Sunday, July 24

Wheel of Fortune

Now, apparently, I'm a qualified driver. Although I'd probably need to qualify that "qualified". I'm "qualified" in the sense that I've just spent two weeks in Castel under the guise of participating in a driving course before leaving at the end without any slobbering sergeant screaming at me to be back on Monday for a second attempt. As to whether or not I'm actually competent enough to manipulate an automobile unattended remains to be seen. Those particular corpses should gurgle and float to the surface when the mandatory "confirmation" drive arrives later in the year, involving me chauffeuring an NCO all over the south of France until a certain number of kilometers have been negotiated (or a certain number of pedestrians gravely maimed). Nevertheless, the licence is firmly in the pocket (as opposed to the other snug location mentioned in my previous post).

Using the word "apparently" with regards to my newly-acquired qualification wasn't at all unnecessarily withering, despite my frequent habit of sensational negativity concerning all things Legion. Rather, during the past two weeks I drove a grand total of four and a half hours. That's right, four and a half hours. I learned to drive in the same time it takes to watch "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King" (well, if you include the odd "Making of" documentary at the end). Still, does it not strike you as slightly odd? I for one was certainly left a little perplexed (if not also rather relieved) at a most bizarre fortnight spending the majority of the time engaging in every activity but driving. Allow me to explain.

First there was the 14th July. Bastille Day. Although personally not directly involved in the local festivities unfolding on the streets of Castelnaudary, the day itself was a holiday and so no work was done in camp. That rhythm-breaking interruption however did mean that the following day - the last before the weekend - was hardly the most productive. Skip to the beginning of the second week and the announcement that more than half of the trainees would be required to don their parade uniforms on Friday for the change in command of the 4RE. Not only would this inevitably prolong our departure from such a vile and disagreeable regiment as Castel, but it also consisted of two mornings spent rehearsing for the eventual ceremony at the end of the week. Joseph's Technicolour fuckin' Dreamcoat wouldn't have demanded such attention to choreographic detail! But hey, at least the afternoons would be free to drive and study for the theory test…….right? 

Sorry guys, those weeds dotted around the building are looking rather unsightly. 

Grab a spade and have at it. 

Rain? That's not rain? Rather an ice-cold liquid affirmation of your man-hood and professionalism all rolled in to one. 

Plus it accentuates the green of the weeds, making them more distinct and visible from the slimy, boot-shine-destroying mud. 

Driving? Later, later. You'll have plenty of time to drive later (with an ill-gotten licence worth less than the paper it's printed on).

Indeed of those four and a half precious hours spent behind the wheel, only three were spent on actual roads (as opposed to the purpose-built training circuit on base). The main reason for such paltry asphalt offerings centers on my "companions". From Kazakhstan and Nepal respectively, neither one nor the other inspired much confidence while out among the general motorised population. Careering down one-way streets the wrong way, stalling not once, not twice, but THREE times at the entrance to roundabouts. Changing lanes without noticing the articulated truck to the right. The instructor laid it out for me to digest.

"Those guys suck. You drive well. I've got to stick with them from now until the end."

Sure I understood the logic, but I certainly wouldn't have refused a few more hours behind the wheel. Still, once the confirmation drive comes round, I can further flex my muscles on the open roads (really open, hopefully WIDE open, for my sake and certainly that of the accompanying NCO).

The final day saw everyone reach the very end of our collective tether. The ceremony marking the change in command took up the entire day, resulting in the course being dismissed at 6pm (as opposed to the traditional 1pm). Several legionnaires were kept back until Monday, their performances being deemed unsatisfactory for immediate graduation. With such exceptional circumstances surrounding the entire two-week course, a few repeats was to be expected though. Surprisingly, my two drive-time-depriving team-mates made the cut, as did the little Japanese fella negotiating his third attempt. Our highly successful English mafia parted ways, three guys returning to 2REP in Corsica, another two back to Nîmes and the 2REI, and then little ol' me. Due to train times, I only arrived back at my own regiment at 2.30am on the Saturday morning. And my word, how happy I was to be back in my room. It's strange how occasionally-derided things can be transformed into Utopian pleasures if placed alongside something truly wretched enough as a means of comparison. I'll be back to Castel in mid-September (and for a much longer visit). I better make the most of my time now.

Note: I do apologise if recent blogs might seem to have abandoned the previous lyrical flair once frequently evident in my writing. In a week's time I embark on four weeks of long-overdue holidays. Having had no more than a mere two weeks off since returning from Afghanistan in mid-May, the fatigue has finally started to catch up with me. Once the batteries recharge though, I hope to be back to my literary best. In the meantime, the blogs will keep appearing as frequently as possible. Do bear with me, and thanks for all your continued support and interaction.

