I KNEW I was in trouble my first morning in Guadeloupe when I called the waitress a dog.
I didn't mean to of course, it just came out that way in French. I immediately tried my best to apologize when I discovered what I'd done, but it didn't seem to do one bit of good.
You see, the waitress couldn't fathom a word of my English, and I couldn't understand a syllable of her French. So we were left there: Me feeling woefully embarrassed, the waitress feeling justly indignant, and my wife Diana, with a barely hidden smile on her face, trying her damndest to look as if she didn't know me.
Perhaps it's best to start at the beginning.
In October my wife Diana and I decided to take 10 days off to enjoy our first vacation in over a year. The summer had hurtled by with only one visit to the beach, so we both agreed to find a place with clear skies, sunshine and surf.
We'd been to the Caribbean once before, to the island of St. Martin. Half of St. Martin was owned by the Dutch, half by the French. We stayed on the French side and found everything splendid--the Creole food, the apartment by the sea, the warm sun and water and especially the people, most of whom seemed proficient in English as well as French.
This time we decided to stick with the French West Indies and chose Guadeloupe, a butterfly-shaped island and the largest of the Lesser Antilles group. It didn't take us long, however, to find out that speaking English there wouldn't get us very far.
When the customs gendarme uttered some French to me and I replied, so sorry, that I didn't speak it, the man sighed, growled something under his breath and looked at me as if I were a farm animal.
When we hopped in the cab and I asked the driver if he spoke English, he replied "a leetle"--the only two English words he knew, it turned out.
Fortunately, Diana speaks French fluently, she being the sort who studied French in high school and college, me being one who took Spanish. So for the next 10 days I let her do the talking and eveything turned out fine.
We sunbathed, snorkelled in secluded coves and feasted on grilled lobster, brochette du boeuf and spicy Creole fish and rice. We slept in a stucco bungalow by the sea. We cooked lamb and chicken dinners in an old hotel run by a delightful elderly woman who claimed she was a descendant of Caribbean pirates and who sat up late at night before a color televison set popping her fingers to the beat of French music.
We met two young Frenchmen, brothers from Grenoble, who were hoping to open an inn on the island and for four days they were our unofficial guides to Guadeloupe. We traveled everywhere with them, from the island's tropical rain forest to the windy cliffs of its southeastern edge, and drank rum and punch in shadowy, out-of-the-way native saloons with colored ribbons for doors and plywood walls adorned by soft-drink and cigarette ads dating from the 1950's.
And we encountered a small cadre of native intellectuals who are active in an island movement to liberate Guadeloupe from French domination. In a beautiful stone and mahogany wood home overlooking the sea, we drank rum with them one starry night and talked for hours in English, French and Spanish about the history of Guadeloupe, the American civil rights movement, and the television show Dallas, which is beamed by satellite to the island, dubbed in French, and has become quite a hit among the natives.
The holiday turned out well after a terribly shaky start during which I learned the island's most imporant lesson: Don't try to speak French unless you're familiar with it.
At the inn where we were lodged, noticing that the waitress resembled the innkeeper, and trying my best to be cordial, I endeavored to ask if she was in fact the innkeeper's daughter.
"Diana," I asked, "how do you say daughter in French?"
Diana yawned, and believing I'd asked how to say "dog," replied "chien."
Full of confidence I approached the concierge and waitress, pointed to the latter, and, smiling quite congenially, asked, "chien?"
It took 10 long minutes for Diana to explain away my ignorance. In the end the waitress seemed to understand and take it in stride, but just to stay on the safe side, and to avoid feeling so ugly, I stuck to "bon jour" and "merci" pretty much the rest of the trip.
It helps immensely to be able to speak French in Guadeloupe. Barring that, go there with someone trustworthy who does, for you'll likely run into a number of exotic souls who will be well worth getting to know.
Guadeloupe is really two islands, Basse-Terre and Grande Terre, connected by a bridge. Basse-Terre is the more spectatcular of the two, with its steep mountain roads, lush sugar fields and banana groves, and a volcano--4,813-foot Mt. Soufriere, that last erupted in 1976. Grande Terre is flatter, but boasts the island's finest beaches and hotels.
Before leaving we consulted a book entitled "Caribbean: The Inn Way," by Margaret Zellers, and found one inn located in the village of St. Anne on Guadeloupe, Auberge Du Grand Large, that seemed to offer exactly what we wanted: The best beach on the island, in an isolated fishing village, and the hottest Creole cooking for miles around.
What we found was very nearly as promised. Each morning the villagers went out on their boats and returned to sell their fish on a quay near the rt. de la Plage. The beach was uncrowded, with white sand and palm trees and calm, turquoise water protected by a sand bar.
And the auberge was pleasant enough, a dozen bungalows nestled near the beach among scores of flowering hibiscus vines.
Unfortunately, the auberge's reknowned restaurant was closed for the off-season, except for breakfast, so we were forced to explore the island's eateries, most of which featured seafood, seafood and more seafood.
Luckily, we like seafood.
At one of these, a restaurant called Le Coquillage, we met the shaggy-haired Besson brothers, Patrick and Jean-Jacques. Out of nowhere a Caribbean storm had come, dropping sheets of rain on the island, and we all were forced to exit the patio for the drier confines of the restaurant's interior.
