Friday, September 28

Winds of Change

One can only laugh at the squeaking, groaning balloon of anticipation hovering ominously over the shoulder as a return to normality beckons following any lengthy stay abroad. What’s changed? What’s different? Who’s gone? Who’s arrived? The inevitable, statistically guaranteed pin-prick to burst all excitement and send our little balloons hissing and squirting in to space is always greeted with surprise. The ensuing deflation is comical in its absurdity. Some people never learn.

As the bus slithered through the cast-iron green and red gates of our regiment, the sleeping soldiers roused themselves sufficiently to gaze through the steamed windows at the forgotten sights of the security post, parade square and current batch of error-prone detainees heading off to work in there orange vests. The collective sigh literally rustled the bus curtains. The light drizzle in Marseille as we exited the aircraft provided a welcome relief from French Guiana’s excruciatingly hot dry season, but rising to our mountain retreat saw the weather deteriorate with an alarming rapidity, leaving us to disembark from our military bus to be greeted by howling winds and icy rains that seemed just a tad exaggerated for late September (even in our despicably hostile alpine plateau). Reality check? - er, check!

Some important information awaited us, dispatched from the cracked, pursed lips of our captain at the afternoon assembly. Yes, yes, everybody wished to escape on a well-earned vacation as quickly as possible but first there were a few key points to be addressed. The dreaded regimental administrative gauntlet needed to be run once more, despite the fact that only four months previously every legionnaire had travelled from office-to-office offering and updating every single code, account number, important date and identity-related detail. That much had not changed in the intervening four months. Our silent protests fell on deaf ears. It was to be completed once more, encore une fois, only this time a markedly more inhospitable office staff awaited us, perhaps secretly sour at our flying visit in between having returned from a sunny well-paid vacation only to jet off on another.

“Ça va? Tu t’es bien branlé les couilles en Guyane? Vas-y, degage!”

Ah the warm welcome from our comrades back at regiment, the solidarity can be overwhelming at times.

One of the key points to be taken on board by the legionnaires before hitting the holiday road was a change in French rail policy. Once upon a time an exasperated legionnaire racing for his imminently departing train to Paris could  bypass the irritation of actually purchasing a ticket and just hop right on the TGV, subsequently seeking out the on-board controller (or not) to remedy the ticketless situation. Most of the time, one was required to pay a standard €10 fee on top of the actual ticket price (a ticket price sliced down to a mere 25% for us poor French soldiers). Typically amicable exchanges between legionnaires and controllers normally aware of our situation took place more often than not in the train’s bar, and everyone went away happy. No more, however. From recently, the French rail authorities issued a directive penalizing any soldier without a ticket by obliging him to pay the full CIVILIAN price for the journey undertaken. Rather harsh, given our unpredictable schedules, etc, but nevertheless an unforgiving new reality for all looking to enjoy a weekend away from the grind. We have been warned.

Holidays aren’t dangling tantalizing on the horizon for all, though. A certain portion of lads returning from the jungle were thrown mercilessly and without a chance to catch their breath into a Mountain Team-Leader course, lasting four weeks at the end of which they’ll finally get to unwind in the civilian world for a vacation of their own. The Monday lunchtime of our release into the hedonistic wild saw the trainees prepare for an afternoon stroll up our local summit, Mt. Ventoux. Naturally priority was given to the mountaineers in the queue for chow. That the queue wasn’t budging a single inch during a 20 minute period raised a few early alarm bells, understandably so. The acne-ridden Chinese legionnaire stared vacantly at the empty metallic dish where several poorly-cooked French fries once lay. Staring. Assumedly waiting for reinforcements to arrive from the fryer out back, but not looking overly concerned should they fail to show. The mountaineers’ patience began to dwindle. Shortly afterwards, some turned around and set off on the search for a self-funded alternative. Alas the supermarket (normally open at that time) was closed for some vague, inaudible reason. The company club was open, but had yet to be properly stocked since the company itself had returned from Guiana. Eventually, the departure for the mountain beckoned and off set more than a few trainees with little more than a handful of Mars bars and a bottle of water. Some things, as I said, NEVER change.

Even coming back to Ireland, a certain grounding was in order as my traditional expectation of a world apart gave way to the gradual confirmation of “business as usual”. I temporarily felt my star rise as the YouTube stunt lead to newspaper inches and a radio interview. Then an interesting chap named Colin Carroll contacted me in the name of mutual benefit. Reading even a few lines about this fella and his wealth of entrepreneurial ideas left me feeling a tad, well, realistic. To see what I mean, check this out.

