We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be. – Kurt Vonnegut
Shortly after I married, I began working as an interpreter in a large, prestigious cooking school in the center of Paris. The gentleman for whom I worked had created the Anglophone section at said cooking school just four years earlier, the students working for nine months towards the French CAP diploma. Pastry, wine, sausage making, bread baking and fish/seafood classes fell into my lap, and I stood a short distance from the instructor translating his (always a he) words and instruction from French to English, students’ questions from English to French and back again went the answers.
It was a challenge in so many ways, not the least being that I was both an American and a woman in a very masculine, very French world; at that time it was still extremely rare to find a woman in the kitchen of any French cooking school or restaurant, and Americans were then considered rather boorish when it came to cuisine. Can une américaine really know anything about French gastronomy? I was under intense scrutiny; they watched how I performed, teased and questioned me, wondered how I could replace my boss and if I would hold up under the demands of the job. I felt their piercing, curious gaze each time I entered a new classroom or sat down with them at lunch during those first few weeks. (Happily, I earned both their acceptance and their respect well before I showed up heavily pregnant with my second son after one lengthy vacation.)
Aside from that double handicap, little did they realize that I had to scramble to learn all about French cooking, French cuisine and dishes, French wines; I was expected to be knowledgeable as well as understand, be familiar with cooking terms and vocabulary as an expert, both in French and in English and back again. But I also had to know French tout court; when I accepted the job my command of the French language was shaky, to put it mildly, was anything but proficient or as fluent as an interpreter should be. From day one I was expected to translate without fault, without error, and miss nothing. I was expected to be the consummate professional. And I was, at least on the outside. So I learned on my feet, quickly, feigning comprehension and expertise when inside I was all confusion and panic. I’ve really never been a very good liar but at this I was good, maybe because I loved the job so much.
And in no time at all, I had actually learned everything I needed to know and more, and my working French was fluent and effortless. I knew the kitchen and wine vocabulary, French cuisine no longer was a mystery, and my knowledge of chefs and restaurants impeccable. My inner confidence had met my outer competence.
I am now experiencing the same thing. I stepped into the job of owner and manager the day we opened the hotel for business on February 1. And not one day earlier. I prepared and served breakfast, helped with the clients, answering their questions, showing them to their rooms. I managed the cleaning team, prepared the monthly planning and schedules, answered phones and booked reservations from that first day. And at the beginning, and even still sometimes now, it was a bit of confusion and something of panic on the inside, feeling odd and out of place as if I was an imposter. And I was learning on my feet, never having done this before. But I spoke to the clients, served them breakfast and answered the phone with confidence and ease, tossing in humor for good measure when I could. Because that is what was expected of me. The owner and the boss, the consummate professional.
It’s odd to think that little more than four months have passed. Although I still panic at times (when I think that breakfast will go haywire), sometimes I am confused (ask me to check out a client or tell them how far the drive to Fontevraud Abbey is), but now I am (or so I try) all smooth confidence and ease. At least on the outside. Now the reflexes, the actions are automatic, the gests efficient. I speak with the clients with ease, walk down the halls and into the rooms like, well, the boss.
I haven’t thought about my work in culinary tourism, my work in that cooking school and the time it took me to acclimate and learn for such a long time. I laugh now at the mistakes I made translating or the fact that I kept not one but two French-English Food and Wine Dictionaries tucked inside the huge white chef’s apron I wore each day during classes, pulling one or the other out and checking, furtively, for a translation. I snicker at how terrified I was that my poor French would be found out, that a chef would say something to me and I wouldn’t know what he was saying. Or that my boss would discover that I didn’t have the know-how and qualifications necessary when he hired me. (I will say how thrilled I was to overhear my boss tell a client over the telephone that I had more knowledge about French cuisine than almost anyone he knew!)
There was no training course, no manual, no preparation sessions easing me into that long ago job. I had to be an interpreter from the first moment I stepped into that school, a guide the first time I brought a small group into a Michelin-starred kitchen to meet and cook with the chef. Like the first time a client ordered a hat when I hung up my shingle as a professional milliner, like the first time a magazine editor accepted a pitch for a story idea, I find myself having to step up to the plate, no questions allowed. I slipped into this job as hotelkeeper having to just do it from day one and I had to be ready. It’s all about improvisation and determination.
A wonderful couple came to the hotel, stayed for a few days, two adorable, personable children in tow, he seven, she eleven. The kids decided to make a short film about the hotel, taking video on their mom’s ipad. They came to me and Jean-Pierre, wanting to interview us. “What’s it like living in France?” they asked. “What’s it like running a hotel?” I had to very quickly lasso my emotions and come up with an answer, short, concise and positive. Another client, an American who, with her husband had also stayed for a few days and, being a fellow Floridian, we spent quite a bit of time talking, our conversations peppered with questions about my ending up in Chinon, running a hotel. As I walked her out to her car to see the two off at the end of their stay she said “You don’t know how lucky you are! What an exciting adventure! What a beautiful place!” My doubts melted away to be replaced by contentment and, really for the first time, I felt like I had made the right decision and found my place.
To succeed, planning alone is insufficient. One must improvise as well. – Isaac Asimov, Foundation