STANDING ON THE DOCK in Marseille at five o’clock on a fall morning, you could barely see whatever was in front of you—even if it was the incredible hulk called the USS Theodore Roosevelt.
Andrew had received the call one morning a few weeks earlier. A friend of a friend with a French travel agency might have a tour job for us.
Andrew listened, said we’d be available, and hung up.
“She doesn’t have all the details yet, but it’s a group.”
“Skiing in the Alps or maybe Paris. She’ll call back.”
She called the next week. “She says it’s a big group.”
“Why are we getting this in little bits?”
“Yeah. There’s something mysterious about it.”
After the next call, Andrew hung up looking pale.
“The group is the U.S. Navy.”
“You are shitting me.”
“Each of us will have at least fifty people.”
“You are SO shitting me.”
“We don’t have to guide them—just escort them”.
We sat in stunned silence for a long time.
“She said we have to get mobile phones,” said Andrew, finally. “There’ll be a meeting and we have to have mobile phones before the meeting.”
He hated the idea of mobile phones.
I hated the idea of a meeting. I thought I was through with meetings. When Ben was little I was always running off to meetings, and one day he said, “Mommy, what exactly does a meeting look like?”
I said, “It’s big and long and ugly.”
But this would be a French business meeting, and maybe it would be different.
The meeting was in the lobby of a contemporary chain hotel near Marseille’s Old Port. It had marble floors and walls of glass, and every footstep, every voice, every clink, rattle, rustle and burp from the bar became part of a discordant symphony, with any discourse lost in the mix.
The leader asked if everyone could hear, and there were a few faint answers. Then she asked if anyone would mind if she conducted the meeting in French. No one answered. We didn’t dare raise a language issue.
It seemed that the director of the travel agency would arrive later but for the moment we’d get an overview of the job before us. I tensed up, conscientious little note-taker that I am, but Andrew just sat back and waited for recognizable phrases, as if they were buses he trusted would come.
What we managed to piece together was that the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt had put into port in Marseille after a record-breaking period at sea—the longest since WWII. On a routine transit of the Atlantic Ocean, they had been called to support what was being called “Operation Enduring Freedom” in the wake of September 11, 2001, leading coalition forces in Afghanistan and hunting down al-Qaeda operatives. Now the crew was up for some R&R on French soil. The Navy, in collaboration with the French travel agency, was offering them affordable tour packages—to the Alps, the Côte d’Azur and Paris.
“Oh, man,” said Andrew. “After six months at sea.”
We kept quiet during the discussion on what to expect from U.S. sailors on leave. The French all seemed to be in agreement on one item: Cuisine should be an important focus of a visit to Paris, and the assembly wandered off-track into restaurant recommendations.
Our own experience had been with a different demographic of American tourists, but we were pretty sure that these Navy people were not about to spend three hours and two hundred Euros on dinner their one night in Paris, nor would they be dying to sample snails, or oysters, or foie gras, for that matter.
“They’ll want to wolf down a steak and frîtes at a bistro and spend the rest of the night on the town,” said Andrew, reading my mind.
Meanwhile, I wondered, where the hell were the agendas, the flip charts, the business cards and other handouts that are the sacred texts and rituals of any meeting? How could we treat this as a meeting without them? It would not only be big and long and ugly, it would be dumb.
I was anxious because we seemed to be moving into what would have been the critical logistical part of the meeting. On the appointed day we were to be at the dock before dawn and meet our assigned groups as they disembarked from the ship. We would shepherd our people onto waiting buses, which would take us to Marseille-Saint Charles train station, where we would re-assemble to catch the train to Paris. We were to keep all of our peoples’ tickets, and have them fill out a rooming list so the U.S. Navy would know who is ostensibly rooming with whom at the hotel.
