Monday, August 30

Doubling Up and Bowing Out

These past 3 weeks or so have been spent back home in Ireland, and only as I approach the curtain-closing shopping spree-ing final few days of civilian reprieve do I find myself in anyway motivated or inspired to write. I can’t deny that the dry-spell wasn’t in the slightest unsettling and/or to the fore of my mind as I’ve profited as much as possible from one of only a handful of (unofficial) geographical regressions each year. Unsurprisingly ironic, however, is the fact that I now find the fingers tingling over un-tapped keys with increasing enthusiasm the closer the return voyage back to my own private post-Armistice Arkham gets. Oh Danny Boy!!!

The Legion’s annual Summer break allows the more proximal party poppers (such as yours truly) to skip off towards native shores for rekindling of home comforts in all their guises; visiting family, letting the hair down, rediscovering old watering holes, the list goes on. The further flung, visa-less recruits are forced to find contentment in the Legion’s little Marseille-based hotel with cheap rooms, beach-access and blistering sunshine. Not quite home but not too shabby either. Understandably, my primary activity while home on these flying visits is catching up with old acquaintances. Intriguingly, this particular activity has found itself slowly becoming an ever more complicated, unpredictable and
rarely un-eventful exercise in relationship creation/maintenance/ evolution/navigation/termination. And obviously, I’m a glutton for a little exercise.

I do feel obliged to hold my hands up at this early point and admit that, upon first enlisting in the French Foreign Legion, I rather sub-consciously allowed a misguided idea concerning the world’s rotation to enter my freshly-shaved head. Unsure, even now, whether or not it was as a result of extraordinary circumstances in friends’ lives during those early days, or merely the realisation of how much time in general was actually lost before reconnections were finally made, I can only conclude that an overdue slap to the face was just what the doctored ordered. I needed to wake-up to the lives being lived concurrently with mine, and to the challenges and obstacles equal to anything I had experienced being constantly overcome by my friends while I "toiled" away inside these crazy walls. Yes, I took a plunge in flying out to sign up, but since then the only way has undeniably been up. Weekends in Paris, enviable photo opportunities from all over France, Africa and (not soon enough) Afghanistan, and interesting tales scrap-booked along the way were having to compete with the recession, redundancies, family bereavements, financial and health problems, not to mention the loss of poor auld Gerry Ryan! Returning home and (quite frequently for the first time since I left) meeting friends from my old - let’s say "indefinitely suspended" - life, I’ve discovered that some lost time is genuinely irretrievable and it’s adapting to visible, sometimes scar-like gaps that provides me with my truest challenge to date.

Now everyone has the old workmates on Facebook, the same old bus drivers driving the same old routes, the same shopkeepers selling you The Mirror and a MORO in the local Spar. Quietly deciding the ties subtly worn away to nothing by advancing time is easy. A warm but non-confusing walking-wave lets them know they’re remembered, but no longer quite worthy of direct engagement. The elite group of close friends never changes, irrespective of whether or not its respective members’ circumstances do. Indeed, it only serves to provide more material for conversation, before drifting back to eternally recyclable nostalgia takes over. Then there are the middle men. The ones who were abandoned unclassified and never quite returned to with the same inter-personal ambience which would have otherwise prolonged the relationship. I could try to blame it on the distance ("These things never work out, right??") but that would be forgetting a very close friend who has left me perpetually awestruck through their successful and thoroughly thriving long-distance relationship now spanning several years. Perhaps it’s a question of extremes. Knowing someone so little facilitates the inexhaustible and inoffensive walking-wave. Knowing someone powerfully intimately allows for mutual time spent saying nothing at all, merely enjoying their reassuring presence and company. But those pesky middle men, they’re the frown-formers if ever I saw them. Stepping off the plane in Dublin Airport is like tumbling straight on to a giant see-saw. Only by rocking the shit out of it for the duration of my respective stays can it be determined who will soar up into the confidante scaffolding and who will come crashing to earth with a thud, forever destined to receive and reciprocate the infamous walking-wave.

I honestly hope I sent more monkeys flying up to the bars than tailbones tumbling down during this trip. After all, one can never have too many friends. Either way, I had a fantastic time sipping from the source once more, and look forward to the next foray into the jungle of friends, strangers and those pesky but delightfully unavoidable in-betweeners.

Wednesday, August 18

Trapped in the Combats

So I suppose at a time when the world media’s spotlights are centred firmly on the topic of same-sex marriage, an enlightening tale (regrettably in a solely bigotry-confirming sense) from the cloisters of our sacred legion is in order.

