Saturday, October 1, 2011
AND ON THE TWELFTH DAY THE LORD SAID, "Let there be Americans," AND IT WAS GOOD.
On my way out the door yesterday as I was saying my "a demain!"'s, my boss informed me that I would be coming in at neuf heure from now on. Neuf, neuf, neuf...nine! Nine o'clock. Though to most people who had been waking up before eight a.m. this would be good news, for me I couldn't help but take it personally. What would I be doing now? Was I being demoted? Was I not putting the raspberries on the tart straight enough, because I could fix that! Perhaps it was the glazed look in my eyes when I was putting the fig slices on the tart. It was just for a minute, Chef, I promise! But I forced a smile and said ok and went on my way home.
The early part of the day, the part of the day that I would no longer be a part of, was sort of my favorite. Well, let me rephrase that, the end of the day when I get to go home is my favorite, but in the morning I actually sort of have a grasp on what I should be doing. Finishing. I should be finishing tarts for the case. Of course this is when I'm most likely to get yelled at, when things are the most tense, and when I just can't seem to move fast enough. But at least I knew what went after a, and then what went after b, and perhaps I would even have an idea of what I could do after c. But now I was concerned. It was like starting all over again.
So last night at midnight I was sitting in the bath and watching a Quantum Leap on my laptop, cause lets face it, Quantum Leap is just that kind of show, when I suddenly got a panic attack wondering what the hell I was doing up so late dicking around (no offense, Scott Bakula). Then I had an epiphany. I don't have to get up at 6:55am. I can stay in bed until...8:25! Ok, now this punishment wasn't looking too bad. Sure I had to hide in my bathtub to watch my late night show because Elze was passed out in my, "our," bed, but I've never minded having a hot man in the tub with me, even if it is Scott and he's leaped into the body of a woman in year 1961. All I needed was a glass of wine to make this situation complete, but alas, that was all the way in the kitchen.
After finishing "What Price Gloria?" I toweled off and crawled into bed, setting my alarm for the new, exciting, and later 8:15am. I awoke the next day prematurely because apparently while so few french actually seem to work the street crews like to get a nice early start. But the clanging sound of pipes didn't stop me from pressing snooze and pretending like I was getting a quality seven minutes extra of sleep. I took my sweet time getting ready, thinking that I had gotten up early enough to warrant this, but then I peeked at the clock, did some math in my head, and realized I had to get my ass into gear. I threw on my jacket, and slipped out the door.
While sitting on the metro I'd realized that all that slow tooth brushing, some light eye brow tweezing, and acne inspection really weren't necessary and that perhaps remembering my breakfast banana would've been a bit more pertinent. My stomach grumbled and I wondered how many raspberries I could sneak while hiding in the walk-in.
I walked in and the day began as I expected it. I stood there wondering what I was going to. I was told to peel two boxes of apples. This was followed by the duty of cutting up eggplants. Meanwhile, I watched as the new guy, who only started the day before, was mixing things with a big ol' smile on his face. I hated him. Not to mention the fact that I was also pretty sure he was hitting on me because he kept speaking to me in english and when it comes to the french that's a sign of something mysterious. Plus he had light light light brown eyes which creeped me out. And moles. What is it with creepy french guys and moles?
So I was cutting up my eggplants and started feeling that sad feeling welling up inside my chest and knew that if I let go I could easily start crying. It seemed my lot in life, or at least the next six months, was to peel, zest, and cut. I was upset on what I was missing out. I wanted to learn. If only I'd felt this way in college I would've actually gone to class and studied. Isn't that always how it is, looking back, what I would've done. What do they say about hindsight? Twenty-twenty? I don't really understand what Barbara Walters has to do with it but still I'm sure there's a lesson to be learned here somewhere... So I focused on not crying and tried to see the bright side of the situation. There isn't much brightness in eggplants, though I did notice that their tops looked like they were made of paper mache and that made me think of the lunch box tree in the movie Return To Oz, and then I started thinking of how weird Fairuza Balk looked as an adult and so on and so on.
Eventually, Alberique came and saved me from my tornado of thoughts and asked me to help him with quichettes (which as you geniuses have guessed are mini quiches). He cut out some mini circles and I put them in the molds. It was quite some teamwork. And then he said that once I was done with that I could go and have lunch. Lunch already? This whole later shift thing wasn't turning out to be that bad. Sure I was on the verge of tears only moments early but as a stereotypical woman I am unpredictable and have severe mood swings. So in seconds I went from being depressed and convinced that I could never survive six months of eggplants to being thrilled to be filling molds with quiche crusts. And lunch? I'm always down for eating!
So after I had my free staff meal I returned downstairs and Alberique had a task for me. I had to go to the grocery store and buy two cartons of cherry tomatoes. A quest! I could do this. It felt like playing hooky. It may have just been for ten minutes but it felt like a lot longer than that, and the freedom of knowing that I was off, own my own, accomplishing something without the judging eyes of my french coworkers, gave me a sense of freedom and confidence that I just don't feel inside the kitchen.
I came back with the tomatoes, feeling like a hero carrying the holy grail, and Alberique and I finished the quichettes together. Even when Mike tried to help me lay out the rest of the quiche shells Alberique shooed him away and told him that I could do it by myself. For once I was going to finish something I had started! This was a monumental moment for me. Of course it was something simple, no mixing or folding, or cooking, or tempering, but still these damn quichettes were mine!
