ANNA—The name of a French potato dish created by Adolphe Dugléré, to accompany roast meat and poultry.
– Larousse Gastronomique
Paris, 14th June 1940.
Raoul, the Executive Head Chef, was a large roly-poly kind of man. He stood on the grey stone flags outside the Hotel Metro, shoulder to shoulder with Marek the Head Chef, and Philippe the Maître d’Hôtel, as they watched the German column passing by in its triumph. He wore a white chef’s tunic buttoned to the neck and grey, fine-checked trousers. In his right hand he gripped a long soup ladle as if it were some kind of cudgel with which he could keep the evil of the invading forces away. It gave him a ridiculous feeling of security in a world where now there was none. He had grabbed it as he left his kitchens even though he knew it was more a statement than a weapon. He tapped the bowl against his left hand.
There was a faint, familiar smell of Paris mornings in his nostrils and he wrinkled his nose in recognition. Because of his size his companions were too far apart to converse, but he could make himself heard by leaning over to speak to either in turn. The hotel staff crowding around them under the arches maintained their stony silence. There was no reason for anyone to cheer. France had accepted defeat and now the Germans came. It was as if a depression of mood had descended upon anyone French; as if a mass-mourning was in progress.
Some of the kitchen staff stood watching the passing col-umn too, though others had their backs turned in protest. Raoul regarded their faces and could envisage the lost hope as if it drifted away into the dust of the summer’s day. He felt his heart harden as the troops filed past. He was French and his pride in that remained, sharing everyone's dismay and feelings of hopelessness.
Natalie, a demi-sous chef, stood facing him and dabbed at her eyes with a white lace handkerchief. Raoul watched her. His heart softened and he wanted to put one of his big, rotund arms around her. He had known her for so many years but never given voice to his admiration, and now that she worked in his hotel kitchens it would have been improper. So Raoul never expressed his feelings for her and she seemed oblivious.
Even George the concierge had tears in his eyes; he wore that puckered facial contortion only a crying man can portray. Some of the crowd lining the Rue de Rivoli bore expressions of curiosity, others like George showed obvious distress. Many of them had relatives or husbands in the now dispersed army, spread across France, going home, or else escaped to England with the departing Rosbifs. Raoul could feel the despair of defeat in the air like an acrid smoke from an untended fire.
Dust rose in a cloud above the armoured cars, the tanks and the marching infantry as they passed by, heading towards the Arc de Triomphe. Drums sounded the marching beat, and in the distance a band played some meaningless German tune, wasted on the ears of the defeated French. Raoul wondered what would happen now. Would life continue as it always had before? Would they destroy Paris? Surely, even the Germans would not raze the city as rumours had hinted for the last week. He leaned forward and put a placatory hand on the shoulder of one of the waitresses.
‘Don’t worry, Collette. Business as usual. We will rise above all this politics. You’ll see.’
She looked up at him. Young, blonde and pretty, her make-up laden tears streaked her cheeks and her moist eyes seemed to beg reassurance.
Raoul’s broad cherubic face above the generous double chin showed only empathy. He realised she was too distressed to reply, so he patted her shoulder and turned to George.
‘A bad day for France. A bad day for Hotel le Metro too, I think.’
George looked up at Raoul; he wrinkled his forehead, and his small moustache twitched as he said, ‘I really thought the Maginot line would hold them.’
‘So did we all, my friend. Maybe they will go home once Pétain makes peace.’
The approach of a group of soldiers detached from the column, marching towards the crowd, interrupted them. In front was an officer in a green SS uniform. He was of medium height and thin, all angles and points. Raoul disliked him at once. There was a mean look in the man’s expression as if he bore a grudge against everyone before him. He had hazel eyes and an angular chin. A wisp of dark brown hair poked out above his left ear from under his black peaked cap.
‘You there,’ he said, pointing at Raoul.
‘You, the fat one. Who is in charge here?’
‘The manager, Monsieur Robert. He is inside.’
‘Well get him.’
‘I am the Head Chef. I will send someone.’
‘No. I want you to go. You look like you need the exercise. Go.’
‘I am not in your army. I do not take orders. If you wish to speak to Monsieur Robert please come inside and the concierge will telephone him from the lobby.’
George sniggered, but covered his mouth with his hand and turned away. He was a small man, with a generous moustache and black, bushy eyebrows. His dark red uniform was a little too long in the sleeves, but smart enough. He always reminded Raoul of Groucho Marx.
The green-uniformed German removed his white leather gloves and approached through the spectating staff who stepped out of his way like the Red Sea parting before Moses. Raoul stood still. He towered above the German and remained unwilling to give ground.
‘I am Hauptsturmführer Schiller,’ the German said. ‘I am in charge of logistics and I am here to commandeer this hotel for the Third Reich. You and all your staff will do as I say if you wish to remain working in the hotel. Is that clear? Now get out of my way or I will have you removed.’
Raoul stepped aside and the thin man brushed past him, crossing the red carpet and entering the arched doorway to the old hotel’s lobby. Raoul could smell 4711 cologne and sweat as the man swept by. He wrinkled his nose again.
They smell like perfumed pigs and have worse manners.
The assembled staff began to disperse leaving Raoul and Philippe alone outside looking at the smiling soldiers filing past. A drummer drilling a tattoo on a snare drum smiled straight at them as he passed. Raoul felt more like striding forward to strike him with his ladle. He gritted his teeth.
