Wednesday, November 23

Legio Repatria Nostra

I'd never seen so many motorcycles in all my life. They came flooding through the wide-open, wrought iron gates and towering stone archway of Les Invalides in the centre of Paris, whirring and humming like a gigantic swarm of shiny blue-and-white bees escorting their queen to the heart of her hive. Or in this case the General of the French Armed Forces, Général Ract-Madoux. Throughout the catacombed, cobblestoned courtyards the cacophonous growl of engines persisted, as the general exited his vehicle to minimal fanfare, making his way determinedly towards where we were stood rigidly to attention. We handful of Legionnaires kitted out in full parade regalia, heads shorn to the scalp, Képis glistening white in the grey, overcast, rain-interrupted metropolitan Tuesday mid-afternoon. But this was not, as is usually the case, a ceremony to be drenched in fanfare. The drenching from the rain seemed sufficiently apt. We'd leave it at that.

All throughout the morning, rehearsals of the most surreal nature had taken place. Positions, movements, arrivals, departures, had all been meticulously calculated, executed, corrected, executed once again, all under the rather bemused gaze of intermittent tourists happening upon this rather unusual sight. Cameras were unearthed from beneath a make-up and metro map rubble in a variety of handbags and rucksacks, all vying desperately to capture this rare and visually spectacular sight. They didn't understand of course. They weren't aware. They didn't know. How could they possibly?

A concerted effort was made by all involved not to let the solemnity of the occasion escape us. Not that one would be required, you might think. Yet the stark contrast between those "dry runs" throughout the morning and the real thing was so incredibly violent, so sinister, so unsettling that any wandering thoughts in the thirteen hour road trip the night before or the several hours stood waiting around in those stone, historic overhangs protecting us from the sporadic bursts of rain were blasted from our consciousness as the ceremony got underway. We took up our positions. We fixed our gaze straight ahead. Sticking to a chosen point on the wall in the distance wasn't hard, never is. That is, until the family were shown to their places only a few metres from us, facing our guard of honor head on. We tried not to look. But the gentle sobbing drew our eyes down from the distant walls and on to the faces of the distressed, destroyed, shattered human beings right in front of us. The mother, the father, the grandmother, the brothers, their girlfriends, all present and yet not. All battling fiercely to comprehend the alien surroundings while simultaneously struggling to process the profound grief wrapping itself ever tighter around their throats, suffocating their tears and allowing only muffled sobs to escape. He was just 25 years old, the same age as me. I tried to imagine my family sat there in their place, my mum and dad crippled with grief, my sister sobbing uncontrollably. I quickly relocated my spot on the wall in the distance.

By this time, a second swarm of bikes - somewhat reduced in size from the General's arrival - had entered the courtyard. However, this current wave all killed their engines in unison. The air suddenly hung still, a deafening silence ringing out across what seemed the entire city. And then the drum began. The drum. I never imagined a single sheet of plastic stretched across the end of a wooden cylinder could have such a numbing effect. The traffic outside the gates even seemed to disappear, the pigeons in the archways and nooks above ceased their previously incessant cooing, all early Winter sniffles were held back. Nothing could be heard but the sole, hollow drum and it's shiver-inducing echo, ricocheting off every individual cobblestone. As the din died away, a gentler but just-as-rhythmic sound replaced it. The sergeant led the procession, almost inaudibly calling time on the paces of the eight Legionnaires marching slowly and steadily just behind. "Un, deux, trois, quatre". Arriving at the prescribed placement, they slowly descended the coffin on to its waiting supports. The enormous French flag hung heavy, not swaying, not billowing, just enveloping the entire casket. The General spoke a few words in memory, before passing along every member of the family. By his side was a Legionnaire acting as translator. The surreality only grew as we watched each family member first listen politely if somewhat confusedly to the General's condolences, before then straining to hear the translation in their native tongue. It was almost too much. For everyone concerned.

The coffin then progressed in to the waiting chapel, and our guard of honor repositioned to the courtyard. And there we waited. Across from us, numbering easily more than a hundred were rows upon rows of high-ranking officers from the Legion and the French Army. Our two former Chefs de Corps (Head of Regiment) were there, side by side, along with several generals, colonels, and every sky-scraping rank imaginable. Following the brief ceremony inside, the small crowd poured out in to the courtyard. Our sergeant yelped our little band of decorated legionnaires to attention. The officers across the courtyard impulsively followed suit. It's not normal protocol for an NCO to bring an officer (or in this case, triple figures' worth!!) to attention, but nobody protested. The coffin passed by. All present saluted. The hearse pulled away. And the crowds all dispersed. 

