At the Dinner Table

The dinner table, at my third WWOOFing location, has assigned seats. Unofficially of course, but I sit across from Evelyn, the 64 year old woman who loves television and cross words, who sits adjacent to Antoni , the 26 year old Belgian with Jesus hair, who sits across from Gabe, my 22 year old boisterous American friend, who sits next to Dominique, the 64 year old bearded man with a slight lazy eye and round red cheeks. Dominique sits at the head of the table.

When communicating with Dominique over email, Gabe and I often referred to who we thought was a nice old lady as “warm” and “kind,” two adjectives that work just as well to describe the friendly giant. As a comedic parallel to what was sometimes a disastrous experience with my two other WWOOFing hosts, my new hosts are incredibly accommodating. Sometimes too accommodating– I inform them that I am going to town to buy some tooth paste and Dominique searches for 20 minutes in his bathroom for an extra tube of tooth paste, kind of accommodating, or I mention one time that I love the cake and now I’m gaining a pound a day in brioche and french yogurt cake, kind of accommodating. In conversation, unlike the first farm where I would often get lost, and then forgotten by the family who either did not choose to engage in small talk or would speak in the speed of hiccups, the dinner table is filled with digestible french. Or rather, the dinner table is filled with over the top, incredibly in-depth descriptions and explanations. 

In an average night, we will move from discussing the protests taking place in France against the current French President Macron to long-winded explanations on the necessity to not spread butter on a burn. Once gotten started, it’s hard to stop the explain-train. 

Dominique stands in front of the TV rolling up his sleeve to better explain the process of tending to a wound. Evelyn stands to his right, nodding where necessary and trying to get some words in.

“Il faut absolument pas mettre du beurre sur votre brûlure si vous êtes brûlé!” It is absolutely necessary to not put butter on your burn if you get burned! Dominique says, his eyes wide and his finger pointed to the ceiling.

“Surtout pas du beurre!” Surely not butter! Evelyn confirms, shaking her index finger.

“Parce que, si tu mets du beurre sur ton brûlure, tu commenceras à cuisiner toi-même et tu seras encore plus brûlé.” Because if you put butter on your burn you will begin to cook yourself and then you will be even more burned. Dominique continues, miming the act of applying a thick wad of butter to his “wound” and then miming that it is not good by making x’s with his arms.

Evelyn senses something has not been explained well enough, she begins again.

“Alors, si tu te brûle, il faut que tu te souviennes, souviennes, pas de beurre. Le beurre va commencer a cuir!” So, if you burn yourself, just remember, remember, no butter. The butter will continue to cook!

Dominique interjects, “il faut que tu mise ton peau brûlé dans un seau de l’eau avant d’appliquer n’importe quel type de substance de beurre.” You must put your burned skin in water before applying any kind of butter substance.

I look at Gabe who is covering his face. What is left to do? I’ve nodded as much as my neck will allow me to, and we all know that whenever I try to speak I get interrupted by someone.

“Oui, oui. D’accord. Ha ha, alors–” Yes, yes, okay. Ha ha, so– I try to speak, speeding up my words with hopes to finish my sentence. Evelyn interrupts, 

“Surtout pas du beurre. Pas du beurre. Si tu est brûlé.” 

“Oui. Pas du beurre. D’accord, je comprends.” Gabe says, gesturing with his arms the act of placing a piece of butter on his arm, then crossing his arms to signal it is not allowed. I search for the words and courage to say, I swear to god I will never let a piece of butter near my burnt arm if we could just start talking about something else!! But we are saved by a particularly loud advertisement on the forever burning television set. 

The screen is black, then flash! Flash! A piece of skin, a silhouette of a stick thin model, a man emerges from the darkness, they kiss, flash! Water! Flash! Sexy music. We all get quiet. 

“Ah! Il y a beaucoup de pubs pour les parfums!” Ah! There are a lot of advertisements for perfumes! Gabe says, successfully shifting the conversation topic and calming the nervous energy that often arrises when you witness a sex scene on TV with your grandparents (or in this case, your temporary French family).

When the ad finishes, we watch a fascinating progression of news. There are forest fires in California. A stuffed koala bear is traveling the globe. A Japanese man has married a famous virtual singer (virtual, aka, not a real human). After this news reel, a talk show begins. In a white room, seven people sit around on couches discussing different topics and responding to questions. The first question of the night, “Pouvez-vous hériter de prêts de votre figure parentale décédée?” Can you inherit loans from your deceased parental figure? We stare avidly at the television screen. 

Evelyn turns to me, “quand tu as dit que tu n’aimes pas le saumon, est-ce que c’est parce-que tu n’aime pas le goût ou tu n’aimes pas que c’est fumé?” When you said you did not like salmon, is it because you do not like the taste or you do not like that it’s smoked?

Gabe starts crying. This is only the fourth time that Evelyn has brought up this topic of conversation concerning my salmon allergy and he can’t handle it. I hand him a box of tissues and try not to start laughing as I try my best to communicate again that I am allergic to salmon.

“Non, non. Alors, je ne peut pas manger le salmon. Je suis allergique.” Non, non. So, I can not eat salmon. I am allergic. 

“Oui, mais est-ce que c’est le goût de saumon ou que c’est fumé? Je veut seulement être sûr.” Yes but is it the taste of salmon or that it’s smoked? I just want to make sure.

“Non, alors, si je mange le saumon, je vais commencer à mourir.” No, so if I eat salmon I will start to die. I mime choking noises, a struggle, and then death. 

“Oh, no! Surtout pas ici. Surtout pas.” Oh, no! Definitely not here. Definitely not.

