• gmontcombroux

Josiane uses her charms

I couldn't find a credit for this WWII photo of an Italian soldier

which illustrates the scene to perfection

They say that one should never re-visit places of your childhood. The child views its environment differently from an adult. Objects, buildings and landscapes often appear vast to young eyes.

In the summer of 1943, my grandparents, with me in tow, traveled to Nîmes, in the south of France, to help their daughter with her new baby. My aunt’s villa sat amid a huge garden enclosed by a high wall and wide wrought iron gates. To my five-year-old eyes, this was as big as the castle in my fairytale books.

Twenty years later, I happened to drive through Nîmes and sought out the villa where my aunt and uncle used to live. At first I thought I had made a mistake. The black gates and the wall were still there, but they were so small compared to my memory of them. I admit I was upset at being deceived. My fantasy castle had vanished, replaced with something quite plain and ordinary.

On my wartime visit, no one had informed me that the town of Nîmes was under occupation by the Italian army. Accustomed to seeing the German occupiers of the rest of France, I was puzzled why these ‘Germans’ wore different uniforms. One morning, early, I was sent to buy the bread, I stopped in front of a terrasse of a café where half a dozen soldiers were lounging. With all the naïveté and boldness of a five-year-old, I asked them why they were not wearing the proper uniform. They greeted me with peals of laughter and a flow of Italian. Finally one of them told me in French that they were Italians, “nothing to do with the Germans.” With the intuition of childhood, I seized on this last comment. “So, you don’t like Germans? I don’t either.” Then, with much mia cara, è carina la Bambina, that was me clutching my bâtard loaf, I was made to sit down. In no time, the garçon brought me a grenadine – a glass of milk with a dash of pomegranate syrup – and a croissant. I had never tasted anything so wonderful. Croissants were on the Vichy government’s forbidden food list. Only the occupiers could buy them.

When novels are set in occupied France, it always seems to be by the Germans. True, the Italian occupation didn’t last very long – from November 1942 to September 1943 – but in the Savoie, where Pilot Error is set, there is a long history of dealing with the Italians who, during their occupation, were mocked and detested in equal measure. The following excerpt, with our heroine Josiane visiting the Italian detachment in Aix-les-Bains, illustrates this ambivalent situation.

Although the Figuères Grocery had all the necessary papers, Maurice skirted around the south of Chambéry to avoid any idle miliciens. In Aix, he drove the van straight to the Italian Alpini detachment where he knew most of the men.

“Hallo, Flavio! Can we go in and speak to your lieutenant?”

“Hey, Maurice! What good omen brings you here with delightful Mademoiselle Martin?”

Josiane stepped forward. “An important communication. You can come in too.” A little flattery to make each one sound important went a long way to keep their noses out of Chamoz business.

Corporal Mascarpone preceded them into the lieutenant’s office. The lieutenant promptly removed his boots off the desk, put down his drink and pastry, jumped up and straightened his jacket.

After courteous greetings, Josiane took a seat. “Did you hear about a German training plane gone missing?”

“Ah, the Focke Wulk 58? I got a phone call from German HQ in Lyon. I told them we’re looking for it.”

It wouldn’t pay to be sarcastic, so she smiled sweetly. “Look no more. It crashed and sank into Lake Bourget. We rescued two pilots and buried the other two that didn’t make it.”

His eyebrows shot up. “So, where did you say you came from?”

“Chamoz. You have to drive through Chambéry and half-way around the lake. Chamoz is at the end of the road, on the plateau.”

“I see. Have you brought the survivors in?”

Josiane pulled a face. “They’re badly injured. They can’t travel just yet. I’m a nurse.”

"I suppose I should send a patrol to talk to them.” His heavy sigh showed just how much enthusiasm he had for the task.

“Sure. Whenever you have the time.” With a knowing tone, she continued. “I imagine you must have a lot of work to do.”

“That is true. It is very good that you have taken care of them.”

She pasted a coy smile on her lips. In a conspiratorial tone, she said, “We couldn’t let them drown and we don’t mind looking after them until they recover, if it helps you.”

He smiled broadly while his eyes strayed to the V-neck of of her blouse.

Josiane grinned. “The only thing is that food is scarce and we would appreciate if you could impress on the Germans that we need food to help feed their pilots.”

The lieutenant smiled broadly. “Absolutely! I will call the Luftwaffe headquarters. But I guess you want some right away?”

She gave him a flirtatious smile. “You are so understanding, lieutenant. If you can spare some until you get the Germans’ supply, we could do with flour, sugar, butter, potatoes, carrots, coffee, oil, cookies, chocolate and, as a matter of urgency, bandages, sulfonamides and morphine.”

His jaw dropped while his bushy eyebrows went up again. Head tilted, Josiane smiled at him.

“Of course, don’t deprive yourselves.”

He nodded and cleared his throat. “I will arrange for everything you need. In the meantime, come and have coffee. I suppose you have not eaten.”

“Indeed we haven’t. You’re very kind. So much nicer than the Germans.”

The lieutenant puffed out his chest. “That’s because here the French signorinas are so beautiful and you all can speak Italian too. We feel so welcome.”

Poor idiot, we’re just biding our time before we can send you back over the Alps. But we’ll be gentle with you as long as you don’t hide behind the OVRA. If you ever send your dreaded police, it will be war with no quarter given. She kept her smile.

He led them to a reception room. An orderly brought coffee and sandwiches.

An hour later, his hand resting on Josiane’s back, the lieutenant escorted her to the van. “Maybe next time you come we could have a proper lunch, no, just you and me?”

She leaned into him as if sharing a confidence. “That would be delightful.”

Maurice steered the van onto the street. They were on their way home, the van laden with food and supplies. Josiane buttoned up her blouse. They didn’t talk until they were well out of Chambéry.

“You didn’t have to be so friendly with that lieutenant.”

“Theater, dear Monsieur Figuères, theater.” She cradled the box marked with a red cross on her lap. “Wouldn’t have got all this and morphine without appealing to the man’s ego.”

“You mean, his baser instincts. I saw the way he was eyeing you.”

“Why do you think I had two buttons undone?”

Maurice shook his head then burst out laughing. “You’re a gem.”

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