Nwel

“We wish you a Merry Christmas” has now been replaced with Jingle Bells, and I must say it’s made my job a little bit more exciting. A month of that song (which is repetitive even to the casual listener) really has been getting on my nerves. Trying to get my kids to sing “in a one horse open sleigh” is challenging, not helped by the fact that they can’t read my handwriting when I try and write the lyrics on the blackboard. I’ve actually started learning how to write in cursive, as that’s all they can read for the moment, and now the teachers have to rewrite my words much less frequently.

Last Wednesday Marina and I attempted to head out to Trois Ilets for an afternoon at the beach, but were thwarted by the Fort de France traffic, probably due to an accident. The problem with the roads here is that there’s literally only one route through Schoelcher – the road that either goes north to Saint Pierre or East through Fort de France and if the road is blocked you’re basically trapped. So we gave up with that plan, turned back and headed to a local beach. I then decided that one of my New Year’s resolutions is to swim every day. I’ve started early on that, swimming every day since except for yesterday due to the rain.

In an attempt to feel more Christmassy (harder to do when it’s really warm), I decorated my room. All the lights here seem to flash so sadly I’ve got to put up with flashing lights in my room but I’ve gone a bit crazy with the tinsel which more than makes up for it.

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On Friday evening, we met up with Molly and Jacq for a go at Zumba at Caroline’s gym. In my head, gyms mean air conditioned. This gym is in an upstairs warehouse sort of place with no air con. Let me tell you, an hour of Zumba in 30 degree heat will definitely make you sweat. After embarrassing ourselves at Zumba, we hit the cinema to watch the new Hunger Games film. It was dubbed into French so we had to make do without Jennifer Lawrence’s lovely voice.

Friday evening was our first ever experience of Caribbean fast food – Snack Elizé, the Antilles’ answer to McDonald’s. Unable to decide what to try, Molly and I went halves on a burger and a fish kebab. The burger was nothing special, but the fish kebab was pretty good. The fish burgers are rumoured to be better, so maybe fish is the way to go at Snack Elizé.

On Saturday I headed to Trois Ilets with Molly and Jacqueline for a beach day, but the weather was pretty cloudy and it was spiting with rain. I’d been eyeing up the accras (the local fish cakes) in a cafe on that beach for a while and we grabbed some for lunch. They were as good as they looked, nice and crispy instead of soggy. Some of the best we’ve had.

It’s fast approaching Christmas. Here in Martinique they have what’s called a “Chanté Nwel” where everyone gets together and sings Christmas songs and has a drink. They’re literally everywhere – there’s one at the gym, in the local restaurants and Marina invited us along to the one at her school last Saturday night. There was plenty of rum, traditional Christmas food and a band hired in. All the teachers at her school were invited and they all brought along their family and friends, meaning a good crowd turned up. We didn’t know that you had to buy your own song booklets (we should have worked that one out, they’re in all the supermarkets), so someone kindly donated their booklet so we could have a stab at singing along in French and Creole.

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Food wise, there was the traditional Jambon de Noél, which is a kind of cured ham. I asked my kids at school what is different from Christmas ham to normal ham and they just shrugged and told me that it’s because you have it Christmas. So I’m still none the wiser. They also had ham patties, black pudding and later for the main course a stew served with yams and “pois d’angoles” which look like chick peas but aren’t chick peas and translate into something I’ve never had before. It was a lovely way to kick off the Christmas season and we’re looking forward to our next one. It went on so late, we all eventually flagged and called it a night by midnight.

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On Sunday, Molly and I went for a morning swim before I drove Molly and Jacq back to Sainte Marie. Combined with the afternoon spent on the beach with Caroline after we got back, I ended up pretty pink. Surprisingly I really haven’t burnt all that much out here. I definitely expected to be burnt most of the time.

On Sunday evening I went with one of the other assistants to another salsa evening, this time in Lamentin. They’d set up the dancing in the square in front of the church and loads of people turned up. Things got really awkward when our dancing was interrupted by some random guy who wanted to trap us in a group hug and tell us all about his work as a doctor here. Originally we thought he was going to criticise our dancing technique, but he turned out to just be an enthusiastic onlooker. Very strange, but you learn to accept these things as normal out here. Everyone is extremely friendly so you just have to let your personal space be invaded from time to time.

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On the way home I got my first ever flat tire. I didn’t really fancy hanging out on the side of the motorway alone at 11pm while I tried to sort it out so I pulled over in a garage and enlisted the help of a couple of guys who were parked there. I first tried to approach a woman in her car but she refused to open the door so maybe going up to people in their cars isn’t the best way to make friends. When the guys changed the tire over, they showed me the massive nail stuck in there. Just what I need. I actually was really thankful there was a spare tire at all, as my car is a hire car and I hadn’t even checked. Another lesson learned. Anyway, I was watching extra carefully while they changed the tire so I can do it myself next time.

