Bilingualism, Biculturalism, The Beguine, And Blaff!


Bilingualism, Biculturalism, The Beguine, And Blaff!


Bilingualism, Biculturalism, The Beguine, And Blaff!



WE TOOK OUR WINTER holiday in Martinique, to try out our limping French on neutral ground, and found it delightful. You may walk cautiously in Quebec City, wavering between apologetic English and worse French, but you expand in a glow of exuberance in Martinique, where they happen to be straining at their ties with France and welcoming new links with North America. That’s how inside out politics are these days.

Besides — we say it flatly and brook no contradiction — Martinique is the most beautiful island in the Caribbean. It’s about 45 miles long and 20 miles wide with a deeply in-

dented coastline. It has a colorful past and cherishes it (the Empress Josephine was born there) along with scenery of unusual splendor: mountain slopes covered with rain forest, deep-cut valleys and a profusion of anthuriums, bougainvillia, poinsettia. I saw blue hyacinths, which I nurse with great care at home, wild in a swamp. Along one coast are beaches of white coral sand; farther north the sand is black — a reminder that Mount Pelée is a slumbering volcano that erupted as recently as 1902, wiping out the city of St. Pierre, a cultural centre of the Caribbean. You walk through its rough outlines of stone today, and see the new town rising literally on the old ruins. A fisherman’s

son, for a franc, shows you the underground prison where the sole survivor was found — one out of 40,000.

At St. Pierre one day at lunchtime we put ourselves in the hands of Leon, our taxi driver. He led us to what seemed to be the only restaurant, upstairs in a worn frame building near the waterfront, but we had been on Martinique a few days and we had our appetites ready. We had a peppery fish soup, pork fricassee with yams, country bread, a cheese tray and local wine. Madame Camut Emile, who ran the place, urged us to try her own coconut liqueur. We stayed a long time in the joyful company of Madame Emile, Leon and one other patron, and even found ourselves in-

volved in the unlikely business of translating an advertisement at Madame Emile’s request. How do you say repas variés?

Noon lunches, running into the lengthy siesta when shutters are closed in Martinique, turned out to be one of the great pleasures of our stay; we found we could turn into any small village on our ramblings and expect an excellent French cuisine. One day we visited the green plantation in the hills called La Pagerie, once owned by a family whose daughter Josephine went to France at the age of 16 to marry an aristocrat, found herself a widow when Alexandre de Beauharnais was beheaded on the guillotine, and married the Emperor Napoleon. There’s a little museum there, with love letters, girlhood souvenirs and bits of furniture from the old plantation house which was destroyed in a hurricane. We walked from La Pagerie to the village of Trois Ilets, seeing the old church where Josephine was christened and where her mother and sisters are buried. It was too late then to get back to our inn for lunch, so we tried a walk-in café on the street with four tables between the ice-cream freezer and the door. It had a glorious name, Café à la Reine Hortense (for Josephine’s daughter, queen of Holland). And there we were ceremoniously served homemade soup, blaff (small delicate fish steamed whole in a thin tangy sauce), cheese, crusty bread and a confiture made by the proprietress from the local date-like fruit of the tamarind tree. It was a long, long way from the A & W.

Like most places in the Caribbean, Martinique is reached by local airways flying out of Antigua, where the jets come in from New York, Canada and the rest of the world. It’s only a short hop of less than an hour from Antigua. You touch down at Guadeloupe (also French) and Englishspeaking Dominica. Then you’re at Martinique’s Lamentin airport, a bright, handsome place, and customs officials require a little French, but pass you through without problems. In fact we met a New Jersey couple who had somehow got through, though they said only “Merci” (as “mercy”). We met them in a restaurant trying desperately to order Nescafé. They had asked for pancakes and were eating ham and eggs. We extended our dubious bilingualism; their gratitude boosted Canadian morale nine points.

