Saturday, May 28

Back to Life

Anyone who claims that I spent the last six months risking life and limb obviously hasn't witnessed Dublin pedestrians at 5.05pm on a weekday evening. God forbid that one might actually wait until the little green dude doing the robot sparks in to life, emitting that high-pitched, high-paced beeping which signals the moment to cross the street. Oh no, not in Dub-a-lin town! Here the locals have mastered a sort of Parkour-meets-Fairground-dodgems, and the result is one of the most exhilarating spectator sports on the planet. Faced with speeding coupés, rumbling articulated trucks and endless cascades of double decker buses, these fearless adrenaline junkie office workers launch themselves between car bumpers and glowing tail lights. Scuttling, shuffling, skirting, lurching, lunging, stretching and striding to avoid a free ride in an ambulance, I found myself faced daily with the sole option of standing wide-eyed, amused and bemused at the unfolding rush-hour chaos. Taliban insurgents and I.E.D.s are one thing, but nobody fucks with the Green Cross Code.

And so, finally, I get to sit back and soak up two weeks of hard earned rest following six months with the French Foreign Legion in Afghanistan. It hasn't been all plain sailing up until now. Missing my flight from Paris to Dublin, for example, was a slightly tedious development owing mainly to my ill-advised state of sheer inebriation the night before. €400 for a brand new one-way ticket contributed an additional pinch of salt to an already overwhelmingly saline situation, but crucially I made it home as planned. No matter what I do, excitement just seems to follow me everywhere I go. Would I prefer a more bland, monotonous procession through this indecipherable mess called life? See "current career" for your answer, folks.

One thing the French Foreign Legion instills in you is a sense of modesty. Hmmm, modesty, humility, discretion, I suppose I'm searching for an all-inclusive term here. But one's subordination and overall discipline doesn't delay in transferring themselves from a professional to a more personal environment. A busy Friday night out on the town offers an abundance of opportunity to put such theories in to practice. I was surprised, in fact, at how quickly cobwebbed recollections of Irish social etiquette spruced themselves up before parading back into my stream of consciousness once more.

In general, how long does it take one stranger to ask another what they do for a living?

I mean, seriously. It is startling how high-up said question ranks in the order of all things concerning social introductions. I would certainly hold my hands up as a prime culprit. Perhaps people retain a sub-conscious need for knowledge of another's profession in order to better formulate a preliminary perception of that person. In any case, being a Legionnaire presents just as many problems as opportunities in such circumstances. In Paris, the Legion is more widely known and therefore accepted as a viable employer of the person chatting away to you in a bar during the weekend. Across the Irish sea, however, eyebrows tend to receive a more rigorous workout on the forehead of the perpetually skeptical listener. Furthermore, the longer one tries to dance around the topic, the more wary the other person slowly grows concerning your intentions. "Does he have a van with blacked-out windows around the corner?" they might quietly ask themselves as I smile, shift uncomfortably, change the subject and turn the unanswered question on them. 

When the truth does come tumbling out, well it can go one of two ways really. Either you're dismissed as one of the more audacious P.U.A.s on the circuit (Pick-Up Artist, do keep up.) or else the conversation shifts. It shifts like a mountain of dislodged snow come crashing down on your skull. Only it's not snow. It's an unending torrent of questions. Questions, questions, questions. None need repeating here, they're already widely known to all. They were on my tongue before I joined, some even after my acceptance into the hallowed ranks of La Légion. Some may still remain on yours too, having failed to find satisfactory answers to queries that plague you still. For no matter what I write, what I describe, what I photograph, record, whatever, it will forever remain a most difficult task to properly communicate the reality of life in the Legion to those not living it. I won't stop trying though. As long as those questions and queries remain unanswered, I for one will consider it my obligation to tackle them with as much informative and articulate gusto as I can muster. Afghanistan is over, and in little over a week the regimental life begins once again. And incase you still haven't quite gotten the gist of what the Legion's all about, THAT is where the real crazy shit goes down. Watch this space. It won't take long to fill itself up with the most bizarre and endearing of all that is human, all that is Legion.

By the way, the questions do eventually run out. Where a pretty girl is involved, it's worth riding out the inquisitive storm. After all, seeing it out until the end is what we're famous for.

Vive les Vacances!

Tuesday, May 17

I predict a (Cyp) Riot

They claim that the mission is not yet technically finished. We’ve completed our preparation in France. We’ve put our skills to practice in the Afghan conflict (with gusto, I might add). Six months later we packed up our bags, loaded into a helicopter and waved goodbye to our beloved FOB. What on earth is there left to do?

