Friday, June 24

Two's Company….

Room sharing wasn't very high up on my list of considerations before joining the French Foreign Legion. Seeing the world - check. Discovering new thresholds concerning hunger and pain - check. Meeting new and exotic people - check. Sharing a room with afore-mentioned exotic people - Ahhhhh! I come from a small family, you see. Just my sister and me. A distinctly middle-class affair, we each enjoyed individual bedrooms from the beginning. Decoration was a fairly liberal concern too. We each had our "carte blanche", if you will. Her walls were adorned with pictures of horses and horoscope paraphernalia, mine plastered in posters of football players and particularly memorable Beano comic strips. Of course, as I grew older pictures of Denis Bergkamp gradually found themselves replaced by Lara Croft or various members of the pop group "All Saints". My parents didn't protest. As I said, a fairly liberal concern in general.

Cue my induction into the hallowed halls (and cell-like "chambres") of the Legion. I'd never realized just how sensitive a sleeper I was until faced with the chronic snoring perpetrated by an overwhelming majority of Legionnaires. It's generally at its worst while out on field manoeuvres. The heightened fatigue and discomfort combine to create a cacophonous oral battery recurring night after night until the return to regiment and a somewhat steadier sleep pattern beckons. Once back at regiment, however, one must take care to meticulously negotiate the delicate etiquette of room sharing. Sleeping in tents out in the countryside is a rather ephemeral experience when placed beside the daily get up/bed down cycle undertaken with your fellow roomies on a decidedly more long-term basis.

With regards to my regimental roomies to-date, I've had some good 'uns and some not-so-good 'uns. Take Caporal Dang, for instance. Me being a young Legionnaire at the time, Dang pulled a few strings in order to have me relocated to his room (I'd previously been living it up with Nic, my Marseille buddy who'd started out at pre-selection in Aubagne with me). I didn't ponder the switch too deeply at the time. Soon, however, the reasons became rather apparent. Dang drank. A lot. Every morning I'd be forced to lug at least two bulging sacks full of rubbish down the stairs and out to the communal bins. By "rubbish", of course I mean empty Kronenberg cans. A lot of empty Kronenberg cans. On one memorable Monday morning, I awoke to a light-filled room (having arrived in late the Sunday night) displaying large, confusing and rather frightening stains all over the linoleum floor. Some I could readily identify as beer. Others, however, would've required a CSI team to decipher. I can't remember if it was Chinese New Year or just Dang's birthday, but Jesus did he and his buddies leave their mark! Luckily, Dang was in the final year of his contract and vacated the room soon afterwards, leaving me on my own. Temporarily……..

Enter Caporal Park. Sticking with the whole Asian alcoholic theme (Dang being chinese, Park Korean), the drinking continued. Only this time, I found myself being slowly roped in. Park and I had been good friends before he became a Corporal. The good feeling between us quickly translated into Tuesday nights attacking a crate of Hoegarden (distinctly tastier than the foul French Kronenberg) while watching some subtitled Korean gangster flick. Fun tiles, indeed, but far from sustainable. The one thing I enjoyed about sharing with Park was that he (a lot like Dang, actually) didn't make a single sound throughout the night. Having served in the rather brutal mid-nineties Korean army, Park almost resembled a slumbering vampire, arms folded across his chest, feet glued together. Not that it bothered me, of course. I was just relieved not to have to scrub perplexing bodily fluids off the floor.

Only recently, Park and I were forced to part ways as an influx of newbies demanded a reshuffle in the sleeping arrangements in our section. Now finding myself considered an "ancien" (at least compared to the fresh faced, skin head defecators of the French language newly arrived at regiment), I now find myself sporting the lowly semi-glamorous title of "Chef de Chambre" ("Chef" as in boss, not cook!!!). My loyal subjects consist of a solitary Ukranian, jovially nicknamed 007 owing to a humorous phonetic similarity between his Legion name and a famous Ian Fleming character. 007 (or James, for the purposes of this story) is a general top guy. Four years spent working on building sites and as a bouncer in various East London nightclubs has injected a bizarrely hilarious take on the French language. Whenever stuck for a word in our working tongue, James will empty a deliciously confusing repertoire of cockney slang in a desperately frustrating attempt at making himself understood. Unfortunately I feel that reproducing James' vocabulary on screen might get my blog shut down, but suffice to say Guy Ritchie's hair would turn white with shock.

