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Vietnam :: Bikinis and Communism

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Saturday, 27 November 2004

I have grown to like the Vietnamese again. I think all it is was getting used to the absence of smiles, and they no longer seem like miserable people. The scams do continue, and day-to-day troubles persist. But it seems like I am now back in France where waiters never smile at you. Maybe the Cambodians were a little too smiley, but they certainly made you feel good. To a certain extent, I regret not having explored Vietnam first, leaving Cambodia for last in my South East Asia trail. I would not have been so struck by the changes in people.

I took a night sleeper (hard mattress) to Sapa, a French colonial hill station built in 1922. Again, I paid $11 for the 10 hour ride, some I heard paid $15, others $6. The taxi from Lao Cai train station dropped us off in a very fancy hotel, which much to my astonishment looks just like the Moulin d’Andé (in Normandy, France). It has a very warm feel to it, even though the temperature barely reaches the 12C mark and the whole of Sapa is drowned in fog. But fireplaces are lit and there’s a small café which has very similar table and bar designs as those at the Moulin.

The Moulin, some may ask what is it? It’s actually part of an amazing yet true story: the way my parents met. So here goes…

The Moulin is an old water mill on the Seine’s river banks in Normandy. A magical place, where many authors, script writers, musicians, playwrights, painters, sculptors and other artists gather throughout the year to find inspiration, peace and tranquility to develop their work. And the place is so full of beauty that it acts as a muse to many. As well as inspiration, the Moulin has created magic of a different kind: my sisters and I are part of ‘les enfants du moulin’ – meaning ‘children of the moulin’: sons and daughters born from parents meeting there.

So the big question is: how did my parents meet there?

During the late 60s, the bikini had just come into fashion. Wearing one was very risqué. Yet this didn’t deter my mother Jane from buying one in Peru (whilst she was living out there). She then flew back to Paris where she was studying at La Sorbonne, and headed down to Tahiti Beach in St. Tropez for a short holiday with a friend. On a bright sunny day by the sea, she decided to wear the bikini for the very first time. She ran off to put it on, and as she got back onto the sand, two men who were walking by stopped in utter amazement and just stared at her. Jane felt very embarrassed: was her bikini on properly? Why were they staring at her? What was wrong? One of the two men approached her and asked: “excuse me? Is that a Sylvana Print bikini?” Much to her surprise, she confirmed it was. The man replied: “I’m the managing director of Sylvana Print, in Peru, and I created this bikini!” – What a small world!

After a long conversation, he suggested to my mother that she ought to visit his brother in Paris. So she did, and became good friends with the brother's girlfriend who later introduced her to one of my mother’s best friends. This friend, Judy, knew about a place not too far away from Paris where artists and painters met for inspiration, and thought they ought to go and check it out.

So my mother paid a small trip to the Moulin d'Andé and soon fell in love with it. Over there, she met a Russian man – my father – who didn’t speak a word of French or English. His tenderness towards animals really caught my mother’s heart: at the time she owned a cocker spaniel that had become pregnant, and the dog took advantage of this man’s tenderness to give birth to puppies at the Moulin. A love story soon struck up and a couple of years later, I was born.

The way my father ended up at the Moulin is a very fascinating story too.

During the early 70s, Vladimir was kicked out of Russia for being a non-conformist artist: after a brief period in jail, he was put on a plane heading to Israel. But during a stopover in Vienna, Austria, he decided to stay there in order to remain closer to his native country - Russia. He later met some people who helped him get into France and set up a new life. These later became very good friends of his and were in many respects his patrons. They were very interested in art and knew the Moulin well. They took my father there to meet other artists of similar background.

Soon, he found a young and beautiful woman, anxious about her dog giving birth. He looked after the animal with tenderness. A love story soon struck up between Vladimir and Jane, and a couple of years later, I was born.

I like to think I’m here in the middle of nowhere – Sapa – thanks to Communism and a bikini! Thank you mum, thank you dad!