A long time ago . . .

No, it was not in a galaxy far away and, measured by most standards, it was not even so very long ago. But five decades is a long time for two people. That milestone just seemed to beg for special recognition.

So it was with a sense of wonder and mixed expectations that my husband and I set off in late January to revisit the city where we met some 51-plus years ago and married a year and a half later. As it turned out, our wedding date fell on the same day of the week as it had 50 years previous. We were astounded.

Paris, France

Oh, yes. Mais oui! It was Paris that brought us together, Paris that we loved, and Paris that was the destination for our anniversary celebration. Even though we have traveled abroad over the course of our 50-year togetherness, even to France, we stubbornly refused to book a trip to Paris, although we had repeatedly considered it. We were concerned that, after years of absence, it would somehow disappoint.WP_20180125_15_56_05_Pro

We held to the mantra: We’ll return for our 50th anniversary, although it was often in jest.

But return we did!

Paris has changed a great deal in the intervening years. As have we. Paris has changed not at all. And perhaps we are not so different either.

We visited the city as tourists on this trip, because even though the city felt familiar, and much of it looks the same, Paris felt different somehow. No longer home, we viewed the monuments and the avenues, the food and the traffic, the rainy mist and the sparkling lights through different eyes, and heard the sounds of a language we no longer felt quite proficient in. But we were nonetheless entranced.

The Essence of Deja Vu

I now know with certainty what Thomas Wolfe expressed. No, you can’t go home again.

Revisiting a place once so familiar and well-loved is always a new experience. It can be wonderful. And Paris does not disappoint.

Returning to the synagogue where we exchanged vows was an emotional experience. Rabbi and Cantor welcomed us, complete strangers congratulated us, and we were greeted and embraced by a community we did not know at all, but somehow knew very well! We will treasure the memory of that evening.

We drove past the Mairie in Boulogne Billancourt where our union was solemnized and recorded under French law. We barely recognized it.

We engaged in numerous “Do you remember” conversations, walked back streets and photographed favorite Parisian landmarks from afar.

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We felt no need to pay admission fees to revisit them. Nor did we set foot in any museums, pay the price for a gourmet meal at a renowned restaurant or spend a night “out on the town.”

Just as we had when Paris was our home, we savored the simplicity of life. Corner markets and flower stalls, changing light patterns, simple foods and table wine, parks and playgrounds are every bit as impressive as grand boulevards and monuments!

The Familiarity of Change

We did, however, make our way to Au Pied de Cochon, a landmark restaurant in the former district of Les Halles. WP_20180128_15_36_52_ProIt was once a regular late night gathering spot, and it has been open 24-7 since 1947. Onion soup and moules with frites are still good, but perhaps no better than at a local bistro. What is worthy of note is the redevelopment of this busy formerly bustling market area. It’s been a long time coming, but today the city’s major transportation hub has been transformed into an oasis of contemporary urban culture. It’s impressive to the max!

We stood in awe in the chilly dusk to hear the chimes of the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and then we hailed a cab to return us to our hotel near the Etoile. WP_20180127_21_33_36_ProWe enjoyed a simple  dinner and a sinfully rich dessert at a small neighborhood eatery, charmed by the friendliness of everyone there: Italian chef, attentive server and fellow patrons alike. A couple at a nearby table could not fathom why we chose to stay away from Paris for 50 years. In the warmth of the moment, we didn’t understand it either.

We fell easily into our old appreciation for the cadence of life in this city. We walked in the drizzle, admiring the juxtaposition of centuries-old architecture and modern design. We marveled at the cleanliness, and were confused by the automation, of the modernized Metro system. We were impressed again by how small the core of historical Paris really is, and by the ever-expanding sprawl of the city and its suburbs. We were amused by the streetcorner sellers of crepes with Nutella fillings.

Memories to Hold

We photographed idled Bateaux Mouches excursion boats tied along the swollen Seine, picked out stairs, riverside walks and signs barely visible above the water line, and noted sandbags stacked to keep floodwaters out of nearby basements. Parisians flocked to the bridges and promenades to witness the swirling, fast-flowing water.

