from Martinique avoid this area after sundown. I chose to live here, however, because it is close to where I work and one of the few places on the island where the sidewalks don’t roll up at 7pm. It is also a unique community, made up largely of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and St. Lucia. I came here hoping to get to know some of these people, but integrating has been very difficult. I am not within walking distance of any of the other assistants, and while it is not necessarily dangerous in this neighborhood, it is often lonely.
I do not want to come off as too negative. All things considered, I enjoy living here, and I would prefer to stay longer if that were an option. But being here has also been a challenge. Things came to an especially low point in January when one of the men in our house became aggressive towards a girl who had recently moved in, and I found myself acting as her default body guard for a month until we could find her a new place to live. It was an exceedingly stressful time.
If anything, I have learned that like anywhere, life in Martinique is fabulous and exciting, depressingly mundane, and everything in between. I now have less than 3 weeks remaining here, and I have to confess, I am not quite sure what God has been doing with me these past 7 months. I trust, however, that he knows exactly what he has been doing. My prayer requests are the same as before: for physical and spiritual discipline, that my remaining time here would not be wasted. As this is my 2nd year here with the language program, it is also my last. I do not know when I will be able to return to Martinique. My prayer is that these last few weeks will be a special time and also bring glory to him who brought me here in the first place.
by Ian Bridgman