In the Foreign Legion

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A few years ago, the desire for education reared its nosy head again, remembered the high school from which I had graduated decades before, and was in deep and mournful regret that I had never awarded the same attention to the language of Germany’s neighbor to the west as I had to English, which, to add insult to injury, now claimed the Romanic title of lingua franca.

It happens however that I live in the most provincial rural area in Bavaria, where people are against anything international, but in particular against anything French because in 1796 our little town blocked the path of the advancing Napoleonic army and punished with a little bit of a shelling. Ever since then, neither the Institut français, nor the Alliance française, nor a proper baguette bakery have been able to gain a foothold in Amberg.

So if I wanted to reactivate, renovate, emend, advance and polish my French, I would have to travel into the big wide world. Preferably to France.

But how to finance such an endeavor? I always found applying for scholarships too much paperwork hassle. And even if progress could be made by simply listening, reading and speaking French in everyday life, I would need to work somewhere for food, shelter and Gauloises. But, from reading Germinal, I remembered that working conditions were still miserable, despite the revolution. I didn’t want to work myself into a hunchback.

And then, maybe it was because the Vietnam, Golf or some other War was happening at the time, the Foreign Legion marched into my mind. This third French institute of culture and language, which does not not only pay its students the aforementioned basic necessities, but also work clothes and even a salary.

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So I got on the train to Marseilles. Many trains, actually, via Nuremberg, Stuttgart, Karlsruhe, Basel, Dijon and Lyon. About 30 hours. A lot of time to think, little time to sleep. The other people on the train were tourists going to the Côte d’Azur for swimming, sailing and snorkeling. Carefree and jaunty. Two weeks of holiday, everything paid already. But after that, they would have to return to the coal mine in Klagenfurt or the brewery in Dortmund, for which I didn’t envy them a bit.

I arrived in the morning.

At the station, I asked around for the Légion étrangère. Chemin de Génie No. 18, somebody said, and to me, the name of the street was waving in the wind like the flag of fate. What a fitting address. I would never be able to stop smiling when giving my postal address with the immodest “Way of the Genius”.

I had to march a few miles from the station, but I wanted to freshen up after the long train ride anyway. The sun, the breeze from the sea, the brisk walk and above all the light, that light in the Mediterranean which made me wonder why the same sun doesn’t shine the same everywhere. I had to go to the most western point of Marseilles. The neighborhood laid there almost like an peninsula, and I noticed that it was as close as one could get to Monte Cristo Island with Château d’If.

My heart beat faster, my mouth became dry, as I counted the numbers at the side of the road. 12, 14, 16, there it was. Chemin de Génie No. 18. The soldiers seemed to have really nice apartments! With a view of the island, exactly one nautical mile away. I rang the bell and I want to shorten the ensuing conversation, as it would reveal some embarrassing details. To sum it up: I had been sent to the Centre des convalecents et des permissionnaires de la Légion étrangère, to the Legion’s retirement and nursing home. Whether it had been a joke or if the man at the train station hadn’t known any better, I never found out.

But at least the convalescing combatants could give me the correct address: “For recruitment, you have to go to the barracks in Aubagne.” That’s about 7 miles outside of Marseilles, the train had passed through the little town. Had I known that, I would have jumped off there.

To Aubagne I didn’t walk. Bus lines 69 and 100 go there, I am just mentioning this in case any of you has got the same plan. Meanwhile, it had become afternoon, and I should have eaten something. Or slept. Or first eaten and then slept. But I wanted to go straight to the Legion, on the first day, instead of loitering around town and risking that I would end up at university or in a relationship instead.

In Aubagne, the Centre de présélection was in Route de la Légion, which really made more sense than the folly with the geniuses. But it looked far less noble. More like a decaying youth hostel or an old kibbutz. The ashtray in front of the door was a steel helmet turned upside down. An army with humor, that was a good sign. Maybe it would really be as funny as in The Good Soldier Švejk.

In a way, it was already my second attempt that day, so I was less nervous as I stepped through the glass door under the letters Information – Recrutement. But as soon as I had spoken my first sentence, the sergeant got up and pointed me towards the door through which I had just entered. “Why?”, I asked, not yet having learned that this is a taboo word in the military. Because I had shown up without an appointment? Or were there no job openings? Was my French too bad? But I had come exactly to repair that fault.