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The Louvre relocated some of its priceless collection as a precaution. Ten days later, the city was paralyzed by record snowfall, and the Eiffel Tower was closed to visitors for safety reasons. We witnessed — and felt the effects — of both flood and snow! There was, in fact, some doubt that we would be able to drive back into the city after the blizzard! We flew out as the city still lay blanketed in white.

100_8385We visited the artists still painting caricatures and uniquely original art at Place du Tertre in Montmartre; the paintings we bought 50 years ago still hang in our home. We ducked out of the drizzle and into out-of-the-way brasseries for a warm cafe creme or a quick aperitif. The weather was damp, the skies were mostly grey. We were cold. And we loved every minute of the time we spent in the City of Light.

After three days, we left the city to explore new highways and byways in Normandy and Brittany. Yes, we’re happy we returned to Paris after all this time; we’re not sure why we waited so long.

But it was time to move on.

 

1,000 Words

Being on home turf again after 28 days abroad — 27 of them spent at sea — has been a bit disorienting. It’s always good to return home to the familiar after a journey, but it takes a bit of “settling in” to feel completely comfortable. This time the holidays also contributed to my lethargy.

I have, however, procrastinated far too long, so the time has come to share some of the delights of the Mediterranean countries we visited in late October and early November.100_6811100_6313100_7149100_6719100_6176The main reason for going away in the first place always seems clearer after returning. There are new insights to process, memories to savor and a filled rucksack of delightful experiences to catalogue.100_5961100_6249100_6370However, they’re all time-consuming, and the crush of daily life intrudes. There are so many stories to tell; sometimes they don’t come easily!

I promised more “elevator philosophy,” as well as tales of good times, good food and wonderful places. Now, time is ticking down to another planned trip, and I’m feeling a bit frazzled — in addition to feeling cold. (The outside digital thermometer read “Error” this morning; local news reported outdoor air temperature at 8 degrees!) This is Texas, however, and Saturday is predicted to hit 70 degrees. I’ll like that!WP_20171021_13_56_05_ProWP_20171022_12_38_41_ProWP_20171023_12_57_52_ProWP_20171027_11_51_18_ProToday, as I get serious about packing for next week’s departure , I decided to post a few photos from the previous trip — the stories will come later, I promise. But the photos show sun and warmth, something I need today!

These are just some of the ones that make me smile — I hope they brighten your day as well, even if just a little bit! They are in no particular order.WP_20171024_23_22_43_ProPlease check back to read some of the stories that go with them. I’ll  look forward to sharing the memories.

Venturing beyond borders . . .

101_3594Have you ever taken the time to read your passport?

I hadn’t — not until today, when on a whim I checked its expiration date, and was struck by the fact that there are so few visa stamps on its pages.

I remember my first passport! Its pages were nearly filled with stamps before its expiration date rolled around, and it was only valid for three years if I remember correctly. Today, I am happy to report, I have several more years of traveling left before I have to think about a renewal.

But, sadly, I doubt that those pages will be nowhere near as colorful nor evocative of adventure as my original passport’s were. The world’s borders have, in many cases, been erased over the preceding decades.

In the past two years or so, I have set foot on three continents, visited several island nations and spent time in a score of different nations. I have nary a passport stamp to show for the miles, save one from Amsterdam Shiphol, earned because of a plane change that entailed only a leisurely stroll from one airline gate to another!

Traveling

Customs and immigration agents are not nearly as concerned about stamping a page as they once were. After all, all the information now needed is computerized and captured by security cameras! How comforting.

How disappointing! As the world shrinks and becomes more homogeneous, does it become less interesting?

There is something about crossing national borders that was once thrilling and unique.

I always found it exciting to arrive at a national border, even while crossing on a train in the middle of the night; I did not resent the delay, nor the inconvenience. Instead, it seemed a rite of passage, a confirmation that I was about to embark on another venture that would broaden my understanding and fill my journal with memories.

I cannot adequately express the disappointment I felt when I first drove across the border between Italy and France with nary a road sign to note the occasion. It was only when I stopped for coffee that it became obvious: café rather than caffè.

