All Good Things
From Paris to Tahiti: Life and Longing
In this lushly written follow-up to Almost French, Sarah Turnbull explores a new paradise: Tahiti.
When I’m in waist deep, I stop for a moment to take it all in.
It’s another flawless daybreak; there isn’t a whisper of breeze. In the distance, hovering above the coral reef, the fine mist and spray of broken waves glow like a halo; around me the lagoon spreads a silvery skirt. The surface is so still I feel almost guilty disrupting it. While the temperature may have cooled overnight it is hardly cold, and on this liminal fringe it’s difficult to discern between air and water. I don’t even really feel wet, rather wrapped in the softest silk. Through the crystalline surface, patterns appear magnified and fascinating: the delicate whorls on my own finger pads; the hermit crabs scurrying out of my way, so well camouflaged they look like sand, shifting and blossoming around my feet.
But this ritual has become essential. Briskly, I adjust my swimming goggles. Overhead a couple of seagulls circle, interested only in the tiny fish that spray into air when I dive in.
These first few seconds underwater are like a rebirth. Or maybe they’re more like one of those near-death experiences that survivors liken to being drawn into a tunnel of beauty and brilliance, only here there are no walls, no limit to the luminosity which spreads in every direction. Either way, the unburdening is instantaneous. In the opaline rush of streaming water, a weight I can’t name loses its grip and gets left behind in the fizz of my wake.
One two three breathe. I count my way through the first hundred meters. It takes a few minutes for my limbs to remember the rhythm but pretty soon I’m longer, looser. It’s schoolgirl freestyle: nothing fast or fancy, just enough to earn me third or fourth place in the 50-meter sprint at annual carnivals. But for a shallow breather like me, swimming is fantastic—more than yoga or running or any gym class, it gets me drawing in deep lungfuls of air, and on a good day it feels like someone’s thrown open the windows on that locked and empty space below my stomach. It was my preferred exercise in Paris, too, which is why I was so thrilled we found a house right on the lagoon.
After heading straight out for a couple of hundred meters, at a large head of mustard-colored coral I tack parallel to the shore, keeping an eye out for the stroppy clownfish who doesn’t take kindly to encroachments on its territory. On the sand below, stingrays prowling for shellfish have left winding trails, like spaceships that came and went in the night. The bottom looks close, though you can’t trust distances underwater. Try as I have to pencil-drop to the lagoon floor, my feet never quite touch, though the local spear fishermen descend twenty meters or more without air tanks and flippers.
Early on, an obligation to be adventurous had made me try new directions. Once I struck out for the coral reef 800 meters offshore, toward the glistening frill of freshly cracked waves that delineates lagoon and deep sea. Another time, instead of turning left I headed in the opposite direction for the islet Motu Ahi. The distances weren’t greater than usual and as life changes go these experiments were inconsequential.
Yet somehow those swims had felt all wrong and the days got off to a shaky start. I’d learned my lesson. Now, faced with the freedom of swimming in any direction, I stick to my route like a sure-footed mountain goat, all too aware of the hazards of leaving the trail.
People talk about switching off when they exercise but it is during my morning swims I feel most switched on. Not to reality—at least not realities onshore. Out here the novel that’s going nowhere seems blissfully far away. In this womb of water there is no sense of solitude or emptiness. Even time—whose sluggish pace on land I have come to dread—acquires a playful fluidity, streaming through my fingers in ribbons so satiny and seamless I am barely aware of them.
Instead I switch on to myriad small miracles: the fine comb of a tiny fish fin; the dark grace of a spotted eagle ray, more skybound than waterborne. Or the startled schools that flutter nose-down, like striped snowflakes, when I reach the shelf. The mere sight of the deeper blue waters, looming like a shadowland, sets my heart racing. The drop is only about twenty meters but after the glass shoals it feels like an abyss.
My eyes swivel anxiously, scanning for sharks. They’re only harmless reef varieties, no more than one and a half meters in length, though underwater everything looks bigger. As tests of courage go, it is unremarkable. But these days I’m grateful for any sense of accomplishment, and for me this shelf is a valued challenge, an essential part of my morning ritual.
As abruptly as it fell, the bottom rises again to a shallow garden. The coral is nothing to rave about; the colors are dull and tweedy. Yet between the branches, in the crannies and caves, it’s all go. There’s so much life nibbling, hiding, watching, slithering, darting through tentacles of sea anemones whose tips cling but don’t sting when you brush them.
At the navigation marker for boats, I turn back. My heart starts racing again—not from fear but unbounded pleasure. The return journey is my favorite leg of the swim. With each breath I glimpse the sandy shoreline, fringed with coconut palms, and if I turn my head far enough I can see Mount Mouaputa, watching me unblinkingly with the eyehole that perforates her summit. I stay out deep: right in the boat lane, as Frédéric pointed out, unimpressed. Though by then I’d been swimming for too many months to start worrying about it. At this hour there’s never so much as a pirogue on the lagoon anyway.
Here, over the gently ribbed sandy plain, color and light and volume amp up to create a whole new register of stunning effulgence. Were I an artist, I might be tempted to paint it—look at the wondrous, weightless infinity Monet created out of a garden pond! The water is not simply turquoise; it segues constantly from yellow to honeydew-melon green, from aqua to peacock blue to ultramarine. It’s impossible to say where one shade begins and another ends. Into these radiant splashes and spills the sun has cast a shimmering net. Each diamond-shaped loop undulates, as if to its own song, and because there are millions of them, because the net is infinite, the impression is of something pure and vital, as if this dazzling, dancing filigree of light were the ocean’s pulse or breath.