The scene that greeted us was like something out of the film, "To Have and Have Not." An overhead ceiling fan hummed and the wooden tables were topped with half-empty bottles of rum. Then, to complete the scene, the electricity failed and the waitress had to scurry about to find candles and a battery-operated lamp.
The Besson bothers were sitting at a table next to ours and in the semi-darkness we began talking, Diana doing the translating. Guadeloupe, they explained, was actually a department of France, equal in status to all the country's major cities. The native inhabitants were all citizens of France.
Unlike the island of St Martin, where the French and Dutch inhabitants used English as a common language, the people of Guadeloupe considered English just another foreign tongue rarely used outside the major island hotels that accomodate American tourists.
They said the island's 400,000 votes are so important to French politicians that during each election campaign the presidential candidates visit Guadeloupe, in addition to its sister department, the island of Martinique.
For several years the Besson brothers had operated a magazine shop in Grenoble. They said they had made quite a lot of money and were now looking to move elsehwere to open an inn. They had traveled to India and eastern Europe and were, when we met them, looking over real estate for development in Guadeloupe, before moving on to Martinique. There was so much opportunity for making money in the Caribbean, they said, adding that they wouldn't be the first to move there from the Metropole.
Indeed, throughout the island, from the French restaurants of Gosier, the island's tourists' center, to the sidewalk arts and crafts and clothes boutiques of villages such as St. Francois and St. Anne, countless former Metropole dwellers have come to settle and open shop to cater to the year-round tide of tourists, most of them from France.
Our last three days in Guadeloupe we stayed in the same rooming house asthe Bessons, a place called Villa Antonia in Gosier. It was an old white house overlooking a lighthouse in the bay. On a second floor balcony we drank far too much rum each night with the brothers and other French folk, who were enjoying their annual four-week holidays.
Yes, they reiterated, everyone in France gets at least four weeks off. Does wonders for national morale.
Then we talked about the island's natives, the vast majority of them mulattoes and black descendants of slaves. The natives, they explained, get along fine with the white French, mainly because the island was prosperous, the people were well fed and clothed, and their children enjoyed decent schools.
They pointed to the increasing numbers of refugees from Dominica in Guadeloupe as a sign of the latter's prosperity.
Yes, they said, Guadeloupe is a kind of paradise.
Still, despite the island's appearance of comfort and well-being, we noticed several dismal shanty towns and wondered how content the people really were. It didn't take us long to discover that some in paradise are troubled.
She was a beautiful brown-skinned woman in her forties. We met her on the beach in St. Anne and one night she invited us to her home for drinks with several of her friends. Her home was perched atop a knoll overlooking the Caribbean Sea, and her friends happened to be activists in Guadeloupe's independence movement.
The four of them were not poor people. They included native Guadeloupean executives for Air France and Eastern Airlines, and a radio reporter. They were well-educated and fluent in at least one language beside French. All of them shared a belief that the island's inhabitants should be able to determine their own future independent of France.
It wasn't so much a matter of economics, they said. Like the Besson brothers they explained that Guadeloupeans generally enjoyed comfortable lives compared to the people of other Caribbean islands who have attained independence. This was because France still pumped so much money into the local economy, they said. (Last year alone the French subsidy to Guadeloupe amounted to more than $219 million, according to the French Embassy in Washington.)
Rather, it was a case of identity and geography. France, they said, was thousands of miles away, a mother country doling out a language, customs, and money to a client state in the Americas.
Our identity is supposed to be French, the reporter said, but we are black people living on the other side of the world. Guadeloupean children learn about Napoleon and Francois Mitterand and can name all the rivers in France, but know little about the geography of Guadeloupe and next to nothing about black heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X.
We've heard of this television drama called "Roots," the reporter went on, but the government wouldn't show it here. Few people know anything about the American civil rights movement or King's "I Have a Dream" speech, an airline clerk said, and it's a crime.
That, the reporter added, is the kind of racial identity we need. Independence will come one day, but hopefully it will not be Communist like Cuba's, as poverty-stricken as Dominica's, or as fraught with social turmoil as Jamaica's, they said.
In time Guadeloupe's tourist and sugar industries and the remainder of its economy will be developed to such an extent that aid from France will no longer be necessary, they hope. They admitted, however, that $219 million per year is a lot of money that can't be offset any time soon.
For now, and probably for many years to come, the people will remain dependent on France, they went on.
But one day, perhaps . . .
Then they talked about the Beke, the 3,000 or so Guadeloupean descendants of white slave owners who they said continue to control much of the island's economy, from the tourist business to the sugar industry. They told stories of political machinations involving the Beke, and Machiavellian power moves in industry.
Sounds like "Dallas," we said.
They instantly agreed.
And for the rest of the evening, on a veranda beneath the stars, with our faces flushed from rum, we discussed in Spanish, English and French how dastardly J.R. Ewing really was. CAPTION: Picture, Guadeloupe's Mt. Soufriere as seen from accross the bay by Myron Clement; Picture 2, The Waterfront in Point-A-Pitre, Guadeloupe, Copyright (c) National Geographic