There’s not much new to report about Germany this week. We are in our fourth week of lockdown and people are behaving well. I was mildly amused to read a headline this week in the news magazine, Fokus, asking why the politicians had failed so badly to deal with Covid 19. At the same time, I read in the British press how Germany is doing everything right. I guess it’s the nature of modern journalism to look for the negative first. But as there’s not much else to write about Germany, I decided to take a trip down memory lane to my time in Switzerland, working as a waiter after leaving school in 1985.
I took a gap year before university and managed to get a job as a waiter in the Swiss resort of Villars sur Ollon, not far from the eastern end of Lake Geneva. I’ve been thinking about Villars a lot recently because I go skiing every year with friends at another resort just across the Rhone valley. I look out in the mornings and can probably see some of the slopes where I raced around as an excitable and reckless youth 35 years ago. I googled the hotel in which I worked and was surprised and delighted to see that it hadn’t changed much since I was there. The memories came flood back.
I was hired, along with a handful of Brits from the same agency, as the most lowly form of waiter – commis de rang. It was my job to bring out plates, make sure everyone had enough bread and clear the tables between courses. Above us were the real waiters, the so-called chefs de rang, who got to take the wine and drink orders, talk to the guests and cash in the tips. I arrived about a fortnight before Christmas and we were given a stern talking to and a clear message. First, if we messed up or did something wrong we would be put on a black list and never work in Switzerland again – pure fiction and probably illegal but we didn’t know any better. Second, we were not allowed to go skiing until the second week of January when the Christmas rush was over. The hotel could not afford for their new waiters to be injured. We were shown how to deliver and clear plates and given a basic set of rules and were thrown into work about a day after arriving. I shared a room with 2 other young Brits who were also waiters. We were all dreaming of skiing all day followed by a little work before being seduced by glamorous Swiss millionaire’s daughters in the evening. The reality turned out be somewhat different.
The hotel filled up and we were soon put to work. We had to set the tables and put bread rolls out for the buffet breakfast, before cleaning up. For lunch and dinner we ferried plates to and fro. After each meal, it was our job to dry and polish all the glasses so they could stand gleaming on the tables for the next meal. The Maitre d’Hotel, a busy Italian called Monsieur Mendocino, would come by and hold the odd glass up to the light to make sure we weren’t skimping. On top of our normal shifts, there were several events and gala dinners over the first few weeks when we also had to work. I remember us finishing at 4am on New Year’s Eve only to be woken less than 3 hours later to get the breakfast buffet ready. We really only had time to work and sleep during those first weeks but we were getting good at the job and starting to learn the ins and outs of the hotel and, most importantly, how to bend certain rules to our advantage. Most of the staff were pleasant but we had a few people that were quickly put on our hate-list.
Miraille was the head of housekeeping – and a tight-faced sadist. Once when the three of us were grabbing an hour’s sleep between shifts she came into our room, pulled all the duvets off our beds and gave us a good shouting at until we cleared all the clothes and mess away in our room. Fair enough, our room did look like a normal teenagers room just 3 times worse, but it did seem particularly mean of her to wake us up. The others on our hate-list were the chefs in the kitchen. They were all french and looked down on the waiters and especially us. Our only contact with them was either when we needed an order and we thought they were taking too long (source of constant tension) or when they had prepared a plate and they thought we were taking too long (source of constant tension). I suppose they treated us like new inmates at first, but by the end of season there was a tiny degree of mutual respect – like the faintest of nods between rival prison gangs in the exercise yard.
We survived the first 3 weeks, the hotel emptied and we were all given 4 days off each week for the rest of January which was low season. I had become a reasonably competent waiter despite my notoriously shaky hands and had grown in confidence over those first weeks of boot-camp. I can still remember the report our Chef de Rang, an amiable French bloke called Eric, gave to M. Mendocino after the New Year’s Eve dinner – “Ils ont travaillé comme les anges”. They worked like angels. James, my fellow commis de rang, and I were proud of ourselves. Now we could get down to skiing. Needless to say, we went crazy.
Confidence triumphed over technique. Testosterone triumphed over caution. Crashes – or wipe-outs – were not a cause for worry, but for celebration. I would hate to meet our younger selves on the slopes today. In any case we managed not to break any bones and survived January. We became better skiers. I do remember having a wipe-out and noticing my lost ski bashing into my head at some time during the crash. But this was during a spell when it was extremely cold, so the blood must have frozen and I didn’t really feel much apart from a bump. When I checked in for work that evening, in my white jacket and bow-tie, M. Mendocino said he didn’t think I would be working and said I should feel the side of my head. As usual, I had got back from skiing at the last minute, changed into my waiters outfit (shower? – teenagers don’t smell do they?) and reported for work. In the warmth of the hotel, my head had thawed out and blood was pouring down one side and had completely matted my hair. I was whisked off to the doctors and given 6 stitches. But I was back at work next morning.
As the season progressed, I managed to get a different shift which suited me well. I did room-service in the morning and bar work from 4pm. That gave me most of the day to go skiing. Occasionally I would have to man the patisserie-stall which was set up at 4pm when people came back from skiing. The rhythm suited me and I enjoyed doing room service because we were unsupervised. In retrospect, we were lucky to be unsupervised because our growing confidence and affinity for short-cuts would not have gone down well with our superiors. On the other hand, I have been dining out on some of the resultant stories for years. But more about that next time, reader.
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