Culture

The Pirate Graveyard

I am a complete sissy. A wimp, a wuss, a scaredy-cat. If I watch the trailer of a horror film (or let’s be honest, a thriller), I cannot sleep properly for several nights. I still haven’t grown out of my childhood fear of clowns. And I have a low tolerance for anything remotely spooky. However, my son is obsessed with pirates and each time we would drive past the marine graveyard in St Paul, he’d be fixated on the Jolly Roger at the entrance. He begged me for months to take him to what he called the ‘pirate graveyard’.

One day a few months ago, I finally said yes. I was sceptical about how interesting a cemetery could be for a four-year old. But surprisingly, we both ended up really enjoying our little outing. For starters, it is a beautiful cemetery. On a sunny day, the contrast between the sparkling blue water of the St Paul Bay, the black sandy beach, the cliffs and the lush green plants all around is breath-taking.

The cemetery is also well organised, with signs pointing out the most famous or significant graves. Most of all, I appreciated the historical explanations, placed throughout the graveyard on black metal scrolls. The marine graveyard is the final resting place for not only pirates, but writers and political figures in Reunion’s history. I could finally understand why so many street signs or schools were called Eugène Dayot or Leconte de Lisle. There were even extracts from their poems hung up around the place. Being a history geek, it was fascinating to read about certain people’s impact on modern Reunionese society.

Well-known families such as Desbassyns and Panon were there, but so were many lesser-known doctors, naturalists and entrepreneurs. The most famous grave, and the one that brings in so many tourists, is La Buse. What’s unusual about this cemetery is that the graves of laypeople, famous land-owners, sailors and priests are all placed together with no separations or hierarchy. When the cemetery was established in 1788, some members of the public called for a racially segregated graveyard.

But the decision makers decided against it, saying that it was ‘revolting’ to separate the races since the corpses of black and white men were equal. What a progressive decision, especially when it would take another 60 years for slavery to be abolished in Reunion. All in all, the marine graveyard is worth a visit if you like history or pirates or both. And don’t worry, it’s not that spooky.

Vocabulary

sissy / wimp / wuss / scaredy-cat – poule mouillé
trailer – bande annonce
spooky – sinistre
Jolly Roger – drapeau de pirate
to beg – supplier

graveyard – cimetière
breath-taking – à couper le souffle
scroll – manuscrit
sign – panneau
hung up – accroché

lesser-known – moins connu
unusual – inhabituel
laypeople – profane
sailors – marins
corpses – cadavres

equal – égale
slavery – esclavage
both – les deux

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Fifty Shades of Black

Once upon a time, when you were allowed to descend into the Enclos during an eruption, and when I could be up all night without suffering for a week afterwards, I went to the volcano.

This wasn’t just any old trip to the volcano however, it was a very special trip. An eruption was taking place, and a group of us had packed up the car with clothes for all extremes of weather, hiking shoes, food, water, and cameras for a late night expedition. Midnight found us excitedly driving along the bumpy route forestière … only to reach the car park and be met with a wall of thick cloud.

We were bitterly disappointed, but as we were also starting to feel a bit peckish we parked in an almost empty car park, and tucked into some of the snacks we’d brought with us. A while later when we stepped out of the car, we realised the clouds had miraculously disappeared, so we got ourselves ready and headed along the path and down into the Enclos.

Now, it wasn’t the first time I’d visited the volcano during an eruption, nor the first time I’d hiked at night. I can’t remember what month it was, but although we were warm while walking, we rapidly felt frozen as soon as we stopped for a drink of water. It was during one of these thirst-quenching breaks that I remember looking back towards the centre of the island, and what I saw has stayed engraved on my memory ever since, even though it only lasted a few instants.

There was a full moon that night and no clouds left. All of Reunion’s mountains were perfectly silhouetted against the starlit sky, in different shades of black and grey. There was no artificial light anywhere, and I felt as if I was one of the first people to set foot on the island and discover its treasures. Behind me I could also hear (and smell) the ‘whoosh’ of the lava spouts of the on-going eruption, which added to the magical atmosphere.

