Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading, Chapter 19: Chateau Cheese

March 26, 2015

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IT WASN’T A NIGHTMARE, just a bad memory. I’m about to go into a meeting room to pitch prospective clients. Our team has prepared a presentation complete with visuals, and we’re assembled in the anteroom with our materials. The door opens and out comes a competing group, looking smug. We try not to notice, but when we walk into the room, a dozen heads look up  from silver-wrapped gift boxes placed under their noses. We lead off with an erroneous assumption, stumble through the figures based on it, and watch as our visuals fall off the supports one by one with gentle thocks.

Why would I ever, ever go through something like that again? But here I was, assembling another team to go and pitch another prospective client.

It had taken some persuasion to get Andrew and Jean-Claude behind this project. We were going to drive all the way to Paris to pitch our tour services to a high-rolling American woman who rented her magnificent château to people who didn’t have to ask the price.

“Châ-teau-cheese,” said Andrew.

“Crazzy people,” said Jean-Claude.

I argued that just because the last group of château people was mean and stupid it didn’t mean that every American who comes to France to stay in a château was the same. I’d convinced them that the possibility of earning several weeks of first-class tourist money was worth the seven-hour drive. I wanted Jean-Claude along, since he was French, from Paris, and had enough corporate business experience to impress a powerful American businesswoman.

That was before I saw his suit.

Andrew’s jeans and good shirt suited his youthful look. I used an Hermès scarf to draw the eye away from my cheap synthetics in different blacks. But Jean-Claude had a suit on a hanger that looked like one that Edward G. Robinson had worn in a gangster movie. A brash blue, striped with thick white lines, two fingers apart.

We checked into a French businessman’s hotel in a Parisian suburb, more like a motel, with ashtrays on every available surface and no way to open a window. We tried, gulping for air like guppies.

I called the château owner to check in. The morning meeting was no longer possible,  she said. Could we come at noon?

Coming from an American, that would mean no lunch. A French person would either offer food or tell you to come at three.

Downstairs in the restaurant we joined J-C and an old friend for dinner. The maître d’/waiter/desk clerk, who seemed to be the only staff person in the hotel, was playing buffoon for them. Before we could order, he had to offer up the menu and wine list for critical inspection and then assume a pose of respectful deference while J-C displayed superior taste and knowledge. It was hard to take the performance seriously in a French equivalent of Ho-Jo’s.

The two Frenchmen talked and chain-smoked, Andrew gobbled his food and I gulped the wine. Suddenly there was a crash. At the table behind us, a man and a woman sat stunned, forks frozen in transit, as their boy lay twitching in his overturned chair. It took a couple of seconds to realize he’d had a seizure. The parents jumped up, knocking over their own chairs to get to him. Emergency personnel showed up and helped them all out of the restaurant, and everybody went back to their food.

Jean-Claude shook his head. “Young people these days have too much stress.”

Next morning at eight, in the same stifling dining room, now stiflingly stale, we met at the breakfast buffet. Jean-Claude, ashen and heavy-lidded, set his cigarettes and lighter down at his place, piled a plate with slices of ham, and picked up a children’s vitamin drink and a miniature jar of honey–“for the throat.”

I called the château owner to firm up the noon meeting. Well, actually, she was on the way to the airport just then to pick up some guests. How about, let’s say . . . ah, three?

Now Jean-Claude was pissed. “First it was morning, then it was noon, now it is three–next it will be tomorrow? Then next week?”

He wore his suit and a lapel pin with the logo of his old corporate training program.

We decided to go on ahead to the village where the château was located, explore a little, have a leisurely lunch and show up at the château at three.

The village was old and charming, and we made a quick reconnaissance pass by the château before lunch. It was a stunning seventeenth-century place, built by the architect of Louis XIV. Through the huge gates, we could see a chapel and other outbuildings—a stable and a greenhouse—and a silvery pond with floating swans.

I smoothed my synthetics and sucked in my stomach. It’s one thing to visit such a place as a tourist with a ticket. It is another thing to go in and pitch the châtelaine.

We ate at a Chinese restaurant at a strip mall and rehearsed our pitch over egg rolls and Szechwan Chicken. The drive back to the château was short and silent. We pulled over and waited while Jean-Claude stepped into the bushes to empty his colostomy bag before we approached the gate. We were all nervous.

The gatekeeper admitted us and we parked our Kangoo on the gravel drive at the steps of the château, where it could be mistaken for a delivery truck.

No one answered our knock, so we just opened one of the heavy doors and stepped inside, into a regal hall that seemed to echo with the royal fanfare of a bygone era. But it was just Madonna, singing “Don’t cry for me, Argentina.

