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.