Tuesday, June 8, 2010

knights of the beer pong table

When I come into the kitchen at 9am, there are four computer print-outs lying on the stainless steel countertop across from the sink (my sink, where I spend the morning washing breakfast dishes): the petit déjeuner list, where I keep track of which room has come to the table and which has not, the minibar checklists, morning and evening, and the rooming list, which lists that night’s coming clients, their assigned rooms, nationality, how much they are paying, and any special notes (generally this means allergies, extra pillow requests, or a special relation to Hugo Merliers). The rooming list is meant to notify the housekeeping staff of which rooms to make up that morning, but for me, it serves as a preview for the night’s events, particularly if it a weekend.

On last Friday’s rooming list, six of our ten rooms were to be single-person occupancy, reserved under the name of “Giraffe”. Their special commentary: Chapitre des Fleurs sur la Vigne, or the Chapter of the Flowering Vine. This seemed like an uncharacteristically poetic way for Madame Schmidt to describe what was going on with our surroundings (two clients arrived yesterday complaining that they hadn’t seen any vineyards on the drive. This is crazy, because the chateau is encompassed by vines, vines, vines as far as the eye can see, which are now indeed beginning to flower.). Maybe this was a group of wine journalists, or some sort of sex cult. You get all sorts in a 300 year old French chateau.

Inès shuffled into the kitchen as I was studying the rooming list.

“So who’s this special person coming today?” I asked. “This herd of giraffes? And why are you doing that?”

She was scraping bits of eggshell off of someone’s dirty breakfast plate into a plastic baggie. “It’s good for my roses,” she explained. “Mr. Giraffe, nice man.” She walked out of the kitchen.

“Okay.” I added eggshells to my mental list of all the items Inès saves from their dumpster-bound destinies: banana peels, coffee grounds, old slippers (for her dogs to chew on), bits of ham (for Teddy. But as she tells him in her best baby-doggie voice as she peels the fattiest strings off of the dish and drops them on a scrap of tin foil, it is Laura who will feed you later, not Inès, sorry, mama’s got things to do.).

I later ascertained from Joey that Mr. Giraffe was not a celebrity pseudonym as I’d assumed, but your run-of-the-mill British shipping insurance billionaire with a cartoon character’s surname. And it turned out that he and his five bachelor buddies were all members of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin: literally, the Brotherhood of the Knights of the Tasting Cup, whose internationally far-flung members are invited periodically throughout the year to meet at their “spiritual home”, the Chateau du Clos de l’Argot (another castle formerly owned by Cistercian monks, just a few kilometers from my own though much larger) for the invocation of knights-to-be and what is meant to be good spirited knightiness. These meetings are known as “Chapters”, and are given these half medievalish, half occult names, like the Chapter of the Flowering Vine, or better, the Chapitre of the Equinoxe in September and the Chapitre des Sarments et de l’Aventure (Vine Shoots and Adventure!) in July. Naturally, the official goings-on of the meetings are top secret, but what follows is always a Saturday night black-tie ball.

What is required of a person to receive invocation into the Knighthood? Well, as Thérèse responded, money, naturally, and an international reputation in wine making or wine buying or, it seems, wine drinking.

The Giraffe boys pulled up the Chateau in a mini bus in the early evening. Madame Schmidt pranced out to greet them. I stood by the front entrance as they all clambered out and began to unload their baggage.

I immediately recognized the Giraffe in the pack, for he was not only the one who had made the reservation, but unquestionably the alpha of the all-male group. While the others seemed to have only recently hit middle age, Mr. Giraffe appeared to be in his mid sixties, with long white hair and a steely knowing in his eyes. He assigned each man to one of six rooms, took the nicest for himself, and announced cocktails on the terrace at 6:30.

I was never entirely sure of the relationship between these men – some were American, some Canadian, one was Australian. I suppose the fast-wheeling wine world is a fairly elite fraternity. Surely, that must be why something as insane as the Knights of the Tasting Cup exists. But I began to imagine that the never-married Mr. Giraffe was seeking an heir to his vast fortune, and had selected these five candidates at a past Chapitre. Perhaps they had each received a wax-sealed envelope containing a plane ticket and few instructions. Dear Wine Enthusiast, Get to Dijon. Mini-bus and potential riches await you.

Cocktail hour turned out to be a magnum bottle of Grand Cru Champagne, which the men guzzled down in about 25 minutes. They then boarded the bus and were off by seven for dinner in Morey Saint Denis.

