How can a nation be great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?
Living in France was my dream, and I was going to make it work. With that goal in mind, I waited nearly two hours to get my autorisation provisoire de travail, the temporary work permit that would allow me to take a job at the Delacroix bakery while I attended pastry school.
A bored-looking woman behind the counter beckoned me forward with her finger.
“I need to apply for the APT,” I said in fluent French, handing over my paperwork. I had a letter from Luc’s uncle saying I would be working at two family bakeries in a neighboring village and town, the student resident permit Luc’s mother had acquired for me, and a letter from L’École du Pâtisserie stating I was enrolled in their sixteen-week program from September through December.
“If you are a citizen of a European Union nation, you don’t need this.” She flicked the papers back at me but paused to look at my identity card. “Lexi Stuart. What a strange name.”
“I’m an American.”
The room went quiet except for some muttering. I felt like shouting, Yes, an American. You know, the ones who saved you in World War II.
Instead, I forced a polite smile onto my face.
“You speak French,” the woman said, as if noticing for the first time.
“Oui,” I answered. “My permit, please?”
She moved incredibly slowly. Finally, having assembled and stamped all of my paperwork, she handed a card over the countertop. “You do know that you cannot work in France once you complete your school program? You’ll have to go home.”
I shook my head. “I read that foreign workers are welcome in France.” The words dried up in my mouth.
“Welcome? Non. But they can be hired. If no one in the EU can be found to do the same job, that is. Of course, we don’t have many bakers and pastry makers in France, so I am sure they’ll make an exception for you.” She directed her sarcastic laugh more at the woman next to her than toward me. The second woman coughed out a laugh, but hers seemed half hearted rather than truly cruel.
“Here, Lexi,” she said, drawing out my name to make it sound like “Leaksie” before continuing. “Bon courage. I hope you enjoy your stay in France. This permit expires in six months.”
I left, slowly walking to the Rambouillet city center, and stood by myself at the train station, permit in my purse, shoulders drooping, sensible shoes on my feet. I slumped onto a bench.
I heard the arriving train announced in French, and the suave melody of the language reminded me. Lexi! You’re in France. You’re living in France. Your dream has come true. One cranky, ill-informed government worker does not a nation make.
In spite of everything, I was here. I was breathing French air, eating real French bread, meeting French people. Kind of. I grinned, remembering a joke I’d read before leaving Seattle a few weeks ago.
In European heaven, the British meet you at the door, the Germans orchestrate your schedule, the Spanish plan your entertainment, and the French prepare your food.
In European hell, however, the Spanish orchestrate your schedule, the Germans plan your entertainment, the British prepare your food, and the French will greet you at the door.
Considering my welcome thus far, I could assume I’d landed in European hell. All I needed to confirm it was an unorganized siesta and a plate of fish and chips followed by a lively reading of Goethe’s Faust.
I decided not to worry. I’d make it work.
Thirty minutes later I got off the train and lifted my chin toward the sun. My village, Presque le Château, was perfect, a tiny jewel on the necklace of towns that encircled Paris. Old houses, tidily kept, lined the streets. The air was perfumed with the sweetness of orange blossoms and bitterness of orange zest. I trailed my hand along the low stone wall fronting the sidewalk. My fingers and heart tingled at the thought that hundreds of years before the United States was even a nation, some other young woman may have trailed her fingertips along this very wall, wondering what life held for her.
“Bonjour!” I called to a woman I passed on the street. She said, “Bonjour!” back to me. Would that exact woman show up to buy her baguette from me in a few days? In fact, that very woman may become a friend or end up buying baguettes that I make in a few months. Or ordering a birthday cake from me in a year! I loved that thought.
When Luc, my boss at the French bakery where I’d worked in Seattle, had first approached me with the idea of swapping places with his sister, I felt both excitement and anxiety. His family owned several bakeries in France and two in Seattle. As they expanded their business, the family members went back and forth between Seattle and France to get experience in both. Luc’s sister was coming to the US to work in Seattle for six months or more. Would I be interested in taking her place in France?
