Restaurants are weird places. Anything, and everything, happens there. Whether it is willful, as it is most of the time, or a complete fluke, these accidents are part of the plasticity of restaurants. While you are working, what lies outside of those walls doesn’t matter. This is the place to be, to meet people you already know—of course not to talk with strangers, for that, you go to karaoke. Restaurants are a time-out zone, a place to be at a certain kind of ease. A good restaurant will make you forget about whatever is ruining your day. But, when stepping into a restaurant, you immerse yourself in another person’s imagination. That can be scary sometimes.
I’ve been working in restaurants since I was fourteen. Being from a small village in the region, there wasn’t much variety between restaurants: coffee shops pretending to be posh with mediocre coffee, traditional Québécois breakfast places for tourists and old locals, and Hot-dog shacks. They are all the same in the sense that they remain meh. Of course, those jobs were for teens since the good restaurants had staff with actual kitchen experience. We teenagers had the leftovers. That’s the way it was.
When I arrived in Montreal to study, my sister worked at a restaurant where I was hoping to become a dishwasher. A forest green velvet curtain swarms across the entrance, welcoming you into a velvet jungle. The day I arrived for my interview, I was surprised to see only one person at a bar that stretched throughout the restaurant. Its metal structure held a dark varnished wooden top, which was decorated with small religious candles that lit where the two opposing windows, determining the front and the back of the open room, didn’t. The interior was a clear reflection of the person sitting at the bar. The walls themselves were tattooed with surreal photographs, the origin of which no one really knew - a different story was told every time - and various other drawings. All of these things were surely a strange combination. I found myself easily distracted by the collection of items. On the other hand, barely anyone seemed to notice the small religious figurines arching over diners as they ate. While the individual objects did not make sense on their own, the absurd imagery gave character to the restaurant’s entire persona. As for the proprietor, she was rather small, but she still frightened me. It was those very dark eyes mixed with her dress code. Only one colour mattered: black. The interview was rather short, she asked about my experience in a very automatic way. I got the impression that the whole interview was only to land on the question: “What are your astrological sun and rising signs ?”
No one is given enough credit in the restaurant business
If I had any other background, this question would have had me turn away rather quickly. Thankfully, I had been raised in a hippie village. It was this question that gave the restaurant a bit of life. Without it, the interview would have remained a stale questioning of useless information which someone can read on a piece of paper. No personality would have gotten involved. Probably because of my gaiety about it, I got the job as a dishwasher. It was nothing too prestigious, but later on, I became a cook. The only detail was, I’d forgotten to tell my sister that I had applied. Our first shift together was rather an interesting event for our coworkers.
This place could have been mistaken for one of those places which, while trying to be too hip and modern, loses that aesthetic for lack of a character. It remains this plastic feeling of cool; all white with plants crawling on the walls and windows. Like a purposely misaligned frame in a museum, while trying to be different, they just remain the same.
This place was different. It struck me immediately upon seeing those tainted walls. Early in the afternoon, through cheap windows that fogged easily in the Montréal winter, you could see its cosmos. A few clients chatted in pairs. Some were so close together it was hard to distinguish from afar if they were, in fact, two separate people or one meaty person. Others seemed to naturally distance themselves as much as possible from one another, as if they were scared to be overheard. Oddly enough, this excludes the servers. They don’t exist when personal spaces are concerned. They hear it all: the dates, the break-ups, and anything in between. The server has seen, heard and smelled—yes, sadly—it all. Even the most unacceptable things are normalized so the customer doesn’t lose face, for them to feel perfectly reasonable. Once, a man left his phone volume quite high as he was watching porn. Enduring customers from evening to night, servers go table to table, from behind the bar, to the kitchen, back to the clients and back to the bar to overlook the busy stools between these four tattooed walls. What amazes me is they still find time to schmooze the clients and the cooks. No one is given enough credit in the restaurant business, but thank God for servers who keep such natural-looking straight faces while being the mediator between these opposing forces. With the all too often ridiculous orders - someone once asked for a vegan chicken taco with extra cheese – I don’t know how cooks don’t lose their minds more than once during a shift.
Seeing it with its lights off, benches on tables and unopened liquor bottles was like seeing a corpse at a funeral with no one around to mourn it.
It’s a special lifestyle for an employee, as drama occurs more often than not: the staff flirting with one another while they have partners, in-fighting when they are not flirting, cloak-and-dagger shenanigans. Beer o’clock met us when the restaurant closed. It was often at that same time we would chat about life outside the kitchen. Being tired and not wanting to leave out of laziness, we would chat for an extra hour or bring our tips across the street to the bar. That’s how I met Someone.
Well, met is a strong word as not much happened between us aside from certain excursions to another room. In the rare cases we worked together, we would go out afterwards, with or without others. Usually without, since our coworkers couldn’t bear the visible tension between us. No one was actively flirting, but we would talk about this and that without end. It was nice. It didn’t matter what the subject was. We would often avoid talking about the job, as we spent most of the time together there. What complicated things was that she had a partner, but the queer community seems to have another set of rules - which I still don’t understand. In any case, the restaurant was a weird bunch of people who probably would never have talked to one another under normal circumstances. Most of us became friends. As with vegan orders, each flavour might not match perfectly, but there they are, beings just being there.
