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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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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The Vanilla Conspiracy

Have you ever believed something was true for a long time, then found out it was a lie? I guess most people experienced this as children, when they discovered Santa wasn’t real. I always knew Santa was someone’s dad dressed up in a cheap red polyester costume in the middle of the Australian summer. But a few years ago I discovered everything I knew about vanilla was wrong. This may seem ridiculously frivolous, but let me explain. I’ve been cooking and baking since I could stand up on a chair in the kitchen alongside my mum. I love experimenting, testing recipes and discovering all sorts of new ingredients.

Even when I was living on a university student’s budget, I would happily go into my local gourmet food shop and ask for their softest, plumpest vanilla bean for my next recipe, despite the fact it cost an arm and a leg. As any good foodie learns from reading cookbooks and cooking magazines, the best vanilla should be flexible, squishy and fragrant. Leathery or dry beans are flavour less and bad quality, so say the best cooks in the world.

This is what I naïvely believed, until I went to visit the vanilla cooperative in Bras Panon. At first, everything was going well. We saw the vanilla plants growing, learnt about pollinisation and harvesting. But when we sat down to watch a short film about the vanilla maturation process, I nearly fell off my chair. The guide explained how it takes many months, even years to dry out the pods, in order to develop the vanillin inside. According to this expert, the best quality vanilla is dry enough to tie in a knot, and should be odourless. Armed with this new information, I did some more research. As it turns out, the big, shiny and fragrant vanilla pods found at many markets are known as « vanille zoreil » or « vanille touriste. »

Frequently, the pods are so fragrant because the vendors spray vanilla extract on their products to entice customers. Not only is this type of vanilla lacking in taste, it often becomes mouldy after being stored in the pantry. Since discovering this, I have a newfound love of vanilla. I’ve always cheered for the underdog, and knowing that the ugliest, leatheriest and least fragrant vanilla pods are the best quality makes me happy. I feel like the luckiest home baker to have access to some of the best vanilla in the world right on my doorstep.

Vocabulary

true – vrai
lie – mensonge
Santa – père Noël
dressed up – déguisée
wrong – faux

to bake – faire la pâtisserie
plumpest – le plus dodu
despite – malgré
to cost an arm and a leg – coûter un bras
squishy – mou

leathery – comme du cuire
to harvest – cueillette
to fall off one’s chair – tomber à nu
to dry out – sécher
to tie in a knot – faire un nœud

shiny – brillant
to entice – séduire
mouldy – moisi
pantry – placard
to cheer for the underdog – encourager l’outsider
doorstep – palier

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Getting a Driving License: Reunion Style

In my pre-Reunion life, I was happily car-free. Buses and trains were perfectly fine for trips to work, university or visiting friends. And I would walk to the shops and markets a few times a week to get food or other necessities. I knew how to drive, and had a learner’s permit allowing me to drive as long as another person was in the car with me. But since life was so easy without a car I never found the motivation to actually sign up for the driver’s exam.

That is, until I arrived on the island in 2007 and was immediately confronted with the reality of Reunion’s public transport system. Or lack of it. Buses ran every hour, and stopped at seven pm. Half the places I wanted to go were nowhere near a bus stop, and tickets were expensive. The only fun part of taking the bus was clapping to signal the driver to stop. But that was no consolation as I spent each day stuck at home and unable to go anywhere interesting.

So I signed up to do the famous ‘code de la route’. For those who haven’t done this exam recently, here’s an example of a question, which I’ve only slightly exaggerated: “It’s three pm on a Wednesday in September. Am I allowed to park on the left side of the road if I have snow chains on the tyres of my car and my headlights are on?” The questions were crazy and at the time I couldn’t speak a sentence in French. Luckily, I’m stubborn and over several months I studied with the code book in one hand and a French English dictionary in the other. After passing the theory exam, it was time to sign up for the driving exam.

Even though I could already drive, I took extra lessons in order to adapt to driving on the other side of the road, and dealing with the mountains. Back home in Perth, the roads are all flat but here I needed to get used to extremely steep roads, hairpin curves and trying not to drive into any ditches. My first attempt at the driving exam, I failed miserably after it started raining heavily, another situation I had no experience with in Australia, and I panicked. The second time, I passed with flying colours. That was in October 2010, and today I’m proud to say I can do a pretty good parallel park and drive in torrential rain up and down mountains. What was a frustrating situation turned out to be a gift in disguise, and as a bonus I learnt to speak French because of it.