I arrived at Luc’s maman’s house and pushed open the black wrought-iron gate. Their big stone house was threaded with ivy, and the wooden shutters were flung open, letting in the mid-July sun. As I walked by, I squinted at the windows, unable to see in through the lace curtains. That’s how the French were. Beautiful, stylish, but with a veil of privacy between you. Intimacy reserved. Since arriving a few days ago, I had not been invited into my host’s house. I was starting to fear that what I’d heard was true: I’d never be invited anywhere personal while here.
Come on, Lexi. It’s only been a few days.
I walked along the cobbled stone path that led to the cottage tucked behind the house. In the old days, it had housed the bread ovens. Luc’s family had transformed it into a perfectly petite cottage for his sister. Now it was my home.
I opened the door and walked in. The front room was a tiny kitchen, complete with all appliances, and an eating area with a wooden table for two, painted mustard yellow. Beyond that was the smallest living room I’d ever seen. A fairy room, really, perfectly proportioned, with two soft, needlepoint chairs and footstools. I pushed open the windows and inhaled the pepper and spice of the red geraniums spilling over the window box.
I opened my laptop and logged into my e-mail. One new one from my mom, which made me laugh. She was getting ready to visit Italy and said she’d wave when she flew over France. That was it for new e-mail.
My finger hovered for a moment, indecisive. Then I clicked on an older e-mail I’d read several times already.
I know we said good-bye in person last night, but I wanted
to send an e-mail to say one last thing. It’s hard to believe
we’ve said good-bye for now. I keep thinking of things I want
to tell you, but I know living in France is your dream. I admire
you for working so hard to make your dream come true, and I
want to honor that. Have the time of your life, and keep in
touch from time to time. I want to hear what’s happening.
Yours, Dan. But the tone was much cooler than the heat we’d felt when saying good-bye in person.
I resaved the e-mail, pushed back the unwelcome emotions it aroused, and shut down the computer. Then I went into my bedroom and kicked off my shoes. I lay on my bed and fell into the deep sleep of the recovering jet-lagged.
When the phone rang hours later, darkness had swallowed the house.
“Hello?” I said, fumbling for the phone and trying to get my bearings.
“Hi, Lex.” It was Tanya, my best friend from home.
“Wow, I’m overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of that greeting,” she said.
I laughed. “Just waking up.” A slow warmth spread through me. It was good to hear from Tanya, but I’d hoped it would be someone else.
I took the phone with me as I went to close the windows, looking jealously at the twinkling lights in the “great house” where Luc’s maman and papa lived. Chattering voices floated out of their windows despite the hour.
“Ready for work tomorrow?” Tanya asked.
“Yes,” I said. “Busy day, I think. It’s the Fourteenth of July. French national holiday, like July Fourth.”
“Trial by fire.”
I agreed. “Lots of dishes to wash, I’m sure.”
“When do you start school?”
“Not till the beginning of September,” I said. “That’ll give me plenty of time to make friends at the bakeries or in the village and figure out what I’m doing. I hope to make a couple friends to explore Paris with, and scope out what the future job market looks like.”
“It’s really nice that they’re paying for you to go to school while you’re working there,” Tanya said. “They’ll probably want you to stay on.”
“Yeah.” I hoped! “That’s how I know they feel like I have a future here. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be investing in me–the tuition and boarding costs.”
“Any word from Dan?” Tanya asked, her voice quiet.
“He e-mailed right after I left, and I e-mailed back. He’s busy working on a case. His law firm has really cranked things up. And their softball season is in full swing.” I thought maybe you were him when you called.
“You guys decided there was no commitment, right? Since you were leaving and didn’t know when–or if–you’d be back?”
“Yep. It was actually my idea. I wanted it to be open-ended since I didn’t know what the future held.” At least, that’s what I said I wanted.
“So it’s okay as it is,” she said, softly. “I’d better go. Steve is taking me to the lake. We’re jet-skiing with some other couples and want to scout the place out and swim a little first.”
“Oh,” I said. “Right.” We said our good-byes and hung up. I sighed and nibbled on a sandwich made from a crusty baguette of the most magnificent bread I’d ever tasted and some stinky cheese.
Then I laid out my uniform for the next day and set the alarm for three o’clock in the morning. It was really quiet, but I just lay there, wishing I could sleep.
When I did sleep, I dreamed Dan was jet-skiing with another woman, and Tanya and Steve knew and didn’t tell me.