On the other side of the world
It was with some horror that I read today about President Nicolas Sarkozy collapsing in Paris after jogging alongside his amour, Carla Bruni. I’m fast becoming a Sarko groupie, frankly. Travelling around his vast overseas domains has made me something of a haplessly smitten fan. Not only do I fancy him, but I feel rather sorry for him – I mean, who would want to have a country as terrifying and sad as French Guyana on your in-tray of a morning? And as expensive?You see, half of the people in these Departements and Territories Outre-Mer want to be rid of le Petit Nicolas anyway. That is, until they realise how cold it would be in the outside world without his comforting blanket of funding which is a constant presence, paying for salaries, pensions, child care, roads, health, education,defense and, er, helping keep the price of wine down.
Apart from wine in Tahiti, that is, which is ruinously expensive. I can see why they call French Polynesia a ‘luxury destination’. Its because only millionaires can afford to come here. The place is like a James Bond set with infinity pools, personal jacuzzis, crystal clear seas and million-dollar prices to boot. A litre of milk in a supermarket? £ 8! A bottle of champagne in the same? £400! As Mr Millard observed with his usual amusingly caustic nature, walking around the shops of Papeete is not dissimilar to how visiting London in 20 years’ time might be, when a snack lunch for six will cost £60 and a cup of char will set you back a fiver. The children of course while loving the 007/Cubby Broccoli sets are pretty slow at grasping how poor we are rapidly becoming in this world of the £100 breakfast.
“Eat your food!!!” I yell at them as they poke a pretty greasy (but £10) leg of chicken and some chips around a plate in some hideous downtown Papeete snackbar. “This meal will cost us Eighty Pounds!” You can tell they are all thinking, “yeah well you brought us here, live with it. Or if you don’t like it, take us back to London.”
I bet it wasn’t like this in Gauguin’s day, when all the seas were blue (and untainted by atomic fallout), and all the maidens beauteous. They still are beauteous, but there Tahiti has not one of Gauguin’s pictures of their antecedents. There are lots of copies in a rather charming studio owned by his grandson Marcel Tai, but no originals. Monsieur Tai is very charming but somewhat disillusioned by the way that Tahiti has latched onto his grandfather without, as he sees it, actually comitting to the art. There’s there’s a Rue Paul Gauguin in Papeete, and a Salle Paul Gauguin in the Sofitel Hotel, and an ecole Paul Gauguin.
And for those homesick French residents who keep a portrait of Sarko below their personal Tricoleur, way above the city on a mountainside perch, there is The Belvedere, a proper French restaurant selling raclette, fondue and snails imported from Burgundy (at £30 a shot) so at least you can eat proper French fare and think about France’s thwarted genius, if not see his actual work.
Anyway, tomorrow morning I, Mr Millard, the team and our 13 bags are taking a 3-hour flight to the Marquesas Islands, there to pay homage to Gauguin’s grave. In terms of distance, it’s rather like flying to Moscow from London, but Gauguin (apparently) didn’t like people much and wanted to get away from things. He was also impoverished and found Papeete rather pricey, even in 1900. At least he chose a fabulously gorgeous place to go to. Apparently he got to the Marquesas where he was told he had to go to church in order to have a piece of land. He went to church every week, was given the land on which he promptly built La Maison de Jouir. He never went to church again.