New Caledonia, Day 1: So French!...until it's Spanish!

Friday, July 19, 2019

After extending my contract with the Peace Corps for another year, one of the requirements is that I must exit and re-enter the country so I can renew my visa. Travel? Don't mind if I do.

The two main things I'd heard about Noumea were, "It's like Port Vila, but more developed" and "It's like France and the Pacific had a baby...there's patisseries and cafes, but there's also a tropical Pacific feel and influence."

I decided I would head off to nearby New Caledonia, a special collectivity of France that is directly southwest of Vanuatu and a brief 80-minute plane ride. At $220 USD, it's also a roundtrip ticket that is far cheaper than any roundtrip domestic ticket you can buy within Vanuatu. I also was excited to explore another taste of the Pacific that was a little different, since my living in Vanuatu has left me craving a little bit of variety. After all, that's why we travel, right? To explore, to meet new people, to taste new foods, and see new things.

Since I wasn't traveling with anything but carry-on, I checked in for my flight yesterday online, and I headed to the airport a mere 2 hours before my flight departure at 6:30am. I'm not sure what the purpose of online check-in is, especially when you print your boarding pass, bring it to the airport, only for them to check you in and print another boarding pass. Thankfully, the process was quick, and I somehow magically avoided the massive line of 200+ people checking in for the same flight.

I was one of the first fifteen people through passport control and security, and I quickly found myself waiting at the gate for the flight to take off. The travel was a breeze.

The flight is short, a mere 80 minutes in the air. Since it's international, we're served a nice breakfast of French yogurt and a banana muffin as well as juice and tea. After a snack and a nap, I'm in Noumea!

It's only 8:30am, and we're seemingly the first flight in. The place is completely dead. Without checked luggage, I am the first through immigration and customs, and in less than ten minutes I'm in the lobby of the airport. Michael kindly arranged a shuttle bus to pick me up from the airport around 9am, so I have time to change out of my "commonfolk" airplane clothes and into fabulous, French-ready fashion. No more glasses and leggings, on with contact lenses and a boho chic dress!

There is no one in the lobby when I exit, save for a man in a red polo shirt, who is the man who will be taking me to town on the shuttle. I guess my fashion rehab in the bathroom took too long and he was waiting. Oops. We hop on the bus, which is large enough for about 15 people, but it's just me and two other men. The driver insists on putting my bag in the back. I'm used to cramming on buses in Vanuatu with my bag on my lap. It's not even a theft thing, it's just logically the best way to take up less space! The man talks to me in French and seemingly doesn't understand. Despite my mascara and fresh outfit, I still find my backpacker ways overtly making me stand out. The driver gestures to tell me to put my bag on the three empty seats beside me. I give in to appease him as he climbs into the front seat...but once the car starts moving, I put it back on my lap. It really is just easier to lean on this way, you know?

Michael welcomes me with latte art. 

After dropping the two men off, I'm driven to Lemon Bay, to a cafe where Michael works as a barista. He welcomes me with a mocha, and I order a bacon and egg sandwich with a salad. Michael is a skilled barista who has been elevating the cafe's reputation with gorgeous latte art. He pours me a swan.

The cafe is cute, with pastel pink and yellow accents in the cups and chairs and other decor. Once I take a bite of my sandwich, memories flash via my taste buds to the flavors of McDonald's. When Michael gets on his break, I tell him to not be offended before I inform him of this. I ask him if the cafe uses Heinz ketchup, to which he says yes. Vanuatu has Heinz, but it's rare you find it anywhere but the grocery store (it's marked up in price there, of course), because it's just not the cheapest. You don't really realize how much Heinz makes a difference in the flavor until you don't taste it for nearly two years. Then you taste it and WOW. There's a vinegar-y bite, and far less sweetness than off-brand ketchup. This has been a paid advertisement for Heinz. Not.

Brunch, courtesy of Heinz

Michael's food is so pretty

After catching up with Michael, he has to return to work, and I have to explore. I have about five hours before Michael is free to hang out, so I pack up my backpack purse, slap on some sunscreen, and I'm off on foot.

I pop into a discount store called TATI to browse. In Vila, the shopping options are secondhand or expensive/designer/duty-free, so it's nice to find something in the middle like this. I immediately discover a really cute sun hat, perfect for the gorgeously sunny weather outside. It's only 1000 franc, and I eventually find myself using it every day of the trip.

Across the street is the Commissariat Central, the police station, which is located in a beautiful building very much the architecture of the area. Reminds me of New Orleans. Beside it is a small park filled with banyan trees. It's a nice little slice of this unfamiliar mix of European and tropical.

The fountain in Coconut Palm Square

I explore a few more shops (I am just overwhelmed by how many options there are for clothes, food, etc!) and settle down in Coconut Palm Square, a giant park in the middle of the Latin Quarter. It's a beautiful brick-floored park with grassy areas, a giant fountain, some statues, a small pavilion for live music, and some cafes. There's free Wifi here, so it's convenient for me to look some things up before I explore some more.

Streets of the Latin Quarter

The park is filled with clusters of young people, and a great place to people watch. With so many shopping options here, I notice there's much more alternative styles than there is in Vanuatu, much like in the US. There isn't just one "uniform" that seemingly everyone wears, but instead, here people have the option for counter-culture fashion, punk fashion, urban fashion, posh fashion, or whatever they choose. I notice that no one is ever wearing anything plain: even if a woman is wearing jeans and a shirt, the shirt has ruffles, or puff sleeves, or some embroidery or cute accent. It feels so French.

