Spots of Time

February 25, 2003

Fashion Foot Forward

London Fashion week just ended and seeing the photos did nothing to inspire me to shop. They rarely do. I’ve never really understood high fashion. To me, the epitome of fashion would be clothing that made my legs look longer, my waist smaller and provided the illusion that Jennifer Lopez and I had the same derriere. I wouldn’t care if the designer was Target.

I’ve never been much of a fashion foot forward female. If my clothes are in fashion it is usually by accident or good timing. If I find something I like, I’ve been known to buy multiples, in various colors, creating a stockpile. I learned this quickly during the height of three-quarter length sleeve shirt popularity also known as “the year Melanie could not find a long sleeve knit shirt to save her life.” Knowing that the fashion winds constantly blow in contradicting directions, my stockpile frequently allows me to wait out the storm until my tried and true comes back into vogue (which it always does, sooner or later).

With this information it might surprise you to know that while in Melbourne I did a three-week stint in women’s retail. I was working for a chain of stores called Table 8 which specialized in stylish somewhat conservative women’s clothing. If you live in the US, think Ann Taylor and you’ll have a pretty good idea of our style and selection. My friend Lindsay was the store manager of one outlet in a huge shopping center that was closing down as they had chosen not to renew the lease. Three weeks before the store closed, one of the girls landed another job and had to quit on the spot. Enter Melanie, Jill-of-all trades and sick to death of waitressing.

Even though I had no retail experience I picked it up pretty quickly. Step one: smile at customers and welcome them to the store. Step two: take merchandise from them and start a fitting room (which also means you get credit for the sale – who knew?). Step three: compliment them on their sense of style. Step four: assure them that their behind does not look huge in those pants. Step five: repeat with remaining 10 pairs of pants they try on. Step six: ring up their order. Step seven: hand them their receipt. Step 8: Repeat with next customer.

Interestingly enough, three weeks in retail was about my limit. Lucky for me, the job opportunity in Sydney came up during my last week with the company, and four days after I finished, the call came saying I got the job. Before leaving I decided to go shopping for a few more appropriate clothes for my new corporate life. I knew most Australians were layed back, even in business, but somehow I didn’t think my Reef flip flops, khaki shorts and Pooh T-shirt were going to cut it in corporate Australia.

While working at Table 8 I’d spend most all my breaks wandering around the shopping center, even though I almost never bought anything. One observation that struck me was the uniformity of fashion in Australia. Store after store contained the same or similar merchandise – identical colors, fabrics and styles. Looking for a tiered white calf length skirt? Turn into nearly any store and you’ll find several options. You’re in luck - the style is on its way out so the skirts are on sale too!

My friend Danni, and Aussie who lived in San Francisco for a couple of years, said she didn’t realize how totally into the minute Australian fashion was until she returned from the US. She determined that even if you hated what was in fashion in San Francisco you could always find something else somewhere. Here, she was having some issues.

When I arrived in Australia the “gypsy girl” look was of the moment. Long tiered skirts in black, brown and white, pastel tank tops in pink and blue, turquoise and antique-styled jewelry, and flowers for your hair dominated the window displays. The recent “sale” signs in stores indicated that the season was changing and with it the “gypsy girl” look was on its way out. Replacing it was brown – the “new” black – mauve, burgundy, Asian inspired prints and styles, embroidery, and velvet.

Brown as the new black was my biggest issue. When traveling with a limited wardrobe, I’d been told it is wise to chose one base color – brown, black, grey or navy – and try to coordinate everything else around it. That way, you can limit shoes and come up with a mix and match wardrobe of coordinating separates. Even though I normally prefer brown I chose black, hedging my bets that it would be easier to find replacement clothes along the way. Bad timing. Everywhere I looked I found browns – from tans to chestnut to khaki to mahogany. The selection of black was much more limited.

I’ve come to no conclusions about my observations other than to think it’s quite handy that I personally like aspects of the “gypsy girl” look considering it’s everywhere and currently on sale. And, though quite a task, I have managed to piece together a decent array of pseudo-corporate clothing (black-based) that I’ll be able to mix and match for the next month or so. With regard to any pearls of wisdom from my time in the world of retail fashion, I can only say this. I'll never say no again when someone offers to start me a dressing room. And, I'll never ask the sales person if my behind looks big in these pants.

February 18, 2003

A Curve Ball You Can Catch

I woke up this morning in a corporate apartment in Sydney's Darling Harbor. My apartment. In Sydney. I got ready, made coffee, ate breakfast and walked across the bridge to my office. Day two of corporate life in Australia had just begun.

Last weekend I packed all of my belongings and left my life in Melbourne, my home for the last three months. A few days before, I'd been offered and accepted a one month contract to work in the Sydney offices of an American technology company. It all happened so fast. One day I was waitressing in Melbourne and the next I was flying to Sydney for an interview with the CEO. Before I knew it I was reading my contract which listed my position as the "Company Technical Writing project manager and Company Public Relations advisor (for Asia Pacific regional activities)." What was I getting myself into it?

