Just before I get into it, I am not going to mention the name of the patisserie where I am currently working, because they have a strict social media policy which states that you can’t discuss what you do at work. I promise I’m not trying to create an air of mystery, and while I highly doubt anyone from there will come across this blog, I would rather be safe, and just stick to calling it P (for patisserie! Get it? So clever!).
I wasn’t sure how to tackle this post. My initial thought was to write something after one week. But I kept delaying it for a couple of reasons. I’m terrified of what people will think of me when they read it. Will people I know nod their heads sagely and think to themselves ‘yes, we’ve seen these traits in her too’, or ‘what did you expect when you went to France? Stop whinging for once’, or ‘harden up’, or ‘I would react differently’. Or perhaps a potential employer comes across it and thinks ‘nope not hiring this one’. And then I got to a point yesterday where I just thought screw it. I really can’t be bothered what people think about this. So here it is.
The night before I started I didn’t sleep for more than 2 hours. I had no idea what I was walking into. While I have done trials, I figured nothing would really prepare me for actually working in a French kitchen. On my first day I was shown around. There are several different teams that are largely separate to one another; one for the ovens, one for entremets, one for chocolate decoration etc. I’m in one of the finishing teams, which means that we assemble everything together and set it up for the stores. I was introduced to my team as well as all the other teams, and on a whole they are welcoming, friendly people.
One of the first things I was told was ‘we want it to look machine made, but we are doing it all by hand’. Every single product is eyeballed by at least 3 people who check to see if there is a single flaw on it before it is sent to the Paris stores. If there is something not quite right, bin it. So already, I know that my skill set is going to improve, simply to ensure that we don’t throw out entire cakes. In fact, 3 were wordlessly dumped yesterday; I said a prayer for their beautiful chocolately souls and tried not to yelp when it happened.
Over the first week, I repeatedly heard the classic French phrase, ‘t’inquiète pas’ (don’t worry), followed by reassurances that they understood I was dealing with a new workplace as well as a new country and language. I was told that they had faith in me and that they could see I wanted to excel. Please note the past tense.
After just one week in, we were off to Iceland. Incredible doesn’t cover that holiday, but the timing was terrible. We had booked in at the start of the year, well before I had a job, and it just so happened that it fell into my second week of work. I had a weird sense in the days before I started back up at P that their attitude and patience were about to flip, and that I was about to get a more truthful experience.
Upon starting my second week of work, for three days straight, I was screamed at more than I was spoken to. I was told I needed to go quicker, and that I needed to be more proactive. I’ve lost count of the eye rolls. I was glared at. I was spoken to as though I was a child. I was pointedly ignored. And look, I get it on some level. I follow that this is just how things are in the kitchens here, perhaps on a whole. I understand that for some people, instilling pressure and stress creates better outcomes that are achieved more efficiently. They need me to get up to speed quickly, and this is their way of achieving that.
The most heartbreaking moments have been when I overhear people talk about me, and I hear them say that I’m inexperienced. One afternoon after someone had shown me how to do something, I overheard him talking quietly with some of the other chefs. And I heard ‘she’s not very experienced’. In the changing rooms the following morning, the first person I saw that day asked me, “are you new to patisserie?” Another morning, I made a fairly big and silly mistake, and as I left the room to get some equipment, I saw one of the chefs walk over to the others, and start expressing how useless I was. I can’t begin to describe how humiliating, hollow and small these moments make me feel. I’m not sure how to go about my day, after realizing that this is how most of my coworkers saw me.
Another peel-myself-off-the-floor moment happened when the chef de poste (team leader) was standing with one of the other chefs, and myself. We were looking at the list for the day, and he said:
-‘I’m thinking I’ll get you to work with Zahara to do the lemon tarts’.
She just kept staring at the wall. He repeated himself awkwardly. More silence, more wall staring. Repeats himself a third time, this time almost pleading with her for the love of God to say that this is ok with her. Old mate shrugged her shoulders and walked off, with me assuming I was to tag behind. I’m not sure how else to interpret that exchange other than someone chose to stare at a wall rather than agreeing to work with me. What a dreamy 45 minutes that ensued.
It is important to note that there is one girl who is unrelenting with her patience through all of this. She draws me in with small talk, and she makes such an effort to make me feel included. She gives me an opportunity to say something, when I often have nfi of what is going on around me. Every day that I work with her is a day that I can breathe a little easier.
So, needless to say I’ve been frazzled. My nerves feel like they are sparklers that aren’t burning out. They are constantly flickering and lighting up, and there hasn’t been too much respite. I’ve only been able to discuss work a handful of times without dissolving into proper, Atlantic ocean-sized fits of snotty blubbering. Yesterday I stopped walking, placed my hands over my face and mid sentence burst into tears in the middle of the 5th arrondissment for everyone to see. The day before, I was waiting to just get into the car so I could start another crying sesh ft snotty sleeves. Having said this, I have succeeded in not crying while at work. I consider this to be my Greatest Achievement of 2017 (says the 29 year old).
My contract is only for 2 months, and I’ve already found myself wanting to give up. I’m not proud of that, but it is the truth. I’ve always been on the slower side of learning and memorizing. I’m not saying I’m slow. I’m saying processing takes a bit more time. This is made all the more challenging in this particular environment.
The language barrier was always going to be hard. It’s tricky because I’ll misunderstand something and end up doing or getting the wrong thing. It also slows down the learning process because I have to 1) translate the command into English in my head 2) Try to commit the French phrase to memory 3) Remember the process that I have been asked to do for next time. Basically imagine being in a pit of quick sand, and having to remember the 17 steps for flavouring crème patissiere in French, but also make sure you stay calm while we holler at you for being slow while watching your demise from the sidelines. Have fun babes!
Having said this, my French is getting better, which is a wonderful feeling. While they slow down the words for me, they talk amongst themselves at normal hyper quick French speed. And gradually, I can understand more of what they say. This week for example, I participated in conversations! While participation itself was limited to a maximum of seven sentences, we take the wins where we can.
There are moments where I get frustrated that they don’t necessarily show empathy. I’m not sure how well they would operate in the same situation as I have placed myself in. But then just as quickly as that thought enters my mind, I wonder if empathy is required at all. It’s not the main reason I’m here. It’s not what I’m aiming to get from this experience. While I might consider empathy and sensitivity to be valuable, I’m not entitled to it, and therefore I know I can’t demand it.
I know I signed up for this whole experience because I am not, as yet, where I want to be. I have a very long way to go, and I am acutely aware of that. This process is only going to bring me closer to improving, even if it is via tiny steps. I know that I am racking up that skill count. I am grateful that I get to work with incredible pastry chefs every day. I’m proud that I am doing it in French. Even if I’m only there for two months, it’s two months more than I thought I would achieve.