Monday, April 29

Les Fondamentaux

Not only do some things never change but disappointingly, some things never will. That sentence doesn’t make a lot of sense. I know. Neither does what I’m about to say. Such is life. Confusing. Senseless. Jim was right. People are strange. Take yours truly as a case-in-point.

I consider myself a liberal. I consider myself progressive. I consider myself more left leaning than centre. And yet here I stand, frustrated beyond measure at how uneasy people become at the sight of an assault rifle. The various reactions I’ve encountered while strolling the halls and terminals of Charles de Gaulle airport these past two weeks have been rather uncomfortably illuminating. I don’t know what I was expecting, I suppose. Smoldering looks from sunglasses-sporting supermodels? Young kids waving mini French flags as I trundle by with my team, their mothers wiping away patriotic tears crying “Vive la Légion!”? Whatever I was waiting for, it never came.

Now, I’d already completed this very same mission back in November but there was something more – I don’t know – lucid about proceedings this time round. I could literally feel the edgy stares raining down on me from all directions as our patrols snaked painstakingly through the mountains of luggage and loose flip-flops scattered across the polished faux-marble floors. Young men killing time on their laptops or chatting with friends suddenly shifted awkwardly in their seats, looking both us and our rifles up and down with a sort of affronted intimidation, their eyes posing the frank question “What right do you have to put us at such ill ease?”.

I still don’t know the answer.

Even the little kids remain apprehensive. Sure, some tug at their father’s coattails imploring him to “Regardes les militaires!!”, but in spite of winks, flashed smiles, waves and thumbs up, the kids remain wide-mouthed, leaving said smiles and waves unreturned, languishing in the no mans land of unsupported slow claps and hanging high fives.

Many times throughout the past fortnight I found myself grappling with a boisterous internal monologue, my trembling, mumbling lips occasionally betraying the raging arguments bouncing rabidly around the inside of my skull. Do they not realize that we’re only there to protect them? To look out for them? To usher them out of harm’s way? Apparently not. And the guys – why do they go out of their way to walk directly in front of us, to cut across us during our rounds, to brush off our shoulders as they pass, just softly enough to avoid a confrontation? If only they knew that beneath the beret, underneath the uniform, minus the rifle, I’m just a normal fun-loving guy. I’m just like them……. aren’t I?

Various photos line the walls of the building where we’re lodged during the stint up here. One shows the correct formation for the patrolling team, the team leader to the rear with the two legionnaires out front to the sides, forming a “V” shape. Another shows the correct way to hold one’s rifle. “Patrouille Basse”, as in a patrolling stance with the rifle facing downwards. Personally I found it to be a tad aggressive and so instructed my guys to cross their hands and place them on the butt of the rifle, well away from the trigger. Less confrontational, I figured. But here is where we kick it up a notch, so to speak. It’s not exactly classified information, but information that our superiors would prefer undisclosed all the same.

Of the three men patrolling in an airport surveillance team, only the team leader has a magazine with live ammunition actually engaged in his rifle. The other two members have their mag in the pocket of their combat vests. All three rifles have their arming mechanism blocked by a thin metal wire. In order to send their weapons “hot” (ie. Slot the first round in to the chamber, ready to fire) they would first have to break this seal. It would take no more than a good, hard tug of the arming mechanism to achieve, but still presents a significant obstacle to being capable of engaging an adversary. Some team leaders, rather ironically, demand that their legionnaires slip empty magazines into the rifle to lend the appearance of combat readiness. The reality is that ejecting this mag in order to engage the live one would actually cost more time than simply slotting the live mag directly into the empty space where it goes. But hey, for us dashing silver-tongued Legionnaires it’s all about appearances, right? To hell with logic and tactically astute protocol. Sometimes, you have to laugh. It’s a question of sanity, really.

On a recent free day spent in Paris, I got chatting to a cute Lebanese girl in a bar (as you do!). The conversation was flowing marvelously until the unavoidable topic of my presence/source of employment in France cropped up.  Suddenly the tone shifted, like those guys in their seats at the airport. Why would I voluntarily put myself in that position? Why would I fight for another country in a war that’s not my own? Why why why?

Is it not better, asked I, to have one of those pairs of boots in distant, war ravaged lands filled by someone compassionate, reasonable and open-minded than a trigger-happy, blood thirsty strayed youth? Is it not a clearer commentary that pours from the mouth and finger tips of someone having underwent the transformation and experience of serving in the armed forces than someone watching through the TV or computer screen? The stalemate was evident, the spark long extinguished. We made our polite goodbyes without a number or Facebook exchanged.

Much like how I imagine my goodbyes with the Legion will be made. Lately it has become a daily struggle with such questions. The fatigue is slowly enveloping me. Perhaps it’s typical of someone so close to the end of such a profound and revelatory voyage. Looking back in 3 months time when I step through those gates and rejoin the civilian world, I will undoubtedly consider how we were a decent fit on many levels, the Legion and I. But not the essential ones.

Not the fundamental ones.

Saturday, April 20

Cutthroat Dreams

Once upon a time, I would crane my neck skywards to watch tiny winged specs carve open the vast perfect blue, leaving frothing puffy scars in their wake like a blunt and rusted scalpel tearing through charred flesh. Then, a frothing puffy corporal screaming French blue murder while stinking of blue cheese would rudely interrupt my idyllic gaze and puff would go the daydream. To say that the pain in watching those airplanes fly overhead in the early days of the Legion was excruciating would be far from an exaggeration, however, such was the feeling of isolation, fear, anxiety and homesickness way back then.

