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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 was punished with a little bit of a shelling. Ever since, 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.
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 as 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 have 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 playing with her cell phone over playing with 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 all that army crap.
- The recruitment page. But as I said, you have to manage four pull-ups. And you have to be younger than 40.
- More military, more sports and more linguistic stories.
To avoid that I ever have to apply as a mercenary again, I am thankful for any support for this blog. Merci beaucoup!