James also loves to eat. A slightly more essential form of consumption than alcoholism (although certain Legionnaires would viciously argue the contrary), I've certainly reaped the benefits in a short space of time. Not five little minutes can pass without James stating how famished he is, followed by a trip to his food stash to conjure up a banana or Kinder Bueno. Fortunately, he always has loads in stock, and so a welcome offer to share in his royal mid-morning feast is inevitable, given his fabulously generous nature. Grub aside, though, life with James does have its drawbacks. Given the time difference between here and Ukraine, late-night phone calls are a regular feature of our co-habitation. How much tangible information is actually exchanged remains a complete mystery, however. From what I can decipher, every second or third word is either "Sooka", or "Bled" or "Peezd Yets" (all terrible attempts at phonetic spelling but essentially gross Russian vulgarities). He's promised to cut back on the after-hours chit chat, but I suppose I can't complain too much. Compared to eerily silent drink-dependent orientals, a loud crumb-spluttering Cockney-Ukrainian should probably be considered a step in the right direction.

Ah yes, every day's an adventure here in the land of Legion.

Wednesday, June 22

Turn the Page

A friend from Brasil once told me that if it rains on the day of a funeral, it's God's way of saying that the man of the moment wasn't a half decent bloke! As the rain cascaded down from the heavens this morning, saturating the small congregation through to the skin, there was little doubt as to the calibre of the man we had gathered to pay homage to. The preceding days and nights had been spent in quiet concentration, iron in one hand, our shirts being meticulously manipulated by the other. Crease after crease, line by line, inch by inch of delicate cotton being passed and re-passed by the hissing, smoldering iron as we prepared our uniforms for a very special and long-overdue ceremony.

It's been seven months since Capitaine Benoît Dupin, our commanding officer, leader and shining example in Afghanistan was killed in action. Due to the five remaining months of the Afghan mission, ensuing holidays and the return to regimental life however, only now has it been possible for us, his men, to make the trip to Descartes, a small town outside Tours in central France where his grave lies. It had certainly been a while since such an opportunity was afforded to reflect fully on Capitaine Dupin, his prowess as a leader, his grounded nature as an officer among rough-cut Legionnaires, and the circumstances that took him from us a week before Christmas last. The eery tuneless melody of fat, steamy rain drops pounding off the tops of our snow white képis gleaming through the morning gloom provided an apt score to our various reels of wandering thoughts. Like God's own private, discordant timpani forgotten by time, the downpour danced and splattered off heads, shoulders and shining shoes washing away every fold, every crease, every speck of polish. But not the memories. Not the anecdotes. Not the picture of a smiling Capitaine Dupin shaking your hand in the morning and wishing you good luck on your next mission. Even in a flood so apocalyptic as to render Noah's ark a mere rubber duck in a leaky bath tub, those souvenirs of Capitaine Dupin would have held firm. Immoveable, unshakeable, just like his courage and spirit.

Also in attendance were members of his family, his wife and seven year old daughter the most poignant present. His parents and brother also came, standing huddled under umbrellas but nevertheless extremely appreciative for the opportunity to meet the men Dupin had sworn to protect on our overseas tour. Indeed in correspondence written to his wife days before his death, Capitaine Dupin had explained how his greatest fear was to lose a Legionnaire under his charge, to have to inform the family of their loss. Irony took on a rather tragic guise with that one.

A small post-ceremony buffet was prepared by members of the Dupin family, both immediate and extended. Our commanding officers encouraged us to go speak with the family, but initial reluctance was to be expected. His mother went around the soldiers offering home-baked biscuits. "I'm Benoît's mum" she sobbed uncontrollably as we thanked her. Nobody knew where to look, what to say, how to stand, anything. Finally I plucked up the courage to approach a gentleman beside the door of the little community hall. He was the captain's father-in-law. I tried to explain how much the captain meant to all the legionnaires, how different he was to every other officer we had encountered, how sorry we were for the family and for putting them through yet another ceremony (our little outing was the 4th "official" ceremony the family had had to endure since his death only seven months earlier). He thanked me, visibly distraught. I shook his hand and returned to where I had been standing. Moments later left the building, returning a half hour later. So much had happened since the Captain's death. And yet so little time had elapsed. The wounds were still understandably raw.

The food soon made an appearance and spirits lifted ever so slightly. A group of us got talking to his uncle who recounted several humorous stories of the captain's childhood. This conversation was followed up with a very amiable chat with Capitaine Dupin's father. The genuine appreciation and consolation upon hearing - direct from us Legionnaires - just how much we liked and respected the captain was immediately evident. We couldn't say enough positive things, his dad couldn't thank us enough. Any fears of tripping over funeral clichés were unflinchingly discarded. When words carry such passion and honesty, clichés evaporate into thin air. Which is exactly what happened to the rain as the gathering drew to a close. The clouds broke and a beautiful, bright, blisteringly engorged sun filled the sky. Everyone stepped outside for photos to be taken of the assembled Legionnaires with the Dupin family. Smiles gradually broke too, like the sunshine, and an invisible weight appeared to have been lifted. As his brother told a group of us beside the open door of the bus waiting to take us back to the train station, it would've been nice to have met under different circumstances. Of course, under different circumstances we would probably have never met at all. I hope that somewhere, wherever he is, Capitaine Dupin can find some solace in the union witnessed today. A union between two families who loved, respected and cherished him. And will forever continue do so.

