The annual winter festival blew in overnight like a snow storm. We knew that La Foire Froide would arrive, but it was still surprising to see a blanket of booths dusting the streets around our port when we woke up that morning.
Martine and Otila, at the café across from our barge, had prepared a special lunch menu and they knew that it would be a busy day. They opened their doors at 4:00 am to provide coffee for the vendors arriving early to set up their booths, and they were snowed under by customers for the rest of the day.
Looking out the wheelhouse windows, we realized that we were boothed in by the festival that fell on the port during the night. A nearby vendor noticed us and came over to ask if he could fill a container with water, while we were talking with him, we noticed that another vendor had plugged into our neighbor's electric box. They were away, so we searched for Franck, the weekend port captain and turned the problem over to him. His solution was to turn the problem over to the police patrolling the festival. When they arrived, the vendor came over and offered twenty euros for a days worth of electricity, saying that he needed to have the power for his refrigerators. The police seemed okay with this idea and when we looked over at Franck, who was standing behind the vendor, he was busy shaking his head up and down. We accepted the money for our friends, the vendor said thank you and invited us to come over later for free andouilette. These are sausages made of chitterlings and served hot, a favorite among the French, but a taste we have not yet acquired.
At noon, we passed on the andouilette offer and headed over to the Santa Monica for lunch.
They were serving Tripe à la mode, (the stomach lining of a calf), or Tête de Veau, (which means head of veal), not yet home cooking to us, but they are to the French, and we went for lunch just to support Martine and Otila, who have become friends over the years that we have been moored across the street from their café, Le Santa Monica.
The normally quick trip over to the café was suddenly made difficult with all of the booths and the crowds blocking our way. We stepped gently over the bird cages at the back of a booth selling beautiful birds and fish, and we stopped when the crowd did to watch someone demonstrating one of those amazing kitchen devices that you see on TV. When we finally made it to the café and opened the door, we were shocked to see how many people were inside. It was just noon, but the room was already packed with customers.
Extra tables had been added in every available space and there were no empty seats. The improvised staff consisted of Martine and Otila, Jacky, their friend who is also our port captain during the week, Martine's friend Gui, Martine's mom and teenage daughter. There was one young girl working as the waitress, she was probably the only one getting paid.
We joked with Otila at the bar as we came in and when she didn't give us her normally huge smile, we looked around and saw that Martine and Jacky also were missing their smiles, everyone looked unusually stressed. We decided that we should skip lunch and offer our help instead.
We went into the kitchen to tell Martine that we would be happy to help and a nano second later we were at our dishwashing stations in the kitchen and behind the bar. Relieved of her job doing dishes in the kitchen, Martine's mom sat down with weary sigh and put her feet up. Otila, who had been working alone behind the bar since before dawn, was delighted to finally have some help.
Since the café found itself in the heart of the busy festival, there was a never ending stream of new lunch customers, and we worked hard to keep up with the returning dirty dishes and wine glasses. Drying the dishes became a problem when all of the dish towels became ringing wet, so we dashed home through the crowds, tossed their wet towels in our dryer and grabbed our clean supply and some aprons.
Back at work, we found our rhythm and with any lull in dish washing, drying or pot and pan scrubbing, we helped clear and clean the tables, delivered coffee to customers or anything else that we saw needed doing.
We washed, we dried, dishes went out clean and came back dirty. We were part of a team serving a good and hearty lunch to appreciative customers, and we were enjoying every minute of it. French swirled around us as orders were called into the kitchen. Crossing the café brought requests for another carafe of wine or coffees all around. Jacky called us over to speak English at different tables when customers didn't believe him when he told them that we had come all the way from San Francisco just to do the dishes in a little café in France. We worked, we joked with the customers, we fell in love with the ambiance of the day.
When the lunch rush was finally over, we dished up our own plates, choosing more potatoes than Tête de Veau and sat down at the kitchen table with our co-workers to enjoy the lunch that we had come in for more than three hours earlier. The cozy atmosphere of the kitchen added to the enjoyment of our meal, even with all of the interruptions as new customers kept arriving. We finished up a new round of dishes before we left to explore the fair.
Opening the door, we were swept into the crowd. Balloons in the shapes of horses, bunnies, dolphins and Père Noël floated above the crowd. Traffic jams occurred at popular booths or when families ran into friends and everyone had to kiss everyone else hello. We stopped to watch demonstrations, to taste sausage samples or to watch South American Indians in full feather head dress dance to the music of their CDs. We made a full circle and ended up back at the café's outdoor tent for a mulled wine. Some friends from our gym came into the tent and after a vin chaud together, we walked into town with them.
The vendors were packing up as we returned to the port that evening, and when we arrived at the café we found that there was more work to do. Martine's mom and daughter had gone home for dinner, and the young waitress kissed us goodbye as she was on her way out.
This time we helped put away all of the extra tables and chairs, walking them outside and around the corner to the storage room. This was a rather long trip with the tent blocking the shortest route, so it took several of us many trips to get everything neatly stored away.
Customers were still drifting in for coffee and drinks, but most of the hard work was done. A few people lingered at the tables with wine or hot chocolate, and Martine and Otila were both now tending the bar. They were exhausted, but we saw a spark of interest in their eyes when we offered to call for some pizzas, so we went back to our barge for the take out menu. Everyone ordered their own small pizza, and we ordered a couple of extras for whoever might suddenly arrive.
Martine's boy friend brought out a special bottle left over from his son's recent wedding, a delicious mixture of rosé wine and cherries, and we sipped our drinks as everyone finally had a chance to pull up a chair and relax around the bar.
Street cleaning crews passed in front of the café removing all evidence of the winter festival. It was disappearing as quickly as it had arrived. People kept drifting in, including the bar owner from around the corner followed by his little black dog. This little dog loves to take himself on walks around the port and he is quite well known for his escapades.
When the pizzas arrived the room filled with warm and cosy aromas, and everyone moved over to one long table where we spread out the boxes and ate without dirtying any new dishes. The little black dog and Martine's dog placed themselves under the table to take advantage of falling tidbits and everyone ate in a comfortable silence.
For us, the whole day had been perfect. For this one day in France, we belonged in a way that we had not experience since we left home with all of its comforts and familiar ways. It had been a day full of friendship, working side by side with people that we have come to know and love. There were so many moments during the day where we smiled to think that we had suddenly found ourselves happily working as dishwashers. No one would ever believe that such a simple job could make us so happy, but it wasn't the job, it was the feeling of satisfaction that you get when you reach out to help a friend. And for us it was also being part of a group of French friends.
We were the last to leave that night because we wanted to help Martine and Otila finish what had been a very long and difficult day for them. We kissed them good night, and as we went out the door the street sweepers passed us going in. The sweepers were ready for their nightcap and our friends would have to wait just a little while longer before they could close up after a long day and go home.