biographical / Non-fiction

Martinique Élémentaire

I feel like we’ve just had an exciting breakthrough in the art of vacationing.

There are (at least) two schools of thought on The Vacation: One, the Apollonian let’s call it, is really going somewhere, making the most of your time, seeing sights, museums, having an authentic “cultural experience,” being the type of tourist who hates tourists. I’ve been this person.

The other type of vacation, the Dionysian, is about having the most relaxing possible experience: lots of lying around and drinking and swimming and sunning and you’re fine with being a tourist because being a tourist means nothing more than acknowledging that you’re not here for business, you’re here for pleasure and you’ll suck down as much of it as you can.

They both offer their upsides: One is sort of invigorating and probably yields more interesting anecdotes but can be tiring. The other is refreshing but raises the question of why you’d spend the money to travel somewhere just to lie around and drink, when there’s a whole world out there.

But, we’re pleased to have discovered that you don’t really have to choose between the two. You can just choose to have a tourist experience which is culturally foreign. We went to the balmy island of Martinique, an overseas territory of France in the Caribbean, so even for the two nights we were in an Amex-point-funded resort, the whole thing was sort of adventurous and strange and a chance to speak French, get lost, wonder if “kangourou” on the menu means what you think it means, all with plenty of reading books on the beach, lying around in the sun until we watched it slip into the Caribbean, turning the water from teal to gold-flecked gray.

Or maybe it’s just living a Dionysian few days amongst the most Apollonian of people.


Air: Martinique is known as “L’ile aux fleurs,” or the “the island of flowers.” You’d think that maybe all the other Caribbean islands also have flowers, and that it’s a bit presumptuous of Martinique to claim that for itself, but maybe that’s just how these things work. Maybe there’s an “Island of Warm Weather,” or an “Island of Being Surrounded by Water,” out there too. I don’t know the rules.

Anyway, from the minute we walked off the plane onto the tarmac of an otherwise very quiet airport, the air did smell a little floral, with a heavy dose of damp, something faintly burning in the distance somewhere and, because we were on the tarmac, a bit of exhaust. It smelled sort of familiar. I’ve spent a lot of time telling people that Martinique is part of France, and that explains why it’s standard of living is high, it’s on the euro, and its roads are well-maintained (more on these in a moment). If I could just have them smell Paris and smell Martinique, both floral, both damp, both with a bit of exhaust, it’d all make sense.

However, in my experience, Martinique never had that wretched sewage smell that pops up in great cities like Paris, especially on the RER B, nor did Paris’s air trill with hummingbirds.

Speaking of heat and humidity, it made our hair silent-film-star awesome, as you can see in these pictures that are totally of us:











Julie’s natural curliness is normally tortured into submission with hot irons and sprays, but in true vacation fashion, she let her hair down, only for it to get up of its own accord. Saying “my hair is crazy,” became a sort of end-of-looking-in-the-mirror mantra. “My hair is crazy,” click, turn out the light. “My hair is crazy,” click, close the compact, “My hair is crazy,” flip the Peugeot’s sun-visor, etc. Speaking of the Peugeot…

Land: The Peugeot!


Martinique does have some sort of bus service comprising big Mercedes Sprinters running on whatever schedule they please, and there are taxis as well, which are purportedly expensive and can be identified by a steady, eerie green light, seeming far above their roofs. But, determined to be bound by nothing, we opted for the Peugeot.

My ability to drive stick is sort of a lot like my ability to speak French: rusty and maybe overstated to begin with. But it was sink or swim navigating the well-maintained, poorly lit, totally unmarked, roundabout-laden roads of Martinique. While I put the clutch through hell that first night (the Peugeot lacked the power to peel out, but it’s vah-ROOOOOMs took on an increasingly mournful quality),  by the end of the trip, I had perfected the slow-down-swerve-speed-up of the roundabouts and was seamlessly downshifting for power as we climbed winding, dark, terrifying roads up from the coast into the mountains.

Oh right, we were talking about the land. Down by the water, you got you beaches in white or black sand, depending on what side of the island you’re on. Then there’s mountains, most notably Montagne Pelée, which means Bald Mountain, even though every part of it that we saw was covered in ferns.