Homosexuality in the army has always been (and continues to be) the most cherished of taboos. It’s not denial. Even the cream of the disadvantaged demographical crops pumping raw recruits into military systems worldwide can’t be ignorant enough to just plain DENY its existence. Soldiers just prefer not to talk about these things. Like getting blown up on duty, or catching venereal diseases from hookers (also, unsurprisingly, on duty), avoiding discussion lengthens the distance between the idea and the reality. Men, eh? Always afraid to communicate their feelings, afraid of appearing weak, afraid to open up. Well, evidently not all men, and certainly not here Chez les Abrutis.

Arriving at regiment slap-bang in the middle of Winter and (due to an administrative error) - having yet to be issued with our ID cards permitting us to step outside the walls - there wasn’t a whole lot going on. On top of our lashings of solitude, we added just a pinch of long-weekend (for those with ID cards, of course) and our recipe for boring, vacuous isolation was complete. Fortunately, a rather spicy hair in the soup presented itself in the form of Corporal Ramires. Ramires, a Colombian with a penchant for dancing to Katie Perry on tea-light-covered counter tops long into the night, was my first liaison upon reaching our combat company. During this eternal weekend in Ghost Town, Ramires opened up the company bar and dutifully slipped behind the counter to cater to our beer-guzzling needs; he passed us his portable DVD player along with an extensive library to keep us amused, and implored us to report to him if any of the older lads gave us a hard time. All in all, we were delightfully impressed by his friendliness and approachability. In fact, most of the company were of a similar mind.

A few weeks ago Ramires was caught having sex with a fellow corporal during a Sergeant Training Course. Scandalous? - Very. Formally prohibited? - not quite ("severely frowned upon" would be the military heirarchy‘s preferred classification). Just plain wrong - oh please! (although Iris Robinson, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the entire state of Utah may argue otherwise). Ramires’ former "camarades" back at base have all but turned on him, baying for blood (or regimental sanctions, at the very least). Crude, unimaginative yet highly offensive jokes have started circulating in higher numbers than our annual ammunition allowance regarding Ramires’ ill-advised but completely harmless and ultimately consensual faut-pas. Hompophobia has quickly overtaken Shakira as the favourite past-time back at base, and frankly it angers me more than I can fully describe.

There's nohing tougher than having to listen to hate-fuelled rants against gays from guys you'd previously considered close friends, combat buddies and general brothers. Nonetheless, let’s try (if at all possible with these Neanderthals so very recently cavorting as "friends") to rationalise the situation. Had Ramires been caught shagging a female colleague (only possible in the French regular army, as the Legion do not accept female recruits), the bloke’s back would’ve been raw from all the admiring and macho, awe-fuelled slaps and pats cascading from his peers. Instead, despite (I imagine) attempted discretion, he now finds himself completely ostracised from the general population at our barracks, and with any hopes of further career-progression severely impaired by inherent ignorance and bigotry. A physically fit, emotionally stable, socially impeccable Sergent in the French Foreign Legion, but above all that a filthy fag not fit to wear the fatigues of our "honourable and fidelity-filled" band of brothers. They say that the Legion is your homeland, and yet I’m forced to witness an upstanding, highly professional soldier be forced into exile because of others’ inane backwardness. One thing’s as sure and certain as anything; once my little rosy-cheeked contract reaches deep-voiced, stubbly maturity I’m quitting this dysfunctional horde of rabble once and for all.

This pathetic excuse for an army isn’t worthy of soldiers like Ramires. Bon courage a lui…

Sunday, August 8

Identity Crisis

So you’ve joined the French Foreign Legion. Don’t worry, it’s not that bad. Sure, they shave your head, change your name, date and place (town, anyway) of birth, starve you for a month, make you execute bizarre and nonsensical orders (like change from sports gear to work combats to parade wear in 3 minutes or else….), give you 90 second cold showers with a bar of soap, walk over your hands while you do push-ups for somebody else’s mistake, smack you full force on the back of the head when you make one yourself. But at least you get to keep your nationality. Your national identity. The one thing that sets you apart from the other desperate, last-gasp cut-throats fighting shoulder to shoulder on the front lines with you (ie. Little 19 year old Brazilians come to France to "make sex with horny european girls").

So what exactly does it mean to be Irish here in the Legion?

Well, as most of the Irish readers would agree, being Irish in a foreign country is almost always met with startling warmth, friendliness and positivity. Here follows an amusing tale to prove said point.

