How Did You Get Lost Out Here?

Nathan Eberhart, Languages Chair

Having taught French and Spanish at FVS for the last decade, I’ve come to deeply appreciate the level of comfort with bewilderment and vulnerability that is required to forge a path forward in learning a new language and to navigate the infinite cultural differences encountered along the way. Language learning is fully about exploring, trying new things, making mistakes, learning from those mistakes, and trying again.

My personal experience learning French, inspired by my Alsatian grandmother (herself a former high school French teacher in Colorado Springs), had up to this point been almost entirely France-centric. I traveled to France to visit family and friends as a teenager, I studied for a semester in the South of France in college, I’d taken students on French language immersion trips to France, my husband and I honeymooned in Corsica… At the same time, I’ve made it a central part of my teaching in recent years to expand students’ understanding of the Francophone world: French is a language that is spoken all over the world and the majority of daily French speakers do not even live in Europe (the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie estimates that 54.7% of daily French speakers live in Africa).

In my French IV elective classes about music and film in the French-speaking world, we took a deep dive into France’s DROM-COM (les départements et régions d’outre-mer et les collectivités d’outre-mer), its overseas regions and territories. Students were fascinated to learn that French Guiana (La Guyane), one of Brazil’s neighbors to the north, is not its own country, but rather a full-fledged department and region of France. Imagine if Colorado just happened to be located between Morocco and Algeria on the African continent; this could be considered a rough equivalent of French Guiana’s geopolitical relationship to France and South America.

In our exploration from the classroom via documentaries, YouTube videos, songs and even Instagram accounts, we tried to understand what life looks like in parts of France that are as far as more than 10,000 miles across oceans from l’Hexagone, or mainland France in the middle of Europe. What are the customs of these far off places? What are the culinary specialities? What are the difficulties they might face?

One of the cases that interested me the most was La Nouvelle-Calédonie, or New Caledonia. A sui generis territory of France located just north of New Zealand, it is one of France’s most independent territories, neither a department nor a region like French Guiana, and subject to even less French control than relatively nearby French Polynesia. We learned that New Caledonia was poised in December 2021 to make a third and final referendum vote for its independence from France under the provisions of a 20+ year agreement with France (the Nouméa Accord) to grant increased autonomy to the Oceanian territory. In a vote mired in controversy (many of the indigenous Kanak population boycotted the vote in part due to pandemic concerns), New Caledonia ultimately chose to remain part of France.

I love the France most people imagine: the Eiffel Tower, bérets, châteaux, cafés on every corner. But it has been so exciting to me to learn and teach about the other parts of the world where French language is spoken (while also recognizing the unfortunate realities of French colonization), and I had been craving an opportunity to see these parts of the world firsthand. The Ballantine Grant presented an exciting opportunity to make this a possibility, and I set my sights on New Caledonia.

▲ There’s a reason why New Caledonians nickname their island « le bout du monde », the edge of the world.

In my grant proposal, I wrote about my interest in visiting this tiny piece of France on the literal opposite side of the world from Paris to better understand its relationship with the country that had colonized it, and that had also offered it its independence. I was really curious to grasp how locals felt about the decision to remain a part of France when independence was freely offered, and what this could mean for the territory’s future. I also wondered how French it would feel. It is France after all, but a world away. Luckily, the professional development committee selected my proposal for funding and the generous Ballantine Grant made this once-in-a-lifetime trip a reality for me and my husband.

Flash forward four months and we were at the airline check-in desk in Denver ready to begin our 24 hour journey to New Caledonia. After a few minutes of explaining our trip to a seemingly made-up destination, the airline agent confirmed our itinerary: DEN-LAX-AKL-NOU, three flights with connections in Los Angeles and Auckland, New Zealand; final destination Nouméa. While Nouméa didn’t ring a bell at the Denver or Los Angeles ticket desks, good news came when our Air New Zealand flight attendant asked about our destination: “They speak French there, right?” She hadn’t been there herself, but had heard it was beautiful from her colleagues who had worked flights there.

