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Fabien Turbe

In conversation with Lucile Flamand

Fabien is the manager of Frenchies, a French café and patiserrie on Cowley Road in Oxford, which he opened with his brother in early 2005.

Photo of Fabien Turbe outside Frenchies

At the age of thirteen, I left school to work and earn money. I wouldn’t say that I wanted to be rich, but I felt like I wanted to be independent. I was fed up with school. My parents and teachers tried to stop be from quitting, telling me that working on a fishing boat was quite hard and that, moreover, it was a waste for me not to continue school because I could have gone really far. That’s how I began to give money to my parents, every month – I actually earned more than both of them. I think it’s important to contribute financially. Children today are like little princes who don’t care about how much they cost their parents, and how much their parents spend on their education and daily life.

I never believed that this kind of life, working on a boat for a month then having four days at home, would satisfy me. After a few years I decided to quit. I wanted to lead a less busy life, in order to find someone to build a family with. I always needed a family; this is what I would call the aim of my life. It gets me into trouble sometimes because I haven’t always met the right people to do it with. I always need to have relationships, to feel that I have someone to count on. I have to be attached to someone. When I was younger I had many arguments with my mother and we weren’t that close, so it might help explain my desire to be attached to someone and to have a close family.

*

I had a girlfriend in France who I was together with for years. I later realised that she wasn’t an interesting person at all. But I stayed with her because I had nobody else to be with. I would call that ‘loving habit’. I was used to being with her, and so I thought I loved her. And this is how I spent all of the money I had saved for years, buying her stuff and keeping her satisfied, without bringing me any pleasure. When I realised, too late, how silly I had been, I couldn’t do anything but cry and feel hurt. It was entirely my fault; I was the only one to blame. I was totally disheartened, and I had a nervous breakdown.

My sister, who travels a lot, advised me to leave France, to totally change the kind of environment I was used to. That’s how I arrived in London. I had studied English at school, and thanks to my memory I remembered many things. But I needed some more vocabulary, so I spent several months in my sister’s room in London, hidden because it was totally illegal, sleeping on the floor, and reading books and writing as much as possible to improve my English to be able to work. Today I speak good English, even if I don’t have an English accent. I don’t want this accent, neither do I want an English passport. More and more, people notice that I am French. I guess I’d like, sometimes, to have a good accent, when I need to speak to important people. But in my everyday life, this is useless.

After that, my sister registered me in an employment agency, and I began to work in a restaurant as a dishwasher, and I met a businesswoman from London. I fell in love with her and our relationship lasted for four months. But one day, without warning, she left me. That was one of the greatest pains in my life. That’s how I understood what love really means. When you find that you feel different when you say I love you, then I guess you are in love. You cannot learn love. You just discover it, it happens to you. And when it does happen, you know it. There is no doubt then. Just as I understood what love is, I also discovered how enormous suffering could be.

Although it was the second time that I had had such a pain, and I knew how I would act and how bad the consequences would be for me, I just couldn’t help it…from that moment I began drinking and left everything. I didn’t care anymore about my job, and how I was going to end up. I was just so upset…This is usually the kind of desperate situation in which I meet bad people that are going to draw me down more than I already am. Maybe I attract them. I don’t really know. I would call that Fate. But it might also be due to the places I used to go to when I was upset. I spent most of my nights hanging around, looking for alcohol, people to talk to…My boss decided to make me change my environment a bit so I went to work in his second restaurant, with another great guy who quickly became my best friend.

Regarding friendship, I think you can have several good friends. Indeed, you always know a lot of people, but true friendship exists only with one friend. You have only one friend; he is your best friend. A friend is someone you can trust 150 percent, as was the case with the guy I met at the second restaurant. The basis of a real friendship is to help one another, and to understand him. Friends must be by one’s side when there is a need of help and understanding. To be a good friend, you need to be able to give without waiting for something back.

*

When I was younger, my grandparents used to take care of us a lot because my parents weren’t wealthy enough. That’s why the three of us usually wore exactly the same type of pullover that our grandmother had knitted for us. She used to be a costume maker, so she made most of our clothes. My sister and I have just two years between us, so we looked like twins, dressed with exactly the same things. When my grandmother gave us pocket money, my mother wouldn’t ask us for it because we would tell her. My grandmother usually gave me more time because she knew how difficult my relations with my mother were.

If I had to talk about the best and the worst moment ever spent with my parents, I would start with the worst, because it’s quite hard to find the good moments in my memories. Of course I spent some good times with my parents, but the worst come much more easily to me. I don’t know if there has ever been any moment worse than the others; I would rather talk of a bad period, when my parents didn’t have that much money, which meant no gifts, no luxuries, not many holidays. When I did something wrong, my mother used to shout at my father, ‘slap him!’ She grew up in a public assistance home; I guess that’s why she was quite hard.

