Thursday, April 4

Fun & Games

For France, maintaining an element of her armed forces composed of soldiers hailing from all over the world has its advantages. Historically, of course, the Legion served as front line canon fodder, sparing French mothers an ocean of tears cascading over coffins repatriated from distant battlefields. In modern times, la Légion has integrated itself entirely into the various brigades of the French Army thus rendering the ever-present myth of Legionnaires always standing tall at the tip of the spear redundant. We do, of course, continue to serve as a valuable combat element within our respective brigades but, apart from our eye-catching uniforms and unique and deeply valued history and traditions, our presence no longer carries the remarkable autonomy and ferocity it once did. So what, pray tell, is our distinguishing operational characteristic in these constantly changing times?

Why it is we Legionnaires, bien sûr! In French Guiana I remember clearly just how overjoyed and relieved the gendarmes were to have Brazilian legionnaires close at hand, their bilingualism in French and Portuguese proving invaluable in the questioning of illegal gold diggers apprehended on raids. In Afghanistan, Imyself was commandeered for translation purposes upon our arrival at Bagram USAirbase, the deep Southern accents of the American officers proving a bridge too far for their French counterparts initially charged with the detail. It was admittedly an enjoyable little stint in the spotlight, and one upon which I fondly reminisced after hearing of my inclusion in a recent mission. From Monday 25th until Friday 29th March the small town of Annecy hosted the 2nd annual CISM World Winter Games, a sort of Winter Olympics for armies the world over. Close to 40 nations competed on this occasion, hailing from as far afield as Chile, Norway and China. Naturally, with so many international delegations descending on this small ski resort in the French Alps, a crack team of grizzled translating veterans would need to be assembled to tackle this latest threat to uncover the French’s organizational shortcomings. Enter the Legionnaires, with their native tongues and shoddy French to save the day!

OK, so the (native) tongue-in-cheek approach might need to be calmed down a tad. But it’s no secret that the French authorities were delighted to have our regiment, relatively close to Annecy (compared to other Legion regiments), provide a team of interpreters at what must only have been astronomical savings compared to having to hire independent translators. Seventeen in total, we headed off the Thursday before the opening ceremony in order to arrive with enough time to receive the keys to our VIP cars (the good ol’ Peugeot 207) and head out with our GPSs to explore our new surroundings and input the coordinates for the various competition sites. Owing to the wonders of modern technology, I also managed to find the mandatory Irish pub in Annecy on my GPS, duly saving it to “favourites” for near-immediate/future consultation. The initial orientation over with, the various delegations began to arrive on the Sunday, and with them, my responsibility for the week - Brig. Gen. Mehr Ali Barancheshmeh from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The general didn’t travel lightly, though, with the team doctor accompanying him (and me) everywhere we went. Not without good reason, mind you, as the general himself spoke no English, necessitating the presence of the doctor with his broken but essentially understandable English. The doctor would ride shotgun with the general snuggling into the backseat as we swerved and winded around the mountainous roads between their hotel and the competition sites. With journeys of up to an hour materializing on a regular basis, we found ourselves with a lot of idle chitchat time on our hands. Conversations took the following form:

Gen: (something in barely audible Farsi)

Doc: “General ask you how much you make every month”.

Me: “€1,200”.

Doc: (What I imagine was €1,200 translated into Farsi)

Gen: (something else in barely audible Farsi)

And so it went on. How much I made, is this an acceptable amount, are you single, will you marry when you leave the legion, questions, questions, questions.

Then came the icing on the cake, the question I’d prepared for and still had no fucking idea how to answer once it had been asked.

“General ask what do you think of Iran”.

……………… Fuck!

I decided to focus all my enthusiasm on the one point I was sure would be as inoffensive as possible to my two Iranian companions.

“Ah jaysus, the women are feckin’ gorgeous!!!!!”

OK, so I might not have expressed my sentiments in such ill-articulated terms, but it was met with the kind of tepid acceptance that at least reassured me that it was a better ploy than even attempting to enter into the political minefield that is ……. well……… Iran, basically.

One benefit of being assigned to the Iranian delegation was their penchant for early nights. By 7pm latest I would find myself free and ready to slip out of my uniform, into my civvy rags, into the car and off to the Irish bar with the other available translators. The Russian, Bulgarian and Ecuadorian delegations, unlike my Iranians, preferred to keep their translators with them late into the evening for wining and dining all together. The translators insisted they didn’t mind, but I think deep down they would rather have spent the evening shooting pool and downing beers with us as opposed to making small talk in their formal uniforms with generals and colonels from their country. Apart from not being able to crack open a packet of bacon fries in the car while waiting for my guys in the morning, I felt overall that the arrangement worked in my favour.

When it came to the actual games themselves, the Iranian athletes represented their country relatively well. In the downhill slalom the times recorded by the Iranian skiers were more than respectable. In the cross-country skiing, however, the performances were rather abysmal. Hearteningly, the Iranian general and doctor, together with the other officials from the delegation never ceased encouraging and cheering on the guys even as they fell further behind the pack. I myself got in on the act, racing from one side of the circuit to the other and back again yelling “Mashala, mashala!!” which is Farsi for “Go! Go!”. Great craic altogether.

We had our tense moments too. The general was intent on covering every inch of every shopping facility in the greater Annecy area in an admirable quest to buy an inordinate amount of gifts for his wife and two daughters (I stopped short of asking him for their Facebook addresses). One such trip involved an obscene FOUR hours spent in Carrefour, the French equivalent of Tescos (or Wallmart, for my American readers), an entire 40 minutes in the toiletries aisle alone as I translated various types of shampoo for the doctor and general.

“Dry, damaged”.

“Coloured. No, coloured HAIR”.

“No that’s conditioner. You……..aghhh”.

One unexpected bonus was the lady working in the pharmacy section giving me a ton of free creams and moisturizers to apply to my ridiculously sunburned face (after a mere hour exposed on the slopes – stupid Irish skin).

With only four months to go and no possibility of a final overseas flourish to Mali or otherwise (the Legion requiring a soldier has at least 6 months to run on his contract from the estimated return date from operations), I must admit that this was certainly one of the more interesting and memorable missions I’ve participated in. Before bidding the general and the doctor farewell, we enjoyed a low-key exchange of gifts. In anticipation of the mission, I’d bought several little pins sporting my regiment’s insignia, together with velcro French tricolor flashes. In return, I received a set of two fountain pens and a pin, all engraved with the words “Iranian Delegation CISM Annecy 2103”. Fine, so they were the gifts that they themselves had been given by the French organisers but still, a nice souvenir all the same.

I did give my e-mail address to the doctor in the hope that some sort of correspondence might be maintained. I figured that if a degree course in journalism beckons than a high-ranking contact or two in the Iranian military might come in handy down the line.

Just a shame there wasn’t a North Korean ski team present.


  1. did you not mention Bobby Sands Street in Tehran! ken

  2. Jesus, only heard of that now, amazing! Shite, shame I didn't mention it, although with the broken English it might've been biting off more than any of us could chew!

  3. And right next to the UK embassy, how sweet is that :)

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