Europe, Tall Tales and Big Fish Stories

Rebecca and the Not-So-Nice Pirates of Nice, France

Only a few of my closest friends and family know the story of how I met my lovely wife, Rebecca. Yet, even to this day, the circumstances surrounding the event are a source of both anxiety and great joy for me. My state-appointed therapist suggested that I attempt to express myself more openly and stop bottling so many things inside. So, if I ever hope to be freed from this padded cell that confines me, I need to start doing more of what my therapist says.

It all began here. No, not here at the Palmetto State Mental Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It all began 3 kilometers west of Nice, in the picturesque seaside community of Villefranche-sur-Mer. The amazing landscape of this charming fishing village has inspired many artists throughout the years to apply their paints to canvas. Set against a peaceful waterfront with colorful houses, open markets, and cobblestone streets, this is just the sort of place a fellow might want to unpack his suitcase and stay awhile. Having arrived there by cruise ship, I had only the luxury of staying in town for a single day. Considering my limited time , I vowed to make the most out of my brief visit to this French coastal paradise.

 

The Bay of Villefranche-sur Mer

All just seemed so perfect that morning I stepped off the dock and set foot into town. The weather was warm but not stifling hot. The salty air had a pleasant breeze , but far from windy. All in all, things were very nice here. I arrived in town just after breakfast so I could get an early start on things. It was my first time in the French Riviera and I intended on exploring every nook and cranny of this particular place before calling it a day.

 

Big John snaps a photograph of this picturesque fishing village.

Now don’t go getting ahead of yourself here. By “exploring”, I meant taking in some of the local points of interest, relaxing, maybe even downing a few beers while chatting it up with the locals. Suprisingly, very few of the locals were out and about. Maybe the French just enjoyed sleeping in on Saturdays but it seemed such a waste not to enjoy the beautiful morning scenery. The few people I did see appeared friendly enough and I was feeling pretty sociable.  Although I didn’t speak any French, I figured that if I talked loud enough and slow enough, they would catch the gist of whatever I was trying to say – Je ne comprends pas.

 

Villefranche-sur-Mer boasts one of the deepest natural harbors in the entire Mediterranean.

I don’t know if it was just this place in particular or if I had simply woken up on the right side of the bed. All I know is that this was one of those days where life just felt good and I wanted to be a part of it all. I began my leisurely stroll towards the small square in the Old Town. I hadn’t ventured far before I came across a quaint centuries-old chapel that caught my eye.  Just briefly I considered going inside and exploring the belltower; but then realized I didn’t have enough Euro on hand to cover the small admissions fee.  If there was one lesson I learned while on a cruise ship it was this: Never play bingo in a room full of blue-haired old ladies. They may act real sweet but they have no qualms about bleeding you dry!

 

Early morning yoga on the French Riviera

Moving on, I began climbing the terraced streets and passed people setting up in the open market along the way. After obtaining a vantage point high above the harbor, I gazed below and spotted several other people in a park practicing yoga. So this was where all the townfolks were hiding out! I would’ve loved to have joined them but I’m not all that flexible. Also, I left my stretchy pants at home.  No worries, I was pretty content just admiring the view from afar. It wasn’t long before I came upon a bench in which to sit and rest my weary feet. It’s really quite strange but as I was relaxing there I must have closed my eyes and drifted off for a spell.

 

Cobblestone streets give this French town a medieval sort of appeal.

I don’t know how long I was out but it must have been awhile. When I awoke I was wearing pigeon poop on my shoes and the yoga attendees had all picked up their mats and left the park.

 

The terraced streets of Villefranche.

With the sun rising high in the Mediterranean sky, people emerged from their homes and the community appeared to come alive. The mood in this entire town was festive and light. The citizens were smiling and laughing. The birds were chirping and singing. I nearly expected a bluebird to land squarely on my shoulder. It was one of those zippety-doo-dah sort of days!

 

A poster advertising the upcoming celebration of America’s Independence Day in Villefranche.

Adding to my delight, I even came across a poster advertising an upcoming American-Independence Day festival.  I guess these French people still possess a bit of gratitude for us Yankees for all those years ago in Normandy. It seemed as if folks were just looking for reasons to celebrate… and I really like those sort of folks!

