Break Dancing in Nice
I was a sailor in the US Navy in 1984, stationed aboard the USS America (CV-66) which was home ported in Norfolk, VA. We were deployed on a six month cruise at the time of this story.
After a rigorous and trying tour of duty in the Indian Ocean and North Arabian Sea which had cost us both aircraft and lives lost, we passed back through the ditch (Suez Canal) and made for Naples, Italy.
We concluded a very short port visit there and then sailed for another “spin” around the eastern Mediterranean. These exercises maintained the required “military presence” that influenced diplomacy and brokered deals beyond the visage of the public. Finishing whatever the real purpose of that exercise was, we were finally ready for the destination that this story is about; Nice, France, by way of Monaco.
Aircraft carriers are too large to dock pier side at most port facilities, and it was considered bad planning to put your primary warship in a “compromised” position in a foreign port. So, you “drop the hook” (sailor speak for park them at anchor) close enough to ferry the crew to the land, but in deep enough water to be able to get underway without the delay of having to maneuver through narrow channels.
The anchorage at Monaco was quite close and afforded a lovely view of the city, the castle, and the Monte Carlo casino. Their harbor held many very expensive yachts belonging to the rich and famous from all over the world.
Our close proximity also allowed Princess Stephanie to ride around the ship on her personal watercraft, topless, and drive the sailors crazy who had duty and couldn’t leave the ship. She had a great time teasing the American sailors and made multiple circuits around the huge vessel wearing only tiny bikini bottoms, sunglasses, and a beaming smile. The Princess was definitely a sailor’s idea of the perfect goodwill ambassador!
The Monaco port call was unusually long at nine days and there are multiple stories to be told, but only one takes us to Nice, France. Like many of the stories I tell, it is complicated and winds around itself as it is revealed.
My friends and I had originally planned to go to Cannes on the train, maybe even on to Toulon. That city (Toulon) was where one of our small escort ships had docked many times, and the crew told stories about how wonderful it was.
We were as flexible in our destination, as we were resolved to get away from the port city where 5,000+ sailors were making their presence known. I had done a tour (8 hour shift) as a Shore Patrol supervisor the previous night and I was definitely ready to be in a different city. Americans are brash and rude in general as guests in foreign lands, but sailors work hard at earning their reputation as ugly Americans.
Having gotten a few hours sleep after being relieved from my watch, I joined the others in line to get off of the ship. On a vessel carrying so many men getting ashore from anchorage is a much longer process than you might imagine, sometimes taking hours from getting into line until your feet hit dry land.
Once ashore, our journey took us to the Monaco train station, where everything is neat and organized and everyone is in a hurry. As we found out, French trains are the exact opposite of the Italian ones. Not only are they clean, but they are extremely punctual, running to the second. French train conductors will not tolerate any delay; if you were three steps away when the second hand on their watch hits 12, they would shut the door in your face. That exacting precision by the train system is how we ended up in Nice.
Two of our party went to the restroom (never go anywhere alone!) and were just late enough returning to have the train doors close in front of them. Our plan should we get separated, was to go to the next station and get off and wait for our friends to arrive; which was precisely what we did.
You would think that we would be mad because of the inconvenience, right? Wrong, we were as happy as can be! Considering just such a problem in our discussions while waiting in line to get off of the ship, we had reached a deal that whoever caused such a delay would be required to buy the beer for the others that night. Hurray for punctual trains!
When we got to the next stop, which was Nice, we got off of the train to wait. We knew that we had exactly 30 minutes to kill, so we decided to walk around the immediate area.
Nice was much friendlier than Monaco already, and we had only just stepped away from the train station. People would say hello to us and everyone returned our greetings. It was great to be away from the impact that so many sailors made on an area.
By the time our mates arrived we were sold on Nice and quickly convinced them to stay there. It wasn’t very hard to do really; I just mentioned that women sunbathed topless all along the beach there. Americans are so easy to amuse.
It was getting late so we made our way to a hotel that was close to the beach (priorities you know) but not on the expensive boardwalk, and had vacancies. The proprietor was leery of allowing six Americans to stay in his hotel, having heard horror stories of property destruction and debauchery by our sailors in other ports.
