Sunday, February 24

When Worlds Collide


My ears are still ringing, so strange was the sound the first time I heard it. I had reached for my K├ępi, the meeting with my commanding officer – the company captain – drawing to a close. As I raised my arrow-straight hand to my right temple stating firmly; “Je peux disposer, a vos ordres Mon. Capitaine”, with a friendly grin he called after me; “Vas-y, casse-toi O’Shea!”.

O’Shea. My name. My real name. It was the first time I’d been called it in over four years. For four years I had masqueraded under a false identity. Or rather, a false real identity. The change of persona could be traced all the way back to my very first day in the Legion. Stepping hesitantly through the wrought iron gates of Fort de Nogent in Paris, climbing the creaking wooden stairs to a fourth floor corridor where we lined up like sweating, quivering dominos awaiting the fateful clobber to send us slamming sequentially into the cold, hard tiled floor. The clobber never came. Instead we were called one by one into an office where a thin Chinese corporal sat motionless behind a jaded plastic desk. Standing before him, understanding the blunt gestures more than the sporadic French words being hurled across the cluttered surface, we each stripped down to our underwear, slowly turned a full 360° to satisfy the standard concerns regarding illicit substances or dangerous items. My own eyelid flutter frisking over with, I dressed myself before sitting down to answer some routine questions across the desk.

And then I saw the post-it. A small square slip of sticky yellow paper was unceremoniously (a word one could use to describe almost every part of the interaction) shoved towards me. Nothing cluttered about the post-it, mind you. It was in fact refreshingly simplistic. New name, new date of birth. Voila! Memorise it, toss it, Bob’s your uncle. I had gone from Dermot O’Shea, born on 10th May 1986 to Mark Ogilvie, born on 9th June 1986. City of birth changed from Dublin to Cork. Parents’ names, mother’s maiden name, everything switched up for what seemed like the fuck of it. As if I didn’t already have enough to process on my first day inside the Legion’s walls.

Now I’ll be honest here; I’m still not 100% sure on the reasons for the Legion changing recruits’ names upon enlistment. The possibility of a man seeking refuge and anonymity with the Legion’s ranks under a false identity has long been “known” and was more or less true (give or take a few technicalities regarding qualifying criteria). But this blanket policy? Sorry but I’ve never truly discovered one all-encompassing indisputable answer. My best educated guess was a certain facility to shut down bank accounts, write-off unpaid taxes/loans and basically erase the record of a deserter in the event that their fleeing left a trail of administrative headaches in its wake. In the last 30 years the Legion has gone from having enlistment under a false identity as an option to having it compulsory and then back to optional again but so much so that only exceptional cases need even think of requesting the change-up.
Today men sign up under their real names, real date of birth, everything. Yet the photo ID presented at recruitment (passport, national ID card) only serves to get them in under their real details in a preliminary sense. Their “situation” is not yet deemed “regular” by the French Ministry of Defense until they can provide an approved French translation of their birth certificate. Obtaining one of these can prove significantly harder for some than for others. I held off on presenting my own as, to be honest, I never really envisaged myself staying in France beyond my Legion contract. Hence no desire to dive into the paper-clip minefield of entrusting the Legion with correctly handling my bureaucratic needs. Direct experience (certainly in my particular combat company) has left some singed fingers to say the least.

Yet as is always the case, circumstances change and I now find myself – after more than 4 years serving under and replying without hesitation to a fake name – back in my own skin. A relief, certainly, but in keeping with the Legion’s “two sides to every coin” policy, it has also proved in indefatigable headache. My military ID has been changed back to my real name, but I’m still awaiting the updating of my bank account details. This renders any attempt at over-the-counter bank transactions in the meantime futile. My ID doesn’t match the account holder’s name. Until my bank account is updated, my mobile phone contract remains under the old name too. So I have Orange France ringing up asking to speak to a Mr. Ogilvie for the next while at least. The eager wait stretches further to include the updating of everything from PayPal to iTunes accounts, all previously set up under the old name – that which appears on the credit card – as, until the new credit card in my real name arrives, I can’t very well change the accounts. My taxes can’t be paid either until the bank account’s sorted. I’ve been assured the wait won’t surpass an inordinate period of delay. We shall see.

For now, at least, the outwardly visible bipolarity has been carved down to size, with my age-old party trick of producing my military ID and passport showing the same photo under different identities being resigned to the archive of mildly-amusing ice-breakers.

Now to figure out to handle the inward bipolarity. All suggestions welcome. That, and patiently correct all colleagues who mis-pronounce my name. I mean, it’s not that hard, is it? Sheesh!