6 mins

Rosie Millard on the forgotten corners of France's empire

Rosie Millard talks about the trials and tribulations of taking her children to France's far-flung territories, the DOM-TOMs

Rosie Millard sets off

What is a DOM-TOM?

DOM-TOMS were invented after the Second World War when France was thinking about how to deal with its colonies. Britain came up with the idea of the Commonwealth and granted independence to most of its colonies. France did exactly the opposite and bound its colonies even closer to the Mothership. I think it was possibly because of their humiliation in the Second World War. They were occupied. They wanted to instil a notion of their global importance.

The bigger colonies like Algeria and French Indochina rebelled in the fifties. But the smaller ones, the tiny little islands, the uninhabitable jungles, the ones that had been used by France as a penal colony or a sugar colony or as a place to get fish or fur, they realised there was no point in becoming independent. Not when they had France basically to pay their way.

So they were quite happy to remain part of France. And they were much more than just a colony. They were made into a départements d’outremer (DOM) or a territoires d’outremer (TOM), so the DOM-TOMS. For reasons of brevity the South Pacific ones were meant to be the TOMs and the Atlantic ones tend to be the DOMs, apart from La Réunion. That’s in the Indian Ocean but is also a TOM.

They sound pretty obscure...

There’s one, an island called Clipperton, which is off the coast of Mexico and completely uninhabited – an uninhabited atoll, named after a British pirate and the French have got that for some reason. They had a falling out over it with Mexico.

The French say that if you look at the amount of ocean around each of these islands and the marine sovereignty it gives them, it makes them the world’s second maritime power. They've got all these tiny islands scattered around the world, including Polynesia, which is the size of Europe.

They also quite like saying that the sun never goes down on the tricolore. They love saying that to British people because of course that was the slogan of the British Empire – you know, the sun will never set on the British Empire.

What appealed to you about the DOM-TOMs?

I was fascinated when I found out about them because I find France very alluring as a country. I love its culture, I love Paris and to find that there were these places where France had replicated itself, turned into mini-versions of itself – albeit in tropical areas – was just so interesting. I liked the idea that wherever you are in the world, at twilight, there will be a bunch of French men playing pétanque – there are pétanque squares all around the world, the tricolore flies on all around the world.

So you decided to pack up the kids and go?

I was thinking about taking the children on a big trip around the world anyway. It’s a thing you tend to think about when you’re in your mid-forties, I suspect. My parents had done the same when they were in their mid-forties. They took us off to a mission hospital in one of the former homelands in South Africa. It was completely remote – on a dirt track road, you had to boil all your water and there were snakes. It was very, very exciting in the mid-70s. So I thought if my parents could do it – they were pretty conservative doctors – then we can do it.

What did you want your children to get out of the trip?

Children are very conservative. Mine resented being taken out of their very comfortable English environment. This is what I wanted. I wanted them to see somewhere outside the Anglophone bubble.

But I didn’t want to be irresponsible about it. I did not want to take them somewhere like the Congo, which is dangerous and full of internal strife. So basically that France had these places that were a) tropical; b) French and c) functioned properly with proper roads and the French institutions, like health and education.

So you’re not going to be deserted, abandoned to people bearing machetes. You could have the experiences of a global journey but without the underlying risks.

What French things do the DOM-TOMs hold on to?

A variety of things, depending on how French they feel themselves. Saint Pierre et Miquelon, which is entirely filled with French descendants, holds on to an awful lot of French things. It's a tiny little rock in the North Atlantic, just south of Newfoundland, but the Art Centre will only show French films, they will only have French singers, even though they are right next to Canada. They only have French food in the supermarket and their bakery will only use French flour. They have one industry there, which is teaching the French language to Canadians, to refine their accents, to get rid of the ugly Québécois accent and give them a beautiful Parisian one.

If there is an indigenous population, however, the French influence does get diluted. Mare, an island off New Caledonia, is essentially 90% Melanesian and the French touch is light. The locals live in huts, they work on barter, there’s meant to be no money. They are trying to live this tribal lifestyle.

The French still seek to have their influence in the schools though. All the children have to follow the French curriculum, so whatever the children in Orléans are doing on Tuesday morning – say they are doing maths followed by French history – the children in Mare, who live in huts, live by a barter system and speak Melanesian, will also be doing maths followed by French history. And they have to speak French at all times in school, including in the playground.

Which of the DOM-TOMS did you enjoy the most?

When the children are asked they say, "Oh Polynesia!" But my favourite, for many, many reasons was French Guiana.

My God! Flying into French Guiana, you descend through these trees, you fly into the bloody jungle and drive from the airport through a torrential downfall and there is Monsieur Bricolage, which is the French equivalent of a DIY shop, with vultures hanging over it in the air – just a hysterical combination of France and utter tropical jungle.

Guiana was famously a penal colony. The French looked at what the British were doing in Australia and thought, "This is rather handy, we’ll reinvent Guiana as a penal colony" and they built the most horrendous prison there on Devil’s Island. If you stole an apple in Paris you could be packed on a boat to Guiana where you were highly likely to die of malaria or yellow fever in about six months and if not you would die of malnutrition or terrible physical abuse.

The French are kind of embarrassed about having such a terrible legacy in Guiana. So they have reinvented it as a nature reserve. There are two huge national parks, the biggest national parks in France are in Guiana. It’s the old joke question – "What’s the longest border in France?" and everyone goes "Spain and France!" but really it’s French Guiana and Brazil.

