Sunday, November 26, 2006

The France Story, or, Why My Life Isn't Like Peter Mayle's, Part I

I don’t know why I suddenly feel like telling this tale. Frankly, this episode was part of my life I would rather forget. It’s been almost ten years, and I still have a hard time finding it funny. I still feel hot embarrassment at my own foolishness, anger at myself and the other people involved. I still tend to tell the story only after a nice, fortifying martini. Or two.

But it was funny, really. And vaguely culinary. And it took place around Thanksgiving.

I was in my last month of culinary school, the 1 year baking and pastry arts program at the CIA. I had figured out one thing after about the second month – I didn’t like professional kitchens. I had done an internship at a bakery, which was supposed to prepare me for the world of professional cooking, but the bakery was tiny. It was just the owner, the baker, two ever-changing Guatalmalan teenagers, and myself. The whole feel was pretty easygoing.

At the CIA, I learned what real kitchens were like – fast-paced, a little macho. (I later found out that bakeries and restaurants have a very different feel, and I spent most of my brief professional cooking life at bakeries as a result). I was older than my classmates by several years. I was interested in aspects of food they couldn’t care less about – I was just starting to learn about heirlooms and sustainable ag and all that stuff and I was excited, but I couldn’t find anyone else who cared, even among the instructors. I liked learning how to do new things, but I hated the performance aspect, the sense of having to do things perfectly on the first try, not being able, essentially, to write drafts.

So I was trying to figure out what to do with this new degree I was about to get, that qualified me to do something I had no interest in doing. Who was going to want an English major with a pastry certificate? I sent a few resumes to some cooking magazines, but no bites. I was starting to panic.

At the same time, my marriage had hit the rocks. My (now ex-) husband was suffering terribly from a depression he refused to treat with medication. Depressives make bad workers. He had left one job to avoid being fired, then was fired from the job that followed. He had found a new one, and then, just a few weeks before my program ended, he was fired again. It was a bad, dark time.

So, there I was, in the career office of the CIA looking at notices for something that would read, “Wanted: English major with culinary degree to write interesting food articles, maybe do a little research. High pay, no experience necessary.” Not surprisingly, there were no such notices. But there was a notice that ran something like this:
American baked goods company in France looking for recipe developer to improve recipes for cookies, brownies, etc. Room, board and small stipend. Factory located in villa 1.5 hours outside Paris.

Well. Huh. Recipe developer? I liked the sound of that. Careful, slow work, testing and retesting, applying scientific principles. Sure, I had never done anything like that, but I thought I probably could. How hard could it be? Of course, there was no chance I would be hired, but it can’t hurt to fax over a resume, right?

I did. The next day, I get a call from, well, we’ll call him Josh. This call seemed to be my job interview, but it was hard to tell. Josh was pure New York, with a heavy accent, a loud voice and an aggressive manner. He alternatively wanted to sell me on the wonder of this job and to ask if I thought I would be good at it.

“So, let me tell you, the place is beautiful! I mean, you’ve never seen a place like this. It’s a 15th century villa. Of course, the French people who owned the place never did anything with it. They think it’s charming to have outdated plumbing. But I’m fixing it up. My wife has an apartment in Paris, and you could use that on the weekends. We have this great machine that bakes bars in boxes, and cuts ‘em and wraps ‘em, but these French bakers don’t understand American cookies, you know? They wanted to bake chocolate chip cookies in rings! So I need an American baker. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I have never done any recipe development, but I am just finish-“

“You would have your own apartment, in a villa! And you could go to Paris on weekends – there’s no way for you to work over here for a French company, you know. They’ve got all the jobs protected. If you stay the whole six months, I’ll pay for your airfare. But not if you leave before then! I had these electricians...but you’ll want to stay, it’s beautiful! Do you speak French?”

“I’m afraid not really – I took French in high school, and I of course can recognize most culinary terms, but I-“

“The French workers will work overnight anyway, to save money on electricity. You’ll be all alone. But it’s beautiful, you’ll love it. You won’t need to bring anything, just sheets for the bed. I don’t have extra sheets. But what I need to know is, can you do the job?”

“Well, I think-”

“The apartment in Paris is …”

You get the idea. It was like standing in oncoming traffic. I tried to be honest with him, tried to make him understand that I was just out of school, I would love to try, but I could give no guarantees. It was a little subtle for him.

“So, when can you be here? Can you be here by Saturday?”

It was Tuesday. I thought, he’s offering me and my husband a place to live in France on the basis of a twenty minute phone conversation in which I spoke less than one hundred words? Is he insane? Well, obviously, he’s clearly insane. But he’s offering me a job in France!

“I don’t think I could be there on Saturday. Classes finish next week, and I would have to pack all my things, put them in storage, get a flight. I could probably do it all in two weeks, at the earliest.”

He was annoyed. Really, he wanted me there on Saturday. Or maybe not, because do I really think I can do the job? Maybe we should meet first. He’ll be in New York for Thanksgiving (one week away). Could me and my husband meet him and his wife for brunch and talk things over? But he would really want me there in two weeks. From now. Which would be one week after the meeting at which he is going to, apparently, determine if I have the job.

I hang up the phone confused. Am I moving to France? Why not – I’ve got nothing here, neither does my husband. We also have no money. How will we get to France? Books. The ex-husband worked in publishing; we had tons of books. We sold enough to pay for one flight, the other we put on a credit card. I pack all our stuff in boxes. My husband went through the notes for the novel he thought he would have time to write. We put everything we own in our parents’ basements. We told everyone we were moving to France. Maybe.

The day before Thanksgiving, we were in New York, meeting Josh and his wife at a small breakfast place. The conversation was exactly the same one we had one the phone. I said almost nothing; Josh talked incessantly – the villa is beautiful, the French are awful, bring sheets, can you do the job? I was beginning to hate him. He noticed a woman sitting at another booth with unusually long fingernails. He told us to look, we all looked, and then he called out to her, “We’re admiring your fingernails!” She smirked. I was afraid she was going to come over and scrape his eyes out with the nails. I wished she would.

His wife was French and almost completely silent. I wondered how she liked his constant put-downs of France. I wondered how she could stand being married to him.

I should have stood up from the table, thanked him very much, and moved back home immediately. But when your life is falling apart, you’ll grasp at anything. Even if you’re grasping at a maniacal American businessman with a sketchy job offer.

So, we went home, celebrated Thanksgiving, and got ready to move to France.

1 comment:

Amy Sherman said...

Don't keep us on the edge of our seats, what the heck happened???