It is ironic how life throws you a curve ball just when you are comfortable thinking you have things all planned out. Just a few weeks ago I put together my "Master Plan" for my upcoming round-the-world travel schedule. Though there were still a few holes, I was confident that the next few months were pretty secure. I would work in Melbourne until the end of February, go to Tasmania at the start of March and then travel up the coast to Cairns. There was no place in my "Master Plan" for a stint doing corporate work in Australia's largest city.

But, the job came at the perfect time and offered amazing benefits I could not pass up - the chance to live in Sydney, a fully furnished and paid apartment, the opportunity to work in corporate Australia, and more money that I would ever make waitressing in Melbourne. Even so, I debated the idea for a while - because it wasn't part of "the plan." Then I remembered my first big trip to South America.

I was twenty three and had never travelled on my own. I had spent weeks planning and perfecting my trip, including where I would go and what I would see. My priorities for the trip included seeing Angel Falls in Venezuela, the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador and Macchu Picchu in Peru. After four months I returned home without accomplishing one item on my priorities list. Was I disappointed? No. Did I have a rotten time? No. Should my trip be considered a failure? No. The simple truth was, for various reasons, my plans just changed. And, in the end, my trip was defined not by what I did not do, but all the wonderful things I did - many of which would not have been possible if I had stuck to my original plan.

Before I left for the interview, Lindsay told me that this opportunity was a curve ball, but "a curve ball I could catch." She said it was exciting to think of how many curve balls I would be thrown in my upcoming travel adventures and that it would be totally up to me what I decided to do with them. I had never thought of it that way. In the end, I decided to go with this one. As for the future curve balls, I'll cross that base when I come to it.

February 11, 2003

Take It Out of My Tips

"Hi everyone. My name is Melanie and I'll be your waitress tonight. To answer your first questions, my accent is American. To answer your second, I don't agree with my president's actions. Everything else will work itself out as the night goes on. Now, who'd like to order a drink?"

It was Saturday night and I was working the upstairs party room at Volare. The guest of honor was Michael and it was his 27th birthday. He'd assembled about 20 of his nearest and dearest. The room was packed. Being on the bottom rung of the seniority ladder at a restaurant has its disadvantages. This is one of them. The upstairs room, besides its undesirable location at the end of a LONG flight of stairs, is always hot, packed tightly with people, and hard to maneuver. Big parties, though not necessarily more demanding than smaller parties, are notoriously bad for last minute additions. Just when you think you can sit for a second, the one person who didn't want a drink the first four times you asked decides they'd like a beer. Did I mention all the food and drinks are located downstairs?

At one point during the night, my aisle was blocked with presents. One of the guests in the far corner had asked for some sweet chili sauce and I couldn't reach around to give it to him. I handed it to Michael and asked him to pass it down. "No worries, he said. "That will be five dollars." "No worries," I said. "Take it out of my tip." One of his guest interrupted - "Oh, we don't tip here," she said. "I know," I said. "I figured I was safe." Everyone laughed as I headed downstairs for yet another quick "addition."

In the US, waitressing and working a big party is usually a benefit. Though it's hard work, you are almost always rewarded with a nice big tip. But here, tipping is not ingrained into the culture, except at some of the nicest restaurants. As one of my coworkers said, about 30% of the people tip well (well being defined at around 5-10%), about 30% might leave the change, and the rest don't tip at all. Though I know I sound like I am complaining, it's not quite as bad as it seems. Waitresses are also paid better than their US counterparts. Though it varies depending on location and type of restaurant, in my neighborhood about $10-$12 per hour is pretty standard. As you might expect however, service is not up to US standards. When you know you most likely won't get a tip, there is not much incentive to provide the perfect dining experience. :)

Ending a night with good tips depends as much on your coworkers tables as it does on your own. While in the US a server is designated a certain table to manage for the night, in Australia, the whole serving team manages all the tables at the restaurant and then splits the tips at the end (after tipping out 30% to the kitchen). So, while you take the order at table 10, you might not see them again until dessert, if at all - while at the same time, you'll deliver meals to tables you never saw before that moment. This took some getting use to, and a lot of double questions to customers until I got the hang of things. While this type of "zone serving" has some advantages (and once you know the system is easy to understand), I have to say I prefer the US way better. Besides being easier to know what needs to be done next for a table, you have the time to establish a relationship (ie flirt) with the customers, which usually allows for a bigger tip. In general, I've found that establishing a relationship with the table does help when it comes to tips. :)

That night I was pleasantly surprised with a better than average tip - $8.60. Of course, the bill came out to over $500 dollars. Still, I was pretty excited. Mostly because my expectations had been set especially low following the previous Saturday's party - a 20 person hen's night. That night, I had set my expectations pretty high.

