Oh yeah, that time I went to New Caledonia in September last year

Last year in September, I managed to find some nice cheap flights and accommodation in New Caledonia, so I went there for a short holiday. This is how it went down.

Pineapple

Tuesday, 9 September

After spending the night in Auckland, I flew on to New Caledonia. It’s a nice short flight – only two and a half hours – and soon enough I was touching down at Tontouta Airport and on the bus to Noumea.

Noumea smells like stale cigarette smoke, which reminds me of my childhood – grandparents and just that smell you use to get in the olden days, prior to the Smoke-free Environments Act.

I checked into my rather nice hotel room and strolled along Anse Vata beach to the aquarium.

It had been remodelled since I was last there. My memory of the old aquarium was of it being small but well designed and laid out. The new one is larger but had a very generic aquarium feeling to it. I could have been anywhere.

The best bit was the shark tank, due to the tiered seating in the room, so people could just sit down and watch the shark. Little kids would excitedly urge their mums to “Regardez! Regardez! Regardez!” at the funny looking sea creatures.

I went for a long walk and ended up at a supermarket in town. The booze section not only had a fine selection of French wine at pleasingly cheap prices, but also had a spirits on the shelf. Yeah, Kahlua and Bacardi at the supermarket.

Dinner was some fromage, a baguette and some of that vin rouge stuff. Dessert was an incredibly good coconut yoghurt I found at the supermarket. Miam miam!

Les case

Wednesday, 10 September

It’s hard to find coffee. When I say coffee, I mean your standard Australasian espresso-based coffee. But it even seems hard to get a cafe au lait. And why do places make coffee from those pod machines?

My big trip today was the Tjibaou Centre, one of my favourite places in the world. It’s partly a Kanaky cultural centre, and partly a gallery showcasing contemporary art from the South Pacific indigenous artists.

The building exists in part as France’s way of trying not to be colonial oppressors, and they called in Italian architect Renzo Piano to build it and he did a superb job. It uses elements of traditional Kanaky case (what they call a whare), but isn’t trying to emulate it. It is brilliant on its own terms.

It’s strange to think that hiding away by a mangrove swamp on a peninsula outside of Noumea is this incredibly good art museum with an excellent selection of contemporary art. There’s nothing like it in New Zealand, even.

A bountiful garden

Thursday, 11 September

Museum triple shot:

1. New Caledonia museum
This has a really strong focus on Melanesian culture. There are lots of wooden objects and carvings, including penis sheaths. Don’t worry – these days the native fellows wear underpants.

2. Noumea museum
It’s in an old house near the town square. It was pretty much unchanged since the last time I was there. There’s a big focus on World War II, which had a huge impact on the town.

3. Maritime museum
As established when I visited Disneyland Paris, while pirates are cool, French-speaking pirates are better, so imagine my delight to discover a special exhibition on pirates, including an eyepatch simulator. Yarrrrrrque!

There’s a big old Catholic cathedral atop a hill in town, and I also visited that. I get this weird mild claustrophobic with large enclosed spaces like cathedrals so whenever I visit one I have to spend a bit of effort being calm, added to the fear that I might breach some sort of churchy protocol. Nonetheless, it is an impressive building (Catholics seem to do that well) that also offers splendid scenic ocean views.

Every Thursday there’s a market in the town square, Place des Cocotiers (Coconut Square). This week’s market had an Asian theme, so there were all these Asian community groups selling their wares. I bought some phat Thai (which I assume is the same as pad Thai) and a curious glutinous rice sweet rolled around a caramelly inner, wrapped in a banana leaf.

Pleasures of the Orient

Saturday, 12 September

It was my last full day before a morning flight home on Sunday.

It rained a bit today, heavily and plentifully, but it was totally OK to be out among it. Unlike Wellington, the rain in Noumea wasn’t accompanied by wind, so my umbrella kept me dry.

In the morning, before the rain, I got the bus out to Nouville, where the old town’s prison was.

Actually, the new prison is out that way too. I was the only whitey on the bus and I was surprised when it stopped outside the prison and about three-quarters of the bus’s passengers got out to visit their uncle in the slammer.

But further along were the old prison buildings. There wasn’t much to see. I wandered around, took a few photos, told a lost courier “Je ne parle pas francais!” and got the bus back to Noumea, where it preceded to rain.

