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.

Il pleut

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The first couple of weeks here in Martinique treated us with gloriously sunny weather, but now I can fully believe that we’re in the rainy season. Dark dramatic clouds have followed us everywhere, chucking out the odd waterfall of rain when we least expect it. Everyone we meet gives us an apologetic smile and says “il pleut” before opening up their umbrellas. I should have packed an umbrella.

This week I have proudly (if not at all confidently) tackled one of my old fears: driving on the right hand side of the road. I picked up my rental car last Tuesday, a cute little Renault Twingo that has two most important features: air con and Bluetooth connection to my iPod. I’ve finally stopped banging my left hand against the car door when searching for a phantom gear stick and I only stall the car (usually on hill starts) once a day on average. I now can independently get to work as well as provide a much needed taxi service around the island for my friends.

We took the car on its first long trip up north to Sainte Marie, where our two fellow English assistant friends Molly and Jacqueline live. By long, I mean about three quarters of an hour. Caroline was very much enjoying the view of the countryside on the drive while I struggled not to get lost. It seems that the Martiniquais haven’t quite mastered the art of signposting, meaning you usually just have to guess the route until you stumble across your destination. We did manage to eventually arrive in Sainte Marie, which appears to shut down on a Wednesday, and spent the afternoon trying to find a bank branch (unsuccessful) and help Jacqueline move her remaining suitcases into her new apartment (successful).

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I had my first week at my new schools this week. Although I was told I was to be strictly observing the classes only, most of the teachers didn’t have a clue who I was at first and then seemed relieved that I could come and talk English with their pupils and let me do a Q&A with the classes. Naturally primary aged children don’t speak a lot of English so this Q&A was more of a test of my French. To the boy who asked me to name all the types of dogs we have in England, I’m really sorry my French vocab disappointed you. I’ll do better next time.

The week ended with our friends in the north coming to stay to celebrate Molly’s birthday (at a Chinese restaurant which was the only place locally with affordable prices) followed by a pool party hosted by some other assistants located further south. I drove, we got lost, but we did eventually make it. It was a close call after I wasn’t entirely optimistic that my poor little Twingo would make it up one of the steepest hills I’ve seen so far with 5 of us squished inside. Sunday was spent recovering from hangovers (not me, the designated driver, ha!) on the beach en route to taking our friends back up north.

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This coming week involves my first proper classes at both schools, hopefully a day trip on Wednesday and a trip up north to stay with our friends. Hopefully the weather will cheer up soon, days without a trip to the beach are days wasted!

French words of the week:

une morne – hill (Martinique French)
un ravet – cockroach (Martinique French)
hisser – to hoist (a flag)
brandir – to brandish
un fers a cheval – horseshoe

Bienvenue en Martinique!

It seems unbelievable that this time last week I was on my flight to Fort-de-France, nervous about starting my new life in Martinique. My lunch tray was hinting at the strange mix of cultures awaiting me: rice, camembert, local rum punch and red wine all provided as standard.

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It’s strange to step off a long haul flight to find that there’s no passport control. Technically, flying from Paris to FDF is a domestic flight and I haven’t actually left France. The Caribbean is so far from Europe and yet there is never any doubt that you’re in France; I eat croissants for breakfast, use the same bank account as last time I lived in France and of course everyone here speaks French.

Less than 24 hours after arriving in FDF (and after very little sleep due to jetlag waking me up consistently at 3-4am for almost a week after arriving), I found both a flat and a flatmate (Caroline). My first day in Martinique was spent traipsing around the city trying to find somewhere to live. We have a beautiful apartment in Schoelcher, a suburb to the west of FDF, close to the beach and with a sea view if you can ignore the telegraph poles and a solitary block of flats. For everyone here, this counts as “trop loin” / too far from the schools where I work. Seeing as you can drive to the other end of the island in 45 minutes or less, a journey longer than 5-10 minutes counts as a trek. It should take me around 20 minutes to get there by car if I can avoid the traffic. Pas mal.

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Apart from moving house, this week has been full of training for my job as an English teacher – lots of admin, some cultural sessions on life in Martinique and a day where I met with my colleagues to plan our lessons up until Christmas. Overall it was super impressive how much effort they’d gone to organise our training. Dare I say it was even better than the training I did for Grenoble.

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Next week’s tasks involve picking up my car (I’m renting for the first month), observing my classes at school and tackling a mountain of paperwork in order to get paid by the end of the month. Happily the hard bit is almost over.

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French words of the week:

un cafard – cockroach
un moustique – mosquito
un moustiquaire – mosquito net
une piqure – insect bite/sting
piquer – to sting/bite (insects)
maracuja – passionfruit (Creole)

New York, New York

This will be the final entry in my series on my Round the World trip April-June 2013. I stayed at the Q4 hotel/hostel in Queen’s Plaza, which was right opposite the subway and so it was really conveniently located for getting everywhere I needed to go. It had great facilities, including a large kitchen and communal area with a pool table and tennis table. I could have done without the annoying people in my room turning the lights on at 3am. I’ve stayed in plenty of hostels before and never come across people who so blatantly ignore dorm etiquette. But that’s a problem with the people, not the hostel. It was super easy to meet people in the communal area too, which is the main draw of any hostel. 

Here are some highlights from my 5 day trip to New York City in June 2013.

1. Ellen’s Stardust Diner

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When my friend Sarah promised me a trip to this diner on Times Square for our meetup in NYC (something for me to look forward to after a 26 hour flight from Sydney arriving the night before and thus a consequently sleepless night), I knew it was going to be one of the highlights of my trip. I wasn’t disappointed. The waiters SING to you while you eat, producing favourites from Grease, The Lion King and other fabulous show tunes (a lot of the staff end up going on to work in Broadway, so you can imagine how high the quality is). A song from Annie was requested and as soon as the waiters started singing, a group of school kids on a school trip stood up from their seats on the balcony and joined in. It was a completely all-American/Glee style moment that left me with the biggest smile on my face. 

2. Central Park Zoo

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This zoo is iconic, having been featured in so much of pop culture. I wasn’t let down; it’s a beautiful zoo with a great range of animals. 

3. Central Park

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I spent a lot of my 5 days in New York wandering around Central Park, either with friends or lovely people I met at the hostel or by myself in the last couple of days after everyone else had left the big apple and I was on my own. The weather was gorgeous, which always helps. 

4. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart

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In the same day, I got to go and watch The Daily Show with Jon Stewart being filmed in the TV studio. I was lucky enough that another American friend of mine, Becky, had a spare ticket and I absolutely jumped at the chance to go to my first ever tv set. So cool!

5. Tourist Hotspots

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There are some things you HAVE to do if you go to New York City, so I spent a good day ticking off items on my tourist list: The National History museum, the Empire State Building, the National Public Library, Grand Central Station and the Statue of Liberty.

6. Ground Zero

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It was extremely harrowing to visit the place where the World Trade Centre once stood. Ground Zero itself has been really well done and is beautiful as a monument in memory of all those who died as a result of the events of 9/11. Being a somewhat young person myself, this is an example of an event I can say I remember where I was when it happened and to visit the place I remember seeing in the news had a significant impact on me. 

7. The New York Highline

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My friend Lizzie recommended this to me and I am so glad I went! An abandoned railway line converted into a walkway and gardens makes for a beautiful and pleasant walk through the high rise buildings of New York. They even have food stands under the bridges, which makes for a good lunch spot.