 

Another gorgeous view of the harbor.

Stopping momentarily to take in another gorgeous view of the harbor, I detected a brief chill in the air. The chill was accompanied by a blanket of dark, ominous clouds that suddenly rolled in and cast a shadow over the entire town. In that brief moment, the entire mood of the place darkened. I shuddered as the somber feelings passed over me. The moment was but a fleeting one. As the clouds quickly blew past, the sun reappeared and smiled down upon me. The warm rays comforted me as I continued along in my leisure exploration of the area.

 

Signs of pirates could be found throughout the village.

Everybody has used that common expression, “things are just too good to be true!” This term expresses the skeptical view that something so seemingly fine must have something deeply wrong with it.  As life has shown us time and time again, that skeptical viewpoint is often found to be correct. So what was the “something deeply wrong” about Villefranche-sur-Mer that made things just too good to be true?  Well, in one simple word – Pirates!

Of course the signs were all subtle – a movie poster, a hotel advertisement, an old guy I passed wearing an eye patch and velcro shoes.  It was little things that the common man would simply disregard. However for me,  a brilliant detective, crimefighter, and international man of mystery, I knew that these were all hidden messages to alert outsiders that the town had come under seige.

 

The hotel La Fiancee du Pirate overlooks the Bay of Villifranche between Nice and Monaco.

 

Confirming my suspicions, I spied a sinister looking frigate anchored just outside the mouth of the harbor.

 

The Citadel St. Elmo of Villefranche-sur-Mer

If there really were dangerous pirates lurking about, threatening the safety of this tranquil village, then I needed answers fast.  In Villefranche-sur-Mer, there’s no better place to find answers than at the Citadel St. Elmo.  Upon my arrival at the citadel, I found its courtyard surprisingly empty. I was reserved to checking elsewhere when I overheard the sound of crying coming from an upstairs room. I climbed the stairs, entered the room and found the sobbing governor slumped over at his desk. Upon discovering me standing there, the governor must have sensed that I was indeed a man of action. “Thank God!”, he exclaimed between sniffles. “You must be the answer to my prayers”.

“Sir, I don’t know if I am your answer.”, I replied. I don’t know what exactly is going on around here; but, if I were a betting man I’d wager it all that it’s got something to do with… pirates!”

At the sound of “pirates”, the overwrought governor let out a howl and began crying even louder. Feeling rather uncomfortable, and franky embarrased at witnessing a grown man carrying on in such a fashion , I prodded the governor to explain things further.

The governor went on to explain about his daughter, Rebecca, whom he feared had been captured by Captain Pierre Le Black and his band of cutthroat pirates just a few hours ago. “It was around 7 o’clock this morning when Rebecca set out on her daily morning jog up into the surrounding hillside.”, the governor stated. “When a couple of hours had past and Rebecca still hadn’t shown up to her job as the town’s Lead Anchor-chain Inspector, I just knew something was amiss.  Around noon, I was preparing to send one of my assistants up into the hills to search for her when a mysterious man appeared at the citadel and handed me a sealed letter…”

“Wait!”, I interrupted. “Was the man wearing an eye patch?”

“Yes!”, replied the governor.

“…and was he wearing plaid shorts, tall black socks, and white velcro shoes?”, I inquired.

“No, you’re thinking about one-eyed Frank who stays at the retirement home on the edge of town.”, explained the governor. “He lost his eye during a tragic shuffleboard accident aboard a Carnival Cruiseline. The person I was referring to was a much younger guy wearing pants and black muddy boots”.

“Sorry, please continue.”, I said.

“So this guy hands me a letter stating that the dastardly pirate, Captain Pierre Le Black, has seized Fort Mont Alban. Furthermore, he and his crew have taken my own poor daughter prisoner and are holding her as ransom inside. They refuse to release her unless I agree to pay them my entire prized chest of Spanish gold!”

 

Ransom letter delivered by pirates to the governor of Nice, France.

“How do you know they actually have your daughter?”, I asked.

“Because in addition to the letter, the mysterious man also handed me her iPhone.”, replied the governor. “Trust me! She would never willingly part ways with that silly device. And if that weren’t proof enough, just look at the cover photo set to her Facebook page!”

 

Rebecca’s recovered iPhone offering proof of her capture.

