Thursday, 9 October 2014

Café cliché.

I'm a penniless graduate, trainee barista, wannabe-writer combination – I'm a walking talking cake-scoffing sitcom-watching cliché.

I got the job at the café within two weeks of getting back home; ten minutes walk from the house, fairly consistent shift patterns on a zero hours contract thus fantastic flexibility, supposedly. Never a dull moment. Easy rotation - when you get bored or frustrated on the till, spin around and start making drinks orders; when you get sick of the smell of espresso and ground coffee beans are smudged all over your hands, dive out from behind the counter at the first opportunity and seize the trashy trays that are piling up on the tables; when you grow tired of the sticky humidity in the kitchen that surrounds you as you're throwing plates and mucky mugs into the dishwasher, you can check the safe and busy yourself with some banking. 
There's plenty to do. There's more to do than I ever imagined, the job is harder than I ever imagined, and to be quite honest, more often than not, I'm less appreciated than I ever imagined. It's not just frothing milk and banging out grinders, unloading deliveries and wiping down tables. 
I do find it fascinating when people order their drinks in the most bizarre and obscure yet specific ways. A cappuccino, 'extra wet', just means a latte with an extra shot surely, while 'extra dry' means froth, the whole froth and nothing but the froth. Just ask for a shot with your froth. A decaf Americano - firstly, what's the point? - with an extra shot, really? A skinny iced latte with whipped cream - so you're saving precious few calories in milk to allow for a ton squirted on top? An Americano with any kind of milk is mad anyway, but with cream and dusted with chocolate, then cold water added 'to make it instantly drinkable', then a pot of hot water on the side? I am certain that some people order their hot drinks and take great pride in their use of the possibility to make it their own, to be an individual; to be one of the many thousands in the country ordering a caramel latte at this exact moment BUT to be the only one asking for it to drink in, in a takeaway cup, with a swirl of extra syrup mixed in with the shots and a light layer of cinnamon to top it off. It did take me a while to work out what my individual drink was I suppose, and I do take pride in knowing for sure what I like and what won't offend my tongue, and I'm happy to be set in my ways now. It is a possibility for individuality. I appreciate that. Within reason. 

I've started genuinely debating whether I'll continue to get my coffee from chain stores.
Partly because one can never know what goes on when the shop shuts; how badly the staff are treated, the story behind the beans, how greedy and grabby the owners are if this particular store is a franchise rather than a branch... Mainly because of the obvious: supporting local businesses is so important. 
Just quickly - if friends work in a branch, that's almost another matter. Seeing a friend, brightening their day by appearing at the counter, enjoying sipping their handiwork - that's lovely!
Anyway, I'll always check out my options when looking for certain things. I get the majority of my clothes from a boutique in my home town that my friend owns and I have occasionally worked in; I buy jewellery almost exclusively from the stalls in Camden markets (or Winchester high street every Thursday); every time I've gone to a stand-alone restaurant or bar I've found it rather lovely - food spot on and generous portions, sweet service and considerate pricing - it urges me to try and go to those more often. The oldest quirkiest singular pubs are always the best. I'd always make a point of buying my daily coffees from my SU back in the uni days - and not just because of the handsome baristas, but because the money spent in that bar went right back into my Student Union, whereas the for-profit organisation who set up camp selling weak lukewarm lattes two floors above were purely in it for themselves. All my outfits for special occasions have come from either a home town one-off shop or, again, a stall in Camden, and not only does this mean I am supporting the smaller stores and (hopefully) putting money right in the staff's pocket rather than fuelling the overlords - also, chances are nobody I know will have the same item, shallow girly perk right there.
Chains don't necessarily need our pennies - if a high street brand operates in over one thousand venues nationwide, the £29.99 we shell out for a generic dress that will be deemed unfashionable by the time we've left the shop won't make a difference to their staff morale. 
If there are over eight thousand stores in the country, chances are they can go without the precious £2.60 we spend on a mass-produced (and quite frankly, mediocre at best) overly mellow milky coffee. 
Top tip here, while I'm being preachy: never 'add gratuity' or press 'enter' to tip when a member of wait staff hands you the card machine after your meal. Adding gratuity means you're paying extra by card directly to the company - the chain receives it and it may never be distributed among staff. I learned this by working in a restaurant aged fifteen on less than minimum wage, living off tips that jingled in a cappuccino cup on the bar, and having to hand over the card machine with a smile and a silent plea that my lovely customers who I'd worked hard for would understand that I'd never see their generous tip unless it was placed directly under my nose in the form of a two pound coin. 
Pay by card and leave cash on the bill plate - or press it into their palm. 
Okay, I'm being a little harsh. Sometimes chains can be the only way to go - there are a select few mainstream coffee shops that fulfil my needs, a few smaller-chain cinemas that get it spot on (one of which I had a joyous job with), computer-y superstores that employ geniuses who switch things on and off again in just the right way, and certain clothes shops that one can always go to if they need something fast and simple. But yeah, supporting your locals is always a good option wherever possible.

