Food and Drink, Ramblings

The Virtues and Dangers of Dining Alone

So, anyone who has met me will notice that I have a bit of a strange habit. I almost never invite people out to do stuff. The closest I come to it is letting people know I am doing something, and then saying they are welcome to participate. Hell, on the odd occasions that I am in a relationship, I basically do the same thing with the lady.

It’s because I’m horrible (hat tip to my brother for this endlessly useful phrase).

I kid. It isn’t because I am horrible. I am horrible, but that’s not the root cause of this behaviour. It’s because I like going out. I discovered fairly early in my independent life that  I really like going out. Coffee, shisha, bars, restaurants. Whatever. I like the stimulation of being out in public. I get to see and hear and smell and taste stuff. Endless variation and novelty. But you know what kills that joy? Compromise. Some day I will write a post about how I am basically an anti-compromise extremist (this administration will not negotiate with terrorists!), but my point is that I want to go out. What I do not want is to spool up a NATO Joint Operational Planning Group to develop 28-member state consensus to determine when and where I will get to enjoy human civilization and under what circumstances I must tolerate people I don’t like.

So I go out. The plan is mine. The destination is mine. The timing, the location, the goals. All mine. I want sushi? Sushi. Don’t care that the California maki contains dolphins. Those rapey bastards are probably delicious anyway. I don’t have to sit at a table for six and apologize for the third time to the waiter trying to keep the manager happy, because someone’s significant other is a Pashtun Tribal, and really only sees time as a measure of daylight. And because I am Canadian, I have to live with the cultural norm that I cannot (or at the very least should not) notify someone that doing their makeup cannot possibly justify being 3 hours late to a picnic in the park, unless that park is the Rose Garden at the White House, in which case their basic ass would embarrass me with their silly stick on nails in any case.

Regardless, I go out alone a lot. Which gets me stared at a fair bit, yes. It also means that my “day game”, as the wags put it, is non-existent. Seriously, nothing comes off as more desperate than being alone on a Friday afternoon and trying to charm a group of ladies. So I get to read a lot. I watch people. I get to practice silence. It’s pretty nice sometimes, too. Serving staff tend to be attentive. Once I get over the irritation of the skeptical toned questions, I also make new friends.

But there are downsides too. For example, I frequently forget how to behave in a group. People join me, and I sort of blank on how to keep the conversation going. Or I forget that it is a bit rude to abruptly pay your bill and wander away. Solitude can be habit-forming, and those habits tend to reinforce solitude. I have to exert conscious effort to make sure that I am wearing reasonably presentable clothes. Aside, I have apparently been failing at that lately. A friend told me I have two outfits- jeans and a specific blue hoodie, or khakis and a checked shirt. I forget for months at a time to get haircuts. I don’t notice that a cut from my evening shave is bleeding and I now look like an extra from the dance fight in West Side Story. Or I don’t shave at all, and people try to give me money for bus fare.

In the end, I am not suddenly going to become a man fixated on social circle. My job gives me an odd schedule, and my personality makes me abrasive. I suspect healthy balance is something to be aspired to, but I don’t do healthy or balanced.

Table for one, please.


I can’t seem to get the roller coaster to slow down, frankly. A lot has been going on, and I haven’t been terribly proud of myself of late. I am doing the job, but could be doing it better. I am living the life, but I could be doing it better. I have put on weight. Friends have died, and lovers come and gone.

I think I am starting to be ready to go home.

Don’t get me wrong. I still like Europe, and the weather is getting better. This time of year is particularly stressful at work as the fiscal year comes to a close. And by the way, NATO is super active right now which means more stress for me. But I am tired again. I do what I can, and I have started cooking again in the hopes that a better diet will lead to better mood. This week, I have slowly been cleaning my admittedly slovenly abode. But I am short on passion right now. I wake up, and go about my early day in a kind of haze. I need to find something that I look forward to each day, that energizes me. No idea what that will be, but I think I might try writing poetry again even though I don’t feel like the old inspiration has returned. I got saddlebags for my bike so it is more convenient to ride it to work.

I think part of it also involves the questions I get seemingly more often these days. Don’t I want to be happy? Don’t I want a partner? Well-meaning questions, but they always hit the brick wall of the kind of person I have become over the years. I don’t really feel connected to people all that strongly. I have excellent friends here, but few in number. I don’t socialize like I did at home, for myriad reasons. Part of it is being in a small town- I remember feeling like this sometimes in Fredericton too.

