The Burnt Baguette

The Burnt Baguette

First published in The Age/Sydney Morning Herald newspapers (Australia) July 2, 2005

WE ALL know the creme brulee that is Paris can be tough to crack, but if you have a desire to taste what lies below that shiny top layer, here is what I have found to be the cardinal rule:

The Lady in the Boulangerie is Not your Friend.

Master this simple philosophy and Paris is pate in your hand.

Arriving last year in the City of Light, I felt exhilarated by my surroundings but quite alienated by the locals. Nowhere was this more apparent than at the local boulangerie. The one on the corner of my street screams heaven, with glistening arrays of glutinous glories and the divine smell of wafting of fresh bread. Of course, the first thing I want to do after settling into my new shoebox apartment is walk down the street with my very first baguette, wearing a headscarf.

In the queue, I listen intently to the frogs up front. It seems rude the way they say "donnez-moi" (give me), but their lilting tone seems to make the abruptness acceptable. "Donnez-moi une baguette." Breadsticks we call them at home. "Be a love and run down the shop and grab a breadstick for the barbie," mum would say. Our breadsticks have seeds on top. We slice them with a serrated knife, slather the pieces in Meadow Lea and stick them on our plate next to the banger and foil-wrapped spud. In cross-section they are keyhole shaped and they sometimes come wrapped in plastic with little airholes.

"Une baguette, s'il vous plait," says the suited man up front.

"Quatre-vingt cinq centimes monsieur; merci monsieur, au revoir," smiles the boulangerie lady as suit man disappears.

"Une baguette et une religieuse, s'il vous plait," says the pretty lady. How can she eat cream buns and stay so thin?

"Trois euros trente, s'il vous plait, mademoiselle."

I love Paris. The morning sun is glowing me golden with buttery bakery goodness. The baguettes look so good, I can't wait to take my Vegemite to one and make it mine, all mine.

It's my turn.

I smile warmly, engaging with the plump, pinafored dame who is just like Joan from the school canteen. In my best French, I politely say, "Bonjour, Madame," (apparently you should always call them Madame or Monsieur otherwise you are rude), "Je voudrais une baguette, s'il vous plait."

She looks at me a moment. Pauses. Then turns to the obedient dough boys lined behind her. However, rather than choosing an eager kid from up front begging to be on the team, she marches like a principal down the line and reaches behind the basket to pull out a crusty old history teacher - bitter, dried-out, overdone. The one who should have retired decades ago.

"Quatre-vingt cinq," she says, nasal, bored.

I am shocked. Is she serious? I'm stumped. I have neither language skills nor guts to deal with this. All I can do is moronically take Professor Crusty, thank Jeanne-Francoise, pay and leave. Walking down the street clutching my shame, people stare and point, leaning from balconies laughing, "Ha! Touriste! Loser! Vite Benoit! Come look at loser burnt-baguette girl in the cheap headscarf."

Back at chez shoe, I'm so hungry I attempt to break the log against a bedpost, jarring my wrist. If only dad was here. He loves things overcooked. Mum always makes him a special batch of choc-chip bickies - deliberately burnt. Great, now I'm homesick. The incident replays over and over in my head. What did I do wrong? How could she be so mean when I was so nice? Smeared with enough butter and Veg, anything tastes good, but this bad boy just won't digest. Tomorrow I shall try harder, I resolve.

Fool.

My extra efforts most certainly have no effect, in fact the reverse, and the next day my baguette is even worse. It's not even straight. I'm sure they prepared it especially.

I try visiting at a different time but the afternoon lady is even meaner. I try other boulangeries but encounter the same frostiness and baseball-bat bread. It's clear my photo is sticky-taped out the back of every Paris bakery like some sort of custard criminal.

Why am I being subjected to such torture? Why do they hate me so much? I'm so nice!

In the following weeks, I learn that in fact the nicer I am, the nastier the baguette. For example, if one were to plot a graph of charm versus baguette success, the result would look like this.

That is to say, as friendliness rises, so does baguette horrendousness.

After weeks of this treatment, stomach complaints and a minor vocabulary improvement, I've had it. I awake thundery day x, throw back the sheets, toss aside the ridiculous sausage pillow, flex, rehearse and march down to that dang bread shop to say in very average French words to the effect of:

"G'day. A baguette thanks. And none of this pretzel business, gimme the cream of the crop. That one. No. THAT ONE. And no more nonsense. Wench." Actually I didn't say wench, but had I known how I probably would have.

Jeanne-Francoise, who at first I had wanted to take me in her arms and rock back and forth while she prepares my lunch order, stops. She beholds me a moment. Then the heavens seem to clear, as she breaks into an enormous, warm grin and laughs. Still laughing, she turns in slow motion and selects the dux of baguettes, lovingly wraps it and hands it to me like a prize. When she says "Quatre-vingt cinq," she has the voice of an angel.

And so it was. I. Was in.

This is the lesson of the burnt baguette.

Be nice and eat charcoal for the rest of your life.

The French love to test your mettle. They play jokes and love to use their centuries-old rules of conduct and protocol to exclude foreigners. Watch the film Ridicule and you'll understand French culture from now going back centuries. It's great to travel being an Australian: everyone loves you. But in the court of Versailles, "love me, I'm just a little Aussie" just wouldn't cut the moutard. You'd be beaten to death with a dry breadstick. A keen wit is gold in Paris. Don't be nice, be direct and ye shall receive.

Jayne Tuttle is a Melbourne actor and writer studying drama at l'Ecole Jacques Lecoq, Paris. This is the first of a series of columns from Australians living in overseas cities.