Science tells us it’s just bending light: sun rays refracting upon hitting the water, as they do on penetrating glass or in the thin, hot air above a road. Science tells us a lot of things. To my mind, the sight—which is felt as much as seen—is enough to inspire belief in God and miracles. And I do believe, fervently—right up until I get out.
I swim the final few hundred meters as fast as I can. Not from a desire for this to end but because my energy is boundless. I feel strong to the core; mighty. I’m flying, gliding, falling. No longer swimming but intent on grasping one of the wands of light, with all my heart wishing I might melt into this wondrous mirror, become part of it, dissolve, before my feet touch land.
Because the temptation to stay in is strong I get out briskly. No lingering in the lagoon— it’s one of my rules. I rinse off quickly under our outdoor shower, positioned between two tall palms. Frédéric jokes that, like having bird poo land on you, getting struck by a coconut might bring good luck—but this is one superstition I’d rather not put to the test.
Though when you want something badly, when you really long for something, you might try almost anything.
"Engaging . . . a South Seas version of Under the Tuscan Sun."
—The New York Times Book Review
“Turnbull is a perceptive, evocative guide to other lands and cultures.”
“Turnbull makes splendid use of her journalistic skills in this entertaining and heartfelt memoir recounting the joys and adventure of family life.”
“Readers will be moved.”
—Herald Sun Weekend (Australia)
“Fluid with vibrant passages about the physical beauty of the island, its tangible lushness…At its heart it is about creative longing and quiet despair.”
—The Western Australian
“A lushly described account of daily life in Tahiti from an outsider’s perspective”
Her easy-going narrative glides from her observations of the scenery and local culture to the influence of painters like Gauguin and Matisse…readers will be moved. — Herald Sun, Melbourne
One of Turnbull’s skills as a writer is to look beyond the surface of places that are the stuff of fantasy. — The Saturday Age, Melbourne
The pages of the book are fluid with vibrant passages about the physical beauty of the island, its tangible lushness and the impact of the Polynesians close to them. At its heart it is about creative longing and the quiet despair Turnbull is thrown into when this is frustrated. — West Autralian
Praise for Sarah Turnbull's Almost French
…a love song to Paris and France, yes, but a love song in a minor key…Readers looking for a cool dose of reality…will be rewarded many times over…[Turnbull’s] got a quick mind, a good heart and a sharp eye for life’s oddities and contradictions. France isn’t a place she has used as raw material for an arch, self-serving book, but a place where she has chosen to live and to become almost—but far from wholly—French…She tells the story of how this came to pass with honesty and a refreshing absence of self-importance. The emphasis in Almost French certainly should be on almost, but Sarah Turnbull seems to have gotten a lot closer to the real thing than most of us who will always be on the outside looking in, even those of us who imagine otherwise. — Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
Turnbull moves her story between the frustration of confrontations with shopkeepers to the wonders of learning that the taste of cheese depends on whether the cows are grazing on spring grass or eating a winter diet of straw. She explores and offers explanations for the French perspectives on issues such as feminism, cooking, homelessness, and family. For those who have visited France, the explanations have a ring of truth. — Maureen Goggin, The Boston Globe
…full of honest ups and downs…its explorations of the “cultural quicksand” Turnbull gradually adapts to are fascinating. I hope to visit Paris one day, and am grateful to learn so many ways to avoid being an ugly American. — Seattle Times/PostIntelligencer
Turnbull’s memoir is a charming, insightful meditation. — USA Today
A bestseller in Turnbull’s native Australia, this cute firsthand look at the hardships of settling into a city infamously chilly to outsiders gives a glimpse of the true nature of Parisians and daily life in their gorgeous city…This is an engaging, endearing view of the people and places of France. If books like A Year in Provence and Under the Tuscan Sun are any measure, there’s a ready market for Turnbull’s contribution to the European expat memoir genre. — Publisher's Weekly
Love and adjustment in a foreign climate…she delivers so much, and so intelligently, on…her life there…An engaging story of a sometimes rocky but ultimately affectionate relationship with another culture. — Kirkus Reviews
Sara Turnbull’s Almost French is a must read for those of us who are being forced to integrate into another culture…Sara’s tales are representative of what one might experience in any unfamiliar world…Like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun, Almost French treats the reader to an insider’s view of the challenges of integrating oneself into a totally different culture. — TravelLady Magazine
Almost French…details a fantasy many women have: falling in love with a Frenchman and being taken to his country where she soon is transformed into the kind of chic, sophisticated, scarf-tying woman France is known for…she has some sage advice for those perpetually confused by the French. She explains it all, her love for Paris shining clearly through the story of her own metamorphosis. — Judy Babcock Wylie, The Daily Harold, Arlington Heights, IL
Turnbull has a wry sense of humor, one that lets us see how difficult it is for a foreigner…to fit in, and feel at home, with the French. — Taconic Newspaper Group
Turnbull has a wry sense of humor, one that lets us see how difficult it is for a foreigner…to fit in, and feel at home, with the French. — The Ripsaw News
Though not a cultural study, it is as educational as it is entertaining. This memoir is a breezy and enjoyable read that offers an insightful look into French culture. — Booknews from The Poisoned Pen
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