The Moroccans. They were kids just like me. I had arrived in Aix-les-Bains in March, 1970. I got off the train and M. Caille drove me to his hotel, Hôtel-des-Bains.
M. Caille, probably in his 50s, a rotund man with red face and the usual broken blood vessels on the surface of his nose, met me at the train station. He was smoking one of those awful cigarette-cigar hybrids.
He drove me to the hotel in his DS-19, the apex of French engineering. Those cars had no springs. You got in them and they hissed at you, as their sleek bodies glided over cobble-stoned streets while other lesser vehicles moved as much up, down, and sideways as they did forward.
We entered through the dining room. A young man with curly black hair waved cheerfully. He was up on a ladder, cleaning the front windows. M Caille said, “He’s Moroccan. I have lots of them working for me. They come from a very disorganized country.”
M. Caille represented the prevailing French attitude toward most of their colonial subjects—to be treated like children, with amusement and tolerance. Such an attitude has led to some pretty spectacular uprisings—such as in Senegal, when thousands were massacred or more recently when Algerian students burnt thousands of cars all over France.
We walked into the empty restaurant of the Hôtel des Bains, closed for another month. I had arrived a month early, not having read M. Caille’s letter properly. He had said, “Above all, go to the embassy first to get your contract approved before leaving the United States.” Instead, not reading the details but so anxious to embark on this adventure, I took off for France. When I arrived, I stayed with friends in Roubaix who phoned M. Caille.
He responded that I had jumped the gun and therefore he wasn’t responsible for my foolishness. So, according to him, I could now turn around and return to the U.S.
My friends weren’t about to let this happen and they insisted he do something on his end. Since he had a lot of connections in high places, he worked it out and I took the train south.
After the initial greeting, M. Caille left me with the Moroccans, who took me up to my room, a guest room on the second floor. I was to stay there for a couple weeks until my room located in the servant quarters at the Astoria, was ready. The Hotel Astoria was a very large building from the Belle Epoque, when Europe was flush with money, before it self-immolated during the First World War.
We got in the dinky elevator—my two Moroccan friends and I—and rode it up two floors. One of them farted loudly. I responded, “Quelqu’un a dit quelquechose?” Our friendship was sealed.
My Moroccan friends lived in the basement of the hotel. Their beds were all in one room, and they shared a “Turkish toilet/shower”. Like most Turkish toilets, it consisted of a hole in the floor, but there was a showerhead in the ceiling, so you could accomplish a lot in there. Of course, you’d probably want to use some sort of aromatic soap.
One day, my friends received a small cardboard box in the mail. In it were lovely white flowers, trumpet shaped. I now know that these were the flowers of the Belladonna plant, and that the plant belongs to the Solanaceae, a plant family noted for its ability to produce all sorts of alkaloids. The capsaicin of chilies, nicotine of tobacco, the solanine of potatoes, are all alkaloids produced by members of this plant family.
They invited me to share tea with them. Now, in the French culture, all sorts of teas are made with all sorts of plants. This is because, historically, those bad old British were often blocking the “English channel” with their navy, and making it difficult to import foodstuffs. Besides, the British controlled the tea business, so why should the French support the lifestyles of the British? So, they preserved their herbal habits.
To this day, the French still enjoy a variety of teas, the most popular being tilleul (made with the leaves of the Linden tree), verveine, and chamomile. Tilleul was made famous by Marcel Proust in his, A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, in which he describes how the aromas and flavors of tilleul combined with the buttery yumminess of Madeleines reminds him of his favorite aunt.
So, the Moroccans. They made a pot of Belladonna Tea. Belladonna, by the way, means “beautiful woman,” but this is unrelated to the story. Being a skeptic (I’m named Thomas after all), I didn’t believe this stuff could have any effect whatsoever. So, I drank five cups plus the dregs. I suppose they were somewhat bemused, and they wanted to see what would happen. Ha Ha. A science experiment with an American subject!
It was the afternoon, so we descended into their basement sleeping quarters. I was feeling drowsy, so I lay down on a bed. Pretty soon, I had to pee. I got up, but couldn’t walk. My feet would not lift off the ground. So, well, I’m too embarrassed to say what happened next.
Apparently, according to some of the staff, I then stood against a wall all evening and cooked, calling out to others for food from the storage room, etc. I have only a vague memory of this. Fortunately, the chef, Mario, who was my age, covered for me, telling M. Caille that I was indisposed and that they had helped me back to my room at the Astoria Hotel.
At 11 PM, when my shift was over, Christian, one of the waiters, helped me back to the Astoria. It was dark and I had to take the servants’ circular staircase. I stumbled over every step. Christian dropped me off at my room on the 8th floor and left.
However, there he was, sitting on a chair in the corner! I walked toward him. He vanished. Then I walked toward him sitting in another corner. Once again, poof! Then I looked out my window, which was directly over the gabled roof of the balcony below me. A decorative ball on a spike morphed into an old man’s face, and I screamed in terror and jumped onto my bed.
The next day, I woke up with one contact lens still in one eye (you didn’t do stuff like that with the early contacts), and one lens in the middle of the floor.
I came down to Hôtel des Bains and found out that one of my Moroccan friends had been killed. Apparently, they were hanging around outside the hotel and saw a revolver sitting on the front seat of a customer’s car. They opened the door, took out the revolver and one of them pointed it at his own head. The other pushed the revolver away and it discharged into the fellow standing behind. He died instantly.
We had a funeral a couple days later. On the way to the cemetery, Mr. Caille said, “J’en ai marre de ces zebres.” Translated, this means “I’m tired of these zebras.” This was a racist phrase used by the pieds noirs, the French who lived in Algeria and Morocco.
In France, a potwasher is called a plongeur or diver. This name comes from the 19th century when pots, pans, and dishes were dumped into large basins and the washers stood in the basins and took a bath with the pots, pans, etc. Doesn’t sound too sanitary, but that’s the history of the name.
Our plongeur who stood in front of a sink, obviously, worked with us for most of the season. Until that fateful night.
Mario, the chef, whom you will learn about in a bit, liked to tease me. Sometimes, I would be out in the courtyard cleaning green beans. He would get up on the roof and pour water on it so the water would splash onto me. Mario was my age, and I was an easy target.
That fateful night, Mario decided to make me dance. So he sloshed a little alcohol on the floor around my feet and lit it. Ha Ha.
The plongeur decided that this was too much fun. So he grabbed the bottle and decided to up the conflagration by squeezing the plastic bottle while holding a lighted torch in front of it. The bottle exploded, he turned into a living torch, and my left leg also enflamed.
The plongeur ended up in the hospital for a few weeks.
My pants did not extend all the way down. There was a two inch gap between my pants. The skin burned. But I was too ashamed, so I didn’t let on.
For two days, I came to work as if nothing was wrong. On the third day, I could no longer stand due to the pain. So I ended up going to the clinic to get it cleaned and bandaged; it cost me nothing. This was my first experience with the fantastic French medical system.