When turn-down time rolled around that night, Joey and I were pleased to find the six Giraffe rooms to be in virtually untouched condition: nary a pillow rumpled, nor one shower taken. Perhaps there was really something to this knighthood for lushes, I thought. These Chevaliers really are more respectful than the average hotel guest (if not necessarily hygienic).

I felt less sure of their chivalry the next morning, when I came upon the detritus of a bachelor party on the terrace: six enormous goblets tinted with a burgundy film, two empty magnums, three watery cocktail glasses, two ashtrays full of cigar cinders, and a candelabra shellacked in melted wax. This had to have taken place after I left work at 10pm, which surely meant that Joey had stayed well past his 3-11pm shift serving these fools. My heart ached for him and his newborn at home as I scooped a few of the glasses and headed to the kitchen.

So maybe these so-called knights weren’t in any kind of competition, other than some expensive variation of beer pong.

After most of them refused breakfast upon learning of its additional cost, the Giraffe boys set off early for a day of wine-tastings in Beaune. They returned that evening to prepare themselves for the ball, first with another round of magnum drinks, and then to zip into their tuxes, slick back their hair, and slip on their Tastevin medallions, which were literally gigantic sterling silver wine-tasting cups fixed to a ribbon. The badge of their knighthood. Downstairs, Madame Schmidt straightened their bowties and took pictures. The mini-bus purred in the driveway.

“How handsome they look!” Madame Schmidt cooed.

“Good evening, Laura,” Mr. Giraffe said, as he took my hand to kiss it. His breath reeked.

“This is just like prom!” another one of them remarked, without irony. Yes, it was. Except that they were already drunk.

The same knight then turned to me and asked if I wanted to be his prom date. “No, Cinderella can’t go the ball,” I said. “I have to stay and scrub the toilets.” Which was the truth, of course.

“Prince Charming will come and get you one day!” he called, staggering into the bus.

The sliding door slammed shut. I saluted these middle-aged men in tuxedos as they rolled off to their party.

The next morning found the same debris on the terrace, times two. Madame Schmidt told me they had returned with “outsiders” and kept her up until three in the morning. She mentioned something about a striptease.

And they had refused breakfast again. “We have enough croissants to feed a nation!” Inès grumbled in the kitchen. “What a waste!”

She proceeded to squirrel away the extra pastries in her handbag. Maybe not a waste after all.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Potential Employers Be Damned

The wine cellar at the Chateau closes around 6 or 6:30 pm, so that is usually when Madame Canneaux throttles through the door that adjoins the cave and the hotel office with a half-consumed 60-euro bottle of Grand Cru pinot noir.

“I have something very nice today!” she says to Joey and I, who are invariably sitting in the office around this time. “Who wants a little taste? Laura?”

Madame Canneaux is a sizeable lady, fond of fluorescent pantsuits, and is probably nearing 70. Dora-the-Explorer coloring-book pages filled in by her 5-year-old granddaughter adorn the walls in the wine cave reception. She has been the Chateau Hugo Merliers label representative for over three decades, proving the anti-oxident superpowers of red wine to be true.

Joey declines since he has to drive home, but I have a really hard time refusing her and her complementary offers of world-class red. Now Madame Canneaux has grown to count on me as solid aid in finishing off the day’s wine-tasting selection. It was only on the night that Thérèse was filling in for Joey that she reminded me that drinking on the job, even in Burgundy, even just a glass, is considered pretty awful form.

“So why does Madame Canneaux offer it?” I asked Thérèse, suddenly panicking about all the times Joey had rolled his eyes as I happily accepted a glass.

“She’s just a little bit… like that.”

I nodded. We stashed our 2008 Morey St. Denis behind the fax machine. When all the guests had left for dinner, Thérèse turned off all the lights and locked the door. We toasted.

So while I have to watch out for the Madame Schmidt and her morals/French workplace laws, Madame Canneaux relishes her role as temptress. I like it – a good witch-bad witch dynamic. One lives in a cheery reception filled with fresh tulip arrangements. The other lives in a cave dripping with booze.

But it was my benevolent boss, Madame Schmidt, who suggested yesterday that, to the end of furthering my Burgundian education, I tag along with some guests on a wine excursion led by a third-party private tour guide. No big deal that I was scheduled to wash dishes all morning. It was more important that I participate in what ended up being a three-part series of hour-long tastings at various domains all over the region.

“This is no factory, after all,” Madame Schmidt said as she waved me off around 9:30. “Have a nice time, dear.”

