Odd Jobs: The French Hotel

You know how stories about living in France tend to be all drapey and gooey and winey-cheesy? Well. Every Saturday I head to the market with my basket on wheels and buy tomatoes from the tomato farmer and cheese from the tired cheese guy and the most random vegetables from ‘le petit gars’ who charges so little you feel guilty and try to overpay, and then I go home and throw open the windows (bang!) and eat cheese and baguettes with a glass of wine from a box that has its own decorative barrel. Guilty as charged.

But then there’s the other side of France. Not the complainy side where you compare everything to its US counterpart (“Well, where I’M from, people don’t shit in holes in the ground.”) I’m talking about the other other side, and I don’t mean the ‘real’ side, either, i.e. “Nothing is real! Nothing! Not unless somebody’s dead or crying! Or slowly withering inside! Or having a very bad migrane! NOTHING!”

I’m talking about the sweet spot where all those sides converge. The spot known as a French hotel.

First of all–confession. This job, no. 45, is possibly the best I’ve ever had. But my love for this job has less to do with the job itself, and quite a lot to do with the daily mix of fake and real, nicety and obscenity, depressing fact and happy coincidence.

Things that happened recently:

A woman with fried blonde hair came in and ate nothing but boiled eggs and bottles of Bordeaux for eight days. When her husband calls looking for her, we’re supposed to pretend we have no idea who she is. She likes to chat about this hot young French actor, noting wistfully, “I used to prefer his father, but you should see him now…”

A be-gowned bride and her groom checked in on their wedding night. And left, in the morning, without paying a cent. Worse still, they absconded with the keys! (A plastic memento? “Benny beans, you remember our honeymoon? How we started our new life with a bang? How we lifted those charmingly mundane keys to room 107, Standard Double?” “Yes, burny-bums, I remember all too well. Those were the days.”)

I have already seen breasts (naked, Dutch, angry, with a very attractive girdle just below) and made a man cry (he was invited to the wedding, and guess who was supposed to pay for his room…) I have learned how to maintain a pool. I’ve had this job for less than a month.

The hotel owners are a couple. A man and a woman. They live in an apartment upstairs. She has cancer for the fifth time in three years. At the moment, they are in Spain, on a beach, and I’m not supposed to tell anyone where they are.

“Your French is abominable, maybe you should fucking work on it.” Yesterday, courtesy of one really happy taxi driver, in front of the tiny lady who asked me the best way to get to Trouville (which roughly translates to “Hole-town.” The casino is very nice.)

Every morning at 6:30, my husband and I ride our bicycles across the wheat fields to the hotel. The moon is still in the sky. The gypsies have a caravan camp just off the road. I wish I weren’t scared of them, but one of them found me digging through his ‘roadside miscellany’ as he called his garbage, and I thought he was going to go for the jugular. Spitting mad. But who throws out an antique pocket knife? Did he put it there to tempt me into having an argument? Am I a racist xenophobe? Does anyone else have mental racist-sexist-tourette syndrome?

This morning, I got a call from a friendly Russian.

“Hello, I sorry to bother, we stay at your hotel last night. We forget something, I wondering if you see it?”

“Sure, what was it?” I dig around the lost-and-found closet, full of forgotten shampoo, converters, nightgowns.

“Spider.”

“Spider?”

“Black spider. Size of watermelon.”

Every evening, I ride my bicycle past wild chamomile to a town where the baker is comfortingly large and the buildings lean together like old ladies hollering at each other. And I’m sure that every place in the world is the same–you can find beauty in the everyday, the ugly in the spectacular, the humor in the horrible. “No matter where you go, there you are.” But I have to admit, it feels different here. Like nowhere else. The countryside, the village, the hotel. Each part is polished with some sort of glamour, the combination of being a perpetual voyager, forever far from home, and yet feeling as though you’ve grown roots. The two sensations pulling simultaneously, unsettling and kind of wonderful.

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