My father was a fisherman and as a fisherman, he had to spend long periods away. When I was seventeen, I tried to work with him; I was his second man. But it just didn’t work out so I went my own way. One of my worst memories is of spending a year working on a fishing boat with people from my family. I thought it would be something good, but it wasn’t. I received the worst treatment I have ever had. I am someone who is really respectful of the rules, and I tried to work as hard as possible, doing my best. But I could never understand why they treated me the way they did. They didn’t feed me properly, they didn’t allow me to rest, they beat me. They didn’t seem to want me on the boat.

That lasted a whole year. In that kind of community, when everyone knows everyone else, quitting wasn’t an option. You couldn’t do it. So I tried to cope with that awful situation and kept on working, ignoring the beating and my sore stomach. I lost weight, and had frequent nosebleeds.

When this nightmare finally stopped, my mother, who has no problem with speaking frankly and directly, and who used to work as secretary in the town council, created a scandal by trying to understand why I had been treated so harshly. I think my mother was some kind of a troublemaker. She always wanted to get involved in everything, and in that case, it had important consequences for me. After a long time spent talking and shouting, it was finally discovered that the boat I worked on was involved in huge drug trafficking. That’s why they had been so harsh with me; because they were scared of working with someone as ‘innocent’ as me, whose mother worked with the mayor. That all had really bad consequences for me. People didn’t want to be my employer because they thought I’d get them into trouble. And I became very depressed. It was one of the most difficult times of my life.

*

My parents tried so hard and for such long time to get what they have today, that I think I don’t hold anything against them. They did what they could. I could explain the fact that I need so much love and affection because I lacked it when I was younger. So it is probably due to my mother. I love her, but in a different way than the other children do, I guess. We have had many troubles; now that I see her less often, our relations have improved, but it happens sometimes that I feel I should just stop talking to her before we start arguing.

My mother always told me what to do, and that I had to work and make it alone because no one else would do it for me. I once thought I should go back to school but I told myself I was too busy and that I don’t really need it now. Today I think I should have continued my studies, and I know I could do so now, but I feel again like I am too busy with my shop to do it. I might regret it in few years. This is one of my biggest problems. I always defer things to another day, put them on hold. It might get me into trouble, but for the moment, I just don’t care.

*

There is something funny I remember from a day that shouldn’t be funny. When my godfather died, aged twenty-one, in a car crash, we all stood in front of the empty coffin, and his mother said something, still crying, that sounded really amusing: ‘J’aurais jamais cru qu’mon p’tit Fredo s’rait mort tout roti…’ It means, ‘I would never had guessed that my small Fredo (her son) would have died cooked…’ And said in patois, it made me laugh. Throughout my whole life I’ve remembered that sentence she said so naturally, really meaning it. It was eighteen years ago, but I still remember it as if had happened yesterday.

*

My wife Kate, who is from Slovakia, arrived in my life when I was working in another restaurant in Woking, where I’d progressed from washing up to being head chef. We quickly fell in love. But it was a bit strange. She told me at the beginning of our relationship that she didn’t like my job, my house (which I didn’t like either) and my friends. I was really upset because, while I could change my job and house, my friends reflected well who I was. My best friend taught me everything I know today about cooking, and I am glad my wife likes him today.

Kate and I had troubles for a while. I felt really sad once again, and failed to cope with it. I thought everything was over between us. I have always told myself that if I happened to meet the right person, I would stop doing bad things, be very correct, and then she left me and I started to drink again. I know this is not the best solution, but at the time alcohol gave me the courage to meet more people. I know today, now that I have thought about it, that I will never do it again. Because in the end, when you are drunk, you are just totally ridiculous and no ones wants you.

Once we started talking again, I invited Kate to spend some holidays in my family’s house in Vendee. She didn’t have that much time to decide because I had to book the tickets, but she finally said yes. We arrived at my mother’s place – my father was abroad, working on his boat – and we asked her to sit down, we had something to tell her. We had decided to get married, even if we had known each other for only a few months. Because of her family, we had to get married to keep on having a relationship. It really suited me. We went to Slovakia to meet her family and celebrate the wedding.

After that we came back to England. The couple Kate used to work for were really nice and they became very good friends to us. We struck a good bargain with them that helped us to find a place to live together. They would rent us a house for a while if we could repair it. And so we worked for five months on a dilapidated house. We also found the shop in Oxford and decided to start our own business.

Today, to feel complete, I would like to have children. But if Kate wants to keep her job as a nursery nurse, she can’t get pregnant.

Photo of Fabien Turbe and his brother in Frenchies

July 2005