January 01, 2009

What books? Papeete stopover

I love ports, I collect them like poets collect rivers or some women collect shoes, but they have to be working ports, none of those docks redeveloped into shopping malls for me. I want cargo ships, dirty water slapping on wood pylons, the smell of tar. Papeete, where I was lucky enough to have a stopover this week on my way back from a California Christmas, has always been one of my favourites. I love its gorgeous inhabitants, its slightly shabby air, the sidestreets with the dimly lit haberdashery shops run by incredibly old Chinese couples and bars exuding French pop ballads, the rusting iron work of the waterfront balconies, the market with its tables of pies and rows of pig heads in plastic sacks, bedecked with tinsel now for the holidays.

Whenever I go to another country, I always buy a local paper to read over my first coffee. This can drive people who are with me crazy, for instance if the newspaper is in Greek and they have to listen to my enthusiastic etymological detective work. On this trip, I stopped in Papeete both coming and going, so on my return leg, having already read up on the fisherman who got bitten in the face by a shark and the Tahitian boy who won the French National Under 10 Chess Championship, I went out hunting larger prey. And reader, I found it. La Maison de la Presse, with its natty storefront advertising Tabac-Cigars, Curios-Photos and so on, down to the intriguing Press-Wines.

Inside, behind the calendars and souvenir cigarette lighters, were two stands of very dusty books. Incredibly, it was a Papeete version of the Take 5 promotion we have going at the library over the holidays, where you check out a bundle of 5 books and see what surprises you get. In La Maison de la Presse the books were all tied together in pairs with string. In Take 5, we like to tempt readers with a theme, like “Great love stories”. I couldn’t tell what strategy lay behind these bundles. I noted Gide’s Les Caves du Vaticane tied to Post Mortem by Patricia Cornwell, Treasure Island tied to a Victoria Holt novel; and Voyage au bout de la nuit, Celine’s dark masterpiece, tied up with Rendezvous a New York by someone named Veronica Bald (if I read my scrawl correctly), a “danseuse francaise” who according to the back cover, had made the bad choice to take risks "that had nothing to do with the professional". Celine loved a couple of dancers; in fact, "Voyage to the end of the night" is dedicated to one. Was this intelligent design?

I asked the French shopkeeper sweeping the footpath outside if I could take a picture of the books. “What books?” he said. It was like the “What hump?” moment in Young Frankenstein.Those interesting books over there, I said, pointing. “Oh no no no” he said, clicking his tongue. “Go to Vaima (the big shopping centre in Papeete, where I have never set foot) if you want to take pictures of books”. I thought, what am I not getting?

A few things, I guess, here and there. “Did you go to a porn shop in Papeete?” asked my husband looking at my just downloaded photos on my return. I went to look over his shoulder. It was a photo I’d taken of the back room of another dusty little tabac-curios shop further up the street, where two blond female mannequins trapped in plastic boxes were stacked one on top of the other. I snapped it because it looked so surreal, a parable for token wives or sports girlfriends. In the foreground, unnoticed by me at the time, loomed a cardboard box bearing the words “Exciting love cushion”, complete with bright red illustration. And all I had been looking for was a pack of tissues to deal with the congestion the vicious airplane air conditioning had brought on.

The best part is that I had thought "Isn't it lucky I remembered the word "mouchoirs" so I don't have to mime it". Who knows what I might have been offered. Anyway the mouchoirs were great, folded origami-like in tiny cubic packs. "I love travelling" I thought, and bought two.

Ditulis Oleh : tosca // 05:30


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