Only forty eight hours of r ‘n r in a five-star hotel here in sunny Cyprus. Thank you French taxpayers, we love you, we really do.

Bienvenue а la Coral Beach Hotel and Resort. Finding itself located just outside the town of Paphos, this luxurious vacation hotspot is normally the chosen destination for retired couples, newly weds (indeed a few weddings went down during our stay), the occasional young family and a healthy dose of young single Russian girls. But I wouldn’t know anything about that sort of thing.

Despite the apparent plushness and overall comfortability of our surroundings, our timetable was regrettably a tad overloaded. The ol’ "Army see, Army do" mantra coming in to play. Several hour-long stints were spent in group therapy sessions (seriously!), discussing possible problems one might encounter once back in the normal world. Well it was what you would expect really. The drop in wages, the despicably outdated and uncomfortable uniform, switching back to meals from the dreaded regiment restaurant, pretty much all the components of a sturdy case of PTSD. The shrink finished, hands dusted off with satisfaction, we switched over to meditation. Sprawled out on the floor, sucking in air like a winded heifer before blowing it out just as hard, I can’t say it wasn’t a relaxed sixty minutes of each day, but the instructor tended to emit a vibe resembling Paul McKenna offering candy to little children. Bizarre, but hardly day-destroying.

The relaxing powers of our dedicated rohypnotist only stretched so far, however. In order to tumble across the finish line, we were forced to profit from a free back massage included in our stay. Two pretty young Belgian girls dished out the oil and went to work, but the massage was more a token rub-down than anything. Not to be denied a proper decontracting session, I didn’t hesitate to point out a ball of tension in my left shoulder. "Oh, so you don’t want me to massage that part?" asked my fluffy, flapping masseuse. Er, what website did you buy your certificate from, love? Fortunately, the girls’ supervisor - upon hearing my smooth, lyrical Irish accent - came over and relieved my Belgian beauty from her failing attempt. Suddenly I had a jolly middle-aged English lady digging fingers, elbows, chins, you name it, into my poor stiff shoulder. "Don’t tell anyone about this" she pleaded, "Normally this is only supposed to be a token rub-down" she confided in a shrill whisper. My lips were sealed, mainly from trying to muffle my screams of agony. But an hour later in the jacuzzi after my sauna session, I began to feel the positive effects. Ah, a soldier’s life is the life for me.

Now, tequila has severely diminished my recollection of our first night at the hotel. Suffice to say that at breakfast the following morning I was besieged by congratulatory slaps on the back from the grunts and displeased and disapproving glances from the top brass in equal measure.

When in Paphos.......

The second day saw the timetable freight train hit the brakes momentarily, a morning trip to and tour of the town followed by another creepy floor-hugging session the only real activities of note. Needless to say the gym was completely overwhelmed by the visiting soldiers, the swimming pool experiencing a similar temporary invasion. The evening promised karaoke. I won’t lie, spirits were high. Nobody mentioned that the song list contained nothing but farcical French "classics". My disgust was evident, the tequilla called. I opted for a cola, my liver crying out for mercy upon sighting the ruthlessly diminished bottle behind the bar. Then an anonymous tipster dropped off the International catalogue. Ah George Michael, it had been far too long. "Faith" got its traditional celtic remix, the crowd went wild, we danced the shuffle and everybody hit the hay smiling.

I say "everyone hit the hay" when, in fact, I’m writing this at 1am when the majority of the lads are still downstairs giving it socks to Lady Gaga and co. Tomorrow we touch down in France, and Friday spells the beginning of 2 weeks leave. The REAL holiday. They claim that the mission is not yet finished. Perhaps not, but the fuckin’ tequila certainly is.


You certainly left your mark. I just hope that I did too.

Tuesday, May 10

Make A Wish

Happy Birthday to Me, Happy Birthday to Me, Happy BIRTH-DAaaah what’s the use!?

Twenty five years on planet earth today. That’s nine thousand one hundred and thirty one days chasing cars around this tiny green and blue spec in the universe. Like a fat, hairy bluebottle that’s had one of its wings mercilessly ripped clean off, caught in a cruel unending spin. Year after year, spin after spin, one circle comes round to completion before attacking the next tour without a moment’s reflection. When WILL it end?

