The Vanilla Assassin: From The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla

The French Foreign Legion: Vanilla Brian drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette

On the tropical island of Taha’a lives is a man who served 15 years in The French Foreign Legion, fell in love with a Polynesian woman and now finds himself amongst vanilla pods. This is his story – or at least parts of it.

Brian sits comfortably in a plastic chair in front of me, his foot resting on the opposite knee. Puff, puff. A cigarette dangles from his left hand, while his right hand finds repose atop a cup of black coffee positioned on the plastic table beside him. More than three decades under the tropical sun of Taha’a have caused Brian’s tattoos to fade, lending them a subtle greenish hue. A testament of time written across his skin.

He has a boozers-gut underneath his worn-out Hinano t-shirt, embodying the island’s laid-back spirit. I sit on the ground like an eager kid deeply immersed into the story, he’s telling me. Though not many words actually leave Brian’s mouth, I find his non-answers to my questions just as powerful.

My eyes are wide with wonder as they scan his face for more. “What’s been the biggest difference in your life after leaving The French Foreign Legion?” my curiosity asks Brian. Puff puff. A little grey cloud of smoke escapes in between Brian’s lips. He looks at me and replies, “I don’t kill people anymore.”

The Vanilla Assassin – from The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla: Vanilla Brian drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette

This is a mini portrait of a man, whose story I don’t even know one percent of, but I will use the fragments, my mind collected during the afternoon I spent with Brian, to assemble a mosaic of his life.

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A man leaves his life to never return

Paris, 1981. For most, it is an ordinary day. You wake up in the morning and put on your clothes. You have your morning coffee, and since we’re in France, you devour a croissant too. Nom nom. You commute to work. You sit in an office chair for 8 hours. Sigh. You go home and make yourself dinner. You watch the news and read your book. You go to bed. Nothing out of the ordinary. You didn’t even notice the young man on the same bus as you this morning who was about to make a life-changing decision.

On this fateful morning, Brian went to the office of The French Foreign Legion in Paris, France and enrolled himself. What made a young Danish man of only 20 years old do that? To get away from trouble. Exactly what kind of trouble Brian was in, I do not know for sure, since he kept the details to himself, but I know that he was somewhat of a wild youngster, doing drugs and drinking heaps of alcohol, and he gave me the impression that the road, he was walking on, would lead him to prison, if he didn’t change shit up. So, he took a drastic turn.

I can’t help but wonder if it was the appeal of being provided with a new identity that led Brian to become a legionnaire. To wipe the slate clean. Once you’re enlisted, The French Foreign Legion gives you a new name, a new identity, a new life. Upon leaving, you get to decide whether to keep the identity you’ve worn within the corps or reclaim your old one.

The Vanilla Assassin – from The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla: Brian's faded tattoos

“So how exactly did you end up in that office in Paris on that morning in 1981?” I ask Brian while people are buzzing around us. We’re sitting in the middle of the headquarters of the vanilla farm that Brian runs with his wife and the rest of her Polynesian family. “A friend of mine was going, so I tagged along,” Brian explains with a mischievous grin on his face like it was the most causal thing to ever do. A thunderous blast echoes in my brain.

Isn’t it fucking remarkable how a chance encounter can reshape an entire life trajectory? I’m not sure Brian knew it at the time, but this decision would lead him to serve 15 years in The French Foreign Legion. It would lead him to meet the love of his life on the other side of the globe. It would lead him to live a life that is unfathomable to most of us.

The things we don’t talk about

“I don’t know much about The French Foreign Legion, what exactly did you do there?” Brian shoots me a look, and I can’t tell if he’s searching for my brain cells, thinking that was the dumbest question ever, or if he’s analyzing me – who is this strange woman, sitting on the dirty ground, trying to dig up my past? He might be thinking.

“I was a skydiver,” Brian eventually replies as he takes a sip of his black coffee. Slurp. “A skydiver!?” I shriek, “that’s so sick.” Again, the eager kid within me rejoicing. My stomach is growling as my hunger for this story seem insatiable. I just want to know more. Anything. Everything. I barely notice the big, brown and black German Shepard dog who’s entered the conversation. It’s not a dog species you see every day in this part of the world, and Brian tells me that it was pure coincidence that he found the dog in Tahiti, bought him and brought him with him to Taha’a.

