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And, yes, as outdated as it may seem, The French Foreign Legion still exists.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


There be dragons


For years, I pored over historic maps, examined old globes and spent hours looking at the edges of tattered nautical charts hoping to glimpse those letters: BHBD.  20151201_103125 (1)

My searches never yielded any kind of “Eureka” moment, but I held fast to the romantic notion that someday I would encounter that cryptic message. Some other friends also believed the oft-repeated notion that ancient mapmakers noted the ends of the known world with the notation, “Beyond here be dragons.”

As it turns out, it simply isn’t so. And it’s a disappointment, for a lot of reasons. First, it was not just my fantasy, but a commonly held belief. I feel cheated somehow, and duped. No matter how silly it seems, I still choose to believe that out there, somewhere, there be dragons.

The notion has fueled my wanderlust for decades; I am certain that old salts and continental explorers fully expected dragons when they embarked on those journeys into the beyond. Instead they encountered wonders, and that was sufficient to keep them moving.

But do you think they secretly longed for the dragons? I still choose to believe so.

Those who today visit the depths of the oceans and those who venture into space must, I think, still be searching for them.

Back to those dragons

Truth be told, apparently, there are no maps that bear any sort of legend concerning dragons — here, there or beyond.

There is one reference — in Latin, mind you — on a small globe dating to the early years of the sixteenth century (1503-1507). It is now in the possession of the New York Public Library; it is the first to depict the Americas in reasonable perspective, and it notes “HC svnt dracones” along the eastern line of Asia.

But, even though there are other beasts on its copper surface, there are, unfortunately, no dragons. (There is also some doubt about the translation from Latin — does it really mean “here be dragons?”) Another question that will not be answered, apparently, any time soon.

The only other map that anyone can point to is a real leap for those who search for dragons on the pages of vellum. The phrase “Here There Be Dragons” was reportedly used for an unknown polar region labeled Terra Incognita on the asteroid Vesta in a paper submitted by Michael Gaffey of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute for the planetary science journal Icarus.

Just what is it about dragons?

There are dragons, large and small, worldwide, it seems. Not only Saint George, but countless others — Norsemen and Chinese searched for and battled dragons. There are Japanese, North American Indian and Ethiopian dragons; they lived in Scandinavian, Welsh and German myth and in the mind of J.R.R. Tolkien.

There are dragon sculptures and dragon jewelry and dragon tatoos.

There is a final reference to the phrase  (and the title of the book) by David Koerner and Simon LeVay in “The Scientific Quest for Exterrestrial Life.”

During my travels, especially on the sea, I have over and over again scanned the horizon for dragons, just as I still sneak quick peeks at the edges of old maps. I am certain I always will.

I am still convinced that, somewhere, beyond the known limits of the page or of this world . . .

There be dragons

Koerner and LeVay say in their introduction: “The same sense of mystery, the same lure to adventure, now colors the unexplored lands of the cosmos. Welcome to the dragon hunt.”