I wish that I could say that the stories he heard were fabricated, but the sad truth was that they were based largely on fact. Our smiling faces and sincere reassurances that we were not “like that,” plus (mostly) the hard currency that we offered for three rooms, made our case. He did require us to go to the local bank and exchange our U.S. dollars for French francs to pay him though, as he was afraid of the exchange rate and possibly losing money.
The next morning we woke to knocks on our door, which was the maid bringing us continental breakfasts. For Americans who traditionally eat such massive amounts of food at breakfast, the European version of the morning repast can be quite shocking.
Those “continental breakfasts” were puny little excuses for food all wrapped up in a cloth inside of a basket. In the basket were two croissants and two muffins, with two little pats of butter and some jam. Also on the tray were a little glass of juice and cup of coffee for each of us.
One friend said, “I don’t know why they bothered to tease us, if they weren’t going to feed us.” My roommate asked me if I was going to eat, and I said I would drink my juice and coffee. He didn’t hesitate for a second and scarfed down the bread, barely taking time to remove the little paper cup thing from the muffin.
We all met up in the lobby as planned and one of the guys asked the desk clerk where the best beach for “girl watching” was. The poor man looked at us kind of funny as he tried to process American English into French in his mind.
All of a sudden the light went on in his brain and he made the motions depicting a woman’s curves with his hands. The nodding heads indicated that he had the right idea, and it set him off into a barrage of French that none of us could follow, at all. His hands were gesturing this way and that way, and I am sure that he knew exactly what and where he was describing. We didn’t have a clue.
Looking at each other and reaching an unspoken agreement that it was no use trying to decipher his instructions, we backed towards the exit. Taking our leave, continuously nodding our heads and smiling our faces off, we hustled out the door. Our new friend just kept on talking and waving his hands like we were getting the picture.
We needn’t have worried, the beach was only a block away and the sun was shining. To sailors who spend so many days in the dark, everything is perfect when the sun is out!
This was the Cote d’Azur after all; the French Riviera. Nice was a jewel of beautiful landscapes, sparkling water, and ornate and elegant buildings. All along the coastline of the city ran a boardwalk for strolling, which the French do very well at all hours of the day and night. On the land side of this walkway were a couple of rows of parking, then a street and magnificent buildings housing hotels, restaurants and shops. The proprietors lived above their businesses we found later as we strolled in the evening and all of their lights were on and windows open.
It was the sea side of the walkway that interested my friends the most though; it was what swung their vote to stay in Nice after all. The beaches there are tiny compared to any U.S. beaches. There was a seawall all along the beach, with steps every one hundred feet or so for access. Morning was a good time for sunbathing it seemed, as there were many people all lined up in rows on the sand when we got there.
Of the six of us, only two had grown up in beach country; myself in Florida, the other in southern California. The remaining four were all from the inland cities. It was a full time job to keep these guys from drooling over the seawall as nearly naked bodies were on display everywhere.
As you are probably aware, many European women go topless on the beaches and the men are wise enough to keep their mouths shut and just enjoy the “scenery.” Not so with young American males. They had their cameras out snapping away and whistling at the ladies. More than once a disgusted woman grabbed her things and left. I was embarrassed by my friends’ actions, but they were unfazed by anything that I said to them about their behavior. Evidently admiring the view without being obnoxious was not encoded in their DNA.
People in Nice would come to the beach from work or wherever, in their regular attire. It was not the custom to wear bathing suits everywhere like it is in the US. So they changed right on the beach. The modest ones were very skilled at wrapping a large beach towel around themselves and changing clothes. Some only covered their lower half as they weren’t putting on a top anyway. A few were unconcerned about who saw what and just got naked.
It was a member of that unconcerned category that finally broke the trance.
A very pretty, dark haired sun worshipper wearing a nice business skirt and blouse walked past us as we sat on the seawall. So graceful and slender was that new arrival that four of my companions (the city boys) fairly floated along in trail (reminiscent of Pepe Le Pew of cartoon fame), whistling and snapping their cameras.
A spot on the beach sand was obtained and with back to the audience, the clothes started to come off. Out of a bag came a light blue towel with “Cote d’Azur” emblazoned upon it, which was quickly and expertly wrapped around the hips. Turning to face my friends, the top was playfully removed revealing no bra, and a very small chest.