But I think a big part of it is finding out who I am now that I have to accept an old motivation isn’t valid anymore. Until I was about 28, I knew that my fundamental purpose was centred around combat. I trained for it. Then I did it. Then I taught other people to do it. The truth now is that combat isn’t part of my life anymore. Barring some kind of major conflagration, I am out of that world. Now I deal with regulations, and diplomatic codes. Sure, I still lay hands on rifles occasionally, and teach basic skills, but it’s all very academic. This warhorse is in the training yard now, the days of the charge but a memory.

Nostalgia is dangerous, of course. I carry a lot of scars from my time in the field. I didn’t keep a journal in Afghanistan because I knew I wouldn’t want crystal-clear memories of what it was like. Even the comforting certainty led to a lot of anger (“dammit, why doesn’t [insert person here] get it?!”). But identity is inextricably linked to the stories we tell ourselves. I don’t know that my story is compelling anymore.

So I need to write a new chapter. We will see if I have it in me to pick up the pen.


The Strange Paths that Words Take You

I was writing a letter to my German teacher today, apologizing for my absence. I used the word “Entschuldigung”. Roughly translated, it means “pardon me” or “excuse me” or more simply, “sorry”.

And today is certainly a day when I am sorry.

But there’s a more precise, if awkward, translation- at least according to my father; “please remove the responsibility for error from me”. A pardon in the criminal sense. Having been raised Catholic, I could not help then thinking of Jesus’ words in Gethsemane: “let this cup pass away from me”.

Yes, there it is. That’s how I feel.

One of my soldiers killed himself today. Just over five years after I brought every one of my troops home safe from Afghanistan, one of them is dead. And I think about that, and realize that I have never (that I can recall) used the expression “safe and sound” to describe how we came home. Maybe, unconsciously, I realized that some (probably all) of us are now unsound. Cracked iron, just needing the right pressure to shiver to pieces. Pottery, almost ready to fall to shards.

My mind drifts back to the Old Testament. Evidence of a misspent youth, I suppose. Job, beset by Satan and left to suffer by God as a test, is scraping his sores with a potsherd- literally a shard of a broken pot. He laments, then, “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls”. But that’s a bad translation, really. It’s supposed to be jackals and ostriches. Apparently both of these creatures make loud and irritating noises- and so Job compares his pitiful state to that of inconvenient vermin.

But I like the mistranslation, as it works better for my state. I am a French-speaking cavalry officer. We frequently refer to our brothers from another regiment as “dragons”, which is French for dragoon. I am also a Canadian of relatively immediate Italian heritage, and the Romans associated owls with both wisdom and war. The Canadian Army Command and Staff College uses the owl in their heraldry.

So my etymological ramblings eventually bring me to some hope. If I am, in fact, a brother to dragons and a companion to owls, then I have both the support and the wisdom available to me to get past this. Pressure applied incorrectly to cracked iron will shatter it. But if is both heat and force, like the blows of a smith in the forge, the iron can be useful again.

Goodbye, Master Corporal. Your watch is ended. We will see you again on the high ground.


Interlude: New Friends and the Unified Theory of Bureaucratic Motivation

I will finish the Oktoberfest story, I promise. But first, a brief intermission. I have made some new friends at work. One is a lawyer and the other a doctor. You would think the lawyer would be the one with the fancy theories on motivation, but you would be wrong! My new doctor friend, who we shall call John (because that is his name), determined through experience that the motivation of Regular Force (read full-time) officers could for the most part be predicted with… The Five Ps.

They are as follows: Patron, Position, Posting, Pay, and Pension. Keep in mind that both John and I are culturally somewhat Francophone, so we mean Patron the same way that someone would say Godfather. Basically, the career officer is trying to satisfy the demands of as many of the Ps as he can, usually in the order I have presented them. But for those of you not in the Service, this almost certainly applies to anyone in a large organization, with modifications I will explain. I will also explain in reverse order, for reasons that will become clear.

