Continued from the entry before.
My first years in Paris I felt exhilarated, as if I was living on a cloud and floating along the streets, enjoying every minute of living in the fantastic city. It also curiously gave me a new and lofty perspective on who I was and where I came from. I now saw a straight line from my original ancestry in Sweden to my new French-European identity, with the Dutch period being more like a detour, a distraction. I was back on the main track again. That exhilaration has abated of course and my feet touch the ground again, and though Paris remains a fantastic place to live, I now see myself having more of a Dutch-European identity.
There was some baggage I brought along from my detour though, the usual Dutch prejudices about the French: They do things with ‘de Franse slag’ (The French Way, meaning doing sloppy work; a bit as the British perceive Irish slap-dash building workers) and they don’t work hard. These proved quite wrong. The French are much better organised and ‘réglémenté’ than the Dutch are, and if they work, they work hard, that is not the problem. The problem is the pervasiveness of the ‘petit fonctionnaire’ mentality: being fixated on protecting your 'rights', not take any initiative and where clients, customers and guests are a nuisance best ignored. Who has not wondered about tourist offices and museums closed over the weekend, restaurants closed on Sunday and the whole of Paris shut down in August?
So you can ask the question if it is the French-Mediterranean, or the Martiniquean-Caribbean mentality that we see at work in this article in the ‘France-Antilles’ of Tuesday February 7th:
‘On January 8, two cruise boats docked in the harbour of Fort-de-France. Some 2800 tourists descend on the city…to find it deserted…’ (I wandered through the centre on a Sunday and I can confirm it is completely dead). Le ‘responsable du syndicat d’initiatives de Fort-de-France’ is then quoted: ’…the tourist committee does not receive notification from the cruise companies about their planned days of docking…‘ (despite its name nothing is said about the syndicat taking any initiative in the matter), ‘…the travel agents should have warned the cruise companies Fort-de-France is closed on Sundays…‘ (on St Maarten or any other non-French destination in the Caribbean every shop specifically opens on cruise-ship days). The article concludes: ‘…today, tourists and captains of cruise ships note that they are always received with total indifference…‘ (Royal Caribbean International stopped docking in Martinique for exactly that reason in 2002 and apparently nothing has changed since).
“Pick a number between three and seven”, I ask the tall Swedish student who is working behind the breakfast buffet. He does not really know what to make of my question. “Come on, pick one: four, five, or six“, and pointing at the two large trays, “they are all better than these three minute eggs, they are snotty, or those seven minute eggs, they are way too hard. Who in the world would eat snotty, three-minute eggs?“ Now he is catching my drift: “Swedes would“, he says with some disarming self knowledge, “because what do Swedes know about anything”. He has got a point there. Not that the Swedes, or any other Scandinavians for that matter, were not very serious and capable people in the meetings at the UIC (International Railway Union) where we discussed European legislation for the railway field. They were, but they were also a little naive and timid when it came to playing the power games that come with getting your way. The French, Italians and others were much more adept at that. The Dutch again would give their frank unadulterated opinion in the meeting and travel home on the train feeling content with themselves for having told how it is. Blissfully unaware however they had stepped on the toes of half the participants, who did not show that, but were now out to make sure the opposite would be decided. (P.S 3).
“Hoe is het met jouw frans, kun je het al een beetje spreken?” (How is your French, can you already speak it a little bit?), I smile at Joep the six year old son of Léon and Veronique, his wife. Joep nods ‘yes‘, but looks a bit dubious and holds on to his mum’s hand for extra safety. I spotted him and his mother a little bit later at the same breakfast buffet and asked if she knew where I could find Léon because at the desk they were not sure if I should pay the resort directly or if Hostelbookers would charge my account also for the remainder (P.S.4).
Veronique tells me they will soon move into a nice house they found just above Delhaies with a view over the Caribbean Sea and Joep will then go off to school and she expects his French to be up to speed pretty soon since they already lived in Brussels for a time. ”You were lucky”, I tell her, “that you guys could come to this island, because French education has a very good reputation and for Joep to become fluent in a second language will be a boon”.