All but our little guard-of-honour. There we waited. Deadly still, disciplined beyond reproach by any general. Unmoving, but not unmoved. And we waited. I think the sergeant was just as lost in thought as we were. Nobody minded, although I must admit that I was relieved when he eventually stood us down. My thoughts had flitted off towards my own family. That spot on the wall had BECOME my family. Sobbing, sniffling, looking confused, angry, desperate at a French general commending their son's bravery and strength of spirit.

I was glad to leave that spot on the wall behind me. For the family of Corporal Goran Franjkovic, however, it's not nearly that simple.

R.I.P. camarade.

Monday, November 14

Out of the Frying Pan

The more things change, the more they stay the same. Approaching last weekend, I could barely contain my joy at the looming return to my beloved regiment. All the evening roll calls, constant assemblies and singing, pernickety attention to detail concerning the blackness of the soles of our boots, it was all soon going to be a distant, decreasingly unpleasant memory. Approaching this weekend, however, I'm rather looking forward to getting the hell out of dodge and back to Ireland for a week's holidays, the tedium of daily regimental life reestablishing itself with rather unnerving speed. Funny, isn't it?

I jest, of course (to an extent….). It is certainly refreshing and comforting to return to familiar surroundings. The sprawling alpine plateaux swirling around our little caserne here in Saint Christol, together with Mount Ventoux peering keenly onto our running track and parade square makes for an indisputably idyllic setting. Winter is slowly creeping across the land now too, sending crisp orange leaves tumbling to the ground, preparing increasingly glistening and gloriously crunchy grass meadows and lawns that lie in wait for the lonely whistle crying out in the cold dark early morning. "Reveil!" And a second blast. "Reveil!"

All very tranquil. All very Sound of fuckin' Music, you must think? Well, not quite so. The regiment has undergone a few changes since I was away toiling in Castel on my quest for an authority-upgrade. 24-hour guard duty is now back, having long-ago been delegated to the military police (now renamed "military patrol" after it was finally noticed that they didn't actually possess any of the training or seemingly divine rights of the real police). Not only that, but it's reintroduction went so far as to include the full parade uniform, resulting in hours upon hours of future ironing in advance of guard duty shifts. When I first arrived at regiment almost three years ago, it was done in combats. Cosy, comfy combats. So why the sudden return to the ways of old then?

That'd be the new chief, I presume. The new colonel before whom I'm yet to present myself. The new colonel who's yet to hear of my admirable intention to give one hundred and ten percent right up until the last day of my five-year contract. The new colonel who won't give a shit, and probably fire me back to Castel to work with the green-gilled and incomprehensible young legionnaires. I'd spent four days working as their team leader at the tail end of my stage caporal. Four days was enough. I dread my inevitable meeting with my new colonel. So it goes.

On a brighter note, finishing third in my stage did ensure a warm welcome from my immediate superiors back at the company. The weekend after the stage didn't afford enough time to fully grow back the beard, so I plan to stay clean-shaven until the holidays, returning at the end of my week's r 'n r sporting my glory-days facial rug. I sincerely hope that my high ranking will remain fresh enough in their minds to dilute any desires to order its removal. Time will tell.

Another aspect of having returned from a two month regimental hiatus is finding myself faced with a gurgling throng of new recruits, almost thirty in all. And in spite of me having yet to officially receive my new rank, I'm all of a sudden enjoying simultaneously being called "Caporal" and obeyed without a moment's hesitation. All rather agreeable, I must admit. Mops, dustpans and buckets are - as of now - all a thing of the past. That's also rather nice. Day-to-day life at the regiment does become undoubtedly easier and more laid-back once one becomes a corporal. But it's not all fun and games.

At the fear of sounding hackneyed, the rank does come with a certain responsibility. As a corporal, I'll be looked-to for answers, help, guidance, and - most importantly - a good example. I can no longer afford to breeze by on cruise control, claiming it's not my problem and what-not. As a corporal, you're there to try to solve the problems of the legionnaires under your command, be them concerning the understanding of orders, a technique or tactic involved in a certain training maneuver, treatment and maintenance of kit. The corporal's no use, the legionnaire's no longer motivated. 

"Look what happens if you stay in the legion" they might be forgiven for saying. 

"Who wants serve under this guy, or worse, become just like him!". 

There's a reason that the rank of corporal is widely recognized as "the hardest rank to obtain, and the easiest to lose". One slip, one false step, and you can find yourself neck-deep in the shit you'd thought had been left firmly at your feet following two months of hell.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that the pressure's on, but now's certainly not the time to take the foot off the pedal.

I'll save that for the week's holidays kicking off this Friday!!