Tuesday, November 20

Bland Ahoy!

Living in France

Figuring out the eyes is probably the hardest part. What they see when they look at us. There, in the middle of the airport, clad in combat fatigues with an assault rifle slung across our chest, patrolling slowly, methodically through the terminals. A strange sight, admittedly, one more suited to the airport of a country in conflict as opposed to Charles de Gaulle airport – the portal to the city of light, the city of love. An unfortunate sign of the times, I suppose.

Some stiffened as we passed, a sense of unease as their gaze locked on our rifles, following it unflinchingly until they were safely out of ours. Others gawked rather unashamedly in queer curiosity, not necessarily perturbed but not uninterested either. The most interesting and rather humorous scrutiny came from young men who rather determinedly took to staring us down as we sauntered by them and their unimpressed girlfriends. A loose smirk occasionally slipped across our face, half hidden by the drooping green beret. Not one of superiority, but rather one of bemused resignation. Such a shame, we thought, that they have no idea what lies beneath the rifle and uniform. Oh well.

Our reason for even being deployed on such a mission was a directive initiated by the French government back in 1978 – VIGIPIRATE; a sort of metropolitan alert system involving differing threat levels and appropriate responses to each level in the form of the deployment of police and military personnel throughout areas of the country thought to be in most danger. At the present moment, our presence is purely a preventative measure and no actual threat is currently considered imminent. Alas our ability to explain this to ill-at-ease onlookers was practically non-existent. Surveying for suspicious or abandoned luggage was the order of the day. Not much time (or authorization) for pleasantries with passers-by then.

Patrolling CDG retained its novelty for all of two or three hours before the repetitive patterns, hip-and-back-pummeling hard tile floors and the inevitable questions from tourists demanding directions we were not yet able to offer all came crashing down on our wide eyes and sweaty palms. We craved change, and fortunately for us our weekly timetable obliged with rotating duties and patrol responsibilities that scattered us throughout all three terminals as well as affording us the chance to sit back and either cruise through the heart of the immense concrete sprawl or else tour the 30-kilometre-long perimeter in our very own Land Rovers. With a schedule stipulating two days work followed by one day free, no one patrol route was repeatedly encountered more often than once every five to six days, giving us the chance to keep any crippling boredom sufficiently at bay for the majority of the mission. I did say crippling boredom. The bog-standard everyday “This is fucking bullshit!” boredom quickly found a home inside our beret-cladded skulls (as is the norm) and simultaneously irritated us while also giving us something to grumble to one another during the 18-hour shifts. As the unrivalled Mr. Vonnegut so famously said, “So it goes.”

The days passed and we encountered our fair share of alerts (all be them false, well…mostly). Abandoned luggage was the bane of our very existence during the three or so weeks we spent on duty. French law stipulates that any bag discovered unattended will result in a €450 fine and, if not recovered in time, the destruction of the bag in question. The drill was straight forward enough; if our little team of three legionnaires stumbled across an abandoned item of luggage, we were to set up a very simple and small perimeter and wait fifteen minutes. If nobody came for the bag within that time, we’d report in to the police who’d arrive with staff members from the airport to enlarge the security perimeter in anticipation of the arrival of the bomb disposal team who would examine the bag, open it carefully and then either give the all clear or – if the bag was especially difficult to open (padlock, code-lock, etc) – set a small neutralizing charge to smother any possible explosive before rummaging through the remains. This full scenario played itself out only once during the entire mission, several plastic packets of heroin found inside an exploded suitcase. A mule with cold feet, apparently. Otherwise it was just a long line of temporary terminal closures while we waited for the bomb squad to arrive and dig through old bus tickets and lipstick before giving the all clear and letting increasingly impatient travellers hurtle onwards to their departure gates.

On one occasion, one of the legionnaires in my team spotted a handbag sat all alone in the basket of a luggage trolley. At this point, already beyond exasperated by several “alerts” earlier that day, I took the very ill-advised yet understandable (trust me) step of walking over, unzipping the handbag and rummaging through it. Underneath the flip-flops, cotton wool and countless receipts lay a tan wallet. Wallet cracked open and what do I find? – a TGV train ticket and a passenger loyalty card with name and photo. No bomb, no anthrax, just the usual random shit found inside a lady’s handbag. I promptly brought it to the nearest information counter, making sure to state that I’d found it open with the TGV ticket jutting out (covering my ass and all that). Case closed, nothing exploded, and the monotony and inconvenience of these abandoned bags was reaching fever pitch.