I still have not reconciled euros with traveling through vastly different European nations; I found it refreshing last October when prices in Croatia were quoted in Kuna, the local currency, even though the Euro is accepted and residents seem to have little trouble with the exchange rate!

But I digress . . .

I checked my passport’s expiration date because of upcoming foreign travel plans, but passports are in the news for another reason as well. Residents of some states may soon be required to show better identification than a local driver’s license in order to fly even domestically. Today, only slightly more than one third of Americans possess a passport. But that may change, as soon as January.

American passports are little gems of home-grown philosophy. As one turns the pages, the boundless pride and enthusiasm of a country full of optimism seem evident — through stylized graphics of distinctly American scenery and the quotations that appear at the top of each double truck, passports express what is, somehow, the essence of American pride and determination.

A sampling: Pages 16 and 17 depict a paddlewheeler making its way along a mighty river; I’m guessing the artist had the Mississippi in mind. A formation of geese fly overhead, and homes and hills stretch out in the distance.

The written words:

“This is a new nation, based on a mighty continent, of boundless possibilities.” Theodore Roosevelt

There are other drawings and words of note in this little book that offers me the opportunity to freely travel the world, both in my mind and in reality:

“We have a great dream. It started way back in 1776, and God grant that America will be true to her dream.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair.” George Washington

John F. Kennedy: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower: “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America.”

The stuff of dreams:

It’s not only the words of leaders and presidents that speak from passport pages, though.

The words inscribed in 1869 on the original Golden Spike at Promontory Summit, in Utah, echo through time: “May God continue the unity of our country as the railroad unites the two great oceans of the world.”

And, then:

 “Every generation has the obligation to free men’s minds for a look at new worlds . . . to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation.”  Ellison Onizuka.

This is the final page of the little blue book, along with a stylized depiction of two worlds together in vast space, along with a circling manmade satellite.

If you don’t know him, Onizuka was an American astronaut aboard the Space Shuttle Challenger when it exploded in 1986. He dreamed bigger and traveled farther than most.

As Americans, we have always enjoyed the ability to cross state borders without worrying about foreign currency, unfamiliar signage or a different language. If a passport becomes required to do that, it will be a new experience for many of our citizens, but it will not change our ability to travel freely in this country.

Across the globe, it was not so until just recently. It still is not the norm in many parts of the world.

Take the time to read that little book, and to think about the implications. It offers a new perspective on the world, whether it’s full of visas and border crossing stamps or not.

 

Grandmother’s lessons

Thanksgiving was low-key at my house this year. Not that there isn’t an abundance of things to be thankful for, but our small multi-generational family had an abundance of plans for the extended holiday. We gathered Thursday for what was to be a simple midday meal, before scattering in different directions to enjoy the long weekend.

What was to have been a small turkey breast to serve five (with enough left for a few sandwiches) became a 12-pound turkey. (The market had no fresh breasts available, and we had not built thawing time into the schedule; the option was a “smallish” fresh bird.)

The rest of it? A mix of traditional and easy prep. One large — overly large, as it turned out — fresh from the garden salad that boasted tiny boiled potatoes, green beans and dried cranberries. Roasted yams and wild rice stood in for mashed potatoes and cornbread stuffing. Savory pumpkin gratin, recipe courtesy of Jacques Pepin, homemade cranberry-orange relish, and a freshly-baked Challah, as pretty to look at as it was good to eat, kept kitchen prep time to a minimum.WP_20171123_14_01_38_ProAs usual, “simple” morphed into too much!

Friday, we were content with turkey sandwiches, salad and television movies. Saturday was a quiet day, with only a few must-do’s, and no plans for a “real” meal. Snacking at will was the order of the day.

When faced with options, make soup

I am grateful that my grandmothers were good cooks, and that I had a chance to hang out in their kitchens many years ago, not only during holiday preparations, but afterwards as well.

I learned the truth of “Waste not, want not,” and I learned to “make do” and make meals out of what was on hand. I also learned that simple meals are best!

Those were lessons well learned.

So, for Saturday supper, soup it was. Pan drippings and turkey parts that would have become gravy had we served mashed potatoes and dressing on Thursday became the catalyst. Leftover wild rice added heartiness. Fresh celery, carrots and onions, constant staples in the refrigerator crisper, are the basis of any good homemade soup, right? And leftover Challah is still delicious!

