Outside the Louvre, I spotted the white elephant – elaborately carved, marble eyed, motionless, waiting to be bought for a song on the black African’s fuzzy veldt blanket. Despite the worldwide ban on ivory, plus the fear that our leathery flappy-eared obese behemoth friends might one day become extinct, some think they should have a souvenir worthy of Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe. A little something, old, smooth – a pipe, a sculpture, a tusk – for an outlandish paperweight back at HQ. Carved elephant tusks rock.
The statue was so intricately carved that, dig this: I could hear the distant dinosaur braying of an entire stampede of pachyderms. An elephant never forgets. Neither do I. Apparently, a good deal on semi-precious objects of art, like ivory (shudder), I remembered, relied on the hopefully ignorant merchant not having a clue as to the real value of what he is selling.
My plan was to buy the ivory elephant and one day return it to its real owner on the African savannah. I cautiously approached the African, who smiled pleasantly as I pretended to look at everything else except the ivory elephant. His rheumy eyes bespoke generations of drought and doubt.
“How much?” I asked, standing stock still and dangling my pointing finger like a trunk at the object. The African launched into an incoherent long poem of elaborate-sounding French, before he realized that I was neither French nor had a clue how to pronounce it.
“Monsieur?” he said, eyes rolling as if already counting a wad of crisp bills in his own mind.
“How much?” I said. I didn’t have all day to negotiate was my faux manner. “That is ivory, isn’t it?” He brightened up. English? His expression read a language known only to himself. Or something like that. In other words, the language barrier would considerably mark up the price for this precious relic. He picked up a byro and methodically scribbled a “special” price on the crinkled notepad paper. Of course, it was outrageously high. I tried to do a quick translation of French francs into good old “Uhmurican” greenbacks on my malfunctioning pocket calculator – an elephantine task for the tusk hunter.
“Hmm. Five hundred bucks! For an ivory elephant!”
The African pressed his forefinger to his lips in a secret shush sound and scribbled a new price on the paper, cupping it in his palm so only I could see it. He whispered “Cent francs!” He nodded his head sagely. I followed suit and drew my fingers to my chin like a discerning art critic. “Now that’s more like it!” Only a hundred. A French Franklin. A steal. This was too good to be true. I had actually “haggled".
I reached my hand a mile into my pocket to withdraw my wallet and looked around to make sure no one was around to try to roll me whilst I pulled out the elemental bills to cement the deal – until I noticed partway down the block, along the Seine, another African merchant selling an entire blanketful of what else but the same elephants. “Merci, non,” I muttered frustrated, quickly bounding down the street to find out the par-value cost of the ivory elephants from this other merchant who apparently mass-produced them. As I tripped briskly, I sensed the sound of the African merchant behind me, closely following in pursuit, ululating loudly, “MONSIEUR! MONSIEUR!”
I couldn’t believe it. He was actually stalking me, waving the elephant in the air. “MONSIEUR! MONSIEUR!” he pleaded, pouncing the pavement like a loping leopard. I quickened my pace into bracing jog until the African stopped flat out of breath and bent over, heaving. He gave up and went back to his blanket, quickly closed up shop and took off in the other direction, looking as if he’d seen the ghost of Prester John.
I ended up buying an ivory elephant for about twenty bucks. I washed my hands of the deal (and the bills) with Ivory soap from the pharmacy-cheap plastic holder from my toilet kit. I quickly became the laughingstock of my tour group. They roared and said the elephant was made out of hard plastic, probably worth about a buck. But I liked my elephant. I’ll travel soon to buy another one, as bookends. Thank God for the Euro.
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