Pension: for those of us fortunate enough to have a sweet pension plan, this is literal. Otherwise, think of it as “deferred financial gain”. Basically, satisfying this P is usually a negative action; don’t do something that will hurt your chances of a promised pot o’gold at the end of the Rainbow of Suffering you are currently walking. Don’t break your contract. Don’t quit early. Keep your head down. Put your nose to the grindstone. Don’t rock the boat. Basically, you’re making sure that you are not doing anything that endangers your ability to put in enough time to get the reward. Legal Bloggers (endearingly, Blawgers), especially defence lawyers, frequently refer to the “First Rule of Policing: if only one person gets to go home to dinner, make sure it is [the cop]”. It’s a harsh way of describing the habit some policemen have of being more willing to end a life than risk their own. I make no comment on its accuracy, just that if it is true it is a good sign of protecting your pension. You need to be alive to collect. Soldiers are actually legally entitled to do so in war: it is unlawful to deny a soldier the right to self-defence.

Pay: This one is obvious. For soldiers, it might mean volunteering for things that may get you promoted (thus more pay). It can also be more subtle; there are many officer types who have been “OUTCAN-hopping”. That is to say, they arrange things such that they stay outside of Canada because it gets them more cookies. Who doesn’t like cookies? This can be benign, but it can also be slightly corrupt. There are frequent occasions where people go to conferences where the issue could have been solved by email, because the conference allows you to claim meals and travel. You can think of pay as “immediate material gain”. In some professions (ahem, lawyers), this is codified: you pay for the full hour even if you only use 15 minutes of it. This is where Public Servants get in trouble. Just because the rules “entitle” you to a 15 dollar glass of orange juice at breakfast doesn’t mean you won’t get in trouble.

Posting: This one is geographic in nature. Some places are nicer than others. A military man might arrange his professional skills in such a way that he always gets to go nice places. I’m somewhat guilty of this: I speak French, and volunteered to join a French Canadian regiment. I determined that suffering the culture shock of working in my second language was paid off in full by the fact that Franco soldiers generally get to live in nice places like Quebec City, Ottawa, and Montreal. As opposed to the backwoods hellholes that Anglo soldiers must endure. Sure, the government needs French speaking officers. But it didn’t have to be me. I had a choice. There’s a darker side to this, of course. Sometimes professionals refuse to acquire needed competencies so as to avoid going places. Or they have non-employment issues that could be resolved, but they choose not to so as to pre-empt posting to somewhere they don’t want to go. These are usually family related: “Sir, I would love to go to the Arctic, but my wife can’t find work up there and she would leave me…” Not to say people should always accept divorce in the name of the job, just that sometimes they…stretch the truth a bit. It’s why single professionals often end up in tough places. You can send a single doctor to an isolated clinic much more easily than a married one.

Position: or promotion, in a hierarchical job. Ah, good old fashioned careerism. This is the one that leads to healthy competition becoming cutthroat. This is also the one that causes mediocre individuals to volunteer for high-profile extracurriculars. Sure, the guy can’t find his ass with both hands and a GPS. But he did a great job on this year’s charitable campaign. Or maybe you take up a new sport, because it gets you in the locker room with all the “grosses poches” (big kahunas). It isn’t necessarily evil, it just means that the organization must be careful to analyze whether the promotion-seeking behaviour is A) desirable and B) productive. In my experience, this doesn’t happen as often as you might hope.

Patron: The Godfather. The Boss. The Powers that Be. Oh yes, this one is fraught with danger. An employee has the responsibility to do what the boss says, of course. And in an ideal world, pleasing the Patron would translate to “doing the job exceptionally well”. Sadly, it can also mean brown-nosing. Setting the conditions to become the beneficiary of nepotism, basically. Socializing excessively with the boss. Claiming to share interests. Unquestioningly supporting your superior’s position. Every boss claims to hate “yes-men”, but few bosses enjoy being challenged by subordinates. This one gets me in a lot of trouble, because of varying interpretations of “loyalty”. The easy route is that loyalty means “supporting the boss”. My (admittedly self-important) interpretation is that it means “always giving them the most honest answer I can”. I feel that if my boss’ plan fails, it is at least in part because I failed to warn them that it could. This is a bit naive at times, as A) I am not always right and B) sometimes the boss just wants me to shut the hell up and do it, for the love of all that is good and holy. As you can probably guess, I get smacked around a lot. And I frequently deserve it. Oh well, I can only be perfect most of the time…

So there you have it. John’s Five Ps. As you can see, it can be both good and bad. In the best of cases, you get a diligent team player, who also engages in beneficial extracurriculars. They give your organization a good name. Organizations that have this kind of person are fortunate indeed. In the grimmer cases, you get smarmy time-servers, who leech resources. Most of the time, you get decent employees who have priorities that don’t entirely match those of “the company”. But understanding this theory of motivation can help you make more sense of how things work in big bureaucratic machines.

