Americans love to be entertained. That’s why they call it customer service experience. It's not just the food they come for, it's the experience. And the experience is often expected to be created by the staff. In the summer of 2019, I got a job as a server on the small tourist island of Nantucket. I already knew how to take orders, clear tables, and serve drinks, but that summer I also learned how to be a successful entertainer.
Americans like to pry and ask personal questions especially if they detect a foreign accent. No matter how impeccable my English was, my accent always gave me away and I’d get the usual question, “Where are you from?” Now, some people were truly curious and knowledgeable about world geography. Some even had visited Bulgaria before. The majority however weren’t exactly familiar with the existence of Eastern Europe as a whole. Everything east of Germany was Russia. Who was I to tell them otherwise?
Once, an older couple engaged me in a small-talk conversation. The lady was a real estate agent. Her wrinkled hands were covered with expensive jewelry and she wore a bright-colored lipstick that left a mark on her wine glass. “We should go on vacation in Bulgaria, honey, to help the economy,” she told her husband.
Gradually, I embraced my new role as an entertainer.
I started imitating an American accent to avoid the constant questions. I removed all school-taught British words from my dictionary. Harbor turned into docks. Autumn transformed into fall. Even the sound of my voice became American. As I walked up to tables, I learned to always have a wide smile on my face. I spoke in a high-pitched excited voice about the nachos, our new craft beer selection, and the must-try overpriced dessert. Simona evolved into Simone.
At first, I was annoyed at the constant questions. I felt like an exotic animal at the circus. “And now, all the way from Belarus, whoops Bulgaria, please welcome Simona who is here to show you a few tricks,” my announcement would read. But as time went by, I learned how to use it to my advantage and entertain myself.
I’d make them guess my country of origin. I was Russian, Canadian, French, Australian, Spanish, Polish, German. I’d never miss a chance to let them know I’m working to pay for school. I’d describe in detail the one-of-a-kind Dionis beach and encourage them to get that $40 lobster salad. It was all a show. A pretend. I longed for being rude to people, just for the sake of taking off the mask for a little bit.
It had been raining all night, which always drove the humidity levels off the charts, making Nantucket feel like a tropical island. I was working alone with the bartender on the patio. I had a couple of tables in the covered part of the patio and the rest were out in the rain where nobody could sit. At least I thought so. I was putting extreme effort to hide my annoyance with the last customers who wouldn’t leave while patiently rolling polished silverware for the morning shift. A white unfolded napkin. Knife. Fork. Tuck it in like a baby. Next. Napkin. Knife. Fork. Tuck it in like a baby. Next.
If there was ever a contest for servers, it would be how fast one can roll silverware.
After building a small pyramid of ready-to-use silverware, I turned around to check on my tables. Horror filled my eyes and a ball of anger took shape within me as I noticed the two guys sitting out in the dark on a wet table. I took hold of myself and walked up to the table with my usual smile and a hint of puzzlement.
“Wouldn’t you like to sit in the covered area where it’s not cold and wet?” I asked. “No, we prefer to sit here if that’s OK. We like the cold,” one of them replied.
One ordered a cocktail and the other an expensive whiskey. Great, I thought, rich and weird. I served them the drinks and the one with the whiskey asked an usual question. His name was Andrew and he was a bulky guy with a thick unkempt beard who was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt and khaki shorts. He had a fine taste in whiskey but his appearance and way of speaking didn’t give out the impression of the typical American tourist who had more money than he could spend. I decided I won’t make him guess and simply said, Bulgaria. “Do they have pierogi in Bulgaria?” Andrew asked. The rest was history.
It turned out he was Polish-American and even though he’d never been to Poland, he knew all about the food, the jokes, and even the embarrassing chalga music of Eastern Europeans. His friend Clinton occasionally tried to join the conversation with shy but well-mannered remarks. One initially could mistake him for a skinny nerdy guy with glasses but this simple description barely scratches the surface. His hands were strong and muscular, the type of hands you only get from endless hours of physical work. He was clean-shaved, well-dressed, and spoke in an intelligent, almost pretentious way. Even in the dark I could see he was raised in wealth and aristocracy. Later I learned Clinton was also socially awkward and infuriatingly stubborn, but most of all he had a kind and generous heart, a heart of gold, as Andrew would say.
Clinton explained they were from Maine and were working over the summer on a tall ship. “Oh, the pirate ship, the one with the big sails, right?” I said. They both looked slightly annoyed that I called it a pirate ship. I guess they got that joke often.
It was getting late and all my other tables had left when I realized I’ve been chatting with them over the last half an hour. I suggested they move to the inside bar so I can close the patio and get off work to join them for a drink. As I brought them the bill, Andrew’s eyes widened in apparent shock. He had no idea he was drinking expensive whiskey. He never thought to look at the price.
We were having a drink at the bar where I could observe a linear correlation between Andrew’s drinking and jokes. The more he drank, the meaner his jokes got. He started talking about politics, then he switched to making cultural jokes about Bulgarians. Clinton observed in quiet horror mixed with shame and embarrassment. I loved the jokes. He was drunk and mean but most of all he was genuine. The words came pouring out of his mouth. Unfiltered. Unmeasured. Honest.
We exchanged numbers that night and became day-off buddies for the rest of the summer. They introduced me to the rest of the crew, which included a girl named Alice with a knack for drawing and Gore, the ship’s cook, who resembled a shorter version of Clinton but acted much like Andrew.
On one of my days off, they invited me to come to the ship. The tall ship was called Lynx and in the summer they did tourist sails. I had already been to a tourist sail with them but I didn’t get the chance to go around and explore the boat so I was eager to get on it again. Getting to that ship in the first place was an adventure itself – the only way to the boat was with a water taxi.
I climbed my way up to the ship and stepped on the wooden floor that must have been washed by the ocean times and times again. I was on a pirate ship. I stood somewhere in the ocean on the other side of the world making my way around a mysterious ship. I felt young and fearless in a way only traveling and adventure can make you feel.
As I sat in the stern of the ship watching the sun go down with a glass of purple gin in my hand, I realized I had no past and no future at that moment. Even if I did, I couldn’t care less. I was surrounded by people who were both strangers and best friends to me. There was no Simona or Simone. It was just me. Whoever that was.
. . .
The "That Time I Was on a Pirate Ship" article is part of the "Dare to Share" JMC competition, organized by AUBG Daily. The piece was written by the AUBG student, Simona Todorova, who managed to secure the third place in the written pieces category. The aim of the competition is to expose the brilliant works of talented AUBG students and expand the realm of the university newspaper, AUBG Daily.
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