The marina

The beautiful view from the promenade.

I walk back towards Michael's work near Lemon Bay. It's a beautiful walk along the water at Promenade de l'Orphelinat, beside a marina. An elderly couple is sitting on the bench, people-watching. A woman carrying a baguette (so French!) stops for a moment...I think she's going to ask me a question or take a picture, but she just stops to look at the sun setting. It's so nice, the little moments people take to enjoy the simplicity of life (so French!).

Michael finishes work and we walk back to his house . Along the way, we stop at a grocery store called Simply Market. While it's convenient, Michael says it's also the most expensive grocery store in town. As we walk in, he smells the air and smiles, saying the baked goods just smell magnificent today. He's so French. We walk around and he laughs at how easily excited I get. They have macarons at the bakery! He tells me he can only eat two in one sitting. I tell him my American self can take 8 of these and be just fine, so I do. I get excited over the varieties of honey, the hummus, the strawberries, the health foods, the cereals, the hot chocolates, and pretty much everything in the store. He quietly laughs at me every time. We go to check out, and the woman in front of me has a tray of sushi. SUSHI!? I inform Michael that we now have to take our things from the checkout and explore before we pay. I quickly grab our food and he does, too. He laughs and says he's never done that before: stopped the transaction three seconds before it was about to begin. Well, apparently he's never been excited about food before, or felt like the Target lady.

I think of Michael's scoffing at the macarons as a challenge. I can eat these in one sitting, watch me.

After we head to the grocery store, Michael has to get something next door at the Librairie/Papeterie, which is a confusing store that sells tobacco, pipes and rolling papers, toys, school supplies, greeting cards and postcards, magazines, and incense. There's a lot of random demographics served here, including those who want to purchase lighters with pictures of naked women on them, because those are for sale beside the chewing gum on the counter.

In Spain, tobacco shops are similar, selling a variety of things. I've just never seen them so blatantly selling tobacco alongside stuffed animals and toys.

I see Michael's brother's house and meet his brother's girlfriend, Marie, and then Michael takes me over to where I'll be staying, one of his friend's houses nearby.

My roommate for the weekend

I have a whole place to myself, along with a dog named Milka and a cat named Blanche Neige (Snow White). The cat is very fat, and the dog wants to play fetch a lot.

I freshen up and Michael and Marie meet me here for a little drink. As a gift for his hospitality, I brought Michael some drinks from Vila Craft Association (craft liquors and jams made of local Vanuatu ingredients). We all have a glass of Tannalua coffee liqueur  before we head off to Fronton Etchekhan.

Michael is friends with many dogs. 

Michael explains Fronton Etchekhan to me as we walk there, telling me that it's a sports bar. I imagine an American sports bar with chicken wings and lots of televisions, but of course I'm wrong. It's a membership bar. Where children are allowed. It's a family place. That serves pizza. But there's also a game with balls and like, hook hand things that throw the balls. I am very confused as to what to expect, but once we arrive and I see a lauburu, the ikurrinaand the Basque font on the sign, it ALL BEGINS MAKE SENSE.

I studied in the Basque region of Spain back in 2009, and one of my classes was a cooking class in a Gastronomic Society. It's a membership club and part of the Basque culture, where typically men pay membership fees and just bro-out on food and culture. They're becoming more and more open to women in modern times, though.

So as we walk in, Michael says he has to pay a membership fee and he has a card with his picture on it, all of which I thought is a lie because he likes to like and joke with me, but he's telling the truth, because he swipes a card on the countertop and a giant picture of his face shows up on the receptionist's computer screen. Ok, so it's a membership club, he wasn't lying. I look around and it's packed with people of all ages, with children running around and ducking under tables as their parents are fully engaged in conversations off to the side, sipping on beers. It reminds me of Spain (don't let the kids interrupt your night out, they'll just have to entertain themselves!).

As we wait for Marie to go through the reception/check-in, a man pushes his way through the crowd with a jai alai hand basket. When I studied in Spain, we learned that jai alai was one of the only world-recognized Basque cultural things. People in America play it sometimes as an informal backyard sport.

The lauburu on the signage took me back a decade to my time in the Basque country, where I learned it meant "four (lau) head (buru)" and is a traditional symbol of the culture. I was fully expecting to eat pintxos, ajoarriero and cod omelettes. We push our way through the crowd, past the stadium-lit jai alai court, and find a table. We look at the menu, which I hope would include some txakoli, but instead offers mostly beers. I pass on the alcohol and after we decide on the pizza, Marie goes into the sea of people to put in our order at the bar.

The place is very much a beer garden, a sight to which I'm unfamiliar after living in the Pacific for two years. Even while traveling in Asia and other Pacific countries, nothing looks like this. There are tables outside, and people standing around in clusters, speaking animatedly to one another over beers, with music just faint enough to give a vibe but not to drown out conversation as it would in a nightclub.

As the night goes on, the hyper children are now sleeping on the benches of the tables as their parents have all migrated away from them to clusters on the side. I laugh and tell Michael how it reminds me of Las Fallas in Valencia, wherein parents and kids all go out, but parents don't bother to take kids home, lest they disturb the grownups' nights. He chuckles and tells me the sight reminds him of his childhood. Must be a European thing.

After an amazing night of conversation and catching up, we walk back to our respective homes and say goodnight. Tomorrow Michael works again, and I'll be off to explore town in the morning.