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French sailors draw the line at fishballs
Hong Kong Standard
Wednesday, June 20, 2007

As they lunched over pate and dragon fruit, 10 officers on the French navy vessel Var, docked in front of Ocean Terminal in Tsim Sha Tsui Tuesday, compared Hong Kong with Paris.

"Everything's much more expensive here," they all agreed - clothes, electronics, housing and even a night out drinking.

Since the vessel arrived in Hong Kong Sunday, its crew of nearly 200 have had a brief opportunity to explore the city and its cuisine - visiting tailors, taking in its panoramic views, and, of course, shopping.

Hong Kong and its skyline, the officers said, are spectacular.

"Everyone's very nice, and the city is really great," said midshipman Samuel Prechains, who has watched the "Symphony of Lights" spectacular in the harbor and gone dolphin-watching.

Yet even as they snacked on juicy lychees, some officers joked about Hong Kong cuisine, mentioning, in particular, that they found fish balls "disgusting."

"We're French, and we're very proud of our wine and cheese," Lieutenant Linke said.

Var was open Tuesday to visitors - the first time in the past year that the French navy has allowed the public to board and experience the ship.

Queues stretched along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, and some had to wait for more than 90 minutes in scorching heat to experience life on board a French military vessel.

Officer Stephan Messager, a helicopter pilot selling Var souvenirs at the stern, said the many local visitors he had encountered were all "very nice, very polite, and very curious."

Visitors clamored to buy T-shirts, pins, hats, and towels featuring Var insignia.

Officer Benoit Boutilie estimated more than 1,000 visited the boat in the morning.

"There are so many people free during the week, it seems," he said, unaware that Tuesday was a public holiday.

Visitors were drawn to the ship for different reasons, ranging from military interest to a curiosity about French culture.

"I want my son to experience the ship and know more about the world," said Michael Pun Sik-hon, who was with his wife Mimie and son Marco. "Everybody knows about the US army, but I have less knowledge of this kind of ship."

Martha Wong Mei-yan and Billy Yuen Shing-chi, who waited in line for 40 minutes, were drawn by an interest in the military.

"We like to play war games," Wong said.

But the officers said they believed the visitors were lured by their interest in things French. "They don't really have an opportunity to visit France," said midshipman Guadin, "and not that many military ships come here."

Jessica Hon Sun-yu and Doris Hon Tung-yue had both visited the USS Abraham Lincoln when it docked in Hong Kong in 2002, and said they were eager to contrast the French and American naval ships.

"What a huge difference," Jessica said. "The American aircraft carrier had many more weapons. We couldn't find any weapons on this ship."

The lack of weaponry, though, is because Var is not a fighting ship, but a command and replenishment vessel. Var sails out Saturday.
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