By Lindsay Pepper

La Réunion, by Michelle Schwartzbauer

Michelle Schwartzbauer

During my senior year in college, curious family friends regularly asked, “So, what are you majoring in?” My response was usually met with first enthused, then immediately puzzled expressions. “French? Oh, great! What will do you with that?”

For the rest of my life? We’ll see. For the next year? TAPIF.

The Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) is just what it sounds like—a program that sends Americans to France as Teaching Assistants. The Ministère Nationale d’Education funds a program that compensates native Spanish, German, Chinese, and English speakers to teach their first language in French schools for seven- or nine-month contracts. Not only does TAPIF add an engaging, cultural exchange element to the foreign language departments in schools across France, it also helps French majors across the States feel like their four hard years of conjugating were not all for naught.

The application process is fairly simple, though it does require a 1-2-3 ranking of the regions in France in which you desire to be placed. I sought the counsel of my French academic advisor, who walked me through the regions of mainland France. But then I noticed that the Départements Outre-Mer (Overseas Departments, or DOMs) were included as choices as well. I was familiar with the Caribbean DOMS, like Martinique and Guadaloupe, but as my professor scanned the world map, she offhandedly mentioned, “Well, there’s also la Réunion… but that’s near Madagascar, you don’t want to go there.”

As a lover of all things typiquement français, my professor’s ideal placement would have been Paris or somewhere in the charming French countryside. Can’t blame her. But as a lover of francophone countries on the African continent, a French-speaking tropical island off the coast of Madagascar seemed like the best meal ticket I’d ever gotten. So after noting the island’s location on a world map and doing a quick Google Images search of the place, I marked this mystery island as my number one choice to spend my next year of life—a mere 2 hours after learning of its existence.

It turned out to be the best and most uneducated major decision of my life.
When this little spit of land lost in the Indian Ocean about 400 miles east of Madagascar was originally discovered, there was no one to welcome the weary explorers to its shores; the island had no indigenous population. But after a couple hundred years of changing hands, the French finally came away victorious with their very own coffee- and sugarcane-growing haven that they affectionately named Bourbon Island. After drawing slaves from Madagascar and traders and investors from India and China, the island evolved into quite the Creole mix, and is now known as Reunion Island—signifying the reunion of many cultures harmoniously sharing one piece of land.

Going to Réunion, it was hard to know what to expect. Apart from my French professors, I’d never met anyone who had even heard of this place, much less been there. I tried doing a little research to clear up any lingering questions, and this is what I found: It’s a tropical island, and it’s part of the African region, but it’s not African because it belongs to France, so it is France but it’s nothing like France, but it’s not really like Africa, either. Okay, now try to pack for that.

La Réunion, French Island

La Réunion, French Island

It’s a tropical island. Palm trees, white sandy beaches, coral reef surrounding much of the island, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, mountains, forests, savannah, sun-ripened mangoes, sugar cane, rum, pineapples, tropical fruit galore. Better than the postcards, breathtaking at every turn.

It’s part of the African region, but it’s not African. Although it is only a one-hour flight from the capital city of Madagascar and a whopping 11-hour flight from Paris, the island is a French Overseas Department and therefore residents receive all the perks of French citizens: French infrastructure, education, health care, voting rights, the Euro currency—the list goes on.

La Réunion, French Island

La Réunion, French Island

So it is France, but it’s nothing like France. It is like France in the sense there is an obvious French presence. There are boulangeries on many street corners, French banks and cell phone companies, French cars and traffic laws. Even the TV shows, including the full weather forecast for le metropole (mainland France), are broadcasted in Réunion. So the island is mostly developed in conjunction with mainland France, but this development is juxtaposed to a tropical, laid-back culture that has not forgotten its African roots.

There are two distinguished groups on the island: Creole and Zoreille. Creole denotes a person who is born on the island, usually with some combination of French, Malagasy, Indian and/or Chinese heritage and usually speaks Creole as their first language, possibly in addition to French. Zoreille denotes a person, usually Caucasian, who is from le metropole but living in a DOM. Zoreille comes from the Creole word for ear (derived from oreille), poking fun at how people from le metropole have to tendre (to bend, strain) their ears in order to understand the Creole language.

Among the Zoreilles that I met, taught alongside, and now call my close friends, I noticed an interesting trend. All of them left le metropole and came to Réunion at a pivotal time in their lives. Some came in the wake of a failed marriage, some came to fix their marriage, some came to seek solace after losing a spouse, some simply “needed a change.” For many Zoreilles, Réunion is indeed a tropical paradise, but it’s also much more than that—it’s an escape.

Most Zoreilles in Réunion will tell you that they love the island, but could never live there forever—even those who have already been there 20 years—and that eventually, they will go back to “real life” in France.

In some ways, I identify with that Zoreille mentality. My trip to Reunion did indeed come at a pivotal time in my life—the beginning of my working adult life—and whether or not I intended so from the start, this lovely tropical French paradise did end up serving as a type of escape for me. An escape from the pressures of building a career, from the everyday hustle and bustle of Western living. But also an escape to a beautifully slow pace of life, to a fascinating new culture, and to an immersion in the French language.

Three months after my return to “real life” back in the United States, I’m still toying with the question of what do you do with a major in French. Though I have not yet figured out how to translate my studies en français into a career, I have found one use for my French: it’s my escape. Some might argue that that’s not enough or that I should be pursuing other avenues more aggressively, but my island mentality has left me in a quiet, patient state of contentment. For now, if exploring the obscure corners of the world, discovering hidden utopias like la Réunion is all my degree in French has done for me, I think I’m off to a pretty good start.

Lindsay_Pepper Crop vertLindsay Pepper grew up in Edina, Minnesota where she attended Normandale French Immersion Elementary School and learned to read in French before she learned how to read in English. Later, she earned dual degrees in French and International Studies with a focus in Africana Studies at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. Lindsay is currently living in Monmouth, Oregon and serving as an AmeriCorps member for the Retention Project at Western Oregon University.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, French Impressions: Arnaud de Rambures on the work of the artisan – a combination of love and passion. Arnaud de Rambures, owner and baker of Chez Arnaud, was born in La Réunion, a French Island in the Indian Ocean, writes about the work of an artisan. Included are his favorite cookbooks and the two pastry chefs who continue to inspire him. 

Finding boubous, taibas, and myself in Sénégal, by Ashley Steele, an African American and student of French, who wanted to explore a non-Western culture and its perspective where she found a deep meaning once she stepped foot on African soil. (French)

A French Girl in Greece: On Teenagers, the Sea, and Raisins, by French woman Flore Der Agopian. “In Greece, all foods are natural and we noticed it when we had one mouthful,” Flore comments about her adventures in Greece. “You feel the real taste of the dishes. In France we have some exceptional restaurants, but it can be really expensive when you want to have the same sensation of taste.”

The Stones of Carnac, by award-winning travel writer and photographer, Catherine Watson. Catherine’s career has taken her around the world three times, to all seven continents, and into 115 countries. Writing about this prehistoric site in northwestern France, she describes the giant stones that linger there and stand in rows across the French landscape, shouldering their way over rises, past houses, through farm fields—a granite army, 3,000 strong. 

Text copyright ©2012 Lindsay Pepper. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Michelle Schwartzbauer. All rights reserved.
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.