Saturday, March 1, 2008

Opération Brioches, Part II

Back on January 10th, I posted an article entitled Opération Brioche and I promised that there would be more to this story. Unfortunately, back in October when the story took place, I was not in “Blog Mode” and I did not have the foresight to take photos of the 60 brioches stacked in my car and my kitchen. Nor did I take photos of the Opération Brioches events. Since the January 10th post, I have been searching for photos of brioches to accompany this post.

Having at last come across some fitting brioches and having scanned the official Opération Brioches brochure, I give you Opération Brioches, Part II, followed by a little “brioches photo tour” I have gathered over the course of the past several weeks. (And you thought I was just loafing all this time…;)

As you may recall from the original post, a brioche is a delicious, slightly sweet, soft, light yeast bread, formed into 6-8 rolls gathered in a circle. As I discovered during my brioche photo quest, it comes in many varieties. But the type used in Opération Brioches is the basic, simple, unfrosted variety that looks more like a cluster of dinner rolls than a frosted Danish.

The Opération Brioches brochure explains that this event was about raising funds for “mentally handicapped” children. I use the word “handicapped” in this article, knowing that it is not a politically correct word in America. However, it is the word used in France! As it turns out, the Opération Brioches event occurs every October through all of the schools, nationwide, in conjunction with radio advertising and a telethon to raise funds for France’s “mentally handicapped” individuals.

But, back to the story of my microcosmic experience with Opération Brioches, as an étrangère and newcomer to this tiny French village. At the time that Christophe de Carpentrie, Président de l'Association des Parents des Élèves de l'École Jean Moulin, told me (he did not “ask”) that I would be in charge of our village version of Opération Brioches, I was absolutely clueless. I knew it was a fundraiser, but I did not understand the purpose and I had no idea how it was to be implemented. My immediate reaction was overwhelm. I envisioned making calls (in French) to boulangeries, asking them to donate brioches and then figuring out an appropriate price, creating signage, etc. As a former Brownie Girl Scout leader of a “super seller” troop, I could certainly handle such a manœuvre in English, in America, but in French and in France? I had no comprehension of the cultural expectations.

When Christophe explained that the brioches would be available at the mairie in Vaison la Romaine, I told him he would have to go with me to pick them up. So he did. While he loaded the brioches into the vehicle, I ran over to my bank and got change. Upon gathering the brioches that Thursday afternoon, I began to understand. This was to be a three-day event, starting Friday and taking place throughout France; Each association could decide when and where, over the course of the three days they would sell their allotted brioches. The allotment and price were predetermined and all brioches would be sold for 5 euros apiece. The fundraiser was something that takes place every year; people throughout France were anticipating the purchase of these brioches.

Last year our village school sold 50 brioches; I was determined we would sell our entire allotment this year. So I did my part; I bought three and Emily and I discovered just how delicious they were; we had finished all three by Monday morning. Emily and I called upon our neighbors and alerted them to the sale; we had pre-orders for a dozen brioches. I was told to go to Chez Claudette to ask the proprietor to have our brioches on hand at her restaurant during her lunch rush. She packs the place at noon, day in and day out; surely there we could make early progress with our sale. So on Friday morning, I went by; Claudette agreed and I left with her, our sales permit and two boxes containing 20 brioches. She sold an additional thirteen.

Next would come the Friday afternoon, after-school party for the eleven élèves at Emily's school. I set up a table on the school patio with drinks (sirop for the water, and fruit juice) and brioches for all the children to eat, along with chunks of chocolate (how French!). I unloaded the remaining 40 or so packages of brioches. After serving the children and filling family orders, we had about 15 packages remaining to be sold. Several mothers and a cluster of children set out to show me how the sale was to be completed. We went around to village houses, in a somewhat haphazard way, stopping primarily at the homes of their friends. Within two hours and as darkness arrived, we had sold all the brioches. Mission accomplished!

