Monday, August 12, 2013

Summer Fiction Week -- "Business Trip"

     It's summer. Enough of the news. Time for a little short fiction. Seven brief humorous sketches, one for every day this week, Monday through Sunday. And since this is a change of pace for readers of this blog, let me re-iterate, for those who might be a tad slow on the uptake: it's fiction. The narrator in every case is an imaginary character and not me. Although the little opening snippet was taken verbatim from a real package of biscuits, which inspired the story, I am not a globe trotting biscuit executive.  The biscuit companies mentioned are also real. And I do like a nice tea biscuit. But otherwise, a fictional story about a person other than myself, made up for my amusement and, perhaps, yours too. 

                                       Business Trip

                           Pure, natural ingredients, together with highest quality

                           standards have earned many awards and guarantee 
                           Bahlsen's continuing success in the international world
                          of biscuits.
                                            -- Copy on a box of
                                                chocolate butter biscuits

     The Japanese had been ... difficult, thought Felix, rubbing his left index finger in small, precise circles on the wide, aqua leather armrest in the First Class section of the JAL jet.
      "Difficult" is a weak translation  of the actual word, halsftarrig, which formed in Felix's mind as he assessed his stay in Tokyo. The true meaning is closer to obstinate, ass-like, impossible.
     The trip began cordially—Kimuraya Bakeries had sent a driver in a peaked cap, holding a little white sign with Felix's name spelled out in unpracticed lettering, to meet him at Narita.
     As had been predicted, the biscuit guild was impressed by Felix's presence. Not an underling, not a salesman, but Felix Leibniz himself — fifth generation, great-great grandson of Artur Leibniz, who began baking in Hanover 100 years ago, and whose biscuits now carry the name into every corner of the world.
     Except, of course, Japan.
     Felix had brought a small presentation, consisting of beautiful color photographs, mounted on foam core: Bahlsen biscuits enjoyed by happy, attractive couples at a Paris cafe; biscuits dipped in tea at the Great Wall of China; biscuits aboard the Space Shuttle.
     The message was clear—the world loves our biscuits, why can't you?
     The stewardess hesitated a moment, waiting for Felix's tiny nod of assent, before setting down a flute of champagne, along with a small dish of honey-roasted nuts. As he sucked the honey crust off a peanut, Felix was distracted. A pair of bittersweet chocolate biscuits—25 grams, at most—would make a far better snack aboard an airplane than the over sweet peanuts, he thought. All the airlines in the world wouldn't be much of a market, but the exposure, the publicity would be tremendous. And of course everybody—Collins at Carr's, Packwood at Nabisco, and particularly Montaigne at LU's—would need a lot of champagne to wash down his biscuits, force fed to them every time they flew.
     Felix smiled.
     But the pleasure lasted only a moment ... Montaigne, the villain, what was he doing in Japan? Two days earlier, Felix had been on his way to a meeting with the editorial board of the Asahi Shimbun, whose editorial dismissed foreign biscuits as "impure dog wafers," when he noticed, parked beside a wing chair in a corner of the immense lobby, that Louis Vitton case —a meter long but only as high and wide as a pack of cigarettes. That biscuit case. Felix knew, as he angled around the wing of the chair, who he would see — Montaigne, brushed and powdered and grasping a copy of Le Monde. Felix had momentarily considered rushing by, but curiosity got the better of him.
     "Philippe, quelle surprise! Ca va?" he said, in his schoolboy French. The Norman pig looked up, cool and detached, with a glint of bemusement in his eyes, as if he had been expecting Felix.
    "Ah Felix," he said, a condescending smile playing about his lips. He extended a hoof up to Felix, his body never stirring from the chair. Felix gave it a shake. Montaigne's eyes darted back to the newspaper. Felix could not resist.
    "Mais, mon ami, porquoi vous et ici?" he said, trying to project an uncharacteristic twinkle.
     "What takes anyone anywhere?" Montainge responded, in English, with a philosophical flourish of the hand. "Biscuits. All biscuits." And with that, his eyes returned to the paper. Felix hurried to his meeting, which went badly.
     The memory burned. how could Montaigne be so smug? What did he know? What concessions had he won from the Japanese? A week of running from boardroom to ministry to restaurant and, as far as Felix could tell, no progress. Not a hint that German biscuits, now classified as den-pun—starchy material—falling into the same category as wallpaper paste and wood pulp and slapped with a 400 percent duty, could be reclassified as okashi—snack food products, with a tariff of 13 percent.
     "This is a beautiful thing," Mr. Takayama had said at that last meeting, donning white cotton gloves to pick up the almond butter biscuit prototype, concocted at great expense for the as-yet-nonexistent  Japanese market. He gingerly held the biscuit by its edges, which were gently serrated, like coinage. "But the Japanese palate is not used to eating such a thing. Were you to bring them into the country in quantity, they might, despite their wonderful appeal, not be purchased by anybody, and you would have the hardship and expense of having to ship them back home."
     The stewardess refilled his glass with fresh champagne. Felix snapped his briefcase open and removed a small violet and white rice-paper box, decorated with bold, black kanji declaring, "Truth. Purity. Goodness." Or so he had been told. He opened the box. Nestled inside, within a tissue cocoon, was the prototype biscuit. Delicately brown, a pattern of reeds and birds taken from a 13th century shoji screen baked into the surface. Felix lifted the biscuit from the box, regarded it for a moment, then took a healthy bite. Almond, with a trace of rice. Crunchy. Good sweetness—a brix of 14, maybe 16. The lab had done well. Felix finished the champagne and looked for the stewardess. The Japanese, he thought, are crazy.

                                                                     # # #


  1. Good stuff. Too bad Felix couldn't crack the Japanese biscuit market. Maybe the brix was still off? :)


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