As for the mountaineers, sure I felt for them, but couldn’t afford too much thought to their deplorable plight all the same. I had a suitcase to pack, after all. And as I hammer out this blog in the departures lounge of Dublin Airport I once more, one last time, offer a moment’s reflection to their glacier-navigating, rock-climbing exploits at this very moment. It all sounds (and to be honest, IS) fantastic, energetic fun. Then again, so does a 10-day trip to New York. To each their own, I suppose.

Friday, September 14

Grounds for Divorce

Regardless of having reason, motive, seeking out truth, upholding honour, adhering to logic or just simply knowing beyond all certainty that you're in the right, there is never any justification for insubordination in the army. None. Never.

The tighter the blinkers, the straighter and steadier the progress. As a young Legionnaire I was nothing if not subordinate. Yes Sir, No Sir, Three Bags Full Sir - there really wasn't anything to it, all this Legion Lark. So I thought. So I still do. Instead of believing the Legion to have become increasingly more difficult as time goes by, I've decided that it's rather we, as human beings, that make things more difficult the longer we have to play around with them. Complicating things is one of our species' proverbial passe-temps préférés, and an increasing seniority among the rank and file here in the Legion provides a perfect case-in-point.

Your service record counts, sure. Results in various training courses, fitness levels, they all go towards a favourable impression of what one "imagines" a Legionnaire to be. But at the end of the day, it's the "note de geuele" that REALLY counts. Basically, how much you're considered an affable, competent soldier by your superiors. Pull-ups don't count. Running doesn't count. Levels of French do (otherwise how else could one make such a favourable impression). And so gradually an image of one as a Legionnaire is built from the ground up. Be a dickhead who works hard, enjoy respect. Be a nice guy who can still be firm when required, same. Be a sissy pushover who wreaks sly shadowy revenge (most likely in the form of larceny), be reviled but essentially impossible to publicly (and physically) condemn. And the stereotypical depictions go on and on. Now it's undeniably advantageous to have a pleasant working relationship with one's superiors, but that line can occasionally be crossed whereby the subordinates become a tad too comfortable. Ending up in cahoots with easily coerced superiors isn't the inevitability in this scenario, however. Rather the surprising development sees one become increasingly irritated by overly-accommodating bosses seemingly encouraging a loose, uninterested approach to daily duties. Once it doesn't impact them, they couldn't care less. Surely, this isn't how an army should be.

The temptation to lash out at an inanely boorish commanding officer can sometimes push one to one's very limits. The tongue ploughs into a clamped jaw, almost liquidizing itself through gaps in violently gritted teeth as a volley of venomous vulgarities screams to be let loose on the unsuspecting ears of the imbecile before us. With a fast-approaching exit from this military life looming ever larger on the horizon, the temptation borders on the grotesque. Silent diatribes are formed in front of the bathroom mirror as fluorescent lights flicker overhead, night-time providing the ideal moment for climaxing emotions to articulate themselves spectacularly beneath furrowed brows. The diatribes remain silent of course. It's one thing to rant and vent in private, quite another to risk the remainder of a hitherto successful military career and the essential Certificate of Good Conduct awaiting legionnaires at the end of their 5 year stint. Some might say it lacks balls, others might counter that it shows brains. Others again still struggle to distinguish between the two. 

Either way, it would be foolhardy to risk the past 4 years' hard work for some deluded idea of (re)establishing principals. You come to the Legion to get pissed on. I know I did, standing in the corridors of Fort de Nogent on the first day, expecting a gigantic thump in the solar plexus that never came. Always thinking that whenever they'd scream "Get up" at the end of a marathon push-up session, we'd just drop right back down in to the mud again for more punishment. But standing we remained. The danger is in overcoming the state of stress and tension, settling into a wafer-thin complacency ready to dissolve upon the slightest reminder of the constant, underlying reality here in the Legion. On this particular journey, we're all just riding bitch, clinging desperately to the faded denim coat tails trailing in the wind. At no point, absolutely NO point whatsoever will we get to change places, grip the handle-bars and steer our own course. No chance. None. Never.

The only solution is to get the fuck off and go buy your own bike.