Consider yourself enlightened.

Ramblings, Travel

Oktoberfest in Munich, Part I: The Journey South

Alright, I have delayed long enough. No photos, sadly, but here goes: my time at Oktoberfest.

Day 1: A normal work day for me. It’s Friday. Naturally, like every other week at work, nothing happens all day until at about 2 PM. At which point, everyone has a problem that only I, the Great Santini, can solve. Sure, the should have told me about it weeks ago, but these are people who are super busy. So I have to fix it. Finally, in desperation, I turn off my computer and flee. It’s 3 PM. Of which century, I cannot say. My thoughts are bent on Munich.

It’s a blustery day, and Anja the Audi is purring. I’m a little worried- my front right tire suffered some damage in a run-in with a kerb (to avoid being hit by a senile dutch gentleman), but the Autobahn is calling. I grit my teeth, and start east, towards Cologne, hoping my tire doesn’t explode leading to my spectacular doom.

I am fortunate; I hit the leading edge of rush hour southwards, and manage to stay ahead of the pack. Alas, the meridian autobahns are all being maintained whereas the longitudinals are all done. Fancy wording for southbound=construction. Driving the autobahn is an exercise in alertness and planning. Speed up too much, and you scorch your breaks coming up on a slow zone. It gets me almost in the old crew commander zone. My mind is half focused on driving, and the other half wanders.

Germany looks nothing like Canada. Where Canada prizes density of human settlement, the Germans have accepted a history of haphazard sprawl. It’s why the highways must be efficient. Germany is not a country that grew together- it’s a collective of kingdoms and electorates that all spoke something like the same language. It produces an interesting visual dynamic. The countryside maintains a kind of grim foreboding, especially under the steel skies that promise rain. I can imagine a Roman centurion, marching with his legion through the broken hills that comprise most of the country, and feeling distinctly out of place. In a previous era, this must have looked like the Rockies, and the Alps must have been truly gigantic. Even now, the land is carved with deep valleys and ruptured by escarpments. It’s a place where I can easily picture Germanic chieftains ruling over wooden halls, grimly huddled against the dark of the wald. The original Grimm fairy tales make a lot more sense.

I cross another ridge line, and suddenly I am…home? Relaxed, certainly. The air smells of warm, damp earth. My allergies ease a bit. Ah! I have crossed into Baden-Wurttemburg! I grew up on the French border in a little town called Lahr. This is the famous Schwarzwald– the Black Forest. The trees are draped with moss and vine. It feels ancient, and though still grim it seems to welcome me. It is amazing what memories a smell will summon. While I cannot claim that I was truly happy here (I had a lot of issues as a child, which my parents miraculously tolerated and even eased), it does have a hold on me still. I am almost in a reverie as the sun sets behind me, and I turn east for Stuttgart.

Baden-Wurttemburg is bordered on the eastern side by the mountain ranges that are foothills to the Alps. They are forbidding, and in the failing light they are menacing. Near the town of Pforzheim, I begin the upward trek into Bavaria. Stuttgart is the provincial capitol of Baden-Wurttemburg, and it lies on a plateau. I edge south around it, and head for the “border” town of Ulm. Bavaria begins here, and it shows. The houses are taller and narrower, in the alpine style, and wood and stucco architecture is everywhere. Alas, I cannot appreciate it, for the rains have come.

It’s dark. The rain is heavy, and drivers are getting nervous. Germans react to rain on highways in two ways: they either slow down to truly frustrating speeds, or ignore it and fishtail all over the place. It takes me three hours to make it from Ulm to Munich, a distance of some 150km at most. It is three hours of abject horror.

Aside: Bavarians make amazing cars. BMW literally translates to Bavarian Motor Works. That’s why their symbol is the blue and white checkerboard. I now know why. Bavarians need to make amazing cars to make up for their utter inability to drive like sane people.