These young American sailors were actually leaning forward, cameras at the ready, full of anticipation as the towel was untied and the opening was teased, but not done. They called out for more, yelling “take it off” like they were in a strip club. Asking sweetly if they really wanted to see, the object of their lust took a couple of steps closer to them, and whipped the towel wide open.
Their cameras were flashing away, as they finally realized that dangling in front of them was a very large “man part” in all of its glory. The crowd of locals roared in laughter. What they had thought was a pretty lady, was definitely a pretty man, who dressed like a lady. Life was truly full of surprises for my young friends.
That very public education of my over eager shipmates somehow created a sudden craving for alcohol. My mates felt the need for beer and wanted to “get out of the sun.”
I believed that it wasn’t the sun that kept their faces red, but rather the thought of how to explain the photos they had just taken when they got their pictures back.
Our group split up at that point as my roommate and I did not want to get drunk, nor did we want to pay the high prices charged at beachfront drinking establishments. So, the two of us wandered inland, in search of a dining spot with better prices.
One thing is certain in France; you can always find good bread. We had not walked a mile from the shore when the aromas of freshly baked bread lead us by the nose (also a very cartoon like image) down a side street to a corner store.
A store by name, it was really a house with a room set up to sell goods out of. Mama baked bread in her kitchen and sold it, along with some fruits and vegetables from her garden that were sitting out on a counter. A small variety of cheeses and sausages were on a wooden block table along one wall. They had some generic wine (no labels) available by the glass or the jug. It was barely a store, and even less of a restaurant, but the place smelled delicious! I wanted to take a bite out of the air.
We purchased the best food that I had eaten in all of Europe, at that little store. The smell of the bread had me starving. They asked for 18 francs (the equivalent of two dollars) each (we gave them 20 because we thought that it was too little) and had all the bread, cheese and wine that we could consume as we sat at a table outside in the shade.
Papa kept refilling our wine jug and bringing out more cheese to “try”. Mama brought out more bread for us to take with us, because we “looked starved.” Eventually we had to cry “enough!” I felt like we were being adopted.
Before we took our leave from these delightful people, we asked them for a recommendation for where to get our evening meal near our hotel. They talked excitedly back and forth in French for a minute and apparently Mama won. The instructions were given and we were admonished repeatedly to not go there before 8 pm.
Rejoining our friends, still in the same bar that we left them in earlier, we hauled them back to the hotel for a nap and to clean up. They had mightily contributed to the local economy, settling a bar tab of three figures. All of their expenditure was for hard alcohol (not beer), which they had consumed in the same time frame as we had spent getting our four dollars worth. Just standing was a challenge for them; they definitely needed showers and a bed.
I was glad that we took the walk and not just for the monetary difference. In general, in bars the people who run them prey on those with addictions and weaknesses for alcohol, cigarettes, gambling, prostitutes, etc, it’s how they make their money. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere for me and doubly so as an American sailor; we seemed to have targets painted on our backs.
The people that we met running their little store were genuine and welcoming, making us feel at home and like we were almost family. Leaving them I felt refreshed and happy, instead of used and abused like my friends felt as we dragged them from the bar.
I was so eager to follow our dinner location instructions to the letter, that we didn’t even leave the hotel until 8:00 pm. The route to follow was easier than I had feared and we had no difficulty locating the small diner. The place was filled with locals and very busy.
The very attractive waitress who met us at the door was an aggressive “take no prisoners” type and seated us at an outside patio table for eight, telling us that if she needed the space, she would seat others with us. No one gave her any backtalk or made rude comments, which made me happy. I thought that perhaps they were still sufficiently humbled from earlier events. Or, maybe it was just that they didn’t recognize her from the beach that morning. She was one of the first girls we saw and did look different with her clothes on and her hair up in a twist.
Based on the recommendation from Mama at the store, I already knew what I wanted, even though I had never even heard of it before. I got the Spaghetti Carbonara with an egg on top. It was so good that I could have rolled in it!
The others ordered different things, and some wine with their meals (I had water with lemon.) It was hilarious to watch the waitress at work. The guys would order the wrong wine for their meal and the young woman would throw her hand up in the air and say, “what, are you insane!” or call them “stupid little boys” and tell them which wine to order. She was having fun and the guys were in awe of her.