Adieu Mon. Capitaine.

Friday, June 10

Thank Crunchy!!

As I hurtle up to Paris on the perennially impressive TGV, I find myself faced with a monstrous feast of experiences to gorge on, all having taken place in this, our first week back at regiment. Our first week back to the grind. Typical of the situation, the steadily building crescendo of dread, rising from a tinkle to a thunderclap over the course of my final few days of leave, ultimately proved premature. Disembarking from this bi-polar lover, my weekend iron-railed angel and reaper combined, the infamous TGV, I was immediately greeted by several fellow Legionnaires enjoying a cigarette in the fading but stubbornly strong sunlight outside the station. It never fails to amaze me how a firm handshake and chirpy hello can instantly dispel all anxieties concerning the return to the regimental slog. The realization that we're all stuck in the same mess, and the piece of mind such solidarity affords, opens the way for a contentedly philosophical taxi ride back to base. Sunday night unpacking in our rooms - no different than if one was returning from just another weekend. Afghanistan seemed so long ago.


"Contentedly philosophical", eh? Try some Ukranian corporal sending out a heart-shattering whistle blast at 5.30am followed by that dreaded command, the first of any day in the Legion; "REVEIL!!!" Fortunately, despite the early start, the wheels hadn't even started to be set in motion regarding the return to normality. Apart from a very gentle morning run (well, gentle for those of us who managed to accumulate more than 30 minutes total work-out time in Afghanistan), there was really feck all else to do. And so, for the entire day we were left to arrange our affairs and unpack the last of a combination of Afghanistan rucksacks and holiday suitcases. Having surmounted the bulk of this task the day before leaving for two weeks holidays, I settled down to my Macbook with Facebook, Twitter, The Irish Times and other favourite pages open and scattered across my screen. Just easing my way back in to the swing of things…….

Tuesday / Wednesday

Barely had we stowed away our Afghan combat fatigues than we were obliged to dig them out once more. The final hurrah. A six-hour road trip beckoned, up through the alps to within spitting distance of the Swiss-Italian border. Our destination was Bourg St. Maurice, home of the 7eme BCA - our comrades-in-arms during the six month tour of duty. Having spent the Tuesday night in the 7eme's mountain training centre, the following morning saw the official "end of mission" ceremony kick off, offering us - among other things - an opportunity to holler "Bonjour" at some of the friends made during the eventful period spent in our tiny FOB overlooking the Kapisa Valley. Some comrades, however, were to attend in a violently sobering condition compared to when we last crossed paths. Two of the French soldiers wounded by land mines in Afghanistan were present to collect their respective medals honoring their bravery and courage. Both received their medals on crutches. Both were missing their left leg from just below the knee. Other comrades, of course, never made it back at all. On a more light-hearted and peculiar note, whereas the Legion was yet to register its first post-Afghan deserter, our French Army counterparts had experienced several!! Looking around the fabulously modern barracks encased in spectacular scenery offered by what must be one of the most breathtaking international borders on the planet, one can only wonder if the culprits in question would have even made it through basic training in the Legion.


The mingling over, the Afghan chapter well and truly put to bed, a mouthwateringly juicy administrative gauntlet awaited us from early Thursday morning. With individual meetings with the Colonel scheduled for the following week, the race was on to hop, skip and jump from one office to another in the hope of vanquishing the enormous piles of paper and exiting with the highly coveted red-ink stamp on one's "Passe Partout" - a sort of bureaucratic treasure map with many blank stamp-shaped boxes screaming to be filled. Managing to scramble across the secretarial finish line by the close of business, our evening was free to do some sport and prepare our gear for the upcoming long weekend. Ah Bank holidays - a Legionnaire's eternal spirit-lifter (unless entrapped by regimental service, of course).


If the Legion teaches you ONE thing, it is to admire and appreciate the opportunity to learn about a wide variety of world cultures. Knocking back shots of home-made Bulgarian alcohol at 8.30am tends to leave you slightly less appreciative an hour or so later, however. But, with Fridays normally reserved for nothing in particular save scrubbing one's living quarters for the afternoon inspection ahead of weekend freedom, there was time to kill. Unfortunately in only a short space of time, it was mainly a whole lot of brain cells that found themselves caught up in a brutal slaughter. In fact, it was the topic of slaughter in general that inspired this bout of pre-brunch binge drinking. Playing piggy-in-the-middle to a Bulgarian and a Hungarian as they swapped stories of Summer festivals involving the ritual killing of pigs followed by the delicious barbecued results, we then decided to compare local offerings by way of liquid refreshments. The artisanal Bulgarian rocket fuel incontestably topped the billing, followed by a delightfully refreshing fruity Hungarian spirit. Not wanting to seem out of step, I rushed back to my room to recover my dwindling stock of Jameson. The alco-holy trinity was complete, and our post-midday scrubbing assumed a gloriously liberal and rhythmic sway to it as sponges danced and sang across blurry doors, walls, chair legs and wardrobe shelves. What a great start to the weekend.