More importantly, WHERE will it end? A lot of the time, that which sees me through the tougher moments of life in the Legion are the dreams and plans I’ve meticulously laid out before me. In the pipeline of my mind’s eye for the time being, these grandiose psycho blueprints nevertheless predict nothing short of unrivalled progress, financial prosperity, explosive romance and other wonderful life-enriching attributes and experiences scheduled to leap in to action the very moment I step outside the gates of Aubagne on 17th August 2013. Plans are wonderful, marvellous things, aren‘t they? They offer hope, motivation, drive and direction. They’re also about as reliable as Fr. Dougal Maguire standing guard over a jar of home-made jam.

Eleven years ago to the day, I found myself in sunny Scotland. Perched on the edge of the long, hard, well varnished bench reaching around the entire perimeter of the small, square dressing room, twenty two skinny, greasy, nerve-wracked teens waited for the kit man to pass. As each new shirt was introduced to its new owner, a curious ritual unfolded. The skinny, greasy, nerve-wracked teen would immediately unfold the shirt to inspect his squad number. Then, slowly he’d start to caress the material between his thumb and index finger, exploring his way along the nooks and crannies of the fabric the same way he would drag his studs through the freshly-mown grass in a few minutes time, investigating his very own patch of territory on the field of battle. Back then, Ireland were using the ill-conceived "towel" jerseys. Hardly ideal for physical exertion but certainly fascinatingly luxurious to a skinny, greasy, nerve-wracked fourteen year old boy about to step out on to a football pitch in his country’s colours for the very first time.

Professional footballer. That was a plan-and-a-half indeed. I’d promised my mum a Porsche, that the mortgage would be paid off on the house, and that Samantha Mumba would be my girlfriend by my 18th birthday. Wonderful, marvellous things, plans.

Skip forward two years, to Balbriggan Community College (or "The Tec") as it was more familiarly known at the time. My footballing dreams retired to the shallow annals of my brief history, I now stood before a different kind of audience. The green jersey had been swapped for a black leather motorcycle jacket. The scrawny, knobbly knees now profited from a single tear in my skin-tight denims where once they were allowed to breath freely beneath skimpy white shorts. Behind me stood not ten fellow athletes ready to throw themselves in to tackles and rise shoulder-to-shoulder attempting to put a head on the end of a flying leather sphere. No, behind me now stood three fellow cock-and-balls rockers ready to throw themselves in to ever more complicated, funkalicious riffs and beats, three-part harmonies and endless encores. Flanked by the marauding silken-haired windmills-on-speed that were the guitarist and bass player, with a well-groomed yet savage drum-bashing machine at the rear, I quivered before the battered microphone, running the length of cable through my sweaty fingers in much the same way I had fumbled with the green jersey only twenty four months previously.

Once again I found my birthday unwittingly coinciding with the launch of a brand new dream thread. Rockstar. Oh we played gigs, made demo CDs (some of which people even bought), were interviewed for magazines, were invited to perform at fundraisers. The future was bright. So too were the vocal chords, glowing red from a total of five years screaming in to microphones in various nice (and not-so-nice) Dublin bars and clubs. Inevitably, the end of secondary school followed by the slow dissolution in to college life spelled the embarking of the various members on their various personal paths, leaving nothing but fond memories, a few decent recordings, and some truly hideous pairs of jeans.

The big twenty one (way back in 2007) was spent, perhaps somewhat prophetically, dining in Ireland’s finest restaurant (owned and operated, of course, by a Frenchman). Little did I know as I sipped champagne and downed my oysters that in a year’s time I would have quit my job in preparation for my adventurous pilgrimage to the fabled gates of Fort du Nogent. I tease myself with the idea that my 21st birthday meal was a pre-eminent strike against any future opinions and impressions I may acquire on France and French society. After all, if one’s first taste of la France arrives in the form of a slap upside the head and a spit-showered scream to drop and do push-ups until your arms seize up and your nose smashes into the ground, well, it makes things a little harder when eventually trying to appreciate all the positive aspects of the French people and their culture (and of course, their cuisine!).

And so finally, we reach the present day. 10th May 2011. A quarter of a century of dreams and plans has brought me to this point. Less than a week remains in what has been an interesting, somewhat turbulent, occasionally tedious but never uneventful six month tour of Afghanistan with the French Foreign Legion. THE FUCKING FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION!!! Who saw that one coming?? By the time the dust settles on this mini-chapter, there will remain two measly years to serve on my five-year contract. The screw has already begun to tighten from on-high. Sign on, sign on. Make a career for yourself. Win yourself this qualification, that qualification, earn lots of money on many more overseas missions. The current global economy never tires as a potential lure to the undecided. But then, I’m not exactly undecided.

