Ocean Conversation with



This conversation took place online. From P’s camera, I can see her sitting at her desk wearing earphones; behind her is a wall of storage shelves and a door. Her young son enters from time to time to ask her various things, to which she quickly replies in French. Similarly from my camera, P. can see me sitting on my desk, my self-made wooden wardrobe with (hanging) coats and bags in various colors behind me.


P.'s voice is in the low to mid ranges. It resounds with intelligence, confidence and a certain warmth. Her mother tongue is French so she speaks fluent English with a slight French accent.

M.M.What’s your relation to the ocean, professionally or personally?

P.P.I will focus on the personal aspect: my relation to the ocean was difficult for a big part of my life; then it started to get a bit better.

My mother was (born on) an island but I had few connections to the ocean myself.

My mother grew up in the West Indies. My family doesn’t know how to swim. I was “taught” how to swim in school essentially by being thrown into the swimming pool (and being left to fend for myself). When I was going there for vacations, we would have mainly picnics on the beach with my family, and I used to go into the water – but only up to my knees. I slowly taught myself to swim but swam like a “small dog” (as they say in French).

When I was a teenager, I almost drowned. while learning to kayak. → My kayak capsized and I couldn’t get out of it. So it left me with a strong swimming anxiety. I could easily panic when in the water.

About 2 years ago, my relation to the ocean became better because of my son who is 9 years old. He is learning how to swim in the swimming pool in Brussels. On the days where I pick him up, I jump into the water with him and he teaches me some basic movements of the hands and feet.

I used to spend vacation time in Martinique. I prefer the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean. Nowadays, I can play with my son + my dog in the sea → they can both swim better than me. I feel joy when I encounter the ocean now, because I experience it through my son’s eyes. The experience of weightlessness and buoyancy is what fascinates me the most.

I have fisherfolk in my family but they don’t know how to swim.

M.M. A friend from Portugal who also comes from a fisherfolk family told me that for her, swimming is a class thing. Her uncle, for example, who’s a fisherman over 70, spends most of his days and nights fishing on the rocks of Ericeira but doesn’t know how to swim. Is this similar in Martinique?

P.P. I agree that swimming is a class thing. For fisherfolk, the ocean is work, → you don’t necessarily enjoy going there. Whenever we were going to the seashore for leisure → we would do a picnic.

Everyone from France going to the West Indies was telling me that the sea is beautiful. But I was looking at the Atlantic + not at the Caribbean (where you can see your feet in the water) The sea is different and it felt like we were not talking about same thing. Also, because people talking to me about their vacations in the Caribbean where actually there for leisure. While I was seeing people working from dawn to dusk. We not only didn’t look at the same sea but also not at the same lives.

Here in Europe, we don’t have a strong relation to the elements. In Martinique, there is the
- ocean that can get mad
- the volcano that can get mad
- the wind that can get mad

Elements make you feel small. Respect and fear define one’s relation to the ocean. It's work. A fisher friend from Brittany once said that when you fall far into the ocean, knowing how to swim doesn’t change anything. Cause any way you cannot fight it.

M.M.What’s the most important or essential element of the ocean for you?

P.P.My personal, intuitive relation to it is defined by fear + fascination. I love to walk on the seashore with my dog: its a form of meditation for me.

On an intellectual level, I would say the most important element is traveling:
the forced traveling of African populations , but also things circulating across the Atlantic ocean.

M.M.What kinds of things?

P.P.Goods, people, music, ideas. It’s how the world is since 1492.

M.M.How does your intuitive relation of fear + fascination relate to your intellectual interest in the Black Atlantic?

P.P.When I was 15 years old I went to summer camp in England. The camp was organized for the kids of the workers from my father’s factory. On a day trip to Brighton, most kids were busy playing with the claw machine.

I was by myself on the beach + throwing rocks. I would just sit + watch the ripples the rocks made on the surface. I still love walking on the seashore, feeling the wind on my face + listening to the waves. I just sit + watch the horizon and what is behind the horizon. It opens up a lot of ideas about how movement occurs. From France, you can see England from across the channel. When I was in Marseille → I was thinking of Algeria when looking out into the sea. There’s a moment of connecting through the horizon.

Some people from the generation of my mother and before came to France from the West Indies by boat. Like the European migrants arriving at Ellis Island. And I often wonder what it would feel like to sail for days and days on the ocean without seeing the shore + then, suddenly, seeing it. You’re starting a new life somewhere new but at the same time you’re in the middle of nowhere (during the crossing).

Historians mention how ideas + cultures have been traveling around. How news of the French + English revolutions influenced the sailors. The movement within the ocean seems to suggest the futility of national boundaries.