Never underestimate the power of context. The places one goes to, the things one sees, the people one meets here in the Legion all retain the distinctive whiff of exceptionality. Living life through the eyes of a legionnaire is a very particular experience. Crawling through fields and trotting hunched over through crooked, narrow village streets in the south of France with a camouflage-painted face and assault rifle tends to provoke unfathomably different reactions to, say, a tanned blond backpacker in cut-offs and Converse asking for directions to the nearest windmill. Therefore after almost 4 years' service I can safely say that I've travelled extensively in the south of France. But my own excursions still might not quite align themselves too seamlessly with those of some retired English couple seeing out their days in Nice or Montpellier together with a trusty Ford Focus wheeling them all the way across the riviera. Such is life, certainly life here in the Legion.
The benefits do tend to come in the form of some very exclusive travel destinations, however. Countries like Djibouti and French Guyana might not seem too appetizing to anyone outside of scuba diving or rainforest conservation circles, and yet we legionnaires find such exotic locations almost perennially pencilled in to our calendars. Afghanistan, on the other hand, rarely reaches out to anyone not either a soldier or a journalist. Sure, building contractors and humanitarian organizations occasionally make the slog from far afield, but restricted movement on the ground presents little opportunity for this demographic to truly see the country and its people in the same detail as our merry band of rifleman 'n reporters. It might not be the most agreeably tinted light, but it shines brightly enough all the same.
Context. That's the name of the game, a name worth retaining in the fore of one's thoughts whenever things are going poorly OR well. A name whose significance is not lost on our superiors, try as they might to confuse us with their foundation-lacking, contradictory banter. Take this ski trip, for example. Ten days in the French Alps and all the while, all we've been hearing as we sweat and pant our way up soaring snowcapped peaks has been;
"Wo, les gars, qu'est-ce qu'il y a?? Hey, les civiles paient pour ça!"
(Wo, what's the matter lads? Hey, the civilians pay for this kind of stuff!")
So let's get this straight then; civilians (or "tourists" as I'm sure they prefer to be referred to) spend considerable money to be issued with bog-standard (oftentimes inoperable) ski equipment before being made wake-up at 6am to set off on a mountainous excursion with a rather heavy army backpack, all the while being yelled and shouted at for not understanding the very basics of ski manipulation that have never actually been properly explained to them? That's………that's essentially what we're saying here, yeah???
Of course I sensationalize. We can't be expected to don the very latest in cutting edge ski gear on such a populous level. France won't be reclaiming its triple A status by haphazardly dishing out top-of-the-line adventure gear to immigrants. Similarly, ski instruction adopts more of an on-the-job philosophy here in the Legion - something that I actually believe is not such a bad thing. Proper, regulated instruction takes time we simply don't have to spare, whereas being thrown in at the deep end encourages, well, courage, quick adjustment and quicker improvement. That, or face severe haranguing from grumpy, ski-competent superiors,. You'd be surprised with what startling speed one can learn to do almost anything in such an environment.
Now I hadn't skied in three years. Back then, it was the first time in my life, lasting a measly three weeks. Needless to say I wasn't exactly at ease up on the slopes. But then, we weren't on the slopes too often. Nope, our outings were of the off-piste variety, consisting of reaching the top with synthetic seal skins on our skis, and reaching the bottom by, well, any means possible. I've never fallen so hard and so often in my life. But that wasn't what was concerning me. Back in 2009 when I first completed this course, we had to spend a night in a self-dug "igloo" - an underground snow cave dug in 3 metres of ice. During the digging, the entire thing caved in, leaving me trapped under a rather heavy slab of snow for several minutes while the muffled cries of my mates above indicated that the rescue mission was underway. Nothing life-threatening, but not too comfortable either, I've since held a rather nervy reluctance to repeat the experience. Inevitably this course involved the same little exercise, although this time -being a corporal - I sent the young lads in to dig while I shoveled the snow way from the entrance. Delegation, one of our key responsibilities. Indeed.
That evening though, context came back in an ironic, snow white veil. While standing the early guard shift (6pm-7pm) I suddenly found myself in the most serene of settings. It's hard to notice in the heat of a march (or igloo dig!), but once night and temperatures fall in unison, the silence high up in the mountains is of the most profound and ear-ringing nature. There I stood, well protected against the freezing cold, all alone under the most infinite of star-filled skies, and I thought to myself; "If the tourists could, they'd probably pay throughout the nose for this.". And there I stood, basking in the moonlit silence until a random fox trotted by, his white-tipped feet disappearing into the powdered ground as he passed. The idyl was only broken by the first fart, followed by some rather aggressive syncopated snoring patterns. Typical!
For a brief moment I feared that the reverberations might bring down the igloo, but to my good fortune it held, as did my spirits through the chilly night's sleep. It really is all about context.