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© 2002
La Légion Étrangère - un métier d'homme!

by Alan C. Baird   (1816 words, 6-minute read)

Affiches Voyage, Baie des Anges"The Biz is failing miserably. It's time to join the Foreign Legion." I burped for emphasis.

The Dane shot me a sidelong glance with bloodshot eyes, and smiled ironically. "It's true, our business is not doing too well, but we're having the time of our lives on the Côte d'Azur!" He giggled.

I snorted in disgust. He was quoting that bubbly TV travel ad again. His droll Nordic sense of humor was beginning to try my patience. Here was a man who could pun in four languages, only two of which could I understand. By silently farting at a crucial point during our beerfest last night, he had even made an olfactory pun. That suave multilingual sophistication and wit was getting to be damned irritating.

When we started our teeshirts-to-the-tourists business, we had unwittingly chosen the worst year for vacationers in the last two decades, and hardly anyone was buying. We would roll out of bed at 5:00 a.m., load up our Citroën Deux Chevaux (nicknamed "Blueballs" because of the twin blue globular headlamps protruding from the fenders, which lit our way into the misty Mediterranean morning), and head off to one of the local outdoor markets. Monday found us in Nice, Tuesday in Vallauris, Wednesday in Beaulieu, Thursday in Antibes, Friday in Biot and Saturday in Valbonne - which added up to a solid six days of rejection per week. The French bureaucracy limited us to selling in the local open-air marchés, which were geared more toward the locals, rather than tourists. We invariably set up our portable clothing racks next to someone selling kitchen equipment or house plants, and hoped that a few adventurous vacationers would find us before the market broke up at noon or one o'clock.

We attempted to be sharp "commerçants," but for a couple of supposed businessmen, our French was severely impaired. The main difference between Jørgen and me was that he studied to improve his usage, while I just scrambled around enough to get myself into and out of scrapes. Three months of enduring haughty professeurs at the Université de Nice was as much book learning as I could stomach, thank you. I also entertained a hopelessly romantic dream of falling in love with a mademoiselle and improving my French organically. But the prospects were slim. My English accent in French was not nearly as charming to the local women as their French accents sounded to my American ears. Then there were the rumors from some of my male classmates: after taking French women to bed, these undercover men reported the incessant nagging about marriage, which began almost immediately.

So maybe this wasn't the best language study method after all.

1910 promenade des Anglais, Nice France, 76KbIn the jaundiced eyes of France's bureaucracy, I wasn't legally entitled to start the Biz. I had entered their country on a student visa, and the procedural gauntlet for obtaining a Carte de Commerçant, their highly-prized sales permit, was designed to discourage half-baked foreign entrepreneurs. After several weeks of being brushed off by the gendarmes in the Préfecture and the officious city bureaucrats in the Mairie, I struck upon the idea of forming a partnership with my new acquaintance from Århus. The last thing a Mayor's flunky had mentioned, before heaving me out of his office, sounded something like: "Only Common Market citizens can do business here." Those fateful words dredged up many alcohol-blurred memories of my recent introduction to eastern Jutland's nightlife, a Death Tour which featured endless shots of Jägermeister. The drinking spree had sparked a camaraderie of sorts, so, on a whim, I dialed Denmark. A Common Market country.

When Jørgen agreed to this harebrained scheme, it shocked the bejesus out of me.

Citroën Deux Chevaux, front wheet driveMy new partner acquired a new nickname this morning, during Blueballs' starting ritual. With his limited knowledge of cars, this guy inspects only the spark plugs; whenever anything goes wrong, out they come. So imagine my consternation when Blueballs developed what seemed to be a spark plug problem; I knew the crazy Dane had been keeping them clean as a whistle, because he doesn't know how to do anything else. I finally looked in the engine, and... guess what? He hadn't screwed 'em in tight.

Ol' Sparky will never live this one down.

The jaded, cynical side of our collective sense of humor was coming to the fore, as this poorly-funded and -planned business went down the tubes. When things looked the most futile, we kept up a brave front by talking about the Foreign Legion. Our perception of La Légion had been formed by a multitude of Hollywood movies, where it was portrayed as a last resort: a place to escape an unhappy love affair, or to run from one's sordid past. So we jokingly dared each other to join the Legion and escape our financial woes.

The Foreign Legion, a man's workBut finally, we decided that today was our date with destiny. Squaring back our shoulders, we marched into the local Foreign Legion garrison to ask for information. We were met by the Adjutant, a mysterious man in dark glasses. He was dressed in the typical Legionnaire costume: khaki fatigues and a kepi, the Corps' trademark sawed-off stovepipe hat, which sported a baseball brim. He spoke French with an exotic accent and lethargic cadence, much like an addict who's just shot up.

