Posted: March 24, 2015
Well, that title is a bit over the top, not totally accurate and a little pretentious to refer to me in the third person, but yes, by the back half of 1990’s things were going better for me.
They did not start out that way. A cruise line that will go un-named decided to make an example to the staff by firing me for a long series of complaints about my behavior. At that time the cruise lines were all trying to fight each other for creating “a whole environment” for the passengers and part of that was to upgrade the staff. Up until then, it had been that if you behaved yourself and you were off duty and were discrete about it you be in the pool or go to one of the bars. No more. The new ships had much nicer kitchens and cafeterias on the lower decks just for the staff and more places to hang out with other staff members but if you were not to be on a deck for a reason as an employee doing something for a passenger (increasingly being called a “guest”) than you were not to be on a guest deck.
So, it was in this environment that a young crew member had convinced me to go for a jog with her (something I would not characteristically do, so you can appreciate how nice she must have been) on the exercise deck. That was the excuse for getting rid of me. She got off with a warning, but I wasn’t even able to finish the cruise. Just me and my backpack on the dock in Amsterdam. It was November 1992.
I thought that I had done alright with my finances at the time but had no idea what life was like when you had to pay for a place to live and for groceries. Living on the ship and being provided food every day was just a way of life for me. While my pay had been acceptable, I would blow most of it when between cruises and when you are only off the ship for a few days you don’t really gear up for buying groceries, preferring to just eat at restaurants or take out. During the previous decade, I had saved a grand total of $3,250.00. I had no idea how bad an achievement this was but I quickly learned that a few thousand dollars will not take you far, especially in Amsterdam. Within weeks I had moved further north to the port of Harlingen in Friesland province on the coast of the Wadden Sea. While a nice enough historic town and place to summer today, it has a long history as a seaport and still counts fishing and shipping as major employers. As a cook, I was able to find various short-term gigs as the cook on working ships till the spring when I met Marc and Lotte.
Now as a little background, working as a cook in various jobs, particularly around large private yachts is a good gig if the yacht is large enough and if the season is long enough. The boating season in southern Europe, and North Africa or the Caribbean can work year round but getting up into France, Belgium and the Netherlands, the season ends with a thud in mid-September.
The positive part is that like other northern climates the summer gets jambed into about twelve weeks and often the pay can be very good, albeit for a short time. It also gets you out of those southern locations that are so nice in the winter but sweltering in the summer. So that spring I knew that I would need to take the best paying job I could find to start to build up a bit of a cushion for making my way back to the warmer weather when the fall would hit the Netherlands. The job was posted at the posting board near the port as a CHEF/COOK, but when I spoke to them it was very clear that it was a chef and babysitter role. But Marc and Lotte were nice, the boat was amazing and fifteen euros an hour for 10 hours a day for six days a week could really add up. The math was dampened a bit by having to live at a nearby campground and buy my food for one day or two days a week but otherwise, the money I would save would hold me over for several months down south when the season wrapped up. My life was very much feast and famine at the time. So I took the gig – Chef, and Babysitter!
To say babysitting four kids sounds pretty ominous but the reality is that two were almost 17, twins – a girl and a boy, Luna, and Lars, and the other two were 14 and 13, both girls – Isa and Tess. They were all pretty good kids and the twins I really didn’t have to do anything for other than feed. We were docked on a large canal in the old town, so there were lots of things to do but unless the younger ones were with me or with their parents or one of the twins they were not allowed to be off the boat. Isa and Tess were good kids but a boat, any size boat, is not big enough for teenagers to spend the whole summer and I spend a lot of time trying to find ways for them to be entertained. Their parents’ boat was a 22 meter (so about 72 foot) power yacht, only about four or five years old and was very well equipped. While a boat of that size sounds large, once you put a few full-size mammals in it there was not a lot of extra room. They were all large Dutch people. The twins were both taller than me and even Isa and Tess were over 1.75 meters (5′ 9″).
During the middle of the week, we were docked and it was the kids and Lotte and like clockwork, on Thursday night Marc would arrive for three or four day weekends. The weekends were when I would get some time off. I would prepare some things for them on the Friday or Saturday morning and they would head off for the day and evening and occasionally overnight, and rarely for two days and by Sunday or Monday morning, I would be back on board working on a big breakfast. It was a bit tiring as one of the girls would always be wanting something or me to take her somewhere in town and on my time off, living at a campsite was not ideal. Most people who are camping are off on holiday and cutting loose a bit. It’s not that they are doing anything wrong but for them, every day is a holiday and for me, I would have to be up pretty early to be out on my bicycle to get groceries, load up my panniers and get to the boat. I was also one of the few tents in the campground and the various caravans and trailers were all big looming structures around me.
After the first couple of weeks, however, we discovered that the twins liked the task of taking the car to go to the market to shop for me. After I showed them how to spend time at the market and how to choose produce, fish and meat they were pretty good but would often come to the boat with some off-list items to challenge me or with some pretty dreadful cuts that they thought were a bargain.
The younger girls both liked doing art and seemed to have an endless supply of art equipment and supplies and would work on that and sometimes would go into town with one of their older siblings to buy more supplies, books, and music.
The other big activity I got them onto was cooking. That was a sweet deal. I ended up with two “sous chefs” who seemed pretty keen. One of the things they loved to make for their parents and older sister and brother at the beginning of the summer was homemade pizza. I would make up the dough and they would do the rest. But part way through the summer I showed them how easy it is to make risotto. What is really good about risotto is that it is all happening in slow motion – so no issues of critical timing etc. It also lends itself to doing it several ways. The first couple of times we just did a fairly plain one but by the end of the summer I would just do the clean up while they would do the meal and it would have lots of variations.
I set out to include my recipe for MAKING RISOTTO WITH KIDS here but it was getting a bit long so it will appear as my next post.