I skipped to the van. Oh, good-hearted Glinda! How could I even think for a moment that my allegiances lay with anyone else?

24 fine wines and one crème de cassis sampled, I returned late in the afternoon with red cheeks and a chatty disposition. I entered the office to thank Madame Schmidt, but found sitting in her place a smiley representative from the Dijon Tourism Board.

Amina and I quickly got to talking. Apparently she and the Madame were up to some kind of official business, but more importantly, I was American?! Amina loved Americans! How refreshing to hear, I said. We don’t have a very good reputation in the hotel industry. Oh, no! she insisted. Americans are my favorite clients in the tourism office! Amina, who was of Moroccan descent, had plenty of family in the States – all over the east coast, in fact. She loved it there, pointing out the American spirit of openness and our freedoms unknown to the rest of the world, such as Banana Republic.

As Amina was scribbling down her cell phone number and her family address in Marrakesh on the back of her card, Madame Schmidt walked in and gave me a squinty sort of look.

“For the next time I go to Morocco!” I said, holding up the card. I giggled.

I realized then to my horror that I was probably still feeling the effects of a six-hour wine excursion. I backed out of the office, promising Amina I would come to visit her in the tourism office soon, and escaped to the attic where I napped off my accidental AM binge until my 5 o’clock shift rolled around.

Then, as I was working away on the next day’s breakfast order from the bakery, Madame Canneaux busted in at 6:24. She had sold 120 bottles of wine to a group of Spaniards, and she wanted to celebrate.

“A little Echézaux 2007, Laura?” she said, in her sultry septagenarian way.

This time, I managed to just say no.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Reborn on the Chateau

This morning I woke up in the blue box built into an attic that I am to inhabit for the next three months. Perhaps Madame Schmidt** deigned to paint it blue for the color’s soothing, mind-clearing properties, and out of the need for those properties in an isolated town of about 200 residents and no grocery store.

What I mean is that I feared I might go crazy here, and maybe other interns have, or maybe they haven’t, because their walls were painted blue.

It was really only yesterday that I realized that the next three months of my life are going to be defined by a routine so routine that I may have reason to fear the onset of insanity. I mean this in the best way possible, of course. I spent the last two months working in Paris, you see, and my new environment is about as far away from my old one as I could get. But since the way I stumbled upon this job was all rather fateful, I knew this new job would be a great (and very likely altering in ways I don't know yet) experience. And it will be, so long as I figure out ways to stay sane (I think this space is bound to be one).

But while I am still relatively lucid, let me recount my day yesterday as the new intern at the Chateau Hugo Merliers, a four-star hotel niched away off of one of the Burgundy wine trails, which exists in part to promote the very fine wine label of the same name. I arrived here from Paris almost one week ago.

It is around 7:30 that I wake up in my bitty blue room. The sun is up and shining through my singular, two-pane window, which is almost at floor level and dressed in curtains made of the lace that Madame Schmidt seems to prefer. Madame Schmidt, an ageless blonde originally from Germany with a predilection for doilies, is the director of the Chateau. It is her cavernous attic that she has partially walled off to create the two intern bedrooms (there is always an intern at the hotel and another working in the wine cave attached to the hotel), both painted the same pacific blue, adjoined by a small bathroom.

So when I exit my room, it is into the total darkness that you might expect in a gigantic attic space. I descend two flights of stairs ending in Madame Schmidt’s (and it is always Madame Schmidt, never Luise) foyer, go into and out of the garage, locking the massive door with a key attached to a tiny wooden wine bottle (this, like many things given to me by Madame Schmidt, is labeled with my name).

Standing on Rue St Denis, I am less than 25 seconds from my workplace. I turn the corner and walk about 30 meters to arrive at the Chateau’s regal wrought iron front gate. Even from the street, it is hard to distinguish Madame Schmidt’s house from the Chateau. And that’s appropriate, since she has told me time after time that she thinks of the place as her home.

“And that is why,” she says, “I like to see the edges aligned on my napkin stacks, and why and the salt and pepper shaker on the breakfast table must match. D’accord, ma grande?”

All right, big girl? There is always a playful little trill on these last few words.

And Madame is actually quite good-humored, even giggly, in her tiny German way. On the day I arrived, I left my toiletries in the trunk of Madame Canneaux’s (who runs the wine cave) car. The morning I was able to retrieve them, Madame Schmidt was thrilled.

“Oh how pretty you are now!” she said. “You found all of your things? Your hair brush too? It’s a good thing since I only like good-smelling people.”