Many hours later, we were making our descent into Nouméa and the views happily confirmed our flight attendant’s account. The deep indigoes of the South Pacific broke abruptly upon the longest continuous barrier reef in the world (and third largest all around), the white waves dispersing into the tranquil and seemingly glowing azures of le lagon, New Caledonia’s 9,300 square mile marine haven, the largest lagoon in the world.

▲ Barrier reef as seen from our plane

As we passed through customs, the immigration agent seemed surprised to see an American passport, and then tickled when I explained I was a French teacher coming to see a new part of the world. “Did you miss the stop for Tahiti?” Ah, there it was– some classically French humor. We exchanged a laugh and he welcomed us, his colleague handing us not a flower necklace but a three-pack of Covid self-tests and an industrial sized carton of surgical masks– « …au cas où. » Just in case.

Once we’d packed ourselves into a typical teeny French rental car and hit the road for Nouméa, my France-o-meter started to spike quickly. All the road signage was exactly the same as in mainland France… billboards for French supermarkets like Auchan and Casino… so many people who wanted us to drive a little faster (it was raining, in our defense). But then it got interesting and my France-o-meter pin hit the other extreme: American brand trucks, and big ones… araucaria columnaris pine trees that looked like they’d been imagined by Dr. Seuss… radio ads for the upcoming rodeo and interviews with Miss Tahiti who was flying in to preside over the ceremonies… We split the next ten days basking in this bewilderment between exploring Nouméa and the countryside of Grande Terre, the main island, and a more tropical adventure to Île des Pins, the Isle of the Pines, off the southern coast of the mainland.

▲ Preparing to board a flight from Nouméa to Île des Pins, the Isle of the Pines

▲ Fountain at la place des Cocotiers in downtown Nouméa

At first glance, Nouméa felt remarkably unremarkable– like a standard metropolitan French port town accidentally plopped in the middle of the South Pacific. But as we explored, we quickly started to notice the diversity of the population of this Oceanian cosmopolis: in addition to a significant number of transplants from mainland France, we met a number of people of Polynesian descent, particularly from Wallis et Futuna (another French collectivity northeast of Fiji), Caldoches (descendants of European colonists), and Kanaks (the indigenous melanesian inhabitants of New Caledonia). The city also is home to a small but bustling Chinatown. We enjoyed visiting la Place des Cocotiers, the main square dotted with iconic coconut palm trees, as well as the city’s most famous beaches: l’Anse Vata and la plage de la Baie des Citrons, where windsurfers were out in full force to ride the winter winds.

▲ View at Anse Vata with windsurfers in the background

▲ A traditional Kanak hut at the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center near Nouméa

One of the highlights of our time in Nouméa was our visit to the Jean-Marie Tjibaou Cultural Center, a stunning museum dedicated to Kanak culture and art named for the leader of the Kanak independence movement, where we were able to see and enter traditional Kanak huts usually reserved for entry by tribe members. Another highlight was visiting the Aquarium des Lagons, a spectacular aquarium that showcased the expansive marine ecosystem of the territory. A plaque at the front entrance indicated that the institution was funded in partnership with the European Union– an important relationship we realized would be lost if New Caledonia were to become independent. A short road trip out of Nouméa brought us to le parc provincial de la Rivière Bleue, a natural reserve park known for its rich biodiversity. Among 1000 year old kaori trees, we were lucky enough to spot a cagou, New Caledonia’s emblematic and endangered endemic bird species. The natural and cultural majesty we encountered in and around Nouméa was overwhelming and humbling.