Then, as Andrew and I were just processing the enormity of the task, there began a barrage of timing and transportation details–train and tour-bus schedules, hotel check-in, check-out, room allocation, protocol, reports—all of which would have been mind-boggling even in our own language, without a single bit of printed material to reinforce it. I looked around. People were scribbling notes, consulting one another’s notes, scratching out and re-writing, or just smoking and talking on their mobile phones.
“Am I crazy?” I asked Andrew, who didn’t know much about business meetings. “Shouldn’t there be something on paper?”
He looked doubtful. He looked like a person who wasn’t sure what a meeting looked like.
Finally the director we’d been waiting for burst through the entrance doors like a drag-queen diva. She was a sixty-ish blonde, dressed in black, with the Chanel scarf, the suave carré hairstyle and spiked pumps that pegged her as Parisian, and the mannerisms of a neurotic. Whatever had delayed her was something so outrageously wrong it could only have happened to someone as important as she. We watched her like kindergartners at a magic show. She spoke in harsh whispers to her stand-in, her fluttering hands describing the degree of her indignation, then marched back out.
We waited some more. It was now after seven o’clock. Andrew called and changed the dinner reservations we’d made, and we sat and stood and paced for the next interminable stretch of time.
Unfortunately, at the exact moment that the director reappeared, the bar filled with a group of excited Japanese tourists. It would have been impossible to follow whatever she said even if she weren’t interrupted every few words by incoming calls on her two mobile phones.
Ultimately it didn’t matter. Someone sitting closer up assured us that the director had simply repeated everything that had already been said.
A few enterprising escorts-to-be had gotten together to pencil out a rough map of the dock area and the direct way to the gangplank. No one made copies, but they showed it around, in case people wanted to memorize it.
I whispered to Andrew, “This meeting makes the Junior League look like IBM.”
“What’s the Junior League?”
“You must call me–please–when you get to the train, when you get on the bus, when you get to the hotel. Call me at each and every point and tell me everything is okay, because I worry,” said the director in her parting speech.
We emerged from the hotel as if from a scary ride at an amusement park.
“Jesus Christ,” I moaned.
“What?” said Andrew over his shoulder. He was loping contentedly ahead of me. There was nothing in his freeform upbringing, his academic meandering or his episodic restaurant career to suggest to him that this had been anything other than an orderly way to approach a complicated task. He’d be winging it anyway, no matter how it had been presented to him.
So there we were at five o’clock on a damp Friday morning, having passed through several security checkpoints, peering up at the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a horizontal skyscraper floating in murky space, and the jagged silhouettes of the aircraft, which had been loaded with nuclear weapons.
An uneven line of figures began to snake its way downward from various levels of decks, past uniformed officials checking papers on clipboards. On the dock, the director appeared in a fashionable raincoat at the head of a line of buses, waving her own set of papers. She passed out a dozen or so bulky manila envelopes to the assembled escorts, each one scrawled by hand in ballpoint pen with a jumble of phone numbers, tour guide and bus driver names, companies and departure times. As she found and handed each of us our respective envelopes she said urgently, “Remember, call me at every point! Or else I worry!”
Andrew and I were assigned to two different groups. His own waffle-head radar led him directly to his bus, and I had a moment of panic as he disappeared aboard. Then I pulled myself together and found mine.
I stood at the door with my co-escort, a Canadian, and welcomed our group as they climbed aboard. Men and women, girls and boys, with baseball caps and backpacks and duffel bags, still groggy from their punishing fourteen-hour shifts. They were erect, slouching, graceful, awkward. They shuffled their feet, rubbed their noses, uttered casual profanity. They shivered in anticipation or sneered with feigned nonchalance.
Maybe it was the dark intimacy of the pre-dawn hour, or the convergence of memory and broadcast reports, but as I looked into these strangers’ faces—white, black, Hispanic, Asian—I knew them. From California and Kansas, Georgia and Massachusetts, Illinois and Louisiana. From Los Angeles to Brooklyn, from sea to shining sea, I knew them in my blood and bones.
Hello, my people.