Not so now, though. Last week I hopped (nonchalantly, don’t you know, such is the finely-honed nature of my border-crossing swagger these days) on a plane at Dublin airport dragging me back to the Legion for the second last time in my life. In a few months when I’m heading back to the grind after squeezing the last holiday out of my military epilogue, the party will already be well and truly underway. This time, though, seemed rather poignant, as it was the first time that I truly reflected on the metamorphosis my mentality has undergone concerning these relatively frequent 70-minute trips. From initial, fledgling dread, my psyche has gradually evolved so as to treat the end-of-holiday journey from family home to Dublin airport as no more galling than a Monday morning bus-ride to the office. No more pangs of homesickness now as I gape up at planes crossing overhead, nor do highly combustible superiors interrupt such tranquil moments any longer. I’m the corporal now, remember, only with a lot less froth.

This holiday took me by surprise in many ways, not least by the fact that it was spent back in Ireland. Only recently had my entire post-Legion plan been turned on its head as Cupid’s arrow implanted itself deep in my hairy arse cheek and the French ‘Missus du Jour’ presented my with all the apparent reason I required to bid Ireland a permanent “adieu” and settle down in Paris. Ah those French birds! What began as a rather fantastically passionate affair soon washed clean however to show a jealous underbelly proving too hot to handle in the end. A close call in hindsight, but thankfully I hadn’t sacrificed my place in university this coming September or anything crazy like that. Just when you think you’re on the home stretch, eh?

So back to Dublin I’ll eventually go and, apart from returning to my studies, several other rather important issues still need resolving sooner rather than later. The term “house-hunting” has understandably avoided my vernacular these past (almost) 5 years, but the heat is being turned up as my repatriation approaches. The disadvantage of arriving home just in time to start college is the fact that every student and their granny will be hunting for city-centre accommodation in the lead up to kick-off. Through a stroke of good fortune, I have a set of eyes and ears already on the ground, in the form of an Irish girl just moved home having spent the guts of the last decade stateside. Her sister (a very good friend of mine) warned of ramifications if “the 21st century Odd Couple” actually went through with it (moving in together) but I figure it should be a breeze compared to violent, drunken Russian babies and teeth-grinding Chinamen. A breeze, I tell you…..haha….ha……hmmmm.

Having spent the last (nearly) 5 years outside of Ireland myself, my eligibility for government aid, student grants, etc is entirely null and void. In order to qualify for support, I would have to have been resident in Ireland for at least 3 of the 5 years preceding my entry into 3rd level education. Many a wily old anarchist urged me to claim residency here the past few years (bank statements have been continuously delivered to me at the home address), yet I fear that may backfire if I ever manage to publish a book on my Legion exploits. How on earth did he stay resident in Ireland while toiling away in Africa, Afghanistan and South America, they might inquire? No, no, above board is how I shall do it and thus looms the daunting reality of having to work my way through a 4-year degree course. In my favour is a vastly extensive network of ex-legionnaires based in Ireland who at the very least might point me in the right direction, with security work being the likely destination. I’m not so sure a blog on bouncing bars and clubs would be too enthralling but the pay might just intrigue me enough. It’ll either be that or working night-security in banks or office blocks. There, with my stack of notes and trusty Macbook, sipping coffee through to the early hours, occasionally flashing my torch around wildly incase anyone’s monitoring my work ethic. How straightforward it all seems.

The there’s the question of a social life of some kind, any kind really. When one emigrates, the challenge of keeping friendships alive and well increases ten-fold. Facebook is all well and good to a point, but there remains a stark difference between maintaining regular contact with someone and simply sending the occasional “poke”. I guess in a refreshing way I’ll find myself returning to a hometown where no more than a dozen close friends await. It feels like an achievement to have retained their love and confidence throughout my French adventure and returning a more rounded, mature grown-up is kind of exciting, I guess. While nobody ever FULLY leaves it behind, I remain confident that my stupid-shit-phase is running on fumes at this stage. Bring on the weddings and baby showers (and Jameson ……… lots of Jameson)!

One difficulty I anticipate with equal relish and horror will be the collision of old hairy ex-legionnaire and young sprightly school leaver in the university lecture hall come September. Any dreams I might have of being the cooler, older, ex-military guy in class will more than likely evaporate on day one as I struggle to compete with tales of post-Leaving Cert excess in Ibiza. “This one time in Afghanistan….” will be mercilessly drowned out by “….and then I puked my ring from the balcony straight in to the pool!!”. Best accept it, I think, and remain discreet down the back of the classroom unless otherwise called upon. I’m sure my ability to dress myself like and adult will already see me sticking out like a sore thumb, no need to lay it on thicker still.

The hypotheses could continue indefinitely. I guess I’m glad to be returning home. I’ve missed being in Dublin, not just visiting her from time to time. I’ve missed morning runs through the city with my headphones in, dodging cyclists and delivery trucks and eating up the pavement on my way to work (college, this time round). I’ve missed being around my family and my little niece in particular. The knowledge that my return is looming unavoidably large now takes the sting out of absentia. I know I’ll be home soon, and as that final flight carves through the perfect blue I’ve no doubt its scar will be stitched shut with seamless grace right behind me. It no longer hurts to watch those planes go by.

Of course seeing them day-in-day-out as I patrol Charles de Gaulle airport like a fucking eejit for the second 3-week stint in little over as many months helps with the desensitization process.

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.