 

The photo sent to Rebecca’s Facebook page offering proof of her captivity.

The governor handed me the iPhone revealing a slender brown-haired girl wearing dark shorts and a pink shirt. She was standing near the massive doors of a fortress. She looked awfully scared and her hands were bound together in heavy chains.

“That’s terrible!”, I exclaimed. “They sound like scoundrels of the worst kind and it looks like they mean business! I’m sorry that you have to give up all your gold but at least you’ll have your daughter back.”

“Give up my gold?”, shouted the governor. “Who said anything about giving up my gold? Why, I couldn’t bear living if I ever lost all of my precious treasure!”

 

The governor’s chest of Spanish Gold (formerly the property of the French navy after seizing it from pirates who seized it from Spain).

“Why not petition the navy for assistance or even go to the local police?”, I inquired.

“Because I can’t!”, replied the governor. “Somehow the navy got this crazy idea their gold was pilfered from their ship by bandits and stowed away inside the Rock of Gibraltar. They’ve set sail a week ago heading straight for the rock. Believe me, I was quite surpised myself to find that chest hidden safely under my bed right here at the citadel. Yet, there’s no disputing the gold clearly belongs to me now. There’s a universal law concerning lost treasure around here –finders keepers, losers weepers.

“…and the police?”, I asked. “Did not the police swear an oath to protect and serve the citizens of Villefranche? Why don’t you go to them for assistance?”

The governor seemed to grow frustrated with my line of questioning. “Man, don’t you think I considered doing just that?”, he replied. “Unfortunately, the police around here are in no position to do battle with a gang of notorious, blood-thirsty pirates. Last week I declared this entire area a gun-free zone. It wouldn’t have been politically correct to allow the police to keep their firearms while everybody else was giving theirs up for the greater good. Without guns, any response by law-enforcement would end in certain disaster. My police officers aren’t exactly skilled at swordplay and these pirates are all armed to the teeth with razor sharp cutlasses.”

I scrolled through the iPhone searching for any additional clues concerning the abducted girl. As I examined the various photographs of the governor’s daughter, I was quite smitten by her beauty and I wanted so desperately to help.

 

Rebecca takes a breather during her daily morning jog.

Gazing at each picture I tried to place myself in her shoes. What was she now thinking in her current predicament? Had she given up all hope?

 

Rebecca fills her bottle with refreshing springwater shortly before her capture.

 

I imagined her locked away with all those ruffians, worried that there was nobody out there willing to risk their life to save her. I imagined her asking the question:

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Isn’t there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn
And I dream of what I need

 

Rebecca posing in front of the citadel gate in happier times.

I imagined her thinking:

I need a hero. 
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the end of the night
He’s gotta be strong
And he’s gotta be fast
And he’s gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I’m holding out for a hero ’til the morning light
He’s gotta be sure
And it’s gotta be soon
And he’s gotta be larger than life!
Larger than life…

 

Rebecca srikes a pose against the stone wall of the Citadel St. Elmo.

…and she was certainly thinking…

Somewhere after midnight
In my wildest fantasy
Somewhere just beyond my reach
There’s someone reaching back for me
Racing on the thunder and rising with the heat
It’s gonna take a superman to sweep me off my feet
I need a hero 
I’m holding

Rebecca, the lead anchor-chain inspector of Villefranche, can be seen here hard at work a few days before being abducted.

“Excuse me!”, the governor shouted, pulling me out of my wandering thoughts. “Are you going to stand there all day, playing with that phone while humming songs?”

“No sir! I’m going to be the one who rescues your daughter!”, I declared.

“Do you even know how to handle a sword?”, the governor asked.

“Do I know how to handle a sword, you ask? Sir, lest you possess any doubts, allow me to present my credentials.” Reaching into my pocket to retrieve my wallet, I pulled out a photograph tucked carefully inside. “This sir, will tell you more than you need to know about my skills with a sword.”

 

A photograph of Big John doing battle with his fellow LARPERS (Live Action Role Players).

As expected, the governor seemed quite impressed with my photograph. After relaying to him the countless hours I’ve also spent watching various Youtube videos on fencing, he was feeling quite assured that I was the right man for the job.