The conversation feels settled, so I go back to my bread. To my left I see the cute adorable three-month old rat terrier puppy Augie, struggling to jump up onto my lap. As a dinner ritual, when I am done eating, I pick up the three month old puppy and give him some ham. 

“Mon dieu! Mais, c’est important de savoir, quoi!” My god! Well, it’s important to know, what! (Adding “quoi” to the end of your sentence, we have learned, is quite normal for most people living in this area). Gabe points to the television screen and reads the next question for discussion on.

“Pouvez-vous congeler du jambon tranché?” Can you freeze sliced ham?

On the TV, the seven show hosts are discussing this topic with sincere expressions. One woman comes in hot, giving a long-winded account of her perspective while holding a laminated photo of sliced ham. A screen next to her shows a larger photo of sliced ham.  A balding man wearing white gives his side of the argument. After a lengthy discussion, everyone seems to agree that you should only freeze sliced ham to preserve ham that is about to go bad, otherwise you should only refrigerate it.

Back at the dinner table, Dominique is trying to remember the name of an American film he likes. This family, or perhaps France in general, love American films, and television series, with appropriate dubbing of course. 

“C’est, le nom, c’est… Schwarzenegger! C’est quel film avec Schwarzenegger?” Dominique asks, rubbing his beard with his fingers and staring intensely into space, crinkling his right eye.

“Terminator?” Gabe asks. 

“Quoi?” Dominique responds, turning his attention to Gabe and shrinking his eyes more.

“Terminator?” Gabe repeats. 

“Non, non…” Dominique says, returning to his pensive position.

“Tairhmeenateaur?” I say with an exaggerated French accent.

“AH! Oui!! Terminateur!!!” Dominique says, opening his eyes wide and letting out a big smile. We have learned that American words such as “milk shake,” “Terminator,” “Burger King,” etc will not be understood with an American accent. And it works the other way too. Just the other day, I found myself confused during a conversation and turned to Gabe for help,

“bourgeois?” I asked.

To which he responded, “bourgeois.”

And I understood.

Anecdotes, The Llama Restaurant, New York, NY, Summer 2018

A Night at The Llama

Imagine, me– a wee hostess at an up and coming hip and expensive restaurant. Let’s call it, “The Llama,” with one Michelin Star and a bunch of really intimidating (but nice) food and wine geniuses. Never having any experience at a restaurant, I came in all dreamy-eyed, scratching this romantic itch of working in the service industry, wearing my hair up in a bun in cute and swept up, carefree kind of way, laughing about something with a coworker, and recommending the tomato soup to an old man. It’s not that this did not happen, I shared many laughs with coworkers, wore my hair up in a bun, and talked to many old men, but this was no casual affair. This place was legitimate. No La-Di-Da attitudes welcome. No, “oopsies! Silly me!” The stakes were high.

Imagine wealthy business men and women dining on the company credit card.  Imagine a 14 year old girl dressed like Lady Gaga with her parents. Imagine: Natalie Portman and her dog; Jeff Bezos casually sipping a cocktail at the bar; and the majority of the Queer Eye cast walking in during Pride Week. Imagine: people dressed to the nines, or even more impressive, spending thousands of dollars on wine while wearing casual clothes. It makes every decision matter (and every mistake). You can’t make a beer glass explode into a million tiny glass shards on a guest more than once without it being a serious issue.

Now imagine me being asked to stand in front of the barista door (the small room where coffee is made) as a mysterious brown liquid begins to spill out and into the front of the restaurant.

That’s right. It’s a Wednesday night in the summer, the restaurant is filling up, I am 5’9” and a third the width of the wall and am asked to be a wizard. Now, my job, on top of welcoming guests to The Llama, (using the correct verbiage, the correct hand gestures and warm smile), guiding them to their table, handing off pieces of information to coworkers, carrying chairs up and down stairs, resetting tables, bringing guests to and from the bar, and gathering transfers, was to try and distract guests from the reality that a brown liquid, which smelled awfully reminiscent of the sewer, was seeping up through the grate on the floor of barista and into the restaurant, trapping poor Jeremy, the barista employee, up on the counter, and sending everyone frantically running around trying to find the most absorbant rags.

It gets worse. Moments before any of us noticed the poo liquid, I had personally seated a solo-diner at a table that, without the distraction of a guest, essentially faces barista flat on. And according to our sources, this anonymous solo diner was a Food and Water Inspector. Oh god! So, we have a trapped barista employee completely surrounded in poo liquid, the liquid is seeping into the restaurant, we are out of absorbant rags, we are all starting to laugh because this is so ridiculous, meanwhile our solo Food and Water Inspector might get us all fired… Will he notice?!? 

Perhaps not…  if we hadn’t called down to maintenance, who brought up a giant mop and a large, unrecognizable machine, that began what sounded like full-fledged construction on barista. So at this point, we were drawing attention to barista, which from a distance looked quite ridiculous. An army of hosts lined up facing the inside of the restaurant serving as a distraction, a line of maintenance men in tan colored clothing wheeling around machines and mops, and all the while the maître d and hosts smiling like nothing was happening. 

But my friends, this story has a happy ending. Somehow, likely by the hand of Jesus himself, we were finally able to stop the poo liquid from spreading, the Food and Water Inspector left the restaurant smiling, and Jeremy came down from the counter unharmed. The maintenance men wheeled their machines away, and we put the rags in the wash. It looked, completely and utterly, poo-liquid-free. But if you looked closely, beneath our sweaty smiles, you might find hysterical eyes and sweet relief. Crisis averted.