I often contemplate where cultures intertwine and where they separate. On a Caribbean island, once a colony now turned overseas department, this question is posed daily. Where does French culture end and where does the local culture begin?
L’île papillon – the butterfly island, as Guadeloupe is known, its two islands forming two wings stretching into separate oceans. The more time I spend here, the more I see these wings stretching into two oceans, and at the same time representing Guadeloupe’s stretching out towards two different cultures.
Far from the French métropole, here one is amidst the dichotomies that come from being a part of a European country, yet influenced by the particular Caribbean climate, landscape, culture and history. It is a vast region full of nuances, dualities and organized chaos. The vibrant and lively atmosphere on this island represents the mélange of two forces, but also highlights the defining and separating line between them; the impact of Guadeloupe’s defining wings flapping in two different cultures.
Altough only 30 kilometres from my new home of Capesterre Belle-Eau, the bus trip to Pointe-à-Pitre, the capital which embodies this French-Caribbean crossover, is more than an hour long. Accentuated by blaring French and Guadeloupe pop music, along with the scream of wind from open windows, the ride is anything but calm; my visual and aural senses are strongly overwhelmed.
Add to this the unpredictability of a bus driver who stops at the drop of a hat and follows the car in front of him with possibly an arm’s length of room. This is how everyone drives on this island – sporadic and fast. I find this to be paradoxical to the Caribbean approach to life, which is often casual, calm and entails waiting patiently.
Outside the bus window, I see the blue sky trying to scare off rain clouds. Rain here is torrential, although equally sporadic as the driving. A few drops touch my window as we pass through Goyave, meaning “guava” in French. Here the ground is wet, soaked from the morning’s storm, water still hanging in the air. The rain ceases as we roll along, and the road becomes dry again; even on such a small island nothing is necessarily experienced by all, and there are pockets of foul weather, which disappear as one passes through onto the next village. Much like the local experience of culture; in an instant it changes from new and European society, to an old and rooted Caribbean one.
Approaching Pointe-à-Pitre is like entering any other big city. Car dealerships selling the newest and fastest European vehicles are spread over the outskirts of town. Palm trees giving in to the wind separate the other warehouse looking stores: plumbing, furniture, sporting goods – all French. The arrival at the bus station tells me otherwise. There is no system of European punctuality or organization. Quite the opposite; there are no timetables, no bus tickets and no bus terminals. This sense of organized chaos is the same in Pointe-à-Pitre’s bus parking. The enormous parking lot filled with buses, like an overstuffed bag, teeming at the seams, ready to overflow.
From the bus station I make my way towards the centre ville. Immediately, I realize the impact that architecture invokes on my senses. Feeling like I am in a sardine can, I am surrounded by the hustle and bustle of a city crammed into a tiny space. I smell the odor created by the combination of sweat, gas and humidity. I see the buildings constructed with the frequency of earthquakes in mind, leaving behind this city that feels small and condensed. Streets are packed with people, cars and storefronts. The humidity, even at nine in the morning, consumes the city and its people, providing for an intertwinement of business activity and heat-inspired lethargy.
Humidity seeps into my skin and into the buildings around me, as if filling them with Caribbean, tropical life, far from anything known on the European continent that this region belongs to. In fact, the effects of the tropical heat and storms are clearly apparent. Beautiful Galois-inspired architecture is in the midst of erosion, streaked with black. Ironwork, twisted and curved to provide for balconies on upper apartments, look like saddened bodies, lined with rust.
The existence of more orderly buildings adds to the visual distinction between new and old. A bright yellow painted church stands tall and proud on the edge of Place de la Victoire, the main square, next to the other clean and immense French administrative buildings.
Palm trees line the square, which is well-groomed and tended to, in the typical French spirit. French style cafés with grand awnings line both sides of the square leading toward the water. Here the feel of France stops and the Caribbean starts, as the well kept feel of Place de la Victoire turns into the lively market. The smell of fresh fish is strong, with an undertone of ripe star fruit and bananas. Fishermen, their feet still wet from the salty water, discuss the day’s catch. Even as I continue into the fruit and vegetable section, the all consuming odor is matched with the loud voices of local farmers and vendors selling their goods.
“Vous aimez l’ananas chéri?” (Do you like pineapple sweetheart?) the large woman in a brightly colored dress demands, her smile inviting, like the one of my own grandmother.
“Oui, mais je reviendrai plus tard.” I say. (I will come back later), knowing very well that this is normally my polite response, which inevitably means no. I do not want to disappoint her, although I realize that her smile beaming towards me is not special, it is the same routine for any other tourist. Her pineapple will be sold to the next person in awe of the fresh tropical fruit.
Although I pass up the pineapple, I do stop to chat with a vendor of spices, significantly more inexpensive, and more pungent than any sold in this country’s various French supermarkets. She gives me her list of descriptions of each spice that she sells. Vanilla by the stick, mustard seeds ready to be pulverized, colombe, used for making the Creole chicken specialty. The list goes on. I am tempted to buy one of each kind (the woman continues peaking my interest by running a new variety by my nose every time I look ready to settle), however, I decide on the combo pack for three euros, and a bag of colombe, with a strong smell similar to curry.
Walking away from the market and out of Place de la Victoire, Pointe-à-Pitre quickly turns residential, with apartments so crammed together that they seem to spill over onto the streets. Dirty white buildings are squashed into tiny spaces, falling apart from water damage. Some are beautifully constructed in the Creole style, others are approaching their death. I ask myself what these small, cramped living spaces must cost a month. Despite a high poverty level and a grave dependence on French subsidies for Guadeloupe’s daily existence, housing and living costs are similar, and often higher than in the métropole.
As it is lunchtime most stores are closed and people line up to food carts on the street selling baguette sandwiches. Cell phones ring while business is discussed, reminding me that despite the homeless dog across the street from me, and the eroded sidewalks spanning the city, this is a society well into the technological age. With daily non-stop flights to Paris, French culture permeates Guadeloupe and its people on an everyday level. And somehow this culture manages to interweave itself with the Caribbean roots that are evident everywhere.
As I pass a boulangerie, I note that the awning, advertising undeniably French patisseries, is also written in the local language of Creole. On the same street as a national French bank, there is an open storefront selling grilled chicken, cooked in the local manner. At the table sits an old man discussing with the female cook, I understand half of the conversation which is in French, the other in Creole. The combination and sometimes clash of two cultures never skips a beat.
I decide to return home shortly after lunch. My feet drag my body onto the bus. I am overwhelmed by the outside temperature as well as the sensory overload that defines this trip to the city. The bus meets me with a slightly less intense heat, but filled with the smell of afternoon sweat. I notice that the eclectic mix of Guadeloupe and French pop music is still the sound of choice; the true cultural crossover. As I sit down my head starts to nod, and I fall asleep instantly, somehow entranced by this dual cultural lullaby diffused from the speakers above.