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.

WP_20180127_17_20_49_ProWP_20180127_13_55_10_Pro (2)100_8348WP_20180128_17_47_20_Pro (2)WP_20180128_18_07_38_Pro

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.

WP_20180127_17_22_51_Pro100_8319WP_20180128_18_07_26_Pro

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.

 

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