For reasons I don’t fully understand myself, I’ve decided to tell the French Baby story. I’m also going to do something no author is supposed to do, which is tell you that you probably shouldn’t read this. It’s way, way too long. It rambles all over the place. It isn’t really all that amusing. It features two girls named Gretchen. The only pay off you’ll get if you manage to get through the whole, painful thing is a really, really bad joke.
Oh, and it also insults the French. But that’s okay because they started it.
I was going to put this up on my blog on Tumblr at first, but decided those poor people over there had suffered enough. It also doesn’t really suit that venue. So I decided to put it over here on grouchyfarmer where no one will ever read it.
Oh, and whether any of this is true or not is up to you to decide. I’m a firm believer in not letting the truth get in the way of a good story.
So here goes nothing.
It was nineteen seventy-mumble. It was spring. I was sitting in an outdoor cafe about twenty miles from Nice, France. Sitting across from me were two quite beautiful but very intimidating young women, the Gretchens.
The Gretchens were Valkyries. No. Seriously. Valkyries. Or at least as close to Valkyries as I’d ever see. They were identical twins, almost six feet tall, impossibly fit, long, straight blonde hair, icy blue eyes, and if you’d put them in breastplates and winged helmets they would have fit right into a Wagnerian opera.
Now the Gretchens and I had been together since the Channel crossing, where the three of us had shared a railing as we deposited pretty much everything we’d eaten during the last three days over the side of the ferry. British cuisine being what it is, it wasn’t much of a loss, really.
In between retches, we managed to introduce ourselves. The first one was Gretchen. The second one’s name was apparently “urrppaarrghh”. Not that it really mattered because if you said “Gretchen?” both of them would turn, look at you, and say “Ja? Vas ist los?” Which basically means something like ‘what’s up, dude?’ So I just called both of them Gretchen.
As you might guess from their Teutonic appearance and language, the Gretchens were German. They spoke almost no English at all, which was okay because I spoke almost no German at all except for an extensive collection of obscene words and phrases taught to me as a child by a very odd uncle. Oh, and I’d been taught how to count to 89 by a nazi wanna-be back in the seventh grade. And no, I don’t know how a seventh grader becomes a nazi. I didn’t want to know.
For reasons known only to themselves, the Gretchens decided they were going to travel with me. Perhaps they felt sorry for me. Or perhaps they felt it was their duty to keep an eye on me until the people at the asylum I’d escaped from came to get me. But for whatever reason, when we got off the boat in France, I found myself flanked by two Valkyries, each of whom could probably have bench pressed a Volkswagen without breaking a sweat.
I must admit that the Gretchens intimidated me. It wasn’t the language barrier. I was used to not understanding what people said because my grandparents and a lot of my aunts and uncles spoke German whenever they didn’t want us kids to know what they were talking about.
Still, I was grateful for their presence when we hit the shore and had our first encounter with the French authorities at customs.
Now the French Tourist Board tells everyone about how friendly the French people are. They wax poetic about the beautiful countryside, the incredible food, the amazing wine, the astonishing art treasures. Most of the people speak English they say. And they all absolutely adore tourists.
It’s a lie. All of it.
The French universally hate everyone who isn’t French, and from what I saw, they don’t like each other much, either. No one in France speaks English. Or at least they won’t speak it to you. You can overhear a Frenchman speaking fluent English to someone, go up to him to ask directions, and he will shrug, launch into a lengthy rant, in French, insulting you, your mother, your dog, and make disparaging remarks about the size of your genitals before sending you in the wrong direction.
Now I’d been told that French customs was no big deal, more of a formality than anything else. The people who told me that were liars as well.
A very tiny man in a very small uniform, wearing a peculiar hat and sporting a slightly obscene mustache glared at my passport. He called over another fellow who was even smaller, and had an even more disturbing mustache. He called over a third. One of them brought out a magnifying glass.
Meanwhile, my bags were being strip searched. Literally. Everything was removed from them. One guard slit the linings of the bags open. Another rifled through the pockets of my clothes. All my tooth paste was squeezed out onto a tray and fingers were poked through it.
I had to turn out the contents of my pockets. Everything was removed from my wallet and examined with the magnifying glass. My parents were insulted, as were, I suspect, my genitals and my haircut.
The Gretchens, meanwhile, had breezed through customs. They hadn’t even looked at their bags. They were getting impatient and came over to see what was going on. They stood on either side of me, arms folded, glaring at the head customs official.
Being on the wrong end of that glare was something no one would enjoy. Those cold, ice blue eyes probed the official’s black soul and found it wanting. The official started to get nervous. Gretchen 2 started tapping her foot impatiently. He started to sweat.
He barked something at his comrades. Everything was shoved hastily back into the bags. My passport was stamped, scribbled in and handed back to me. My ancestry was insulted, as were my shoes, and I was finally allowed in.
Now you’re probably wondering why simply having the Gretchens glaring at him made the fellow so nervous. To understand that you have to understand the French’s attitude towards Germany.
