I.

The Tin Shant on the hill in Martinique is stoutly situated, unique in design, and built half a century ago.  Though stucco and cinderblock, we call it the Tin Shant due to a fine-sounding tap on the tin roof during rain.  Lovely sounds when you’re comfortable and dry.

What’s most obvious when first viewed is this: situated on a plateau’s rim, the shant’s built downward, literally down the slope.  So the smooth concrete floor descends into three wide steps of twenty feet, fifteen feet, and then seven.  The room forms a 42 foot rectangle, and it has the feel of a small auditorium for a friendly, and limited audience.

Several years back the Episcopal Rector and the Dentist fashioned a lengthy bar on the lowest step.  On Fridays we place a lectern before it, facing the two ascending portions of the floor, where the round tables are set, each with three or four chairs.

The best thing about our Tin Shant?  The most substantial aspect would have to be the (very) rare life of our Social Collective, a cheese, wine, and cracker discussion each Friday, after which the Lawyer tends an open bar during a covered-dish.  Each of the wives and husbands of our twenty or so couples takes a Friday evening to give a one-page paper on a topic, or a poem for discussion.  Music and art also qualify as offerings.

Right now I’m admiring Saffron deftly placing her long black hair behind an ear while presenting a one-page paper she’s researched over the past week.  It’s a North American topic, “A Brief History of the Tabernacle Lecture Hall of Martha’s Vineyard.”

“Enough of the reasons,” she concludes, “to settle Martha’s Vineyard were literary and educational, in the context of their broader religious mindset.” She reads a bit longer in her well-spoken manner, gleaming a green eye from a lovely dark face, and toward her husband.  “The Tabernacle served as an important symbol, and steward of their commonwealth of knowledge, knowledge used toward worthy societal endeavor.”

Neal, her husband, is staring and listening with a mild, pacific smile at the candle lit table he shares with the Dentist and his wife Diana.  Diana has a Master’s Degree in Music from Rollins and will play the Cello with the others next Friday.  She’s chosen a favorite of the Rector, Grieg’s Prelude to the Holberg Suite.

II.

Five years we’ve called this spacious, breezy plateau Home, with our bright vegetable gardens, and ducks and chickens!  Several types of oranges grow well on the contoured slopes of the hill.  The Dentist – John – and his Michigan buddy are really serious about stewing this sauce they’ve modified, several times, and roasting up Canard à l’Orange.  The rich duck with the tart orange sauce is especially good.  And for us to have such is no small feat.

Saffron’s really the only one on our small plateau who grew up, and had family or land, here in Martinique.

You see, for some time we’ve been quiet North American refugees.  Before, when we lived in the States, a good two-thirds of us were either Michigan, or Cal Berkeley, or Philolexian Literary Society at Columbia plus a few Demosthenians from Georgia.  We didn’t all know each other at first, yet began to have similar thoughts.  At first this happened independently.  Then we started to discuss, and then to plan.

But planning, merely, with this in mind: French culture might suit us better than North America.  At first we failed to realize things would go downward to such a degree, or at such an accelerated state.  So at the outset we sounded innocent, investment oriented – more like an island subdivision, some sort of “time share.”  That’s when the Berkeley fellows and the Michigan people began to say Let’s Go.  Or as we say, Allons-y.

We’d been simply looking for a summer compound: well-scrubbed white, or pastel stucco: small houses.  Something authentic, Francophone, a tad rustic.  Again, nobody thought matters would develop so poorly up North, with American services and stability, even the military lurching forward then declining severely.  Soon after there was far more decline than anything forward.

“Why Not?” evolved into “Better Go.”  Then “Better Go” erupted to “Bolt.”

III.

Evacuating the Berkeley crowd – off the shore into the boats – now that move really did take some creativity.  The city was having trouble with order amid the shortages and sickness.  Sometimes trouble was caused only by people talking.  Gossip got the goat of the government.  So it became patriotic to show Things Were OK, that it was all so damned fine.  What it all boiled down to, one weekend was this: Cal’s football game was being propped up by the state as a symbol of How OK Things Were.  Like a soccer stadium in the Middle East being a symbol of more than soccer.