As I began marching down the ramp of the citadel towards the uncertainty of my crusade, the governor called after me. “Hey, if your mission proves successful and you somehow bring back my daughter, you’re not expecting any of my gold as your reward, are you?”

“Sir,” I replied, “If I return your daughter safely to you, I only ask of you one thing. Allow me to take your daughter out for dinner. I’ve heard the food at the L’oursin Bleu is to die for!”

Hearing that I had no interest in his chest of gold, the governor let out a sigh of relief and returned to his quarters.

 

Why is it that there are always so many stairs to climb when attempting to rescue a damsel in distress?

 

The entrance to Fort Mont Alban

Finally, after a grueling climb, I made it the iron gates of Fort Mont Alban. Surprisingly, the security here was pretty laxed. Captain Pierre Le Black obviously wasn’t expecting any real resistance as I didn’t encounter a single pirate on watch.

 

Big John stands on the rock wall surrounding the fort as he makes preparations for battle.

Theres a motto in the Boy Scouts- “Be Prepared”. Considering that I never made it past the Cub Scouts, I hadn’t quite learned that important lesson as I stood facing the mammoth rock walls of Fort Mont Alban. I assure you, I felt very prepared one week prior when packing bootleg liquor into plastic rumrunners. The custom agents aboard the cruiseship never detected any of the booze smuggled so craftfully inside the clothing of my suitcase. Now, the shortsword I had tucked away in my backpack was an entirely different story. How was I to know that a sword would be considered contraband? Without a sword, I had no idea what to do next.

 

The great walls of Fort Mont Alban

I scanned the fortess but found no sight of Rebecca. The pirates must have moved here somewhere inside.

 

A panoramic view of the city and harbor below.

 

Possessing no weapon and having no viable means to rescue Rebecca from within, I began wrestling with the thought of abandoning this fool-hardy mission.  I cast my eyes downward towards my cruiseship anchored peafully out in the harbor. My thoughts quickly centered only on getting safely back to my ship, back to that all-you-can-eat buffet, and back to my quiet hammock near the pool. The longer I pondered the matter, the more convinced I was that to remain there would prove to be the death of me. Then another realization quickly surfaced. Tonight was Mexican night on the ship and they were serving tacos. I had to abort!

 

With my mind made up, I turned my back to the fortress walls and prepared to run in the direction I had just came.

I had no sooner taken a step when I heard a stifled voice from the wall above me.

“Hey, where are you going?”, a female voice called down. “Please, don’t leave me here!”

 

 

I had no sooner taken a step when I heard a stifled voice from the wall above me.

I turned towards the wall and the sound of the voice. I saw nothing.

“I’m up here, higher on the wall!” the voice exclaimed.

I took two short steps back, bladed my hand over the top of my eyes, and searched again.

 

Rebecca locked away inside the caged tower of Fort Mont Alban.

It was at that precise moment when I first saw her in the flesh. The sight of her instantly restored my courage and strengthened my resolve to complete the delicate task set before me. I was going to rescue her or die trying!

“Hey, where were you going?”, she whispered down to me.

“Oh, I thought I heard somebody coming.”, I whispered back. “But… but, I’m back now.”

I informed Rebecca that her dad had sent me to rescue her and ensured her that I was in the process of devising a fail-proof plan. Ducking behind the perimeter wall for cover, I dumped out the contents of my backpack and scoured the ground for anything that might prove useful. I had some dirty socks, a half-eaten bag of beef jerky, a cheap compass, and last but not least -a plastic rumrunner flask full of blue raspberry Mad Dog 20/20. (Hey, don’t judge me. They had the stuff on sale at Green’s Liquor for $3.50 a bottle).

Mad Dog 20/20 (This stuff isn’t for the social sipper).

Now before I continue any further with this story, please allow me to interject here. Mad Dog 20/20 is one of those gifts that just keeps on giving! It’s generally found in the hands of naive high school kids sneaking off behind the woodshed to experience their very first drink. If you’ve never tried the stuff it’s like being nauseous on a tropical island, lying against the base of a palm tree, and watching as the crashing waves of the ocean going spinning wildly by. Yeah, the stuff is pretty ruthless! Let’s just say it has a lot of bite to go along with all its bark. Though most street-bums and winos know better than to mess with the drink, these pirates have probably never tasted this fine New York wine.  I figured as a token of friendship, I just might just allow them to sample some of this devil’s brew.

