Late last year, I decided it would be a good idea to join the French Foreign Legion. I was stuck in Birmingham, Alabama, selling insurance for peanuts, living in a shitty apartment next to the projects, and still chasing college girls (I mostly settled for their dropout cousins.) I was making bad decisions and I knew it. One night, while at a dive bar I frequented, I overheard these two salty old war vets belligerently claiming if they had it to do again, they would've joined the Legion—they would "do it right fucking now." And like the many hopeful applicants who see the Legion as a clean slate, I decided to try my luck. In hindsight, I don't know what put me over the edge. All I knew was France seemed about as far away from Alabama as I was likely to get.
The French Foreign Legion is one of the only Western military forces comprised mostly of foreign nationals. It was established nearly 200 years ago for the same reason Australia exists—to give society's dregs a fresh purpose in life, ideally one that took them as far away from home as possible. The Legion will gladly send you to war to fight for a country you're barely acquainted with. In exchange, you get shipped off to God knows where and have a chance to reinvent yourself.
Throughout history, the Legion has served as a second chance for people who have run out of bridges to burn. For those few willing and able to tough it out, a brand new beginning and identity await, complete with a freshly minted French passport. The only catch is that you have to sign a five-year contract and come to terms with the fact that they will eventually milk you for all you're worth, or at least what they've spent on you.
Although I had a pretty good idea of what I would be getting myself into thanks to Jean-Claude Van Damme's Legionnaire, I was still largely clueless as to what being a Legionnaire entailed when I decided to leave my old life behind for the Legion. Unlike the US Army, you can't call ahead of time and discuss your plans or concerns with an fatherly recruiter. The best you can do is show up at the front gate of the Legion's headquarters with your passport and your fingers crossed. Don't get me wrong—I was as prepared as I could have been. I had quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and put most of my worldly possessions into storage back in the US. I was in shape and I was committed. A one-way plane ticket, a couple of layovers, and 22 hours of traveling later, I found myself on the ground in Aubagne, France.
After a few beers at a local tavern, I felt recharged and readied myself for a potentially long break from freedom and reality. Eventually I worked up the courage to show up at the gate. There I met some fellow would-be legionnaires: a skinny, chain-smoking Moroccan and two Spanish hopefuls who looked like they had walked out of the Eurotrash version of Fight Club. Soon enough a weathered Russian who could have been on his way to a Gulag in Siberia joined the waiting party. We had some language barriers between us, but we'd all get taught French as part of this uneasy bargain with the Legion.
Before finally letting us in, an armed legionnaire—the first one I'd actually ever seen in person—checked our passports. The gravity of my somewhat impulsive decision was finally beginning to set in. He quickly made sure that each of us could do at least four pull-ups on the awning outside so as not to waste anyone's time later on. Then we were in.
After we surrendered our belongings, we were shown where we would be living for the time being—a run-down building reminiscent of an Eastern Bloc housing project or an Art Deco prison.
The next couple of weeks consisted of a barrage of physical and medical tests and a whole lot of sitting around. We killed time sharing cigarettes and shooting the shit. Whenever your name is called up for your next test you obediently run over with an imagined urgency and stand at attention. If at any point you don't pass a test or a medical issue comes up, your belongings are returned and you're gone within minutes.
There's an old joke that goes something like this: "FOR SALE – French Rifle. Dropped twice, never fired." For those not in the know, the joke alludes to the French's tendency to surrender and/or become occupied by other nations. Like many good jokes, it plays off of a pretty uninformed stereotype—no one thought French soldiers were incompetent in the days of Napoleon. Anyway, word of advice: humorous though this joke may seem, do not mention it to wannabe French soldiers in Aubagne. Turns out some of these guys take themselves pretty seriously.
The cross-section of the guys I met in the Legion was eclectic to say the least. Short of sitting in on a UN session, I can't think of another scenario where you'd be in a room with more countries represented. And the personalities you encounter in the Legion are far more interesting than those you'd find in the UN. At one point, with the aid of shitty sign language and an even shittier "interpreter" an Egyptian asked me if I could piss in a condom for him. Apparently he was somehow caught off guard by the prospect of a drug test and had been smoking hash up until a few days before he enlisted. Seeing as I had never met the guy I politely feigned ignorance and declined. I never saw him again.
The next battery of tests were ones designed to determine if we were smart enough. First up was a series of SAT-esque reasoning assessments that took a few of the less cerebral applicants out of contention. Then came an interview that was basically a drawn-out "Why do you want to join?" Like any job interview, it was an exercise in telling them what you think they want to hear. After that, a psychiatrist tried to make us sweat by questioning our intentions and highlighting our flaws.
Finally, after countless hours spent lingering in uncomfortable conditions, the only thing standing between us and a spot with the Legion was what was referred to as the "Gestapo." Rumor had it that at this point, the Legion knew everything about you. The word Interpol is thrown around a lot—any financial, criminal, family, and employment background information is supposedly fair game. Call it a hunch, but I think that's bullshit. Make no mistake, I believe someone, somewhere has access to all of that information. But a sweaty, apathetic French administration in a run-down, quasi-bureaucratic shithole in suburban Marseille isn't that someone or somewhere. In any case, they called me in for an interrogation.
The idea is to intimidate you into telling them everything you've done wrong since birth. Like countless asshole cops before them, they employ the old "if you lie, I'll know, so tell me the truth and I'll let you off easy" tactic. My interrogator had my long-since-forgotten-about cellphone and laptop sitting in front of him, the contents of which had already been rummaged through. In a twist of dumb luck and good timing, I had nothing too juicy to hide on either.
I heard tales of once-private naked pictures being enthusiastically critiqued, browser search histories being scrutinized, and sexual orientation being relentlessly challenged by the Gestapo. In my case, I think that my not-great grasp of the French language served as a blessing in disguise, as my guy seemed only to want me to get the fuck out of his office.
Alas, it all came down to a subjective cut at the end. There were 36 of us who had passed every test, but only 18 would be taken to the real training at the remote and mysterious "Farm." I was confident but sure of nothing. I was hoping to move on but a drink and a real bed sounded pretty good too. Behind door number one was sleep deprivation and corporal punishment, while radiating through the cracks of door number two was the prospect of an immediate French vacation.
Short story long, I ended up getting unceremoniously cut. I was given an almost insulting amount of money (a pleasant surprise actually, as I expected nothing), my meager belongings were returned, and I was back in my street clothes in a matter of minutes. No explanation was offered. Only a "Thanks for trying, never come back."
Now I can make some educated deductions based on who made it and who didn't. Beyond the fact that we had already passed, our selection had nothing to do with our quantifiable performances throughout our various tests. If you were French or had previous infantry training from your respective country's military, you were in. The remainder of the guys who were given the nod to continue seemed especially poor and desperate—they came from places with few options, where the prospect of a $50,000 salary and eventual French citizenship would motivate them to gladly put up with almost anything.
All said and done, I'm content with the way things turned out. I learned a little bit of French and got to stick around Europe long enough to find my footing. Now I'm in Bucharest, where the beers are cheap and my English proficiency is in high demand. I even hit it off with a local girl who's never even heard of Alabama. Turns out you don't have to join the French Foreign Legion to get away after all.