Once upon a time, France had a wee bit of a disagreement with Germany. You might have heard about it. It was called World War II. And the French are fully aware of the fact that if the Brits and Americans hadn’t saved their skinny Gallic asses they’d be singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” at football games instead of “La Marseillaise”. So while they hate the Germans just as much as they hate Americans, British, Australians, Russians and pretty much everyone who isn’t French, they’re scared of the Germans and don’t want to piss them off.
Oh, they’re not afraid Germany will attack again. Germany doesn’t do that kind of thing any more. No, what they’re afraid of is Germany coming down there and just buying the whole bloody country out of petty cash, and then charging them rent.
So we finally get to the train we’re to take to Paris. It lurches out of the station a half hour late. It runs about two miles, shudders to a stop. It backs up a few feet. There is a rather disturbing sound similar to a distant explosion. The train shudders.
An unintelligible announcement comes over the speakers which not even the French can understand, it seems. An Italian man traveling with his daughter shakes his head.
“I think they said they’re looking for volunteers to get out and push,” he said in English when he saw the puzzled look on my face.
The train shuddered again, and then backed all the way back to the station at about 2 miles an hour. We were herded off that train. It was dragged away and a different train was dragged over. We got on that one. The engine caught on fire.
Another engine was brought in and we embarked again. All of a sudden about a dozen police officers swarmed past the window towards the front of the train, dragging two members of the train crew with them. Hopefully to the guillotine.
A replacement crew was brought and away we went again.
Finally we reached Paris. City of lights! City of Beauty! City of Culture! City of Art!
Uh, well, no.
I’d planned on staying in a cheap boarding house for the few days I’d planned to be there. The Gretchens had other plans. I was hustled into a taxi. Curses and insults were exchanged between the Gretchens and the driver, and we finally arrived at, well, let’s just say it was beyond posh.
The crowd in the lobby parted like the sea before a pair of magnificent battle ships as the Gretchens stalked into the place as if they owned it. I suspect now that they did.
By that time I was starting to pick up a bit of German as I began to remember my high school German classes. Gretchen 1 told the fellow behind the desk that we required a two bedroom suite and if he pretended he didn’t have one he would be working at the local frog canning factory the next morning.
He never even blinked. We were escorted up to the very top floor of the hotel and into a suite of rooms that looked like something out of a fantasy movie. One of the bedrooms was given to me, the Gretchens took the other.
The Gretchens were hungry, and I was made to understand they would take me to a restaurant that was ‘less filthy’ than most. It was only a short distance from the hotel so we walked. It was a rather small place and smelled, well, odd. I’m not sure what it smelled like, but it wasn’t anything I would associate with food.
We were taken to a table and we waited. Half an hour later Gretchen 2 got a waiter’s attention by tripping him as he scurried by. I let them order for me because I hadn’t a clue. I just hoped it wouldn’t be snails.
Another half an hour went by. A waiter unceremoniously deposited an already open bottle of wine on our table and three glasses. Gretchen 1 eyed the bottle suspiciously. She sniffed it warily. She then picked it up by the neck as if it were some kind of dread disease and dropped it on the floor.
The waiter shrugged as if saying “Well, it was worth a try”, scurried off and brought up a still corked bottle and opened it at the table and poured a little into a glass. Gretchen 1 tasted it and seemed surprised that it was drinkable. Glasses were filled. Waiter went away.
Gretchen 2 was curious about the bottle. She examined it, and poked at a corner of the label with a fingernail. The label came off and under it was another label. Gretchen 2 began giggling. The restaurant had slapped a French label over a bottle of German wine.
The meal was edible. Barely. One dish looked like a used bath sponge covered in catsup. It pretty much tasted like a used bath sponge as well. Gretchen 1 amused herself by throwing snails at the waiters between courses.
The next few days were occupied by sightseeing. The amazing art was all out to be cleaned. My genitals were insulted on several different occasions. Taxi drivers scammed us, we’d all developed a hacking cough because of the smog, and terminal indigestion from the amazingly bad food. The only good meal we had all the while we were in Paris was at a Chinese restaurant.
The taxi drivers were in a class by themselves. A 15 minute trip would end up being a 15 mile excursion through the most unsavory parts of the city, during which time our ancestors would be insulted, our morals called into question, and snide remarks were made about our shoes.
Once we got out of Paris things did start to get a bit better. The insults became less personal, the food got a bit better. The wine was always horrible, though. And some parts of France are genuinely beautiful.
So there we were, outside of Nice. In a few days we would be parting company and we were reluctant to do so. In spite of (or perhaps because of) the bad food, horrible wine, insults and all the other stuff we’d gone through, we’d had a great time. The Gretchens had a wicked sense of humor, and had exactly the right kind of personality to deal with what we’d endured for the trip through France.
So we were at the cafe and feeling a bit melancholy. We’d be parting at Nice, the girls to return to Germany, me to go on to Italy. We would not, however, be disappointed about getting out of France.
Two young women were at a table near us, their babies screaming and screaming. It was really annoying, but the two women didn’t do anything about it.
I turned to Gretchen 2 whom I had been helping to learn English.
“Why are they crying like that? Why don’t they do something?”
“Ah,” she said, nodding wisely. “There is nothing they can do. They are screaming in terror because they have just been told they are French.”
And that is the French Baby story.
I did warn you, remember?