Vocabulary

car-free – sans voiture
learner’s permit – permit provisoire
to sign up – s’inscrire
lack – manque
clapping – taper les mains

slightly – légèrement
snow chains – chaines à neige
tyres – pneus
headlights – les phares
sentence – phrase

stubborn – tétue
even though – malgré
other side of the road – l’autre côté de la route
flat – plat
steep – raide

hairpin curves – virages en épingle
ditches – caniveaux
with flying colours – avec distinction
to parallel park – faire un créneau
gift in disguise – un mal pour un bien

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A Lunch to Remember

During my first year on the island, I had an experience so unbelievable and strange that I get goose bumps just thinking about it. A new friend invited us to a meal at his house to celebrate an Indian festival. When he said there’d be cabri massalé, one of my favourite Creole dishes, I said ‘yes’ without hesitation.

Driving to our friend’s house, I could tell that this wouldn’t be the simple lunch meal I’d expected. As we turned into his street, we saw over a hundred people at the house, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow. After kissing and being introduced to dozens of people, I walked around the garden and watched the feast being prepared. The meat was extra fresh. In fact, I got to witness my very first slaughter of live goats, using knives taller than the people who carried them. The knives were so sharp, it took less than a second.

The men cut up the meat, cooking it in giant pots over a wooden fire pit. The smell of curry leaves, cumin and cloves filled the air. Meanwhile, the women got to work lighting candles in a shrine decorated with flowers, coconut shells and fruit peels. I was so concentrated on discovering all the new smells and sights around me that time passed quickly. Soon, I looked up to see two men wearing robes. While the crowd around them sung and chanted in Tamil, the men took turns walking, and even jumping on the blades of the giant knives that I’d seen earlier. Even though the knives were incredibly sharp, the men came off the knives without a scratch. But the craziest part of the day was yet to come.

After lunch, our friend laid out an offering for his ancestors. There was of course plenty of rice, beans and goat meat. But also a can of coke and a bottle of whisky, his ancestors’ favourites. Then, our friend started chanting and entered a trance state. I was invited to sit in front of him. At first I couldn’t understand what he was saying, because I was expecting him to speak Creole. Soon, I realised that he was actually speaking Hebrew to me, the language of my grandparents. In fact, his voice sounded exactly like my grandfather! Over the next 10 minutes, he told me things that only my family would know about me, and gave me advice about a problem I’d been having. When the conversation ended, my friend snapped out of the trance and went back to speaking Creole. He had no memory of what had just happened.

Vocabulary

goose bumps – chair de poule
I could tell – j’ai compris que
to expect – s’attendre
colours of the rainbow – tous les couleurs
feast – festin

slaughter – abattage
sharp – aiguisé
curry leaves – kalou pilé
cloves – clous de girofle
candles – bougies

shrine – autel
smells – les odeurs
blades – les lames
without a scratch – sans blessure
was yet to come – était à venir

offering – offrande
beans – grains
to realise – se rendre compte
advice – conseil
to snap out of – sortir de

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Visiting the Insectarium

Recently, I discovered Reunion’s insectarium for the first time when our home-schooling group went on a guided tour. A handful of adults with about ten kids between us, we showed up at nine a.m. on a very hot morning in Le Port. I’m not the biggest fan of insects, so I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Would there be cockroaches crawling all over the place? Would there be bugs flying around my face and touching me?

But I shouldn’t have worried. On arrival, we met the loveliest guide in the garden of the insectarium, who had an obvious love of her job and of nature. She quickly introduced us to a couple of adorable young praying mantises, and we took turns holding them. Then it was time to feed one of our new friends to the spiders. The children watched, fascinated as the spiders trapped their prey in their web for breakfast. The second praying mantis was reserved for a chameleon, who grabbed it in a split second with its long tongue. Next, we visited the butterfly enclosure. There were dozens of different coloured butterflies, from metallic blue to pale yellow. We looked for butterfly eggs on leaves, which were smaller than a grain of sand.

Then, our guide led us into the education centre. Glass enclosures were filled with insects, spiders, ants and other creepy crawlies in natural habitats. Each enclosure had a little sign with information about its inhabitants, and I was happy to finally put a name to several insects I recognised. By then, the kids were starting to get tired and hot, so we sat down and listened to a story. Keeping with the theme, we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but not without a quick correction to the story. As it turns out, the book depicts a chrysalis, rather than a cocoon as written.

We also learnt how to tell the difference between moths and butterflies. You simply wait for them to fall asleep and check if they fold their wings behind their bodies, or lay them out to the side. To finish off a great morning, we made butterfly hotels out of five litre water bottles. We came home with a caterpillar and a chrysalis from the insectarium, which became a butterfly a week later. I’m still not best friends with the insects around my house, but it was a fascinating experience nonetheless.