But the non-commissioned officer wasn’t unfriendly at all. He walked through the door ahead of me, into the garden and to something that looked like a playground. There were climbing frames, ropes hanging from beams, with a big fat knot at the bottom, and horizontal metal bars, maybe to attach swings. Only the ground wasn’t as nice as you see it at modern playgrounds nowadays, where they have this bouncy rubber, so that the child plopping from the seesaw don’t disturb his mother, who is sitting on a nearby bench, but prefers to play with her cell phone over her son. There, it was only dusty, hard, dirty sand. Probably, there were even snakes.

The sergeant went straight to the metal bars, where the swings were missing, pointed to them and said: “Quatre tractions.” Now, you have already gathered that my French was rather schooled by Hugo than in the hood. I didn’t understand what “tractions” were supposed to be. But apparently, this had happened more often, because the Frenchman, who, as it only appeared to me later, must not necessarily have been French, for after all, this was the Foreign Legion, not the French Legion, stooped to the use of English, just for once: “Four pull-ups.”

I couldn’t pull them off.

Then, I went to the harbor in Marseilles, got onto a ship, emigrated to South America and learned Spanish. A much nicer language anyway. And less command and obedience and parachuting and such crap.

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To avoid that I ever have to apply as a mercenary again, I am thankful for any support for this blogMerci beaucoup!

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
This entry was posted in France, Language, Military, Sports, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to In the Foreign Legion

  1. Pingback: In der Fremdenlegion | Der reisende Reporter

  2. Do people still join the French Foreign Legion? I guess if they can do 4 pull ups, they do.😂 Great story!

    • And from some of the comments I have received, it seems that 4 pull-ups are considered easy peasy. lemon squeezy.

      Well, I am more into training my brain than my biceps.

      I don’t think the French Foreign Legion has any problems with recruitment, they seem to find enough people to fill the ranks. And they often deploy where the French Army deploys overseas (like Mali or Afghanistan).

  3. Also, I was looking at your book wish list… I have a copy of Night Train to Lisbon. Can I send it to you or would an amazon credit be better? It’s a good book, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Let me know.
    – Angie

    • Ohh, that would be wonderful if you could send that to the address in the Azores! (If that won’t cost too much.)
      You are now the second person to recommend it and I am really curious.

    • I was a shocked at the price of shipping a book. The cheapest I could find was if I were to buy a used soft cover and have the bookseller send it. That would be $25.00 and take 4-6 weeks. For me to send my hardcover is closer to $40. I think you could find a better use for the money than the cost of shipping. I will send you the “idea of the book” in the form of paypal😂

    • Hello Angie,
      thank you very much for your very generous donation!
      And you are right, that’s really better than to give it to UPS or FedEx or some other postal organisation. These charges are outrageous.
      Let someone from Europe send me the book, from there the postage will be much cheaper. (As far away as the Azores are, they are in the EU.)

  4. 🙈 Jajajaja sabía que me iba reír, la milicia no es para ti, fue mejor venir a Sur America y aprender español, cuando una puerta se cierra se abren dos !!

  5. Tim Burford says:

    I could explain what génie actually means, but that would spoil your fun.

  6. Thank you soooooo much Andreas!!!!
    It was the first thing I read this morning.

    • I love it when your first thoughts in the morning are about me. ;-)

    • I really like the way you write, I could visualize your trip by train and you arriving in the city and feel your excitement and expectations. I could see myself many times in similar situations in a new city, trying to move straight to the purpose of the trip, not to waste time or end up in another relationship 😅

    • You did end up at university many times, though, Dr Cassia!
      Which, from all the options presented in the article, really is the best place. I at least feel much more at home in a library than with someone shouting at me.

    • True, in the end me too, I left all jobs where I was getting someone “shouting at me” as well and I chose libraries, universities and lot of free time….I think we both ended up well in the end :-)

  7. Haha I would have had a hard time imagining you there;)?
    But you were serious it seems!
    Remains a pretty dark institution to me…

    • I can’t really imagine myself there, either. It’s probably not a hotbed of intellectual debate. I would still like to go to Afghanistan or Mali, but I might actually see more of the country if I go on my own instead of sitting in a fort.

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