Friday, July 15

We're Not Road-Worthy

It's been two and a half years since I set foot in Castelnaudary. Home of the Legion's dreaded 4RE (4ème Regiment Étranger - instruction regiment), my memories of this horrible, spirit-sucking black hole never once risked stumbling into the "fond" folder. My very first fledgling steps in the French Foreign Legion were unsteadily taken within these walls, being screamed and spat at, pushed, shoved, deprived of food, sleep, acceptable internet speeds. Nightmarish at the best of times. Four months of instruction, however, were followed by two and a half whopping years safe and untouched by its ice-cold slimy shadow. A cancelled corporal training course (cancelled by an ankle injury, giving rise to a lengthy lay-off and the creation of this blog!!) came tantalisingly close to removing all my fingernails in the slow drag back down to hell, but in the end a simple driving course was enough to finally repatriate me to my high-strung combat-clad rabbit-hole. It's been a long time, Castel. Not nearly long enough.

Rolling up to the gates on a Sunday evening in a taxi, I was quite surprised by the sheer horror coursing through my entire body. It really is THAT despicable. Make no mistake, there are NO redeeming qualities to this little corner of Legionland. Those stationed here permanently are more often than not the naysayers (well, the ones caught naysaying….ahem), the klutzes, the "bananes" of our tight-knit commando community. Hardly anyone actually requests a posting here. For this reason, the presiding atmosphere is one of distinct disdain, discontentment and devilry. A certain difference that struck me rather smartly smack-in-the-face was how the stress and discomfort during basic instruction stemmed mainly from the perpetually aggressive nature of our hosts. Shouting, screaming, threats of violence, toilet scrubbing, all had us running around like headless chickens scrambling for any physical item to relieve the suffering. Now that we're fully-formed Legionnaires, the torture presents itself in far more sinister, passive-aggressive ways.

The very first morning of our two-week driving course provided a prime example. Hailing from every regiment based in or around France (a dozen or so paratroopers had made the trip from Corsica in search of a variety of licences), we found ourselves assembled in our sports gear at about 7.30am Monday morning. Very calmly, inaudible to us standing in formation, a rather grotesque Corporal Chef whispered something to the corporal in charge of our detachment.

"Right lads, we have to be back here in 15 minutes in full dress uniform" he rather casually informed us.

No screaming. No spit-shower two inches from our faces. Just a cold-blooded monotone order. And we were off. A lot of the guys from other regiments had worn there dress uniform in to camp the night before. I and the other guys from my regiment came in civilian clothes with our uniform in a suit bag. Several train changes and luggage-stacking along the way had unquestionably rendered our clothes a rather sorry lump of creased and line-ridden linen. And all of a sudden we were expected to put it on and present ourselves in front of this slobbering, black-livered instructor??. Oh joy! Of course, after painstaking deliberations by almost all the lads over whether or not we should attempt a super-rapid ironing job or just throw it on as it was, we eventually opted for the latter and sheepishly trickled back in to formation down on the parade square. Naturally the Corporal Chef didn't give two shits about the condition of our gear. He just wanted to forewarn us that Castel would be experiencing not only 14th July in that coming week but also a change of Colonel the following one, and that we had better have brought all our little decorations, frills and such. If not, the course would unfold rather unfavorably for those lacking in the relevant buttons, badges, pins, etc. What a profoundly disagreeabble welcoming exercise that proved. Indeed at the beginning of a driving course here in Castel, all students are informed that they in-fact already possess the licence. The method of delivery, however, has yet to be decided.

"Soit dans la poche, soit dans le cul" roughly translates as "Either in the pocket or in the ass". Right so, no pressure then……

Now I've never driven before. Ever. Slogging it out on frozen crossroads waiting for the erratic (when existent) Bus Eireann coaches to come hurtling by full-to-capacity eventually got replaced by city-centre living and a relxing six kilometre run in and out of work every day. I just never had any real NEED (or financial allowance) for a car and the ensuing costs. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised by my progress. From the first few days of zipping around the purpose-built track in Castel, never once venturing out of second gear, to having just completed a rather successful journey to Toulouse and back, tackling roundabouts, town centres, randomly placed roadkill (it was there when arrived!!!!). All in all, rather positive signs from the Irish camp. Theory test preparation in the classroom has been made infinitely more tolerable by the chance Anglophone Mafia formed on the very first morning of the course. Also returning to Castel for the first time since we negotiated basic training side by side, my good mate Kev from Barnsley came from his regiment with Gully, a French/Australian music-lover giving us both tonnes to yap about in between deciding the difference between "stop" and "yield". Throw in the three plane-jumping Repmen - Derek the brick shit-house of an Hungarian/American, Yatzi the ex-US Navy Seal and Kuntz, an English speaking German, and we've become rather thick as thieves here in Castel. No more so than the evenings, where the bar has found itself rather short on stock whenever we stumble out in the evenings. Well, OK, maybe one time on Wednesday night (what with Thursday being Bastille Day and a national holiday where everything - Legion included - shut down), but still, it was rather legendary drinking, singing, laughing and inevitably puking (good man Kev!).