I had only just arrived through the formidable gates of Fort du Nogent in Paris before falling in with a group of 6 or so Brazilians (yep, they’re a frequently encountered bunch alright) huddled in a corner of the TV room. One particularly chubby fellow, upon hearing I was Irish, became extremely animated and started blurting out some incomprehensible jibberish. I smiled politely, not having the slightest idea what he was trying to say. Later that evening however, I was brought up to speed, and in the most unsettling of circumstances.

I was in my shower cubicle with the door closed when suddenly a thunderous banging descended on the waifer-thin partition. It was my little barrel of samba trying once more to communicate. "SAN AD CANROW , SAN AD CANROW". What in God’s name is going on here, I thought. Did I miss some crazy shower-initiation in my research of the Legion?? What the hell does this guy want?? I shouted back "Yeah, right mate, haha, Yeah" all the while thinking "Jesus, don’t let a bar of soap slide under the divider and between my toes" (and I hadn’t even brushed my teeth!!). The confusion continued for another minute or so, but then all of a sudden the clouds parted, the earth fell silent and the angels began to sing;


Well strike me down and tickle me mickey, SinĂ©ad O’ FUCKING Connor!! I couldn’t help but burst out laughing; half in sheer comedic bliss at the insanely surreal situation in which I found myself, and half out of hysteric joy at the passing feelings of mortal fear and dread. What a first night!

So my amazonian karaoke partner eventually bowed out (ironically after the psycho-technic tests) and on I went to become a full-fledged Legionnaire. The skin has since thickened sufficiently from constant references to "EERA" (I.R.A.) and more mischievous superiors addressing me as "Johnny English" and "Rosst Bif" (Roast Beef). Not surprisingly, few at the time seemed to take much notice of my coming from working in a bank to directly joining the French Foreign Legion right around the time the toilet chained was violently tugged with the world economy nestling snugly in the bowl. They just wanted to talk numbers, failing to comprehend the difference in salary and just what the hell my motivation was for volunteering. (Answers on a postcard please).

However, being Irish remains a highly favourable weapon in the arsenal over here (despite 3 fellow countrymen having deserted during my time, leaving me our proud little nation’s perpetual sole flag-waver for now).

Then again, those who know me well enough know I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Monday, August 2

Roads, Rendez-Vous and an Almighty Downpour

These days, one can’t help but wearily submit to the niggling truth that life itself is quite generic. The range of its emotions and experiences have been irreversibly exaggerated by an insatiable mob of post-modern hyperbolists; a mob completely overwhelmed by their sheer pathos and compelled to seek justification of an existence already long passed its sell-by date. There is no progression, no discovery; just regurgitation, recycling and global warming. It’s not the mob’s fault. Nor is it mine, or yours. Blame it on the bankers, I say!

ANGLO!!! - Je t’emmerde!!

The late great Robert Frost once described the bank as "a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain". Now, when I left my old banking job in 2008 to come to France and enlist, I didn’t so much steal an umbrella as build myself an outright protective vessel capable of carrying me safely through this relentless shitstorm of post-recession recovery.

Kind of like Noah’s Arc meets Pimp My Ride.

All the umbrellas in the world won’t save a system already soaked through and through by reckless lending, corporate hand-shaking and government negligence, but then that’s no longer my problem. Locked away here in the sunny south of France with my false name, modest wage, bank accounts, health insurance and an ever-improving second language, I can’t help but feel that choosing that road less travelled has reaped dividends. Hard earned dividends, it must be said, but I’m still floating comfortably in the green as many around me gurgle from the murky, deathly debt-ridden depths.

So Frost’s road not taken and the Anglo mob all got me thinking of how society today is less about exploration and more focused on depiction. The last rock on the long road of life has long since been upturned, but the ways in which said rock can still be described, celebrated, painted, hailed, worshipped, hated, berated and loved remain infinite. Each of us will still inevitably pass along this road, kicking leaves and disturbing stones as we go. What we find beneath will be nothing new to the imperial oaks and sapphire skies observing our voyage since time began, but how we interpret, describe, ingest, digest, egest these images, sounds, smells, sensations, it is THIS which keeps the game interesting.

Frost will never be beaten in terms of expressing the emotions encountered when a tough decision must be made in life, but that’s not to say that wordsmiths and spin-doctors the world over can’t still delight and excite us with their own attempts. For all who read this I hope that, when the time comes to take the road less travelled, solace can be found in the knowledge that you won't have been the first to have chosen or travelled that road. Equally though, we must pride ourselves on the courageous yet certain reality that the footprints you leave shall be entirely, uniquely your own. Thank you Mr. Robert Lee Frost.