Monday, 15 December 2008

The jungle, and the final completion of the Odyssey!

Fucking hell. Took me ages to update. I've been busy like the devil in London, since I've been moving houses all over the place and trying to buy presents for Christmas. Apologies for the delay. I just wanted to throw down a post before the festivities because I've been building up this whole thing about me finding a house for so long that to leave you without the actual event would have been criminal. So! Here's the conclusion of the epic saga.

In my experience, finding housemates is not an easy task at the best of times, but that night in Martinique the charge looked remarkably daunting. Our group started moving early and we walked down the university's hill, left off the road, and in the middle of some tropical trees. This is surprising to me. I knew a night out in the city would have been inconvenient, but I didn't expect us to go ambling in the fucking jungle as a way of compensating.

We walk through the moonlit leaves. You'd think you could meet up with dinosaurs, in here. Eventually we cross a bridge and get to the house of a local, some weirdo who lives in a dump full of tractor wrecks with nothing but a hut, crates of beer and good deals of Marijuana. Talk about picturesque. Not that I was expecting an office with photocopiers and coffee-machines, but as far as exotic goes, I would have been less taken aback if we had ended up in a hut with Tarzan and Chita.

I was hoping to use the night to scout the group for housemates, but serious conversations were rather impeded by the fact that within twenty minutes they were all as high as a kite. I didn't particularly contribute to my cause by getting stoned like Babel myself. By the time we had also given the beer enough space for it to yield its effects, I had lost my house-keys, ripped my best shirt and was performing godawful improvised rap solos with the German students in the hopes that they would interpret my nonsensical slurring as an elaborate form of 'ghetto' English.

Stunningly, it worked.

Waking up the next day, I intended to look for an occasion of greater tranquillity during which to tender unto some kind soul my suggestions for domesticity. Unfortunately, an 'occasion of greater tranquillity' was about as liable to occur as a snowstorm down there. I spent the entire first week wading in bureaucracy, sorting out my module-choices and permissions until the sun went down, at which point all the Erasmus students got together like hounds at the sound of a whistle and partied every night. And I do mean every night: it took around three weeks before something took place like an evening in which the words 'nothing happened' could be registered in my diaries. After the fifth consequential three-hour sleep night I was beginning to feel like a reincarnation of Lot walking hungover out of the desert after he's shagged his two daughters.

Even in the rare times when peace was held, though, there seemed little opportunity for household symbiosis. It appeared that all of the students (almost exclusively English or German) had come in closed groups of threes or fours, so most of them were looking for (or had already found) a house for their own specific number, and they seemed generally restive to accepting outsiders in the bunch. The only exception to this rule was Jack, some kind of a smurf from Wales who happened to find himself in my exact same situation. Jack was a rather nice thirty-odd fellow who immediately drew attention to himself because he possessed the longest fingernails that any mortal was yet blessed with seeing on a man. They were particularly conspicuous since we were only ever wearing flip-flops and, in combination with his height, the toe-nails gave him the pronounced air of a rabbit.

At any rate, we were in the same boat at the time and we decided to undergo the difficult process together, looking for places in which to share the year without sacrificing the family jewels. I mean, family treasures. Treasures, not jewels. Whatever.

The buildings we visited were not impressive. Most of them were refurbished pig-sties and ruins of some kind of Polish prison left over from the colonial wars, furthermore they costed like you were spending the nights at a brothel for bank managers, so we were forced to look for something closer to our range.

Eventually here comes the day in which we find something seemingly more tolerable, at least on paper, and we call the land-lady, who sounds very jazzed up and even offers to drive us over to see the house. We accept, and she comes and picks us up. We are initially very happy because it does save us an ungodly trek up yet another perpendicular cliff (the topography of the Martinique island goes up and down more often than an Australian surfer who has just downed two bottles of Jack Daniels), but as the landscape passes us by, something slightly intimidating begins to come to our attention: we are entering the neighbourhood of the rich people. The houses here are enormous, with gardens and swimming pools. What the deuce? How can a place in these areas correspond to the prices she has given us? We were just whispering such things to each other when the lady drives us through a gate and, lo, the miracle! The house is a gorgeous, beaming villa, with a garden stuffed with palmtrees surrounding colossal white walls and a beautiful terrace. I am so awestruck I barely even manage to open my mouth.

We walk out into the garage. It is colossal: she can fit both her cars in there. 'What do you think?,' she asks. I tell her the frank truth: it is amazing! Then I ask her if we can see the rest of the house. She seems confused for a moment, so I repeat the question: 'Can we go upstairs and see the rest of our apartments?' After an instant, as though she is disbelieving my question, she throws her head back and starts laughing. It takes her fifteen minutes to calm down, after which she informs us that we're not going to live in the house of course, what a ridiculous idea, that's where she lives herself with her husband, parbleu. Rather, we can stay in the garage.

Oh, ah.

When we recover from the disappointment (and a bitter one it was), she opens a small side-door and reveals some kind of a trench basement, with a fridge, a tiny bathroom and a double bed.

'Wait a second,' I tell her, 'I'm not sleeping side by side with Bilbo here.' Jack is equally vocal in his resistance to sharing the sweat-pit (as we later came to call the beds, given what the nocturnal temperatures did to us) with me, so she concedes to bringing down a camp-bed from upstairs. I decide to take the camp-bed for myself in exchange for a lower share of the rent. So we go back to uni, stuff our things into our suitcases and bring them over. Then we sign the contract, settle our belongings, share a dinner and, happy but exhausted, go to sleep.

