Colin Booth got a call from an infirmed patient in a hospital. He desperately wanted to see a consular official. I was delegated.
All we had was the person's name and an urgent request - in secret.
The hospital was located not in the city but in the banlieue - the outskirts of Paris. I walked into the public ward where I had to guess who from the five or six occupied beds who was my contact.
It was pretty easy. It was Visiting Hours and his was the only space not occupied by friends or relatives.
I introduced myself. He was an Australian, in his sixties; overweight, balding with a face where all the blood vessel were close to the skin especially the nose. You could tell immediately that he was a heavy drinker.
He asked me to come closer so that he would not have to raise his voice.
He sheepishly related that he was a priest and had been the beneficiary of an inheritance which he used to go on a Sabbatical. The reason he was hospitalised was because of pneumonia - he got on the booze so much one night he passed out in the rain. It was the same night he confessed that he had went into a brothel.
"Boy!" I said to myself "Have I got a sweet tooth for this type of shit". This was reverse role play - a priest confessing to me!
"Go on Father".
He pointed to a fellow patient across the room.
"That fellow says he saw me come out of the brothel and states he is going to report me to the Bishop".
"The Bishop in Australia."
"How do you know all this?"
"He told me."
"What! he speaks English?"
"No but I can tell from his demeanor - look they are all laughing at me."
It was a case alcoholic depression mixed with guilt.
"Eh! what would you like me to do Father?"
"I want to get out of here. Can I sign myself out of hospital?"
(You crazy mixed up f--k! You got me all the way out here to ask me this simple question.)
"Yes no problem Father" I said continuing with my deep confessional tone
A lady from the province of Alsace Lorraine needed repatriation to Australia.
In her mid fifties, she was French born but had migrated and obtained Australian citizenship.
She was suffering from a mental illness - I do not remember what exactly but she was deemed fit to travel by air provided she was put on a plane that flew directly to Australia.
Qantas in Munich had a weekly flight to Australia. So arrangements we made for me to travel to Metz by train, grab a taxi to the village where the sanitarium was located, organise her release, go to the solicitor to organise the release of funds from her estate; return to Metz railway station and go by train to Munich and hand her and her papers, passport, medical details, money etc over to Qantas ground staff.
Simple! Good trip out of the office for a few days see the country side.
We got to Metz railway station a hour early. I did not want to be late. If I missed the daily connection to Munich, we would miss the weekly connection to Australia.
A cafe was in the arcade underneath the railway line so we waited there.
Perhaps concentrating too much on the doped up lady and the difficulty of managing her mobility, I left my briefcase in the cafe.
I only realised this when we were in the train when I was arranging the luggage in the overhead bay.
I had a dilemma - which needed an instant decision:
Leave the "nut case" on the train, race down the steps, through the arcade to the cafe, retrieve the briefcase and get back in time before the train departed.
Abort and await for next week
The risk for the former was that I had no time to search for the station guard or train conductor and if I missed getting back in time, the lady would be alone without anything to indicate who what where and why.
The risk for the latter was having to explain what had happened.
I chose the former. Luckily I was fit and the carriage was next to the stairs. I sprang from the train; bounded down the stairs with a single leap to the midpoint and repeated this to the subway level, grabbed the briefcase (luckily still there as I had left it) and back just as the train was pulling out of the station. Whew!
There was an air race England to Australia.
One aviator's plane was tracked on radar only to be lost in the French Alps in Winter.
The authorities advised it was pointless to search as the plane crashed into a snow capped mountainous region and it was impossible to get a visual as the snow would have covered the site and too dangerous because of avalanches.
So we had to await the Spring thaw to recover the bodies.
Months later, the crash site was located and the bodies temporarily interred subject to next of kin advice as to their wishes.
Next of Kin advice was for a local re-burial.
I was delegated to travel to this mountainous hick region. I had to travel by train to a certain town whereupon I would be picked up by the local authorities and escorted way way up the mountains by road.
Marcel Borget did the liaison.
They asked him how would they recognise me at the railway station.
Jokingly he replied that probably I would be the only one not wearing wooden cloggs ( a local custom).