I had a look around a few homewares shops. I noticed that most selections of sheets, towels, cushions, curtains and other such items came in colourful, tropical shades. Contrast this to New Zealand where it’s all about beiges, blues and greys and dark colours. But in a way, both places decor colours reflect the palette of their landscapes.

So many of the buildings around town have quite solid facades. It took me a while to realise this is for cyclone proofing. There can be no giant windows. Instead there are shutters and grills designed to keep flying debris out. Perhaps that’s another reason for the gaily coloured decor items – to brighten up an interior that might not get much sun.

I saw “Babylon AD” at the movies, along with a whole lot of teenage boys. It was directed by the awesome Mathieu Kassovitz and featured a few French actors – Gerard Depardieu, Mélanie Thierry, and Charlotte Rampling – but the film was shot in English and so this version was dubbed in French.

Sometimes foreign-language films are easy to figure out, but being a shithouse sci-fi action thriller, “Babylon AD” had tons of expository dialogue, so I missed out on a lot of whats and whys and just decided to sit back and enjoy all the explosions and action.

Squash 1

Finally, I did a bit of exploring of the old Club Med. When I was in New Caledonia in 2000, the Club Med was a thriving resort, but now it’s an empty concrete shell, covered in graffiti and overgrown with weeds. It could possibly be considered an eyesore, but it’s a bit of an urban playground for local teens.

I went for a walk along the beach by Club Ded and took some photos of the ruins. I spotted a building named “Squash 1”, implying there was a second squash court somewhere else. Who would travel all the way to New Caledonia and spend all the time playing squash. Many people, it seems.

I’ve never really been attracted to the idea of a resort holiday. I could never be satisfied sitting around a pool all day – not when there’s so much else out there to experience! Even the simple act of going on a city bus through the suburbs of Noumea is more of a thrilling adventure for me than all that “relaxing by the beach” business.

Smile

New Caledonia

nouvelle-madamoiselleI went on holiday to New Caledonia and I took a notebook with me so I could note down all sorts of amusing anecdotes, but here I am looking at the notebook with “the sexual politics of airline flight” scrawled on it and wondering exactly what it was that I was thinking of when I wrote that. So instead I shall ignore the notebook and instead delve into the inner recesses of my mind. Please also note that I bought a duty-free Polaroid I-Zone camera.

L’Hotel

nouvelle-hotelThe hotel I stayed at was classy, in a very three-and-a-half star kind of way. It had all this Gauguin copies all over the hotel. In my room I had two paintings of topless Tahitian vahiné staring at me. I woke up one morning at about 5.00 am and the sun had started to come up. All I could see were the ladies. Terrifying.

Booze ‘n’ fags

They speak French in New Caledonia. It’s such a classy language, it makes everyone who speaks it classy. Like on the way out from the airport I spotted a billboard reading “Winfield en 25 – Valuer Imbattable”. In English, “Winfield in 25 – Unbeatable Value” is pretty boring and (if cigarette advertising was legal in New Zealand), it wouldn’t really do anything to make people want to smoke. But in French it sounds so cool, no wonder everyone smokes.

That’s one of the cool things about a country with French culture. Everyone smokes. No one asks if you want smoking or non-smoking in a restaurant, because every table is smoking. Maybe someone could organise tours for smokers to places where smoking is allowed?

Where there’s fags, there’s booze. Booze ‘n’ fags. What does the hip tourist drink in New Caledonia? Why, local brew Number One, of course. I was wondering why they don’t call it Numéro Un. Then after a bit of contemplation, I realised Numéro Un sounds like a little little sigh, while Number One is a mighty battle cry. Number One! You can buy Number One every where, but, like most cheap lager, it goes best with pizza.

Le McDonald’s

nouvelle-leronaldNew Caledonia got itself a McDonald’s a few years ago. This was quite exciting for me after seeing the famous “Royale with Cheese” scene in Pulp Fiction. I was going to mosey on in like Vincent Vega and order a Royale wit’ Cheese.

But imagine my shock and horror when I saw the menu board. It just said Big Mac, not Le Big Mac. And what was the Quarter Pounder with Cheese called in this part of the world? Simply a Royal Cheese. In the end I decided to order an M&M McFlurry, or a Meek Flaaree Aym Und Aym, as they say (they didn’t even make it properly, not utilising the mixing power of the McFlurry machine to its full extent).

