Nuns and Bastards
November 14, 2009
I’ve left it to the last minute on market day so will have little choice.
“I’ll have two of those, please” I ask Adele,
“Les Religieuse?” she asks
“Those round ones with the smaller round blobs on top. They look like round multi-story eclairs”.
“They are called religieuse, nuns,” she says, smiling her snaggle-toothed smile.
“And one of those”, I say, pointing to a long thin, sorry-looking baguette.
“Un batard?” she says
And I have to agree as it is the solitary stick of bread in the shop that if she says it is a bastard, a bastard it is.
“Two nuns, one bastard” she says as her petite fingers fly at the large calculator.
“No thanks, that’s enough for one day” I smile back at her.
“3 euros 60, please” she says and as I hand her the money, as always, it is as if she can’t believe her good fortune, as if she is singing within herself,
“Here comes ANOTHER 3.60!” and it tickles her pink.
I sometimes see Adele’s husband, Vincent. He is as stocky and muscular as she is petite. I know he works out in a gym every day and you can see it from the bulging biceps which seem to be permanently on display when I see him outside of his workplace. They are made more noticeable by the smudged tattoos, reminders of his troubled youth.
Vincent grew up in the rough “banlieu” of Paris. He started getting into trouble at an early age and by sixteen was an accomplished car thief. During his last trial as a juvenile he was offered a last ditch attempt to divert him from a life of crime. He scoffed at it. His uncle told him that it was either that or prison so he donned a frilly shower cap and went to work up to his elbows in flour, at the back-end of a boulangerie.
He loved it. He excelled at it. He could woo the soft, capricious dough into plump, golden baguettes and work in the warm cocoon of the bakery. His day started at 3am, which was fine by him, those had been his previous working hours. This time though,he had the company of the father figure he had never had and the wondrous smells of domesticity he had never experienced in his own home.
But it didn’t stop there. One fine day, Vincent was introduced to chocolate. As the awards and pictures of him beaming from the walls attest, he is a Master Patissier. Chocolate is his pliable mistress and Vincent has become a more dangerous man than he ever was. To see him work is to watch an artist. He is totally absorbed. Each creation is perfection and he is a hard task-master to his team.
Nowadays in France things have become very regulated. There is always some EU nonsense directive to tell us what to do for our own good. One of those things is that every job requires a list of qualifications and a primrose path of dalliance to attain it. There is little room for second thoughts, for changes of direction. To be a waiter one should have attended hotel school for at least a year and everything seems to be a tangle of red tape. To become a boulanger takes 3 years, to become a patissier, more than that, and a Master Patissier qualification cannot be counted in time but rather the lightness of touch and the ability to communicate and coax your ingredients into a symphony.
So where has Vincent’s team sprung from? His able assistant, Marco, is deaf and did not complete school. He “speaks” in wild gestures and has a barking, joyous laugh. Olivier, who I often see scooting around the village in a teeny, battery-operated car reserved for those without a licence, is debilitatingly shy. He turns puce if you greet him and has a peculiar shuffling walk with his head listing to one side. He can’t be older than 20 but inhabits his body as tentatively as an old man. I have seen him scrubbing an polishing until bowls and machinery gleam. He is always busy and does not like to be diverted from his task.
And last of all there is the lovely Laetitia, Vincent and Adele’s teenage daughter. Her parents have leap-frogged her over the treacherous teens of their own youth into a school for boulangers. She works for them in the holidays and will soon be qualified.
Vincent asks me if I know of any youngsters looking for a job. There is only one requirement: they have to have a criminal record.
They are my heroes.