▲ A cagou we came across in the Blue River Provincial Park

One of our most interesting experiences in Nouméa felt a little closer to home, surprisingly. Fans of craft beer, we sought out a local micro brewery on the outskirts of town to try out the island’s brews on our last night in Nouméa. Having overheard that we were visiting from Colorado, the owner of Brasserie Neocallitropsis, Renan, invited us to check out the new taproom he was working to open downtown, which would become the first craft brewery taproom in the territory. He explained that because New Caledonia has so much independence from French law, things that are commonplace in France like breweries are actually strongly regulated in New Caledonia, and not by the government, but by the police. This meant that his taproom’s opening was waiting on the whims of the local police station, and that he had to make a point to stay in their good graces until he got the green light (it finally opened in late August 2022). Renan also told us about the experience of living in New Caledonia during the pandemic. The territory did not see its first Covid death until September of 2021, thanks to having tightly locked down from the beginning. He explained that living in New Caledonia can feel pretty isolating at baseline, due to its tiny size and remote location, and that the pandemic really increased that feeling. He said that we were some of the first tourists he’d seen in years, and the first Americans (most tourists visit either from mainland France, Australia, and New Zealand). He also remarked that many French people are not familiar with New Caledonia.

▲ Promenade en pirogue sur la baie d’Upi.

Our exploration continued with a trip to Île des Pins, the Isle of the Pines, known as Kwényï among the Kanak inhabitants. New Caledonia has a number of smaller islands with primarily Kanak populations, each offering a unique experience. While we were torn whether to visit Île des Pins or one of the other islands, we were drawn to Île des Pins because of its spectacular natural features. Dubbed “the island closest to paradise”, Île des Pins dazzled us with its wild beauty. One of the highlights here was the chance we had to sail in an outrigger canoe accompanied by a Kanak guide across the Baie d’Upi. We learned that these outrigger canoes led to the spread of Melanesian peoples across the South Pacific and these watercraft are almost always built by hand by the families that sail them. We will never forget the spectacular views and emerald green waters we enjoyed while experiencing this important tradition of Kanak culture. After this incredible experience, we spent an afternoon following a saltwater creek from our hotel to the renowned piscine naturelle, the natural inland pool at the Baie d’Oro. While we had to keep an eye out for the extremely venomous (but supposedly shy) coral snakes known to breed in the area, we were enchanted by the protected cove among the Cook’s pine trees and enjoyed some snorkeling among the coral and tropical fishes.

▲ The view at Kaa Nuë Méra beach on the Isle of the Pines. The small island in the middle of the bay is sacred to the Kanak.

The final night of our visit to Île des Pins, our hosts at the hotel were kind enough to prepare a bougna for us. Bougna is the emblematic dish of Kanak cuisine and is essentially a combination of island tubers, vegetables, and chicken, fish, or bats, all slow cooked in coconut milk in a bundle of palm leaves. We had kept an eye out for this dish on our trip up to this point and were disappointed not to find it on any menus. When we mentioned our interest in trying bougna to our hotel hosts, they explained that it used to be an offering on their menu but tourists rarely ordered it and it went away altogether with the pandemic. When we sat down for dinner that night, the woman who served us, Cecilia, exclaimed that she was so excited to share a bougna with guests once again. This hearty meal was undoubtedly a labor of love to create, and we could taste it in every bite; the chef even adorned the bundle with woven palm leaf figures of a fish and a flower. We hadn’t intended to draw attention to our meal, but the steaming palm-leaf bundle was not exactly inconspicuous and other hotel guests excitedly asked us what it was; Cecilia proudly explained that it was a traditional staple. We were so grateful to get to try this specialty and deeply appreciated the care and generosity of the hotel staff, especially Cecilia and the chef.