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That’s all from me this week. Hi Grandad if you’re reading this, hope you’re well! Look out for a postcard from me soon.

Friendsgiving

The bad weather appears to have stopped for a bit, thankfully – I was getting a bit sick of all that rain. I even wore jeans to school once, all that cloud was getting a bit chilly.

Martinique is starting to gear up for Christmas, something which I’m not really feeling yet despite all my best efforts. I know it’s still early days, but it’s just bizarre seeing Christmas decorations up in the supermarkets and in school. I’ve been working on Santa Claus is Coming to Town, We Wish You a Merry Christmas and The 12 Days of Christmas with my kids at school. Trying to teach them all the lyrics to these songs has been really funny and I’ve done my best only to laugh with them, not at them. Some of my favourite ‘misheard lyrics’ include:

- He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re a wok
– We wish you a butter Christmas
– We witch you a Merry Christmas
– and a Happy New You

We’re busy planning Christmas here in Martinique. We’ve organised our Secret Santa and Jacq has planned Christmas Day in great detail so
I’m really excited for that. We’ve only got two full weeks left of school before the holidays. I’m planning on going up to Sainte Marie to stay with Molly and Jacqueline for the first few days of the holiday and then we’re all coming back to Schoelcher to my place for the main events. After that, we’re flying out to Barbados for New Year! I can’t wait, it’s going to be the most bizarre and cool Christmas/New Year I’ve ever had.

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Last Saturday we spent a day playing crazy golf at Mangofil, an activity centre in Trois Ilets. In the evening we went to a huge Thanksgiving dinner at one of the American assistants’ house. I reckon most of the assistants made it – about 30 of us in total which was really impressive. Everyone brought a dish along, there was turkey and pumpkin pie and after dinner everyone around the table said what they were thankful for. It was a lot of fun to have everyone together and I got to celebrate my first ever Thanksgiving (or Friendsgiving, I think they call it when it’s with friends.)

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That’s all from me this week, I’m off to the beach!

A Visitor

This past week I’ve had a very important guest staying with me – my friend from school, Nehal. I never actually liked her before but she just randomly booked a flight and decided to gatecrash so it seemed only fair that I show her a good time around the island. (Joking, I love you really, Nehal!)

I took her out to Diamant and Les Anses d’Arlet to show her my favourite beaches. The weather was good to us and we spent the afternoon hopping between beaches. We left the first one after a rather unfortunate incident with a dog who was probably just play-fighting us but that didn’t become clear until after we’d spent a while running and flailing about trying to get away from it.
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On Saturday morning we headed down into Fort de France city centre to have a look round and have lunch. After that we collected a few people in the car and headed up to a beach called Le Carbet where one of the assistants was celebrating her birthday. We had a picnic, an evening swim and then migrated towards Wahoo Cafe where the Full Moon party takes place in a pop up beachside bar with live music. The full moon was actually the week before, but due to heavy rain had been pushed back a week so we managed to catch it. I think pretty much all the assistants came and there was a great atmosphere. It was great to catch up with everyone and introduce Nehal to all my new friends here.

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We combined a dropping off Molly and Jacqueline in Sainte Marie with a trip to the rum museum and the banana museum. The rum tasting was actually better this time, as a large group of tourists from a cruise ship arrived not long after we did and they had set up various rums and punches (including the local Ti Punch) on the bar for them and they let us join in. Between us, me and barman/tour guide managed to explain to Nehal about the lime rule with Ti Punch. Ti Punch is made from rum, cane sugar syrup and a piece of lime. Every time you refill your drink, you leave the lime in and add a new one so that at the end of the night you can count your limes and see how many drinks you’ve had. Personally I’d rather not know, but I guess it could come in handy.

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We had lunch in a great place next door to the rum museum which was serving a local-style lunch with an open bar (lucky for Nehal, less lucky for me as I was driving us back later) and live band. The locals got up to dance, which was really sweet.

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That evening Nehal and I went out to Trois Ilets with Marina and Christina for dinner after swinging by the outdoor salsa event. This was my first time in the centre of Trois Ilets, which is where all the nice hotels and bars are for the tourists. The atmosphere was buzzing, even for a Sunday, which I suppose is down to all the tourists.

