Humphrey Bogart intoned the inimitable words in the title, of course, in the 1941 film, “Casablanca.” They capture somehow the feeling I hold for my first post, the Paris embassy of the ‘fifties. Long, long ago, a time that I view through the misty lense of nostalgia, with a feeling of wonder even now that I could have played a small part back then in the official life of one of the Service’s premier posts.
The ambassador at the embassy on Avenue Gabriel (not the mission to NATO, a couple of blocks away) hailed from Corning Glass, which he owned in some large part. The deputy chief of mission, a careerist, most recently had himself been the ambassador in a Latin American capital. The political counselor had the reputation of being one of the senior-most Orientalists in the Service — a highly accomplished diplomat. And the political section was staffed by a half dozen mid-career or somewhat higher-ranking officers, nearly all of whom were destined to hold ambassadorships themselves in due course.
In addition, the section had me in that exalted part of the embassy at the beginning of a rotational assignment. I, a newly minted FSO who had experienced only Washington training in the A-100 orientation course and a stint in French language training at FSI, could be found there on the second floor at 2 Avenue Gabriel in the City of Light shuffling papers or drafting the occasional report or memorandum. On rare occasions the chief of section would entrust me with a low-level approach to the Quai d’Orsay, the French foreign ministry. If there were 100 embassy officers on the U. S. diplomatic list (I don’t recall the precise number), I was surely the one hundredth man on the totem pole. My compatriots in the embassy, the Paris setting, the newness of the scene, the esoteric fascination of the duties and the problems encountered – all combined to impress me enormously.
It was heaven on Earth.
Part of the wonder of the assignment came from the city itself outside the walls of the embassy that faced the Place de la Concorde. The Paris of the day, the latter 1950’s, knew not the sand-blasting that rendered drab gray buildings almost pink, a process that was to come soon, to the displeasure of many Parisians. Nor did Paris yet have high-rise buildings, nor such modernistic “marvels” as the Pompidou Center, nor the grotesquely modernistic entrance added to the Louvre. Les Halles market still functioned in midtown, not far from the embassy. It was a Paris not much different on the surface, except for newer automobiles in the streets, from the photos one saw of Paris two decades or more earlier.
The French political scene fascinated, and sometimes perturbed at least slightly. The Fourth Republic gave way to the Fifth as De Gaulle returned to power. Revolution was in the air during the ominously beautiful spring and summer of 1958. (The spring and summer of 1914 before Sarajevo were especially sunny and bright, one reads, as was the summer of 1939.) But it never came, to the surprise of many of the French themselves.
In time my assignment took me to the consular section, where I remained the rest of my days in Paris, given the need for officers, even junior officers, in that area of the embassy’s operations. Less prestigious, but even more interesting were consular affairs compared with political work, and more varied in some respects. Certainly more responsible. The junior consular officer gets Americans out of jail in the middle of the night, collects and arranges for the burial of American tourists who drop dead, takes court depositions of considerable length and complexity, assures a fair hearing for U. S. citizens’ legal pleadings in the foreign nation concerned (France in this case), formally lifts the American citizenship of those who have had the ill luck to divest themselves thereof, issues or denies visas to visitors or would-be visitors to the United States, registers the births of infants born abroad to American citizen parents, provides for the repatriation of destitute Americans down and out abroad. Some of those duties have changed in the almost-half century since the days of which I write, but not all.
Consular work, in its way, simply added to the fascination of Paris and the Paris embassy. The chief of the passport section, who was permanently assigned in Paris, as was possible in those days, had been in the Foreign Service since something like 1914; the head of the general consular services section dated only from 1919, but he had been at the Paris embassy that whole time, except while America and Germany were at war and the Germans occupied Paris.
First posts and first-post fascinations must come to an end eventually, and mine did when I was abruptly transferred to a small consulate in the middle of the Atlantic. Onward I went from there, assigned to a total of seven posts abroad, detailed briefly to two others, and spending one fairly substantial tour in the Department in Washington. All those assignments had interesting aspects, from a four-year tour in a high Himalayan Hindu kingdom to a briefer sojourn in that most cosmopolitan of cities, London, to the Haitian capital of Papa Doc. And so on. I feel enormously gratified to have had the opportunity to serve, mostly abroad. The Foreign Service as far as I was concerned is most aptly named.
Ah! But I’ll always have that first post, Paris. Words almost fail, but I can say without fear of contradiction that that relatively brief sojourn years ago was truly the experience of a lifetime.
Henry Mattox is the Editor of American Diplomacy.