Fortunately the alerts waned somewhat towards the end as our timetable leered more favorably towards the motorized patrols as opposed to those on foot in the heaving terminals. That’s not to say that driving around the outskirts of CDG or through its heart wasn’t stressful. Parisian taxi drivers, for example, are quite probably the most aggressive and unapologetic motorists in the history of the universe. In fact, a major stress factor with our motorized patrols was filling up the tank. The service station exit was about 500 metres from the exit we needed to take in order to enter back into the airport and avoid slipping on to the highway leading straight to Paris. The exit was four lanes across the other side of the road with an endless roaring, deranged cavalcade of said taxi drivers bearing down on you as you tried to snake, speed and skid your way safely across to the other side. My worst scare involved almost being side-swiped by one taxi doing over 120km/ph in a 70 zone (I know because I was already doing 100 myself in my desperation to get across to safety). However the meek little Lithuanian in my team, when called upon to relieve me of driving duties so I could rest up a while, managed to miss the exit altogether and bring us about 20 km south heading straight for Paris centre before a slip road presented itself and afforded us the chance at a U-turn. I didn’t let him live it down in a hurry.

The Gold Medal of cock-ups, however, was to be reserved for a Corporal Chef with 12 years service, a sorry excuse of an obese man whose Chilean accent is so thick and capacity to master the French language to thin that he ends up speaking 75% Spanish. While stopped at the service station, he inexcusably opted to pump 50 litres of petrol into his Land Rover – a 4x4 with an unavoidably advertised DIESEL engine (“Diesel” was even written on the cap of the fuel tank). Ironically he had been –up until this “mishap” – one of the more vocal challengers of the younger legionnaires found to have committed even the slightest little error. We didn’t hear another peep out of him for the remainder of the mission.

The thing that stuck with me the most though, after we’d packed up and returned down south to our increasingly bitterly cold regiment, was the sense of unease or presence created among the civilian travellers. Apart from one single elderly woman who approached one day to thank me for being there, protecting her, the majority of onlookers seemed clearly unsettled by our presence. There was no way around it, no denying it. Our appearance, our rifles, our uniforms, our green berets and cold, distant scanning stares all screamed DANGER as opposed to SAFETY, or SECURITY. Inevitable, I guess, but disappointing. Surprising, actually, in the profoundness of the disappointment.

Perhaps labeling it a lack of appreciation would be harsh on the people concerned. The mentality of a soldier is a hard one to understand, to convey or to decipher.

I guess I’ll just have to up the effort for as long as I remain in here.

Thursday, November 8

Hop, Skip and a Bunk

As a legionnaire, weekends are a tricky lot. Kind of like the United States’ political landscape, there are only really two choices. Stay in or go out. The former boasts economic advantages on the scale of avoiding train fare (even with our military discount it costs a healthy €55 for a return ticket to Paris), hotels and a Friday and Saturday night of booze-fuelled mayhem. It also offers the nerdier (pardon, “more dedicated”) of our brethren to prepare for an approaching week of regimental service by cleaning and ironing their uniforms to meticulous, irreproachable standards. One might even squeeze in the odd run or trip to the gym. Of course, the flip side to that argument is that you avoid all that boring nonsense and go party like it’s the last 48 hours of your life, before waking up on Monday morning really wishing it had have been.

Hmm, tough call.

Expat Blogs

So a recent predicament scattered before my seemingly endless traipse towards freedom presented itself in the form of the closure of my long-frequented hotel in Paris’s trendy, canal-decorated 10th arrondissement. An absolute fluke within the Parisian metropolis, I negotiated a rather profound perplexity to discover, at its end, a double bed and an en suite bathroom for the gobsmacking price of €35 per night. Now, there’s a fine line (at least, in my opinion) between horribly dirty and uninhabitable and just good old “rustic”. I choose to consider my little hidden gem of a hotel as well within the “rustic” category, and while some winter nights without functioning heat may have posed a problem, I considered it merely a challenge for a resourceful legionnaire like myself to go out and find another party to help raise the temperature. Ah, one in every port, and all that…..

