“Great Expectations” by Olivia Salazar-Winspear, Paris

BLOG,Borders July 14, 2011 01:55

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT

as shared at a PenTales event themed “Great Expectations”

Olivia Reading at a PenTales event in Paris

Listen to the Story!

As an annually optimistic person – that is to say – I am optimistic in September, every year, and then I go back to being a negative, fatalistic person for the rest of the time. No September was more significant‐ it terms of new beginnings ‐ than that of 2005, when I graduated from University. It’s a funny time that period of your life, when you barely dare to expect things, let alone envisage them. I certainly had no idea what to expect. But then I hadn’t done any expectation homework either– I hadn’t ascertained where I was going to live what I was going to do, and quite what my new exciting adult life was going to consist of.

I was adrift in a sea of dynamic graduate vagueness and uncertainty. Then, somehow, I was offered the opportunity to go and work in La Réunion. Obviously, my response was, “what the hell is La Réunion?”
Once I’d come to terms with the fact that it was an island, that was in France, while also being in the middle of the Indian ocean not that far from Madagascar, then I set about planning to go to La Réunion with about 2 weeks notice and 200 pounds in the bank. I can tell you now that that is 2,800 pounds
and about 8 weeks short of what you actually need to successfully move to Reunion – as it’s called in English. During my 11 hour “domestic” flight there from Paris, somewhere in the middle, probably at about Sudan, I realized I’d been so busy emailing my friends about my brilliant new career in the tropics and chuckling about the fact that one of the major towns in Reunion is called Le Tampon – that I hadn’t
considered for a moment what I expected from the place.

On the plane I came up with three crude and highly generalized assumptions:
“Réunion will look like India.” Now I say that out loud it sounds a bit naïve, a bit like those stupid 15th
century Portuguese explorers who were obsessed with finding India and who, when arriving anywhere, be it Macao or Brazil thought it was probably India. My assumption was made of course, from everyone’s favourite geographical aid: Google maps. Now Google maps was still pretty basic in 2005, but Réunion
was there, a tiny speck in the southern Indian Ocean, so I zoomed in on it, anticipating a volcano and jungle montage resembling the opening scenes of Jurassic Park – which was actually filmed in Costa Rica – but that’s by the by. Problem is, once you zoomed in, the island looked like it had been pixellated to
conceal its identity: there was no evidence of the landscape whatsoever. So, with nothing to go on, like my Portuguese forefathers – if in doubt, expect India.

I won’t insult the islands extraordinary natural beauty by trying to sum it up in a pithy sentence but I will give you an idea of some major features :
1. The place with the highest annual recorded rainfall of anywhere, ever, is to be found in the centre of Reunion … as well as
2. One of the most active volcanoes in the world, which is twinned with Hawai
3. There’s also an art deco minaret in the centre of town, France’s oldest mosque
4. and everyday, awe‐inspiring traffic jams at the motorway exits for the many huge Carrefour supermarkets

“I will be a warmly‐welcomed, celebrity foreigner and probably the only white person on the island.”
I don’t think I need to elaborate; this expectation was the most inaccurate by far.

Unimpressed by quaint postcards of my hometown, by my poster of the British Isles and by my haphazard description of a constitutional monarchy – people would often nod sagely before asking, “Do you live near the Eiffel tower?”. You should have seen their faces when I told them I’d been in it on holiday – in fact, I’d stood on the very top of it. These people, whose passports are issued here, in this France – not their France‐ their eyes clouded over when I talked about Jacques Chirac or the European Union. They’d heard of those things but never really touched them. Not that I’ve touched Jacques Chirac, either, but you know what I mean. At first glance, many people in Reunion actually thought I was a visiting French civil servant. It was when I was scraping the human faeces off my hire car that someone had deposited there, during my first week on the island– that I realized that being French from this France – not their France, was, apparently not a good thing. After that, I carried a small, laminated photo of David Beckham in my handbag as a visual aid with which to ward off further ethnic violence.

“Teaching in a school will probably be as boring as my recollection of learning in one”

I was going to Réunion teach English in a French Collège and a Lycée; I really hadn’t put much thought into the nature of the job – I expected that trying to enthuse teenagers about very basic English grammar and vocabulary would be, at best, repetitive and not particularly challenging. Again, I was wrong. Certain moments in my lessons left my eyebrows raised for minutes at a time, that’s when they weren’t forced down low into frowns of incredulity at what I’d just heard. Unsurprisingly, my students taught me more than I taught them, and they’d be well within their rights to ask for their money back as far as my pedagogical services were concerned. I learnt from my final year students that because of the Vichy hangover from the 2nd World War, an anonymous police hotline would never work in France. because people still bear the psychological scars of what’s known as the “denunciation” of thousands of Jews during the occupation. When I challenged this – when I outlined the utility of having totally anonymous and official channels through which citizens could contribute useful and potentially life‐saving information – I came up against a wall of incomprehension from my students. Thousands of miles and at least two generations from the second world war, the lingering cultural stigma of that brief period of betrayal , had still managed to permeate the consciousness of my pupils. But it was my youngest class – in fact ‐ that taught me about expectations and what they mean.

I had organized for my class in Reunion to exchange letters with Penpals in London and I’d asked each student to write a letter to introduce themselves. The basics: my name is… I have two sisters …. my favourite subject is … After 5 minutes, the smallest, shyest girl in the class walked to my desk and
handed me her letter, silently. She’d written two lines, perhaps three at the most. I suggested that, to complete her letter, why not write a sentence or two about Réunion, to explain about where she lived to British children‐ who wouldn’t know the place. She looked up at me curiously, through eyelashes, thick, like baby moths. She frowned slightly, struggling to understand exactly what I wanted from her. I made it simpler : “Write about why you like living in Reunion” I said.
Ten minutes of penmanship later, she came back. I read the addendum to her letter aloud, it said:

“I live in Reunion.
I like Reunion because Reunion has everythings. Reunion has Pineapples and the volcano and the beach.
Does England have Everythings?
Please reply soon,
Love from Delphine.”

Her mouth made a little bud, the beginning of a smile and I could see that her widened eyes were asking me if the amended version of her letter was ok? If Delphine was expecting pineapples and volcanoes and reef—fringed beaches… Well, then no, England really doesn’t have everythings.

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