”Staff Wanted’’ a sign says and on the spur of the moment I enquire – after all, it’s written in English.
I’ve been in Athens for two hours, a city I’d vowed never to return to because of the heat, dirt and noise. However, after three days on a ferry from Israel, expecting to join a Greek yacht in Athens and that no longer needs staff, I need a new plan. I’ve been travelling for so long that even at fifty-something, young lovers, navel piercing and tattoos seem normal. Before I succumb to the piercing and tattoos, I require a reality check and a touch of ordinary life – well as ordinary as new places can be.
‘Can you cook?’ I’m asked the next morning. I think of three kids who never starved, a brief cooking course in Thailand, and my kiwi ‘can do’ attitude, and tell him. ‘Yes, I can cook’.
Five minutes later, with six long loaves under my arm, I’m in the café-bar of the hotel: I have a job – I am the manager, cook, cleaner, waiter, bar-staff and dishwasher of the cafe in a budget hotel – two minutes walk from Symtagma Square: in the centre of an Athens that’s preparing for ‘the games’.
I’m shown the breakfast menu – the evening menu will be up to me – the refrigerator is unlocked and the doors are opened for the first time in six weeks. It’s my first day of five weeks working 11-hour days for a Greek rival to the TV show ‘Fawlty Towers’.
“Write down anything you need for the kitchen and I’ll get it,” I’m told. In the beginning I get most of what I need, but slowly my shopping list is ignored and never does it leave the kitchen for reference when the sporadic shopping is done. This means I often have a double supply of lettuces but no rice, olives for the Greek salad but no feta cheese, pasta but no tomatoes. Daily I juggle as I conjure up satisfying meals for the staff as well as creating a menu of at least three or four choices for the guests.
Forward planning does not seem to be part of the Greek psyche, well, not with the locals I worked with. Despite ordering, often days in advance, drinks or food, it was not until the fridge was empty that another carton of water, beer, or block of feta cheese is delivered.
Cockroaches drive me crazy in the kitchen. From ant-size to giant-size they can quickly disappear down cracks nearly invisible to the human eye. Two favourite hiding places are the potato bag and the onion basket. Morning and night, before the guests arrive and after they leave I spray the beasties. Lift the basket, bang it down and as the zillions of them scurry for cover I do the cockroach stomp and spray maniacally. The stomp, a dance I’ve invented to stop them running over my feet and up my legs, is the second line of defence and slowly, day by day the population is reduced. Another step in the dance is the basket bang; this dislodges those hiding in the cane breadbaskets so I don’t deliver creepy-crawlies along with the fresh bread. The two steps, the bang and the stomp, are often performed in combination with a shudder of disgust. I push Buddhist precepts of not killing to the back of my mind as I attend to the battle of the cockroaches. Books, knife-blades, salt shaker and a bottle of soy sauce are all used successfully to dispatch cockroaches to wherever dead roaches go. My sandals, the tip jar, fry pan, coke and beer bottles; whatever is at hand is used to deal to the fast moving critters.
It’s August and the heat is amazing; the two gas rings from which I create the culinary delights add a few more degrees. Finally a fan is installed, four metres from the floor, with a 10-centimetre pull-cord: I need to climb a stepladder to turn it on.
During quiet times I stand on the balcony and watch Athens in action: on the balcony a deep fryer has sat for months, half-full of rancid oil. For the past three afternoons we have had unseasonably heavy rain. The vat fills rapidly and the floating oil trickles over the top and runs towards the balcony edge and unsuspecting pedestrians below. I notice it at the last minute and stop the flow with a blue cotton tablecloth then remove three large jugs of the water and oil mixture. despite this the fryer is left sitting in the sun, growing even more rank; waiting for the next rain and another bid to escape over the edge.
Soon it’s time to move on so I empty the tip jar for the final time and go shopping with my squirreled away tips. I buy a silver necklace and bracelet along with a pure white suit that is totally unsuitable for backpacking and hop on a plane to London, ready for the next adventure.