It is nearly midnight, the rain is pouring down, and I am driving a highway that is a 70km-long overpass over a dozen valleys and mountains. The rain has cut visibility to about 50m,  and yet one in three cars have their highbeams on. I am in a Steven King novel. Brilliant white ghosts are speeding through the storm, blinding me. I don’t dare aim my mirrors away from my face, and so I am getting a massive headache. My knuckles are white on the wheel. SUVs are doing 220 and hydroplaning. Old people are doing 60 in sedans worth more than my yearly salary. I realize that I am an idiot: I am trying to reach Munich the night before Oktoberfest opens. I should have taken a flight from Dusseldorf. I am going to die, and my corpse will plummet to the valleys below. Weave lanes (on ramps that are also off ramps) are everywhere. They are coming out of the f*&cking walls man! It’s game over! GAME OVER!

Somehow, I survive. And I take the highway southbound from Munich to Garmisch, as my hotel is in a suburb. I make it. My good friend Peter is waiting. We have beers, we try on the Lederhosen I brought. Amazingly, my guesses of Peter’s size are pretty close to perfect. Finally, the edge that the drive put on me goes dull, and we call it a night. Oktoberfest awaits.

More to come in Part II.

Ramblings, Uncategorized

On the Value of Confessions

I had a date on Saturday night. I haven’t been on a real date in…I have no idea how long. I suppose I could claim Budapest, but that woman used me more than I used her. Not that I’m not grateful for the time we had; just that it was manoeuvres, not really a date.

So I was on a date. And I’m fairly certain she wants another. I’m not sure. For those of you who don’t know me well, this will seem normal. It isn’t. I am a cavalry officer. I was raised on stories of swift movement and incredible parties. Been to a few, myself. A General said at my Regimental selection ceremony that humility is a trait that is of little use to the cavalry. I firmly believe this, so consider this account in the following light.

Before I continue, I suppose I should explain the title. I was once a fervent Catholic. The Church was good to me, and the priests I knew were genuinely good men. I am not a good man in the way that they are, and I eventually slipped quietly away from the Holy Mother. If I ever return to prayer, it will be in a Cathedral. The Catholic Church gets humanity. One of the best things it does is the sacrament of Confession. A good priest will listen, and ask questions. Force you to confront what you’re ashamed of, because the need to confess is tied to shame. Every culture has a way for men to expiate shame. Anglo-Saxon culture had the Forlorn Hopes- a disgraced man could volunteer to be first into a fortress breach. Even when he died, it was a public confession: “I have done wrong, and I will earn redemption in the worst of the fighting”. The Samurai had Seppuku: “I have done wrong, and in the manner of my death I will earn redemption”. Humans can’t live long with shame, I think. A good Catholic priest also understands that easy forgiveness is false forgiveness. A few recitations of the Hail Mary will suffice for the small sins, but a good priest will know how to suggest acts of atonement. That way is closed to me.

My own sins are strange. I chose them, and I am not ashamed that I did them. However, in the commission of them, I became a different man. I was once cheerful to a fault. Irrepressible, really. I was prone to bouts of the Black Dog, I suppose, but few and far between. This cheerfulness, coupled with my physical fitness and complete lack of shame, earned me the admiration of women well above “my station”, as the Brits would put it. I think it was a case of, as one of my favourite novels put it, me being “too stupid to know what I was trying was impossible”. I didn’t calculate; a good horse and my sword arm would see me through. And it did.

Until it didn’t. I have a permanent injury. It doesn’t slow me down much, but it crushed my metabolism. I started putting on weight, and I haven’t lost it. It’s a convenient excuse for the fact that I never learned healthy habits, and I don’t have the character to start now. I dress to conceal the softened edges to a once hard physique. But even that is not what did it. I went to war. The training regimen was brutal. I survived on coffee and arrogance. Dreams of glory kept me going, and then we went.

There was no glory in the shadow of the Khyber, at least not for us. We were at the end of a politically unpalatable war. Our goals were ambiguous. We fought on behalf of a fractured people, and in the end success was more about not failing. I saw the enemy do disgraceful things. I saw allies do disgraceful things. I did disgraceful things. Nothing illegal, of course. I was investigated and cleared for a few of the more muddled affairs. But I didn’t press when I could have, and I let slide things I didn’t have to.

