By Ashley of Curious Provence
I walked into the dining room to the sound of the repeated yelling of the word “merde!!” It was coming from the kitchen. The fear that had been a low rumble intensified as I was faced with the head chef/owner. All my French vocabulary escaped me. His face contorted as I began to speak, the same expression many French people adopt when I open my mouth. I’ve become somewhat accustomed to it. Minutes later, I was shaking as I was opening a wine bottle in front of a table of four french people. The more nervous I was the slower I was, the slower I was, the more nervous I became. At home I could rip into a bottle of wine no problem- and do so every night (when in France…) This was different. Drops of red wine dripped all over the white tablecloth.
French people take each job and turn it into a métier, or a trade. You specialise in what you do and you’re proud of it. The chef must have been desperate; I had never worked as a waitress before. Living in a rural village in France only gives you so many options.
Shift work was not an option. As the team or as the chef called us, his ‘soldiers’, needed so much training, we worked both lunch and dinner service. I found myself in seemingly perpetual cycles of working, eating, sleeping and nothing else. My brain was exhausted not only to keep up with the French but the French slang that is so common with restaurant staff. Everything is abbreviated. On orders, cabillaud (cod) is KBIO, personnel is ‘perso’ a carafe of water is a circle with a line through it. My french vocabulary was incredibly slow to improve due to my inability to actually hear what anyone was saying. I tried to pick out words that I kept on ripped pieces of paper in my back pocket. Who knew there were so many expressions with the word fart in them?!
The clients participated in a constant guessing game of where I was from. Thankfully, there were exclamations of joy whenever I mentioned I was Canadian. This was swiftly followed by the interrogation of why on earth I would move here when all the young French people are moving there. I learned that being Canadian is oddly considered chic and la classe. Explaining the nationalistic difference between French Canada, where I’m from, and identifying myself as Canadian instead of Quebecois was a constant topic of conversation. This interest in my heritage thankfully disguised some of my inept shaky serving.
The drinks were tricky. The French love of sirops (syrups) meant that I had to learn, rather unsuccessfully, all the different names of sirops combined with water, pastis, lemonade and beer. For example, a ‘Monaco’ is a ‘panaché’ (beer with a little lemonade) with grenadine sirop. A gommé, or a demi acid, is beer with lemon sirop. Then, there are all the French and local specialties. How to serve pastis (aniseed liquor) with all it’s various sirops and their various names. Rinquinuin…what a name! Once, after the evening shift, the chef made me try Jet 27; it was like drinking toothpaste.
I had to learn how to say to say ‘non.’ As an anglo-saxon from a capitalist society, I had a hard time getting used to the fact that the customer is not king. Eventually, the long days and the lack of extra money for extra hours and the French inability to tip, allowed me to adopt some of the French waiter attitude. You want to eat at 7pm? The chef had no problem telling potential clients that we eat then, you eat afterwards. You want your beef well done? Impossible! Your want a special menu for your kid? Non. You want to eat lunch at 2:30 in the afternoon? Non. How dare you not order an entrée? How dare you not eat all of your meal. All this, along with the chef’s strong conviction that all vegetarians should be hospitalised, led to some interesting situations. Surprisingly, the French actually put up with this and indeed expect it.
A part of the job is getting to know the clientele. This is paramount in a rural French village. I’ll never forget the local olive producer’s exasperation when I made him spell his name for me on the phone for a reservation. You become adept at details. You remember to reserve the table next to the kitchen for the guy who comes every week with a different girl, you remember (after much tongue twisting practice) that 5A in front of the local sausage means: Association Amicale des Amateurs d’Andouillette Authentique.
You learn that it’s rude not to do the 3 ‘bisous’ (kisses) with every single person in the kitchen when you get to work in the morning. You learn to keep a straight face as hot coffee spills on you. You program yourself, through sheer anxiety, to distinguish the ring of the bell from the kitchen despite the noise of a roaring restaurant. You can even tell the mood of the chef by his ring.
The pecking order of a restaurant is evident at all times. Everyone is asking something of you, even the dishwasher. You wouldn’t believe the effortless insults that can be utilised while amazingly still using the formal ‘vousvoyer’ form. You learn to jump at the chef’s exclamation of “Hellooo??” If you don’t stand up for yourself, you’ll be trampled. As you can imagine, defending yourself in another language is a constant battle. After shifts, in the early hours of the morning, I’d angrily punch into WordReference.com all kinds of words I wish I had known at previous moments during the day. I was exasperated that there isn’t a real translation of smart ass in French. In such a stressful environment you can be under attack at any moment.
After two months, I was replaced with someone who could handle six plates at once. I learned to carry only 2.5. I learned how to make foam for a cappuccino and the difference between a parmentier and a parmentière. I was able to have an insight into French peculiarities, such as leaving half bottles of wine and taking cigarette breaks between each course. I learned the incredible subjectivity of the restaurant experience and that, from now on, I’ll be leaving much bigger tips!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ashley is a Canadian living in Provence, documenting her life and experiences in the area on CuriousProvence. She shares her passion and knowledge of local food, wine, markets, festivities and other interesting cultural particularities. You can also follow her on Facebook and Instagram.