By Jacques Tocatlian.
My Mission With Maurice Chevalier.
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
I was in New York on one of my missions to the United Nations to represent Unesco at a meeting. I had been to the UN on several occasions before. In fact, I had established, over the years, a fairly good reputation as a dependable, serious and resourceful international civil servant. But, after what had happened during this last visit, I no longer knew how I stood in the eyes of my colleagues. I was not quite sure whether to laugh or cry.
It all started in Paris, in the middle of that week, where I left Unesco headquarters in a great rush to catch my flight to New York at Orly Airport. After a sleepless night at my Manhattan hotel, I was not in top shape on the next morning when I walked down Lexington avenue towards the UN Building.
I was happy to be in New York again. It is in New York that I made my first baby steps at international meetings soon after I had joined Unesco in 1965. I always loved Manhattan, notwithstanding the horror stories I kept hearing about it that made you wish to live in a bank safe. As a Parisian, used to intense city-life, I always found New York City congenial and alluring. I love its many attractions and points of interest. Its international flavor. I love its spirit and ferment, its pace and rhythm, its liveliness and energy. True, the city has some aggressive and scary aspects, but it always makes me feel alive. Walking down the streets and seeing the variety of ethnic groups and the assortment of clothes and colorful attires reminds me of the entrance hall of the Unesco building in Paris on an international conference day when delegates come from the four corners of the earth.
A story that I find fascinating about New York city is that concerning the purchase of Manhattan. It is said that the first Director-General of the New Netherlands province, Peter Minuit, purchased the island in 1626 from the Brooklyn Indians with pieces of bright cloth, beads and other trinkets valued at 60 guilders – about $ 24. At the same period, back in France, an architect by the name of Le Roy was supervising the construction of the Château de Versailles, ordered at great expense by the king.
When I reached East 42nd street I turned left towards the UN building and stopped to look at the display of suits at a shop-window. The glass acting as a mirror, I could not help but observe my silhouette. The light brown Yves Saint- Laurent suit I was wearing was indeed very stylish. I noticed, however, that my shirt had not survived the eggs-and-bacon breakfast and was no longer immaculate. I automatically said the single most appropriate French word for the occasion: merde !
If I pulled the tie a little bit to the left I could hide the damage. The overall appearance was not ugly. I was about forty then but the problem was already around the waistline. As Brigitte used to say: too many cocktails, business lunches and exotic dinners! I took a deep breadth and pulled my stomach in. I still looked inflated. Had I been taller, it would not have mattered so much.
Well, well… for a man of my age, I was not too bad. My hair was curly and dark and my valentino-style mustache not unattractive. I needed to go on a diet. As Scarlet O’Hare used to say, “I’ll think about it tomorrow !” I looked at my watch and walked towards the UN building. I had been standing at the shop-window for several minutes and had looked only at myself. All is vanity !
When I arrived at the UN building, Mr. Brown’s new English secretary welcomed me and walked me to the meeting room. She was not exactly beautiful but very stylish. With her long legs and striking outfit, she attracted attention. On the way, she made a comment which was to have a determining effect on the rest of the day. She simply said, “Your English is very good, Mr. Dupont. And your charming accent reminds me of Charles Boyer or rather of Maurice Chevalier.” She giggled. So did I.
The subject of the meeting was the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. In an attempt to ensure the protection and conservation of the world’s cultural heritage, Unesco had adopted in 1972 a convention and was now in the process of establishing a Fund and an International Committee to supervise the program. The meeting in New York was meant to assist in coordinating this effort with a number of programs in the UN family and in some Member States.
There were some twenty participants around an oval table. The meeting started on time. The Chairman made his introductory remarks and I delivered a brief statement on behalf of Unesco.
The representative from Sri Lanka immediately asked for the floor and began, what seemed to me, an endless speech. He spoke very demurely in a monotonous cadence and in a very soft voice – as though he was about to share with us an ancestral secret. The rhythmical effect was instantaneous. In no time my mind wandered away from the meeting room and back to Mr. Brown’s new secretary.
Why did she refer to Maurice Chevalier ? Did she intend to flatter or tease me ? Was she not too young to have known either Boyer or Chevalier ? Perhaps she had recently watched on TV Cole Porter’s hit “Can-Can”, with Shirley MacLaine, Frank Sinatra and Maurice Chevalier. Or, maybe, Vincente Minnelli’s old musical “Gigi”. Oh yes, bubbly “Gigi”! What a wonderful musical ! A few seconds later I was miles away from the meeting room …and years back into glittering, gay Paris. There was enchanting Leslie Caron, all arms and legs, gracefully dancing about. There was charming Louis Jourdan. He, too, has an accent. Doesn’t he ? There was Maurice Chevalier – the very personification of Gallic gallantry. And Shirley MacLaine performing a naughty can-can dance. Didn’t the cast of Gigi also include Eva Gabor ? Or was it Zaza Gabor? In any case, all the Gabors look alike . Don’t they ? How come they never age? They claim to have caviar and champagne for their daily breakfast. Do you believe it ?