The châtelaine appeared—not to greet us—she was just passing through, surprised and a little piqued to find us in her path. She was youthful, with long dark hair and a graceful figure in impeccable white linen pants and tunic. She was carrying a little platter of hors d’oeuvre.  Beyond her, several other well-dressed people were drifting casually through the adjoining salon and out through tall French doors, like players in an English period piece.

Without introductions or handshakes (there was that hors d’oeuvre tray) our hostess explained that she and her guests were just about to sit down to lunch on the terrace. She suggested we walk around the grounds “or something,” and then vanished.

Outside, we huddled. “This is longer than I ‘ave waited for a woman even I was in love with her,” fumed J-C, lighting a cigarette and sucking in with a furious whoosh.

The ground was damp after recent rains. We wandered around, trying not to get mud on our shoes. We sniffed around the stables, peeked into the chapel and the greenhouse, pretended to admire the gardens, the classical statues and the spectacular fountain, surmounted by Neptune, cascading into the swimming pool at the rear of the château.

From there, we looked across the emerald lawns to the ivory terrace where the owner and her guests were seated at a long stone table in the afternoon sun.  We could see her guests raise their glasses and toast her. We could see a man put his arm around her. We could see there’d be plenty of time to stroll the grounds.

After an hour and a half, she finally summoned us. She was sitting with a handsome young man I assumed was her boyfriend (they held hands under the table), and two genial, evidently gay men lingering over their salads.

The châtelaine chewed languidly while I made our pitch. Her gaze circulated among the three of us, a bizarre assembly of types. Like most people, she was probably pairing me, the middle-aged American woman with J-C, the middle-aged Frenchman. So where did that put Andrew in the trio? The gays appraised us with titillated interest.

I could feel J-C seething and Andrew ready to bolt so I threw down my prepared remarks in no particular order—personal service, customized itineraries, familiarity with the requirements of Americans who could pay $6,000 a day to stay in a château. She squeezed the hand of her boyfriend and tucked strands of hair behind her ear. When she turned her attention to Andrew or Jean-Claude with questions, I could wet my mouth and dry my armpits.

When I was finished, there was a long pause as she studied the air. Then she seemed to say to herself, What the hell, no skin off my ass. She said she’d put whatever information we gave her into the materials her clients received when they booked. There it was, the very least we’d hoped for. We released our breath and relaxed our shoulders.

She offered to show us the rooms on our way out, probably hoping that would get us out the door faster. We followed her inside, as wary as yard dogs.

The interiors were sumptuous; a great octagonal salon in white and blue, a formal dining room with the original seventeenth-century carved stone buffet, a billiard room. And to all the period splendor was added the American touch: a gym and eighteen guest bedrooms, each with its own big American-style bathroom, oversized beds smothered with stacked oversized pillows.

“I have all this shipped from the States,” she said, indicating the fat white towels and washcloths, the jumbo-sized white sheets, the chubby rolls of white toilet paper. Every bathroom had a huge tub, a huge separate shower and a heated towel rack mounted on the wall that was tall enough to accommodate a towel-snapping baseball team. “My guests don’t want to deal with French stuff.”

I avoided J-C’s glance as she went on about the amenities we insist on. What Americans Want and Don’t Want. He was sick of it, and I was sick of explaining it to him. Big white towels, not thin little colored ones. Washcloths, not mitts. Nubby white shower mats, not fuzzy dark blue hide-the-germs rugs. I know flimsy pink toilet paper is cheaper, but it’s flimsy. And pink.  And what’s wrong with having a lamp by the bed tall enough to shine light on a book? Didn’t anyone in this country read in bed?

Two minutes later we were back outside with a dozen color brochures in hand and many hours in the car to talk about Americans. Why do they eat lunch at odd hours of the day? Why won’t they speak a word or two of French? Why do they need ice in a cold drink, and why do they want so many cubes there’s hardly room for the drink they paid for? Why don’t they know anything about the rest of the world?  And why, oh why, do they always have to impose their values on others?

It didn’t matter. We were never called back to deal with them.

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We couldn’t complain, because our business now seemed to be rebounding. Andrew and I had put together a painting workshop package that included accommodations and meals in addition to daily instruction, put it on our website and were getting responses from artists and would-be painters across the U.S.

Room reservations started coming in, first Americans and then English. Former clients wanted to come back. Family groups contacted us to organize their itinerary and guide them around Provence. I got a giant wall calendar and marked reservation dates in colors coded to the rooms so we could see at a glance what our season would look like.

If I needed more good news, all I had to do was call Ben in New York. He was now on Broadway in “The Graduate,” with Kathleen Turner and Alicia Silverstone, the understudy for Benjamin and appearing on stage every night in several minor parts. He had a blurb in Playbill, his picture in the lobby and an apartment in The Village.

