Tomorrow is my birthday. It looks like being a pretty regular day – a dentist appointment, some Christmas shopping, a bit of writing, maybe a glass of wine in the evening. A far cry from my birthday three years ago – my 50th – which I spent with my husband in Tahiti. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it - celebrating together on the most romantic island in the world? Well, no, that's not exactly how it was.
We couldn’t afford to be there in the first place. My first agent had told me, “I know you could probably write this book [Children of Eden] right now, but I can tell you that every potential publisher will ask you if you’ve been to Tahiti and if you say no, that’s going to dent your credibility.” I’d been hoping to spend my 50th in Venice but decided I’d better change our destination – even though it was much more expensive to fly half way around the globe to an island where everything is imported and costs a small fortune. Yes, we stayed at the Sheraton (only in American-owned hotels was there any guarantee of air conditioning), but we ate in our room like impoverished students, surviving on a diet of subsidized French bread and cheese and cans of imported sardines.
The second unglamorous factor was the weather. Having lived through many a steamy Washington summer, we thought we knew humidity. We were wrong. Being out in the Tahitian summer air was like being licked by the hot damp tongues of animals. Every inch of you sweated at every moment – even when it rained. Every day until my birthday, the sun shone fiercely in a deep blue sky as we rushed around the island (in an expensive rental car that we could only afford for four days) trying to find all the places I needed to see so I could write about them later. We promised ourselves we’d take the next day off to sit by the infinite pool at the Sheraton and treat ourselves to one cocktail each to toast my new decade. But the next morning we opened the heavy curtains to a monsoon. No romantic pool-side birthday for me. We spent the afternoon in the town cemetery, looking for names, just us and a bunch of soggy chickens picking our way between the graves.
Third, they speak French in Tahiti – it’s been an outpost of France of one sort or another since 1842. Now I studied French for 6 years in high school and I was even married to a Frenchman for a year or two, but I cannot honestly say I speak the language. I can read it - lord knows I’ve worked my way through enough 19th-century French memoirs in the course of researching Children of Eden - but the spoken language is a whole different ballgame. And my husband speaks not a word. So it was up to me to struggle along in my pidgin French, understanding only every third sentence. I hadn’t thought it was possible to perspire any more than I was already doing, but it turns out that trying to summon up the right tense from some long-ago school textbook of French verbs really revs up the sweat glands. I muddled along okay when buying a soda or asking for our door key, but I had actual questions to ask real people – people descended from the characters I am writing about, who had stories that I needed to hear. Thank god a few of them spoke as much English as I did French, because otherwise we’d have been reduced to nodding and smiling. Which wouldn’t got me very far.
Then to top it all off, it took us the best part of two days to get home, including a 16-hour layover at LAX after our plane to Dulles was cancelled during which I broke a tooth.
But then there were the extraordinary moments – my first sight of the island of Moorea from the Sheraton’s terrace, a spectacular view I’d been reading about for years (see the picture above), seeing the little yellow house where members of the Salmon family have lived for over a century still standing among the hideous concrete buildings of Papeete, eating at a McDonalds at Punaauia that must have the most beautiful view in the world. And I do want to go back one day, maybe after – God willing – the book is published, but next time we go it’ll be in the balmy Tahitian wintertime, we’ll take along a translator, and we’ll have that cocktail by the Sheraton's infinity pool on someone else’s dime. Hey, a girl can dream….