By Amanda Keast
Bonjour mes amis!
Between the 18th of September and the 1st of October this year, I travelled with 10 other UoN French language students to sunny Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia. The aim of our trip was to improve our French conversational skills through immersion, and guided lessons. Only a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride away, what better place to go than New Cal!
New Caledonia consists of an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific. It is a French territory, first established as a penal colony in the 1860’s. This has created an interesting cultural dynamic between the apparent European influence and the local people, the Kanak. As the resident history buff of the group, learning about the history of French colonisation at the site of the first prison and at the ‘Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie’ was certainly a highlight of the trip for me.
And though this history has not always been peaceful, our overwhelming experience was that the New Caledonian people were exceptionally friendly, laid back, and generous people. Nouméa has the most mixed population of anywhere in the country, which meant that a lot of the time, people came from very different backgrounds and were very willing to chat with us and share their own story. For example, each day we had lessons at the ‘Centre de Rencontres et d’Échanges Internationaux du Pacifique’ (CREIPAC). Our teacher, Melissa, was a French immigrant who moved to Nouméa to find work. It was incredibly satisfying to hear about another person’s life experiences in their native language, and actually understand what they’re saying! This, more than anything else, made me feel that the past three years of study at UoN really was amounting to something. As much as I love Marie-Laure and Alistair (AKA some of the best lecturers you could ask for), I had a moment of doubt before the trip where I freaked out thinking that perhaps all this time they were teaching me a secret, made up language, that UoN had marketed as ‘French’ to lure in unsuspecting first years. As silly as this thought was, it was an incredible pay off to arrive in New Cal and discover that this was not at all the case. It proved to be an excellent environment to challenge ourselves in, and one that made us feel safe and encouraged.
My other personal highlights included making a traditional meal known as a ‘bougna’ (I got to open a coconut with a machete, it was great), playing pétanque at any free moment, paddle boarding to nearby islands, and learning about the native local environment and marine life at the ‘Aquarium des Lagons Nouvelle-Calédonie’. Also the resident animal enthusiast, the Aquarium was saved for my birthday so that I could freak out about the fact that they are one of the few places in the world where you can see a mollusc known as the Nautilus, which is often considered a “living fossil”. They haven’t evolved in around 500 million years because they just don’t need to – they’re pretty darn cool if you ask me!
Other students on the trip would probably say that their highlight was our day trip to Phare Amédée, or Amédée Island. It’s about 40 minutes away by taxi boat and is home to a rather incredible lighthouse. We had an incredible time here, though we did see a shark (which no one else was anywhere near as excited about as me), and the island is home to these sea snakes that also go on land and are everywhere. They are venomous enough to be fatal but their jaws are too small to bite a human anywhere but between your fingers and toes. There’s been no recorded fatalities, and every local we spoke to was very blasé about them. They actually use them in tourism marketing quite a lot. We didn’t really worry about them except for the one that slithered right through our sun baking camp and nearly curled up in my shoes. This led to many Woody impersonations of “there’s a snake in my boot!” for the rest of the day. Even the less desirable wildlife couldn’t outweigh the awesome things we got to do here though. We went snorkelling with sea turtles, had photo shoots on the beach, and conquered the many, many steps of the lighthouse to get an absolutely breath taking view from the top.
I think perhaps the most special thing we did was entering a traditional hut, a ‘case’, in the ‘Musée de Nouvelle-Calédonie’. We had two Kanak guides, and they taught us about the significance of these huts and some of the traditions of the Kanak people. They then had us each introduce ourselves in English or French, as they wanted us to understand that this was a family space, and that a sense of community is vital to the Kanak people. This really drew the group closer together, and I felt incredibly privileged to be able to have this experience.
Overall, the trip was incredible. It notably improved my French skills and broadened my life experience. Cultural immersion is definitely an experience that I would recommend to anyone studying a language, and more broadly to anyone looking to broaden their world view. This trip gave me skills that I will keep throughout my whole adult life.
About the Author:
Je m’appelle Amanda, and I am a third year BA student majoring in French Studies and History. If you have any questions about New Caledonia, university short trips or anything I’ve specifically mentioned in this post, don’t hesitate to shoot me an email!