It was a large pot of soup, enough to feed son and daughter-in-law who stopped in unexpectedly Saturday evening, with enough “left over” for Sunday lunch.

No pie, you say? Well, not exactly!

It bears repeating that our Thanksgiving was pared down and simplified in many ways. There was no pie — not pumpkin, not apple, mince or pecan. No brownies, no ice cream. Apples and oranges, yes, but even they went untouched. None of us suffered from a lack of food; desserts were not missed.

However, I had purchased pie crusts, just in case. (No, I do not see any reason to make my own!)

So, for tonight’s dinner, the plan is to have Turkey Pot Pie. Actually, I can picture it already: Colorful carrots, peas and potatoes joining small bits of turkey meat, oozing with creamy goodness and threatening to bubble up through the golden crust. Chilled (leftover) cranberry sauce will add color and tart flavor to the simple dinner. With a green salad, it will be nutritious and more than ample.

Will one pie suffice to clear the refrigerator of leftovers? I am not yet sure, but if there’s enough turkey to make two, I will be happy to have an extra to pull from the freezer.

On this weekend, especially, I am thankful to have the blessings of home and family, a warm, comfortable hearth, good health and good food.

And those leftovers!

Pearl of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik, that gem of a city on the Adriatic, is now famous as a filming location for scenes in Game of Thrones, and astute fans may also recognize parts of the city in Star 100_6328Wars VIII scenes. Croatia as  a nation has existed on maps with its current boundaries for scarcely more than a decade, after years of ongoing struggle for sovereignty and independence. The city, though, is solid, ancient and unforgettable, picture postcard worthy.

Because I have never seen Game of Thrones, I had no inkling of the imposing beauty of this city on the Adriatic. It is so much more than a stage set! In the 7th Century, when the Dubrovnik Republic was born, this settlement on the shore of a dramatic fjord already had a long history.

It staggers the senses, but citizens of Dubrovnik celebrate those centuries of history as their personal legacy, both the good and the bad. They embrace it all, and speak as openly about the years of oppression and conflict as about the glory days when seafarers jockeyed for position with other independent maritime governments, chiefly Venice, Genoa and Napoli.

The cultural awareness extends back in time, far back. History is pervasive; it’s a living legacy. By contrast, Americans are still so young on the world stage, barely more than toddlers compared to Dubrovnik, indeed in contrast with most of the rest of the world.

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There is much to love about this walled city with its sturdy ramparts and fortifications. There is also much to discover: Art and architecture, upscale shops, trendy cafes with impeccably groomed servers. Young people sport smartphones and the latest fashions, children smile and play happily on the polished stones of the pedestrian-only Stradun; old folks stroll hand in hand, silently testifying that an everyday existence is very much still a part of this old city.

Teens pose for selfies by a bronze statue with nose and fingers burnished bright by visitors. Visiting adults find it hard to resist as well. 100_6394

Dubrovnik is crowded during daylight hours; it’s quieter at night. There is little of the “touristy” appeal of American beach towns and tour bus destinations. Lines to enter the city gates are often long, but quite orderly. We entered through Pile Gate, with throngs of others eager to explore the life and spirit of the city within the legendary walls.

Dubrovnik has, of course, outgrown its old boundaries, just as other ancient cities have burst their seams, and life in the new city is very different. Buses and taxis rule, and the pace is loud and congested.

I was enthralled with old Dubrovnik, more so with its people. They live in a storybook setting, with a past that intrudes on the present in a sensory way.

I would return there in a minute. Although I was able to visit only a scant portion of the country that lies along the sea, rarely have I been so charmed by a place after only a short few hours. Heading north along the coast on a bus was, at times, a nail-biting experience. But the trip was well worth it.

