The Island of Light

Nouméa, New Caledonia – February 2004

Almost five years ago, I was shipwrecked in the South Pacific. I washed up on the shores of an island called New Caledonia. I’m a castaway. Okay, so I’m exaggerating. I do live in New Caledonia, but here’s how it really came about.

I’d gone to Guam to visit friends and begin an island-hopping trip through remote Micronesia. It was to be my last adventure for a while. I’d spent the better part of my twenties traveling the world. I had just turned thirty. It was time for me to “grow up and settle down” for a bit.

Next comes the part that sounds straight out of a cheesy romance. I met a dashing Frenchman. We fell immediately in love and he whisked me away to his home in the tropics where we are living happily ever after.

I know. This sounds like the figment of some corpulent housewife’s imagination. Things like that never really happen. But that’s how it happened. Sometimes, I still can’t believe it myself.

My initial stay was one month, during which I decided that I would marry my Frenchman and leave my life in America behind. As I island-hopped back to the U.S., I marveled over the fact that I’d never felt so certain about anyone or anything in my life. Why wasn’t I nervous? I was giving up everything that I knew.

“New Caledonia? That’s up there by Vermont, isn’t it?” an American once asked me.

No, New Caledonia is not a State. New Caledonia, or Nouvelle-Calèdonie as it’s known locally, is an overseas territory of France. It’s located in the very southern reaches of the tropics. Like the other Melanesian islands, the early inhabitants were cannibals.

Today, young male Kanaks, descendants of these cannibals, can be found under the various trees around the city. They pass their days drinking the local beer, Number One, while university scholarships go unused. They dream of independence and the day that  they will be able to take everything from the white invaders, as they’ve been promised by the independentist politicians. Their culture, once so efficiently erased by the French, has been zealously reconstructed by cultural advisors from France. “Authentic” dances are meticulously choreographed and performed at resorts and for visiting cruise ships.

New Caledonia was a French penal colony in the 1800s. After the prisoners were granted amnesty, they opted to remain on the island rather than return to France. The descendents of those prisoners are called Caldoches. They live primarily out in la brousse (the bush) and bear an uncanny resemblance to extras in Deliverance.

During World War II the Americans used New Caledonia as a naval base. They introduced chewing gum, Coca-Cola, and the Jeep to the locals. They built roads and airports. In short, they brought the modern world to this remote outpost of France. Local belief is that they did it out of the goodness of their hearts and not because it was a strategic military location. To show their gratitude, the Caledonians erected a monument to these honorable men. It’s located across the street from the McDonald’s.

Like every strange land that I have visited, I had conjured up an image of what to expect based on my previous voyages. I thought that it would be a tropical island like so many others that I had visited. Palm trees, trade winds, tranquil sea. The typical South Seas clichés.

But unlike the other Pacific islands it is not of volcanic origin or a coral atoll, but part of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland that broke off and drifted away eons ago. The earth is rich in nickel and chrome, coloring the mountains a deep crimson.  Everything is painfully vibrant.

“New Caledonia is called L’Ile de la Lumière, the island of light,” Pascal explained.

Pascal, my husband, is a DJ at Radio Nouvelle-Calèdonie. He does the morning show, C’est pas trop tot!, and the weekly world top 20 countdown, Le Megatop. Like most foreigners, he’s learned American slang from top forty songs. His epiphanies are often hilarious.

“I need to stop eating so much patisserie. I’m getting a big booty,” I said once, to which he replied, “Bootylicious?”

More recently, he asked me what the phrase “cop that shit” means. I didn’t have an answer for him.  My grasp on American culture has weakened over the years, or more like, I’ve let it go. During my yearly trips to visit my family and friends in Midland, Michigan I never fail to shock and amuse.

“Does the island have electricity and indoor plumbing?” my brother once asked with a snicker.

Yes, we even live in a modern city with traffic jams and nightlife. But somehow everyone still worries about me.

I’m regarded with a mixture of alarm and pity as they enlighten me about such phenomena as SurvivorJackass, (“You have no television programs in English?!”) Orange Alerts and, most recently, Bennifer.

“What’s Bennifer?” I asked when I was in America a year ago.

“My God, where have you been?” shrieked a friend in reply as everyone else fell silent. I was worse off than they had thought.

On a remote island in the South Pacific, I wanted to remind them.

Instead I said with a smile, “New Caledonia.”

Of course, it was not easy at first. I was moving from a vast continent to an island that one could traverse by car in one day. No more road trips! Could I handle the isolation? What about island fever? Being cut off from all that I knew was like having a gangrenous limb amputated. I could feel the missing part tugging at me, making me miss it even though I was better off without it. Shopping malls, fast food, and Entertainment Tonight. All of the things that had, over a lifetime, bred the desire for the unattainable. No matter how good you are, you’ll never be good enough. And so on. Once it was out of my system I could see just how damaging it had been.

The two years of high school French had not prepared me for actual conversation. In the beginning I would listen intently and distinguish simple words like voituremagasinvoilà. After fifteen minutes my head would feel like it was going to explode. But I was determined to succeed. I forced myself to initiate conversation at cocktail parties. Everyone was so patient as I spewed out what must have been complete nonsense. Each time they saw me, they congratulated me on my courage and progress.

Gradually the stream of garbled noises materialized into coherent sentences. I no longer had to consciously make the translations in my head. I became bilingual.

When I looked for a job, I was told bluntly that they would take an incompetent local over a competent foreigner. Even people who move here from metropolitan France are regarded with contempt.

As a result of my failure to land a normal job (I can’t say that I was that disappointed), I began to teach conversational English out of our home. My students were a motley bunch. (“Motley Crue?!” as Pascal would say.) Some of them were not exactly pleasant.

First, there was the teenager with stinky feet, the stereotypical student of all expat teachers of conversational English. Then, there was a follower of the guru Rael (recently famous for his claims to have cloned the first human being) who would spend most of his class sobbing or trying to convert me. Finally, there was a man in his late 30s who was hellbent on moving to the US to become a cowboy. I explained to him that cowboys are rare these days and those who still exist wouldn’t exactly welcome a Frenchman into their clique. He brushed my comments aside with a condescending smile. I had, after all, left America of my own free will. I was certainly out of my mind.

Am I really out of my mind? It sure doesn’t feel that way. I feel, for the first time in my life, that I’m in my right mind. The vague anxiety that had always plagued me has drifted away, leaving tranquility in its place.

My grasp on America grows weaker with time. The Internet is the only thing keeping me connected, even though as the result of recent events I’ve forbidden myself to read what passes for American “news.”

So, voilà. This is my message in a bottle: Don’t rescue me.