For me, it has always been and always will be "just" the five years. My time spent serving in the Legion will undeniably leave its imprint on my life map until the very end of my days. However, whereas five years may render themselves a defining part of ones life, I fear that any longer may render itself my entire life, full stop. That, I simply can not tolerate. It leaves absolutely no room whatsoever for any more plans and dreams.

How on earth could I survive without that kind of reliability?

Monday, May 2

Down Mexico Way

Camerone, 30th April 1863. Sixty brave Legionnaires led by the legendary Capitaine Danjou stood against two thousand Mexican troops - 1,200 infantry and 800 mounted cavalry. Fighting until sixty had been whittled down to five with each man possessing a solitary cartridge in his rifle, the quintet of unrelenting Képi Blancs discharged their final round before bulldozing their way in to an insurmountable mass of Mexican soldiers, their bayonets hungry for one last kill before the inevitable. Two Legionnaires fell before a Mexican officer intervened, sparing the lives of the remaining three. Surrender was only agreed after the remaining Legionnaires had secured the right to retain their weapons and seek aid for their wounded. Undoubtedly the Legion’s most famous battle, la Fète de Camerone has since become our most important and cherished celebration, surpassing even Christmas.

Skip forward 148 years or so, and yours truly finds himself a long way from either Mexico or his beloved France. Not to be discouraged though, the Legion never fails to mark the anniversary of Camerone regardless of the location where it’s being celebrated. That much we knew. We expected "some sort" of acknowledgment of the day that was in it, sure. What we hadn’t counted on was one of the most sensational days of fun-filled revelry in living memory, Camerone or otherwise.

It all began, as Camerone always does, with breakfast in bed. Ah yes, for on the 30th April every year, an amusing role-reversal takes place. The Lieutenant, the platoon sergeant and the two squad leaders came into the cubicles of each legionnaire with a selection of croissants and pain au chocolat at about 7am. Wishing us all a Happy Camerone Day, we were then cordially invited to pile into the living area where a massive pot of coffee had been prepared. Now I’m not a coffee drinker……at all! But on the day of Camerone, morning coffee is mandatory. Partly because it inspires a bit of cohesion amongst the soldiers, partly because it’s laced to industrially toxic levels with rum. Actually, it’s mostly the rum that makes it mandatory. 7am lads, 7am!!

The role reversal then continued with the delegation of corvée ("corvée" is the daily chores such as sweeping, mopping, emptying the trash and general tidying-up). Some of the more dedicated rank-and-file even forwent the eating of their delicious pastries in favour of breaking them into numerous parts and flinging them on the floor.

"Chop chop Mon. Lieutenant, this place is filthy!!!"

One sergeant was sent to stock up on bottled water, carrying back a whopping forty eight litres in one trip. The other was set to work on the legs of the table and stools in the living area. Some of the lads had given them special attention with shoe polish the night before, and nothing short of gleaming would do this morning. After several passes with the mop by our dear Lieutenant (somehow, someone always forgot something they’d left in their cubicle, forcing a re-mop every time they left footprints on the wet floor), we finally quit our building to go rejoin the company for morning assembly. Spirits were already soaring as we converged on the other sections, themselves having succeeded in an active morning’s workout for their commanding officers. The ritual for company assembly is that the youngest Legionnaire (in terms of service) takes the Captain’s place, the next youngest the deputy, and so on. On this occasion, the Captain was a small Hungarian chap from our section. Having joked around with the state of our uniforms and made the actual captain and his posse do a few push-ups, he suddenly announced an impromptu morning run. The faces on some of the bigger-boned Caporal Chefs dropped sharply as off we went around the entire FOB, screaming our lungs out like a pack of deranged inmates escaped through a hole in the hospital walls. Heads turned a full 360° as we passed. Indeed the poor Afghan soldiers hadn’t the slightest idea what was happening. I’m sure some of them might have asked if teaming up with the Legion to help stabilise their country was really such a good idea after all. Run eventually over, the real captain took the reigns to wish us all a Happy Camerone before sending us on our way. The day was ours to enjoy until that evening when the real fun and games would begin.

Ladies of the Legion - UNITE!

With a spectacular setting sun slowly swallowed up by the imperious surrounding mountains, the crunching and hissing of beer cans echoed out across the twilight sky. The pre-meal party was underway. A selection of invited guests from the French army dropped in to wish us well, and amiable mingling ensued. I teamed up with an American friend, wasting no time in asking why he himself wasn’t drinking.