The cold forced us to carry on walking, but we knew from the red-tinged sky ahead that a different spectacle awaited us further on. There, we settled down to watch the eruption: far enough away to be safe, but close enough to kept warm. We sat for several hours, until day had broken, watching the amazing forces of nature. Together with what we had witnessed earlier, we formed memories that I am convinced will last me a lifetime.

Vocabulary

once upon a time – il était une fois
to suffer – (ici) payer le prix
pack up the car – remplir la voiture
bumpy – cahoteux
bitterly – (ici) profondément

to feel peckish – avoir un petit creux
to tuck into – attaquer (quelque chose à manger)
snacks – en-cas
to head along – se diriger
thirst-quenching – désaltérant

engraved – gravé
full moon – pleine lune
starlit – étoilé
shades – nuances
to set foot – mettre les pieds

‘whoosh’ – souffle (bruit)
spouts – jets
tinged – teinté
day break – lever du jour
to witness – observer

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Three Questions to an American

After ten years in Reunion, I realized that I could mentally prepare myself, for a certain series of questions, whenever I would meet a person from Reunion. It’s sort of like preparing for that job interview question, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” After two or three tries, I had the answers down pat in French. Here are my top three questions people from Reunion ask a native New Yorker.

1) Is living in Reunion too much of a shock for an American, especially coming from New York City?

Not as much as you’d think. People imagine New York City, all flashing lights and blaring police sirens. Well, ok, it is all that. But New York City is also, little nooks and crannies, of pocket neighborhoods; with the local supermarket, butcher’s, bakery, bar, and post office. So, I’m not shocked by life in a small town, on a beautiful, tropical island. And that is what living abroad is about anyway, experiencing a new way of living.

2) Is Creole too difficult for you to understand?

A lot of Creoles don’t understand that their language is actually more like English than French. Don’t believe me, ask my husband’s grandmother, who was a school teacher for many, many years in Saint Denis! So Creole is easier for me sometimes than French. No trying to remember masculine and feminine nouns or their articles. “Mi aime a ou?” I love you too!

So no, Creole isn’t that difficult to understand.  What’s difficult, is trying to keep the Creole out of my French. I have no filter for this. I actually once, answered “bah” to a French school teacher. Yikes!

3) Is Creole food too spicy for you?

My answer to this question, often disappoints people. In New York City, we’ve got every type of ethnic food you can think of. There is even The Reunion Surf Bar. My favorite types of food, Mexican and Indian. So, scorching chillies, exotic spices, and beans, all on top of a steaming bed of rice, is not too bold. Thanks to China Town; I’d already tasted chayote, bitter melon, and ridge gourd, before coming to Reunion. Even litchis and longan fruit can be found, in the Korean market five minutes from my parents’.

That being said, I have grown to love the typical dishes here. My father-in-law says that I eat more chillies than he does. I am no longer surprised to see rice, being ingested, twice a day. At first, I served myself carrys on a bed of lettuce. I now consider that to be sacrilege and load up my plate with rice too, just like a local.

Vocabulary

strengths and weaknesses – pointes fortes et faibles
blaring – hurlante
nooks and crannies – coins et recoins
pocket neighborhoods – petit quartiers
butcher’s – boucherie

bakery – pâtisserie
easier – plus facile
out of – en dehors
yikes ! – mince alors !
scorching chillies – piments si forts qu’ils brulent

beans – haricots
bed of rice – un lit de riz
China Town – quartier chinois
chayote – chouchou
bitter melon – margoze

ridge gourd – pipangaille
longan – longani
typical dishes – plats typiques
ingested – ingéré
to load up – charger

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Six Degrees

Most people know about the famous ‘six degrees of separation’ theory. It suggests that each individual is connected to any other person in the world through six acquaintances. I have one degree of separation between myself and my friends, two degrees between myself and my friends’ friends, and so on. Mathematicians have actually proven the theory using a fancy thing called the Flajolet-Martin algorithm. It’s official: you could make a phone call to the Queen of England or the Dalai Lama in less than six steps (if they actually pick up their own phones).