For those unfamiliar with a hen's night, it is the Australian (and British) version of bachelorette party. As it was wedding season, we'd had quite a few coming through the restaurant, but that night's group took the cake. They had been drinking quite a bit throughout the evening and getting pretty rowdy, and it was well into the night when the hen's best friend pulled me aside and told me to keep my eye out for their stripper. Stripper? No one had told me there would be a stripper. This was going to get interesting.

About 10 minutes later the stripper showed up. "Hi, mine name is Chaz," he said. Of course - what else would it be? I showed him to his room to get "ready" and went back into the party to get the hen's friend. By now the group had moved all the tables to the sides of the room to create a dancing space - and were they every dancing! Abba was on full blast - and had been looping for at least two full CD cycles. The friend followed me out to talk to Chaz. I was clearing dishes but over heard him say, "...and don't worry about the grandma - even though I'm going to take off my G-string, I have another one on underneath.." Of course.

By the time he came out, I hardly recognized him. He had on at least 10 layers of clothing and was dressed like a drunken bum. He handed me his CD and asked me to hit play when he came in. No problem. I have to say I was a bit intrigued by the whole thing. I'd never been to a bachelorette party where there was a stripper and I was curious as to his, ahem, "act." However, it was not to be. Just when things started to get good, Martin asked me to help out downstairs and leave clearing the dishes until after Chaz left. Damn.

The party lasted until late, and the women were the last customers to leave the restaurant. As they left many of them called out to me. "Bye Melanie!" "You were the best - thanks for everything!" "Good luck on your travels!" "Thanks!" The hen had to be guided out of the restaurant, though she could - mostly - walk on her own. Martin, the owner, was sitting at the bar and watched them leave. "How much did they tip you?" he said, noticing the wad of cash in my hands. "One dollar, twenty cents," I replied, stunned. "How much was the bill?" he asked. I looked down at the total. "Over $600.00," I replied. "Australians don't really tip," he said.

No kidding.

February 04, 2003

A Night of Few Words

Good poetry has the ability to say, in a few words, what it takes a novelist chapters - or so said a friend to me a few years back. I think this statement is generally true. Though I have never been a prolific reader or writer of poetry, I have been known to throw down a few lines on occasion, when inspired. A smattering of times stand out in my memory - exploring an old antique shop in Bloomington, in a hotel room in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and on a morning train through fields of sunflowers near Madrid, Spain.
The most recent time occurred Saturday morning, following a Friday evening of drunken debauchery on the town with my friends Craig and Lindsay. If you are pressed for time, you can skip straight to the poem at the end and you will have a good idea of the course of the evening, at least for me. However, if you have a bit of time, the background story is interesting as well.

Due to my waitressing schedule, I had only been "out" in Melbourne a few times, and almost never on the weekends. Lindsay had been after me to live in the moment, reminding me that my work visa was coming to an end and that I would regret it if I didn't hit the town at least a few times before I left the city. I knew she was right, but as most people know, I'm not the biggest drinker, and going out, especially in Australia, usually entails throwing back a few cold ones.

I follow a hard and fast rule to never have more than one drink when travelling in a foreign land with people I don't know or trust. For a traveller going it solo, this is a smart philosophy - keeping your wits about you at all times is one of the first rules of travelling. For me, dubbed "One Martini Melanie" by my San Francisco roommates, this is a necessary one. It doesn't take much to get me drunk - which at times is a blessing and at times a curse.
However, when with close friends, friends I know I can totally trust, I have been known to let my guard down just a little bit. This was one of those nights.

We started at Brunetti's, a well-known Italian restaurant on Lygon Street, a little Italy of sorts. Dinner started with wine - a bottle, not a glass. My two friends were strangers to each other, but after my standard get-to-know-you introductions I found everyone getting along like old friends. As the night progressed we mastered the art of upside down digital photography, writing on paper table clothes, and the specials board. We’d also bonded with our waitress, Hedvig, a student from one of the Scandinavian countries – which one, I can’t for the life of me remember.

By the time dinner ended, we'd finished two bottles of wine and decided the night was just beginning. We took a few more pictures, bid farewell to Hedvig, and caught a cab for the nightlife of Brunswick Street. After a few false starts, we settled in at Black Pearl, a small trendy bar located just a few blocks from my restaurant job. We met a group of cool Aussies and spend most of the evening chatting with them. I don't remember how long we were there before the round of tequila came, but I know that was the turning point in the evening, at least for me.

As for the rest of the evening, I think it can be best summed up by the short poem I wrote after I woke up Saturday morning.

“One Martini Melanie”
Walking down stairs from my bedroom
The contents of my stomach heavy in my hands
Double-bound in plastic shopping bags
The night was great
Until the tequila