During all of this, I thought there was tension in the air. Later, I learned that the mothers had been up in arms over a number of issues. First, they could not believe that I left boxes of brioches at Claudette’s restaurant. It had never been done that way in their village; surely I should have stayed there at the restaurant, selling and collecting. They said that Claudette did not have authority to sell the brioches. But, when I showed them the permits I had received from the mairie and I explained that Claudette had one of the permits on hand, posted at her restaurant the entire time she was selling, they reluctantly acknowledged that, yes it could be done that way. In fact, so long as Claudette was willing, it was a much more efficient way to get the sales! Whew!

Next, the mothers were upset that I was in charge of the money. With 60 brioches sold, at 5 euros each, I had amassed, with everyone’s assistance, a sum of 300 euros (equivalent to $450 US dollars). Certainly, I had handled more than ten times that amount with Girl Scout cookie sales, but I was an étrangère and they had no reason to trust me. It was Friday night and I would be unable to unload the money on anyone or make the bank deposit until the following week. Christine, mother of Gaëtan had been treasurer the prior year; she knew the ropes; she offered to drive me to Vaison to take care of the deposit on Tuesday afternoon. And so it went. On Tuesday, all the money was double-checked and turned over at the mairie in Vaison. Double whew!

But they were still upset…the bottom line was that they felt Christophe, le Président, should never have turned the matter over to me. It was not just that I was an étrangère; apparently there has been a long-standing quarrel among the parents. I’ve tried to get to the bottom of the dispute, but each time I get close, it seems to shift. I have heard that the mothers do not like the way he treats them; he gives a lot of orders, but appears to do little himself. I asked if this is a man vs. woman sort of problem; the moms said maybe...

From my understanding of village life, another component in the discord may be that the de Carpentries are “outsiders.” While they are French, they are not from around here; they are from a far-away village in northern France. The family bought land and moved here about three years ago. They have built a house on the land and appear to be planning to stay and raise their children in this village. In some ways, I think they would be better off as true étrangers from a foreign country; the villagers seem much more accepting and forgiving of our blunders than they may ever be toward their fellow Frenchman. Maybe my speculation is naïve.

Either way, there seems to be an active campaign against Christophe, while the women have sympathy for his wife, Anne-Catherine I’m trying to discern whether he has earned the negative rapport. This conflict is just beneath the surface of every event undertaken by l'Association des Parents des Élèves de l'École Jean Moulin. It will take more encounters with this group and a lot more analysis to reach a point of understanding those interpersonal dynamics. Wouldn’t it seem that in a village of only 250 people, with a student body of only eleven children, representing ten families, the adults could manage to get along? Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In addition to the unexpected detour through the underbelly of the parents’ association, Opération Brioches gave me a first hand look at the intertwining of school, associations, charity and government in France; we had to go to the mairie (city hall) in Vaison la Romaine to pick up our allotted brioches. It would be to this same bureau I would return the following week to hand over the funds we accumulated through the sale of the brioches. The parents association was expected to participate in this national fundraiser and yet, no funds were accumulated for our school. This is so different from the way we do things in the United States. Fascinating!

Now, for the little brioche photo tour, first, I present to you the photo most recently taken. I had been standing at the bakery counter of the E. Leclerk in Bolène, waiting for a clerk to wrap and mark my baguettes for more than five minutes. No clerk was to be found. My eyes drifted to the pastry case and voilà! At last I had found the perfect brioche for my story! I snapped a couple of flash photos, and wouldn't you know it, a clerk came running up. "Madame, you are not allowed to take photos! For security, no photos are allowed!" Geeze, a photo of a brioche might put the whole grocery chain at risk...I hope you appreciate that I came close to arrest to bring you this photo. Judge for yourself just how threatening it may be to France's security.

While the brioches we sold during Opération Brioches were in a plain round aluminum tin and looked much more commercial, like a package of dinner rolls you might find in the U.S., they had the same delicious taste as the one above.

This next brioche is one I found, again at E. Leclerk, just before Mardi Gras. These are the "King's Cakes" that have a little treasure to be hidden in a piece to be found by a child.

This is a Swiss brioche, and I must say that Emily and I loved it. It comes closest to a frosted Danish.

I leave you with this lovely "Broche de Paris" which I must confess, by our standards, had the least appealing flavor of all. If only it had tasted as good as it looked...this was the only one we tossed in the poubelle after one slice!

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