The first incident took place before we even got on the train. Someone stole a guy’s bag, and we had to make a report before we could board. Our group filled two cars, running back and forth, changing seats and changing seats again. I held up the mandatory room lists and waved them, shouting that they must be completed before we got underway, but only a few goody-two-shoes were willing to help me with that charade.
“When we get to Paris,” I said to the rows of faces in each car, “you will be civilians for awhile, so I will address you as Monsieur or Mademoiselle.
Somebody said, “Cool.”
A young man quipped, “Which is which?”
“You’re Mademoiselle,” hooted his buddy across the aisle.
I told them to call me Madame, and they listened to and repeated the phrases I gave them: bonjour, s’il vous plaît, merci—polite phrases that would help them be well received. Then the bar car opened and I lost them.
By noon the bar had run out of beer and was serving them whiskey. In another hour, there was only wine.
In the spirit of introducing them to French wine regions (and enabling my morning drinking), I suggested to a group around me that we have a taste test. We compared the merits of a Bordeaux against a red from the Ardèche. The Bordeaux won and promptly sold out. But then, so did the Ardèche.
A little blonde girl asked me, “Can we see the Mona Lisa?” She wore a leather jacket with embroidered patches representing all the places the ship has been. “It’s my dream to see the Mona Lisa up close.”
“Will we be able to climb up the Eiffel Tower? ” asked a young man.
“Do you know where Jim Morrison is buried?” asked another.
Two young women wanted to know if there was good shopping on the “Chance Elizay.”
“Uh, where is the red-light district?” asked a guy with a lazy eye.
I recommended the Latin Quarter as a good place to hear live music and meet other young people.
“That’s what I’M talkin’ about,” said a black dude.
I warned the guy who asked about Pigalle not to get ripped off buying champagne for the ladies of the night.
“Thanks, Ma-dahm. I’ll tell them you sent me.”
At lunchtime I stationed myself in the café car in order to translate the posted menus. Pizza was the favorite and ran out immediately.
“Uh, what is that?” asked one of my mademoiselles, pointing to a menu picture.
“It’s a smoked salmon salad.”
“That’s weird. Is it cooked?”
“The salmon is smoked.”
“So . . . does that mean it’s cooked?”
“No, it’s cured by smoking.”
And cuisine was going to be the highlight of their Paris visit?
After lunch and more wine had loosened everybody up, I got a chance to sit with different groups and hear their stories.
“I got thrown out of school for partying too much. Figured the Navy would straighten me out.”
“Me and my boyfriend signed up together. Soon as we got assigned to the same ship, he dumped me, the shit! Oh, excuse me, Madame.”
“Lived with my mom in a trailer park until she ran off with some guy . . . ”
“I’m a little hung-over today, but I have a great personality–you’ll see tomorrow.”
Four or five officers were on this trip, and they smilingly assured me that it was not in any official capacity. They intended to be blind to anything but the most dangerous infractions. Family men, they were looking forward to sightseeing and gift-buying. They would have been the only takers for a multi-course French dinner.
Nobody talked about the mission, only mundane details of their own jobs. Even the most boisterous were contained by an extraordinary discretion, like partying parents with children in the next room.
We arrived at the Gare de Lyon, an elegant first impression of Paris that was not lost on this crowd. Everyone scattered efficiently to bathrooms, sandwich counters, newsstands and cash machines, then showed up in the parking lot, dutiful as lambs, to board a bus for their introductory tour of Paris.
I wondered briefly about the thinking behind this. The tour gives new arrivals their bearings for exploring Paris, but after the boat and the train, did these people really need to be herded into yet another moving vehicle?
We picked up our French tour guide, a hippy-schoolmarm type, earnest in her efforts to impart interesting information with humor. An hour and a half of that was enough. When she had the bus driver pull over in the Place de la Bastille for an impassioned lesson on the French Revolution—the arrogance of the corrupt royalty, the bravery of the people who rose up—she lost her audience. You didn’t need to hear grumbling—you could feel the vibrations as fifty minds willed their bodies off the bus and out onto the streets.