Rant over. I can imagine that from this post so far, you lovely readers can gather that I'm frustrated and stunted beyond belief where I am right now.
Living in the family home is one thing - I can get on board with the home-cooked meals that come from a fully-packed fridge and are made from effectively free food, the central heating, the HD TV, the fantastic laundry service, the daily exposure to a gorgeous ginger cat, the general rent-free lifestyle, and of course the constant support and contact with my pretty perfect family; I can get over the minor hiccups that remind me of days long gone when I needed lifts everywhere and couldn't make choices for myself, often by scurrying away every now and again to have my own little 'independence day' in another town or city - BUT I cannot get my head around spending over thirty-four hours a week slaving away at something I'm not passionate about, something I do just for the CV points and the extra coins, something I'd chuck in tomorrow if I was offered even just a thousand so I could stay relatively afloat while searching for something better. Something I'd spring out of bed in the morning and excitedly pack and dress for, not something I have to march myself to at the absolute last minute each morning. Not something that invites the world in to watch me flounder and come up for air for a few unpaid minutes per shift - not something that is in the centre of my little universe back home and therefore features ex-friends and parents of peers who come in and quiz me about my degree and my prospects as I pump the syrup, mix the chocolate powder and load the blender with ice. 
I'm always wondering why we humans do this. Why we accept work wherever we can, while away the hours we could be spending pursuing cheesy dreams and furthering passions, all for that last Friday every month when we feel euphoric for a matter of minutes when we check our mobile banking app, then treat ourselves to a bottle or some bling or a break abroad, and just like that it's over and we're back where we were before. See, I debate and complain about this constantly nowadays, and yet the day after tomorrow I'll be donning the shirt and slacks and quietly collecting trays once again. It's a trap. It's a system. It's money.

I am constantly having to remind myself that it's just for a few months - just under a year, tops. It'll all be worth it when I'm unpacking in my cheap London flat, making cups of tea with my fellow graduates also pursuing something more in the big smoke; when I'm wandering around the ancient picturesque campus, then sitting in the lecture hall listening to a wise old soul who would never name-drop, only inspire, surrounded by like-minded individuals who want what I want and have driven themselves to get where we all are. It'll be worth it when I graduate on those beautiful steps with my MA, and I'm up for multiple dream jobs that right now I am not even long-listed for. It'll be worth it when I'm strapped into my window seat on the second leg of the twenty-one hour journey to Australia, ready for my post-grad adventure, and it'll be worth it when I'm running full tilt into the waves off Burleigh Heads beach or snapping photos frantically of the street art in Melbourne, or sipping the delicious nectar that is Merlo coffee - yes, a chain, but by far more delicious than anything this side of the world.

Until then, my biggest dream is someday making a coffee so beautiful and picture-perfect that a customer will take a snap on their iPhone 6, edit it with Afterlight and post a clarified brightened filtered version of it on Instagram. Maybe then I can retire gracefully.

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