This got me thinking: Reunion being so small, and families being so close, it would logically be less than six degrees of separation here. To test my theory, I used the most reliable and accessible social research tool available to me: that big blue social media site! I went onto a fan page for a soccer team in the south of the island, a sport and region I have no real connection to. Randomly, I clicked on the profile of the first person I saw on the page. Unsurprisingly, we had no friends in common. But as I scanned their friends list, one of the names rang a bell. Sure enough, it was the brother of a good friend of mine. As I had predicted, there were only three degrees of separation between myself and a complete stranger. I had already done something kind of creepy, so I investigated several more times with other profiles. I soon realized two important things. First, many people have no idea how much information is publicly visible on social networks. I could find people’s phone numbers, addresses, where they worked and their children’s names. Secondly, this island really is tiny in a social sense. Even though, as a foreigner, I’m a newcomer to the island, I could quite easily connect to nearly any person I found through two or three friends of friends.

Often when I’ve mentioned an administrative problem I’m having at the prefecture or the secu, my in-laws will ask the name of the public servant who was in charge of my file. I never understood what the objective of that question was. Now I do. In the back of the Reunionese mind, there’s always the idea that potentially you know someone who works somewhere important, and if you don’t know them personally you’ll have a friend who does. This is sometimes used to get a favour for a friend or family member, such as a job or a discount. I’ve always found this a bit unfair. At the same time, it shows how interconnected everyone really is. And that’s a strangely comforting thought.

Vocabulary

acquaintances – connaissances
fancy – classe
to pick up – décrocher
close – proche
less than – moins de

reliable – fiable
soccer team – équipe de foot
randomly – au hasard
to ring a bell – rappeler de quelque chose
creepy – sinistre

newcomer – nouveau arrivé
to mention – parler de
the in-laws – la belle-famille
public servant – fonctionnaire

file – dossier
favour – un service
unfair – injuste
comforting – rassurant

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Lost in Paradise

A while back I had to call the national hotline of my internet service provider about a problem I was having with my TV channels. The young man in Paris who answered me was relatively helpful, but was unable to solve my problem, which was related to the fact that I was based in Reunion. As the conversation came to a close he consolingly told me, “oh, but at least you’ve got sunshine”, as if that made up for the fact that for all manner of services we generally end up paying more for less in Reunion.

As a long-term inhabitant of Reunion, a recurrent grumble of mine is the propensity of others to slap the label of ‘exotic paradise’ onto tropical islands. Yes, Reunion has beaches and a generally pleasant climate, but we’re also subject to tropical diseases, storms … and big hairy insects. Many islands such as Reunion can be more or less remote, difficult and/or expensive to get from and to, and this can be reflected in consumer prices, as well as indirectly in the level of employment. The creation of the ‘tropical paradise’ that tourists want (palm trees, hotels, electricity, running water, sandy beaches, and wifi etc.) often comes at a high environmental price, as our Mauritian neighbours are beginning to realise.

The belief that tropical islands are paradise is recent – the biblical concept of Eden was very different, and for centuries tropical destinations such as Reunion were a source of unbearable heat, illness, fear and even death for the European settlers, as well as the slaves who were forced to work there until they dropped.

The notion of what is ‘exotic’ is also worth pondering. Last year, I was interpreter for some Czech clients. While appreciating their surroundings, they wondered where people in Reunion went for a holiday. They were very amused when I told them that for our honeymoon my husband and I had chosen to go to … the Czech Republic! It was different from our every day life in Reunion, and thus exotic to us.

Current opinion tends to be that paradise and exoticism can be purchased as commodities via a travel brochure. The idea that they may be bought could prevent people from looking for a different kind of paradise, one that is closer to home, rather than projecting it on to islands half a world away.

As long as people feel the need to travel to a tropical island to relax, switch off their smartphones, and spend more time with loved ones, Reunion’s tourist industry has a great future ahead of it!