‘What happens now?’ Philippe said.
‘Now? It seems we will be cooking for German soldiers. I hope they like escargot and garlic, but I doubt it, my friend.’
‘Why not? The beauty of your cuisine is not changed by the customer, only its contents.’
‘All the same, there will be changes, but we must persevere and bend in the wind of change.’
‘I’ve never seen you bend Raoul. Maybe if you lost a little weight…’
Raoul laughed out loud. ‘No. The Tour Eiffel does not bend either, and it is still standing. They will try to change us though. I’m certain of it.’
‘We can only hope the war ends soon.’
‘Maybe it will last fifty years. Who knows?’
‘I hope not. My son is in England.’
‘Let us pray it does not. Meanwhile, we must do what we can to keep France, like our hotel, as French as we can. It would be a shame to have German food on our tables.’
‘Or Germans sitting at them.’
‘Yes, but that is the only thing we cannot control now.’
They turned and mounted the steps. Raoul’s heart felt as heavy as a German dumpling as he crossed the lobby, but his nature was one of optimism and he still had hope. It was a hope the Germans would soon leave and life could go on as it had done for two centuries in the Hotel Metro.
Bergerac, Late Summer 1917.
The boy’s fist landed with a slapping sound as it struck Raoul on the chest. There was pain, but it was dull and reached his brain a long time after it landed. After all, it needed time to travel through his bulk. He would have run away but his rotund legs made it hard to gather speed, so he sat down in the mud instead, anticipating the arrival of a booted foot. Resigned to the inevitable, he placed his hands behind him, podgy fingers spread out like sausages providing a firm base, his arms two thick tent poles propping him up.
It had been like this for a long time. The older boys teased him, made him cry, and sometimes beat him. At times his body bore livid testament to the abuse, with large bruises and welts carried home but hidden from his parents. He knew they would have been upset had they known. They often told him that his was a family of large people. Both of them were large too and he wondered at times whether they had also weathered the abuse of ignorant peers when they were fifteen-years-old like him. The endless cycle of teasing, pushing and punching, ground on in his daily life, though he was used to it now.
But today was different. Today, the expected boot-blows did not arrive and he watched with surprise as a big boy stepped between him and his persecutors. Raoul had seen this fellow before, but did not know his name. He felt as if their lives were in parallel since they had both grown up in Bergerac without ever speaking. Today the parallel lines converged and overlapped. Today Raoul’s life changed, and for the better.
‘Leave him alone, can’t you?’ the big boy said.
‘Sticking up for Fatty are you?’
‘Just leave him alone, he doesn’t do any harm.’
‘He’s stupid and fat and you’re a Jew. Thought you didn’t like pork, but seems I was wrong. You make a good couple,’ the boy who had hit Raoul said.
‘Pick on him again and you’ll get hurt. I mean it. Now go.’
The speaker was a little older than Raoul, tall and well built. He stood with his back to the victim, his fists raised like a real pugilist. He had a shock of wavy, brown hair and a large hooked nose, and as he frowned at his opponents Raoul thought he looked grim. In the day’s fading light, he looked enormous too against the red and grey, cloud-layered sky, as if he towered above the fat boy looking up at him from the ground. For long moments there was silence apart from the sound of the wave splashes of the Dordogne River flowing past. A glimmer of envy took Raoul. He wished he could be like this dark courageous fellow, though he knew inside he could not.
The two other boys moved off laughing and gesticulating at Raoul’s protector as the big fellow turned, leaning forward to offer Raoul a hand. Pulling the plump boy up, he said, ‘I’m Pierre Dreyfus.’
‘Raoul Verney. Thanks for helping me.’
‘It doesn’t mean we’re friends.’
‘No, of course.’
‘And don’t expect me to do that all the time. Why don’t you defend yourself?’
‘I’m no good at fighting. Usually, once they’ve hit me a few times, they get fed up and go away. I don’t mind. I’m wearing armour.
Raoul slapped his plump tummy and smiled. Pierre smiled too.
‘Yes, guess that layer of rubber comes in useful.’
Their eyes met and the humour of the moment erupted into laughter.
‘No. Really. Why did you help me?’ Raoul said.
‘I just don’t like people picking on others.’
‘It doesn’t bother me any more.’
‘It should bother you. Have you no self-esteem? No pride? I wouldn’t let anyone treat me like that.’
‘You would if you were my size Pierre. Bet no one picks on you anyway. You look tough.’
‘They do? Why?’
‘Didn’t you hear what they said?’
‘About you being a Jew?’
‘They pick on you for that?’
‘But you fight them.’
‘Yes. I have pride. It doesn’t happen often but when it does, I give as good as I get, so mostly they leave me alone.’
‘Perhaps you will be a great fighter one day.’
‘No. I’ll be a farmer like my father. I live on a farm on the south side.’
‘I’m going to be a chef. My papa is a cook, but he says I should be a proper chef in a restaurant. He wants me to go to a college in a couple of years to learn how to do that.’
‘You can cook fish?’
‘Then come fishing tomorrow with me and Auguste and we’ll find out if you can cook.’
They walked in silence to the place where, across the bridge, the southern road branches, the lower road stretching away across the flat, verdant farmlands of the Dordogne valley, the other following the river. They parted there, and Raoul never forgot Pierre’s advice. He determined he would never give in to bullies again, whoever they were and whatever it took.