Anecdotes

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.

Standard
Anecdotes, Travel

One Spoiled American, Two Soiled Rooms

Gotta say WWOOFing ain’t always a dream. One day you might find yourself holding an over-sized ladle stirring “confiture du lait” (literal translation: milkjam) for four hours at a time, in a rapidly heating room, accidentally burning yourself and trying to defy the romantic pursuits of another WWOOFer. You might find yourself with bad cooks (What?! Bad cooks in France?), antisocial farmers, or hippie-therapists with negative energies. But when life hands you a microwaved bowl of over-salted couscous, you make a story out of it. And reconsider your life choices.

Spoiled American: Lily, (me). 22 years old, on a WWOOFing adventure in France. Tall, lanky, used to friendly smiles, words of encouragement, independence, friends, the English language, and having fun.

Soiled Room no.1: A French Fromagerie

Location: Normandy, France

Date: Mid October 2018

Evelyne, the 38-year old WWOOFer who recently went to a french barber and asked them to shave her head until only 5 centimeters remained, stands in the French fromagerie holding a giant tomme de vache (cow cheese). She is shaking it vigorously and laughing. It is 14h30, my third week at this French sheep farm, and I still feel like a lost lamb. The two of us were instructed to work with the cheeses by the farmer with quick and incomprehensible directions. Something about turning the cheese upside down and salting them. And cleaning something- the tables? Also something about working with the fresh cheeses… apply another layer to the cheese already drying out? We laugh because we understand that what we are experiencing is ridiculous. Minimal instruction, a man who is incomprehensible even sometimes to fluent french speakers, a title we both fear we will never be able to hold ourselves. But at least we are in the same boat: two intermediate french speakers holding giant cheeses and imagining whatever the hell the farmer intended us to do with them.

I have an idea.

“Est-ce qu’on peut appeler Stéphane, Evelyne? Peut-être il peut nous instruire un peu mieux…” Can we call Stéphane, Evelyne? Maybe he can instruct us a bit better…

“Oui, bonne idée. Tiens.” Yes, good idea. Here. She hands me her phone. “Vas dehors.” Go outside.

I call Stéphane.

“Alo?”

“Salut Stéphane, alors, erm, qu’est-ce qu’il faut faire avec les fromage frais une fois de plus, je ne comprenais pas toute avant.” Hi Stéphane, so, um, what do we need to do with the fresh cheese again one more time, I didn’t fully understand before.

“Le fromage ldkjg dslkgjbs lkjgbwlkj frais, lkhgbssk tourne, jgbldkfbh lesse le, apres kfhbkdfhb et ca va.” The cheese ldkjg dslkgjbs lkjgbwlkj fresh, lkhgbssk turn them, jgbldkfbh leave them, after kfhbkdfhb and it’s good.”

“Quoi?”

“Fais comme avant. Dans le fgbsldkh et flkbgjsegd. Commence de nouveau les fromage frais dxlfkghbfk, la grande boit.” Do like before. In the jfgnsdlhb and lgskhbgsl. Start again the new fresh cheese flghfkgd, the big box.”

“Ok… j’ai compris un peu. Erm, merci.” Okay, I understood a little. Um, thanks.”

I return to Evelyne and explain what I understood. We start a new batch of fresh cheeses. There are two different shaped boxes with holes in them that shape the cheese. One is round, the other is rectangular. On the table are about 15 already drying fresh cheeses in rectangular boxes. So, we decide to follow the example and make more rectangular cheeses.

Once we have salted and turned all the cheeses, filled new batches of new cheeses, cleaned all the tables, the floors, the appliances in the sink, not to mention having already gone on a long excursion trying to find creme fraiche and St. Nectaire cheese earlier, and fed all the sheep, I’m tired. And perhaps a bit starved of positive feedback.

When Stéphane comes back he asks why we made rectangular cheeses. 

Great.

Soiled room no.2: A dim-lit room with a low hanging ceiling.