Vocabulary

to come to a close – se terminer
consolingly – pour réconforter
all manner – tout type
grumble – ronchonnement
propensity – tendance

to slap a label – coller une étiquette
hairy – poilu
running water – eau courante
belief – croyance
concept – idée

unbearable – insoutenable
to ponder – méditer
surroundings – environnement
honeymoon – lune de miel
commodity – denrée

travel brochure – prospectus touristique

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American Bouchon

Most people’s opinion about American food, outside of the United States, tends to be not so positive. The trend seems to be, the idea that, American food is pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and fries; gross, greasy, and disgusting. And these are our favorites to some degree. I could argue, but that’s not my point right now.

So if our grub is so bad, then what’s up with all these food options here in Reunion that are, quote, end quote, American? What’s more, there’s not much that is really very American, about them. Take the case of the snack bars in Reunion. My first time ordering off the menu and I was really shocked.

“Pain américain! What the hey is this?” I asked my lunch companion. “Oh, well, fries, on a sandwich, with melted cheese,” he answered. Did I forget something? I tried frantically to look back at my life in the States. Was there some big, food trend that I had completely not participated in? Let’s see; steak fries, curly fries, sweet potato fries, Cajun spicy fries… and the list goes on.  But always served as a side. I do vaguely remember eating fries, with gravy and melted cheese, late at night, in high school.  That’s about as close to the cheese and fry association that I could get.

In bread, on top of meat, with melted cheese. That was a new one. So, I asked my friend, “If you guys don’t think highly of American food, why name dishes after it?” He really couldn’t answer that one. This first time, I shied away from the sandwich, even if it was so proudly named after my homeland. But then I saw, smelled and was tempted to taste, his sandwich of hamburger and its so-called American bread. And although it goes against all health advice and is probably illegal in certain states in the U.S., that thing was good!

Next, my friend washed down his sandwich with a “Limonade Americain!” Ok, cool I thought. I love a good lemonade. Gets me thinking to summer, picnics and grandma’s house. And pink lemonade, that’s the best! After having grubbed some bites of his tasty, so-called American sandwich, I was more than willing to wash it down with some lemonade.  Not a good experience, if I may say so. Sorry to offend the good people of Reunion (my husband and daughter love Limonade Americain) but to my taste buds, there is nothing lemonade about that drink. There is good reason for that, as I learned some time later. Good old lemonade is citronade and Limonade is like regular lemonade with some weird twist.

Vocabulary

trend – tendance
grub – bouffe
what’s up? – quoi de neuf ?
quote, end quote – je cite
order – commander

what the hey ? – c’est quoi ce truc ?
fries – pommes frites
let’s see – voyons
spicy – épicé
gravy – sauce viande

melted – fondu
side – garniture
dishes – plats
to shy away – éviter
homeland – patrie

to wash down – boire
to grub – bouffer
twist – nuance

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Something Only Adults Do

About six months ago I decided to become a grown up. I’d done lots of grown up things in my life before; I’d emigrated to Reunion, opened a company, had children, killed a chicken, but all of this was child’s play compared to: ‘Getting a mortgage!’

You don’t have a word for mortgage in French, you do have a word for ‘re-mortgage’ though, which I’ve always found odd. The English word ‘Mortgage’ does have French roots, the word literally means ‘Death Pledge’. Scary stuff.

Anyway, enough of that. Once all the boring bank stuff had finished, we started looking for land. Our stipulations were simple: The land had to be cheap, big, and close to the coast. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, you’ll be surprised to know that land like that does not exist in Reunion!

We wanted to move out of St Louis to somewhere in the west so that the wife could be closer to her job, teaching in St Paul, also so that we could be near the beach for the kids’ sakes. We visited some land in the St Leu area that looked promising; 500 square meters for about €100,000. Right in our budget! The only problem was that it was in La Chaloupe. If you’ve never been up there, it’s high. Really high. So high, in fact, that it took forty-five minutes just to reach the route du tamarins. Back to the drawing board.

Anyway, weeks of stressful land-hunting continued, until we found the perfect spot. Just the right size, just the right price and only ten minutes from the route de tamarins. We found it right around the corner, about one hundred meters from our current place. Now I know we said that we wanted to move to the west, but hell. I love the south. I love going to St Pierre with the kids, I love the new school that my youngest started in this year. Also, of course, I love being near my parents-in-law. Who, not only look after the kids free of charge, but who cook the second best rougail saucisse on the island. (Second only to my wife’s, of course).