Journeying to the site was most picturesque. Years later as the Tour de France bike race was televised I would be reminded of this fascinatingly pretty and adventurous part of France.
Exhuming the bodies was problematic for the French labourers.
Two bodies were buried in coffins on top of the other. The Australian was on the bottom. There must have been a local cold snap with the weather and now the ground was frozen solid. The labourers were increasingly frustrated and disrespectful of the workplace. They were jumping on the top coffin swearing and cursing. Eventually they got to the bottom coffin released it and man handled it into the freshly dug grave.
I walked over and observed that there was no cross on the top side of the coffin - hence the body was face down.
I asked for the coffin to be taken out and put in properly.
Much to their indignation they did so.
The Bewildered Bar Manager
After work one evening there was a crowd of us that had a few drinks at the local and then went for a meal in the Latin Quarter.
We were typical Australians - boisterous and boozy and taking the piss out of everybody and everything. Again we were in friendly banter with the bar staff.
The leader of the pack was The Cowboy.
There was also Garry ? a "fly in" from the Department of Supply.
He was involved in a government contract for aircraft manufacturer in the south of France and was visiting Paris on business. As the night wore on and individuals wore out we left the bar one by one throwing an amount of money on the bar - enough to cover the bill.
The last one to leave and hence to settle up was Gary.
He was short and did not even have the money for a cab fare back to his hotel.
An altercation with the bar manager followed. The Gendarmes were called and Gary was put in the cooler overnight.
The next morning the Police rang the Embassy.
The Cowboy took the called and rushed down to the clink.
The Bar Manager was there. He had come to make a complaint and get restitution.
A hung over cowboy walked in and was introduced to the manager.
The cowboy, later, told the story of the manager looking at the Cowboy as if he had seen him before - but could not quite place where. It was obvious that the manager had not associated the Cowboy with the fracas the prior evening.
So the Cowboy went on the offensive.
His French was pretty good. It ended up that he got on the good side of the Gendarmes and berated the manager for his pettiness, petulance etc.
The cops agreed and told the manager to "Fiche moi le camp!" <Piss off!>and released Gary without charge.
A puzzled and non recompensed bar manager left the station bewildered not quite certain as where he had seen that guy before.
Then there was the story of the Australian public servant who died of a heart attack watching the famous Can Can dancers at the Follies Berger ... But some other time. Suffice it to say there was never a dull moment.
Bonding with the population of Villers Bretonneau
This small town is located some 100kms to the north west of Paris.
In 1918 it was a mere village in the Somme river basin. Its significance is that the locals have been forever grateful for the Australian troops who recaptured it from the German troops on Anzac Day 25 April 1918.
Throughout the village you come across oddities the likes of Rue de Melbourne; Rue de Sydney.
In the town square the icon of a kangaroo appears on the official flag which is formally sanctioned.
The town is the focal point for the Australian Embassy to commemorate ANZAC Day as it was three years to the exact date 25 April 1915 that our troops landed at Gallipoli.
In 1969 and 1970, I was privileged to visit VB for the official commemorations - Dawn Service, Reception etc.
The locals put on a welcoming band and venue. On each occasion the shin dig was fabulous. Many inhabitants were either children or youths at the time. The more tipsy these septo and octogenarians got, the more they seemed to embellish and exaggerate the feats of the Australian shock troops.
For me, it was priceless to understand French and listen to these primary source accounts.
Indeed it was a stunning victory, battle hardened Australian troops were called down from Ypres to go in and take the town not in trench war fare but in house to house and hand to hand fighting to clear out the enemy.
My research reveals that My Uncle, John Stuart M.M., was part of this action - (See Belgium (Flanders Field)).
I am deeply moved when I think of such affection. Their children and their children continue these bonds:
N'oublions jamais l'Australie
["Let us never forget Australia "] - these words appear in the classrooms of the school in Villers-Bretonneux...
I was in love with Paris - the people, the city and the fun times.
The crooner Dean Martin had an LP record wherein he sang 12 songs:
It was my favorite LP. I played it again and again to remind myself as to where I was and what I was experiencing.
Edith Piaf also sang songs about Paris. Here are a few songs:
Sous le Ciel de Paris