I’d had the glory of sitting in the orchestra section and pointing him out to strangers; of going backstage to meet the cast. My windfall of bragging rights was so sudden I hardly knew how to handle it.

I called him every week to see if the magic was still operating.

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We watched CNN. “They’re going to invade Iraq, the idiots,” said Andrew.

Personal opinions trickling in from the States ranged from “We should just go in and bomb the shit out of them” to “Our country has lost its mind.”

“Three days and it will be all over,” predicted J-C, a big fan of America. But the man-on-the-street opinion, voiced by our guy at the gym, was that American action in Iraq  would just create a new hotbed of terrorists.

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They teased us at the gym. “All américains are ordered to leave France now,” announced a wag. “Iraqi Airlines. Beezness Class.”

I laughed, but not too loud. We were about to morph into another stereotype now in Europe. And I thought, just as selfishly, What’s going to happen to our tourist business now?

As French fries were renamed “Freedom Fries,” and good French wine was poured down drains across the U.S., it so happened that the new Food editor at the Washington Post decided they didn’t need any more stories on Provençal cuisine. They were looking for articles that were “newsy,” new foods and new ways of cooking.  Since I was now into old foods and old ways of cooking, I wasn’t interested. Staying on top of trends was no longer my thing. But they had to sell papers, and that wasn’t as easy as it once was.

Our reservations skidded to a stop. Americans couldn’t cancel reservations fast enough. As soon as we hung up from one call, there came another. Our e-mail inbox was full of regrets. Weeks of vacation rentals, painting classes and guided tours evaporated. For one group–two families traveling together whom we’d led around Provence–we’d set up a fabulous tour of the Dordogne region to see the grottos and cave paintings, the mediaeval villages and fortified châteaux, with four-star hotels and restaurants, first-class all the way. We’d spent days on the road checking out accommodations, sampling the regional cuisine, getting schedules for boat rentals, wine classes, castle tours, festivals and anything else we knew would appeal to these people.

When that call came, it ended our brief career in private tours for good.

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I stopped pouring myself drinks and started slugging right from the bottle. Secretly and stealthily, I would finish off bottles of wine and swig liqueurs—Cognac, Armagnac, brandy—the stronger the better, while a part of me watched with a curious clinical detachment, only mildly disgusted. I prided myself on remembering the levels when I re-filled the bottles.

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“You have to stop drinking,” said Andrew over lunch one day at the end of a slow summer. We were at a café. I had insisted on ordering a whole carafe of wine, and we both knew I would drink it all.  “People are worried about you. I’ll help you.”

I pretended to go along. No wine at the table. No cocktails before dinner. Soft drinks or juice at friends’ houses. But there were water bottles full of vodka hiding in my lingerie drawer, flasks tucked in bags on the floor of my closet. I got up in the middle of the night to replenish the alcohol in my system. I went to bed in the afternoon and slept for hours. I drove to the supermarket for more vodka and drank deeply in the parking lot before hiding the bottle and going home. Soon that was my only daily activity.

Anne was one of the worried people. She located a counselor in our area, and Andrew took me to see her one morning. Her office looked out over vineyards. I complained of depression. She was sympathetic. She told me to write down my dreams, and she gave me a flower when we left. We were back home before the buzz from my tequila eye-opener had worn off.

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“You’ve fallen off the ladder twice now getting to bed. Yesterday you fell off the stool swiping a cobweb. You’ve got to get help or you’re going to die.” Andrew sounded more serious than ever. I was indignant.

“I’m not going to go to some treatment center, if that’s what you’re talking about.”

“Okay, then we’ll do it here, if you trust me. Do you trust me?”

He put some of my things in a bag, took me downstairs to the studio apartment we rented to summer guests, and put me to bed. He came back with soup and a water bottle with real water in it. He sat on the bed and spoke to me quietly for some time, until I started feeling like I wanted to jump out of my skin.

“I have to go out for awhile, and I’m going to lock the door.”

“Why?”

“So I’ll know you’re safe.”

Safe. A roaring devil was inside of me, spewing vile stuff out of my mouth, taking a blowtorch to the inside of my head, freezing the blood in my limbs, throwing itself against the walls of my being in a crazed fury. I clutched and fumbled my way to the bathroom on pipe-cleaner legs to heave violently, blindly, until blood spattered the basin. I cried out loud. I wailed to myself.

I did that every fifteen minutes for a day and a night. The next two days, I shook so badly that I couldn’t drink the water and juice Andrew brought me, even if he held the glass for me. He went out and got straws. My teeth chattered and my head felt full of cold broken tiles that were poking against my eyes. Nothing existed beyond the still room. No person other than Andrew. He and the furniture were the only facts I was sure of. I hoped I wouldn’t lose them.

–Marcia Muir Mitchell 



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