It may come as a surprise to hear that France has the most time zones of any country in the world. Yes you read that right, France has 12 time zones because it has overseas territories and departments spread across the globe; from South America, via the Caribbean, the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. Each of these tiny (mostly) islands are part of France, not independent ex-colonies and as such function pretty much the same as any region in metropolitan France. They use Euros, fly the Tricolore (flag) and teach the same curriculum in schools. Not knowing a great deal about the DOM-TOMs* myself I thought it would be interesting to run an occasional series of stories from these far-flung corners of France, written by others. To kick it all off today I have a guest blog from expat extraordinaire Clara, an old school friend, who makes my travels and 9 countries of abode look measly.
Clara has just published a book of advice for expat partners based on her extensive life of travel, which I highly recommend for anyone considering moving abroad with their partner. An expat since birth, firstly as the child of travelling parents, then for her own job and now as a “trailing spouse” she is just about to move to her 12th country of residence! Here she tells us about a short visit to the French region/department of Martinique.
Guest post by Clara at The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide
Although this is a post about a beautiful Caribbean island, with golden beaches and aquamarine sea, I won’t be talking about those things. I’ll be ignoring the sound of the waves lapping gently on the sand and the tall palm trees swaying in the tropical breeze. Nope, those things aren’t for me. Instead, I’ll be discussing French cheese and the play area at the local McDonalds restaurant. I know that sounds strange, but stick with me on this.
Martinique is one of those places that really shouldn’t exist. It is basically France – in the Caribbean. It’s not like Jamaica, St Lucia, Trinidad or Barbados – all Caribbean islands I have either lived on or visited. These were British colonies, at one point they were ruled by the Brits and as a consequence English is the main spoken language, their legal system follows ours, their parliaments look at least vaguely familiar, they play cricket and….well, that’s more or less it really. I can’t even say there is much familiarity in the food – no fish and chip shops or Cornish pasties (although there is plenty of excellent fish, and the Jamaican patties would certainly give pasties a run for their money). They also use dollars as their currency. These aren’t actually linked to the US dollar, but certainly as many people seem to associate with the States as they do with the UK.
No, Martinique isn’t like these former British colonies with their vague links with the UK. Martinique actually is France. It has French supermarkets. The people speak French. The children follow the French curriculum at school and gain French qualifications. It is ruled from France and is in fact one of the 27 regions of that country. It is also part of the EU and its currency is the Euro. The people of the island have the same political and legal rights as someone living in Paris or Marseilles. Arriving in Martinique you are, basically, arriving in France. And that’s quite a strange feeling.
We visited Martinique for a long weekend while we were living on the neighbouring island of St Lucia. The two are connected by a ferry service and when we found this out, we thought we’d pay a visit to my husband’s colleague in Fort de France. But given that we were already living on a beautiful, tropical island, where perfect beaches were two-a-penny (and frankly we were a little sick of them), the thing we were most excited about was…the cheese! Okay, not just the cheese, but the shops generally. Or should I say, the supermarkets, specifically. For in Martinique they had Carrefour – and when I say they had Carrefour, I mean they had the proper, French Carrefour, not some shoddy imitation with only a handful of the usual stock.
The journey over on the ferry was uneventful as far as travelling on a slightly cheerless ferry between two Caribbean islands is ever going to be. We had to queue a long time to get on….and a long time to get off…but eventually we were there. My husband’s colleague picked us up and took us back to their house – beautiful views out over the Caribbean sea, gorgeous swimming pool in the garden….yadda yadda yadda, we had all that back home in St Lucia! Actually it was lovely to catch up with our friends over a cold beer or two, and enjoy some of the food they had already bought that day in the French supermarket…..but we were itching to get to the shops!
Unfortunately our children were not so keen (they didn’t know about French cheese at this point!) so we split up and my husband took them off to see some of the sights of Fort de France – which I think mostly consisted of some greenery and a few statues – while I hit the shops. Well, I wasn’t disappointed – there was cheese, there was wine, there was fresh bread and pastries and so many other delicacies that we just hadn’t been able to get hold of while we were living in St Lucia. There were also aisles and aisles of the sort of things we just seem to take for granted now we are home in the UK (beach toys; cooking gadgets; children’s shoes) but that weren’t so easy to source in other parts of the Caribbean. As you can imagine, we bought quite a lot to take home with us, although had to sadly leave the fresh bread behind as it wouldn’t have lasted. Our friends gave us a cold bag to carry the cheeses and other items that needed refrigerating. I can’t recall now how they looked on their arrival back in St Lucia but I am pretty sure we would have enjoyed them whatever state they were in.
The rest of the weekend passed pleasantly enough. We left the children one night being babysat by our friends’ children and had the most delicious meal in one of the island’s Creole restaurants. Blending French food with the spices and flavours of the Caribbean certainly leads to something pretty special, to the extent that I am surprised it hasn’t made its way across the Atlantic as the latest fad cuisine. We walked around some of the local markets and enjoyed the sites and music of the Creole culture. We swam in their pool and enjoyed more of the French food/cheese.
And then finally on the last day, before we left to catch the ferry home again, we decided a trip to MacDonald’s was in order. Not because we actually fancied a Big Mac (or Le Big Mac as I guess they were called…) but because the local Maccy D’s had…..a play area! After living in St Lucia with two very young children for just over a year, the one thing we were missing more than anything else was a safe place for the children to play. There was only one public playground in St Lucia, and the equipment there was rickety, to say the least. It was also unshaded, so playing there never lasted long. But hearing that the MacDonald’s in Fort de France had an indoor play area, we decided to make it our last call of the trip. I can’t remember much about it now, apart from the fact that we were so keen to get there we had to queue for it to open. But I am pretty sure the girls had a ball in the ball pit. And even if it meant we had to eat un-appetising fast food, this would almost certainly have meant we enjoyed ourselves too.
So we returned to St Lucia happy and full, with even fuller shopping bags. The last hour or two of our weekend was slightly spoiled for us by the attitude of some of our fellow passengers on the ferry, whose, errrr, queuing techniques on arrival in Castries left a lot to be desired. But overall, we had certainly enjoyed our little trip to France. In the Caribbean.
Clara Wiggins is a serial expat, TCK, former diplomat and writer who has published a guide to surviving and thriving as an expat partner or “trailing spouse”. She writes her blog The Expat Partner’s Survival Guide as a way of collecting all her random thoughts now that her book is finished (and as a way of publicising her book of course!) You can find Clara on Twitter @strandedatsea and Facebook too.
* DOM-TOM = Départements/Territoires d’Outre Mer = overseas departments and territories
*** I am looking for bloggers who have visited or lived in any of the French DOM-TOMS and who would like to contribute to this series. Please leave a comment below or get in touch through the contact page ***
Other posts about far-flung France, on Mayotte, Réunion, Guadeloupe, St Martin, French Guyana and French Polynesia can be found here.
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World map credit: Hoshie [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons, Cheese platter photo credit: Plateau des fromages, Auberge de La Mole via photopin (license), Beach photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cma_photographies/