Vous Parlez Anglais?


The area I was staying in had very few English speakers, and I only ran into 2 couples from America. They had also taken advantage of the cheap Norwegian Airlines flights from the U.S. At the end of my first full day on Martinique, Wednesday night, I was walking back to my apartment from spending the evening on the beach, when I overheard an older couple coming towards me on the sidewalk speaking English. I was startled at how glad I was to hear English again. I stopped them, asking if they spoke English, and it turned out they were from New York City. The wife especially had a strong Brooklyn accent. They were here for a week, and it was also their first time. We chatted for a minute about how lovely this place is, and the French and Creole cuisine is great, but they too were struggling to communicate in French, and had the same experience I had, that very few people knew English.

The second American couple I met on Thursday late afternoon near the Harbor. They were from Washington and it was their first time in the French Caribbean as well. After a week in Martinique, they were going to Guadeloupe before returning to the States. I met this second couple of Americans when we had all tried to see if a harbor side restaurant was open for dinner yet. It was almost 6:00 PM, but it turned out dinner isn’t served until sept heures. Cultural differences… my body thinks dinner should be earlier, not later!

Ducking in and out of shops and covered walkways in between rain showers, it was about a quarter to seven when I stopped at a fancy restaurant called Infinity up some stairs at Creole Village. I stared at their menu, trying to understand what their daily special was. The original waitress didn’t speak English, but she called over the bartender, who translated for me. The only word I had recognized was “camembert” – and I was guessing that “truffe” meant mushroom, which turned out to be correct. I felt reassured to have the English translation so I’d know exactly what I was ordering to eat!

The next morning, Friday,  I stopped for petit- dejeuner at a café, and the waitress again didn’t know anglais. When I saw oeufs on the menu, I remembered those were eggs, and decided that jambon was ham, since it was listed under the “Americaine” version of their petit dejeuner. But when my order arrived there was no salt or pepper on the table, and I had no clue what they are called in French. Pantomiming shaking salt onto my eggs, the waitress finally understood and brought back the shakers to the table.

I think it’s like white privilege. I found myself expecting that, even though I’m not bilingual, other people should be able to speak English. And it’s not true that others always speak English. Over my petitdejeuner Americaine, I chatted briefly with a retired Frenchwoman waiting for her husband at the next table. She said she had studied English for 8 years back in school, but because she never used it, and didn’t converse, she had forgotten almost all of it. So our broken conversation was conducted mostly en francais, since my pathetic French was better than her even worse English!


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