Death in Paradise
John & Susan Simpson
Mon 28 Mar 2022 08:00
No need to be alarmed by the title, we are both still alive and well! We just hadn’t realised when we decided to go to Guadeloupe quite what a cult following the series ‘Death in Paradise’ has. Every time we mentioned we were in Guadeloupe people would tell us about the series. We had never even heard of it before so we settled down and watched an episode one evening. The main stage seems to be Deshaies, where we checked in, and the cameras frequently panned across the bay where we had anchored when we first arrived. We recognised the church which featured in the opening scenes and we think we had a drink at the beachfront bar which formed part of the action.
The church in Deshaies
Deshaies anchorage from the beach
Guadeloupe really is as lovely as it appears on screen but what didn’t come across in the episode we watched is quite how French it feels compared to the other Caribbean islands. The island’s colonial history began with a visit by Christopher Columbus’ in 1493 but it was not until 1635 that France officially claimed Guadeloupe as a colony. In 1946 the island became a French ‘departement’, meaning that it has a locally elected government which reports directly to the national government in France. Such is the island’s connection to France that a flight from Guadeloupe to Paris or vice versa constitutes an internal flight. Guadeloupeans have French passports, can travel freely throughout the European Union and vote in French elections. The influence of European France is everywhere: from use of the Euro to the style of the road signs; from Boulangeries selling fresh baguettes and croissants to tiny cups of strong French coffee in the cafes. Food in the restaurants was excellent and we remarked on how the taste of the food was so evocative of France that it conjured up memories of skiing holidays, despite the heat! The supermarkets were stocked with aisle upon aisle of French cheese and other delicacies, and the prices were European too. In Antigua a hunk of Cheddar cheese can set you back the equivalent of £10 and it’s about the only cheese available; in Guadeloupe not only was there no Cheddar to be had but the choice of French cheese was overwhelming and a beautiful round of Camembert was only a couple of Euros. Consequently John and I have come away from Guadeloupe slightly larger than when we arrived, but the pastries and cheese were worth every mouthful!
The island of Guadeloupe is shaped like an upside down butterfly, with the main city of Point a Pitre in the central narrow point. We started our visit in Deshaies at the top left corner of one wing and finished it in the bottom right hand corner of the other wing in a marina in Saint Francois. In between we visited the island of Terre-de-Haut, one of a group of beautiful islands called Iles des Saintes (The Saints) to the South of Guadeloupe, and had a one-night stop in an anchorage just below Point a Pitre by Ilet du Gosier. Terre-de-Haut was a wonderful place to celebrate my birthday and we had a delicious meal in a restaurant right on the beach. The chef had apparently been the pastry chef at the Dorchester Hotel in Mayfair and the passion fruit souffle that was his signature dish dessert was fantastic.
Anchored by Ilet du Gosier
Entrance to Marina de Saint Francois
The contribution of French tourists to the local economy was evident everywhere we went. We could see how popular a holiday destination it would be for French people who could speak their own language and not feel too far from familiar daily life whilst also basking in the Caribbean sunshine. We had an amusing conversation with two Parisian couples - all in our best French! - about the importance of food to the French. They were keen to know whether we had tried ‘real’ French food and whether we liked it. We said we loved Moules & Frites but they were a bit horrified at that - apparently they’re a Belgian invention. Smiles only returned when we began to talk about Cassoulet, Bourgignon and Coq au vin! They then asked what we would describe as English national dishes. We suggested Fish & Chips, but that was dismissed as being available anywhere; Yorkshire pudding was disallowed because it is not really a pudding (not sure on the logic of that one!). Finally one of them pronounced that he had eaten the most amazing dish called a ‘Pork Pie’ and it was absolutely delicious, particularly the delicately flavoured jelly nestling between the meat and the pastry. We all agreed that the Pork Pie was indeed worthy of being classed as an English national dish. I didn’t have the heart to say that I always take the jelly out when I eat one!
Quite by chance we discovered that Saint Francois is a centre for wing foiling and there’s even a wing foiling school there. Normally when John zooms about he is either the only, or one of the only, wing foilers on the water as it is quite a new sport. Here the wing foilers way outnumbered the kite and wind surfers and there was lots to learn from the experts. The beach was pure white sand shaded with palm trees and a perfect spot to watch everyone having fun.
Anse de Champagne, Saint Francois.
There was plenty of camaraderie between the wing foilers, all comparing boards, wings and foils, and it turned into an opportunity for John to buy some kit from a French guy who had lived on the island and was selling because he was returning to France shortly. I got talking to him whilst John was having a trial sail on the board and was interested to hear his perspective of living on Guadeloupe. It was a funny conversation because he was speaking English with difficulty and I tried to speak French so he didn’t have to struggle but he was intent on keeping the English going. So he spoke in English and I spoke in French, probably with about equal success! He described the fractious relationship between what he described as the 'white French' and the Guadeloupeans. It’s fine to be a French holidaymaker but there is a lot of animosity towards French people who try to live and work there. About three-quarters of the people living on the island descend from West African slaves - France officially abolished slavery in its colonies in 1848 - and there are tensions about how the French status of the island is managed. Guadeloupe follows the French legal and political system and schools teach the same curriculum as in mainland France but the unofficial language outside the state systems is Creole. Although on the face of it Guadeloupe enjoys the same quality of life as European France, in reality youth unemployment runs at about 50% and the experience of Guadeloupeans trying to find work in mainland France as an alternative is that they are not welcome. Naturally, resentment can occur when European French people try to work in Guadeloupe and our friend on the beach sadly described some of the unpleasant experiences his wife in particular had experienced. They had arrived in Guadeloupe from France on a sailing boat in March 2020, just as Covid struck, and had lived and worked in Guadeloupe ever since. Their dreams of a different life had sadly ebbed away as the reality of being unable to continue but also unable to stay had become apparent.
I have to say that we experienced nothing of what he described. We met many charming people on Guadeloupe and it seemed a contented and relaxing place to be. One of my abiding memories will be of the bus trip that we took to the town of Saint Anne. On the way there the bus driver was playing his own playlist of songs and was singing along at the top of his voice with the likes of Beyonce, Madonna and Abba. He chatted with everyone who came on board, and even beeped his horn as he approached a bus stop to alert the young man engrossed in his phone that he was in danger of missing the bus if he didn’t hail it to stop. We had actually passed the stop before the young man realised, but the driver stopped a little way down the road to let him on anyway, with much rolling of eyes and tutting about the youth of today. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Guadeloupe but we have to recognise that we were tourists and not French so we probably had the best of all worlds. I’m currently listening to an audio book by an author who grew up in Antigua and she is describing life in the ‘real’ Antigua as opposed to that which tourists see. If her account is anything to go by then independence doesn’t seem to bring satisfaction to Caribbean islands any more than European support. She is as much frustrated with the Antiguan government as the Guadeloupeans are with France. I suppose one thing we can conclude is that on the surface the Caribbean islands feel like paradise but that the wounds of colonialism run deep and this is no easy place to try to make a living.