So it looks like I’m staying in the south for the perceivable future. No worries, the girls in St Gilles won’t miss me that much. Plus, to be perfectly honest, I much prefer the lagoon in St Pierre to that of Hermitage. There are far fewer tourists taking up the space! And you show me another free babysitter that cooks rougail saucisse on this rock!

Vocabulary

grown up – adulte
child’s play – un jeu d’enfant
mortgage – prêt immobilier
pledge – gage
boring – ennuyeux

land – terrain
to move out – se déplacer
promising – prometteur
to reach – atteindre
to go back to the drawing board – retourner à zéro

size – taille
but hell ! – bref !
parents-in-law – beaux-parents
worry – souci
to miss – manquer
space – place

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Poulet ou Poisson?

My travelling from South Africa to Reunion was my first international travel experience as well as my first time on an airplane. So the entire process at the airport along with how everything works on board was unknown to me.

After already having offered myself and my carry-on up to a very confused South African Customs Officer at Johannesburg’s O.R. Tambo International Airport out of fear of being arrested for any reason whatsoever – I was really hoping to not have to face any more public embarrassment.

As I took my seat in the front row on board the Air Austral flight, I noticed two boys on the opposite side of the aisle. Looking like flying in Comfort Class is part of their daily commute to school – I decided that I would just do whatever they do. So we put on our seat belts and settled in for the take-off.

Just after 11:00 am, a few minutes after boarding, the air hostess came out with glasses of juice and champagne flutes filled with, of course, the real thing. I had never had champagne before and was very excited to be starting off my French experience in style. However – I had one question – are we allowed to drink yet?! Now, in South Africa, if someone wants to know whether it is an appropriate time to have a drink, we have an Afrikaans saying which translates to: “Has the Boeing flown over yet?”. Not having anything to do with actual aircrafts – the saying sounded in my head. All I could think was “Oh please, please, please let her offer champagne to someone else first!”. Already feeling out of place being, apparently, the only non-French speaking person on board, I did not want to top it off with frowned-upon behavior. To my great relief, the champagne was accepted by another adult before the air hostess reached my seat and so I had my first taste of actual champagne.

Later on, too busy staring out the window at my last view of the country I have never left before, I did not notice that everyone had already set up their trays for lunch. As the two boys were offered their meals, I frantically tried to figure out how to set up my tray without appearing completely clueless. With little success, when the question “Poulet ou poisson?” was posed to me – I had to say “Non, merci” out of fear of more public humiliation. Also, I had no idea what “poulet” or “poisson” was.

At least during my return flight next year I will know that I am being offered a choice between chicken and fish. The tray, however, will remain a mystery.

Vocabulary

arrested – arrêté
daily – quotidienne
commute – trajet
whatever – tout ce que
however – cependant 

appropriate – approprié
actual – réels
apparently – apparemment
to stare – regarder
tray – plateau 

meal – repas
frantically – frénétiquement
to figure out – comprendre
to appear – sembler
clueless – désemparés

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P*tain des Neiges!

Here is a story about my recent trip to p*tain des neiges!

I’m sorry,I mean Piton des Neiges of course. The highest point in the Indian Ocean standing tall at 3069 meters high.

So, on the14th and 15th of April, a bunch of friends and I decided to embark on a journey of self-discovery and endurance.We started hiking on Saturday at around noon after a hearty lunch of bread and cheese and off we went. For an hour and a half, we climbed slowly but surely.It was a hot day though, so water levels were going down quite quickly and we were desperate to fill our bottles up somewhere. The mountain took mercy on us and after a while we found a beautiful natural source of what looked like nice, clean water to drink from. We figured beggars can’t be choosers and off we continued.