I was still with Shirley, Zaza and Eva when I suddenly realized that the Chairman was looking at me with an intriguing smile. He could not have possibly guessed what had been going on in my mind. Could he? The intervention from Sri Lanka was over. The room was dead silent.
Staring at me, the Chairman said, “I am sure our distinguished representative from Unesco would like to react to Mr. Arianayagham’s intervention, since his proposals, if implemented, would imply a strong involvement on the part of Unesco.” With a dignified and masterly gesture in my direction, he added, “ Mr. Dupont, the floor is yours.“
Needless to say I did not want to speak! I did not have the slightest clue as to what proposal had been tabled. I could not even begin to pronounce Mr Arianayagham’s name. I had not asked for the floor. Instead, I would have wished for the floor to open under my feet and swallow me. As I procrastinated in silence, everyone turned attentively in my direction.
Finally, I said “ Well, well, well…”
I do not know if I sounded like Maurice Chevalier or Louis Jourdan, but the effect was not exactly brilliant. I must not have come across as terribly intelligent, for the surprise was now general. I remember a similar experience had occurred many, many years earlier in my school days. A teacher had caught me daydreaming and had scolded me embarrassingly while the rest of the class laughed. But it did not matter so much then. It mattered now!
“What makes you hesitate, Mr. Dupont ?” asked the Chairman.
I was then suddenly inspired by the witty politicians on French TV who can address any question and speak on any subject for any length of time without really knowing what they are talking about. It was, indeed, a bewitching challenge.
So, I said something along the following lines : “We have now a lot of food for thought” (Did we really ?) “The proposal is very interesting, but it presents some complex aspects which require thorough reflection.” (Who could disagree with that?) “In any case,” I added, “before I give you my opinion, I would very much appreciate listening to the reactions of the other participants and benefit from their comments on the subject which I intend to fully take into account in shaping my position. I shall not fail, of course, to share my thoughts with you after that.”
I looked around. The participants seemed satisfied and somewhat flattered. I was proud of myself but, unfortunately, not for too long. As each one of them spoke, I began the agonizing operation of trying to guess what on earth Mr.
Arianayagham’s proposal was all about. The puzzle was intellectually fascinating. From their comments I had to swim upstream to discover the source. I soon felt I was drowning instead. Oh! If only Mr. Arianayagham had missed his plane in Colombo! If only Mr. Brown’s secretary had not offered to take me to the meeting room!
The comments around the table added perplexity to confusion. Fortunately, after a painfully trying stretch, God had mercy on me and the Chairman decided to break for lunch. Whew! The torture was momentarily suspended.
I rushed to Mr. Arianayagham, and without trying to pronounce his name, I asked for a copy of his intervention. He did not have a typewritten one, but courteously lent me his handwritten notes.
Lunch consisted for me of an excruciating deciphering exercise. I do not think that Jean-François Champollion suffered as much as I did when he decoded the Egyptian hieroglyphics on the Rosette stone. The worse part was yet to come. Once deciphered, the proposal did not really make sense to me. I was experiencing sudden apprehension and fear – what is commonly known as panic.
But I took several deep breaths, bravely gathered all the bureaucratic skills in me and eventually synthesized an elegant general statement out of the various comments I had heard in the morning and what I could make out of the intervention. In other words, I put some of the pieces of the puzzle together. When I read the result to myself I was surprised. I wondered if Pablo Picasso was ever surprised in looking at some of his paintings, after adding various eyes, legs and noses.
In any case, at the beginning of the afternoon session I delivered my statement on an empty stomach. The Chairman nodded. The other members gave signs of assent. Only Mr. Arianayagham seemed puzzled by my puzzle. The meeting moved to other items on the agenda and at around 6 p.m., to my great relief, it ended.
No one had asked me to clarify my statement. Had they done so, I would have committed harakiri right then and there. I am sure the Japanese delegate to my left would have graciously accepted to advise me on the general procedure. But nobody asked.
On my way out of the room, the Rapporteur timidly inquired whether he could use my very statement, which he thought was so good, to summarize the discussion in the final report. I agreed and then wondered if the Rapporteur, or anyone else for that matter, had really understood what it was all about. As long as I live, I shall never explain this mystery. And as long as I live I shall never again daydream at a meeting.
I ran out of the building and within minutes I had a huge steak with fries and onion rings, washed down with some Cabernet Sauvignon.
Back at the hotel I watched a little bit of TV and promptly fell asleep. My night was haunted with wild, confusing dreams. Maurice Chevalier was all over the place. He thanked Mr. Brown’s secretary for managing to invite him to the meeting. He complimented Mr. Arianayagham for his constructive proposal, while Gigi was trying to seduce the Chairman. In his best Gallic accent, Maurice Chevalier told me that my statement was fine, but did not make much sense. Shirley, who apparently has all sorts of connections up there, was trying to obtain some heavenly clarification for what was going on. The participants danced around the oval table, drinking Cabernet Sauvignon. A disgraced Samurai wanted to pierce his belly. Eva Gabor said that generations to come would cite this meeting as a model of clarity and coherence, while her sister, Zaza, wrapped up in the UN flag, with her right arm stretched out like the Statue of Liberty, talked at great length about caviar and onion rings.
When I woke up next morning I was exhausted.
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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