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After work on Monday we went to the botanical gardens in Balata where we ran into more cruise tourists. It absolutely chucked it own and Nehal and
I got soaked, which unfortunately is very typical of the weather at the moment. We’ve had a lot of heavy rain overnight and it has brought all the mosquitos with it. On Monday night I took Nehal to Lili’s beach bar (which I haven’t been back to since the sea urchin incident but nobody said anything).

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On Tuesday afternoon we headed down to Sainte Luce to have lunch on the beachfront and spend the afternoon sunbathing. There were no dogs that day. We stayed to watch the sunset and then headed back to Schoelcher to have crepes on the beach with Caroline and Marina.

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The following day was Nehal’s last day. We went to the waterfalls at Didier but found after reaching the first waterfall on the trail that the river was really high after all the rain, which meant we couldn’t cross and follow the trail all the way up. Disappointed, we went to a beach. We returned back to Schoelcher to have a late lunch at a restaurant in Cluny up the hill before heading out to the airport to say goodbye.

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Both saying goodbye to Nehal and missing out on the big family get-together for my Grandpa’s 90th birthday have meant I’ve been feeling really homesick these last few days, but it’ll pass. The rainy weather doesn’t help but this is the last hurrah of the wet season before the dry weather. Currently we’re organising our Christmas party and New Year trip to Barbados. It’s going to be amazing! There’s lots to look forward to, including sunnier weather with (hopefully) fewer mosquitos. I killed 12 in my bedroom in a few hours the other day. As I often say to my students: ça suffit!

Urchins

Sadly the school holidays are now over. The general consensus among the assistants was that two weeks off was lovely, but it came soon into our contract – we only worked two weeks beforehand and it really isn’t enough to get into the swing of the job and find your feet. I’ve had two days back at school now and I’ve been doing refreshers with all my pupils because naturally they’ve forgotten everything we did two weeks ago.

Last Tuesday Caroline and I took a trip up to Jardin de Balata, the botanical gardens of Martinique. We were told by Marina that it wasn’t far, it wouldn’t take us long to drive there. However as usual, the roads and signposting here let us down in a major way and we ended up completely lost with very little petrol left. We drove up some winding and steep roads into the mountains for a good 20-30 minutes, feeling absolutely certain that we were on the right track as the scenery around us seemed to suit our destination; lush rainforest and mountain passes. We finally found a building at the end of this road, which turned out to be a dead-end, naturally. Dider is the naturally fizzy water that is produced here and Caroline and I accidentally stumbled across the factory and springs. As pretty as it was up there, it was not quite where we wanted to be so we had to turn around and drive all the way back down the mountain again to find the botanical gardens. We did find them eventually, and it was worth the wait. The gardens are so well-maintained and cared for, the views are green and rich and there’s a cool walkway in the trees that was definitely the main attraction.

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Molly and Jacqueline arrived at ours on Thursday and the three of us went off to try and find a beach near Trois Ilets, but of course we got a bit lost on the way and ended up somewhere else called Anse Dufour. It’s our favourite beach so far; nestled in a small cove with crystal clear water, it’s a popular snorkelling spot and we vowed to find some masks and go back there. I’m kicking myself for throwing away my £2 snorkel mask that I bought in Thailand – they cost around £20 here at least. As usual there was one rude man who came up to Jacqueline and informed her she would need to wear suncream in Martinique (duh) and that she probably had chikengunya.

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Friday meant one thing – our Halloween/Caroline’s delayed birthday party. Before that, Molly and I went with Jacqueline to Ducos to try and find the Digicel help centre. Normally Ducos is only about 20-30 minutes away, but the traffic was bad for some unknown reason and it took us much longer. We were already running late for her meeting time by the time we got to Ducos, which was not helped by the fact that we couldn’t find the help centre anywhere, and we drove around for an hour trying to find it. Molly tried ringing the centre on their phone number but they really couldn’t work out what we wanted or what we were trying to find. A couple on the street came to our aid and we eventually made it. On the way home we took a quick detour to buy supplies, then came home and refuelled on crepes. I burnt mine to a crisp, the less said about that the better.

We had a good crowd of people at our party, it’s always good to get everyone together as a lot of the time we’re spread out all over the island and it’s hard to get around. Admittedly a few of us did take a 3am trip to A&E after jumping off the pier into a load of sea urchins and then realising there was no way back onto the jetty because it was too high. No harm was done but we still haven’t got the sea urchin spines out of various parts of our bodies. Caroline’s finger does look dangerously blue but we think we’ll survive.

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We drove Jacqueline and Molly back up north after the party with all of us feeling seriously rough (the heat and winding roads do nothing to help a hangover). After failing to find a good sandwich/crepe shop (Saturday was Toussaint, a national holiday), we gave up and went to McDonald’s.