So the hunt began in earnest (for the hotel room, not the heat-providing other party!!) back in Guiana as I set to making advanced plans for my first weekend back in the first world. As the ringing tone buzzed on to infinity my expression turned from one of anticipated joyous relief to on of increasing realization at the immediate need to uncover a new AFFORDABLE digs before the inaugural post-Guiana weekend arrived. Not an easy feat, well certainly not at €35 per night. Cue the downloading of several long-considered unnecessary iPhone apps – hotels.com, booking.com, etc, etc.

To say the gauntlet of testing new, affordable hotels in Paris city center is a colorfully challenging one would be a grave understatement. On the bright side, legionnaires are one of the lesser-known entities up here in the northern hemisphere of La France. Unlike the southern sprawls of Marseille, Toulouse, Montpellier and Avignon where our reputation precedes us and service may undertake a more “reduced capacity”. A skin-head and a dodgy French accent can get you blacklisted quicker than executing a toiletry act in public along the Mediterranean coast. C’est la vie, quoi.

Hotel No. 1 (I shan’t be naming the hotels here for fear of making future Paris hotel-hunting for my readers all too easy) was a rather expensive affair, but the only viable option at such short notice. Retailing at €115 per night, it certainly hit the pocket hard but such was the relative luxury, modernity and cleanliness of the room that the pinching price soon faded to obscurity. Another potential glitch of Parisian hotels that was welcome in its absence was the supplement for a second guest sharing the room (normally between €10 and €15). Not so much a financial hazard as an ambience-killing headache as money needs to exchange hands before one can retreat to one’s room with a guest. It’s the little things that glue together to form a semblance of dignity, you see.

Having had slightly more time to prepare for my future Parisian weekends during my three-week holiday after the South American mission, I decided to really hunt far and wide and deep within the underbelly of cheap hotels in the greater Paris area. My next port of call made a point of referring to themselves as a “residence” and not a hotel. You see, a residence boasts of a mini kitchenette to fully cook one’s own food within the same room – certainly a handy addition for a penny-pinching legionnaires of a certain Putin-esque persuasion. A reasonable €70 per night in a decent part of town, I decided to give it a try. Quickly was I to learn just how non-existent certain rules (and rather, dimensions) regarding privacy were. Let’s just say that thin walls combined with two grumpy old grannies in the adjacent room meant that supplement or not, my position (behave!!!) in this establishment became rather untenable rather quickly.

“Oh I’m zorry, I tot zis us France!!!??”

They say that the third time’s a charm. And so it proved with the “final” (?) hotel encountered on my long and arduous search for weekend accommodation. Located (perhaps somewhat ominously for an aspiring writer) right by the entrance to Père Lachaise Cemetery, the staff proved most welcoming and any notion of a problem inviting guests back for the night was dismissed with a….. er….. dismissive hand gesture indicating the redundancy of the enquiry. At a not-too-shabby €65 per night, I can enjoy free WiFi, a brand-spanking new bathroom and a TRUE 24-hour reception where one doesn’t need to hammer on a glass door and wait 15 minutes for the kid asleep on the floor behind the counter to get up and open the door, unleashing a violent wave of sweat-drenched air. I know, I know, I shouldn’t be complaining. That was, after all, the €35 per night joint.

At the end of the day, all a transient weekend warrior like me really wants is somewhere to throw his bags down, grab the odd shower and (if not spending it elsewhere) crash for the night on something resembling a mattress. Anything beyond that would be immediately deemed superfluous. Once it’s close to myfavorite bar, and no more than €70 a night (all be it twice what I was paying in my twilight-zone fluke of a crash palace) I’ll be a happy (and, more importantly, sane) legionnaire, without want of anything more. Well, perhaps maybe an extra inch or two in thickness……

FOR THE WALLS, for the walls, sheesh!