He wouldn't reveal his nationality.

The interview was a bizarre experience, marked by waves of panic which washed through every nerve. Our instincts were screaming, "Get the hell out!" But we were very thorough, looking dutifully through a scrapbook which told us in seven languages (with colorful pictures of high adventure) that "no identification papers will be required." The man in the shades described a "faux nom" system, which forces every recruit to accept a new name, corresponding to his registration name only in the same initial letters. The Adjutant gave us all sorts of posters to take home, and we admired the trophy case which offered Legion paraphernalia for sale: tie tacks, money clips, mugs, jugs and teeshirts.

The faux nom system was curious, to put it mildly; it's a dead giveaway about the type of people who would be attracted to the ranks. You aren't allowed to use your real name until three years have passed, and even then, it's not required. Despite the literature which claims Legionnaires are neither mercenaries nor outlaws, what can one think about people who don't want to disclose their identities? Who were these men, looking forward to the Legion's promise of French citizenship under a new name at the end of their five-year enlistment?

So a new method of learning French surfaces (you're not required to know Webcamthe language, because you'll learn to speak it during the term of your "contract"). Sparky and I stumbled away from the barracks, and drove off in a daze; it was hard to shake those chills which we had received from the man behind the Foster Grants. During most of the ride home, we punctuated our long silences with exclamations of "No identification required!" and "Faux nom!" The clear implication was this: if you can get to the Legion before the pursuing authorities close in, you can literally disappear.

Since 1831, the Legion has been the only organization of its kind in the world: taking in misfits and criminals of any nationality, then putting them through a five-year meat grinder to make them into model French citizens.

The really disturbing part, though, was the milieu which was only half-suggested by that scrapbook. The Adjutant, in his dark glasses and drugged voice, neatly fit the description of what most medical literature calls Brain Death: the body keeps on living, but there's nothing going on upstairs.

I imagined that he appeared to us as the spider looks to the fly.

On our way back from the garrison, we stopped to pick up an older man, hitchhiking beside the road. He acted oddly when we pulled over: checking out the license plate, he then mentioned the trailing "06" upon Riviera air showentering the car. He obviously knew that it indicated a registration in the Riviera département of Alpes-Maritimes. After Blueballs started moving again, he quickly abandoned our halting version of French, in favor of Sparky's fluent German. I was mesmerized by the tone poetry of a language which made no sense to me: the throaty gutturals, and the words which sounded almost, but not quite, like English. Finally, one phrase pushed its way through the comprehension barrier: "Heil Hitler!" My head snapped around to look at this passenger in the back. He smiled broadly at Sparky in the mirror, and casually watched me from the corner of his eye. Sparky grinned nervously in the driver's seat next to me; this conversation obviously made him very uncomfortable. I noticed some sweat beading on his upper lip. Given the loaded connotation of the phrase which our passenger had just spit out, I deduced it would be unwise to question anyone, in any language. Also, Sparky was obviously looking for a place to pull over; I guessed that the man in the back had made a request to get out at the next intersection.

As we drove off after depositing the guy, I was eager to pump some information from Sparky, but he seemed to be in shock. After awhile, he asked me to drive, and haltingly told the story:

Our rider had been in the Foreign Legion for nineteen years, and was discharged in the early sixties. Sparky was naturally curious, and the man related some of his war stories. However, he also mentioned that the Corps hadn't really satisfied his "appetites," and made allusions to dark deeds done during the war. It slowly dawned on me that his appetites had nothing to do with eating, drinking, or sex. And his final defiant exclamation indicated that he wasn't even slightly remorseful about the things he'd done. The Legion meat grinder had cranked out another citoyen modèle.

To us, it seemed typical that the French, with their maze of red tape, tyrannical bureaucracy, and repressive laws, would provide a loophole like La Légion. We retreated from the awful specter of Brain Damage and War Crimes into the bright Riviera sunshine, although one nagging thought still plagued us. Remembering the famous case of that comatose, brain-dead woman, the poor lady who had been maintained on life support for several pointless years, we harbored a nasty sneaking suspicion that she would've made the perfect Legionnaire wife...

Also: À la Recherche des Têtes Perdues

Alan's short fiction and poetry have surfaced in several anthologies, and his humorous and technical articles appear in various periodicals (including PC, Playboy & Britain's Guardian and Screenwriter). All four of his screenplays have advanced during international competition, and he's inordinately proud of the fact that his undergraduate film was acquired for background by the Max Headroom TV series. He recently completed his first one-act, which has attracted several production offers. A Harvard Book Prize recipient, he's coauthored a guide which describes the challenges and pleasures of collaborating on a dramatic script via eMail.