“When do you think we will be at our hotel?” asked the guy across from me through clenched teeth.
The hotel’s tour package prices were based on double occupancy; the Navy’s security precautions called for strict accounting of every individual, and the French travel agency had their ass in a sling. Check-in was a hopeless and futile ordeal. My frustrated group crowded into the little two-star lobby and assailed the cranky two-star clerks with their needs, fed up with being toted around and urgently wanting some space to themselves, real rooms with real beds, and a little bit of un-audited fun. Rooming lists, head counts, proper procedure and responsibility had all gone out the porthole.
For sanity’s sake, I decided to go with the flow.
“Hey, me and him are gonna switch rooms, okay?”
“I don’t want to share—I’ll pay extra.”
“Go for it.”
This was between The Navy and La France. You had to get out of the way.
I was supposed to call “I Worry” at this point. I did not. I was supposed to stay with my group until after dinner. Like hell. They were dying to get off on their own–to split into groups of twos and threes and fours, and hit all the places they’d heard about. I went to our room to wait for Andrew.
Our contact called. “How was check-in?”
What are you going to do now?”
“Take a hot bath.”
“But you will stay with your group until after dinner.”
“Sure,” I said. Was she crazy? My people were so gone.
The director called about the rooming lists. Our contact called again, about the director wanting to know about the rooming lists. The room was unbearable—airless and smelling of stale cigarette smoke, with windows that wouldn’t open. As soon as Andrew arrived, we left to get air and food. And more wine.
We had breakfast with some of our people, and then met in the lobby for our own guided tour of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. In my group was the little blonde girl in the leather jacket–the one whose dream was to see the Mona Lisa.
“My father was in the Navy,” she told me. “I lived with him after he and my mom divorced. Haven’t seen my mom for years. I joined the Navy because of my dad.”
Andrew gave an entertaining tour of his favorite sections in the Louvre, ending up at the Mona Lisa, where our group snapped photos and stood in reverent silence, looking up at the tiny painting.
“I’ve realized my dream,” said the little blonde.
The phone in my purse registered five messages. I ignored them. I was inspired by the way my countrymen went about their business, diligently and quietly, with no elaborate discussion, no meetings, no mobile phones, no hysteria. It was my job to help them have a good time in Paris, and I would do it in like fashion.
Andrew took two more batches of people to the Louvre, while I took a group to the Eiffel Tower and to Père Lachaise to see Jim Morrison’s grave, then we all reassembled at the bar in the hotel at the end of the day. People were drifting back in from their various adventures, and amusing one another with their tales. The seaman who’d gone to Pigalle ambled in looking like he’d lost a fight, but he gave me a discreet thumbs-up and winked his normal eye. A baby-faced trio showed up wearing berets cocked over one eye and carrying open bottles of wine.
Some hadn’t found the same level of fun. I heard one guy say, “Paris is just a boring New Orleans.”
His pony-tailed companion agreed. “Who woulda thought I woulda had more fun in fuckin’ Bahrain?”
But most of the troops seemed tired and satisfied as we boarded the bus to the train station.
The guys in the berets were mine. The berets were red, and I wondered why. “They ran outta the black ones by the time we got there, and we sure’s hell weren’t gonna wear green ones,” one explained. The one sitting next to me had reportedly consumed an entire bottle of red wine before noon. He’d had a personal epiphany and wanted to talk about it. There was something about the food, the wine, the people—he wasn’t sure, but it created an atmosphere that made him feel at home.
“This’ll sound crazy, but I think this city was telling me that I belong here.”
“I don’t think that’s crazy. She told me that too.”
“Damn . . . that’s deep. I gotta figure out a way to get back here once my hitch is up.”
“I’m sure you will.”
“Meanwhile, I can tell you this much, Ma’am. Something big is going to happen before too long. Something really big, and the world might not like it.”
–Marcia Muir Mitchell