To be sure, there is something unfair about judgments formed so quickly. But there’s a permanence about Dubrovnik. It seems the kind of city that will remain standing far into the future, both the popular old city and the new one sprung up outside the walls. The city is a wonderful destination, and could be a jumping off point for the rest of Croatia. However, travel to Dubrovnik, other than by cruise ship, is not yet so easy for Americans. It’s more convenient to arrive by air from London or another European capital, or to travel to Dubrovnik, by ferry from Bari, Italy. 100_6409“It’s the end of the season,” we were told. All large cruise ships depart by the end of October, and the cadence of life changes. Locals live quietly, or leave on  vacation, even though the local weather remains pleasant throughout the winter.

Indeed, as our ship made its way out of the harbor, residents lined up on shore to wave goodbye. I had a fleeting vision of families bidding similar farewells to generations of sailors leaving port for adventure in unknown lands.

 

Elevator Philosophy

100_7263There is something immensely satisfying about traveling — even if it’s a kind of working vacation. But there is also a sense of relief, and enormous comfort in coming home, no matter how rewarding the journey has been.

That’s the state I find myself in now — in the middle of November — with business to attend to, goals to accomplish, stacks of notes to make sense of, scores of ideas to develop and hundreds of stories to tell.

Yet, here I sit at my computer, poring over trip photos and marveling at the wonders of  Mediterranean ports. Following two weeks of non-stop travel activity, we enjoyed a calm and rejuvenating week at sea. The Atlantic Ocean seemed to spread out in calm ripples in every direction, welcoming us daily with superb sunrises and spectacular sunsets. We couldn’t have asked for a calmer crossing, unlike some in the past, nor for more companionable shipmates.

Likewise, the varied cities we visited — full of profound history, beautiful sights, friendly people, enticing food, good wine, interesting excursions and fine weather. As Americans, we encountered no hint of hostility or malice; instead, we were greeted with friendly smiles and an eagerness to talk, even though our command of local languages was decidedly limited.

We never felt unsafe, unwelcome or threatened, whether we were on our own or part of a touring group. To be fair, we ventured off on our own more often than we joined organized groups. We occasionally heard some minor grumbling from fellow travelers, but not often, and mostly about logistics, not the people or the places.

We witnessed a calm and well-organized student protest (its purpose unknown) in Messina, Sicily, and we were in Barcelona the week before the Catalan parliament voted to declare independence. Tensions were running high. Catalan separatism was evident, with competing flags and signs everywhere. Now, there is scant news about what will happen. But I think the movement has not died so easily.

Our time there was limited; we were disoriented by the traffic and the sheer size of the city, and I have to admit that we were cautious among crowds in light of recent terrorist attacks. But we walked the streets, rode city buses, joined thousands of children and parents to attend an event at the former Olympics Stadium, and were willingly assisted by locals who helped us find our way about. I would not hesitate to return — to Barcelona and to any other place we visited.

As a side note, high school Spanish was of little use in Catalonia!

No matter what happens,

travel gives you a story to tell.

In coming weeks, I’ll tell many more stories about the trip, share other insights and detail personal observations about the places we visited, the meals we shared, the people we met, the experiences we were privileged to enjoy.

I’ll also refer again and again to the snippets of travel philosophy that were boldly displayed on elevator carpets throughout Royal Princess, the elegant cruise ship that became our home for this journey. Each one is a gem, and although I tried to ride each of the ship’s numerous elevators at least once, I’m sure I missed some. Therefore, I know I missed out on some of the wisdom that is so uniquely displayed.

For now, though, an observation by Mark Twain seems in order:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Samuel Clemens wrote those words in 1869, for “The Innocents Abroad.” He said it pretty well, didn’t he? His point, I think, is as pertinent today as it was when his chronicle of “the great pleasure voyage” was published.

 

 

 

A unique mystique . . .

4802076860_ce7d2a1221_bLegionnaires of the 3rd Foreign Infantry Regiment based in French Guiana were transported on September 11 to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin to help with rescue and clean up operations following Hurricane Irma. I would bet that others were on high alert as Maria turned toward Guadeloupe and Martinique just days ago.

I heard the news reports of France’s quick response, and I was once again entranced with thoughts of this band of men with a long history, a somewhat dubious reputation and a unique mystique.

Somehow, the desert and the sea always figured in my childhood dreams, along with a thirst for adventure, the appeal of colorful uniforms, and the sound of military marches.