I just wish this damn TGV wouldn't sway as much as my sponge did hours earlier. 

Saturday, June 4

Somewhere In-Between

Once you are accepted in to the Legion, you acquire many new things (grey hairs and bruising aside). Some are evident, others a little more discreet. A new haircut, for example, is quite noticeable from the moment that razor makes contact with your quivering scalp. New clothes, too, announce themselves with violent determination as anything unscathed by the harsh central europe camouflage pattern finds itself confined to a dusty archive until such time as the Legion sees fit to allow you back out in to the real world. Certain acquisitions, however, successfully traverse the cosmetic boundaries to find themselves revealing startling changes in attitudes and opinions concerning the long-abandoned civilian life. Routines once cherished and even occasionally taken for granted have somehow since mutated in to unrecognizable and unpalatable rituals, executed in savagely pacific unconsciousness with little or no regard for those severed limbs of a forgotten anatomy, a bygone era. My recent trip home to Ireland following six months in Afghanistan perhaps benefited from heightened emotions but nevertheless provided a solid argument in support of such a theory.

In my last blog, I joked about the suicidal pedestrians challenging articulated trucks to duels during the race home through Dublin city. Light hearted as it may have been, I proceeded to meditate on my compulsion to publicly consider such matters. The word "civvy" always irked me ever so slightly. A soldier's label for all things outside of the military system, I knowingly defy all arguments to the contrary in saying that said term inevitably carries an air (however light, on occasion) of derogation. Proceeding to recall several conversations with a group of sergeants from the French army while on tour in Afghanistan, an overriding theme proved impossible to ignore.

"You come home to France, say you've been in Afghanistan, and people just don't give a shit! They treat you like dirt".

Another disillusioned French NCO offered his two cents:

"People don't even realize what you do, what you face on a daily basis. They get paid 3, 4, 5 times more per month without ever having to worry about being shot at or blown up. They just don't get it."

It was undeniably fascinating, hearing the discontent from what are essentially career men. Soldiering is their profession, their dream-come-true and unwavering path for decades to come. It was during moments like these, ungloved chest clearing sessions such as this when I felt slightly awkward, slightly embarrassed. Slightly out of place. Championing my own unwavering determination to serve honorably for five years before moving on to another chapter in my life, I sometimes forget that this job I do, this thing I volunteered to become is itself a way of life. A life choice, one might say. My egg timer contains far fewer grains of sand than some of these boys, and perhaps for that reason I've never truly converted. During basic training in Castel, a favorite saying of corporals is "T'es encore civil dans la tête". Roughly translated as "You're still a civilian in your head", the instructors sought to hammer out any former complacency, reflection and general habits deemed unsupportable in army life. I won't lie, some improvements were acquired and implemented in my approach to life, from small tasks right up to my overall outlook on the world and its enormously diverse gang of inhabitants. But I never fully crossed over. I suppose I just honed my ability to disguise and hide those habits that remained. There's a difference between surviving and thriving in the Legion. I'm at neither one end nor the other completely of the spectrum. Instead I sit somewhere in-between, perched on a pendulum whose momentum slowly diminishes with every swing back and forth. The difficult early days recede far out of reach as I swing forward, the possibilities of "une belle carrière" assuming a similar course of action as a prolonged future in the Legion's ranks slowly slips out of reach with every day I approach the end of my contract without an new-found determination to sign-on emerging from the tall grass.

But I enjoy my purgatory. I enjoy my weekends in Paris, the friends I've come to know and love, the bar that took me in as one for their own and provides greater sanctuary and solace than any Irish embassy or consulate ever could. I enjoy staying a bit "civvy" in the head. It's a necessary ingredient in the recipe used to off-set the daily soldiering through a military life. The yang to the ying. Some acquaintances rejoice in seeing me after such a long absence. Among them are a certain few who never even knew where I was all this time. Who cares? I'm here now, I'm back. I no longer feel detached from the dedicated element intent on recognition, understanding and acceptance of what we do for a living, what we risk and what we sacrifice. I feel for them, and try to comprehend their distress. I can certainly relate to the occasional derision and antipathy for the civilian world. However, most important for me is not the eradication of such sentiments, but rather their successful management and interpretation. I've always prided myself on an ability to adapt, to integrate and flourish in any social environment. As long as I continue to flourish as vibrantly in the boots and combat fatigues as in the jeans and sneakers, I'll be happy. Happy in who I am and what I do, regardless of who knows it or not.