 

Pirates may have a tolerance for rum, but they’re bound to learn some hard lessons in inebriation with Mad Dog 20/20.

With the 32-ounce rumrunner flask in hand, I confidentally strutted towards the center of the fort and made my way up the long flight of steps. At the top of the stairs I turned towards the massive wooden door and gave it a hardy knock.  I was immediately greeted by the point of a cutlass pressing firmly against my throat.

“Argh” shouted the captain. “Who might ye’ be and why should I not run this blade through ye’ neck as you stand here trespassing on me porch?”

“Sir, please don’t hurt me!”, I cried. “I’m the runner sent by the governor to deliver his response”.

“Well then, matey”, said the pirate, “don’t hold ye’ tongue. Tell me his response!”

“Sir, the governor says he will load half the treasure into burlap sacks. They will be delivered to the fort by packmule before evening falls. You can send one of your men on the way out of town to collect the rest in exchange for delivering the governor back his daughter.”

Captain Pierre Le Black released the point of the blade from my neck and let out a hearty chuckle. “I see you’ve brought us some drink to share to celebrate this little arrangement. The governor is even more gracious than what I gave him credit for.”

“Oh, this wine isn’t from the governor.”, I said, handing him the blue syrupy drink. “It’s a personal gift from me. This is actually some of the finest wine produced in all of New York state. Go on, take it and share it with your crew. It’s guaranteed to warm your bones as you await those packmules bearing all of that gold.”

It wasn’t a full hour after I delivered the Mad Dog when the flavored tonic began to work its magic marvelously.  Scaling up the wall of the fort, I peered into a window and discovered the pirates wholly incapacitated. If I was to rescue Rebecca from her tower, now was my best and only chance.

 

Alright, you got me. This wasn’t really an actual  picture of the pirates drunk inside the fort. I borrowed the photo from Disney. It was hard enough getting the Mad Dog 20/20 inside. Did you really expect me to try sneaking inside there with a camera?

 

I began climbing the wall higher, searching for a room to enter undetected.

 

Higher and higher I climbed, over ivy covered walls, until the ground loomed dangerously far below me.

 

Yes, I was sweating and I’ll admit I hadn’t made much progress since the last picture. But anybody who’s ever attempted to scale a castle wall wearing New Balance running shoes can understand my difficulties.

With the pirates too wasted on Mad Dog 20/20 to do anything to stop me, I eventually found my way inside the fort, retrieved the tower key from the mouth of a mangy dog, and rescued Rebecca from her lonely cell. Thanks to Mad Dog 20/20, we able to make or escape by simply walking out the front door of the fort.

 

The municipal police department of Villefranche-sur-Mer.

After fleeing Fort Mont Alban, Rebecca and I headed straight to the local police station and informed them of the pirates’ intoxicated state. Even without guns, the police had no problems apprehending the drunken sailors and throwing them in the slammer where they belonged.

 

Police respond to Fort Mont Alban to deal with their local piracy problem.

 

Captain Pierre Le Black and his crew locked away inside the Villefranche jail.

Alright, you got me again. I took the picture from Disney’s Pirates of the Carribean ride. Really though, I had no choice. For security reasons, the jailers wouldn’t allow me inside the real jail with my camera.

 

Rebecca poses in the front of the Welcome Hotel as we venture through the friendly streets of Villefranche.

After rescuing Rebecca from those sinister pirates we immediately hit it off. As promised, the governor allowed me to take her to dinner and things just sort of blossomed from there. We left France together not long after I snapped this picture. It wasn’t too much longer after that we married. Married life is good and we live by two simple rules:

We don’t watch pirate movies and we never, ever drink Mad Dog 20/20.

 

 

In the end, the governor kept his gold and I was able to hold onto his daughter. After the Mad Dog 20/20 incident, Captain Pierre Le Black and his men swore off alcohol all together. Although I can’t confirm any of this, I heard the pirates started A.A. meetings right inside the Villefranche jail. I guess it turned out to be a win-win situation for everybody. As always, thanks for the visiting my site.

Happy travels,

Big John

 

 

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