Monday, May 31, 2010


In Poland, the words Jean Paul II (John Paul II) have only one connotation. On hearing them, you inevitably think of Jan Pawel II, the dead Pope (and a much loved Pole), and the so-called JP2 Generation, a movement of young Catholics who claim to continue John Paul's mission on Earth. In Libreville, however, though Jean Paul II may well refer to the Polish Pope (whose face kindly looks upon the faithful from a billboard in the city centre), it is also the name of a very special place: a street full of maquis, tiny African bars, where you can taste the best grilled fish in town.

The Jean Paul II area is right in the city centre. By day it looks like a very long row of abandoned wooden huts, which in the evening transform like a restaurant Cinderella. They are no longer empty but quite the contrary: full of life and energy, thriving businesses, which look unpromising but smell like decent dinner.

All maquis include: a few wooden tables, some plastic chairs, a big mamma tending to the grill and her slow, unpleasant daughter serving the drinks. You personally choose your fish and haggle (yes, here too!) in order not to pay a ridiculous price. As side dish you may ask for rice, fried banana or the typically African manioc. The fish is served with a savoury sauce with onions and green peppers and maybe some mayonnaise, so make sure to stress you don't want any while you order. It is not just a matter of taste (I personally hate mayonnaise) - uncooked eggs (as well as vegetables) are a rich source of salmonella and the like. Our motto is "The prudent one does not get typhoid fever". Maybe not the noblest of mottos but works for us.

Jean Paul II is not just about the fish, though. If it were, we wouldn't like it so much. It is a typically African part of Libreville - frequented by the actual Africans - which is, at the same time, perfectly accessible to whites. It has all the marks of the African atmosphere: shabby wooden huts, each one with its own bad-quality loudspeakers playing music as loudly as possible (as if to beat the others), grilled fish prepared outdoors, the cooks violating every single health department's rule there is, the Gabonese and their loud discussions, people dancing, people arguing, people having one Règab after another... C'est chaud at Jean Paul II. And yet we're not unwelcome there, even if not exactly welcome either.

Yes, it's dirty, loud and most of the waitresses are unpleasant. But it's also colourful and real and lively. Full of contradictions, tiring, and yet fascinating. Just like Gabon.

Photo by Giulia.

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