On the breadline

Autumn came a little early this year and one morning, well before sunrise, I was the solitary figure freezing outside our local bakery. I had been queuing for hours – well, more precisely 35 minutes – but had I arrived any later my mission could have been jeopardised.

The story began some months beforehand when a note appeared on our baker’s counter. After thanking customers for their patronage it read, ‘In August we will be closing, we have decided to retire’. Bakeries are important in France with customers being as faithful to them as fans are to their football teams in the UK and both are invested with the same life-long allegiance. News of the closure spread with locals fearing that the change could mean one less baker. With ‘desertification’ (here, meaning the movement of people away from the countryside and to the towns), the loss of a baker was a real possibility. There was also a risk of the unthinkable – we might have to buy our bread from Aux délices de Jean-Jaques, the up-market competition round the corner. A week later, and to great relief all round, the future of the shop was made clearer – on Thursday, 15 September a refurbished bakery would open under new management. I wrote down the date in my diary.

On the said Thursday, I was standing alone by the door waiting for the opening at 7.00 am. I was determined to be the first to buy loaves baked under the new regime. By 7.05 it was clear that something was seriously wrong – there were no signs of life either inside the shop or outside on the pavement. Disappointed and empty-handed I went home, my plans thwarted. Next day all was revealed; the date of the ‘Grand Opening’, which was now spelt out on the shop’s spanking new front window, was to be at the same time, a week later.

The second time I arrived much earlier; surely on this occasion there would be many other well-wishers wanting to welcome in the new dynasty. The weather forecast was for an unseasonably cold night so I came with a woolly cap, a padded jacket, lined trousers and, for my knees’ sake, a folding chair. Despite taking precautions I sat by the entrance slowly freezing and, strange as it may seem, nobody joined me. Minutes before the allotted time the shop’s lights lit up and voices could be heard inside the shop, initially as whispers but soon becoming louder and more animated. Next the blinds were raised, the sliding doors opened and this solitary member of the queue was allowed in to be greeted warmly by a smiling baker’s wife. She clearly knew of the importance of the event.

The baker himself soon appeared and I found myself making an impromptu speech thanking him and his wife for opening their new shop and welcoming them in their new venture. They looked delighted. Somehow, I had become a spokesperson for the community. Minutes later I left with three warm loaves of bread. It was the beginning of a new era and, for me, a precious moment.

When I told others my story, sceptics asked me to explain, or should I say to justify, why anyone should wish to be first in such a queue. Some even asking why one would want to be first at anything? To them, my early-morning antics seemed distinctly odd. Perhaps they simply reflected the fact that I was competitive.

In defence, I argued that the role of being first is widespread and, indeed part of our culture. So, putting sport aside, there is a special pleasure and significance on being, for instance the first to kiss the bride, the first to cut the wedding cake or to blow out the candles on a birthday cake, the first to shake someone’s hand as a congratulatory gesture, the first to walk through a newly drilled tunnel, and so on. There are also less pleasant, but just as important firsts, the responsibility of being the first to break bad news, to be in the first row in a funeral procession or the first to throw flowers or petals into a grave. Accordingly, being first does not simply bring bragging rights or satisfy an innate inquisitiveness, it also, in certain circumstances and in words or gestures, allows us to better share feelings and respect.

The front bench

The notion of respectful sharing, albeit amongst husband and wife, was made all very clear recently with the inauguration of a garden bench. I had built the bench out of an oak beam. It was made for Rohan and designed with her in mind, and it was natural that I should ask her if she would be the first to try it out. She accepted the invitation and was delighted with what she found. Here then, there was a great pleasure for me to be able to offer her the role of ‘first’ and for her as she accepted the role and approved of the seat.

In my defence, my queuing to be first at the baker’s, while not of the same personal nature as occurred with the bench, was of a similar shared nature. But, whatever type of sharing went on early that morning at the baker, it had its concrete advantages, the bread our new baker sells is truly delicious!

3 thoughts on “On the breadline

    1. Dear Sarah, I don’t remember anything about the swimming pool openings. But it is fascinating how ‘firsts’ are so important. How something very special was going in for you. I do, however remember, with rather mixed feelings, all those ‘first nights’ we went to when Patience’s plays opened in London. What was that all about? Joe

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  1. The central roll (ahem) that bread plays in French life was illustrated to me several years ago when we stayed overnight as BnB guests at a charming chateau in Normandy. Supper in the chateau kitchen was hosted by the Count and Countess themselves. We ate with our 5 or 6 fellow guests – mostly Parisian intellectuals it seemed to me. The conversation moved from the fine weather onto the more serious subject of Chirac and Jospin and the state of French politics at that time. It was all very cordial and respectful until somebody raised the really serious subject of the parlous state of French baking, and the recent revelation that some bakers were now using frozen dough, preferring not to get up at 3 am in order to mix up the fresh stuff. Quel horreur!

    It seems to me that you can’t pretend to be a Frenchman unless you cherish the baguette and take the daily bread run very, very seriously. It’s something the Brits just don’t get. For years we’ve been exhorted to eschew white bread in favour of wholemeal – after all, a food product with little nutritional value, that requires you to get up at 6:15 a.m. to buy, lacerates the inside of the mouth and is inedible by the next day is something that only the French could invent. It will never catch on over here I suspect.

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