Not many tourists have tried Martinique. Cruise ships unload their passengers for a few hours at Fortde-France, the capital (100,000),

where there’s a downtown section of free-port stores with Limoges china and French perfume. At the hotels we met several visitors from Quebec, one couple from Winnipeg (“40 below when we left”), a handful of Americans with long-haired, lagging offspring, some Europeans. Which left us with lots of time to talk to the Martiniquais.

The island is 95% Negro. There is no open hostility, and no noticeable segregation. The large middle class reflects a great deal of racial mingling: the light coloreds are called “chibans.” The upper class are called békés (with a grin) but we never got a translation for that one. The békés are white and French and insulated in their centuries-old culture, still owning many of the vast estates which grow bananas, sugar and pineapple. On nearby Guadeloupe the békés were all beheaded during the French Revolution, but Martinique, which was in British hands at the time, was quietly prospering. In 1815 it was returned to France, and has now evolved to the status of an overseas department, sending deputies to the French National Assembly.

One of those deputies is also the mayor of Fort-de-France, the head of a left-wing party dedicated to greater autonomy, and a well-known poet in the French language. His name is Aimé Césaire, and you can buy his books of poignant poetry in the local bookstore. His phone number is listed in a little bilingual wonder called the Touristic Guide for any curious tourist to call. (English section: “Two seasons are noted: the fresher and dryer, from December to May, with a period of extreme drought; the carême from February onwards; the second, much warmer, from June to November, with a particularly rainy period, called ‘the rainy season’, sometimes marked by cyclones or ‘gusts of wind.’ ” If that confuses you, we can vouch for February, which had neither drought nor cyclones, and if people were observing carême (Lent) it wasn’t restricting their happiness any.)

Fort - de - France has an ancient stone fort dominating the harbor and a tall monument to the Empress Josephine gracing the central park they call a savane. If you covet French silks or inexpensive cameras this is a good place to shop, and there are local items on sale such as red pottery, big straw hats, and the knotted kerchief headdress called le madras. It’s tied according to the lady’s marital status or inclination, with two erect points for the happily married, one

for the gal who is engaged. You buy one for about five francs.

A franc is around 20 cents, and two of them will get you a boat ride of memorable joy across the harbor from Fort-de-France to Anse Mitán, where we stayed at a good, small inn. You can, if you wish, go for Hiltontype accommodation in a choice of three or four new American hotels. Or you can try out several modest places, as we did, where you talk French to the best of your ability, with smiles all round, enjoy the sun and surf, and eat extremely well. We thought we had the best of both worlds when we strolled over from Auberge de l’Anse Mitán through the black evening to the brightly lit Bakoua Hotel to take in the floor show. One night a week a local troupe performs the old dances and songs, dating back to slave times, and they are beautiful young people indeed, very tall and very proud. The beguine originated in Martinique, and its music is still enjoyed there.

Look for local pride, not servility, in the Caribbean these days — it’s there in Martinique. No old-servant type addressed me as “Mistress” as they still do sometimes in Barbados. No doubt Martinique has domestic troubles ahead — there’s a vast younger generation growing up and some unemployment. But it’s a fascinating composite of prerevolutionary France and steel-band Caribbean. It’s perfect for your French immersion course, with blaff. □

AIR CANADA OFFERS year-round 21day excursion fares to Martinique, with daily flights leaving Toronto or Montreal for Fort-de-France. The cost is $251 return, and you transfer at Antigua for the connecting one-hour flight to the Martinique capital.

Accommodation on the island ranges from $22 a day double, with breakfast and dinner included, at a plain motel-type establishment, or $29 . a day double at an excellent small inn (again, with two meals) to as high as $75 a day at Americanstyle hotels. In addition, there is a government tax of 10% on accommodation, plus gratuities. Car rental runs from $10 to $12 a day, but is worth it because there are a lot of things you shouldn’t go home without seeing.

The currency in use is the French franc, at an exchange rate of about five francs to the Canadian dollar.

You will need a passport and a vaccination certificate.