on the [not-so] bright side…

My time in Queenstown has been filled with some amazing memories, whether it be my first time up the mountain, my first time on stage at Watties, or especially my first leap off a bungy ledge. But in between the Fiordland forays and the glacial galavanting, life hasn’t always been as exciting or exhilarating as many of my posts have portrayed – not every day can hold eight and a half second freefalls to say the least. There was a lot of routine, a lot of monotony, and a lot of annoyances that didn’t always have me jumping out of bed in the morning (or afternoon, depending on whether I’d worked a bar shift the night before or not…). And it normally wasn’t the big stuff that left me upset. Big explosions from an irate customer, few and far between that they were, would usually just make me laugh, amused as I was by their demands to speak to my manager. Instead, it was the petty perturbances (is that even a word?), the little things that had the potential to build up and ruin any good day. As the months went by and many customers were culpable of the same grievances (I call them repeat offenders), I found myself keeping track of pet peeves, a running list forming in my head – and in the heads of my colleagues, as they often shared during a good whinge session. And here, for your enjoyment, are the top three at both of my places of employment in Queenstown. Here, out of my exasperation for your entertainment, is a look at the not-so bright side of my life…not to whinge, but merely to record and laugh out now after the fact.

Premier Taste

4. Customers who don’t talk. I don’t just mean the ones who walk up, say hello, “Fine and you?” and then don’t continue an extended conversation. I mean those select few who quite literally didn’t say a word; who would simply nod when you said hello, who would hold up their EFTPOS card when you told them the total as if to say, “I’ll be paying with a card,” and then walk away. One surefire way to elicit some verbal response from them, though, would be to forget to give them their change or money if they requested cash back. Soon enough, the vow of silence would be broken with an “Excuse me, my money?” confirming this customer wasn’t mute, just not interested in basic conversation.

3. Customers who bring their own bags. Now, I am all for “going green,” buying cloth bags announcing “I’m not plastic!” on the side, and trying to save…whatever it is that using less plastic saves. However, all that I ask is that said customer tells me they brought their own bag, preferably before I finish bagging their groceries and they suddenly snap out of whatever trance they’d fallen into, reach into their purse and pull out a nylon bag, folded into an impossibly smaller bag, and exclaim, “Oh! I am so sorry, I forgot I brought…” “Yes, yes,” I’d say, already unpacking and repacking, shaking my head, “You brought your own bag.” Good on ya, buddy.

2. Customers with different bagging standards. I’m not talking about one customer in particular who has double standards, but different customers with their own opinions that make it impossible to develop any set system when it comes to getting groceries from the shopping cart into bags. Being severely OCD myself, needing a place for everything and for everything to always be in its designated place, I took a rather careful approach to bagging, not quite painstaking but probably putting way more thought into the process than most. Besides the obvious rules like all meat in its own bag, frozen items kept together, and eggs on top, I always tried to make sure items were placed neatly in their bags, not just some random, jumbled mess. One day, an older couple, perhaps in their 50s or 60s, came through my lane. I distinctly remember putting three bags of potato chips and one bag of pre-washed lettuce together in the same bag – hardly an offence, even in my eyes. The woman, though, swiftly took the bag from my hands, saying, “Kids these days, they just aren’t taught how to pack.” I almost laughed out loud at the utter preposterousness of her statement. I imagined myself in some supermarket high court, defending myself: “Number one, Your Honor, I am hardly a ‘kid.’ Number two, yes, she is exactly right – we aren’t taught. We’re bagging groceries, sir, not explosives. And – finally – taught or not, there is nothing wrong with the way I packed that bag.” It was customers like her who just increased the OCD-ness of my packing habits out of the fear of another accusation. But other customers would come through and say, “Oh, just chuck ‘em all in there. I’m not fussed,” throwing off my fastidiousness. Sometimes, you just can’t win.

Before you think otherwise, my job at the bar wasn’t immune from such annoyances, they just looked a little different…

Watties.

4. Customers who think they’re my friend. I’m all for developing relationships with regular customers and there were many, many people I got to know in Queenstown who I would look forward to seeing whenever they came in. It was every so often, though, that someone I didn’t know too well would begin to expect freebies from me. I could understand a legitimate friend wanting a free drink or two every now and then (not that I did, what with observant bosses, video surveillance, and a vigilant stocktake completed every Monday morning), but some people whom I barely knew would make comments like, “One of these days I’m gonna get a free drink off of you, or, “I’ve been bartending for ten years and I would never charge a friend for [insert extra drink here].” Hm, maybe one of these days I won’t…

3. Customers not able to pay. There’s hardly anything more frustrating than having a section packed on all sides with people clamoring for a drink and that one customer holding up the line for a myriad reasons – not enough cash, no cash, an invalid card transaction, or an alcohol-induced inability to recall their pin number. There were once two particularly wonderful customers, two guys – no doubt from Australia – who literally spread fistfuls of coins – of both New Zealand and Australian origins, mind you – across the bar trying to scrape their total together. One had a wallet open as they stood there and I saw a bill tucked away inside large enough to cover their drinks. I reached across the bar, took the bill, and thanked them ever so kindly for their patronage.