▲ The emblematic Kanak culinary specialty bougna, a stew of tubers, vegetables, chicken and coconut milk

The final leg of our adventure brought us to la brousse, the central bushland of Grande Terre. Known for its wild beaches, humid forested mountains, cattle ranches and nickel mines, this part of our trip really sent my France-o-meter in the “this does not feel like France” direction in many ways. One of the highlights of our visit to the bush was exploring the town of Bourail, the current rodeo and cattle culture center of New Caledonia, and historically home to one of the biggest bagnes or penal colonies operational on the territory from the mid nineteenth to early twentieth century. We were fascinated by a visit to the local museum which occupies a former penal colony agricultural stock house– we were even able to enter the bakery outbuilding and see its massive grain mill and oven. We learned that a substantial portion of the current population of New Caledonia are the descendants of prisoners who were eventually allowed to settle and farm their own plots of land as a penal concession program.

At the museum, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the managers, who identified as being of Kanak descent. After she explained some of the history of the area, the topic turned to the independence referendum vote. While I was nervous this might have been a touchy subject, especially among the Kanak population, she was candid and shared a very interesting perspective on the question of colonization. She explained that her family has been on the island for generations and generations, and that in her view, they would have been colonized by another world power sooner or later in history if it wasn’t the French. She expressed that she was grateful that it was the French because of some overlap in cultural values and because it gave the Kanak nation access to Europe and resources and opportunities they might not have had otherwise. This perspective and the sincerity with which she shared it really gave me a lot to think about during the remainder of our trip.

▲ A visit to the lush Parc des Grandes Fougères near Farino. The renowned giant ferns inspired us to the hum the theme song from Jurassic Park on more than one occasion.

Other highlights of our visit to the bushland included the natural beauty of the rain forests of the Farino area. Here, we visited a natural preserve of giant ferns and took in the lush soundscape around us. This provided an interesting contrast to our visit to Thio, a nickel mining village on the north side of the island. Aside from Nouméa and Île des Pins, most of the parts of New Caledonia we visited did not feel remotely touristy, but Thio took that feeling to an entirely new level. After driving in to town between the nickel quarries that flanked the road, we found ourselves at the Musée de la mine, the mining museum. New Caledonia is the fourth largest producer of nickel in the world and is estimated to hold as much as a quarter of the world’s nickel reserves; as a result, this is an extremely important industry in the territory but also a source of a great deal of tension with the Kanak who live in close proximity to the mining areas.

At the museum, we were greeted warmly, if somewhat bashfully, by the staff. One of the women gave us a tour of the garden behind the museum and then one of her colleagues prepared us a platter of coconut juice, sugar cane slices, and fresh fruit from the garden. After some conversation, they asked for a picture with us; it seemed maybe this museum doesn’t see very many tourists, or at least it hasn’t been a big destination since the pandemic... Finally, the quietest member of the staff abruptly asked “so how did you get lost out here?” In that moment, we came to realize that we had successfully ventured off the beaten path. My answer that I was a French teacher from America who had received a grant to see a remote part of the French-speaking world did not do much to quell her puzzlement. In the end, this was perhaps the most genuine and humorous exchange we had on our trip, and it made me even more appreciative of the ability to connect with and understand others through language.

In the ten days we spent in New Caledonia, we felt like we had experienced an entirely new world, and the beauty and culture of the territory was overwhelming in the best way. The people we met and conversations we shared really made me reflect on how globally connected we are, even in the most remote places, and how a decision that can seem as simple as gaining independence or not can be so deeply complicated by the implications of this global interconnectedness. I don’t think it will ever be possible to reconcile the implications of colonization, but this experience provided more dimension to my thinking than I had before. My hope moving forward in my teaching is to help students see the very best in others, in other cultures, while also being mindful of the impact our actions can have on our fellow human beings– that collectives of people can have on other people– impacts both good and bad. And that being able to communicate with others will always be a crucial part of building community and mutual understanding, something that our world needs now more than ever.

▲ Baie d’Oro at sunset

▲ Renan Guillou, owner of Brasserie Neocallitropsis, at the newly opened Brasserie Village taproom in downtown Nouméa (photo from Facebook)

▲ Plaque at the aquarium that reminded us of the valuable relationship New Caledonia has with the EU through France
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