The walk was going well, we were singing marching songs and playing games to keep morale high. After thirty minutes, despite everyone’s tiredness, it seemed people were less eager to walk at the back; they all seemed to want to go quicker. Struggling at the front, I couldn’t understand why, until I ended up behind the majority. It seemed something else had joined our group… A stomach bug… And it was leaving its potent mark in the air…

Before I knew it, we were all covering our noses with our hands the rest of the way to the gite, trying to reach toilets as quickly as humanly possible. Some of the group didn’t make it that far, they sacrificed their pride for relief in a bush, but for the lucky ones, and I use the term lucky very lightly, we managed to get to the gite before it was too late.

I won’t go into details, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off their dinner as they’re listening to this, but I will just say what I have learned from the experience:

First of all, on a long hike, bring extra bottled water, some baby wipes, and don’t trust a source just because nature is beautiful. Also maybe avoid eating cheese beforehand. Oh, and flatulence, much like a strong wind behind you, will help you up a steep mountain.

Interesting side note: In our room that night,each of us partook in an involuntary game of musical beds. But that stays between you, us and the mountain.

Vocabulary

bunch – bande
hearty – copieux
slowly but surely – lentement mais surement
to take mercy – avoir pitié
beggars can’t be choosers – il ne faut pas faire la fine bouche

to keep morale high – garder la motivation
tiredness – fatigue
to be eager – être pressé
to end up – finir
stomach bug –  problème de digestion

pride – fierté
relief – soulagement
bush – buisson
to go into details – entrer dans les détails
to put someone off – dégouter qqn

baby wipes – lingettes
side note – détail

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Let’s Dance!

In New York, we have a saying that « white girls can’t dance! » There is nothing racist about this statement. It’s just a given fact. Of course there are some exceptions to the rule, but I am not one of them.  This cliché was pretty much invented for me.

Thank the heavens, for techno, house, electro and their easy beats. Even I can bounce my way across the dance floor.  For a while, I thought “I got this!”

Fast forward to my first trip to Reunion Island, to meet my husband’s family. We’d gone out dancing before, in Mainland France, and that had worked out fine. The atmosphere and music was similar enough to New York’s, to make me feel at home. However, our first family event in Reunion, equipped with a DJ, made me very humble. I stood there with my mouth gaping, watching women and men twirl and shake their bottoms, effortlessly. There were specific dance steps involved, not just bouncing to a beat. Complicated, tie your feet up in knots moves, that I was convinced were taught since birth.

I will admit, that I tried studying the way Creole women were swaying their backsides, wanting to understand how to get that Maloya boogie into my step. My only saving grace is that mostly, Maloya, is a dance you do independently or with a group of friends. I couldn’t make anyone fall or stumble with my mishaps. I look even more like a pro, when I get invited to parties, where the dress code is the traditional Maloya dress. A little skirt waving and the local look is pretty much guaranteed, for the most part. I still have a way to go, until I get those booty shakes down right. It’s just not part of my genetic make-up. But I’m getting there. The right partner can help too. Wink Wink.

But nothing could prepare me for Sega dancing, for couples. This requires a tempo that was beyond me, for nearly ten years. I just couldn’t get the footwork or the hip synchronization down. In fact, I was quite certain that I was going to break an ankle trying. It made me remember watching my parents, doing their nifty, 50’s dancing, at weddings, when I was younger.

Luckily, once I gave up trying, like lots of things in life, I finally succeeded or sort of. I found that by closing my eyes, looking only at my 1.90M, husband’s chest, I could give up following the steps and just be led around the dance-floor. Sega is a dizzying but wonderful dance to me now and I no longer beeline it out of there when I hear it.

Vocabulary

to bounce – rebondir
fast forward – avancer
gaping – bouche ouverte
twirl – tourner
shake – secouer

bottoms, backsides, booty – popotin
tie up in knots – faire des nœuds
swaying – balancer
boogie – danse
mostly, pretty much – la plupart

stumble – trébucher
mishaps – mésaventures
way to go – de la route à faire
to get something down – perfectionner
genetic make-up – constitution génétique

wink – clin d’œil
nifty – coquette
sort of – presque
to give up – abandonner
to be led – être mené
beeline – ligne droit

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