Of course I agree with you.  It was idiotic!  I don’t mean to imply otherwise.  No offense! No! none taken.  The most foolish was how we got around it.

The game really did have to all go as planned, according to Berkeley and San Francisco.  And those two were the ones with laws remaining.  So, we all tried to cooperate.  The City wanted the students to attend a football game dressed up.  Really, over the top dress code: heels, coats, and ties.  They looked like some type of 1957…”Fratosphere.”It looked desperate because it was desperate.  Some knew it, but wouldn’t admit it.  Some were clueless.  Some knew it and screamed in the streets.  We knew it, and wanted to as well, but we murmured in a limited circle.

So we messaged our Berkeley couples, “act sick, get sick, start throwing up.”  I mean, they were already drinking.  So by appearing sick, in a context of plague issues, they got out of going to the game.  And ducked over to our little bayside salida.  They had been told, and paid, to look sharp in the box seats for the cameras and the photo op: all to prop up a public myth of government.

We appeared foolish to avoid being seen as a threat.  Look hapless?  Avoid suspicion.

Well, nobody ever said Berkeley didn’t know how to pull off a first class Drop Out.  And not a minute too soon!  The yachts with the de-salinizers were bumping around behind Giants stadium which was filling up with refugees for the night.  We’d heard from several the stadium was “violence free?”  Damn Katrina nonsense.  So while everybody’s acting nonchalant, blending in, LK – our point guy with the ambulance – and the DuCoeurs grab Steve and Margaret Kaplan to hustle down behind the stadium with the rest.

All this to say they connected into a safe enough “who do you know” yacht to yacht scheme.  That’s how they got here.

Odd having France as the world power.  Martinique’s still an Overseas Department with representation in Parliament and plenty of the Foreign Legion protecting the place.  Not very much news out of North America these days, at least not our direction.  There are many North Americas, we suppose.  I hope.  And it makes us sad, reflective, to see the old magazines we keep in the Social Collective.  They’re arranged on some of the tables, like we weren’t revering them.  We have five Sports Illustrated, two Smithsonian, Tikkun, Garden and Gun, then a Public TV periodical named Current, addressed to the Demosthenian Literary Society at the University of Georgia.  The Ladies’ Room has a Vogue on a table next to the couch.

Saffron’s finishing her paper, and John’s collecting questions for the discussion.  Why don’t I pour you some Cabernet while you run a Melba toast through one of those cream cheeses – one block’s herb and the other orange sauce.  Make sure and get some of the sauce!  Let me know how it is, this type of thing’s rare now.  But we like to call Martinique home, and some wonder about a Caribbean Century.

So the hors d’oeurves are good?  Was there enough orange sauce?

 

Featured Image: Vue du Fort Royal de la Martinique

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8 Responses

  1. NealD

    It’s humbling to me what a coldly objective word is the word “terrible.”

    Very bad for some, interesting or with humor from a distance, beneficial for others.

    Reply
  2. Connor Flynn

    In speaking in terms of humility as you mentioned above Mr. Dachstader, I found it especially multi-faceted and humbling to me when taken in the perspective of such a gathering. From substantial cultural shifts to enjoying casual hors d’oeurves and chatting naturally, we can see presented here some major and highly polarized themes. Elements such as distance, culture, and routine depicted here in this “social collective” illustrate beautifully how any transition may come to settle well in the hearts and minds of people when they learn to walk with it as a guide to a new beginning. It is interesting to contemplate the exact moment that these individuals will transcend their status as “refugees” if they ever do make that choice.

    Reply
  3. Jack Harding

    Hey Neal it’s Jack, the English guy you met at church in Knoxville. Love the story! Appreciate the picture of humanity you paint. Very poignant. The people are very real to me, and I can tell you spend time at L’Abri.
    All the best.

    Reply
    • Al

      Thanks Anglo – Jack! Thanks for the read and the substantial thought and commentary you provided. I’m a contemplative, and it only took one of Dick Keyes’ Friday night lecture discussions to provide some grist for the refugee literary society.

      Reply
  4. Roy O'Donnell

    I really enjoyed the story Neal. The descriptions for the places and people are excellent.

    Reply

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