But, anyways, my workday starts in the kitchen at 9 am, where the service of the petit dejeuner is in full procedure. Inès is the master of ceremonies in the kitchen realm, and has clearly been working miracles in that space for years uncountable. She is tiny (everyone is tiny), dark haired, and slightly hunch-backed. She likes to hack her throat when she’s irritated, which is fairly often, as it is she who takes the drink orders, she who cooks and serves the omelettes, she who loads the dishwasher and froths the milk and grinds the citrus and mops the floor.

Or at least she was all of those things until I arrived to help out a bit. Since I have not yet been deemed worthy of serving the clientele (this is a level of honor which takes at least one month in service to reach), my duties in the kitchen are basically limited to dishwashing, clearing the grand breakfast table of dirty dishes, and then more dishwashing. Although I have also insisted on making a few café au laits, and yesterday, Inès asked me to scramble a single egg for a small child. I think she likes me.

Freedom from the kitchen comes around 1 pm, which means lunchtime for the entire kitchen staff, and we all defrost our Tupperware from the staff refrigerator and sit down at the kitchen table (“we” includes Inès, Thérèse the receptionist, Sophie the 21 year old maid, and Monsieur Thibaut, who is a kind of rolling stone in his late 50s who moves around France from seasonal job to seasonal job. Last night he returned from his day off quite drunk and regaled me with his life philosophy [When a door is shut, don’t force it. When a door is open, enter. A wise Jew once told him this, he pointed out. And furthermore, everything you need to know is in your head, not in books]. He inhabits the other intern attic room since the wine intern commutes from her flat in Dijon). The staff is also entitled to whatever is leftover from breakfast, including the breads, cheeses, hams, fruits, juices, coffee, and so on – all of excellent quality (everything that is saveable is saved here, something I am really delighted about and proud of. We only throw away that which has been touched to somebody’s mouth, and even then sometimes Madame Schmidt will save scraps for her tiny dog Teddy).

I mostly sit and listen to everyone talk. People gossip and complain and laugh and talk about the infuriating washing machine and how long it takes them to smoke cigarettes (Monsieur Thibaut smokes his in less than one minute flat, otherwise he will get too relaxed and it will be impossible to return to work). One lunch I told them how that in Russia the cigarettes are made shorter and with more intense tobacco so that people can be outside in the freezing cold with their cigarettes for a shorter amount of time. Thérèse laughed at that. She seems to be Madame Schmidt ’s protégé, and it’s been hard to get a read on both of them. Almost everyone here speaks to me like a child, which is annoying, and endearing only in the case of Madame Schmidt . Probably because I am new and relatively very young and my French is very imperfect and some days it is even bad.

Yep, seven months in France, and some days I cannot manage to pronounce the word for doctor. Frustrating. But unless I am chatting up American guests or teaching swearwords to Joey, the 30-year-old night receptionist who is soon to be a dad, I speak virtually zero English here. This is by far the most immersive environment I have been in the past year, so I think these last three months in France are going to bring me as close to fluency as I could have hoped for anywhere.

I have several hours to kill between lunch and my PM shift, and I have been going for runs. On Wednesday, the sky was cloudy as it had rained that morning, and air was cold. The mountainside was saturated and exploding with wildflowers and new grass. I hiked up one side of the mountain valley and ran along the perimeter at the top. I came down the other side and, as I was running through a wide clearing in the mossy trees, I came upon a chapel. It was encrusted in the forest that surrounded it, covered in fungus and vines and other wet stuff. The door was made of aluminium and its edges were rusting. I looked inside through the punched-out window in the shape of a cross and saw names in marble, and fresh flowers.

As it was nearing 4 pm (I go back on the job around 5), it was time to return to the Chateau. I walked down the spiral steps leading up to the chapel and turned around and took a good look at the thing, with its tiled roof and rusting cross, slowly disappearing into the rain-soaked forest. It was then that I realized that I am probably the hapless heroine of some dark French fairy tale set in a 300-year-old chateau. This explains why Madame Schmidt seems to be immortal, how Inès is likely a kind-hearted witch, and why I live in an attic.

So maybe the inevitable craziness à la Jack Nicholson/The Shining is merely a part of the twisted plot, narrated by Teddy... or something. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I have my PM duties to attend to. Must go place chocolates on pillows and clean bathtubs and sit with my book in the wood-panelled office covered in photos of Mr. Merliers standing with Zsazsa Gabor and the Reagans and various Swiss officiaries. More to come then, and photos too.

**all names have been changed