While preparing the quichettes for cooking, part of my job was to top them with tomatoes, olives and a new fruit, kiwai. I'd never seen these before and I would've assumed they were little green grapes that were just a special emerald shade of green if I didn't see that the name on the carton was, "Kiwai." They were tiny kiwis. They didn't have the brown fur on the outside but otherwise they were pretty much exactly the same. The insides looked the same, they were the same green color, had the same black seeds, and even tasted the same. Discovering something knew and intriguing like this is always a memorable occasion and so while the day may have started with feelings of whimpers wrestling around in my stomach, this new fruit I'd uncovered could make up for all of it. I thought I knew about all the fruits I would ever know by this age. But something like this? A miniature kiwi? It was both adorable and incredible! Like a travel sized deodorant I couldn't help but admire it.
Three o'clock rolled around and the early crew, the crew I used to be a part of before I was demoted to eggplantier, had cleaned and gone. I was sent upstairs to help Irina, the romanian girl who spoke perfect english and was super friendly, clean up. I'll scrub and mop and plunge my hand into a fiery pit of hot sink water for anyone who asks me kindly in my native tongue to do so. Just being able to ask simple questions without feeling like an idiot was relieving enough. I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. It was incredible.
And then something even more jaw dropping happened. Alberique sent me downstairs to work with Cecilia. Cecilia is my fellow american worker. I was skeptical of her at first because I could tell from her accent that she was american and yet she never came up to me and said, "Hey, I can tell you're american because you're bumbling around the kitchen and the french language like a complete fool. I, too, am from the glorious United States and don't you think it'd be just lovely if we spoke our national dialect together? I know I think english is awesome, don't you?" But no, instead she ignored me like the rest. Since then we've talked and I've discovered that she's from Pennsylvania and that she looks to be a very sweet girl. What her original reasons were for not exposing herself as a fellow pat I can only guess. Perhaps she felt that doing so would betray her alliances with our french colleges. Who knows? All I know is that getting a chance to work with yet another english speaking person, another american, was something that was a relief; it felt like...home.
Four o'clock ticked past and Alberique came downstairs to say his goodbyes. Now it was only me and the girl from Pennsylvania left in the shop. This was a miracle. We gossiped in english talking about how horrible the bosses were, how they were terrifying people who must be incredibly unhappy because every word they spit out of their mouths was soaked with such distaste, such disrespect, that they couldn't possibly be enjoying their lives. And just as we were discussing this, Alexis (a guy whose name is pronounced, Alexie) came from the front with a hurricane glass and asked for more banana marshmellows. The lady boss had happened to emerge from the front at the same time as well. As with any command in french I stood there like a deer in the headlights as I tried to process the words that were falling upon me. You see in french the words are a lot more dense and so it takes a bit longer to absorb them, or at least that's the case for me. So by the time I figured out what the hell Alexis was saying he had come and gone and all I had given him in response was a look on my face reminiscent of someone who had just been lobotomized. Apparently lady boss did not appreciate this. She started hissing french words and it took me a few blinks to realize that she was hissing at me. She was essentially barrating me for not being polite to Alexis and ended with "you say, 'Oui, Alexis, Merci!'"
I felt like a little kid who had just said a horrible word in front of my parents' boss. A really really bad one. Like some Parisian harpie she swept closer and closer with every word, her eyes distorting as she spoke, her nose becoming pointier with each syllable. I'm sure I've had times where I've been treated with the same amount of disrespect but I sure as hell don't remember them. But I didn't get upset. Mostly I just chuckled somewhere deep inside about how terrifying this woman was. Here she was trying to teach me a lesson in respect while treating me like a wart on her rear.
This is something that I've noticed about the french. They have very strict rules about etiquette and yet they act with no personal grace at all. If you do not say "Bon jour" to a french person before saying anything else it is considered extremely rude and they will often correct you on this by scolding you, even yelling at you. Yet, if you go into a store in france the clerks treat you like a leper. In our kitchen, they go around and shake everyone's hand everyday, making a point of greeting every member of the staff, and yet when someone sneezes they act like nothing happened. Has no one in this country seen Seinfeld? A bless you, or french version there of, is necessary.
But I was working with Cecila, the american, and everything was roses. I had specific tasks I had to do, all simple and drone-like of course, and then I was free to go. Cecilia was great company and I certainly enjoyed the coworker gossip and getting-to-know-you's that I was so used to from kitchens back home.
Five rolled around and I was ready to go but there was one little problem. Lady boss was up front helping customers and anyone else who could give me the go-ahead to go ahead and leave were gone. So I had to peer through the little grated window into the front of the house at the line at the cash register and hope that it would soon dissipate. Why did our food have to be so darn good? Five turned to five fifteen and so I helped tidy up a bit more while scurrying back to the little window every few minutes to check out the situation. More customers?! Five thirty and I was starting to get the taste of mutiny in my mouth. Five minutes, I told myself, five minutes and I'm just leaving, I don't care what lady boss thinks, she can fire me if she wants to, it would be a godsend. Five forty and finally the shop was empty, I quickly got my carpe diem on and asked her if it was ok to go. She sweetly referred to me as "ma cherie" which made me suspicious, and asked Cecilia if this is "c'est bon." And with that I'm free. Not too bad, not too bad at all.
It may not be my ideal bakery but after working in a pretty amazing place back home I can't help but be a little spoiled. Yet I can see opportunity here, I can see hope. I know I'll get a lot more out of this than I will appreciate in the moment because I've been a bit too lazy to work on my meditation and learn how to actually enjoy the moment. So for now I just have to go with knowing that it is a great time without actually experiencing it. And while there are times when I have to swallow down that horrible feeling of tears in the back of my throat, there are also times when I don't look at a knife and think of ramming it through my chest and so all can't be lost, there is still a light ahead, still something to be had, and thank the lord that there is an american in my kitchen.