| July 28, 2012 | Comments (0)


It was in the late summer of 1969 that I came to really love France. I had just returned  to  Paris from a two-week holiday in Corsica. Actually “boot camp” would be a more apt description  because  my stay in Bonifaccio in the south of the island was anything but a vacation in the traditional sense.

I had enrolled myself in a sailing course at the Centre Nautique de Voile des Glenans, a famous sailing school founded by members of the French Resistance. It was a no-frills, no-nonsense operation and I had already participated in one session at the mother school in Brittany. I had enjoyed my time on that storm-tossed, rocky  coast  even though I learned very little about sailing. The weather had been turbulent and the pace of instruction brisk. A slow learner, more often than not I found myself lagging behind my fellow sailors  who were quick to master the intricacies of knot-tying  and sail-folding while I sat with a pile of rope on my lap, green and  sea-sick, cluelessly fingering the hairy coils that never seemed to cooperate.  Nonetheless, I told myself,  it was an exhilarating  experience; perhaps the  greatest exhilaration being the moment the course ended !

A seeming glutton for punishment, when I learned another Glenans course was being offered in southern Corsica, I jumped at the chance to experience a part of France – Napoleon’s France ! – that I had never  been to before.  Surely the weather would be sunnier than  gale-prone Brittany and maybe, with the pace of life in the Mediterranean reputedly more laid-back than in the north, I would be able to learn my knots and keep up with the rest of the class.

The Centre had chosen a picture postcard location for the school, a  protected cove surrounded by limestone cliffs plunging into calm, turquoise blue water. If you climbed the falaise and walked a way, across the Straits of Bonifaccio, you could see Corsica’s wilder sister, Sardinia where bandits were reputed to linger in the untamed interior of the island. When the breeze stirred, fragrant whiffs of thyme, rosemary and lavender filled the air. The chalky landscape was stark and we were billeted in simple tents. As we settled in I fantasized I was a Foreign Legionnaire on bivouac. As for toilet facilities, when I asked where the restrooms were, the camp manager looked at me, barked “La-bas ! (over there !)” and gestured to clumps of high sage brush – “le maquis” – a hundred yards away. How appropriate, I thought! Almost like the “maquisards”  (resistance fighters) who had founded the school, we were told to “prendre le maquis” (take to the bush, go underground), but with a decidedly different mission from “les braves” who had, according to popular legend, liberated France.

Even more interesting were the options for performing our daily ablutions. There were no showers and very limited supplies of fresh water, the latter being rationed  strictly for drinking and cooking purposes. Even our dishes and eating utensils, as  I came to learn from the “special  kitchen assignment” that would be given me before too long, were to be washed in the sea with salt water. And most unusual, as it turned out, there were NO mirrors in the camp and nobody – whether by intent or accident – had brought a reflector with them, even the girls who constituted an important contingent in our group. Imagine spending two weeks without looking at one’s self !

The boats we were assigned to sail were the simplest of dinghies, stubborn little craft that seemed to have a will of their own. On our first day out, as my mates and I struggled to steer our boat into open sea, I felt the insistent tug of the hull of the dinghy pulling us back to shore which at that point consisted of jagged rocks and inhospitable cliffs. Try as we would, the boat would not follow our command. As the gentle breeze turned into a strong wind, I could see that we risked being dashed again the sharp rocks.

Seizing what I thought was a brilliant initiative, I suggested that two of the three of our  crew  jump overboard and, by means of the stout rope coiled at the bow, pull the boat out as they swam toward open water.  My suggestion having been accepted, the three of us stared at each other in silence wondering WHO was to jump over board and who was to remain on the boat. Before we could resolve this knotty question, a motor launch appeared, captained by the “Chef de Camp” and we were towed out beyond the rocky menace of the cliff.

Once out at sea, we received a smart tongue-lashing from Suzette, the Chef. Although diminutive and Vietnamese, she made up for her petite stature and supposed Asian femininity by shouting at us in a booming voice laced with four-letter words. It was obvious what we should have done as we were getting sucked towards shore, she said, every other word being “con” (stupid asshole), so WHY didn’t we follow sailing SOP (standard operating procedure)! Boats always had the tendency to move towards rocky cliffs, she told us; WHERE was our common sense  and why hadn’t we taken appropriate action ! Nobody had an answer although I speculated to myself that I  missed a crucial part of the blackboard chalk talk earlier that morning on the beach when my attention had wandered, puzzling over a knot I had been trying unsuccessfully to tie for the umpteenth time.

That evening after dinner around the campfire there was no roasting of marshmallows or singing of songs. Instead we were treated to a seminar of self-criticism that encompassed not only our sailing prowess,  but also  our inter-personal human relations skills – were we kind, reasonable, helpful, understanding ? Did we respect the group dynamic ? Led by the indominable  Suzette, I began to think a meeting of Maoist Red Guards was being re-created. I had read that such Maoist sessions always involved a villain or a scapegoat. That night I was the target.

