After a short spell in Britain describing the daily realities of a nation at war, John Steinbeck had moved one step closer to the front line. He had just arrived in North Africa. Algiers had now become an international city, an important Allied base area for Headquarters and supply services, as well as a transit stop for many troops headed for the Mediterranean theatre.
On the 28th August 1943 Steinbeck described the scene in Algiers. As usual a relatively short piece somehow manages to convey a whole new world:
The roads are lined with open wagons loaded high with fresh-picked grapes, with military convoys, with Arabs on horseback, with Canadians, Americans, Free French native troops in tall red hats. The uniforms are of all colors and all combinations of colors.
Many of the French colonial troops have been issued American uniforms since they had none of their own. You never know when you approach American khaki that it will not clothe an Arab or a Senegalese.
The languages spoken in the streets are fascinating. Rarely is one whole conversation carried out in just one language. Our troops do not let language diiculties stand in their way. Thus you may see a soldier speaking in broad Georgia accents conversing with a Foreign Legionnaire and a burnoosed Arab. He speaks cracker, with a sour French word thrown in here and there, but his actual speech is with his hands. He acts out his conversation in detail.
His friends listen and watch and they answer him in Arabic or French and pantomime their meaning, and oddly enough they all understand one another. The spoken language is merely the tonal background to a fine bit of acting. Out of it comes a manual pidgin that is becoming formalized. The gesture for a drink is standard. Gestures of friendship and anger and love have also become standard.
The money is a definite problem. A franc is worth two cents. It is paper money and comes in five, ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred, and one thousand franc notes. The paper used is a kind of blotting paper that wads up and tears easily. Carried in the pocket, it becomes wet and gummy with perspiration, and when taken out of the pocket often falls to pieces in your hands.
In some stores they will not accept torn money, which limits the soldier, because most of the money he has is not only torn but wadded and used until the numbers on it are almost unrecognizable.
A wad of money feels like a handful of warm wilted lettuce. In addition there are many American bills, the so-called invasion money, which is distinguished from home money by having a gold seal printed on its face. These bills feel cool and permanent compared with the Algerian money.
A whole new tourist traffic has set up here. A soldier may buy baskets, bad rugs, fans, paintings on cloth, just as he can at Coney Island.
Many Gls with a magpie instinct will never be able to get home, such is their collection of loot. They have bits of battle debris, knives, pistols, bits of shell fragments, helmets, in addition to their colored baskets and rugs. In each case the collector has someone at home in mind when he makes the purchases. Grandma would love this Algerian shawl, and this Italian bayonet is just the thing to go over Uncle Charley’s replace, along with the French bayonet he brought home from the last war.
Suddenly there will come the order to march with light combat equipment, and the little masses of collections will have to be left with instructions to forward that will never be carried out. Americans are great collectors. The next station will start the same thing all over again.
See John Steinbeck: Once there was a War.