Petit Napoléon

We all know the story of the little French emperor Napoléon Bonaparte but I am fairly positive that you have not met his decendent, Laurent, who works at the Mercure Hotel in Toulouse.

Don't be jealous my friends, but I have.

My first semester in Toulouse was spent cramming my brain with French. Eating, breathing, sleeping French. My throat burned from trying to correctly pronouce the "R" like the French. My lips were in a permanant "kiss me" position from trying to say the "U" like the French. My head pounded after four hours of Histoire de la Femme en France. My hair and clothes stunk of cigarettes like the French.  I was ... integrating.

Because I had already completed four years of university in the states, this year was actually my fifth year of college - which made me old in comparison to the other students. I was only 22 but I might as well have been 82.  I didn't care about the 18-and-over French drinking laws and I didn't care to partake in bar hopping which would permeate my clothes and hair follicles with additional fumer.  Plus, the reality of graduation and becoming an adult began to plague my thoughts.  I needed a JOB.

The only problem is that when you are a foreigner you aim far lower than your CV reads which is how I found myself serving the petit déjeuner at the Hotel Mercure with Laurence, my boss, and Laurent, the Petit Napoléon.

A word about French names. The French love assigning a gender to everything.  The computer is male, the table is female. A chair is also female and so is the tablecloth. If there is a male name, like François, there is the female equivalent - Françoise.  There is Raymond and Raymonde, Pascal and Pascale etc etc. And this is how I found myself hired by Laurence and then under the dictatorship of Laurent. I was 19th century France and Petit Napoléon was the emperor of my petit déjeuner service!

When I arrived at 7am in my pressed shirt, gray skirt and flats, Petit Napoléon was already bustling in the kitchen and mumbling under his breath. Ils mangent comme des cochons! Merde alors! Ils nous faut plus de pain!  He loved that he was the ruler of the kitchen and breakfast room and insisted that we do the "bise" when we said bonjour in the morning - a moment of politesse followed by aller! le pain! Il faut remplir les paniers!

I learned how to say teapot and scrambled eggs, yogurt, tray and grapefruit juice. I learned how to ask for guest room numbers in both French and German, and I could fake it in Spanish if I needed to. My legs were speedy and my espressos were strong!

Despite the fact that this was a three-star hotel, the scrambled eggs came in cafeteria style microwave containers with plastic peel-back covers which Petit Napoléon taught me to microwave until they were just un-runny enough to serve.  He felt very strongly about managing his scrambled egg stock for the week and would rant and fume about the "Chintooks" (derogatory French word for Chinese folks) who a tout bouffé!!!!!!!!  Merde! Putain! On n'aura pas assez pour demain!!  I learned to distribute scrambled eggs wisely and mastered the French art of announcing without care that sorry, we were out. No more eggs. Désolée Madame.

Hygiene was not at the forefront of Petit Napoléon's policies during his reign.  He was a genie de petit déjeuner - a revolutionary of hotel breakfast service.  Bacteria didn't matter as long as the guests checked out before the E.Coli set in.  If a pineapple chunk called to him in the fruit salad tupperware, then damnit he would stick his hand in there and dig it out!  Then he would offer one to me. And then he would dump the entire contents into the punch bowel and command that I set it out on the buffet. Voila! Les fruits!

He ran a tight ship that Laurence was proud of. She would beam at his undying love for breakfast and his motivation to serve it better each day. She was also aware that without me, Petit Napoléon was powerless, a monarch without his followers, and I secretly felt that she appreciated my 19th century qualities. She was so happy with my work as an assistante de petit-déjeuner that she offered me a full-time contract, a CDI - contrat de durée indéterminée. But unlike Petit Napoléon, for me this job was just that - a job - one that I could leave fulfilled by having learned new breakfast vocabulary and French work ethic.

On my last day of petit dej service, Petit Napoléon took off his crown, gave me the bise and said, "tu ne veux pas faire ça toute ta vie. Tu as plein d'autres choses devant toi."

Merci Laurent - may your eggs always scramble, may the Chinese never eat them all, and may there always be extra pineapple in the fruit salad.

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