At some point, the restaurant closed, as they regularly do. There were some hard feelings between the workers. This was our little family. These relationships failed soon after, for many of the same reasons the restaurant had a palpable energy: we cared for it. Some had worked there nearly five years. Everyone had a different relationship with their work and expected the same attention given back, which was impossible as no one had any time to spare. This might seem strange, and it still does to me. Soon after it closed, I went to the restaurant having forgotten a pair of boots.
But, in truth we were all mourning, separately.
This grief brought about a new liberty as each of us went on to other jobs. I left the country to travel around central Europe. It so happened, in between cities, I stopped in the city where Someone was presently living. Somewhat accidental, but only somewhat. As I arrived at their new apartment, our past was revived for a few seconds. The after-work projects, idiots who didn’t last long, news of various people. But, those memories were dropped fast as I figured out the other person in the apartment was her new lover. I took this trip to become broken-hearted. And, I was to be there for a few days. The only thing in my head was how screwed it was of me to ask to stay there. Nothing good could come out of it.
Beneath this third-story flat was Warsaw, which had such a cynical history. Of course, I was also there to try plenty of traditional foods, such as utopenci (sausage drowned in vinegar with sauerkraut), pierogis topped with a mushroom cream and way too much beer. Because I was a tourist, I didn’t recognize any restaurant norms. Everything seemed quite different, often operating like a cafeteria. I would be called for my order, get up to retrieve it and bring back my empty tray. These ‘milk bars’ as the locals call them—where I would search for milk without any success—were rather odd to me: silently ordering beer by setting a coaster in front of you, asking for something from the day’s menu, getting it from the kitchen and paying by the front door when you were finished. You knew the restaurant was good if the kegs were left lying around. That would generally scare off the picky tourists—Americans and Brits—or so a server told me.
During the day I would head out of the apartment to visit Warsaw. Dwelling in its communist past, its gigantic parks and the museums. When evening started to settle, I daydreamed about the restaurant and, more importantly, how it felt to hang out with Someone before everything changed. This was no longer reality. Something transformed. Me, her, us...who knows? I cannot begin to pretend I know the answer to relationships. It was now dry between us. But, that wasn’t unwelcome as it was more comforting to know the relationship we had was truly over than to believe it was still alive while we were separated by the sea. Nostalgia is rather stupid, though forgivable, when it forbids the present to be a possibility. Just as the sentimental value I attached to the restaurant, which was long gone. It is almost hateful how feelings seem to repeat themselves. It didn’t bother me too much that she found someone new. It would be absurd to continue that relationship. Well, that’s what I kept telling myself.
We would eat supper together, the three of us, chatting about nothing beyond the reality outside the empty walls that were yet to be filled. We would chat about anything and nothing, but the conversation would always come back to the same topic. It was mid-March 2020. Museums, cafés, restaurants and stores were all closing down by the hour due to COVID. I would see locals trying to get all their weekly needs, no different from pictures of Montreal. Rushing around, trying not to look at anyone out of fear. Only the old people were still trying to go out for a drink and chat aimlessly, boasting they had survived worse.
Being confined to memories of the old restaurant and Someone, who now had her sight on the future, was somewhat tragic. I soon found a way out, nothing as special as The Great Escape, unfortunately. Having had both train and plane tickets cancelled, I needed a bus out of Central Europe to Berlin. Most buses were also cancelled due to the pandemic. People flocked in the general direction of their buses at the packed station. They would ask one another about directions, no one truly knew where they were going. If that wasn’t enough, some buses would arrive late, which was interpreted as another one cancelled. Social stress can occur rather fast when no one has a clue what is going on. It was like playing the lottery as more people wanted a spot than there were available seats. Many would be happy to get into any bus as long as it was headed out of where they were. I did the same. This was the best part of my trip.
The bus did a milk run around Poland, going through every major city between Warsaw and Berlin: Lodz, Wroclaw, Poznan, Szczecin - in nowhere near a straight line. Between bus switches, people would share their lunches, even if all relevant sanitary practices pointed the other way. This has no logical explanation. It’s just what happened. Not that any of that ride had anything resembling logic. We would talk, just to comfort ourselves, about what we would do when we got back to our homes. A lady in her late fifties was occupying herself reading a religious magazine which could easily be interpreted as an all-dressed priest porno mag. Handsome young men occupied large portions of pages, poorly Photoshopped onto a church background. Or, at least, with my knowledge of Polish, it seemed that way. Just like in the restaurant, I had to endure that sight as we had ten more hours stuck on a bus together. Somehow, that’s what made me realize I was going back home. Next to me was a Belgian who had lived in Montreal, rather close to my own home, who knew the restaurant where I met Someone.
Restaurants are places to get your heart broken. Or rather, to live without any consciousness.
You never know what you’ll do once you are outside of their living walls.