Friday, October 15

Arabian Nights

(and mornings, and matinees, afternoons…..)

Nabbing a taxi in Paris must be one of the most frustrating, time-consuming, stressful and more-often-than-not ultimately unsuccessful ventures one can undertake in the city of love. Finding one that’s available, at least, resembles something approaching do-able. Negotiating with the arrogantly indifferent driver in relation to your desired arrondissement and it’s excruciating proximity to his blinkered list of ‘quartiers préférés’ is where things start to turn awry. Inevitably, that niggling nagging little voice begins to resonate ever louder in your head, absorbing your tear-soaked, hair-tearing protests like they were some sort of super fuel infinitely prolonging the onslaught.

"Should’ve taken the metro"
"Should’ve taken the metro"
"For God’s sake it’s walkable if you only bothered to consult a map"

Down in the south of France things are, naturally, quite different. Driven by a genuine appreciation of tourism as opposed to the teeth-grinding tolerance of Eeeengleesh speakers that makes Paris so delightful, Southerners have even been known to take to the hard-shoulder in sympathy with the protruding thumbs of haggard Legionnaires desperate to return to their regiment before the dreaded morning roll-call (Appel) and thus avoid a lengthy prison sentence. Therefore it goes without saying that taxis roam the quaint and crooked streets of towns like Marseille and Avignon in their hundreds, ready to pick up a disoriented client and gently coax them back on track. Tragically, with my own regiment residing quite a way from civilization, the heart-stopping prices quoted by these colourful cabbies threaten to decimate my monthly salary in a clinically pitiless 90 minute journey.

Solutions exist, of course. You just need to know where to look (or be found). My first experience with ‘Les taxis noir’ (‘Black Taxis‘) occurred on a chilly Sunday evening in February 2009 after I’d arrived back in Avignon from a weekend in Paris. I had made my way to the town centre and decided to target the sole Irish bar (staffed solely by French and Belgian waitresses) for a quiet whiskey or 4 before the regimental shuttle bus descended to collect its cargo later on. Strolling up the dimly-lit avenue, I noticed a small, stumpy shape scuttling towards me from the shadows. With my headphones habitually wedged into my roaring-red frosted ears, it took a second attempt to fully digest the shady proposal being thrown my way by this unshaven, NYC-cap-wearing Arab.

"You go to 2REG? Saint Christol? I take you! Now, let’s go! Now!"

"Wow, how amazing!" I rather naively thought to myself. "This guy’s actually heard of my regiment and is offering to take me there!".

When I finally regained my senses, I retreated a little, trying to play it cool but being impeded by my broken French! I asked how much. €60, he said. Fuck it! So off I went, being led down a small side street to a battered Citreon with Winnie the Pooh sun shades filling the back windows. Before the doubts could take hold my bag was in the boot and my ass on the seat. We set off in the dark towards the mountains, winding our way out of the Avignon sprawl and towards the smaller towns of Carpentras, Roussillon, Apt and beyond. It was after 10pm when we left the last urban blot on the landscape and started the penultimate climb to the regiment. Now, as a passenger I find it very hard to stay awake on long car journeys. As a driver however (despite my lack of a licence), I would imagine that the need to keep one’s eyes open might just be that bit more immediate. Nevertheless my little chauffeur de choc proceeded to swerve rather serenely in and out of lane and playfully towards plunging ravines, coming-to every couple of seconds as a particularly well-signposted corner approached or the on-rushing headlights of a fellow driver stirred him from his slumber. This, my friends, was one journey for which I managed to stay awake throughout. We finally arrived at the gates and, after an unnecessarily long time spent loosening my grip from the dashboard, he offered me his mobile number "for next time, next time". Against my better judgement, I took it. Hey, €60 and a heightened risk of death has to be better than €180 and noodles 3 times a day every weekend. And so, to this day, myself and Hamid regularly take to the roads in anticipation of the return to work after a great weekend (for me) and €60 for the wife and kids (for himself).

