Slices from Life

A Tale of Two Flags in the South Pacific

Meredith Stephens visits an island that opted to adopt the ways of foreign settlers with her camera and narrates her experiences…

It was the fifth week of our New Caledonia sailing trip from Australia. We had just returned to the Noumea marina from the Loyalty Islands and were flying one of the flags of our host country, the indigenous Kanak flag. We were sitting down to a boat lunch of a baguette with delectable French cheeses, when we heard a gentle knock, so gentle that we thought it must have been for someone else. Then we heard the knock again. Alex went out onto the pontoon to see an immaculately dressed Caledoche[1]. He had something urgent to tell us.

“It’s absolutely fine to fly the Kanak flag, but we have had three referenda about independence from France, and we have decided to remain with France,” he said in impeccable English. “There was an American here recently who was flying a Kanak flag. I told him that was fine, but then I asked him why he didn’t fly the flags of native Americans as his home flag. As for you, you should consider flying the First Nations Australian flag on your boat,” he continued. “But as I said, it’s absolutely fine. It’s your choice.”

I could see that it was not fine. As they walked away back along the pontoon I called out.

“We love France!”

It was true. As guests in New Caledonia the last thing we wanted to do was to make political commentary. We had no idea how high feelings were running on this issue. Alex immediately restored a large French flag above the Kanak one.

The visitor didn’t appear to be from the marina so he must have found his way through the locked gates and walked along the pontoon, especially to speak to us. Only then did we realise how prominent our flag had been. We were berthed at the end of the pontoon and were visible from any point in the busy harbour.

The next morning a Caledoche skipper greeted me as they walked along the pontoon. Then they said to me in English, “It looks better with the French flag on top, doesn’t it?” Not wanting to draw attention to ourselves again, I clapped my hands in applause in their direction as they retreated down the pontoon. “You’ve won!” was my intended meaning, but they looked at me quizzically.

On our last day before the long voyage back to the east coast of Australia we provisioned the boat. Before going to the supermarket, I persuaded Alex to take me to my favorite boulangerie. I looked at the breakfast menu and ordered two cappuccinos and two pain au chocolat. This would be one of the last conversations I would have in French, and I was happy not to have attracted any strange looks in response to my accented French. I was also happy to start the long week of sailing with a pain au chocolat.

Once back at the marina, my final duty was to empty our rubbish in the bins beyond the gates to the pontoon. As I was emptying the last of the rubbish, I noticed two Kanak gentlemen outside the gates, calling to one of the boaties inside the gates in French.

“Do you speak English? I want to get a message to the boaties at the end of the pontoon.”

The boatie shrugged his shoulders and retreated to his boat.

I realised he was referring to us. Our flying of the flags must have identified us as outsiders. I addressed the Kanak gentlemen in French.

“I’m on that boat.”

One of them put his hand on his heart.

“We are so touched that you are flying our flag. Can we exchange contact details?”

I looked at them, silently taking in what had happened. They were not boaties. They must have seen the flag flying from the harbour and sought us out.

I saw Alex heading towards me along the pontoon. He must have been wondering what had become of me because we were about to depart. I hastily introduced the Kanak gentlemen to him, and we received their email address. I asked Alex to retrieve some of our coutume[2] gifts from the boat.

“We received wonderful hospitality in the Loyalty Islands. We enjoyed drinking fresh coconut juice, cakes, and yams.”

“Did you stay in one of the traditional homes?”

“No. Some locals invited us to share their picnic rugs and we enjoyed their local specialties.”

Alex returned with the coutume gift, and then we parted ways.

We left our berth and headed for the fuel dock. We needed diesel because we could not necessarily rely on wind to get us all the way back to Australia. Once at the fuel dock we threw out the fenders and tied the cleats to the dock. A young man put the diesel in for us.

“Why don’t you ask him about the flag?” urged Alex.

“Is our flag a problem?” I asked in French.

Oui ……. et non. C’est compliqué[3].”

I explained our predicament, “We are foreigners. We had no idea that our flag would elicit such strong reactions. We came here not for the politics but rather because Alex loves the sea.”

He nodded enthusiastically.

In fact, Alex had come here because the coral is world heritage.

“He loves the sea, and I love the language and culture.”

Of course, Alex likes speaking the language too, even if not exactly fluently. He settled the bill and was chuffed that the attendant had spoken to him in French, unlike most others, who switched to English as soon as they detected our accent.

Then we noticed that the Kanak gentlemen had walked over to join us at the fuel dock. They asked if they could take a photo with us. We stood on the boat, and they stood on the dock. A passerby took the photo for us. Then they took their leave.

We started to exit the marina. I stood at the stern, as always when leaving a harbour, taking in the unique scenery as it receded. The attendant gave us a hearty wave, which we returned. As we rounded the seawall, we looked back we noticed the Kanak gentlemen positioned at the end of the breakwater. They waved at us with their arms extended above their heads, and we did the same, until the marina faded into the distance, and we could no longer see them.

[1] A New Caledonian person of European origin.

[2] Customary gifts

[3] “Yes… and no. It is complicated.”

Meredith Stephens is an applied linguist from South Australia. Her work has appeared in Transnational Literature, The Muse, The Font – A Literary Journal for Language Teachers, The Journal of Literature in Language Teaching, The Writers’ and Readers’ Magazine, Reading in a Foreign Language, and in chapters in anthologies published by Demeter Press, Canada.


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