When I paid my bill, the waitress asked if I had had a good day. The quizzical look on my face made her laugh and she said that her mother (Mama from the store) had told her that some Americans boys were coming to dinner after 8:00p.m. She was very pleased to hear my praise of her mother’s bread and compliments about her family’s store in general.
She also remembered us from that morning at the beach and commented that I had hung back and kept my mouth shut while my friends acted like naughty children. Her laughter at the memory made me blush so much that my face was still red when I went back to the table. It was silly for me to be so embarrassed, I had done nothing wrong.
We left the little (in size) restaurant at about 10:00 pm, and the people were still coming in to eat. They did a booming business and were open from 6:00 pm until midnight, with mostly tourists eating early. The waitress said that they had to put people out at midnight every night because of their operating license which required them to close at that hour. To be open later required negotiating a new license which was very expensive.
As we left the noise of the restaurant, our ears picked up music that sounded strangely familiar. We followed that sound until we located the source of the music. It was coming from a dark structure in an even darker alley.
The beat was definitely coming from inside of what we guessed was some sort of nightclub for lack of a better description. Since there were six of us, wearing our badass big boy jeans (Americans are so full of bravado) we felt OK risking going inside.
I half expected a panel in the door to open like the “speakeasies” of the 1930s and almost jumped backwards when a door that was fully half of the wall opened. A large young man with a hoodie sweatshirt and dark pants opened the door and shined his flashlight on us.
“Americans!” he shouted into the building and we had dozens of instant new “best friends.” The tiny place (really a garage I guessed) was packed with at least fifty young French people and a few visiting Europeans who were in the know about where to find such clubs.
“Crank it up, crank it up, they dig it!” was shouted out by our doorman and the dance music that lead us there rattled the walls. This was a break dancing, hip hop Mecca for kids who loved American music and dance. Our blue jeans also made us instant celebrities. Levi Strauss is a god to the youth of most of the world.
A couple of our American six were actually decent break dancers and did “bust a move” as the saying goes. The rest of us just kind of bopped along with the music and tried not drown in the free beer that was continuously shoved into our hands.
A competition was held and I have not seen better break dancing, even in the movies like “Electric Bugaloo”, etc. One guy had gloves on and his hood up with the drawstring pulled until you couldn’t see his face. This guy was incredible and had ALL of the moves, even spinning on the top of his head. He won first prize.
I asked a general question of the group around us as to why he covered all up. The hushed reply was that he was a gendarme, a policeman, and if he was caught here he would lose his job. It was strictly forbidden for him to participate and it was against the city ordinances to even have such dance parties. I had to ask as it was such a shock to me, “Do you mean that it is against the law here to dance?” They said, “Oui, the break dance is considered immoral. It is not America.”
We stayed with the illegal dance party until four in the morning and enjoyed ourselves immensely. After we left the party we went back to the hotel, got cleaned up, checked out, and went looking for an American sized meal for breakfast. One of the big hotels on the boardwalk had what we wanted, albeit for a large price.
Our train trip back to Monaco later that day was quick and easy and I had more adventures on other days.
I could not get over the idea that kids having fun dancing was against the rules, and it became “Break-the-law” dancing to me from then on. Some laws are just insane! Dance on kids, I’m with you!
While in the U.S. Navy I did have occasion to visit the city of Santiago de Leon de Caracas, or as we know it in our country, Caracas, Venezuela.
Pride makes a strange meal
It was the spring of 1984 and I was an air traffic controller aboard the USS America. We were participating in “Exercise Ocean Venture” in the Caribbean Sea in preparation for our departure across the Atlantic for duty in the Mediterranean Sea and beyond.
This phase of the big exercise was over and we were scheduled to go to Cartagena, Columbia for a port visit. At least we were, until just a few hours before we dropped anchor. It was a purposeful ruse; there were groups who wanted to cause us trouble waiting for us in Cartagena and we needed to fool them.
I knew that we didn’t want to have a repeat of what happened in Greece in 1982 where 10,000 members of their communist party met us at the port city of Piraeus. That was a very ugly and dangerous time for both the American military crew, and the local Greek citizens who were just trying to make a living.
Along with a few other members of the CATCC (Carrier Air Traffic Control Center) crew, I had decided to risk the local bus trip through the mountains from the port of La Guaira to Caracas. It was only seven miles or so, but had been known to have bandit problems, (or so our Lieutenant claimed). There was also the concern about being able to catch the right bus coming back, which was always a concern in any port visit.