The holidays ended with a trip to Madiana beach with Marina, a local black sand beach that’s fairly secluded and quiet and very relaxing on a Sunday.

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French words of the week:

sea urchin – oursin
A&E – urgences
hangover – gueule de bois
to tie (laces) – nouer

En Vacances

Unfortunately it has rained a fair bit this past week, which means that we didn’t get to do as much as we wanted during the first week of the holidays. Last Monday we hit up Les Salines, a beach in the far south near Sainte Anne that has a reputation for being one of the most beautiful beaches in Martinique. It was really pretty; lots of white sand and beautiful turquoise water. We do still have a bit of a seaweed problem caused by storms off the coast, but it wasn’t as bad as we have seen in the north. It actually lets off enough harmful gasses that many schools in the north of the island have closed for the day as it can severely interfere with electronic appliances. We’re hoping it’s going to clear soon. We stopped briefly in Sainte Anne on the way to have lunch – accras, a local fish-cake that seems to have become a staple in my diet. They’re delicious and usually the cheapest thing on the menu (handy, because we haven’t been paid yet).

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On Tuesday we headed down to the cinema at Madiana (about half an hour’s walk away) to see Gone Girl. I actually really enjoy watching films in French because there’s always a fun debrief at the end when we all try to clarify the bits we misunderstood and decipher some of the more ambiguous sections. It was significantly creepy enough to mean that our walk home at 12am was plagued by us jumping at noisy barking dogs and Caroline and I were convinced that this man was following us home. We were fine though, but I definitely won’t be going to see Annabelle there (which has actually been banned in France for causing rioting in cinemas but for some reason is still being shown here in Martinique).

After weeks of searching without much luck, I’ve finally found a drama group. It’s actually at one of the schools where Marina works, the oldest on the island, run by and for the teachers there. They have very kindly allowed us to join and meet with them every Wednesday evening. The school itself really did look like it could be the oldest building on the island; to get to the theatre you had to go through a creepy, dusty old cellar that was crumbling from the roof. We ran through a few scenes from the play they’re studying at the moment (or rather, I just watched as I’m an incompetent actor and prefer the production side of things) and then we got a free avocado and a lift home from one of the teachers. As always, they were all shocked that we’d walked half an hour to the school from Schoelcher where we live, especially as I have the car. It’s not so bad walking, really, especially now that we’re all so used to being sweaty after the first five minutes of every activity we do.

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I spent Thursday morning trying to finish off the articles I’d attempted to start on Wednesday but found it too hot. The heat here really takes the energy out of you, so my first attempt was unsuccessful. After finishing my writing, Marina and I headed out to the shopping centre on the edge of Fort de France (La Galleria) to try and find her a Halloween costume for the party next week. As much as I am really craving some new clothes (23kg really wasn’t enough), the shopping here is really not great. Sure, there are plenty of high street stores supplying French fashion, but unfortunately that’s all they have – the French winter stock. I really have absolutely no need for fur line gloves and coats out here. All the summer-style stock is super expensive as it’s all bought from France. So I came away from La Galleria empty handed and only dreaming of more sweat and heat-proof clothing.

We had Audrey and Marina (and later Marina’s flatmate Christina) over for dinner before heading down to Lili’s bar on the beach. We had good intentions of going into Fort to France to try out a jazz bar but decided it was too much of a hassle to get there and back late at night. Lili’s is on our local beach and a favourite haunt of ours. They do good (but strong!) Ti Punch and even dished out some of the leftover food from a party when we asked for food well after the kitchen closed – curried prawns, and lots of them.

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Friday was, to our shame, spent hungover. We visited the McDonald’s drive thru and not much else.

We had a fun weekend celebrating Caroline’s birthday – I made a chocolate cake after some difficulty translating various ingredients in the supermarket and then forgetting to buy a cake tin. I used a pyrex bowl and then later discovered that our oven isn’t the most powerful. Jacqueline and Molly joined us for afternoon cake and champagne before heading down to Lili’s for dinner. Marina and Melanie (an assistant from Saint Lucia) also joined us for dinner and we had a lovely evening feeling extremely fortunate that we have such a lovely spot on our doorstep. By chance we also bumped into the British Erasmus students who are attending the university here which isn’t that far from where we live. There are 6 of them here, only a few less than that 10 or so British language assistants we have. It’s surprising that we haven’t bumped into them before considering how close we live to them.

