OK

It must be wonderful to walk down the same street every day, and greet people as you go, to have the same conversations year after year, slight variations on a familiar timetable, a regular path worn through the constancies and changes, the patterns and cycles of events and seasons, maybe a particular bird that calls from a particular tree each day, as you're passing, and you wonder whether it calls regularly, but at a longer interval than the time it takes you to walk past, or whether it just calls the once every day, or whether it calls for you. One day you notice that it ends its call for the year the day after the tips of a particular grass turn brown, and you try to imagine what that looks like, to that particular bird, up in that particular tree.

I'm back in Fort de France, Martinique - it feels extremely civilized, after Dominica. There are sidewalks. And pretty dresses in store windows. And interestingly old buildings. And no one's harassing me to buy something, or give them money. I'm always intrigued by how different places have such different characters, how thin accretions of place and incident, biological geological historical accumulations form into such distinct entities, into towns and cities, the sense of a place.

According to wikipedia, Martinique was sighted by Christopher Columbus in 1493, claimed as French territory by French settlers in 1635. Naturally, the indigenous Caribs, who had arrived in the 1200s, displacing and assimilating the previous residents, the Taino, had issues with that. It is now part of France - the inhabitants are citizens of France, and members of the European Union. The obvious contrasts with Dominica, which was colonized by the British, and achieved independence in 1978, is a higher quality of life - socialized health care, better infrastructure, higher cost of living, and a more European cuisine, fashion, architecture, and mood. Speaking more specifically, the contrast that I'm observing is between Roseau, Dominica, and Fort de France, Martinique, but it's consistent with patterns that I've observed around the world, between areas colonized by England vs France. One certainty as a western tourist is that it's way easier to eat well in places settled or colonized by France.

I'm sitting in a city park beside the court house, watching the sun drop towards the buildings. Three children are playing at the foot of the whitewashed statue of an elderly man, reaching down benevolently to a girl in a simple dress and a laurel wreath. His other hand has broken off,and a pigeon preens on his round bald head. I have an overnight here, catching a plane the next morning, so I wandered the streets until I found an interesting place to sit and watch the life go by.

One of the girls is lying on her side, and the other two, a girl and a younger boy, are shaking her, calling her, laughing. I realize that she's pretending to be dead, and that the others are pretending to try to wake her. The scene is suddenly so comically morbid that I laugh out loud. The parents look over - Chinese or Korean - and I smile. The voices behind me sometimes sound like they're whispering directly into my ear, startling me. Passersby, talking of the day in French. There are cars going by as well, and the engines and radios doppler from one ear to the other.

Now the sun is behind the buildings, a light dusk. There's still warmth in the streets and buidings. The girls are pulling their shirts and dresses up, showing their bellies and underwear to the younger boy. Another funny moment, but when the parents call for them to stop, I realize that I'm watching them distractedly. I look down and then away, feeling embarrassed.

The statue in the center of the park is of Schoelcher, whoever he was. His backdrop is a fading colonial absurdity of a government palace, heavy-built in stone, with wings of three windows and a second story added later. "LIBERTE EGALITE FRATERNITE" (Freedom Equality Brotherhood) have been carved into the lintel. Sharing the park with us is a man sleeping on a bench, two strangers on one bench, and a man reading, beside a teenaged couple who are talking closely, leaning into each other, ready to kiss. There is also a crazy man in a pantsuit, chest unzipped, with a thick frizz of white hair and a full beard. A man bikes his moped along the path, parks and sits in a corner for ten minutes, then rides out the other gate.

Now there's a kid sitting beside me, watching me, then leaning in towards me, to look at my notebook as I write this. I watch him read, wondering whether he speaks english, whether he can read my scribble of a writing. He looks up, and we stare at each other, his eyes dark brown to black, but I can't tell whether he read that I was writing about him, and whether that offends or humours him. He's wearing blue jeans and a black athletic shirt,which stands out. Heavy american clothes, in contrast  to the local dress. A careful outfit. Bare feet in black athletic trainers, looking newish. His friend beside him is listening to Eminem.

It's always a bit off-putting to be the object of interest and curiousity for me, to feel that people are watching me as I walk past, noticing my gestures, my style, my choices. Watching me like a television. Strange indeed. But then, that's what I'm doing as a tourist as well.