Not everyone is taking to this whole driving lark as readily as yours truly, though. A rather comically tragic (or tragically comic?) Japanese comrade finds himself back here at Castel for the third time, tackling his car licence. More than a little lost be it behind the classroom desk or the steering wheel, no-one can honestly envisage the poor guy passing his test this time either. God knows how his superiors will handle the almost inevitable FAIL coming there way at the end of next week. As long as he doesn't crash in to one of us out on the test track though, none of us really care. Maybe driving isn't for everyone. With a week to go and promising signs up until now, I'm hoping this little love-affair turns into a long and fruitful relationship. Long-overdue? Undoubtedly!! Hard-earned? With all the nonsense accompanying our theoretically "straight-forward" course, I'd venture "You bet your sweet ass"!!!

One more week to go, stay tuned to see how it all pans out.

Wednesday, July 6

Tidal Concerns

They keep coming and coming. And coming. Newbies newbies everywhere, great wide eyes and skin-tight hair. Having spent the last fourteen months or so as a rather streamlined version of a combat company, there's something rather bizarre about thirty brand new legionnaires descending on our tidy barracks like lean, naive locusts stumbling around a corn field, afraid to take a bite. That's not to say the company's been lacking in bark. But that's mainly radiated from the NCOs relishing the opportunity to rediscover their nasty sides. We "veterans" have long since become immune.

Thrice-daily assemblies to practice our company and regimental songs, the traditional (but lately somewhat neglected) pre-lunch "apéritif" has been re-introduced with a vengeance (a Legion "apéro" consists of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and rope climbing in our combat fatigues just before going to eat), and of course, "grattage" , or scrubbing. Walls, floors, ceilings, doors, stairs, radiators, showers and the timeless toilet. I can't ever remember it having been as bad when I arrived, but then I arrived during a period of continual integration of young legionnaires into the company. Every fortnight spelled a new single-figure batch of newbies arriving into our building, being assigned rooms and gradually becoming a part of the furniture. This latest onslaught is quite unprecedented for many here, and so the reactions have taken many forms, but always in the extreme.

Small areas of nothing have been treated to pretty little stone borders, painstakingly stacked stone by stone under a scorching sun. The same merciless rays screeched down from on high as our new additions squatted down to unearth swathe after murderous swathe of prickly thistles and weeds from our gravel-dappled parade square. The suffering encounters few disruptions. Some of us younger "older" legionnaires feel slightly voyeuristic as we relaxedly shine our boots before assembly, the newbies submerging theirs in buckets and puddles of murky mop water in a desperate bid to finish their perennial corvée before the whistle blows and the weed-free parade square fills with neat lines and rows of shiny boots (well, most of them, anyway).

A strange incident did occur with one new legionnaire in particular. Of French origin, he had spent a mere eight months in the Legion before deciding he wanted to leave. Using a fictitious sick mother as an excuse, he demanded to have his contract terminated. Traditionally, ailing relatives or not, such requests would be greeted with two weeks in jail, a barrage of bestial treatment and never-ending administrative procrastination followed by an eventual offer of either overseas tours or a variety of training courses to appease the potential runaway. This time, the legionnaire in question had to wait a grand total of three weeks, at the end of which he was given written confirmation of his terminated contract before being sent on his way. Simple as that. In fact, nobody here could quite believe the overwhelmingly vulgar simplicity of it all. 

And then the rumours slowly trickled out. Rumours of a chronic over-subscription within the ranks of our beloved legion. Rumours of a near-immediate requirement to quell numbers within our family by five hundred. Some went so far as to suggest that the Legion needs to be reduced to a corps of roughly five thousand. Current statistics put the Legion's manpower just shy of eight thousand. That's a three-thousand-man-trim. Indeed, the recent upheaval of the 13DBLE from Djibouti to the United Arab Emirates has itself spawned rumors of a once powerful and historic regiment of some six hundred permanent soldiers being culled to a measly sixty five. Let's not forget, though, that these are all just rumours….. for now.

Of course all this means that we "could" be looking at one of the last gigantic influxes of "newbies" to befall us before the landscape changes so drastically as to render it completely unrecognisable from the "real" Legion of old. If this is indeed to be the last great surge of fresh meat, well we might as well make the most of it.

Sorry lads, think you missed a spot there.