I close my eyes. I am feeling so tired that even the usual symphonic ensemble of insects outside my window seems to pass me by. But just as I feel myself sweetly drift into sleep, I am startled by an ungodly scream by my housemate, who yells 'Shit! Shit!' at the top of his lungs like the house was falling down or something. I leap out of my camp-bed, yelling 'What is it? What's going on? Where is the fire?'

In the moonlight filtering through the window, I see that he is still asleep. What the hell? Then his profile slowly rises from his bed. He looks at me sheepishly for a moment, like a particularly retarded brachiosaurus, then he grumbles something and turns back to his bed.

Thus am I introduced to the fact that my housemate shouts in his sleep (not even talks in his sleep, which would be annoying but tolerable, no, he shouts in it, as if every night he dreamt he were a coach in the NHL). Goddamn it.

This is going to be an interesting year.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The Odyssey continues: Fort de France

It is a truth universally acknowledged that YADDA YADDA YADDA I was hoping to reel you in by using a trademark Jane Austen opener, but I'm getting bored just by typing it, so I'm going to go straight to the point instead. It seems I've lost myself in this cycle of writing how life was in the Caribbeans, so I'll just run with it for the moment. This post is about finding houses, and specifically, about how I found a house in Martinique.

So, since the University seemed intent on making us stay in tiger latrines for seven days, it became an ever too pressing matter to find a house to live in. The initial bitch-slap impact with the residences, it turned out, was only the tip of the iceberg in an encyclopaedic catalogue of discomforts to which the local students were subjected, the most burdensome of which was by far the question of water. To state it plainly, the water coming out of the tap in those residences tasted like it had been ran through a camel's urethra. Even when one came back from, say, a football match, red and capable of performing manslaughter for a drink, it was still impossible to force oneself to swallow that nefarious liquid. The only solution to the ignoble solution was to trek down to the supermarket and buy a box of water-bottles, a venture which always sent me nuts. Over and beyond the (considerable) expenses for a basic good, what really got to me was that the university had been placed - for reasons to me obscure, maybe it was planned as a military outpost before some inept architect changed idea - at the very top of the most unfriendly, unwelcoming, impervious mountain on the entire island short of taking a trip to the fucking volcano. Scaling it back up from the supermarket while carrying one or even two boxes containing nine litres of water each was a venture which filled one with brief deliriums in which you began believing yourself to be a mountain goat. The fact that you would shed more sweat in one day upon that island than with three monthly subscriptions to a national sauna and an orgie performed upon a working oven meant that you needed to renew your fluids faster than an lizard in a McDonald's kitchen. Six bottles would last you, what, three days? The trip, as a consequence, had to be repeated over and over again.

On the first day on the island, therefore, I swiftly decide to find myself new accommodation at once. Obviously the best way to do this, unless you make it a habit of throwing your money off a bridge, is to find some flatmates among your fellow Erasmus students. I enquire at the accommodation office where I may find them, since not many appear to be there at that precise moment, and the woman there tells me that they are scattered about the university, sorting out each their own things. This is not very helpful, so I ask an Erasmus colleague who happens to be in the vicinity of the office, and he tells me that quite a few people are planning on going out that night. He invites me to join them, of course. In other words, he is offering me the perfect chance to meet potential housemates.

Since I have to wait until that night to meet the people, I might as well go to town, not so much for tourism but to get some stuff sorted, from a new contract for my mobile phone to some shoes more befitting the beach atmosphere (at that moment, I was wearing some World War II relics which had seen everything from mud to snow in England and were keeping my feet inside a furnace). So, in my shorts and sunglasses, with nothing but my small bag slung over my shoulder (I am feeling very Hemingway-esque at that moment, really), I go to the bus-stop right outside the university.

It takes a while of waiting before something akin to a banana-truck starts puffing up the hill towards us. If I hadn't seen it moving, I would have thought it an exhibitional ruin. It is ancient, dilapidated, and there is an air of genuine concern upon the driver's face as the bus struggles up the slope; in fact, he looks frankly surprised when it reaches all the way to the top. (Transport, as I would find out over my stay, was in pretty dreadful conditions in Martinique). We take the trip, and I feel a fresh sense of wonder when I find that the driver does not close the door - he leaves it open all the time, as an extra window, letting a tender breeze enter the vehicle and spread like an underwater current over the occupants, who are pressed up in the crowd and sitting everywhere, from the seats to the floors and the steps. It is a beautiful day.

I do not wish to make too many negative comments about this because I was really enjoying myself and that island was breathtakingly beautiful, not least because of the amazing flora and fauna it could boast - I lost count of the birds I saw which I could not recognise, while gigantic and exotic flowers grew by the sides of the very road. Nonetheless, and with those qualifiers stated, I must declare the capital of that island to have been the ugliest abyss in which human being ever has set foot. Fort de France was in fact the only ugly place I saw in the whole Caribbean area: it was a flat expanse drowned in concrete, with low buildings and stuffed with McDonalds and clothes' shops, fully embracing (and indeed even boasting) the consumeristic culture of the tourists who invaded it. Compared with all the other things I saw there (and university accommodation aside), it was a tremendous underwhelment.

I come back home with already more tan than I'd had in two years in England, and in the evening I go to the meeting place to encounter my fellow Erasmus students. There's a good dozen of them planning on going somewhere. I put up my best smile, approach them, and ask which one of them is going to have the privilege of living with me in a few days' time.

More to be said in the next blog entry. Ta ta!