You can go and stay in these wonderful houseboats on the swamps. They’re three storeys high with hammocks and cold showers and wonderful French food, croissants and so forth, and you can drink rum and go out at night to spot caimans and wonderful stars. It’s just absolutely magical. It’s completely wild. These jungles are absolutely beautiful. They are kept in pristine condition by the French. There is no litter or people buzzing around on jet skis or anything like that. They are beautiful and magical and tropical and quite extraordinary.

I'm guessing it was also pretty hard going...

It was a bit of a trial. There were enormous cockroaches on the floor of our tiny little hotel room, the children had to take anti-malarial pills all the time – they hated doing it. We had to eat stewed iguana at one point, which was completely horrendous. There were claws floating in the stew. We nearly got burgled.

But it was a real adventure. You had to focus every day on being safe but I’m so proud that we did it. The rest of the trip was pretty easy by comparison to Guiana.

How did the children find Guiana?

It had a very interesting bonding effect on the children because they realised that it was dangerous and intrepid. We went on a walk and met some nutty guy who lived in the jungle. He said "Don’t stand on that log. You’ll disturb a family of biting ants." The children go "What log?” standing on it and tramping on all these ants and basically the ants just swarmed up our legs and bit us. Really badly. It was like a red hot bloody needle. The children went, "Aaarrgghh!" and I was going, "Aaarrgghh!" ripping off my trousers. My husband was collapsing with laughter filming all this.

These are the kind of memories that I want to give the children. They’re young enough to be bossed around by me and be taken there but they’re old enough to remember "When we got attacked by biting ants." We laugh about it now and that’s what made it a fun trip.

What effect did the trip have on your relationships, with your kids. With your husband?

People think that when they go around the world it’s going to change them into new people. It doesn’t. What it does is magnify qualities in you. So it magnified my wish for order, so I became manic about packing. It magnified my husband’s bossiness, because he was directing me and I got fed up with being ordered around the whole time. It magnified the children’s naughtiness.

But, like I said, the children really did bond together and formed this kind of pack . And now, back in London, if we catching a bus I’ll say ‘There’s a bus coming, run!’, they don’t go 'My foot hurts!' or 'Can you carry this bag?' They just start running. They have a faith in me that I’m not going to mess up and they also have a confidence in themselves – a confidence in getting through possible obstacles which I think is quite useful.

Do you have any tips for keeping a family relatively sane and relatively healthy on such a big adventure?

Just common sense. Don’t drink the tap water. Keep everyone hydrated. Make sure they’re not going to get sunburnt and don’t think you have to give them the sort of things that children demand on holidays like ice cream. We had hardly any money going around so we ate things like Campbell’s tinned soup, which was quite healthy and quite safe because it was tinned.

The main thing is don’t take too much stuff with you. You do not need to take masses of electronic gizmos. You don’t need to take masses of clothes. We only took four pairs of knickers each and two t-shirts. I took loads of travel wash and at night, my nightly ritual was to wash everyone’s clothes. I had a little washing line where I’d hang it all up. Which was great. Except for Saint Pierre et Miquelon which was completely fog infested and nothing ever got dry so we just lived in dirty clothes.

I think people take far too much stuff on holiday with them. You don’t need to take toys or books for children. A couple of poetry books and a pad that you can play games on it. You don’t want your children busying themselves on a Nintendo DS or DVD machines. There was no point them having their heads stuck in a machine when we were showing them a tarantula crossing a road or being bitten by a black ant. If you’re too busy listening to your iPod you're not in the moment.

What was the lowest point of your trip?

Day one! We arrived in this place, a complete dump, Saint Pierre et Miquelon, and nobody was expecting us. We were staying in the most horrendous self-catering apartment in the basement of a student hostel. There was no cutlery, an oven with just one ring, the loo exploded at night and all the contents of the sewer gushed out of it into our bathroom and it was completely horrendous. The beds were rickety. The pillows were these horrendous knotted, gnarled, rock-hard things and I remember thinking it took us two years to organise this trip and I don’t want to be here. I want to be back at home.

There’s a sign post in Saint Pierre et Miquelon which shows the capitals of all the other DOM-TOMs around the world and how far they are – Noumea, New Caledonia, 35,000 kilometres, Paris, pointing the other way, 10,000 kilometres. I looked at this signpost, at all the places we had to go to and I just thought ‘We’re not going to make it, this trip is too improbable, it’s too unlikely, it’s too hard.’

But the idea of coming home, with our tails between our legs, was so horrendous, was so unthinkable that we thought we’ve just got to do it. What a really low moment, really awful. The children were going, "This is boring! This is boring!" And this was on day one!

But then, as we got going, we got more confident. It got better.

Most abiding memory?

Again, in Guiana. We happened to be there on Bastille Day and there were all these bourgeois doctors from Paris. They all got up bleary eyed – they’d spent the whole night before drinking rum – and sang La Marseillaise at dawn, clutching their croissant and bowls of coffee. It was just the most amazing sight! Hearing the French national anthem being sung by Parisian doctors over the mists and reeds in the midst of Amazonian rainforest. We weren't in France, yet they were behaving as if they were.

The French are mad, but you’ve got to love them for it. They’re blocking their ears to the fact that English is the world’s language. They’re like "No! No! Here that is not the case." They subsidise these DOM-TOMs to keep their culture alive. It’s like a parallel world and they don’t care if the rest of the world thinks that they’re bonkers.


Bonnes VacancesRosie Millard's account of her journey to the DOM-TOMs, Bonnes Vacanes! A crazy family adventure in the French Territories, is available on Amazon now.



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