It was official! My freshly issued passport got its first tatoo! It was truly a time of firsts: first time ever on a plane, first time out of my tucked family nest, first time to live abroad and take care of myself and definitely a first jump out of my comfort zone. I was going to spend four months in the United States on a Work & Travel program. My four girlfriends and I got a summer job in a well-known fast-food chain in Toms River, NJ. Needless to say that my grandmother was horrified when she learned that I was going to flip burgers in the middle of a highway. My parents were much more supportive since my mother had a similar Work & Travel experience in London, UK back in the seventies, and she was aware of the many good sides of such travels.
We arrived qute late in New York. It took us an hour and a half to reach Toms River and Gilford Park Motel, the place the Work & Travel agency reserved for us. If you could think of a perfect set for a horror movie – it was it! Fat old motel manager, who evidently saves on showers, suspicious stains all over the couch and walls, bed bugs, shady tenants, you name it – it was there.
Our horror didn’t end there! On the second night at the motel, we were woken up in the middle of the night by someone breaking in! Still jetlagged and very much disoriented, we started screaming, while my good friend Marija grabbed the first thing she found on the night table to defend us – her sunglasses. She started waving very threateningly with the sunglasses screaming: “Who are you? What do you want from us?”. The rest of us were much less courageous and tried to escape through the window. Finally, we came to realize that the greasy-hair Linda, the motel manager, was at the door. After we came down a bit, she explained that there was a guy who claims to be our friend and wants to stay in our room. She had given him the key, but the key lock was stuck, so she helped him open it. Trajče (later known as “Stranger in the night” due to this event) was here through the same Work & Travel program, he was dead tired as he was travelling for more than 24h and desperately needed a place to crash. Relieved that we were not robbed, raped or murdered, and appalled that the motel manager would give a key to anyone claiming to be our friend, we let Trajče crash on the couch.
Serbian girls go to White Castle
When we came to our workplace the following day to check in and receive the work schedule, it seemed that we had walked into a hive of activity. There were more than ten people behind the counter, making sure every customer was happy with their orders whilst delivering their food with a smile. We later learned that there are people who were driving from another state just to order a so called “Crave case” of 30 burgers, with a side of a small diet Coke of course!
Harold: I want 30 sliders, 5 french fries, and 4 large cherry cokes.
Kumar: I want the same except make mine diet cokes, Chuck.
We all started our training on the grills. After a couple of days we were pros in making that gentle, yet confident flip of the wrist just in time the burgers are not burned (we did of course have a lot of customer complaints in the beginning for overcooked or undercooked burgers). Being surrounded by many employees from South America, we had to brush our long forgotten knowledge of Spanish from once popular Venezuelan telenovelas, rather than improving our English skills. These lovely ladies, with whom we seem to have been in a love-hate relationship throughout our stay there, have been living in the United States for more than twenty years. The Spanish-speaking community is apparently so large, that many of them don’t communicate with anyone outside their peers. Even the second generation speaks English with many grammatical errors due to the strong influence of Spanish language. Therefore we learnt some very silly words in Spanglish: chicken rings were “cheekeeree”, pickles/no pickles was “pika/no pika”, no need to go further with the pronunciation of Coke, right?
Don’t forget you happy face every day part of your uniform. Happy happy people!
No olviden ponerse su cara feliz es parte de tu uniforme! Happy happy people!
When working ten-hour shifts in a fast-food restaurant, time seems to fly by. Whenever you’re not working on the grills, you’re at the fryes, if not there, then wiping the tables, taking the trash out or sweeping and mopping the floors. Around the clock there was one of those ladies behind us screaming “Rapido! Rapido!” At times it seemed that having five princesses laboring intensively for the first time in their lives was a ticket to disaster. Even though we were doing everything we were asked, we seemed to have always found our way out of some tasks we didn’t like. For example, I was at the fryers for a couple of consecutive days, and the manager kept sending me to the freezer to take some supplies out after being totally baked (or better yet fried) at the fryer. After the third time I told her that I have a severe heart condition and those temperature changes could lead to fatal consequences.
One of many basic tasks was putting the ad letters on the board in front of the restaurant. The manager showed me how to do it and left me do the job myself. The immense heat outside was motivator enough to outsmart the instructions and find more efficient way to put those damn letters up on the board. My job was done in ten minutes instead of an hour planned, which gave me plenty of time to rest in the shade. I still remember the outraged face of the manager when she saw me sitting there instead of going back to work.
University of Hamburger
As I worked my way up to the drive thru window, I discovered a newfound appreciation for my summer job and for these ladies. For me this was only a crazy new experience, a way to earn some cash to travel the States after graduation. For them it was an American dream. Many of my co-workers have been working here for 10 or 15 years, often alongside their close family members. For the children, who often started working while still in high school, it was a way to earn their pocket money or pay for their studies. I could just imagine the reaction of some spoiled brats back home when being asked to actually work for their fancy new phones…
Our colleague and landlord, Grandpa Marciano as we called him, said that he came to the United States as an illegal immigrant from Mexico. After coming to the States, he was working many low-end jobs to support his family back home. His wife (also our colleague) managed to join him after eight years. He said that working here was much better and satisfying than the jobs he had previously done. Hearing all these stories really humbled me and made me realize how blessed I must have been, as I wasn’t born into a family that had to struggle so much.
As my time in White Castle was coming to an end, I started understanding how valuable this experience was. Those funny Mexican and Columbian ladies, with no interest whatsoever in fancy university courses, taught me more about Customer Relations Management, HR, time management and conflict management than any university professor or seminar before. The way they were dealing with every customer complaint or every problem that would arise, proved to be an invaluable lesson for my later jobs. They taught me to value the person next to me, as we are jointly working on satisfying hundreds of hungry customers, who often get crazy for minor mistakes. During lunch and dinner rushes, the crew has to work together to keep things moving and customers happy. There are no timeouts. You quickly learn to become an effective decision-maker under pressure just to keep that well-organized machine running.
This work & travel experience opened a whole new world for me. As I sensed the joy of being my own master, I found myself craving for more. More adventure. More challenges. More independence. It turned out, I have just started to be more ME.