2. Customers who don’t order their drinks at once. The way this might typically go would be a guy walks up and orders two beers and three tequila shots. I pour the beers and go to the back of the bar to get the shot glasses and tequila. As I turn around and carry the shots over to the customer, he’ll then hold up any number of fingers indicating he needs that many more. If it’s really my lucky day, he’ll do this several more times, obviously incapable of tallying a total friend count before coming up to the bar to order.

Now, if you’re wondering where #1 is for both these lists, it happens to be the same – Self-Explanatory Customers, or SECs as I refer to them. SECs have a habit of either pointing out the obvious or asking for things I’d already planned to do or get. At the supermarket SECs might ask for a receipt just as it was printing out. “It’s coming,” I’d patiently smile, “Slow machine.” Or sometimes, if a customer was purchasing only four or five small items, it could be faster to scan everything through before placing them all in a bag.  SECs would often ask, “Uh, can I have a bag for those?” just as I wetted my fingers to more easily pull the plastic of their bag apart. At the bar, SECs might order three beers, two vodkas, and a water. I’d serve the vodka and be pouring the beer when they’d say, “And a water, please.” “Of course,” I’d say, wishing I’d been born with three arms instead of two. Like I said, pretty petty offences on the whole, but they manage to annoy all the same.

All that being said, I obviously know there are more important things to life than crying over spilled milk, and my daily frustrations are dwarfed by infinitely more important concerns like unemployment rates, epidemics, or the political situation in Burma or North Korea. But it’s fun to laugh about how easy it was to get fed up with my jobs – and in a way, it’s a challenge to not be “that customer.” If I was ever ordering drinks at Wattie’s on my night off or doing my weekly shopping at the supermarket, I’d always tell my friends, “I’m so sorry, I’m being that customer again, aren’t I?” One of the guys I worked with at the supermarket, a Scottish guy named Mark with one of the best sarcastic senses of humor I’ve ever come across, would often come through my checkout lane and jokingly take on several annoying traits at once – moving his items back on the conveyer belt again and again, pretending not to realize the thing was automatic and only stopped when an item was actually in front of its sensor; trying to use his EFTPOS card before I’d selected method of payment, swiping incessantly and with increasing impatience; and standing at the end of my till, receipt in hand, studying it for an uncomfortably long amount of time, eager to point out the smallest mistake or price discrepancy.

That was how we made light of the meniality, though; that was how we kept ourselves sane. But of course sanity found itself in more than customer impersonations – there were many moments I’ll miss and think of often as I move on in New Zealand.

I’ll miss the friends I made – friends that even though we may not have known much about each other or our pasts and background, we still connected and grew close over the winter season. There’s one scene, one moment, that remains in my mind. The stage at Wattie’s was across the room from the bar, but to the right of it was another bar that, while used by the restaurant during the day, became an extension of the dance floor once the DJ came on for the night. On Wednesdays and Sundays, though, as live musicians took the stage for acoustic nights, the side bar became the Wattie’s Staff VIP listening area. We’d pile on, sitting close, swinging our legs, soaking in the local talent. It was on one of my last Wednesdays in Queenstown that we sat in our spot – I’d just finished my own set and I joined Diana, the girl I grew closest to in town who worked in the restaurant, and all of the guys we worked with, most of them English, with accents I could fall in love with, Brit hairstyles I laughed at, and a camaraderie among us all I couldn’t imagine getting any better. As cameras got passed around, our arms wrapped around each other, singing along to covers we knew and love, I looked at Diana and said, “I’m gonna miss this so much.” She smiled and we agreed not to talk about it.

I’ll miss the international community of Queenstown, so impressive for such a small town. I’ll miss not being the token American, feeling out of place in the skin and sound of my nationality. I’d barely left town in October and arrived back in Christchurch, spending the weekend with friends I’d known there before, when the “In America…?” questions started up again. Some people really think up the craziest stuff. “In America, do you guys have fences? When I was in Texas, I didn’t see any…” “In America, are there cyclists? Because when I was there, there were no sidewalks, so where are the cyclists supposed to ride?” “Have you been to New Jersey? Is it amazing?” It gets exhausting being singled out and expected to have an answer for everything they think of. Already I looked back on my time in Queenstown and appreciated it for being a place where everyone was from somewhere else, where no one’s hometown was cause for commotion.

