The sun was shining brightly through the window in our train compartment, but was gradually blocked out as the train chugged slowly into the dark train station. My two friends and I stumbled sleepily off the train in Nice, France. It was early in the morning, and we had just spent the last twelve hours traveling from Venice, Italy. The three of us were all nineteen and within days of finishing off a month of travel in Europe; we had begun in Germany and had already made our way through France, Italy and Greece. After spending half our month in Greece, we traveled back through Italy and were now on our way to Germany via France.
We wandered from the dim, dusty train station into the bright sunlight, shading our eyes with our hands. We agreed we were starving, and decided to find the nearest McDonalds for a quick bite to eat. After we located the restaurant, and read the schedule on the door, we discovered we had an hour to wait before we could satisfy, or at least take the edge off our hunger.
Seeing a sidewalk sale just up the main boulevard, we decided we could use up some time looking at the displayed wares. There were clothing racks on either side of the open front door of the shop, set up lengthwise toward the street, which was beginning to fill up with morning traffic. We knew we wouldn’t buy anything, as by this time, we were extremely low in cash, but it was something to do until we could eat.
As we browsed, we kept each other within eyesight, but enjoyed the opportunity to not be as close had we had been on the train compartment. I was going through browsing motions, pushing the hangers methodically to the left with my right hand, when a man with a round head wearing a brimmed cap, similar to what I would expect to see on a taxi driver popped up suddenly on the other side of the clothing rack.
He had a wide grin on his face, and held up a black covered clipboard with a skull and cross bones pictured on it. The skull had on an army pith helmet, and underneath stood the word né (born) with a date, and mort (death) with another date. The man holding the clipboard began speaking rapidly in French about the deceased soldier who had been in the army during WWII. I understood enough French to know what he was saying but didn’t want to encourage his ramblings, so I shrugged, put my hands in the air, said “No French” in English and turned away.
Just as suddenly as he had appeared, he disappeared. Off to bother some other poor sap, I thought. A couple of minutes later, my stomach rumbling in protest, I was reminded I was still really hungry. I decided I didn’t want to spend any more time looking at clothes I had no interest in buying and went to find my friends, Leslie and Shannon. We reconnected at the edge of the racks in front of the store.
“Did you see that weird little man with the clipboard?” I asked them.
“Yeah, he was strange, wasn’t he?” agreed Leslie, and Shannon chimed in with,
“I saw him, too!”
By general consensus, the three of us walked down the sidewalk for a few minutes and decided to sit on a bench close to the edge of the street, facing the stone wall of a building. There was a broad sidewalk in front of us, perfect for people watching to pass the half hour until the McDonalds opened. None of us had the slightest inkling to what kind of sight to which we were about to be treated.
We had only been seated a few minutes, not saying much, just staring into space, thinking individual thoughts, when the flow of people was interrupted and someone stood about five to six feet in front of our bench. My eyes focused in to see the same little man who had appeared on the other side of clothing rack earlier, and was now waiting make sure all three of us were looking at him. I exchanged sideways glances with Leslie and Shannon communicating, hey, it’s THAT guy again, what the heck is he doing now?, before we turned to look forward again.
The round, squat little man very deliberately set his clipboard down on the ground next to him, and taking off his cap to place it gently on top of the clipboard, he straightened up. Giving us a hard stare, he turned sideways and began moon-walking like a miniature, white Michael Jackson! Turning to face us again, shifting seamlessly into a break dance move, he manipulated his arms into snake-like motions.
At that point, I was so horrifyingly fascinated by the display of demented dance, I hardly dared to take my eyes off him to see what Leslie and Shannon were thinking. I did notice, however, that people were no longer walking in front of our entertainment, but smiling to themselves and moving behind him, probably thankful they were not being subjected to the show. I kept watching as this strange little man suddenly started discoing, ala John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, fingers pointing alternately in the air and toward the pavement.
Just as I was wondering how we were going to get away, he stopped, looked at the three of us sitting on the bench and rushed up to us. Kneeling in front of Leslie, who was in the middle, he suddenly took out the bridge that contained his two front teeth! For a split second, all three of us stared at him, horrified, as his pink gums gleamed in the bright sun.
Without bothering to confer with each other, we screamed as one, pushed past the weird little man, and ran, without destination, as fast as we could down the wide sidewalk, checking behind us every few seconds to see if he was following. A few minutes later, we arrived, panting, at the beach.
“What WAS that?” I wheezed, as the other two shook their heads in disbelief.
“I don’t know”, said Leslie, “but of all the strange things we’ve experienced over the past month, this has got to be one of the weirdest, if not the weirdest!”
Shannon just looked shell-shocked.
We wandered around the main promenade of Nice for the next twenty minutes, hardly daring to venture back to where the McDonalds was located, for fear of running into the dancing man. Eventually, hunger overcame our fear, and we were able to order our breakfast from the fast food menu without incident.
The rest of the day passed beautifully, the sightseeing of picturesque Nice replacing the strangeness of our early morning encounter with more pleasant memories. We eventually boarded a train in the evening that took us to Luxembourg, stopping also in Belgium on our way to our eventual destination of Hagen, Germany.
As the few days passed by, however, we could look back and laugh at how silly we must have looked, staring, wide-eyed at the man cavorting at weird angles not six feet away. We wondered if his dance act was reenacted in front of other innocent looking female backpackers at regular intervals during a typical travel season. Whatever the case, we were able to appreciate how traveling is always an adventure; we would forever refer to our entertainment that morning in Nice, France, as the “French Tooth Fairy”.