The French Foreign Legion

This elite fighting force has always held inexplicable fascination. I once had a romantic notion that I could run away to North Africa and be a Legionnaire. 4566626508_a28b277564_bI pored over pictures of the bearded Sappers with their white kepis and leather aprons, and I listened endlessly to traditional marches, and to Edith Piaf singing “Mon Legionnaire” and “La Marseillaise.”

Strange, I know. But, truth be told, the same things thrill me today,

I wanted to know someone who joined up. I fancied myself fitting in to the hard life, seeing the world, and participating in endless adventure.

There is at least one major problem, however. First and most important, it seems, is that I was born female and, to this day, the Foreign Legion is a men’s club. Only a men’s club!

Actually, one British woman joined during World War II and served with distinction in North Africa. There have been no others.

And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.

In fact, it thrives. The Legion has changed, but it is still an elite force. Only about 1000 men are admitted to the ranks each year.

Here’s how it works:

First, if you are male, between the ages of 17 1/2 and 39 1/2, you must get yourself to the door of a Foreign Legion facility within France. Literally, you must knock on the door of the Centre de Preselection in Paris or at the gate of Legion Headquarters in the hills above Marseilles; or at one of nine “recruiting offices” scattered in cities throughout the country. They are officially open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. 6550986765_d4ae3024d0_b In truth, however, showing up during normal daytime business hours would be wise.

Potential recruits must have valid documentation from their country of origin, either a passport or government-issued ID, and a verified copy of their birth certificate obtained within the last six months. Aliases and anonymity are no longer an option.

And they must not be on Interpol’s wanted list!

Although it is expected that recruits will arrive with three sets of underwear and socks, sneakers, personal toiletries, and between 10-50 Euros, those who make it in the door are immediately provided food, lodging and uniforms.

That’s it; nothing else matters

Well, almost nothing else: Language doesn’t matter; there is no requirement to speak French. Marital status is unimportant: All recruits are treated as single men. There is no discrimination on the basis of citizenship, background, race, religion, education, training, previous military service, profession or expertise.

There are some “must nots” and some “should nots.” Among prohibited items are knives, weapons of any kind, and keys — no vehicle or personal house keys are allowed! Large amounts of cash, credit cards, jewelry and other valuables are highly discouraged. Cameras, personal computers and electronic devices must be left at home or abandoned.

Recruits must take IQ and personality tests, must pass sports and fitness tests, and must meet specific medical and physical standards. Only about one in eight candidates is accepted.4566623898_3897607b2f_b

Within a few days, those who “survive” an initial interview at a satellite center will be enlisted and transferred to one of the Legion’s two pre-selection centers, either in Paris or in the south of France. Finally, those who make it through the three to 14-day pre-selection testing are transferred to Legion Headquarters in Aubagne to complete the rigorous training process. And it is rigorous.

The initial commitment is for a five-year enlistment, and the entire pre-selection and selection process spans up to five weeks. After that there is training, and more training, then perhaps specialized training. And then duty assignments; often within France today,  sometimes in French territories, but truly all over the globe. The Legion has fought not only in French wars and in two World Wars, but in most of the world’s hot spots, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

This year, on July 14, I watched with fascination as the new French president and the new American president beamed with pride as the Bastille Day parade along the Champs Elysees in Paris reached its conclusion.  As always, a detachment of Legionnaires participated and, as always, this unique fighting force constituted the final unit in the parade. The marching cadence of the Foreign Legion is measured and impressive (88 steps per minute rather than the normal 120) and a fitting finale to a day full of military pomp and tradition. 7467186668_61d2457d6b_z

The mystery and the magic of this special force still exist. The Pioneers with their leather aprons and axes seem throwbacks to another era as they march with pride and precision; and the band sounds the familiar somber beat.

But, across the globe, other Legionnaires stand ready, as necessary, to don their fatigues and get to work to put a devastated island nation back together. Or to fight, if called. It’s good to know they still exist.

If you’re interested in learning more about the French Foreign Legion, visit Uniforms, History, or 2016 News.

All Photos via Flickr (1) Brian Farrell, 2010; (2 & 4) Marcovdz, 2010; (3) Maglegion, 1993; (5) Archangel 12, 2012