This could all be paranoia on my part. Being a tourist sometimes feels like being a beautiful person. It seems that everyone is interested in you. They want to ask you something, or sell you something, or learn what your voice sounds like, or make friends. Suddenly the older kid, a young man, is rapping to the beat of his headphones, a tight guttural following the bass, I can't follow the words, can't pick out whether it's French or Creole, but when he finishes, I say in English "Not bad at all! It's good!", and he turns away quickly, mutters to his friend in French, along the lines of "So that got his attention". There's no reason for them to assume that I also know French.

The trees in the park are twined and lopped, old and tough, harshened, knocked out of their natural symmetry by city life. They remind me of a painting of a park in Paris during the French Revolution from my 5th grade (Septieme) history book, while I was studying in a Lycee - a French immersion school. There were boulevards of trees, broad and chunked like baobabs, with young sprays of branches growing discongruously from much thicker, older branches.

At the time I'd thought it a strange gardening style, a brutal one, and French culture was so alien to me that I thought that was just how they did it. I have a sudden epiphany that the most likely explanation is a Hard Time, when the rule of law broke down, a time of chaos and desperation, when people cut branches from city trees for firewood. The French Revolution was certainly a Hard Time, and maybe Fort de France had a similarly hard time in the last 10-20 years. Maybe horti-historians can read riot and revolution in the amputated architecture of such trees, like reading seasons of drought and abundance from their shape.

The sun's behind the hills now, underlighting the puffy clouds with an austere passing elegance. The clouds sink into the sea, behind the buildings, like a glorious disaster of an armada. I suddenly feel very unkempt, a week's stubble of brown and blond, ripped worn sneakers and a sweaty black shirt. The mother on the bench beside me is slapping the little boy's hand, not hard enough to hurt, and scolding him in Chinese. A minute ago he was sprawled in front of the statue, one foot stuck in the fence.

The park gets crowded as a stage and sound system get set up, and suddenly I'm surrounded by people, families, youth, friends, people of all ages. There are speeches, and music, and dancers, and it feels like everyone but me knows why they're here. I can feel from the crowd that a fire is building, that a lot of energy is going to be released here, and part of me is curious, but I also feel crowded, part of something where I don't really belong, so after an hour I leave, as the music gets louder. I don't like crowds.

Later that night, I wander up to a ramshackle bar close to the water, where older men are playing petanque (bocce). I ask for a beer and am ignored, so I sit at a table and write in my notebook. I am clearly unwelcome. After an hour or so, one of the locals comes and sits with me, and we talk. He'd observed my response to the rejection and felt that it was brave. We discuss the challenges of cultural differences and barriers, and the importance of making connections. He is a professional rat exterminator, and invites me back to his place. I meet his wife, who then goes to bed. When it becomes obvious that he's hitting on me, I politely leave, and walk back to the room I'd booked. I wrote a bunch of interesting stuff that night but am not in the mood to go find that notebook among my boxes of notebooks and transcribe it.

Travel is a luxury, and a disruption. It's possible to travel in a way that is comfortable, where one maintains an aesthetic perspective on the places one visits, and the people one interacts with. Western tourists bring their social code with them, and a strong aspect of that is a fantasy of remoteness, or disappearance. During the Romantic era, European tourists would bring a framed mirror with them, and when they had arrived at a particularly scenic place, would turn their back on it, and hold up the mirror, in order to have a "properly framed" aesthetic experience, similar to observing a painting in a museum.

As humans we filter and choose what we observe. That shapes our interactions and experiences, which influence those around us. It's not possible for us to have a clear understanding of how our choices and non-choices affect the world around us, any more than it's possible to sit in a traffic jam and really understand that in each of the hundreds or thousands of cars surrounding us are hundreds and thousands of people surging with all the instant thoughts and emotions and desires that storm through our own minds, and that this moment now is an accumulation of all that they've experienced, shaped by all their interactions, and that each person is an inheritance of innumerable ancestors, each on an accumulation of all that they've experienced, shaped by all their interactions, in worlds and places that are beyond our knowledge and understanding.

Originally posted to erratic on Thu May 09, 2013 at 05:21 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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