My Summer Job: Slinging Pizza and Palabras in Mexico

published Jul 7, 2017
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(Image credit: Naomi Tomky)

This month we’re looking back on all the strange and wonderful food jobs people have held during the summer. Whether it’s a job at a local scoop shop, a grocery store, or the concession stand at a baseball field, the skills and memories you gather in those short, hot months usually turn out to be invaluable. Here’s Naomi Tomky on her experience on learning a new language on the job.

I balanced a dozen still-steaming pizza boxes on one knee while a guy ribbed my terrible Spanish pronunciation. “Y tu?” he asked, “And you? Are you Hungarian or Hawaiian?” I was selling pizzas at a professional basketball game in Queretaro, Mexico, and no matter what, the two styles we sold — Hungarian and Hawaiian — were near-impossible for me to pronounce in Spanish. All night, I’d shout and repeat myself, open boxes, and point to the flyer I’d started to carry with me. If it wasn’t for the sheer spectacle of the gringa selling pizzas at the game, I’m sure they would have left me back at the restaurant.

Other days, I would learn new words in a trial-by-fire of hangry customers: “Cubierta?” I repeated in the kitchen on my first day. A coworker laughed and handed me silverware.

I spent the second half of the summer I was 19 working in a pizza shop in Mexico to learn Spanish, and I was terrible at it (both speaking Spanish and selling pizza). The restaurant belonged to Juan, a one-time exchange student who lived at my family’s house as a young man back when I was in kindergarten. After years splitting my time between training as a high-level athlete and working as a summer camp counselor, I decided to try something new — and, hopefully, escape my college’s required 7 a.m. classes for beginning language learners.

Abuelita’s Pizza once put Domino’s out of business in its town. They make the dough, the sauce, and even the cheese from scratch (they used to milk their own cows, too, but Juan jokes that my brother, on a similar trip, was the only employee he could ever find willing to do it). The pizza is excellent.

(Image credit: Naomi Tomky)

But I was not an excellent employee, as I tried to function in a language I didn’t know, to keep up some veneer of customer service without knowledge of the intricacies or niceties of the language. I would accidentally use an informal conjugation with elders asking for water or a slightly vulgar kitchen term with a small child who just wanted extra hot dog on his pie. I was bad enough at making pizzas (although very good at sneaking pieces of meat destined for the al pastor into my mouth), but adding to that the challenge of struggling at something at which I was usually so good — talking — frustrated me in new ways, each about as much fun as the inside-wrist burns anyone who has ever worked at a pizza restaurant knows so well.

That fight to communicate, aggravated by the daily exhaustion of restaurant work, flashes back to me at restaurants even now, more than a decade later. Any time a server trips over a word or looks confused by mumbled English I see myself, standing behind the pizza counter, hoping I don’t screw up the order. I hope that my face and mannerisms reflect the majority of the customers I interacted with — understanding and patient (although maybe with a bit less pity mixed in) — rather than the minority that teased me in the stands of basketball games.

That fight to communicate, aggravated by the daily exhaustion of restaurant work, flashes back to me at restaurants even now, more than a decade later.

On one of my last days in the pizza shop, a customer came in who spoke English. I stopped covertly snacking on cheese for a minute and moved toward the front to help translate, but then I paused. A coworker stood, taking her order in fluent English. I turned to him, my look clearly demanding an explanation. “I grew up in El Paso,” he shrugged. I flashed red, furious that through all of my struggles, every torturous second of trying to wrap my mouth around not-quite-silent ‘h’s and my weak-tongued trilling of ‘r’s, he had watched, perfectly capable of rescuing me. “If I had helped you,” he explained, “you would never have learned the language.” I took a deep breath and summoned my now pretty-fluent Spanish to tell him exactly what I thought about that. I still couldn’t make a pretty pizza, but at least I could explain how I felt about it.