At my boarding school in Brisbane, our French mistress (no, not really...) taught us posh French. She spent whole lessons drilling us on exactly how to enunciate eu and au and eau. As Henry Higgins opined in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what they say, actually, as long as they pronounce it properly.”
Not in Provence, though. There, most of the natives speak French the way the English speak French – sounding out every consonant the way God intended, and playing fast and loose with every vowel. Proper French is spoken more in Haiti than in Provence – by the ruling caste there, at least.
Most Haitians speak Creole, which is a French patois – in the way that French is a Latin patois. I spent a week there in 1966, aged 27 – island-hopping by myself, on vacation from my job in Toronto.
On the plane from Puerto Rico I found myself sitting next to a boring young Canadian fellow – boring, at least, until he announced that he was visiting his brother at a Mennonite mission station up in the mountains. Then he became exciting. By the time we landed, we were fast friends and he was asking his brother if I could tag along as an extra guest for a few days.
Mennonites are a small Protestant denomination of no great renown, but they carried enough weight locally for the brother to extend my visa, change my onward flight and find me a hotel room for the night – all before the offices closed that afternoon. So instead of mooching around the desperately shabby capital city for two days on my own, I got a tour of the pot-holed mountain road through the heart of the country to a few miles away from Henri-Christophe’s Citadelle, and five days watching the missionaries at work.
The history of Haiti is depressing. Born in the vicious cruelty of a series of slave-rebellions, nurtured in the equally vicious cruelty of home-grown tyrants, and pauperised by US and European politicians (French and British) in order to discourage any future slave revolts anywhere in the world – the new nation’s government revenue was embargoed for the next hundred years and more, to pay compensation for the property lost (i.e. the slaves themselves) in the successful revolution.
(The slaves’ defeat of Napoleon’s army of occupation prompted his surrender of French “Louisiana” to the new United States of America. The removal of the French presence there left the native-American tribes open to conquest and settlement by European immigrants – and, as they say, the rest is history.)
On the Sunday I bought a ticket on the bus from Cap Haitien back to the capital, leaving next morning. I asked the bus dispatcher (in pidgin French) what time the bus would depart. “Huit heures.” Ah, but did that mean eight o’clock Caribbean time, or some local approximation? The missionaries would have to drive me down from the mountains, and I wanted to get the time right. “Oui, huit heures juste.” Okayy, but when you say juste, do you mean really, really exactly, or...? He sighed heavily. “Huit...heures...blanc!” I took that to mean “white man’s time”, and shut up. And it did leave at eight, on the dot.
Nobody on the bus spoke French, or was any colour but jet-black; no upper class representatives present! I volunteered to sit on the top of the bus with eight or nine other passengers, to help keep the luggage from coming loose, and to hand bags down and catch bags thrown up. My companions told me by gestures why we were stopping and how long for.
It was a ten-hour journey down the coast road via Gonaives, but the time passed easily; it was a lovely trip.
The driver went out of his way to drop me at my shabby hotel. I was the most exotic passenger he had ever had, I expect: probably the only white person ever to have travelled the whole distance on the roof of his bus.
They all gave me a farewell salute, and I them. “A’voi, blanc!” “A’voi!” Respect.