Vocabulary

homeschooling – l’école à la maison
handful – une poignée
cockroaches – cafards
bugs – insectes
worried – inquiet

obvious – évident
praying mantis – mante religieuse
to hold – tenir
prey – proie
web – toile

grabbed – arraché
in a split second – dans une fraction de seconde
creepy crawlies – bébêtes
The Very Hungry Caterpillar – La Chenille Qui Fait Des Trous
moths – papillons de nuit

to fold – plier
wings – des ailes
to the side – sur le côté
nonetheless – néanmoins

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Honking

When you’ve lived in a foreign country for a while, it’s easy to forget how strange certain things were on arrival. For me, this is the case for car horns. It was only on a recent trip back home to Australia that I realised just how rarely we beep compared to Creoles. I was in the passenger seat with my dad at the wheel and someone cut us off at a turn. One second later, I realised that I hadn’t heard a beep, as I am so used to in my everyday Reunion life.

Far from fitting the stereotype of relaxed tropical islanders, Reunionese drivers jump at the chance to beep that horn no matter the reason, place or time.

Here’s a list of the occasions where we honk the horn in Australia: 1) to warn other drivers or animals of danger. And, that’s it.

According to driving laws, a car’s warning device (the horn) can only be used for warning other road users. In fact, if you decide to toot at the slow driver in front of you, you could regret it. Illegal use of the horn can result in a fine or having points deducted from your driver’s licence. Of course, Australians aren’t perfect and you can occasionally hear a honk or two in any city.

But there really isn’t any excessive honking, and it’s not just because of the strict law enforcement. Most people would never toot in residential areas, as well as early in the morning or in the evening.  It would be too impolite.

In comparison, here’s a list of occasions I’ve observed Reunionese drivers honking:

1)         to warn other drivers of danger,

2)         to show their frustration at real or perceived injustice,

3)         when someone is driving too slowly or has taken longer than 0.5 seconds to start at a green light,

4)         during traffic jams,

5)         after a wedding,

6)         during election campaigns,

7)         when you drive past someone you know,

8)         when you arrive at someone’s house to signal your arrival, and the list goes on and on. 

Now, I really do try my best to be accepting and non-judgemental of others. And I would probably just shut my mouth and accept this issue as a cute example of cultural difference if it wasn’t so annoying. Why on earth does a group of twenty cars always have to start beeping right outside my house just when I’m trying to get my son to sleep? And do people seriously think that beeping during a traffic jam will miraculously cause the traffic to start moving again?

Occasional tooting never hurt anyone, but I just wish I didn’t have to hear it all the beeping time.

Vocabulary

foreign – étranger
car horns – klaxons
to beep, to honk, to toot – klaxoner
at the wheel – au volant
to cut someone off – couper la route a quelqu’un

according to – selon
driving laws – le code de la route
driver’s license – permit de conduire
to warn – prévenir
traffic jams – embouteillage

wedding – mariage
and the list goes on and on – la liste continue encore et encore
non-judgmental – tolérant
annoying – énervant

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Miss Manners

Are you polite? I used to think I was, until I moved to Reunion. Now it seems everything I do is inappropriate or offensive.

The most shocking difference I noticed upon arriving here was the attitude toward smoking. In Australia, smoking is prohibited at the beach, at playgrounds, and at restaurants (even outside). It’s considered very impolite to smoke next to others. In contrast, it seems that in France anything goes. You can smell cigarettes in every public place you visit. I once went to a restaurant where the owner smoked while he cooked and served the meal. I was so shocked I didn’t even know how to react.

Another difference in manners is the very particular expectations people have here in serving food. Pouring wine, slicing cheese, serving rice, beans and curry properly… everything has a specific order and technique. In Australia, we’re not fancy enough to have these rules. We believe that cheese is delicious no matter the shape it’s cut into.

In Reunion everyone cleans their house before their friends visit. In Australia we don’t really do that, unless we’ve invited our boss. It’s ok to ask a friend over for a cup of tea and biscuits while the house looks like a dump. And if we’re planning a party, it’s common to go see the neighbours and warn them in advance that there will be music and noise that night. In Reunion, I’ve gotten used to parties so loud that windows shake with the vibrations.

In case you think I believe Anglophones are more polite, there are some mannerisms I really appreciate here. For example, I love that everyone is greeted with a ‘bonjour’ when they step into a shop, office or even at a stall at the markets. And don’t get me started on saying ‘bon appetit’ when you see someone – even a stranger – eating. It’s another beautiful French habit that draws suspicion in my country.

There are hundreds of other differences, from being politically correct to how we take turns talking in conversations to how French kids all stand up when an adult enters the classroom. And don’t get me started on kissing and hugging or tu and vous!

But the biggest difference between the two cultures has to be the importance placed on these rituals. In the English speaking world, we have hundreds of newspaper columns, websites and books advising us on ‘social etiquette’ and how to behave appropriately in each context. The only advice I’ve found for how to be polite in France has been in articles written by English expats living in France. Apparently locals either all have perfect manners, or don’t take it as seriously as we do.

