Sunday, August 2, 2009

French Letter

New Holland, Terra Australis
Dated this year of Our Lord 2009

To His Most Royal Highness, Louis XVI, King of France – or may I call you “Lou”? (I am afraid the over familiarity displayed by the locals here appears to be rubbing off on me).

I write to you as your most obedient servant, Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Pérouse.

Just as I have always admired your dress sense – all that glisters is gold, n’est-ce pas, Lou? – I am also in awe of your patience. When I set sail from La Belle France in 1785, the plan was to cruise down to the great southern continent to see what mischief the English were up to, and then return home with my two ships groaning under the weight of silks, spices and exotic fruits (which reminds me, I must admonish the Quartermaster about his rogering of the cabin boy).

However, as we headed for Cape Horn, I foolishly decided to ignore the course that Captain Cook charted 17 years earlier, and instead took the pretty route via the Bermuda Triangle. With the wind filling the sails and a rather fiery Bouillabaisse under their belts, my ships’ crews ignored the Triangle’s vile green fog as it crackled with lightning. Not so our priest. I knew something was up when Père Pierre screamed: “God has forsaken us. We are all going to die!”, then flung himself overboard and began swimming back towards France. Call me superstitious, but it did not seem to be a great start to the voyage.

Days passed and I would have fallen asleep at the wheel if it had not been for the howls of torment from the crew – here is a tip for that gorgeous wife of yours, Marie Antoinette: do not put too much cayenne pepper in the fish soup, it plays havoc with the bowels.

One morning, as I breakfasted lightly on an albatross that had become entangled in the rigging, I noticed the fog lifting to reveal a beautiful sight. Et, voilà. Land. By some miracle we had emerged from the fog just off the headlands of what I now know to be “Sydney Harbour”. Dropping anchor in a narrow bay that featured a long wharf with en plein air dining, I chose six of my bravest men (and on ships crewed by Frenchmen they took some finding), and rowed ashore. I have named the place where we landed “Woolloomooloo” after the Aboriginal term meaning “place of pretentiousness”.

While we provisioned at “Otto” – a nearby store – I sampled a plate of Wagyu beef carpaccio with truffle dressing, capers, Parmesan and baby rocket leaves; rather overpriced, I thought, at $28. The store’s faux Italian setting confused me for a moment, but my extraordinary powers of deduction came into play when I saw all the street signs were in English. As you may have guessed by now, Lou, Les Anglais have beaten us to claiming the whole continent. Worse, a passing urchin, mocking my knee-breeches and stockings, shouted that the year was 2009 Anno Domini.

Mathematics is not my strong point, but despite me appearing to be 44 years old when I shaved that morning, if the child is correct, I am in fact aged 268. Either the whole affair is très spooky or it goes to show the benefits of using a good skin moisturiser. Nevertheless, following your instructions that I investigate our once and future enemy’s plans, I led my men away from the bay towards a high, rocky escarpment known as Kings Cross. En route, we were harassed by roving bands of brigands called real estate agents. In order to understand
this strange city, we captured one of the agents and loosened his tongue with a bottle of Château Pétrus ’48 that we had been saving. The agent summed up Sydney thus: the locals’ prime raison d’être is “where you live defines your worth as a human being.”
The city, we learnt, is quartered along compass lines. The Eastern Suburbs, towards which we were heading, has a sun bleached, haughty quality adored by women with surgically surprised eyes and their louche companions who wear the haunted looks of publicists. To the North lie humdrum suburbs while, to the South, is “The Shire”, a self-titling description which apparently boosts property values. The West stretches endlessly, well, westwards.

Belted tightly around Sydney’s core is the Inner City, an area that enjoys the cosmopolitan lifestyle of Sodom and Gomorrah – but with higher rents. Taking our captive agent with us, we climbed the slopes towards The Cross. We knew we had reached the fabled Inner City when we caught sight of the needle-strewn alleys and smelt the aromatic derelicts sleeping in doorways. Malheursement, Xanadu it ain’t.

Before we released the real estate agent back into the wild, he gave us this warning: ahead lay two suburbs uncomfortably rubbing their hips together. Crossing himself, he explained that the toffy one was Paddington, the scruffy one Darlinghurst. Property prices, he said, fell off a cliff along the border between the two, and Paddington homeowners protected their suburb’s regional boundaries as fiercely as tinpot French winegrowers fought to defend their Appellation Contrôlée. In “Paddo”, residents sipped rosé and let down each other’s car tyres (Lou, I will explain “tyres” when I get back to Paris) for the abominable crime of parking across the too few driveways, while in “Darlo”, junkie hookers banged their johns in graffitied laneways. Despite the contrasting lifestyles, the neighbouring suburbs’ architecture was similar, the agent said. Built by émigré Englishmen whose ability to recall the housing designs of their motherland had been almost erased by 13,750 nautical miles, the suburbs’ terraced homes were tricked out with wrought iron balconies and separated by “dunny” lanes.

His eyes wide with fear, the agent told us that we should avoid both suburbs. He claimed we could afford neither Paddington’s restaurants nor the gimlet-eyed courtesans who, in knickerless splendour, worked the streets of Darlinghurst.

Spurred on by your Royal command and the possibility of getting laid, my men and I pressed forward. La nuit became le jour and we found we had taken the wrong turning. We were in an area with the mellifluous name of Coogee.

Standing on Coogee’s golden sands with only the snores of drunken Swedish backpackers breaking the serenity, I knew the time had come to write to you. I sat down and, quill in hand, began scratching out this letter. But how to get it to you? The answer lay around me. Fortunately, the beach was littered with countless empty liquor bottles so thoughtfully placed there by local tribesmen.

In a few moments I will seal the letter in a bottle and hurl it out to sea. I hope it finds you as it leaves me – in good health and full of optimism that your reign will last a thousand years.

À bientôt … and a big hug for Marie.

La Pérouse

Historical footnote: During his actual voyage, La Pérouse wrote to Louis XVI saying that the expedition would return to France by June 1789. However, a few months after sending the letter, La Pérouse and his ships mysteriously disappeared.

© Greg Flynn 2009

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