From January to March 1993, I didn’t see daylight during the week. I was ‘en stage’ doing a work placement with Gráinne, my fellow Irish student, as part of an Erasmus year studying in Belgium. We were known as ‘Joy and the other girl’ for the year, as nobody could pronounce her name. Our ‘stage’ was in an industrial catering company in the airport that made those little plastic breakfast, dinner and lunch trays branded for each airline. The hours were nine to five but if you wanted lunch you had to come in an hour earlier so between the commute out to the airport town of Zaventem and being situated in the basement, we missed daylight from Monday to Friday.
Because we were business students, they couldn’t have us working as cheap labour in the kitchen, so we were assigned a hybrid role within the Cost Control department that allowed them to assign us skivvy work under the auspices of business experience.
The basement was home to three enormous industrial kitchens (the size of football fields). All the doors on one side led into walk-in fridges, walk-in pantries and walk-in deep freezers that each were the size of a good office. On the opposite wall, there were several warehouse-sized rooms whose shutters on the far side opened up to the runway, where forklift drivers would taxi over and move pallets of full dinner and drinks trolleys to be placed on airplanes before take-off.
There was a horrendous ‘us and them’ mentality between management and the kitchen. We were placed awkwardly in the middle. One of our tasks was to randomly take a prepared tray and weigh out all the contents as per the listing in the catalogue i.e., Sabena economy dinner, 3g peas, 1g hollandaise sauce, 10g salmon and so on. Though we were doing the manual work and trying to fit in, we had the unhappy task of reporting our colleagues’ errors back to management.
A few days into the placement, the temperature control system was malfunctioning so we had to manually check the temperatures of the twenty deep freeze chambers. This involved standing in a closed freezer for about five minutes holding up a thermometer waiting for the mercury to creep down to ‘min twintig’, minus twenty degrees, only to return to a boiling hot industrial kitchen to psyche yourself up to do it all again, nineteen more times. We were not in snowsuits but regular clothes and lab coats and our hands would be red raw from the extremes of temperature.
The job of every stagiaire in the world is to look busy for the remaining seven hours of the eight-hour working day, when your boss is so clearly sick of the sight of you. A lot of the time, we walked around the enormous campus with our clipboards trying to look like we were on our way to some important activity. Towards the end of the day, we’d bump into the Bangladeshi staff starting the night shift on the cleaning line. They’d proudly share the spoils of their work – an unwanted pack of crayons, an unopened First-Class giftset that could be regifted to family, a leftover lobster meal. They were all medical students by day and working night shifts, so I’m not sure when they factored in sleep.
We were desperately unhappy. Even though I had grown up in a butcher shop and was inured to cold rooms and cold hands, I had never experienced the assembly line hostility we had read about in our management books.
Being a Dubliner and having only ever done white collar part-time jobs, Gráinne announced one evening that she would not be joining me for work the following day because she simply was not spending her twenty-first birthday in the dungeon.
Off I went on foot, then metro, followed by train in the dark and so began one of the longest days of my life. In between the random weighings, the manual deep freeze temperature checks and data entry, I took at least five toilet breaks to simply cry in the cubicle. When I got home, I told Gráinne, who had enjoyed her birthday immensely, that I’d had one of the worst days of my life and we both decided enough was enough or ‘genoeg is genoeg’ and we weren’t going back.
The following day, we went into college with my prepared monologue. I cornered our Erasmus coordinator Walter Roessens, in his steel-rimmed glasses and shin-length journalist’s mack, in the corridor at break and explained that we would not be returning to Belgavia; we were business students, we were learning nothing, it was more suited to catering students and on and on I went before Walter almost burst into tears grabbing people in the corridor raving ‘Zij spreekt Vlaams! Zij spreekt Vlaams!’ ‘She’s speaking Flemish!’. He didn’t care what we had to say or that we were leaving his placement, because he was ecstatic that a foreign student could tell him all of this in his obscure language. We were off the hook.
Some days, our boss in Cost Control felt sorry for us and would take us on little outings around the airport to cheer us up. One of these outings was to check out the First-Class lounge of a Singapore Airlines plane and it was like something from a James Bond movie, with a bar and swivelling reclining seats.
Another time, from a passenger boarding bridge waiting to attach to a plane, I was looking out across the runway and I spotted Air Zaïre passengers making their way to the terminal building. They looked so exotic in their colourful attire, carrying cages and whatnot and I can only imagine the assault of the European winter’s chill on their backs. One of the passengers, a man in his best Sunday suit, was carrying a tattered papier-mâché suitcase which was held together with a belt or bike strap. It burst open on the runway. He hunched down and his broad frame scrambled to gather the contents which was made up entirely of green bananas, his earthly possessions for a 6,000 km flight. The bananas were either food for his family for their first few days in the new world or the means to making his first €50 in the West. That image has stayed with me. We mustn’t forget that we’ve already won the lotto being born white in the West.
JOY REDMOND is from Gorey. She moved back home in 2005 to raise her sons who are now men. Joy has always written, mainly drama and has recently taken up printmaking to tell visual stories. This story is part of a series of letters she is compiling for her sons.
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