Standing over me so the camp fire’s flames lit up her face, turning it into a witch’s mask of accusation, Suzette proceeded calmly and methodically in true court martial-style. She noted,  glancing dramatically at her over-sized diver’s wrist watch raising her arm in a dramatic sweep, that the school’s boats had departed for the day’s sail at 1030 AM after receiving detailed instruction about what would  encountered on the water that day. She pointedly reminded the group that the dangers of being pulled toward shore and how to avoid such a tug had been addressed during the beachside chalk talk and  that everybody had indicated they understood.

So WHY did Alouettte (our dinghy) find itself drifting towards shore and WHY was a rescue necessary ? Furthermore, she added menacingly, WHY had Sailor Sam (we were all adressed as “Sailor” followed by our given names) proposed a hair-brained action, telling his mates to jump overboard and tow the boat out to sea? Impossible ! Unacceptable ! When Suzette called on me to defend myself, I was speeechless. She concluded the session saying everything I did encapsulated the opposite of what Glenans was trying to teach its student sailors. Where was the cooperation, the respect for group dynamic, the attention to carefully explained instruction? On the verge of tears I was glad that the night’s darkness hid the shame on my face.

I thought back to the moment of our arrival in Bonifaccio and the “welcome” we were given by Suzette. Ordering us to stand in a line for inspection, I knew from the get-go as she eye-balled me that I was on her shit list. Perhaps it was because she knew I was American and, being Vietnamese, she had taken a dislike to a citizen from the nation that was attempting to obliterate Vietnam; after all it was 1969, the height of the American War in her country.

The self-criticism having been completed, I waited for the verdict and the punishment. Rhetorically asking the circle around the campfire “And what should Sailor Sam do to help him realize his mistakes ?”, she answered her own question before anyone spoke by saying, ” While we cannot send him to the fields as perhaps he best deserves, we can put him in the kitchen where, while he cooks our meals, he can reflect on his faults and bad attitude !”

And so it was that I became the Glenans cook for what seemed like an eternity although, in fact, the corvee lasted only two days and I quite enjoyed the stint. As I teared up chopping  dozens of raw onions I found myself glad that there were no hated knots to tie. I had bragged earlier to several fellow sailors that I was a master at cooking pasta dishes. Now I had the chance to put my money where my mouth was and the result of my slaving over the camp stove was a roaring success. Even the cruel Suzette pronounced my spaghetti “Une triomphe !” Without trying, I had become the most popular person in the camp !

Before I knew it  we had “graduated” and I emerged none the worse, perhaps a bit sadder and wiser from my brush with Maoist self-criticism. And best of all, it was agreed, we were bursting with energy; we felt “renewed.” I thought it must have been the result of washing our bodies for two weeks with only salt water. We felt tan, buffed and tingling, glowing  with the aroma of healthy body odor. Like a school of salted fish.

When I returned to Paris, I found a stack of mail under my apartment door. On top of the pile was an official-looking letter from the French Ministry of Finance. Wondering what it could be about, I tore open the envelope to find a letter enclosing a check for 300 francs. Six weeks earlier I had had a run-in with the police in the subway, the Metro. I had walked through an open gate onto the subway platform without using my Metro ticket. The “portillon” or barrier  had been open with a sign saying “Due to repairs underway, gate open and no ticket necessary.” By utter chance and as bad luck would have it, at the other end of the line when I exited the train, a uniformed guard asked to see my ticket and proof that it had been used. I explained what had happened, but apparently I was not convincing.  My choice, the policewoman said, was pay a fine of 300 francs on the spot IN CASH or go to jail. I saw several other passengers – hapless African street vendors -being roughly  dragged away for alleged fare evasion  and I decided that paying was the better part of valor.

The following day I penned a letter to the METRO office, the RATP, (Regie Autonome des Transports Parisiens)  explaining what had happened. I retraced my steps to the open gate that had caused me the trouble and took a Polaroid picture which I enclosed  as an attachment. Luckily the gate was still open when I returned. Thinking about what might have happened if the incident had occurred in the United States, I never expected to hear back from the RATP. In the States, if I were lucky I might have received a “Dear Rider”  form letter saying my communication was very important, thanking me for “choosing” the subway, assuring me that my “feedback” was appreciated. Nothing more.

What I held in my hands was personal letter from a REAL person apologizing for the regrettable inconvenience I had experienced. It was composed with elegance and understanding. The word “bureaucrat” so often used in a pejorative sense, suddenly became synonymous with “hero.”  Somehow the check,  welcome as it was, seemed unimportant. I felt that France had recognized my existence, that she was taking care of me, that I belonged. That she loved me.

It’s funny how we come to love things and places. With me and France it was all about body odor on a Corsican beach, cock-ups in the Metro and a letter from a faceless functionary.



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