"Dude, I’... I'm fuckin’ high dude! What? Hmmm"

Indeed his pupils were the size of the afore-mentioned decorous mountains as slowly, oh so slowly, he explained his recently administered (self-administered, naturally) cocktail of painkillers to combat a back spasm from earlier in the day. Suddenly my party-sized can of Heineken was looking rather tame by comparison. Fighting not to become disheartened on this joyous occasion, I sensibly decided that nothing combats size like sheer quantity, and so the crunching and hissing gathered frightening speed as the hour of the grand buffet approached.

Now the meal was grand, the meal was fine
The singing flowed as did the wine
But towards the end, before spirits sank
The show kicked off - Ms. Képi Blanc

I’d never experienced a Ms. Képi Blanc competition before, but had at least seen photos and videos. Most came from the 3REI in French Guyana where the talent was top and the tropical backdrop rounded off what seemed like the pinnacle of Camerone celebrations. Here in Afghanistan, one might be allowed wonder just where the willing ladies might be found to participate in arguably the most beer-fuelled, testosterone drowned beauty pageant in existence. Enter the nurses......

To the disbelief of many (myself more than included), the personnel from the infirmary actually agreed to take to the specially-constructed catwalk in the dining hall for the entertainment of 120 goggle-eyed and increasingly uncoordinated Legionnaires. The first round set off proceedings nicely, each doing a single run up and back. Wearing standard military uniform, it was a gentle yet promising introduction. Then the temperature rose a notch. One lieutenant strutted out with a band of ammunition traversing her.....frontal.....area to maximum effect, with the tightest of combat shorts rounding off the outfit. Massive cheers all round. Aiming to go one better, the little secretary - a corporal by day - strutted out still wearing her normal uniform. Tepid cheers greeted the apparent lack of imagination but decibels soon increased tenfold as she briskly whipped off her vest to reveal a rather revealing sports top underneath. That the sports top was one of our very own company’s proved the icing on the cake, as she wiggled cutely away to deafening cheers. As the contestants progressed, the ranks and stakes rose simultaneously. A corporal and a lieutenant are all well and good, but throw a couple of high-flying Captains in the mix and things start to get really interesting.

The first of the two, a well known and appropriately adored member of the gang over here (let’s call her Jessica) hit the stage. The table-thumping began. "Jess-ic-a, Jess-ic-a, Jess-ic-a" rising to a cacophonous marvel of acoustic splendour as, totally unphased, she leapt up on to a free chair and began her tour along the long horseshoe of tables. The crowd loved it as she daintily sauntered before the skinhead slack-jawed masses. Arriving before me, I simply felt compelled to hold up proceedings just long enough to slip a fiver in her pocket. The lads threw up a cheer, she smiled and saw out her little circuit. The winner, it seemed, had all but been decided. But wait? We still had one more little captain to go.

And the winner is.....

This last entry, a relatively recent arrival at the FOB due to certain personnel changes, hadn’t made herself too known around the FOB. A formidable runner for those who came across her in the mornings, she couldn’t be more than 5"4. Still, the personality far outgrew the frame on the night of the 30th as she too came flying out of the traps. The stage having been set by "Jess-ic-a" earlier, our little pocket rocket leaped up on to the stage. Only this time, approaching our own Captain and a Commandant from our regiment (who admittedly had the best seat in the house), she dropped on to all fours and performed the splits in front of the gob smacked duo. I should have brought my ballistic earplugs. The place went fucking crazy. I mean, off the charts crazy. Tables were overturned impeding the end of her journey. Glasses of wine went flying, guys dropped down on the floor begging to be resuscitated. There was NO doubt. The new queen had been crowned. The wolf pack poured out of the dining hall and back to the tents to continue the party.

I got in to bed at 5am. I don’t remember much. Apparently I wowed the lads with an improvised song about "Jess-ic-a" before heading out back to smash the guitar into pieces Kurt Cobain-style. Others slept outdoors, on walls, in shower cubicles, you name it. The finer details must, understandably, be kept under wraps but suffice to say a lot of sheepish heads avoided eye contact the following day. Congratulations go to the lads from the French Cavalry regiment who hosted the after-show party and provided beer, deeply profound drunken conversation and, of course, a rapturous audience for the afore-mentioned song.

Two days on and the head/stomach are only starting to get back in to normal working order. Mercifully, the earlier threats of "never drinking again" have proved ridiculously hollow as already attention is turned towards Camerone 2012.

Some say it’ll be the end of the world. If we Legionnaires continue to fight and party as our reputation demands, it just might well be.