Dubbed

Now, it is an undisputed fact the the coolest French actor in the entire universe is Vincent Cassel. I was thinking it would be really choice if a film he was in was screening, but as fate would have it, there wasn’t anything. So instead I went to le cinéma and saw “O Brother, Where Art Thou” the latest offering from the Coen brothers. But unlike the version that will end up being screened in Aotearoa, this version (known as “O’Brother”) was dubbed en français.

At first it was weird seeing George Clooney and company speaking French, but after a while it didn’t really matter. I was able to follow the plot without too much trouble. I probably missed some of the finer details, but good on the Coen bros for making a good film that didn’t rely on long passages of dialogue to move the plot.

But I was not to leave the theatre without glimpsing Monsieur Cassel. The last trailer shown before O’Brother was for a French flick titled “Les Rivieres Pourpres”, starring Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel. Hoorah! Coming soon to the foreign section of a video store near me.

Miam Miam!

nouvelle-frootThe food was good. New Caledonia is really expensive so for breakfast most mornings I had some cereal called “Fitness and Fruits”, but a couple of times I had a traditional French breakfast of café au lait (a great wacking big bowl of milky coffee) and pain au chocolat (not unlike a chocolate Danish, but made with similar pastry to that of a croissant).

nouvelle-petitdejeunerThe best French food item, though, was the croque monsieur. Sold mainly at snack restaurants, the croque monsieur is essentially a ham and cheese toasted sandwich, but classier. All the ones I had were made with real ham, not processed meat. The cheese wasn’t processed either, it was gruyére, which just happens to be my favourite cheese. Yes, I have favourite cheese.

The French have a phrase for food like this: miam miam!

nouvelle-evianOne thing that appeared to be cheaper in New Caledonia was bottled water. Evian came in these really cool bottles with a big plastic loop on top so it’s really easy to carry when walking around. The best thing is bottled water didn’t seem to have the same wanker status that it does in New Zealand. h2eau, and all that.

Tourist Regime

You know what was the worst thing about New Caledonia? The tourists. Specifically, the Australians and New Zealanders. The baddest of the bad can be summed up by a couple who I will name Bruce and Doreen, because that’s what they seem like.

They were sitting at a table near me in a restaurant. Sitting with them was a French woman, who I shall name Madame Coco. Bruce was fat and sunburnt, Doreen was fat and sunburnt. Madame Coco was slim and tanned. Doreen was slurping down fruitie mixed drinks. Bruce was drinking beer and telling Madame Coco about the native people of New Zealand, “The Maoris, they called the white people Pakehas which means “white pig” and they called them that because they were canibals. Do you know what that means? They used to eat people. And they thought that the white people tasted like pigs.”

The meaning of Pakeha has caused much debate over the years, but the pork-related potential translation is “long pig”, not “white pig”. But then, if Bruce and Doreen wanted Madame Coco to think of them as white pigs, then so be it.

Parlez-vous?

I did a couple of years of French in high school. I was hoping to put some of it to use in New Caledonia, but given that most people who work in the tourist industry speak English and Japanese as well as French, I didn’t really get the opportunity. Once I said to a waiter, “Je ne parle pas français,” after he started speaking to me in French.

It’s cool being able to say bonjour back to people, and merci or au revoir when leaving somewhere, but anything else was too hard. I think I said merci way more than I’d normally say thanks. My written French was much better, I could pick my way through the menus and brochures I came across that weren’t subtitled. I came to the conclusion that I spoke good French, but I just didn’t have a very extensive vocabulary.

As I picked up more French words I started to get worried that I was forgetting English. That maybe there’s only enough room in my brain for one language, so the more French I learned the less English I could remember. I was trying to think of a word for sheds that you’d find on a wharf (does such a word exist?), and became convinced the the recent additions to my vocabulaire had forced out some English.

nouvelle-startruckThere were lots of amusing English translations, the kind that end up on hilarious email lists. My favourite instance of franglais was a nightclub by the name of Startruck. I don’t know who named it, or what they were thinking, but it’s a doozy.

nouvelle-mcmerci