“What did you do as a skydiver?” I probe further. “Missions,” Brian offers succinctly. The French Foreign Legion consists of several specialties, whereas airborne troops are one of them (I think this is where the killing-people-part comes in.)

The Vanilla Assassin – from The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla: Vanilla Brian drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette

It’s like a subtle mental tug of war Brian and I got going on. He gives me just enough rope to pull the story closer, allowing me enough insight to captivate my curiosity, but then he pulls back.

Of course, I am aware of his limitations when it comes to sharing the part of his story that takes place within the corps. I’m not sure how much an ex-legionnaire is actually allowed to tell, but I’m sure that he might be bound by some unspoken code, especially given the mystique shrouding the Legion and the legends it has spawned over time. Though I wish he would spill the beans, I guess I’ll just have to do with the vanilla beans, Brian has gifted me from his plantation to take home.

A legionnaire discovers Paradise

Today, Brian is 62 years old and lives on the island of Taha’a in French Polynesia. Brian was stationed in French Polynesia while serving in The French Foreign Legion, and this is where his life took another turn because he met a woman by the name of Moeata. A woman who would become his wife and introduce him to the family business of refining vanilla and running a vanilla plantation in the fantastic Polynesian archipelago.

So, after 15 years of service in The French Foreign Legion, “I retired,” Brian says while measuring vanilla pods. My brain rushes to create scenarios of what it was like for him leaving the military brotherhood. I wonder whether Brian just got the green card to go after all those years of service, or what hardships he might have had to endure to be set free.

The Vanilla Assassin – from The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla: Vanilla Brian drinking coffee and smoking a cigarette

We’ve moved inside his office now, if that’s even the right term to describe this room. There’s a table around 3 meters long with a pink-purple cloth on, bearing Polynesian symbols. On top, minor mountains of vanilla pods are spread out, categorized by length. Pick up a vanilla bean, place it vertically on the board in front of you and see which horizontal line it reaches. This line tells you how tall the vanilla bean is, and which mountain it will go on top. I learned that some fancy, French chefs swear by long vanilla pods, though Alfredo – a worker here at the vanilla farm – teaches me that the small ones are actually the most fragrant ones.

A man enters the room. His skin is the color of milk chocolate and onto it are carved several large tattoos, telling a story in Polynesian symbols. His stature is small, but what he might lack in height, he makes up for in width. His upper arms are the size of my head, and these over dimensional muscles seem to make his body move like a penguin. “This is my son,” Brian says, gesturing to the man who unfortunately doesn’t speak English. Brian can probably tell the surprise on my face, so he explains, “People don’t believe he’s my son. He solely looks like his mother,” I smile to his son, and Brian continues, “His sister is the complete opposite. Light skin and green eyes. We decided to stop after two kids, because we were afraid how the third one would turn out,” he grins from ear to ear, the sunburned crows-feet at the corners of his eyes growing more pronounced.

The Vanilla Assassin – from The French Foreign Legion to The Valley of Vanilla: Brian amongst vanilla pods at Vallée de la vanilla in Taha'a, French Polynesia

Outside again, Brian sits comfortably in his plastic chair, his foot resting on the opposite knee. The cigarette in his hand shrinking in size with each inhalation, the paper wrapping crinkling as it transforms into ash. We’re surrounded by lush rows of vanilla vines, the sweet aroma of the delicate flowers is tingling my nostrils. Each flower has to be meticulously hand-pollinated to eventually grow into a plump and moist vanilla bean. Some years, Brian, and the rest of his Polynesian family, produces 8 tons of vanilla.

Brian points to a box up the hill, “I go there every day at 4PM,” he says, “that’s my hot tub,” I glance in the direction of his finger, “What do you think about when you’re sitting in your hot tub?” I ask in response. “That I’m proud of being me,” Brian says as he exhales the final puff of smoke. I watch the smoke disperse into the vanilla-scented air.

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