It's been two and a half years since I set foot in Castelnaudary. Home of the Legion's dreaded 4RE (4ème Regiment Étranger - instruction regiment), my memories of this horrible, spirit-sucking black hole never once risked stumbling into the "fond" folder. My very first fledgling steps in the French Foreign Legion were unsteadily taken within these walls, being screamed and spat at, pushed, shoved, deprived of food, sleep, acceptable internet speeds. Nightmarish at the best of times. Four months of instruction, however, were followed by two and a half whopping years safe and untouched by its ice-cold slimy shadow. A cancelled corporal training course (cancelled by an ankle injury, giving rise to a lengthy lay-off and the creation of this blog!!) came tantalisingly close to removing all my fingernails in the slow drag back down to hell, but in the end a simple driving course was enough to finally repatriate me to my high-strung combat-clad rabbit-hole. It's been a long time, Castel. Not nearly long enough.
Rolling up to the gates on a Sunday evening in a taxi, I was quite surprised by the sheer horror coursing through my entire body. It really is THAT despicable. Make no mistake, there are NO redeeming qualities to this little corner of Legionland. Those stationed here permanently are more often than not the naysayers (well, the ones caught naysaying….ahem), the klutzes, the "bananes" of our tight-knit commando community. Hardly anyone actually requests a posting here. For this reason, the presiding atmosphere is one of distinct disdain, discontentment and devilry. A certain difference that struck me rather smartly smack-in-the-face was how the stress and discomfort during basic instruction stemmed mainly from the perpetually aggressive nature of our hosts. Shouting, screaming, threats of violence, toilet scrubbing, all had us running around like headless chickens scrambling for any physical item to relieve the suffering. Now that we're fully-formed Legionnaires, the torture presents itself in far more sinister, passive-aggressive ways.
The very first morning of our two-week driving course provided a prime example. Hailing from every regiment based in or around France (a dozen or so paratroopers had made the trip from Corsica in search of a variety of licences), we found ourselves assembled in our sports gear at about 7.30am Monday morning. Very calmly, inaudible to us standing in formation, a rather grotesque Corporal Chef whispered something to the corporal in charge of our detachment.
"Right lads, we have to be back here in 15 minutes in full dress uniform" he rather casually informed us.
No screaming. No spit-shower two inches from our faces. Just a cold-blooded monotone order. And we were off. A lot of the guys from other regiments had worn there dress uniform in to camp the night before. I and the other guys from my regiment came in civilian clothes with our uniform in a suit bag. Several train changes and luggage-stacking along the way had unquestionably rendered our clothes a rather sorry lump of creased and line-ridden linen. And all of a sudden we were expected to put it on and present ourselves in front of this slobbering, black-livered instructor??. Oh joy! Of course, after painstaking deliberations by almost all the lads over whether or not we should attempt a super-rapid ironing job or just throw it on as it was, we eventually opted for the latter and sheepishly trickled back in to formation down on the parade square. Naturally the Corporal Chef didn't give two shits about the condition of our gear. He just wanted to forewarn us that Castel would be experiencing not only 14th July in that coming week but also a change of Colonel the following one, and that we had better have brought all our little decorations, frills and such. If not, the course would unfold rather unfavorably for those lacking in the relevant buttons, badges, pins, etc. What a profoundly disagreeabble welcoming exercise that proved. Indeed at the beginning of a driving course here in Castel, all students are informed that they in-fact already possess the licence. The method of delivery, however, has yet to be decided.
"Soit dans la poche, soit dans le cul" roughly translates as "Either in the pocket or in the ass". Right so, no pressure then……
Now I've never driven before. Ever. Slogging it out on frozen crossroads waiting for the erratic (when existent) Bus Eireann coaches to come hurtling by full-to-capacity eventually got replaced by city-centre living and a relxing six kilometre run in and out of work every day. I just never had any real NEED (or financial allowance) for a car and the ensuing costs. I have, however, been pleasantly surprised by my progress. From the first few days of zipping around the purpose-built track in Castel, never once venturing out of second gear, to having just completed a rather successful journey to Toulouse and back, tackling roundabouts, town centres, randomly placed roadkill (it was there when arrived!!!!). All in all, rather positive signs from the Irish camp. Theory test preparation in the classroom has been made infinitely more tolerable by the chance Anglophone Mafia formed on the very first morning of the course. Also returning to Castel for the first time since we negotiated basic training side by side, my good mate Kev from Barnsley came from his regiment with Gully, a French/Australian music-lover giving us both tonnes to yap about in between deciding the difference between "stop" and "yield". Throw in the three plane-jumping Repmen - Derek the brick shit-house of an Hungarian/American, Yatzi the ex-US Navy Seal and Kuntz, an English speaking German, and we've become rather thick as thieves here in Castel. No more so than the evenings, where the bar has found itself rather short on stock whenever we stumble out in the evenings. Well, OK, maybe one time on Wednesday night (what with Thursday being Bastille Day and a national holiday where everything - Legion included - shut down), but still, it was rather legendary drinking, singing, laughing and inevitably puking (good man Kev!).
Not everyone is taking to this whole driving lark as readily as yours truly, though. A rather comically tragic (or tragically comic?) Japanese comrade finds himself back here at Castel for the third time, tackling his car licence. More than a little lost be it behind the classroom desk or the steering wheel, no-one can honestly envisage the poor guy passing his test this time either. God knows how his superiors will handle the almost inevitable FAIL coming there way at the end of next week. As long as he doesn't crash in to one of us out on the test track though, none of us really care. Maybe driving isn't for everyone. With a week to go and promising signs up until now, I'm hoping this little love-affair turns into a long and fruitful relationship. Long-overdue? Undoubtedly!! Hard-earned? With all the nonsense accompanying our theoretically "straight-forward" course, I'd venture "You bet your sweet ass"!!!
One more week to go, stay tuned to see how it all pans out.