Montange Pelée via Holger Wulschlager / age fotostock

On Sunday afternoon, we drove the Peugeot up to Montagne Pelée for a hike. Julie found this little tidbit:

Every so often, a debate gets going on the Summitpost forums about what is the world’s most dangerous mountain. The Eiger, K2, Annapurna, even New Hampshire’s Mount Washington have had their champions. But if you’re measuring by how many people have actually been killed on that mountain, Pelée is the hands-down winner of this contest. This is a mountain that has reached out and snuffed out more than 30,000 people right on its flanks. A couple of other mountains, such as Krakatoa, can claim more indirect victims, killed by tsunamis and famines they caused. But of all the mountains in the world, Pelée is the queen of instant death.”

Which sounds like we should’ve packed oxygen tanks, but really it seemed like if anyone died recently on Pelée it was in a car accident, because even by Martinique standards that road was narrow and winding. We later realized that the passage above must be referring to when Mount Pelée erupted in 1902 and wiped out the town of Saint Pierre, not with lava or ash, but with burning gas. The only survivor, they say, was Louis-Auguste Cyparis, who was saved by being in a jail cell. I struggled for the metaphor there—something about life and prison and death and freedom and that which binds us may actually be that which sustains us—but everything I came up with was a little heavy for me to apply to my own life. Plus, Cyparis’s situation after he witnessed Saint Pierre disappeared in about 15 minutes was pretty grim. He ended up traveling with Barnham and Bailey as some sort of single survivor of a tragedy act.

The author at a theatre. The prison is over his right shoulder.

The author at a theatre. The prison is over his right shoulder.

It was pretty crowded there at basecamp, which is to say, some picnic tables, a restaurant (it’s France!), and a parking lot. It’s a pretty standard sort of Sunday afternoon activity, it seems. And there was a steady stream of people coming down the mountain who uniformly greeted and were uniformly greeted in return with a polite “Bonjour,” which became even funnier the sweatier we were.

When it was clear, you could see the ocean on each side of the island, boats in the distant, mountains draped in green. Much of the time, clouds socked us in and we could only see primordial valleys, or the dinosaur plants around us.


Somewhere on the side we ran into a group of college students from somewhere in America, who were excited to run into their fellow countryman and when they found out where we were from excitedly said, “Oh we have someone from New York” and brought forward a beaming resident of somewhere up by West Point. We smiled our approval (“Ah yes, people from New York do sometimes look like this!”) and wished them well on their vacation. Americans are great.

All demographics—fairly old, fairly young, dog, American, etc—can reach the top of Montagne Pelée, or at least a shelter placed near there. But then you have the option to hike the rim of the old volcano. Pelée hasn’t erupted since 1932, even if there is some “seismic activity” deep below, like I said, the top is covered in a thick rug of ferns and flowers and moss, and once you’re low enough, palm trees. We figured, when are we going to be back here?, let’s walk the rim.

It started off easy and level enough, but eventually the rim leads up another peak of Pelée, then steeply and rockily down said peak and only to make you climb back up another steep grade up to where you stupidly said, “When are we going to be back here? Let’s walk the rim.” There were many fewer fellow hikers with us on this leg: one couple whose female member was on the verge of tears as the climb up the peak was beginning, and one couple who moved swiftly and easily up the mountain maintaining what sounded like a pretty pleasant conversation the whole way (Half-Shirt and Star Wars Shirt, we called ’em). We split the difference, with mild to moderate amounts of struggling, sweating and swearing.

974109_OISEAUX-1Flora and Fauna: After fighting our way around the top of Pelée, we began our descent on shaky legs. As the trail wound under a canopy of palm trees, we heard the electric toothbrush pulse of several petits colibris. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one in the wild and I don’t think they had seen us either, so they landed and we took pictures and Julie reflected how hummingbirds are always on the verge of death, and it seemed like, as we were running low on water and were exhausted, an appropriate time to see them. They were iridescent and beautiful and when they fly the very air trills.

Thirsty and exhausted we headed for the beach, and watched frigates coast lazily around the sky. They look like an upgraded, evolved version of seagulls, longer wings and tails, and they never gathered en mass to steal potato chips from us.

There were also Merles (a grackle), Père-noir – Rouge-gorge (little finches that did try to steal food), roosters that crowed at dawn, but also, just to be safe, before dawn and until about noon, and ravenous wild cats that waited until you finished your meal from the barbecue shack on the beach to pounce on whatever’s left. Which brings us to…

Food: In The Beach Grill in Le Carbet, I tried to eat kangaroo, but they were out. At the little barbeque shack, you ordered and then found a table in the sand and they’d bring out a placemat and silverware and then your food, because (and I can’t stress this enough) France. I think I’m ordering duck overcooked because I lack the vocabulary to explain how I want it. But what I do know: “rose” is too cooked.

