Un Peu de Poupart

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Un Peu de Poupart

They say that French is the language of love. Whatever their experience, many people associate it, in their minds, with romance, passion, and faraway places. German, which to my mind is just as beautiful, is dismissed as ‘guttural’. Perhaps this is because the two major wars fought against Germany are more recent than Britain’s long-running and recurrent skirmishes with the French.

I first heard French spoken by my first ‘girlfriend’. We were both seven years old at the time. We were at primary school in a town in rural Southland. Jacquie’s father (maybe it was Jacky, but I admit I prefer to use the French spelling) had been posted there as the local bank manager. They had lived in more desirable places, including in a French-speaking part of Canada. Jacquie taught the class some French words. I was impressed that she had available to her alternative terms for everyday things such as colours and animals, and a secret code that could be used for communicating with others. Of course our romance didn’t last. Jacquie’s father soon found a better job and they moved away.

I remained fascinated with language. Ironically, I could have had a similar experience by getting to know the Māori families in the mainly freezing works town. I could have made an effort to learn their language, which many Māori in those days probably spoke a bit of at home or at least on the local marae, but at the time, to my shame, it didn’t have the same appeal.

My chance came when I was sent away to attend a boys’ boarding school in the city. Those of us identified as more able pupils had to learn French and Latin. I devoured it. I spent hours writing out French words and their English equivalents, and learning the silly little details, that I had never noticed in my own language, of what had to agree with what. I received the prize each year for the top French student. The result now, as it is for most school pupils around the world, is that I am good at reading French, and could probably write it correctly, once I got back into it, but struggle to speak it, and in a real conversation have little idea of what other people are saying.

Did it bring me love? Certainly not the love of my school-mates. Life was tough, and academic success was envied rather than valued. I was made to feel unusual. I got beaten up whenever I passed anything. There was no opportunity to experience the love of my family, who were far away, and with the best of intentions had put me into this situation in the first place. Girls? I didn’t know any. Sporting ability would probably have been more admired, but I struggled on with the ability I possessed. Required to specialise in my later years at school, I opted for mainly science subjects, but chose to continue with French rather than biology (this was something of a disadvantage when I decided to study medicine, but I managed).

Eventually, later in life I did get to travel in France. Although I had done all that study at school, I found I needed a phrase book to learn what people actually say in real life. I spoke French, I had to admit, un peu – a little. Later still, I got to work in Vanuatu, where a proportion of the population are educated in French. Understanding written French was an advantage. I was working with some French doctors and other health professionals. Most of them could speak to me in English, but it was sometimes useful to communicate with their spouses and families using French.

I had limited opportunities to travel at the time when I was a student. We had little money in those days, and there were no student loans. I didn’t travel to the North Island till I was twenty, and then only to fly from Auckland to Fiji. This was to spend a few weeks with a friend who had family working at the university there. We somehow got to Wellington, I think on the Cook Strait ferry. Then we set out to hitch-hike from there to Auckland. I shouldn’t judge from this one experience, but it seemed that people were less friendly and helpful than in the South Island, and were making shorter journeys. We made slow progress.

We got as far as Waiouru. It was cold and dark. We found that if we waited at the station we could catch the overnight train from there to Auckland. We were happy to take this opportunity; it had been a long day. On the train, we were pleased to meet two girls. I can’t remember their names. Like many of the details in this story, I shall make them up. Let’s call them Janine and Marie. They were from Tahiti. One of them had family in Auckland. They were flight attendants, they said, having a look at other parts of New Zealand between flights. Tahitians? Flight attendants? Is there to be a happy ending?

Tahitians, since the days of the early European explorers of the Pacific, have famously been the object of stereotypes and fantasies. Captain James Cook documented in his journals the interaction between his sailors and the Tahitian women. When the sailors first arrived, he wrote, the women would willingly sell their bodies for one nail. Then the price went up, the store of nails ran out, and the men started pulling nails out of the ship’s planks. Cook had to put a stop to the practice to prevent the ship falling apart. Some of the men had to be locked up, or flogged, or both, to stop them disappearing into the bushes on other parts of the island to live with their Tahitian ‘wives’.

The French, although they later criticised the British for their exploitation of the local people, were no better. They appropriated the island in 1842 as part of French Polynesia. Probably the best known images of Tahiti are the paintings of the French artist Gauguin, depicting colourful, exotic, half-dressed women. Gauguin eventually died on the island, of syphilis.

Flight attendants, over the years, have similarly been the object of stereotypes and fantasies. People tend to think of the imaginary ones portrayed in film or on TV rather than the real ones on their last flight to Auckland or Queenstown. Some people confuse the two. A few years ago a prominent New Zealand doctor was jailed for, among other things, acting out his own fantasies. Enough said.

The girls spoke to each other in French, which – though we didn’t let on – we could partly follow. They also taught us a few words of Tahitian, giggling each time they thought of another example. One word I especially remember was ‘poupart’. I’m sure in Tahitian it is spelt more simply – their language is closely related to Maori. But the girls gave it the full French flourish, with much movement of their mouths and arms, and a soft purring sound at the end where you could imagine one or two other letters might be. They said it meant ‘hello’. Another word, they said, meant ‘thank you’.

The train stopped near Hamilton. There was time to buy refreshments: a pie; a soft drink. I think by that time they had stopped selling tea in those solid china railway cups. Marie decided to get off and purchase something. She enquired of Janine, “Tu a envie de quelque chose?”

Avoir envie de“, as any French teacher will tell you, doesn’t mean ‘to have envy of’ but ‘to have want of’. There was a famous faux pas by one of the British Prime Ministers, John Major I think, in a speech to the French Prime Minister at the time, probably Edith Cresson, in front of a French audience. There was some little thing that Major envied about Cresson, so he famously inserted into his speech, foolishly practising his schoolboy French, “J’ai envie de votre Premier-Ministre“, meaning to the French crowd that he ‘wanted’ her.

It was the same expression. Marie was simply asking Janine if she wanted something. Janine’s answer surprised and delighted us. She did indeed have envie of something. She glanced in our direction, back to Marie, and replied using ‘the language of love’, which I think she believed we wouldn’t understand, “Oui. J’ai envie d’un peu de poupart“.

There is limited opportunity, unfortunately, on a crowded train, even at night, for much in the way of poupart, whatever it is. There is only so much you can get away with. The time from Hamilton to Auckland did seem to pass fairly quickly. Looking back from a future that has included more experiences of life, and chances to reflect, it’s the thought that counts. Sometimes all we are left with are stereotypes and fantasies, and an augmented memory of long-ago events.

Janine’s mother met the two girls at the railway station. Probably to their surprise, she was interested to meet us, and invited us to lunch. We had a lovely meal out on the veranda overlooking the garden. It was fresh island-style food – an appropriate preparation for the next stage of our trip. We were of course very grateful, and expressed our thanks to our host. The bit I remember best is the girls’ discomfort when we suggested that we should thank Janine’s mother in Tahitian, which of course in our genuine gratitude we would never have done, using the words that the two girls had taught us.

– by Trevor Lloyd

Trevor was born in rural Southland. He has been a GP and rural hospital doctor in Vanuatu, Central Otago and Northland, and now works at Dunstan Hospital in Clyde. He and his wife, Joan, have three children and live on a small farm near Bannockburn.