Because I had learned to calculate. I had to decide, day after day, between evils. The lesser could not always be found. Sometimes, it was giving the order to obliterate some poor peasant who had shot at us for a fistful of Taliban cash. Other times, it was to disobey my superiors. Sometimes I covered for actions of my soldiers that were against someone’s wishes, because I agreed with the soldier. And I paid for it. Sometimes I think I will never stop paying for it. I don’t regret that I did it. I regret that at the time I found it to be necessary.

I take some comfort in reading the memoirs of other soldiers who have similar stories. It seems that the shedding of illusions is a rite of passage. I sometimes wish, to my shame, that my war had been harder so that I could hide behind the brutality. But really, what I regret is that I got damned good at calculating.

For a while, when I came home, I swung to the other extreme. I refused to calculate. Damn the consequences! But there, in the back of my mind, was my own voice telling me how to better play the situation to my advantage. It made me angry, resentful. I was punished regularly, and deservedly. And my resistance to that voice slowly dissipated.

Now it seems that I can’t help it. That voice is my voice. I can’t tell where it begins and I end. Which leads us back to the date. She’s a nice enough girl, though I don’t think I am genuinely attracted to her. She’s an aspiring academic/Eurocrat. Our political philosophies are practically diametrically opposed, and yet I am sure she wants to see me again. Because I calculated my disagreements. Told a few war stories that evoked emotion. Was quick, charming, witty. It was tough, too. English is her third language, so I had to be able to rephrase on the fly to avoid giving offence. Some strange part of me is proud of my ability to keep things friendly.

But I feel guilty. I went on the date despite reservations. Why? Because a man has to get back on the horse, that’s why. The last real relationship I had cut me deep. I’m still trying to assess the damage. So I tell myself I have to go out, live a little. Rack up a few new stories to tell at parties back in Canada. Go on dates to remember how to go on dates. But I find myself comparing them to the beauties of my past, and regret chokes me. It’s hardly fair to the woman in the room that I am trying to use her to shake a few of my demons, but that damned voice tells me it’s the evil I can live with. Otherwise, I would lounge in the comfort of my couch with video games, and barely have human contact. An easy enough excuse, but something tells me I used to be better than this.

So that’s my confession, for anyone to read.


So That’s It, Then…

Haven’t posted lately, honestly because I haven’t had much to say. The American election is a disaster, and Europe continues to slowly burn. I used the phrase “the new normal” to a few buddies concerned about our Oktoberfest plans for Münich this year, but that’s what it is. Every few weeks, another jihadi will commit another atrocity, and we will trundle along. Sadly, this is not British-Stiff-Upper-Lip-Irish-Troubles-“Acceptable Level of Violence” policy. This is We-Can’t-Agree-Because-Our-Tribal-Politics-Supersede-Everything policy. But then, I’m not in policy. So every few weeks, my phone will ring, and I will check to see if anyone I know is dead.

Why the morbid thoughts? I should mention, I suppose, that I just turned 30. I had an excellent party with a friend (everything was legal in the jurisdiction where we did it, and none of it violated the terms of my employment), followed by the total collapse of my immune system. Turns out it might be possible to contract Mono twice. Fun times.

So what does 30 feel like? Well, it feels like 5 years to the day since I came home from Afghanistan. No nightmares this year, which is good. But honestly? 30 just feels like finally admitting that I don’t wear size 28 jeans anymore. An acceptance of reality, rather than some kind of milestone. The year I turned 25 was also the year I was promoted Captain. A Lt-Colonel told me “the difference is that Captains aren’t allowed to screw up anymore”. A surprising increase of responsibilities, too. An expectation that you know what you’re doing. I adjusted badly, but adjust I did. No one has ever looked at me and said “yeah, I figure you to be in your mid twenties”, particularly not when I actually was in my mid twenties. So, like a lot of things I don’t have in common with most of my peer group, I don’t know how I am supposed to feel about being 30. A lot of friends talked about “expectations and responsibility”, and I had to suppress laughter. I actually have less responsibility now than when I was 25. I’m also single, no children. So 30 doesn’t really feel like much.

Except maybe the quiet relief that when people ask how old I am, they might, might, stop saying “really? you look way older”.