'La vie en rose' in a French chateau is not what it used to be
| Hennebont, France
''LIFE isn't what it used to be,'' sighed the Countess de la Sabliere. She was talking in the salon of her family home, Le Chateau de Locguenole, here on the southern coast of Brittany. Paintings of her ancestors hung on one wall, an original Flemish tapesty on another. Outside, the lawn sloped gently down to the river.
The countess herself provided the final patrician touch. Dressed in an elegant velvet suit, she held her shoulders high, her handsome face stiff, and carefully enunciated her words in a pure, classical French.
''I always liked good service,'' she continued. ''But today it's hard to find. I've been looking for weeks for a gardener - no one will take the job.''
Alas, appearances are deceiving. Chateau life and aristocracy are not what they used to be in France. Indeed, the difficulty of finding a gardener is only one of many signs that the modern age has turned Countess de la Sabliere's life upside down.
To make ends meet, she has been forced to turn her chateau into a luxury hotel. The Rolls-Royces out front belong to the customers, the new nobility of lawyers, doctors, high-level government bureaucrats, and big businessmen.
The countess herself drives a Renault, lives in a cottage down the road, and has to deal with a working-class cook who boasts, with some reason, that he is the new king of the manor. He, by the way, drives a BMW coupe.
Class manners, of course, remain. The chateau sells old-style, upper-class elegance, and some of the countess's old-style, upper-class prejudices persist. She frequently denounces nouveau riche parvenus, for example, and insists that her son use the formal ''vous'' form to address her.
''I can't be anything other than I am,'' she says. ''I just can't slap people on the back.''
Still, the transformation of Chateau de Locguenole and its countess is striking. In many ways, it mirrors the evolution of French society over the past half century, with aristocrats becoming less privileged and peasants less docile and downtrodden.
Not long ago, nobility scorned business and vulgar competition as incompatible with its near divine right to rule. The local aristocrat controlled villages on semifeudal lines. He leased land to the local peasants and usually was mayor. Such was the de la Sablieres' position in Hennebont.
''The saying was that the Count de la Sabliere could travel throughout Brittany without leaving his land,'' the countess says.
This noble privilege, first shaken by the revolution, was really buried only a generation ago. German occupation during World War II shattered the country, and postwar industrialization revolutionized the land. More than 3 million peasants moved to the cities between 1947 and 1963. Many of those who stayed on the farms modernized as well, putting new agricultural technology into use and forming cooperatives.
For the de la Sablieres, the war was a nightmare. Nearby Lorient was transformed into the major Nazi U-boat base, and German admirals made Chateau de Locguenole their headquarters.
Adm. Karl Donitz spent many evenings here, and his troops looted the premises. What the Germans didn't finish by way of destruction, the Americans did with their heavy aerial bombardment.
After the liberation, the de la Sablieres came back to Hennebont. They sold much of their estate and tried to restore the chateau. It didn't work.
''Everything was in semi-ruin,'' the countess explains. ''We tried to live here as family - this salon was our dining room - but there just wasn't enough money. We started with three servants and soon were down to one part-time maid.''
What to do? At first, the countess tried running a summer camp on the premises. But that didn't bring in enough money.
Finally, she turned to hotelkeeping. Taking out a loan, she opened Chateau de la Locguenole to the public in 1968 as a member of Relais et Chateaux, France's fanciest hotel group.
''At first, some of my old friends said, 'How can you so dishonor your home?' '' the countess recalls. ''Now many of them are being forced to do the same thing. With taxes on estates so high, you have to turn the chateau into a business.''
Along with her home, the countess was forced to transform herself. Old-style countesses stuck to finishing schools. The new-style countess enrolled in a chamber of commerce business course. She also took on the gauchest of chores: visiting travel agents around the world to promote her establishment.
There was much more, too. Her once-docile servants were now headstrong workers, many from hotel schools. Most scorned her own conservative politics. One chef was even the son of the local Communist Party chief and himself a committed party member.
''It was a bit of a shock,'' the countess recalls. ''But we grew to respect each other. His father even liked the chateau. He saw this as an efficient operation.''
Perhaps the most difficult employee, though, has been her head chef. Without an exemplary kitchen, the countess figured she could fill only 50 percent of her rooms.
So, after a long search, she hired one of France's most talented young chefs, Michel Gaudin, son of a poor bistro cook from the southwest Basque country.
The problem is that Gaudin knows he is talented, and he rules his kitchen in monarchical fashion.
''I run this place, I do the budget, the menu, the prices, everything,'' he beams, standing in the center of the huge, gleaming kitchen. Fourteen other chefs scurry around him.
Gaudin himself is not doing badly. In addition to his BMW, he has three apartments from which to lead his jet-set life.
''He can be difficult, but he's an artist, too,'' the countess says, letting out another sigh.
Some of the customers have been even more difficult. While the countess emphasizes how many nice people have stayed at the chateau, she adds that some of her moneyed clientele think they deserve more than a king.
''One man was so mad after a meal that he came running up to me and yelled, 'Madame, your kidneys are like bicycle tires,' '' she recalls.
''Another customer would only drink his own champagne. He brought six cases with him - and drank them in my salon with his feet up on the antique furniture.''
A final challenge came from the most unexpected of places - a member of the countess's own class, the legendary Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
This winter, he employed chef Gaudin at his chalet in Megeve and found his food so good that he tried to hire him away. The countess fought back, though, and after much cajoling persuaded Gaudin to return to the chateau.
''What audacity,'' she says. ''It isn't proper to borrow my chef and then try to steal him away.''
As the episode shows, this countess isn't afraid of anyone.
She has become a shrewd, tough businesswoman,whose conversation is often sprinkled with references to profit margins and overhead costs. Under her management, the chateau is turning a solid profit despite the deepening French recession and the Socialist government's wealth taxes.
''People still want quality,'' she explains. ''As for the Socialists, well, I can get along with them. After all, several of their ministers have spent nice vacations here.''