Money speaks Freedom in New Caledonia

by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

New Caledonia, a French-speaking collectivity of our South Pacific stop-over islands on the way to Australia – about 750 miles away — definitely has a “je ne sais crois,” an indefinable special quality. The New Caledonian islands consist of Grande Terre, the Loyalty islands, the Chesterfield islands, the Belearchipelago, the Isle of Pines, and a few remote islets. (I loved Isle des Pins when we stopped there– oh, the nostalgic smell of pine trees for someone born in Canada!) These islands also attract birdwatchers from around the world.

This group of islands was very different from other South Pacific Islands I visited, however. For one thing, it’s noticeable that tropical flora does not have a monopoly on the landscape; trees and plants that are more familiar to the Northern Hemisphere mingle with more exotic varieties here. (I loved Isle des Pins when we stopped there – oh, the nostalgic smell of pine trees for someone born in Canada!) The temperature, too, seemed more moderate when we visited the capitol, Noumea on Grande Terre, an island that has a lot to recommend it.

The residents of Grande Terre pride themselves on being a little Paris of the South Pacific. Most people we encountered could speak English, but the preferred language of this island today is French. The shop windows are fashion savvy and show a high degree of sophistication in the expensive, quality products they display. There are excellent museums, especially the ones that review the World Wars, both I and II. Even the money is French (ah, but New Caledonian French), as we soon discovered when we tried to exchange U.S. dollars for New Caledonian francs (surprisingly, they were worth more than American dollars) at the island’s main bank.

You see, the island’s policy is not to accept any foreign money at all, not even U.S. dollars. Every visitor must change the money of their country of origin to New Caledonian dollars. And if you don’t spend it all, you can’t exchange what is left for your own currency. Since my daughter and I did not have much time to spend on the island, we calculated that exchanging $20.00 US would be ample. We thought that touring the much touted (deservedly) World War II museum would take a couple of hours. That, and a cup of coffee, would consume the time at our disposal before we had to return to the ship.

But we could not exchange $20.00 US. No way, no how. Not at the bank machine, not in the bank. The minimum amount exchangeable was $50.00 US. The museum’s admission price was the equivalent of $2.00 US, so for the two of us, that made $4.00 US. Certainly enough money would remain for a delectable shared French pastry at the corner café and possibly an espresso. Non, non, non. Not possible. It was $50.00 US or nothing.

Americans from the U.S. are not used to discovering that there are corners of the world where their money is scorned. But rejected our dollar bills were. That was the pleasantly-stated decree of the three beautiful, elegantly dressed beauties  – coiffed, made up, bejeweled – as they sat on the stools that graced the long front-counter of the bank. The cashier proffered the same opinion from her caged window at the back of the bank; and, despite our pleas, the even more beautiful and fashionable manager finally summoned from her secluded office confirmed what her employees had said. Nothing less than $50.00 US could be exchanged into New Caledonian money. And no remnant of that money could be changed back.

Until …

Noting that the gorgeous manager’s English was tinged with a French accent – not any old French but quite obviously Parisian French, we began to converse with her in French. New Caledonia reminded us so much of France, we enthused, even of Paree. Oh, yes, we had visited Paris, and, mais oui, of course we spoke French because we were born in Montreal. A French city. So much in common. Suddenly, she was willing to make a one-time exception. The bank would exchange 20 American dollars for us. We exchanged smiles and little pleasantries along with the money. In well-tutored French all around.

New Caledonian money in hand, there was still time for us to enjoy the World War II museum. It is truly a wonderful museum. With considerable artistry and modern technology, it depicts, not only the course of this war as experienced in New Caledonia, but also how such a diverse community, made up of so many different nationalities and ethnic groups, especially the aboriginals, were knit together by war. The population of these islands is a mix of the original inhabitants (the Kanaks), people of European ancestry, Polynesians, Southeast Asians, and those few descended from the Pied-Norand Maghrebans. Periods of slavery (“blackbirding”) were also part of their history. The two hours my daughter and I spent at the museum were not enough to completely integrate all this information.

However, the museum exhibition did help us understand how for years and years, the island had been batted back and forth between so many foreign empires, and why it was so important for the islanders to maintain their independence from foreign influence. These deeply-entrenched feelings extend to their money. Their economy is strong (they have some of the largest deposits of nickel in the world), which give these islands prosperity and financial independence). New Caledonia will therefore conduct its affairs in NEW CALEDONIAN money.

After our museum visit, there was insufficient time for a French pastry or café-au-lait before returning to our ship. But we had gained a valuable understanding. The left-over New Caledonian dollars that remained in our wallets now had a special significance: New Caledonia was no longer a colony of any foreign power. Its non-exchangeable dollars stood for freedom – and unity.