Bakers Without Borders: A North Country Immigration Story
Amid the immigrants who have come to New Hampshire are two French citizens – a doctor and a nurse - who saw America as a place for a radically new life focused not on patients but on making baguettes and Madeleines in the North Country.
Our Immigration Series continues as NHPR’s Chris Jensen reports.
Sound of Marc and Verlaine speaking French and cash register ringing….
For Verlaine Daeron and Marc Ounis leaving Paris and moving to Colebrook was not just changing countries.
It was a complete do-over that they felt could best be done in America.
Marc had been a doctor in Paris.
Verlaine a nurse.
In France one would expect them to do that all their lives, Marc says.
People just don’t switch careers.
(Marc): “In France, no in general when you start teacher, you dead teacher. You go to retirement. All your life you are a teacher.”
But they saw America as a place where second thoughts could become reality, where people could voluntarily change careers and nobody would think it odd.
(Marc): “It is another way of life. Another way of life. In U.S.A. we see someone today he have this job tomorrow he changes job.”
It began a little over a decade ago when Marc in the United States. He liked it so much he made a telephone call.
In Paris Verlaine picked up the phone.
(Verlaine): “He told me ‘Oh, it is nice. We can change the life and do you want to think to do that? I say ‘Why not?’”
Friends and family had mixed reactions. Marc and Verlaine were middle-aged. This was a startling change.
(Verlaine): “For some people in Paris it was strange because we changed our life.”
But people were impressed with the fact that they were moving to the United States.
(Verlaine): “You know in France, USA is like a dream.”
They weren’t refugees running away from something. They love Paris and still feel compelled to visit it every year.
They were running to a new life they thought the United States offered.
They hadn’t decided on a place to live and happened to be driving through Colebrook. People were friendly. They liked it.
And, it was one other thing:
(Verlaine): “A small town. To live in a big city like Paris or New York, we are too old for that. We need to be more quiet.”
Before leaving Paris they went to school to learn how to become – bakers.
(Verlaine): “We make bread, ah, baguettes, honey bread, different kinds of bread, rye. We make croissants, plain or with different fillings. Tartes. Madeleines. Macaroons and chocolates.”
Of course before they began that baking – which usually keeps Marc busy from about 1 a.m. until 9 am or so when he goes back to bed – they needed a store.
They spent about a year renovating a closed bank on Main Street. When they got going at the end of 2001 Colebrook found it had a real French bakery and cafe. Le Rendez Vous Bakery.
Bruce Katz is a dentist with an office down the street.
“I didn’t believe it. I didn’t expect the real thing.”
In the classic French tradition Katz buys a fresh baguette every day.
“Yes, I am spoiled. If they ever left I would be heartbroken.”
Katz came close to being heartbroken.
In 2009 Verlaine went back to Paris to get her visa renewed. She says a woman at the embassy told her that their business was marginal.
Apparently the concern was that it wasn’t helping the local economy enough to warrant the visa being renewed.
Verlaine: “She told me ‘Sell your business and stay in Paris and it is not their problem.”
But lots of people in Colebrook saw it as their problem.
Heated and pleading letters were written to Congressional reps and the State Department and President Obama.
Verlaine: “It was wonderful. I could not imagine before it would happen like that.”
Colebrook was the New Hampshire mouse that roared.
The State Department reconsidered and issued the visa.
Marc and Verlaine say closing of the Balsams’ resort has hurt them. Tourists often stopped by for a treat.
But they have a small and steady stream of customers including the farmer’s market in Bethlehem and the co-op in Littleton.
Sound of bread being purchased, wrapped, cash register and chatting.
And that’s working just fine.
For NHPR News this is Chris Jensen
For NHPR's Immigration Series go here.