Friday, 15 October 2010

The Unicycle Diaries 5: An Imperfect Grasp of the French

A fragment taken from my travel diaries written in French Polynesia, in October 2005...

Passage at patisserie this morning:

"Comment dis 'receipt' a fran├žais?"

Blank look.

"The bill... l'edition?"

Glimmer of understanding.

"Ah! Le ticket!"

Hands receipt over.

Vaguely remembered schoolboy French is a dangerous thing (especially if, like me, you never actually studied it at school). A receipt in English is a recipe in French, a French 'ticket' is our receipt, an English ticket is a 'bilet', and our billet is... oh, never mind.

Overnight, the previously perfectly sunny weather gave a hint of the coming wet season, pouring down in the wee small hours. We later went swimming in a steady light shower, experimenting with the waterproof casing of Narrelle's camera by taking pics of the hotel from the sea.

Preconceptions of paradise

The aquamarine shade of the ocean is so distinctive and somehow instantly relaxing; it makes me wonder whether it's a case of chicken and egg. Is aqua an instinctively relaxing colour, or have we been brainwashed by decades of travel brochures and tropical movies into finding it so?

It's the same with the holiday destination; we're attracted by what we know about it, what's entered our consciousness through media coverage and fiction. Polynesia immediately conjures up images of Bligh and Mutiny on the Bounty, along with an 18th century focus on free love and sensuous women.

Add to that Paul Gauguin's paintings and the tropical cliches like palm trees and pineapples, and you have a simple compelling picture. But how valuable is it? Westerners know a fair bit about Japan and nearly nothing about neighbouring Korea, yet presumably both of them have just as much to offer the traveller.

Pacific pacification

Either way, there's something extraordinarily relaxing about Mo'orea. It has the air of a quiet beachside town par excellence; akin to holiday locations on the Red Sea or the quieter islands of Fiji. The medium-priced hotels here have the best of both worlds - comfort and informality.

At night there's nothing much to do, no TV in the room and nothing but the stars and the quietly undulating surf to watch. To anyone living and working in a city nowadays, that's all it takes to qualify as paradise.

We combined breakfast with experiments involving French, and some clever deductive work by the patisserie proprietor ("You are Australian? Your chapeau is like Crocodile Dundee"). Yes, that's the choice you make when you consider the hot sun of the Pacific: risk sunstroke or risk constant identification as an Aussie on vacation.

The local shops are refreshingly un-mall-like, with wooden verandahs enclosing a green quadrangle. There's a bank, newsagency, Internet access and  a little supermarket selling fresh baguettes, limited vegetables, and some local fruit such as pineapple and grapefruit.

Even supermarket prices are breathtaking in French Polynesia, but it's cheaper than eating out all the time. For 20 cents you can even buy a sac de pain, a long narrow plastic bag for putting your baguette in - does your supermarket at home offer that?

The French connection

Back at the hotel we met Michael, a stocky tattooed Tahitian who will take us for a tour of Mo'orea on Wednesday. Turning our back on the obvious attractions of the sea (local aquatic activities include swimming with sharks and stingrays), we want to turn inland and see more of the interior landscape and local culture.

After setting up the tour, we chatted for a while about French Polynesia. He's dismissive of the push for independence, basically on economic grounds; Tahiti and its neighbours have become deeply reliant on imports and French spending over the years, especially while French nuclear testing was operating in the area.

I suggested the French would have to compensate the territory either way if the testing proves to have dangerous long-term consequences, as are already hinted at in scientific investigations of damage on Moruroa.

But Michael had done well out of Tahiti's French connection, living in Paris and travelling across Europe and Asia. He's the modern face of a once-remote people who are now connected to the world, like it or not. The advantages of this connectedness no doubt help maintain this region's vestiges of colonialism, decades after it became a dirty word and vanished elsewhere.

Propping up le bar

At night I sat in the bar for a while, reading the Wodehouse biography and half-hoping to strike up a conversation with someone. But it was one of those nights when there were no English speakers around.

Coco said hello when I arrived and I had a brief chat with him and two gorgeous Tahitian women exuding Parisian chic in strapless tops; but conversation would be too hard to sustain with our limited grasp of each other's languages, so I took a seat inside and ordered a Hinano beer.

Not for the first time, I felt frustrated by my lack of the local lingo; but there was something pleasingly exotic about sitting with a beer, reading about the quintessential English humorist, while listening to the gentle flow of French around me. As has been frequently noted, it really is a beautiful language to listen to.

The Unicycle Diaries is a random series of excerpts from my travel diaries. For previous instalments, click on the Unicycle Diaries Topic tag below, then scroll down.