What’s up Auckland?

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On my way to work yesterday, I biked past a black man wearing a glittering gold bikini, platform heels and sunglasses, leaning idly against a sign post. I didn’t look twice.

In a city where prostitution is legal, you see things that would otherwise strike you as out of the ordinary. We definitely have characters who linger on State Street in Madison – the usual suspects accompanied by the occasional person dressed exceptionally strangely – to whom you barely batt an eyelash after awhile.

In Auckland, a vaguely clueless looking prostitute might wander into your five-star restaurant just before you lock the door at 2am, looking for suitors. On a stroll down nearby “K” road on any given evening, you might see a trannies, prostitutes, people dressed up in animal onesies and still others scantily clad in super hero costumes. They aren’t fussed about whether or not it’s Halloween. Any night is a good night for a costume. 

It’s also perfectly normal to see a woman in a giraffe onesie walking down the street, casually chatting with a “normally” dressed woman. As far as I can tell, Kiwis don’t get too old for onesies. The fact that it’s socially acceptable for an adult to run errands in a cow, sheep or safari animal onesie brings me happiness.

I was talking to my dad on the phone a couple of weeks ago and he asked me what I missed the most about home. I hadn’t given it much thought until that moment, but it seemed obvious. I miss my family and friends, of course, but I miss the general sentiment and mentality of the midwestern people (or yankees, according to recent maps. perhaps “folks from the great lakes region” also applies). I miss their down-to-earth approach to life and the way it just feels like home to walk into pretty much any bar in Wisconsin.

Colin and I went grocery shopping a few weeks ago, and as we waited for the light to turn we watched all the dressed up guys and dolls flaunting their stuff on Ponsonby (or Pon-snobby, as we like to call it). The Kiwi penchant for onesies comes in sharp contrast to the high-fashion atmosphere of Auckland’s most trendy street. Women were strutting in heels as long as my arm, wearing daring, sequined little numbers with their hair blown, straightened, moussed, sprayed and bobby-pinned. I was sitting in the passenger seat wearing yoga pants, a sweatshirt and my chacos. So there’s that.

Even at the “dairy” (just a convenience store, not a diary in the way a person from Wisconsin might expect) on a weekend morning you’re likely to run into a woman dressed entirely in black with perfectly mussed hair and extra large sunglasses – obviously suffering from a hangover and having “just thrown this on” to come get a gatorade.

But for all these differences we’re starting to really settle in and feel like this is home. Even if Kiwis don’t put screens on their windows when they definitely have very large mosquitoes and I haven’t had a dryer in nearly a year, there are things about my life here that I absolutely delight in, like an abundance of ripe avocados, grapefruit, mandarins and now strawberries. I love running by the sea and watching the Chinese and Maori fishermen idle with their beers while they wait for a tug on the line. It gives me joy that the woman who owns our local farm market recognizes me, that we’re only a 30 minute drive from the mountains and that a Tui bird frequents my backyard.

Part of my more recent feelings of contentment stem from finally having a job that I enjoy. So far, working at The French Cafe has been challenging and rewarding, with a good balance between high standards and perks for employees. That said, I have never noticed (or been bothered by) my flyaway hairs until now, surrounded as I am by the sleek, straightened and styled Kiwi women’s hair. I also touched a woman on the arm the other night, and my manager said:

“Did you just touch that woman?”

“Um…yes.”

“Generally, it’s best practice to never touch a customer unless it’s an emergency situation, and then the area from the shoulder to the elbow is considered an acceptable area to touch. Otherwise, just stand there and wait until you get their attention.”

“Of course,” I said. “I will resist my very Midwest habit of touching people.”

That made me think about how my mom hugs everyone she meets, and smile a bit at how uncomfortable that would make the Kiwis. Or, more specifically, the JAFAs.

Last night at a function held to give rich people a chance to buy expensive French watches, a man asked me to describe the dishes next to him so he could listen to my accent. I think nothing about my accent is unique, remarkable or romantic, but apparently he enjoyed hearing me speak (and told me so often, to my great discomfort, and probably his wife’s, too). I have been told, on more than one occasion, that my accent makes people feel comfortable, sort of “at home.” Mostly people think I’m Canadian when I speak, and Irish when I’m not speaking.

When Bon Iver comes on the playlist at work, and one of the Kiwi boys turns it up, I love to say things like, “Know where he’s from?”

After my disastrous attempt to work a “normal” day job for a social media company based out of Sydney (based out of London), I learned a few important things about myself.

I am miserable sitting at a desk all day and talking to no one. I also have very little tolerance for poor working conditions, i.e. low pay, long hours and enormous work load, particularly when it’s not something I’m passionate about. I was hugely surprised to find that I missed the bustling nature of service, the camaraderie and, admittedly, the tip-inflated hourly wage (yes, people DO tip in NZ, normally at around 10%). At the end of two months at Castleford I’d made all of two friends, and I knew little to nothing about the rest of the people I worked with. In the restaurant, and the end of one week you know everyone’s name and brief history – you’ve made ten new friends, many from different countries and all walks of life.

What’s particularly interesting at The French Cafe is that most of the staff are professional servers. One of the Frenchmen went to school for hospitality, and two of the Kiwi boys did two-year restaurant apprenticeships. Staff that have been working at the restaurant for a year still consider themselves “new”. That gives you some idea of how steep the learning curve is and how challenging the menu, wine list, and order of service is to master, especially given the restaurant’s particularly large size.

The boys who form the senior server posse seem to thrive in that atmosphere, getting a high from the adrenaline rush of a successful, busy night. I know from firsthand experience that a crazy busy night that went really well can leave you feeling high and mighty. The whole time you’re walking a tightrope, though, and any moment you could lose control.

What makes working in a good, busy restaurant so stressful that people have anxiety attacks? For one thing, no single person can control the experience of the customer. How the night goes for a table of guests relies upon the maitre’d, the chefs, the server and the food runners. Everyone’s involved, and anyone could make a mistake. It could be as simple as placing the customer’s jacket on the wrong table’s hanger or accidentally filling their sparkling water glass with filter water. It could be giving a person who ordered the snapper ceviche without crab, a plate with crab. All of those actions make up an entire experience.

I think it’s the lack of any real control that makes it such a high-pressure environment. The fact that you could do your job excellently, but someone else could muck it up. The head chef watches you serve a plate from the window and gets infuriated that you handled the plate carelessly, and the garnish fell off his masterpiece, or the dish wasn’t facing the customer just so. It’s not one person’s work of art – we are all cogs in the machine.

While I enjoy working in the The French Cafe’s catering kitchen, for the aforementioned reasons I have no desire to be in the thick of things on the other side. I am more than content to work special events, learn “heaps” about food and wine and apply for graduate school during the day. But that mentality sets me apart from the others, as does the fact that I don’t plan on being there for more than seven months. Sometimes I feel a little like I’m in limbo – like I don’t fit in anywhere right now.

A good friend reminded me that I need to embrace this in between time in my life – to be “Buddha Brittany” – and I have been dutifully trying my best since that conversation. While sometimes I feel a little lost out here on the other side of the world, I am getting better at remembering that things change in the blink of an eye and this “quiet time” in my life should be embraced and celebrated.

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~ by bjordt on November 13, 2013.

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