Because whatever you may think of France’s post-colonial policies, the French DOM-TOM’s are the best places to emigrate/retire to if you want to live in a sub-tropical climate (and we should not leave the secret to the French alone, it is EU territory we can all go there). You have the same level of information, education, healthcare and safety as in France. Though here in Guadeloupe and Martinique the slow burning social revolt of two years ago has of course cast a lingering doubt if it will always stay safe (P.S.: 5).
That said, even if not all is well in paradise, these islands I think are definitely to be preferred over the likes of Curaçao (unstable), Bonaire (boring), St Maarten (ugly), Dominica and St Lucia (both primitive) or the Dominican Republic (criminal), to name the ones I have been to (Cuba is hors category) and even Puerto Rico I would say, unless you like to shop at all hours or even just on a Sunday, than that country is to be preferred by far.
At the reception desk they have figured out that I should pay the resort and not the Hostelbookers guys. Fine with me, since I was not too pleased with their refusal to reimburse me and leave it up to the coulance of the Hotel. “I have just heard I am going back to Sweden”, Emma tells me, “I have been admitted to university and have to go and prepare“. We talk a little more about how she enjoyed spending some months on a Caribbean island and now going back to sub-zero Gothenburg where she lives.
In fact that is my only slight regret, that the Swedes do not have a Caribbean colonial vestige left to visit after they returned St Barts to the French in 1878 (P.S.6). It would be fascinating to see how their model of a welfare state, as well developed as the French, but rooted in the strict Lutheran Protestant mentality (a cabinet minister had to resign after paying a €10 or so item with the government credit card [take that Edith Cresson]) and how their honest, but slightly naive approach would cope with the Caribbean lifestyle.
We covered how the French (and to some extent the Dutch) have handled their colonial legacy and the problems they encountered. After completing traveling to Dominica, St Lucia and Barbados, I hope to return to the question and take a look at how the British did. At this point my impression is that they were both better at building a colonial empire, as they were at disentangling themselves from it again (and while we are at it, we can check if they indeed did resort to the destructive practices André accused them of).
P.S. 1: Swedish, Dutch, French. SDF, the strands of my background, in France meaning Sans Domicile Fixe, the homeless living on the streets of Paris, in my case, with the amount of traveling I do, also not too far of the mark.
P.S. 2: ‘“I know, I know“, I agree‘..., but apparently not well enough to prevent me from being sent back to the end of the line when I arrived in Dominica. I had filled out my entry document in red ink (what was I thinking) and had to do it all over again in blue. Next an imposing customs officer motioned me to the front of an on-looking crowd at the luggage check arriving in St Lucia. Then with some display of his powers he made me delete the picture I took of the comically disorganised and excruciatingly slow control of every single item of luggage. A scene I had wanted to share with you guys (it is a State Secret, I now wholeheartedly agree); sorry, you will have to do without.
P.S. 3: A Dutch diplomat with whom I discussed the phenomenon, had a different take on the matter. He said that it was a quality for which Dutchmen are often asked to chair committees or meetings in international organisations, because it helps to break through polite phrases and sterile formalities.
P.S. 4: Compared to the very expensive hotels in the Caribbean it would still be a good deal even if I paid double at Langley, but my thrifty Dutch nature gets in the way. The same Dutch thriftiness that has me, to the deep and lasting embarrassment of Olive, forage my lunch at the breakfast buffet; she will decline the fruits of the forage (OK, OK, but there is worse), except when in dire need.
P.S. 5: André told me for example that the minimum prices set, have largely been circumvented by the supermarket chains. They have attached the required minimum prices to the list of products, take rice, but always to the lowest quality variety and have recouped their loss by increasing the prices of the other rice varieties and generally done away with promotions, that used to be able to save you some money in the past.
P.S. 6: The Swedish largest colonial venture was the capture in 1638 of a part of the Dutch WIC 'Nieuw Hollandt' (New Holland) colony along the Delaware River (see entry 147). They were led by a disgruntled former Dutch governor, who knew where to attack. They called it ‘New Sweden‘. The Dutch recaptured it in 1655 before the Swedes could really make a go at the slave trade they were gearing up to from small possession on the African coast.