On my last day at the supermarket, my Scottish friend Mark drew me a “stick-figure family” of our circle of friends at Premier Taste. A motley crew it was, but it showed me in the middle with a guitar; Susan, our Irish supervisor, in the corner on a conductor’s stand; Malou, a Malaysian woman and fellow checkout chick, known for her incessant cleaning around the checkout area, with a bottle of cleaning solution in her hand and three “mini-Malous” at her feet, representative of her children; Georg, my 18-year old German friend and me and Mark’s little project who worked in the service deli, his shaggy hair seemingly blowing in the wind from his well-known crazy moves on the dance floor; Remy, a Frenchman who looked younger than he was, a beer in his hand, bags under his eyes, and a clock reading 5am – a guy who wasn’t hesitant to admit he often came to work on just two hours of sleep after a late night out; and even “Cute Kid,” my favorite regular customer, a boy of about nine or ten who would come in, walk around holding a shopping basket and scratching his head as if deep in thought, and walk out with only the most practical of items – never anything remotely frivolous purchased for himself. And that’s only half of the figures included on my drawing, no bigger than a 3×5 index card. Finishing before me that night, Mark handed me the card as he went upstairs to clock out, giving me a hug and saying, “You’ll be missed.” When he came back down, I was in tears – the last thing I thought I would happen on my last day at the supermarket (I’d more envisioned myself jumping for joy or perhaps doing a cartwheel out the automatic sliding doors in front). “It wasn’t supposed to make you cry,” he said, and I hadn’t expected it either – but it just goes to show you the power of the place.

I’ll miss Braden, my bar manager-turned-music promoter. Braden is personally responsible for reviving my music, for getting me up on stage and on the radio. We spent many a late night over a glass or two of white wine after finishing work, “talking shop,” me playing him my songs, him sharing his plans and desire to be a songwriter himself. After one such night, I woke up to a text from him:

Hey, it’s late but never too late to inspire. I’m back writing. How was I to know you were to go, amazing it was, short it is to be. You live your life the way it should be. Chances are taken; choices are made. Everything has a reason and it comes naturally. Night hun, my pen can’t stop.

After I played on the radio, he sent another later that day:

Hey doll. Hope you had a good night, this morning was absolutely amazing for me to watch you do what you’re born to do. Sing your heart out.

And after I left Queenstown, having given him a card thanking him for bringing music back into my life, he wrote:

Hey you. Just read your card down by the beach. I got teary eyed. Thank you. A lot of people come and go here in Queenstown and I forget them but you and I will meet again. It’s just a pity we left it so late to get to know each other. Lots of love.

My last Wednesday night playing, Braden and I stood to the side together, listening to a fantastic new group he’d found for the night. Their female singer was especially incredible and I mouthed “wow” to Braden. “This is who you could be hanging out with, you know,” he said, not happy about my impending departure. “I know, I know,” I sighed, still not 100% sure I was making the right decision. He pulled me in for a hug and said, “It’s just that I believe in you so much.” You don’t get that often in life. I’ve talked several times with my mother, a published author, about the importance of having the right agent, of how the person filling that role in your life and career needs to be someone you know believes in you – someone you know has complete confidence in you. I’d found that and here I was leaving it all – and I’m not even sure why.

Despite all my frustrations, despite the downsides to everyday life, there is a magic about the place I won’t soon forget. In a way, I feel a large part of me grew up in Queenstown – I learned to stand on my own; I grew into my new role as a bartender and developed some semblance of sophistication when it comes to my knowledge of wine and cocktails; I challenged myself physically on the slopes, on glaciers, and on the bungy ledge; I challenged my opinions, beliefs, and stereotypes I’d held; heck, I finally even had romantic interests I was actually interested in myself; all of this while living on the shores of a lake at the foot of the Southern Alps.

I recently finished reading a book titled Another Quiet American: Stories of Life in Laos, whose author, Brett Dakin, graduated from Princeton before spending two years in the capital city of Laos as a consultant for the government’s tourism authority. As I read of his plans to finally leave Vientiane, the reasons he gave for leaving were remarkably similar to mine when I decided to leave Queenstown:

If I had really wanted to stay, I could have found a way. But that was just it: if I had stayed, I wasn’t sure I’d ever leave. I could imagine myself living in Vientiane for years, applying to renew my visa every few months and holding my breath as I awaited a new lease on my paradisiacal lifestyle…The ease with which I’d slipped into a comfortable routine in Vientiane frightened me, for it wasn’t clear where it would lead…But the main reason I felt I had to leave was more simple: everyone else was always leaving. While I’d lived there, most of my closest friends had left…Sure, it was fun to meet the occasional visiting consultant…but this was no substitute for real friendships I’d established, and it was difficult to watch as the men and women I had come to know disappeared.”

It was good to know I wasn’t alone in my moving on from a place where I was perfectly happy, a place I wasn’t even quite sure why I was leaving. So at the end of the day (or season), a few pet peeves aren’t much when compared to the friends and new experiences I’ll always think of when I think of Queenstown.

 

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