It wasn’t a very old house, yet it had an old-world charm. It displayed a large open front on the ground floor, leading to an extended hall, created possibly by joining two or three rooms. That served as the main room of the bakery, with a few tables and chairs on one side where customers could sit, and the sales counter on the other side with a display of the products. There was an extended room at the back where the baking was done and a smaller room on the side where both the raw materials and some additional products were stored.
More than the science, there was an art to the business of baking. You have to love what you are doing. You have to believe that quality matters. It did not matter that only a small number of people in a poor country could afford to buy your products. What mattered was how they enjoyed what you made. What mattered even more how much you enjoyed making them. Yolette loved making her bread, cakes, pastries and assorted cookies. She showed me her designs and the French design books from which she took her inspiration. She thought of herself as an artist and I agreed with her. Nobody in their right mind would think of her as anything else.
It took me a while to strike friendship with her. I thought of a bakery as a place where you bought a few things and got out quickly. Yolette’s husband, Michel, changed that. The third Sunday I visited Boulangerie Christophe, he appraised me with a curious eye as he packed my purchases.
“You were here last Sunday?” he asked with a smile.
“And the Sunday before that,” I replied.
It was an early hour and there wasn’t a crowd yet. He finished packing and said, “Why don’t we have some coffee?”
We repaired to a corner table and he graciously pulled out a chair for me.
“Is it that obvious?” I laughed and said, “I just came a month back. I am still finding my feet. A friend recommended your bakery.”
“I am glad to hear that.”
“He said that all our Embassy colleagues buy from you. I asked because my daughter’s birthday is next month, and I will need a birthday cake.”
“We will be glad to make it for you. Just tell us what kind of cake she would like and what words you would like on the cake.”
“I will talk to her and get those to you in time. Your coffee is excellent, I must say.”
“In Haiti, we roast the coffee beans in a very special way. I am happy that you like it,” Michel said, and ordered another round of coffee for us.
Then he said, “As you are new here, let me say this. You will find that people react to Haiti in two ways. Either they loathe it and loathe it greatly. Or they love it and love it a lot. There seems to be no middle ground.”
I told him that I had read something similar in Herbert Gold’s book about the country. “I have been in Haiti barely a month, but I seem to like it. It has a fascinating history and the people are warm. I expect to like it more and more.”
He introduced me to his wife, Yolette, and mentioned my birthday cake. I thanked them both and left.
Yolette’s brother was a general in the Haitian army and a member of the junta then ruling the country, after a coup d’état to dislodge the democratically elected President. Also, the Carvonis were related by marriage to a major business family that had financed the coup. They too came to know quickly that I was in the country to negotiate the end of the junta’s rule and the return of the President to power. Doubtless they had misgivings about my mission, but our friendship endured and flourished. Together we explored the best restaurants of Port au Prince and went to dance the meringue in the lively nightclubs of Pétionville.
Eight months later, after negotiations had failed and US marines had taken over the country, the President was returned to power and the military junta went back to the barracks. My mission had ended, and I was to return to Washington. The last Sunday I did not visit the bakery, for I had to supervise the packing of household goods.
To my surprise Michel and Yolette turned up with a large box of croissants aux amandes. They knew just what I loved with my coffee. When they were leaving, I came out to see them off and their chauffeur brought out two huge cartons of Haitian specially-roasted coffee. The Carvonis didn’t want me to miss my cherished flavor even in Washington.