Being the only person in the group who had any knowledge of South America at all, I was looked at as the “local expert” and questioned on the dangers.
My first caution to them (knowing this group as well as I did) was to tell them, “ALL of the hookers in Caracas have diseases!” After visiting the port of Mombasa, Kenya in 1983, and witnessing one of our own lose his manly bits to disease, you would think that they would listen to advice. Would hearing it from me make a difference to them? Probably not, they had their “sailor image” to live up to.
I had also warned my friends to heed the well published, “don’t drink the water” instructions, taking it further telling them to not drink any water that wasn’t from a bottle opened in front of them. It was common practice in many areas to “refill and serve” bottles of water from the local tap. This gave the illusion to tourists that they were drinking purified water, while saving the vendor money.
I stressed to them that it was vitally important to stay out of the water, be it swimming, wading, crossing, or splashing. The local rivers and streams were known to harbor blood parasites and they were serious business. You couldn’t see them, or feel them, but within twenty-four hours or so they would make their presence known in most unpleasant ways.
The waters were also rumored to host a tiny fish called the “toothpick fish” or more properly candiru. This tiny fish is well known to the indigenous people of the Amazon Basin (farther south) and you do not want to be introduced to it. If you want to know more about it, just search for “candiru” and I promise that you will have your legs crossed by the time you finish reading.
Today the area has efficient buses and even a subway in the city. At the time of our visit in 1984 everything was perpetually under construction, (according to the locals.) Many of the projects were started in 1983 and with the usual politics and conflicts delaying progress; it took years to finish them.
The motorway (similar in appearance to USA Interstates) from Guairá to Caracas had multiple lanes for traffic, but at that time (due to construction) only one lane each way was open for business.
Our bus was barely a step up from the rural “chicken bus” that you see in movies (and is a very real thing, I have ridden them.) Fortunately we didn’t have to share our seats with livestock on that trip, but it was still a smelly experience. I don’t think the bus had been cleaned in a long time.
Because we had learned our lessons the hard way in other countries, we questioned the bus driver before we got off, about the where and when to catch a return bus.
We got the Venezuelan version of a definite maybe, “Quiza.” Which translated meant, perhaps. OK, so “maybe” we could find a bus back, and maybe we could catch a cab. Quiza indeed!
Not letting minor details stop you is something I learned early on in my travels. We scattered out across the city with a plan to meet back at the location where we “debarked” (got off the bus), at a set hour. We did have enough experience in wandering about in strange places to always travel in pairs or more. There truly is safety in numbers, it isn’t just a saying.
My amigo and I set off for the Las Mercedes district, known for its shops and galleries and the newly constructed Paseo Las Mercedes shopping mall. That’s right, a shopping mall, American capitalism had invaded Caracas!
We walked for hours up and down city streets, talking with those people who easily recognized us as Americans and were willing to speak English to us. We both spoke a bit of Spanish, but I was very hesitant to give up my “edge” by making it known that I understood their words. It had served me well all over the world to operate this way. My companion on the other hand, was sure that he knew a lot more Spanish than he actually did.
Along the way we picked up an “escort” of sorts, two gentlemen in dark suits (in 90F+ heat) who stayed well back, but went everywhere that we went. They also spoke to everyone that we did. Given my former life in the army, this made alarm bells go off for me. I found myself looking for exits and things to use as weapons everywhere we went.
My buddy Frank was oblivious to our “tail” and far more interested in trying the local beer. I knew that the local government “suits” (government and/or police) at least had sense enough to wear light colored clothing and hats. So that begged the question, “Who were these clowns?”
There is much more to tell about this adventure than I can put in a short daily blog, so I will cut to the title event and perhaps if there is sufficient interest I will write a longer, more complete version.
We were hungry and in search of a meal, preferably one that we could sit down to enjoy and had reasonable expectations of being safe to consume. To that I end I suggested the restaurant inside a big hotel that served international guests, the Intercontinental.
Our dining attire was a bit “understated” shall we say, being blue jeans and sneakers. At least we had button up collared shirts on, which helped soften the look “a little”. I was just glad that we were not there at evening meal time.
Americans feel that they can go anywhere looking like they just stepped off of the ball field, or the beach and that should be good enough. The common gringo attitude being, “Hey, you want my money, or what?” Never mind, it would take too long to explain.
