On the nightshift….
It just had to be. When the request came to work at the Gala Night of the National Dutch Film Festival, from 8pm until 4am, in the cloakroom, I felt this fit right into my exploration of the Dutch labour market, so I accepted.
I was a bit uncertain - did I really want to do this? - when I reported at the theatre entrance, but was ushered in straightaway by a friendly security guy, with no further questions. The words "I come from Randstad" [the temping agency] really open all doors. I wandered around for a bit in the foyer, which was full of expectation, but otherwise still empty. The ceremony of the 'Golden Calf' award, the highest film award in the word of Dutch film, was still in full swing. I was hired for the party after.
Two Randstad colleagues arrived for the same job. After a bit of asking around we found our line manager and received a backstage pass to go get our uniforms. I love taking a look behind the scenes in theatres. It was a labyrinth, with staff changing rooms full of people, celebrities on a couch, champagne, flowers, all in a buzz of energy.
Dressed as a City Theatre employee, in a black blouse with logo, and armed with earplugs, I went back up and missed the briefing. No one had told me there was one. I have worked at film festivals before and this kind of happy chaos is pretty standard. These events use a lot of volunteers, and they don't run professionally, but on enthusiasm and flexibility. "Happy chaos is fun, isn't it?!" a festival colleague shouted at me half way through the evening.
My colleague Ibra was a kind, middle-aged Moroccan, who spoke Dutch reasonably well. He had given up his own business in Groningen and had just moved to Utrecht. He had trouble with the routine of the cloakroom, placing the hundreds of numbers on the right hooks, but he did his best. Hans, a happy-go-lucky thirty-something, gave the impression to be still looking for his goal in life ("If only I was still 20", he sighed) and had a lot of experience in catering work. He worked hard and ran miles that evening.
The job wasn't difficult, but if you have to do it for eight hours, non-stop, without a minute break, not even to get a drink, all night long, and the cloakroom is choc-a-bloc with thick wintercoats, all kinds of bags, huge heavy rucksacks, umbrellas and shoes, and there is just the three people on duty, while that should have been at least six, it becomes quite a challenge. I was surprised how physically demanding the job was. The next day my body ached, with painful shoulders, arms and feet.
I noticed people love to have a chat with the cloakroom people. Most heard question: "Can I please have my bag for a moment, because these stiletto heels are killing me, just need to change them for my training shoes."
The calves were quite a story too. Different film categories all had Golden Calves to award and almost all of them were dropped off at our counter by the winners. Who wants to go dancing with a heavy brass calf under their arm, right? And the world is so small when you are a Dutch celebrity, only famous in the Netherlands. I don't know who's who, after more than 25 years of overseas living, but I recognised some of them by their behaviour. They reacted surprised when I said they were welcome to drop off their calf but how were they going to remember which calf was theirs? "But my name is engraved on it!" they would exclaim. "Ok, so when you pick up your calf, please check the name so that you take the correct calf please?" Again, a surprised face.
I chatted with a nice guy, didn't know he had a calf too. It turned out to be a famous Dutch actor/director. Of course I had never heard of him, but I knew of his father, a very well-known actor. I apologised. "Sorry I've lived overseas for years, I have no clue who you are, but I do know your Dad." He didn't mind. He had just won a calf, so his day was made.
Halfway through the night, about 2am, and still just the three of us toiling away, I had a dip, a sudden deep desire to abandon the job, But I learnt on the Camino that you are capable of much more than you think, especially if you have no choice, so I gave myself a little mental lecture, about the commitment to my colleagues, and this exploration of work, and on I went. Running. Lifting. Carrying. How do I get that bloody heavy bag off this hook which is at shoulder height? Where is the calf of that beautiful lady and what is her name? Pulling, pushing, trying to get at coats and scarves, kilos of fabric packed closely together. Tripping over umbrellas. And smiling at the guests, here you are, have a nice evening. Most people were very friendly. Then there was the man in a tuxedo who subtly pressed a euro in my hand, with a face as if he had just given me 20 euros, expecting me to run extra fast for that.
Four am it was over. Cleaners started mopping the floors. The builders came in to pull down the stage and disco. The bar staff said they would continue to tidy up until at least six o'clock. We were allowed to go.
I survived it, and I have reconfirmed to myself that I am strong and stress resistant. Eight hours of physically heavy work, at the weekend, on the nightshift, without a break, and what did I earn? Just the minimum wage, no extra allowances at all. For me, by now, Holland has really lost the reputation of "social welfare state".