There are some professions whose members are rarely boring: policemen, hotel managers and taxi drivers. A good example of an engaging cabbie is Raymond Gatti whose memoirs, originally published in French, have now come out in English as War Taxi, Peace Taxi, with the assistance of Estelle Tarallo-Sottile. Gatti, who was ninety in April and remains sprightly and articulate, recalls his experiences in the Second World War and as a taxi driver (mainly) in Cannes.
Born in Plascassier into a family of flower growers serving local parfumeurs, like many of his generation he found his life turned upside down by Hitler. During the occupation he was deported to Poland to work as a labourer but, with that native cunning he readily admits to, he wangled his way back to France and lay low until the allied landings in 1944. He soon got himself taken on as a driver by the American army (as an acting Master Sergeant, no less) and followed their push into Germany, among other things taking part, a horrifying experience, in the relief of Buchenwald. His account highlights how the US military, more “democratic” than its European counterparts, struck a French observer. But there were surprises: GIs unlucky enough to pick up “the clap” were automatically given a dishonourable discharge.
After the war, following a spell as a hotel concierge, Gatti found his vocation as a taxi driver and much of the book opens up that occupational world as it was down to the late eighties. As a job, driving a cab could have its spells of boredom – just waiting around – but in a place like Cannes the consolation was meeting a lot of interesting people: Gatti welcomed aboard his Cadillac the Windsors, Gary Cooper and Barbra Streisand (who kept him waiting six months to be paid) and many others. He got on especially well with Americans who were generous with tips and in one case persuaded him to move as a cabbie to Dallas for several months (nostalgia for the Croisette soon brought him home).
Running through these pages is a deep feeling of gratitude to America and those troops who helped liberate the country, often at the cost of their lives. As Mayor of Plascassier, as he became after his retirement from the cabstand, he set up memorials to those men all along the neighbouring coastal area. As he said, “I did it because future generations must remember what America did for France.”
War Taxi, Peace Taxi can be ordered from http://www.lulu.com (Raleigh, NC) and is available for download on iTunes US.