It’s not just the Arabs who offer such low-cost high risk services though. Indeed many Corporal Chefs from the regiment (certainly those from the Military Police with nothing better to do on the weekend) descend upon Avignon TGV each Sunday evening, tempting Legionnaires with a speedy lift back to base at a reasonable price. Camaraderie shining brilliantly in it’s finest suit of bullshit-plated armour. Then there are the sergeants who, upon stumbling across a drifting subordinate, offer a place free of charge. Sure isn’t it logical, with them both going in the same direction? Alas the interpretation of logic here in the Legion varies wildly from soldier to soldier. Thankfully there remains a decent contingent who would (when able) offer a helping hand to those in need, regardless of rank. Finding them, however, makes the Paris taxi-hunt seem like a game of hide-and-seek in a pub toilet.

*NB: A legionnaire cannot purchase/own/insure a vehicle in his first 5 years of service. Only after 5 years service, and RSM (Rectification de Situation Militaire - getting your real name back) can one enjoy the freedom of one’s own vehicle.

Sunday, October 10

The FONDUS and DON’Ts of War

And so the weary soldiers descended from the mountains to the billowing tents below. Faces scorched and hardened from a brutal campaign, crumpled heaps of leather trudged noisily, rhythmically down gravel-dappled trails from hell-on-high.


Two weeks getting fat in the front seat of an armoured personnel vehicle (from here-on referred to as "VAB") , nose sun-burnt to a crisp, Mount Blanc was lovely and all tha’ (forgot the fucking camera - typical). Managed to finish Wilde’s complete short fiction though - result!!!

Oh indeed the days of quill-stained letters from the front accompanied by fantastic, foggy photos in yellowy greens of baby-faced, Lucky-Strike-smoking youths are long gone, my friends. Nowadays, one makes do with sporadic, battery-conserving usage of mp3s and iPhones. Our latest (and last of 2010) outing into the field saw us spend a fortnight at the foot of Mt. Blanc on military maneuvers (could someone PLEASE spell that word correctly for me?!). The final furlong of the pre-Afghan gallop turned out to be nothing more than a lame canter interspersed with occasional moments of quirky combustion. Stress-induced and thus poorly articulated insubordination along with inter-army communication breakdowns were the big winners on the night, scooping a whopping 90% of all meal-time discussions before the return to snoozing in a green haze of night optics and icy toes once again took to the stage.

There were changes a plenty right from kick-off, as my function for the Afghanistan mission got turned inside-out and dumped on its head. Previously designated team-leader on the ground and in the ditches with my trusty metal-detector, I now find myself riding high(er) in the VAB and manning the trusty Browning 12.7, kinda like this guy only looking way cooler with my standard-issue beard and thousand-inch stare! A slight hiccup occurred when the previous gunner (now my replacement as Chef d’Equipe and running around hunting hidden pennies) wasn’t too happy with the shake-up. Having voiced his concerns, he was initially removed from the starting line-up for the Afghan mission altogether before later achieving re-instatement through a combination of apologies and claims of misunderstanding. Air cleared, and so the show must go on.

While undergoing military training, one must always keep an open mind as to how simulations, while well thought-out and sometimes spectacularly executed, are nevertheless mere simulations. Reality almost always plays out differently. At least that‘s what I‘ve been feverishly attempting to convince myself of since returning from this most recent "manipulation de merde". Take, for example, an incident which occurred during a 3 day non-stop exercise at the very end of our little field adventure. While posting guard in the VAB’s gun turret one chilly soir, my night vision found itself unceremoniously and automatically shut down due to blinding headlights approaching my position head-on!

"Bravo 2, this is Alpha 6, come-in."

"This is Bravo 2."

"Er, yeah! Bravo 2 I’ve got a 4-strong vehicle convoy approaching my position from due West. Demand confirmation of presence of friendlies. Over."


"Bravo 2?"

"Bravo 2 - be right with ya."

I wait ever more impatiently as the vehicles bear down on my little goggle-eyed trigger-finger-trembling self.

"Bravo 2 here. Well now, we don’t quite know who they are. Over."

"Bravo 2, so eh what should I do, like? Over."

"Bravo 2 here. Stop the convoy and ask who they are. Over."

"Er Bravo 2, the convoy has already passed my position and entered into our safe zone. Over."

"Bravo 2 here. Right so, no bother! Over and out."

"Alpha 6, er, over and out." (????)

To all my Taliban readers out there, take note. Go all McGyver on your pick-up truck’s ass so as to make it roughly resemble a coalition vehicle in the dark. Roll up to any NATO base about 11pm and sure see what happens. For a full list of the recipes on today’s show, click on to our website at www.whatthefuck???.com. (WARNING: Not real link).