Everything was served with flair. Nearly everything was washed down with wine. “Yellow” in Fort-de-France really lives up to the hype. Fort-De-France has beautiful, dirty, quiet, narrow streets.

For the life of us we couldn’t figure out when people eat dinner in Martinique. It seemed like keeping late continental hours resulted in being the last ones in the restaurant, and being early meant it was closed. Fort-de-France was really quiet every time we were there too. Our friends we met told us that people in Martinique go to bed early and get up early, which isn’t really how I vacation but seems like a life that makes sense, given how terrifying it is to drive up and down those mountains at night. Oh, speaking of friends…

People: I know there are stereotypes about the French, and I even sometimes glimpse how one might understand them as rude (when you order Martinique’s famous ti punch everyone seems to murmur “oh ti punch…” in that French way. Yeah, okay, so it’s like four ounces of 50 proof rum with a dash of sugar and lime in it, but c’mon, it’s YOUR famous beverage), but for whatever reason the French and I get along really well. Something in the way I butcher their language really seems to encourage their pity and patience—nothing builds friendship like vulnerability, which is probably why it gets harder to make friends as you age—and I’m so focused on speaking correctly that I’m a lot less self-conscious about everything else, and really I have no idea how I’m coming off in French, which is all kind of freeing.


Or maybe it’s just having Julie around. Her effusive friendliness transcends language, and no matter where we’ve traveled on Western-Hemisphere Francophonie Exploration Tour™—Montreal, New Orleans, or Martinique—we hit it off with strangers.

Within minutes of checking into our Airbnbeachshack, we were invited to drinks for a birthday party, out front. We popped out and met Grandma and Grandpa, and a kid and the fisherman’s mom and dad and the fisherman birthday boy and his beautiful wife or girlfriend, and they served us planteurs (another, less judgement-loaded rum cocktail) and potato chips, and I was able to speak with surprising comfort and fluency, enough to understand when Grandma and Grandpa expressed disappointment in the French education system for teaching only big ideas and poetry instead of the English language, which seems insane. When we said we needed to get going to find this cafe with zouk music (we also couldn’t figure out when or where live music happens, but we listened to nothing but zouk in the car), they insisted on drawing us a map and having a lengthy table-wide disagreement about whether the turn was before or after the Carrefour.

When we got back more fisherman had replaced Grandma and Grandpa and we finished the remains of the planteurs, and the fisherman taught me some creole and also this Martinique handshake that the guys who worked at the resort were doing, which made me feel very included, to the point where I may have invited them all to come stay with us in September.

We met a lot of people who came from the French mainland as well, who did that thing where they tell me in English that my French is really good, which impresses whoever I’m with, but makes me suspect that my French can’t be that good, because otherwise why would you even point that out?

We kept running into our waiters around Le Carbet, and they’d show us their beautiful children and hold them up so we could kiss them, and give us directions to places that we didn’t dare go try to find, and no one would accept that Brooklyn was “louche” no matter how much I insisted that it was (lousy global brand).

I asked a friend of mine, who has traveled both alone and in a couple to compare the two, and he said that nights are much better when you travel with someone—always having someone to eat with and what not.

So it’d be a huge omission to NOT note that our revolutionary advancements in vacation culture is nearly all a product of Julie’s strong purposeful devotion to lying around on the beach, patience navigation even though Google Maps kept sending us to the middle of nowhere and only reloaded at a speed that seems designed to sow discord, not direct us through roundabouts effectively, and silent-film-star good looks and Amex points that made it possible.

I guess the whole thing was vaguely related to me turning 30, which probably should be like the rest of my birthdays, connected to a lot of anxiety because of how much time has passed and how little I’ve got done, but when I was there I was some sort of French-speaking, Peugeot driving, spy, who found the world’s greatest traveling companion and best way to travel, I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be anxious about. Forgetting, I guess.

It was like when I’d taken a trip to some foreign land and everyone asked about it when I got back: my accounts would grow similar, focusing on this impression, that cool place, a certain funny anecdote, until there was just the one account which then substituted for my memory. –Benjamin Kunkel, Indecision


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