Location: Plaisance, France in an eco village

Date: Early November, 2018

I am staring at a pile of slightly dusty towels, holding a label, flabergasted and frustrated. It is my eighth day working at an eco village in the South of France, and my fourth day breathing in dust and sut from the inside of this dark room with a low-hanging ceiling and beams that stick out and hit you in the head anytime you stand up too quickly without thinking. Days ago, though it feels like years, I was given the personal nightmare of a task to, after trying to teach English to a child who refuses to learn, enter this hell room and organize every single item. I’m talking rugs with cat pee stains, sheets of random proportions, feet pillows (Yes, FEET PILLOWS!!??), little pieces of fabric, giant comforters with giant holes in them, children’s clothes, ski equipment, etc. My original partner in crime in handling the room quit, straight up left the eco-village (tempting me to do the same). Today was supposed to be the day I would have the honor of labeling all of the items, having finished the cleaning and organization part of the work. Except Raphael, the man in charge of the eco village, begins explaining how he would like me to reorganize the sheets, the towels, in fact just about everything I thought I had finished organizing. So, I’m standing here trying not to start screaming, wondering why in the world did I ever willingly come here? when suddenly Raphael’s ex-wife enters the room and begins complaining that he should have consulted her because all of her stuff is now reorganized by a stranger and I didn’t organize it the way she wants it. All the while I’m standing there waiting for even a hint of praise or appreciation for what I’ve done. Also wondering why French people love to make their guests incredibly uncomfortable all of the time. (In America you would obviously wait to complain about the changed organization until the poor tired worker is out of the room).

Am I spoiled? I think to myself under the hum of French conversation around me. I begin to dislodge the piles of towels. Maybe I’m just spoiled. 

Yes, maybe I’m a spoiled American, but where is the, “Hello, Lily, how are you liking it here? How was your day? Wow, look at all that folding of disgusting stuff you did! Thank you, I appreciate it! Look’s great!”

I know what it is, I think. 

In France, there is a lack of insincere compliments, the needlework of American social life. The way we fill up dead air, lighten the mood, and encourage ourselves. The pleasantries of small talk. If you’re a sensitive baby like me, you just might miss it. 

You also might not have found the best farms to WWOOF at.

It’s a gamble, those three sentence reviews.

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

An Old Man and a Candle

Working at the Llama I lived in constant fear of a few things. First, that my dress was see-through. Quite rational fear, I believe. Especially when you forget to pack a bra and have to make a makeshift one out of scotch tape in the bathroom. Second, that I would not recognize an important person by face and make some grave mistake, like ask the owner of the restaurant if he is planning on “joining us for dinner this evening”? (a previous host did in fact do this, poor girl). Third, that a guest would ask me a question to which I did not have the answer and somehow embarrass me or yell at me.

One night, one of these things happened. It was a moderately pleasant evening. I was wearing one of my standard outfits: a long black dress that I found in my closet and had no recollection of purchasing. I was re-setting a table in the main room of the restaurant. Typically, I can succeed at this task with minimal human contact. Due to my attire, most guests understand that I am not their server, nor am I a chef, and thus only concern myself with chairs and tables and plates and napkins. I don’t even mess with forks and knives. I only deal with crumbs and “good evening,” “greetings,” “hi there,” “would you like me to check that for you?” “have a good night,” and “yes let me take you to the restroom right this way.” But this particular evening, an old man got my attention, waving over to me although I was standing right next to him.

“What is that delightful dish over there?” He said, straining his neck and gesturing with his thumbs.

To my horror, I saw that he was pointing at a candle on the other table. A candle. It was now my job to find a way to tell him that the mysterious item of food on the other guests table that he was so fascinated in, was in fact, a candle. I needed to do this, in a similar way I have to suggest the elderly use the elevator when making the long journey to the bathroom: without deflating their egos. I brace myself.

“That right there?” I say slowly, gesturing with an open hand to the candle.

“Yes, yes, that, what is it?”

“Well, sir, that is a… well, that’s a candle.”

I had to just tell him. I couldn’t make something up in enough time. Not that I should have lied to him, but perhaps there was a better way to go about it. I try to ease the awkwardness of this exchange.

“Yeah, that is a candle. We put them on every table, ha, to brighten the table…”

“No. Not that. What is that over there?”

I look back at where he is pointing and watch as a server moves out of my line of sight. With even more horror than before, I see that he is pointing at the special, free-of-charge appetizer we give to special guests, quite frankly, not him, when people are celebrating a special anniversary or event and we have deemed them special. I consider this information in my head. How can I explain this to him without hurting his feelings even more? I have already insulted his intelligence by explaining to him what a candle was and now I have to explain to him that he is not special and doesn’t get the special free appetizer? Not to mention if I decide to tell him about the appetizer, I have no idea what it even is.

Moments like this I wonder what I am doing at a respectable establishment like this one. Not to mention someone with a job.

“I don’t know what that is sir. But the thing next to it… I know it’s a candle. Sorry.”

And I walk away, hearing his wife mutter to herself, “she doesn’t know?”

In the heat of the moment, I didn’t use my line: “allow me to connect with a colleague and get back to you.” In the heat of the moment, I froze like a lost lamb and insulted an elderly man. I am here to say, it is okay to freeze in the heat. We all do it?

Standard
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. 

Standard