Another questionable night-time occurrence involved a mobile guard detachment knocking on our VAB’s door about 10.15pm requesting we cut the interior light as it might give away our position. Our group sergeant’s response? Invite the sentinels in for a some melted cheese and biscuits washed down by a few bottles of Kronenbourg! Needless to say I didn’t get to nod off until all hours that night. Perhaps that had more to do with new-found uncertainty as to our combat-readiness as opposed to the fondu-fuelled gossiping in the back of the vehicle.

Ah sure once we touch down in Taliban Town, we’ll play it by ear! Hi ho!

PS. This Legion Alphabet WILL get finished before I fly out, I promise! In the meantime, a big congratulations to Mike and Guillemette - true soldiers of lurve baby!

Sunday, October 3

A is for JERKS!

The alphabet of all things Legion continues………


FIRE! But not in the traditional "Ready - Aim" sense. July 2009 saw our beloved family at the centre of attention for all the wrong reasons as over 3,000 acres of forest and scrubland across the Marseille region went up in flames following a French foreign Legion firing exercise. Granted, the culprits came from the Legion’s 1st Foreign Regiment (the administration HQ) but it was still quite "imbecilic" all the same. Not to be outdone, however, our own little band of engineers decided to re-enact the bush-fire debacle (well, have a half-decent stab at it, at least). While preparing for our own firing exercises a few weeks after the Mediterranean hell-fires, we had successfully removed all tracer rounds from our ammo-clips (1 in 4 bullets from the box are tracer rounds) and left them to one side. Once all the NORMAL bullets had been fired, our instructor decided it would be fun to fire ALL the remaining tracer rounds in one foul swoop. Slightly bemused, but with fire extinguishers at the ready, we proceeded to let fly. Only the shrill, urgent shriek of the instructor’s whistle managed to halt the exercise upon noticing a thin plume of smoke rising from behind the targets 200m away. Fortunately it was only a few rogue dry strands of grass that had the audacity to catch fire, and they were soon extinguished. Sprinting 200m with a fire extinguisher, though, is far from fun. Ah the joys of elite military training.

J is for JUST DO IT (©Mel Gibson in "What Women Want")

Ferme ta gueule! Cherche pas comprendre!

These, any many more colourful phrases await those of you silly enough to question the orders of your commanding officer. There’s no "Logic" in "Legion". Granted, there’s an L, an O, a G and an I……er, but there’s no C, HA! See? (C?.....oh God, stop me!). Outrageously incomprehensible orders have included up to 10 young Legionnaires being sent off to empty an ash-tray, unclogging a plugged-up kitchen drain with an empty yoghurt carton, an of course doing push-ups for anything from the a corporal’s flip flop breaking to a rainy forecast for the weekend. Total brain shutdown (well, near-total, mu haw haw).


Eugh! The oil of choice for our champion motors, Kronenbourg’s novelty wears off right about the time the cap is popped on one of their stubby little bottles. In spite of it’s disagreeable taste however, Kronenbourg has become a long-established form of currency here in the FFL. If you lose/break a minor part of your rifle, or mislay any item of equipment, just present a case of this French-brewed foulness to the lucky finder/repairman and a whole world of complicated reports can be avoided. As well as giving postage stamps a run for their money in the world of alternative currency, Kronenbourg is also used as the chief accompaniment to all major Legion parties, from the humble BBQ right up to Christmas and Cameron. But tradition trumps all and Kronenbourg truly finds its spiritual home amongst Legionnaires recently elevated to the rank of Private 1st Class, when one is aided by two fellow soldiers in downing a helmet filled to the brim with the carbonated goat’s urine. One assistant helps hold the helmet, while the other waits expectantly beneath with a bucket at the ready. The bucket ALWAYS sees some action!


The tag-line for all life in the Legion, this little Latin number translates as "The Legion is your homeland" and has spawned more tattoo incarnations throughout the years than a butterfly staining the lower back of thong-sporting fat-frog-downing young wans on a Friday night in Coppers. . Aside from tattoos, iron gates, company colours, pens, wine, bottles, you name it - the Legion has withdrawn funding from trivial departments such as transport maintenance and food to have it inscribed on some random boulder. Legio Patria Nostra for 3 more years and then it’s "Yippy Ki Ay Mon. Colonel!".

Not long to go now in our meandering military pre-school, my friends! Keep up the great support,