Week in the Life, Michele singer, caterer: Woman who knows strange tastes of Eurocrats

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The Independent Online
MENTION JULY'S disastrous opening week of the new European Parliament building in Strasbourg, and Michele Singer buries her head in her hands. As the woman in charge of the parliament's catering she recalls the moment when, not realising three restaurants were at their disposal, 300 MEPs converged on one dining room demanding food.

The week was, she says, une catastrophe, reliving the moment when one parliamentarian made front-page news by describing a pizza as like cardboard. The teething troubles over, Ms Singer is emerging as the unsung heroine of an operation that delivers thousands of meals and gallons of drink in three restaurants, five reception rooms and four bars.

The European Parliament meets only one week in four in Strasbourg, spending the rest of its life in Brussels. When the MEPs are out of town Ms Singer and her team of 18 arrange the eating, drinking and banqueting for the next session.

In a "Strasbourg week", such as this one, things reach a pitch of intensity.

BETWEEN 6am and 6.30am on Monday Ms Singer leaves her home in the village of Meteor, 30km from Strasbourg. Arriving at 7am she hands the lists of scheduled lunches, and dinners to the senior staff and, until the first bar opens at 8am, there is an eerie calm.

"Then," she says, "it starts. `Michele the staff haven't arrived', `Michele, there are too many people to be served, give us some for help', `Michele we need to set up a breakfast for the president of the parliament tomorrow'." She leaves work at 8pm.

ON TUESDAY, arriving at the same time in the morning, Ms Singer spends a big chunk of her day making contact with the staff. Such is the size of the parliament, this is no simple matter.

"Every day I walk, walk, walk," she says. Just to say `hello' to my barmaids takes one hour." This will be another long day, including a banquet after which, at midnight, Ms Singer leaves for home.

WEDNESDAY FOLLOWS a similar pattern with another series of receptions to supervise as well as the normal round of restaurant and bar meals. Today, a Portuguese MEP has invited colleagues to a wine tasting and a colleague is hosting a dinner.

THURSDAY IS destined to be another long day, with a private dinner for the parliament's president, Nicole Fontaine, among the highlights. Not until the meal starts will Ms Singer discover the guest list but she has to be prepared to serve Europe's most senior political figures. Each Strasbourg week the European Commission president and his 19 commissioners are in town. Then there are the invited guests. Next month President Jacques Chirac will pay a visit and discussions are already under way about what he will eat.

One item on the menu will be choucroute, an Alsace version of sauerkraut and a Strasbourg speciality.

ON FRIDAY, the exodus from Strasbourg begins and the first bar shuts at 2pm.

At around 5pm, when everything else has closed, Ms Singer has a celebratory glass of wine with staff before the paperwork comes in. "You are so proud to have done another week and so excited if you can say that everything went well," she says. By 7pm her head is spinning and she leaves for the weekend.

During Strasbourg weeks, Ms Singer is so rarely at home that she communicates with her husband and two teenage sons by leaving pre-dawn notes on the kitchen table. She enjoys the job none the less. "If things go badly I am the only one who can take the blame so the job can be difficult psychologically, as well as physically. But if the president of the parliament or the secretary general says, `Thank you, that went very well', it is a beautiful feeling." At this point we are interrupted by a parliamentary official: "Michele," he says, "my reception at one o'clock, is everything all right?"

"Yes, no problem", she replies quickly, adding as the official disappears into the distance, "I think I'll just go up there and check..."