(and mornings, and matinees, afternoons…..)
Nabbing a taxi in Paris must be one of the most frustrating, time-consuming, stressful and more-often-than-not ultimately unsuccessful ventures one can undertake in the city of love. Finding one that’s available, at least, resembles something approaching do-able. Negotiating with the arrogantly indifferent driver in relation to your desired arrondissement and it’s excruciating proximity to his blinkered list of ‘quartiers préférés’ is where things start to turn awry. Inevitably, that niggling nagging little voice begins to resonate ever louder in your head, absorbing your tear-soaked, hair-tearing protests like they were some sort of super fuel infinitely prolonging the onslaught.
"Should’ve taken the metro"
"Should’ve taken the metro"
"For God’s sake it’s walkable if you only bothered to consult a map"
"SHOULD’VE TAKEN THE FUCKING METRO"
Down in the south of France things are, naturally, quite different. Driven by a genuine appreciation of tourism as opposed to the teeth-grinding tolerance of Eeeengleesh speakers that makes Paris so delightful, Southerners have even been known to take to the hard-shoulder in sympathy with the protruding thumbs of haggard Legionnaires desperate to return to their regiment before the dreaded morning roll-call (Appel) and thus avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Therefore it goes without saying that taxis roam the quaint and crooked streets of towns like Marseille and Avignon in their hundreds, ready to pick up a disoriented client and gently coax them back on track. Tragically, with my own regiment residing quite a way from civilization, the heart-stopping prices quoted by these colourful cabbies threaten to decimate my monthly salary in a clinically pitiless 90 minute journey.
Solutions exist, of course. You just need to know where to look (or be found). My first experience with ‘Les taxis noir’ (‘Black Taxis‘) occurred on a chilly Sunday evening in February 2009 after I’d arrived back in Avignon from a weekend in Paris. I had made my way to the town centre and decided to target the sole Irish bar (staffed solely by French and Belgian waitresses) for a quiet whiskey or 4 before the regimental shuttle bus descended to collect its cargo later on. Strolling up the dimly-lit avenue, I noticed a small, stumpy shape scuttling towards me from the shadows. With my headphones habitually wedged into my roaring-red frosted ears, it took a second attempt to fully digest the shady proposal being thrown my way by this unshaven, NYC-cap-wearing Arab.
"You go to 2REG? Saint Christol? I take you! Now, let’s go! Now!"
"Wow, how amazing!" I rather naively thought to myself. "This guy’s actually heard of my regiment and is offering to take me there!".
When I finally regained my senses, I retreated a little, trying to play it cool but being impeded by my broken French! I asked how much. €60, he said. Fuck it! So off I went, being led down a small side street to a battered Citreon with Winnie the Pooh sun shades filling the back windows. Before the doubts could take hold my bag was in the boot and my ass on the seat. We set off in the dark towards the mountains, winding our way out of the Avignon sprawl and towards the smaller towns of Carpentras, Roussillon, Apt and beyond. It was after 10pm when we left the last urban blot on the landscape and started the penultimate climb to the regiment. Now, as a passenger I find it very hard to stay awake on long car journeys. As a driver however (despite my lack of a licence), I would imagine that the need to keep one’s eyes open might just be that bit more immediate. Nevertheless my little chauffeur de choc proceeded to swerve rather serenely in and out of lane and playfully towards plunging ravines, coming-to every couple of seconds as a particularly well-signposted corner approached or the on-rushing headlights of a fellow driver stirred him from his slumber. This, my friends, was one journey for which I managed to stay awake throughout. We finally arrived at the gates and, after an unnecessarily long time spent loosening my grip from the dashboard, he offered me his mobile number "for next time, next time". Against my better judgement, I took it. Hey, €60 and a heightened risk of death has to be better than €180 and noodles 3 times a day every weekend. And so, to this day, myself and Hamid regularly take to the roads in anticipation of the return to work after a great weekend (for me) and €60 for the wife and kids (for himself).
It’s not just the Arabs who offer such low-cost high risk services though. Indeed many Corporal Chefs from the regiment (certainly those from the Military Police with nothing better to do on the weekend) descend upon Avignon TGV each Sunday evening, tempting Legionnaires with a speedy lift back to base at a reasonable price. Camaraderie shining brilliantly in it’s finest suit of bullshit-plated armour. Then there are the sergeants who, upon stumbling across a drifting subordinate, offer a place free of charge. Sure isn’t it logical, with them both going in the same direction? Alas the interpretation of logic here in the Legion varies wildly from soldier to soldier. Thankfully there remains a decent contingent who would (when able) offer a helping hand to those in need, regardless of rank. Finding them, however, makes the Paris taxi-hunt seem like a game of hide-and-seek in a pub toilet.
*NB: A legionnaire cannot purchase/own/insure a vehicle in his first 5 years of service. Only after 5 years service, and RSM (Rectification de Situation Militaire - getting your real name back) can one enjoy the freedom of one’s own vehicle.