For this month’s Inviting Writing series, we expected some horror stories about cafeteria culture. Instead, writers have shared largely positive memories: learning social customs in the United States, creating an open-air lunch spot in Kolkata and today, a civilized taste of socialized shrimp in Luxembourg. Helene Paquin lives in Toronto and blogs about books at the CrackSpineDrinkWine book club. Her twitter handle is @CrackSpineBkClb
Cafeteria Culture? It’s Not All Bad
By Helene Paquin
Business travel can be taxing. The time spent at airports instead of at home with family. The challenges of inventory control as you’re living out of a carry-on for a week. The unfair reality that the Earth rotates around the sun and therefore you will be jet lagged. It’s not all negative, however. Business travel does provide an opportunity to visit places that you wouldn’t likely visit on your own. In my case it was Luxembourg, not exactly on my bucket list of must-see. I’d been asked to attend a week of meetings, and having no real choice in the matter, my answer was, “Oui, I shall go.”
After managing five hours of sleep on the flight, I take a taxi to Luxembourg’s second largest town, Esch. As the taxi pulls up in front of the headquarters I’m struck by the architecture of the building. A giant stack of red plastic building blocks in the shape of a V greets me. In contrast, next door is what appears to be a dilapidated steel plant facing foreclosure. I hand over 75 euros and in my best French I manage to squeak, “Merçi, au revoir” to my driver. I’m determined to use my native language while I’m here despite my Quebecois accent.
The morning meeting goes well and I’m invited to have lunch in the cafeteria. Flashes of high school flood my memory bank: long lines, steel trays steaming with the bland daily special, the refrigerated cases with slide windows to reach a chocolate pudding. Frankly I’m a bit horrified and do not have the best poker face. My peers immediately start explaining: The district is being developed and has no restaurants in the immediate area for dining. The office has planned for this and a subsidized cafeteria has been built for the employees. Apparently it’s the law for companies to do this. I fake a smile and we head to the second floor.
The elevator opens and I’m greeted with a display table featuring the season’s offerings. Giant white asparagus tied with string on a silver platter lie below vases filled with spectacular flower arrangements. A rectangular blackboard lists today’s menu choices written in white chalk. Employees pour in and say hello to each other as they swipe their employee cards. I ask about the cards thinking I may need one to order my lunch. I’m informed that employees swipe their card to prove that they have taken a lunch break. If an employee doesn’t swipe, his or her manager receives an email indicating the staff might be overworked. Again this is the law. The labor codes want to ensure health and wellness by encouraging breaks, eating meals and socializing. In my office we eat lunch at our desks while answering phones and typing emails.
There are five lines divided by meal types: grill, pasta, pizza, daily special and salad. I head to the shortest and quickly the chef asks what I would like. On my first day of travel I keep it simple: pasta with tomato sauce. “Voulez-vous des langoustines?” I grin widely. Why, yes, I would like subsidized shrimp on my pasta. He makes the sauce from scratch in a saucepan right in front of me. No bastions of steel trays filled with food that’s been sitting there for 3 hours. Everything is fresh. I look over at the others and it’s the same everywhere. The pizzas are made to order, so are the salads. This is unlike any cafeteria I’ve ever seen. Everyone looks happy, standing in line, talking to each other.
I’m handed my dish and head over to the fridges. There’s wine and beer! How civilized! I’d love to grab a red wine but my North American employment policy says not to. I make a mental note that I need to see about getting a transfer when I get back. The desserts are works of art. The shelves reveal crème caramels with slivers of chocolate on top, chocolate éclairs with fresh custard and what looks like a lemon cake. Want a coffee with that? Enter some coins in the espresso maker and a freshly brewed cup magically appears. I see my colleagues and join them at the cashier. She tallies my order: three euros. This is the best cafeteria ever! I sit at a table and stare at the trays filled with treasures from the kitchen. I’m overwhelmed and realize how grateful I am to be here among people who care so much about food and quality of life. I raise my water glass, “Bon appétit everyone!”