Vocabulary

playgrounds – aires de jeux
anything goes – tout est permis
even – même
pouring – verser
slicing – trancher / couper

fancy enough – assez sophistiqué
unless – à moins que
dump – taudis
warn – prévenir
loud – bruyant

shake – secouer
greeted – salué
stall – étal
take turns – prendre la parole, chacun son tour
hugging – une accolade

to advise – conseiller
either / or – soit /soit

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Grand Bassin

There’s an expression in English: be careful what you wish for. A few years ago, I witnessed something that reminded me how true that is. It was 2009, and I was on my very first hike ever, in Grand Bassin. We had organised to go with a group of friends for the weekend. On Saturday, we descended, and it was great. It was a beautiful day, slightly cloudy and the perfect temperature for a walk. In the afternoon, we arrived at our destination and some of the group took a dip in the cold water. Then, we enjoyed a glass of rhum arrangé served by the owners of our gite, played cards and massaged our sore legs. I went to bed early in preparation for the steep hike up the next day.

The next morning, we woke up to a very hot and sunny day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and at 7am it was probably already 30°. We all covered ourselves in sunscreen, packed plenty of water and started our hike. Having never hiked before in my life, and being from an extremely flat town, I found the walk a bit tricky and regularly stopped to drink, rest and complain about the heat. But I shouldn’t have complained so much, because someone had a far worse experience than me.

About halfway to the top of the cliff, we came across a group of 3 hikers huddled together over a man who had collapsed. Within minutes, the deafening sound of propellers started and the other hikers signalled for us to hide behind a large boulder away from the rock face. A helicopter was about to land. After the unconscious man had been carried into the helicopter and it had flown away, we asked the remaining group members what had happened. It turns out that the group had set out with only a litre of water between the four of them on an extremely hot day, wearing flipflops and totally unprepared for the hours of walking ahead of them. When his friends had warned him about how challenging and hot the hike was going to be, he laughed and said: “don’t worry, it’ll be easy. I’ll just get a helicopter to come pick me up!”

Their story has stayed with me through all these years as proof that our words and imagination can be pretty powerful.

Vocabulary

to wish – espérer
to witness – être témoin de quelque chose
to hike – randonner
cloudy – nuageux
to take a dip – piquer une tête

flat town – ville plat
tricky – difficile
to complain – se plaindre
halfway – à mi-chemin
huddled – regroupés

to collapse – s’évanouir
deafening – assourdissant
boulder – rocher
flip-flops – savates
to pick someone up – récoupérer quelqu’un

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La Reunion’s Love for the White Stuff

So, today I’d like to tell you about my love-hate relationship with Reunion’s favourite food: rice. Growing up in Australia, with a huge variety of Asian foods, I ate a lot of Vietnamese, Malaysian and Japanese foods. Dinner out with friends nearly always meant green curry with rice, or a delicious pineapple and cashew fried rice at the local Thai restaurant.

So, when I learnt that I’d be coming to an island whose staple food is rice, I thought it would seem familiar. But nothing could prepare me for the deep and passionate love affair that Créoles have with this little grain. There’s just so much of it and it’s taken very seriously.

I quickly learnt that rice has very special rituals and rules attached to it. For example, ask any local which brand of rice they buy, or whether they prefer basmati to jasmine  and you can bet you’ll be discussing it for the next 20 minutes. And don’t even think of buying that little 1kg bag. You need a proper big rice jar to store 20 kilos at a time in case guests come round unexpected. But that’s not the end of the matter. You must wash it properly, scrubbing it between your hands for what feels like hours until the water is perfectly clear. Then add just the right amount of water so it cooks until tender but not mushy. For the initiated, that means using your index finger to measure the water up until the first joint. 

The first few years here, when eating at a friend’s house or restaurant I’d serve myself a tiny portion of rice, and normal amounts of curry, beans and vegetables. But at home, I’d eat my curry totally rice-free, much to the shock and amusement of my Créole husband and in-laws. You see, even though I’m used to rice, I’ve always eaten it flavoured with spices or vegetables. Plain white rice just tastes like water by comparison.

Today, I’m able to blend in a bit better by eating white rice with my meal but I don’t think I’ll ever embrace the local way of filling up my plate completely with mountains of the stuff. Let alone eat rice 3 times a day like some people I’ve met.

The funny thing about this rice obsession is that we don’t even grow it here. This is embrassing to admit, but being a naïve city girl, when I arrived on the island I assumed the sugar cane plantations were rice fields. I can’t think of many other world cuisines where the main food is imported. So while I appreciate a scoop of rice when I’m eating out, at home I prefer a wider variety of starches. I’m not a huge fan of cassava or corn but give me taro, breadfruit or sweet potatoes any day. At least I don’t have to worry about which brand to buy!

Vocabulary

staple food – aliment de base
deep – profond
brand – marque
scrubbing – frotter
mushy – détrempé

in-laws – beaux-parents
blend – mélange
stuff – truc
grow – cultiver
cassava – manioc

corn – maïs
sweet potatoes – patates douces

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