Cathy St. Denis: Cinderella in Provence

CathyStDenisWho among us hasn’t fantasized about tossing away their corporate job for something more fun, more glamorous, more … more of anything that you’re not getting at your current job.  Sometimes, the opposite of where we are seems like just the place we want to be.

For Cathy St. Denis, that fantasy was sparked when frustration at work and a longing for something totally different collided during a 2001 spring vacation through in France. The wheels started turning after a day hike through Provence, when St. Denis and her tour group stopped at a charming bed and breakfast.

An early evening of chatting with the innkeepers while sipping wine and drinking in the scenery culminated in learning that each year the inn hired an apprentice to help run the show – a nine-month position where you could learn the “inns” and outs of the B&B business. Et voilà! The seed was planted.

St. Denis returned home to her demanding corporate communications job in Washington, D.C. but continued to mull over the idea … could she be the next apprentice? She was energized by thoughts of chatting with guests from all over the world, perfecting her baking and cooking skills, and exploring Provence in her free time. But not one to rush into things without careful planning, St. Denis planned a fact-finding trip to Napa to visit two women-owned and run inns. But the trip, planned for September 12, 2001 was postponed due to the tragedies of 9-11, an event that helped cement St. Denis’ determination even further. If life can change on a dime, why waste another moment fantasizing? Just get on with it.

So St. Denis charged ahead, applying for, and securing the internship due to begin on March 1, “shoulder season” in the inn business. Although she knew her adventure was certainly not going to be a fortune-making one – the B&B offered a small stipend and room and board, but no salary – it also carried little financial risk should it not work out.

The innkeepers were clear on her responsibilities: preparation of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. “The duties were openly discussed, but the actual length of the working day was not,” says St. Denis, who noted alarm bells started going off shortly after she arrived. “In the first couple of weeks on the job, it was apparent to me it was going to be a slog.”

Her day began at 6 a.m. when she was instructed to turn on the warmer for the frozen pastries, by 8 a.m she was scuttling between serving breakfast, making fresh croutons and other items for the menu later in the day, and stripping the guest beds – six rooms worth – many with multiple beds. By 10 a.m. when breakfast had ended and the communal table was cleared, St. Denis began the laundry, which involved 2–10 loads depending on the number of guests. This was not a simple process as the sheets had to be hung out to dry. “The owner was, how shall I say, very particular about how the laundry was done, and if you didn’t do it precisely, we’ll, hell hath no fury…”

In between loads, on most days St. Denis would get started on dinner and dessert, a task that took most of the day. And while the guests were eating, she would race upstairs to do the turn-down service, quickly returning to take care of any post-dinner needs. By around 10 p.m. she was ready to tackle the kitchen – a restaurant-sized kitchen that had to be cleaned from top to bottom each night, including the dishes, some of which were too delicate for the dishwasher. After that, she set up for the next morning, returning to her room just before midnight, like Cinderella, to get a quick night sleep before the next day.

While St Denis took care of everything at the B&B, the innkeepers took daily siestas, and despite one of them being a classically trained chef, they still relied on their apprentice for most of the food preparation. For St. Denis, there was little chatting with guests, few trips exploring the nearby towns, and little-to-no camaraderie with her fellow innkeepers. Instead she developed dark circles under her eyes and lost 22 lbs. despite being surrounded by creme brulée, rich cheeses, and paté.

In June, she knew she needed an exit strategy and, within a month, gave her notice for September 1, a more-than-fair amount of time for the owners to find a replacement. Their response? “But who will watch the inn while we go on holiday?”

Sometimes you fantasize about a life change or a new job, and it turns out to be just that … a fantasy. “I knew within a month, I had no desire to ever own an inn,” says St. Denis. Even the owners, who relied so heavily on their staff, were tied to their B&B for nine months a year, a responsibility that didn’t seem appealing, despite the one positive experience of chatting with guests, 95% of whom were lovely, she says.

“You know, I realized I had a really good life in Washington with good friends, a great house, a successful career, and I owned my time.”

Today, more than a decade later, St. Denis is happily still in communications in the transportation industry…although she still occasionally fantasizes about perhaps working at a winery.

Tips From Cathy:

  • If you are considering a drastic career change, minimize your financial risk. Don’t invest any of your own money until you’re sure about the switch.
  • Do your research!  If a potential employer dangles a shiny object in front of you, be sure to ask about the downsides! Or better yet, ask to speak with someone who previously held the position.
  • Go for it! Things may not work out but the experience can still be rich.

Discussion

What job have you fantasized about?

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