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On Sunday morning Molly, Jacqueline and I made a trip to the supermarket before Caroline woke up to buy balloons and brunch supplies so that she woke up to the smell of French toast and pancakes and the sounds of balloons popping (due to the heat, oops). We then spent the day trying to get to Diamant beach but getting lost and ending up at a small beach near Sainte Luce instead. In the evening we headed into Schoelcher centre to the promenade along the beach to a local open-air salsa event before grabbing take away mini-pizzas to have on the beach.

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Finally, yesterday (Monday) I went along to a day of kayaking and gommier with some colleagues of mine from school. Gommier is a kind of sailing that involves long wooden poles that extend out the side of a small wooden boat (see more about it here). Each person has their own pole that they have to sort of climb or slide up and down in order to help balance out the boat. Unfortunately, when you get the balance wrong you inevitably end up dragging your bum through the water until the boat rights itself again. It was a really strange experience but really fun. After getting thoroughly soaked during the gommier, we then kayaked for an hour or so through some mangroves. One of the other teachers brought a picnic (yes, with accras) to finish off the day. It was such a nice surprise to be invited along. I’ve found that the teachers here are making a real effort with me here, and it’s a pleasure to be treated like an equal here. When I compare it to my year abroad in France, (where I often was left alone in the staff room and nobody ever talked to me unless if it was to tell me that students weren’t allowed in the staff room), there’s a real difference in attitude. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m older or my French is much better, but it’s been great so far. Hopefully I’ve made a good impression so far and they’ll keep inviting me out!

French words of the week:

anse – cove
accras – fish cakes
baie – bay
un casier judicaire – criminal record

No Bread Week

I’ve managed to get one week of teaching under my belt but now it’s the school holidays! Two weeks off for Toussaint, which seems to have come around really quick and not really at that great a time. I’ve barely got into working with my new classes and colleagues and things still seem as disorganised as ever.

I really love working at one of my schools – they have a semi-designated English teacher who is fully organised and seems to know exactly what to do with me as an assistant. She emails me her proposed lesson plan, tells me what I need to do or bring to the class and then works with me in class to make the most of my presence. It’s a shame that not many of the other teachers really know what I’m there for. Most do not speak English and when I enter the classroom mostly go “what are you doing here?”. They’re in general a really lovely set of teachers who do want to work with me. The English teacher has set aside one hour a week to do a “club d’anglais” where we’ll be working on a play to perform at the Christmas fête at the end of term. We’ve got costumes, props and scripts to prepare and I’m super excited to get to work on that.

Sadly the other school I work at is much less prepared for me. On Tuesday I spent the entire day being pushed between classes until someone would accept me in to teach English. Here, the verb “teach” can be exchanged with “sing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” to a baffled crowd of 3-5 year olds who had never heard the song before or had learned the song but had been taught that “ears” were “eyes” and vice versa. It was fairly excruciating. On Friday, they surprised me by sending in the same group of 3-5 year olds to come and watch my cultural presentation/quiz that I’d prepared for the 10-11 year olds.

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I’m just grinning and bearing it; I know that as the term progresses that they’ll get themselves organised and I’ll find out where I fit in with all these new classes. It’s a completely different role to my previous assistantship in the high school where I took the classes by myself and planned all their lessons according to theme as opposed to direct ability. It’s hard to plan a lesson when the students can’t speak even the most basic English. On the plus side, this language barrier is doing wonders for my French.

We’ve had a good week of entertaining – on Tuesday, we made dinner for our neighbour, on Wednesday the oven broke and we improvised by cooking the pizza in a frying pan (strangely edible) and on Thursday we had a couple of Caroline’s colleagues and their kids over for paella. That evening left a lasting impression on us, mostly in the form of the girls’ nail varnish staining our walls forever more.

Friday saw the beginning of the school holidays – two weeks off. We celebrated by heading up to Sainte Marie to attend a Mexican themed evening at Jacq and Molly’s. It’s always lovely to get together with some of the other assistants, as many of them live in rural places and we don’t see them that often.

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A trip to the banana museum in Sainte Marie finished off our weekend in the north, including a lovely walk through the grounds of the plantation and a creole meal (chicken colombo and plantain) at the restaurant.

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For the holidays, Caroline and I are planning on getting to see more of the island, especially down south where some of the most beautiful beaches are. That, of course, is if it doesn’t rain, which unfortunately put a bit of a dampener (pun intended) on our trip to the beach today.

French words of the week:

ramener – to give someone a lift home in a car
climatisation/clim – air conditioning
une ruche – beehive

P.S. to my assistant family – I consider myself the victor of No Bread Week. The French toast you (kindly) force fed me at brunch on Saturday did not count. Nor did the fried pizza.