The gentleman who greeted and seated us was tre elegant! He was the Maitre d’, and superbly dressed in a tuxedo with not a speck of dust on it, and not a hair on his head out of place. His manners were impeccable, and his accent barely perceptible as he spoke perfect American English (there is a difference) to us as he held our chairs and handed us menus.
Frank never heard a word that either of us said as he was lost in his own world, gawking at the décolletage of a beautiful woman seated at the next table. Our host deftly maneuvered himself around to hand Frank his menu and blocked the view, as much for the young lady’s comfort as to bring my companion back to earth.
I ordered two bottles of agua con gas (carbonated water) for us to drink, as it was apparent that Frank had had enough beer already. The menu had different sections with different languages in it, the primary being Spanish, as that was the majority of their clientele’s language.
My friend took my ordering of the water in that way, (agua con gas) as a requirement for speaking Spanish, and proceeded to ONLY speak his version of the language. A version which I am afraid would make his teacher want to issue a retroactive failing grade. I was embarrassed, but a little stuck too. So I ordered a carne dish and smiled my apology to the waiter as Frank took over.
I looked around at the fabulous decor when Frank was speaking, really trying to look anywhere but at the waiter to hide my embarrassment. That was, until I heard the word anguila spoken as my friend read it off of the menu. “Medallones de Anguila“, the waiter read back questioningly, and Frank nodded his silly head like a bobble-head doll.
I asked Frank if he was sure that he knew what he had ordered. He loudly said, “Hell yeah, Steak!” Frank then pointed to the listing under “Pescado“, which generally meant fish, but also related to other things from the sea which are caught and served. I debated trying to point out that beef steak entries would not be found listed under a seafood or fish heading, but it just didn’t seem worth the effort at that point.
A few minutes more and the Maitre d’ came to our table and speaking in beautiful English (one of the seven languages that he spoke fluently), asked us again if my friend knew what he ordered, as he did not want us to be unhappy with our meal. Frank puffed up like a peacock and got indignant at the idea, asking if our host thought that we were ignorant and could only speak “American.” The gentleman, obviously never one to get ruffled smiled graciously and said, “As you wish senor,” and walked away.
And so it was a far greater surprise for Frank than it was for me, when his plate of eels (anguila) arrived, on fire and being escorted by the Maitre d’, along with most of the other waiters, and a couple of guests who had heard about the order and wanted to see what happened.
With great ceremony the creatures were expertly beheaded, split in half lengthwise, and served onto a plate of noodles in front of my, to use a British slang term, “gob smacked” friend. His mouth was completely opened as if in a scream that wouldn’t quite come out, and his eyes were fixed in that “deer-in-the-headlights” stare. My world for a camera!
Being an American and never willing to admit defeat in any circumstance, my friend took up knife and fork and stabbed a piece of anguila and cut off a big chunk and plopped it in his mouth like he meant to do this all along.
The crowd around us cheered him on and walked away to go back to what they were doing. Frank chewed that piece of eel for a few minutes and finally got it swallowed. His eyes told the story that his mouth would not.
I ate my quite excellent meal in silence, and tried not to look at the ghastly eel mess on my dining companion’s plate. After letting Frank push his meal around the plate for a while I asked him if he was ready to go. The boy nearly turned his chair over in his haste to depart.
We paid the bill, which was very little money by American standards (less than two meals at McDonald’s.) I also left a generous tip on the table which is seldom done there I am told (not the custom), and we left the building. Around the very first corner that we turned my friend lost his lunch in an alley, and a lot of beer with it. Ah, the joys of traveling with sailors!
I guess anguila didn’t agree with him.
We have all heard the saying that it is tough to swallow your pride.
It appears that pride truly does make for a strange meal and is very tough to swallow, and apparently, it’s even harder to keep down.
The return trip to our rendezvous point was largely uneventful and mostly required dragging a now lethargic Frank along by the jacket. He “decorated” the bus floor with more foul smelling eel and beer on the way back to port, just to add to the ambiance. I truly felt sorry for whoever had to clean that bus, assuming that they ever did so.
There were other things about that trip that could be written, but that would require a “reader’s request” to get me to tell the rest of the story. The tale about being too proud to admit that you don’t know something has been told.