A Waiter in Paris, by Edward Chisholm

June 8, 2024

I’d like to give a shoutout to a book I read recently.

A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm is a great read about some of the less glamorous sides of life in Europe.

The author, finding himself unemployed during the early years of the Great Recession, decides to move to Paris. Soon out of money, he ends up as a runner at a large Parisian restaurant.

Moving into a hostel in a seedy neighborhood on the outskirts of town, he works his way up from runner to waiter – gaining knowledge while working long, underpaid days in the soul-crushing grind of the service industry.

It’s a story about poverty, and about hierarchy, and about the quiet dignity of people scraping by on the bottom rungs of the social ladder. So, unlike a lot of other “aspiring artist in Paris” stories, it’s got grit and emotional depth.

a waiter in paris edward chisholm

I’ve seen reviews comparing it favorably to George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London. And as you know if you’ve read my articles about the Spanish Civil War, I’m quite a fan of Orwell.

In fact, being compared favorably to Orwell – and by a legitimate publication – seems like about all a writer can aspire to in this life. (I haven’t read Down and Out, personally. But you can check out my piece on Homage to Catalonia if you want.)

All in all, it’s an interesting memoir populated with a diverse cast of characters: Tamil Tiger prep cooks, violent Corsican chefs, waiters from all over Europe with implausible backstories covering up who-knows-what uncomfortable secrets in their past.

In a way, it’s like a prequel to Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential – told from the perspective of the lowly runner and waiter. Check it out here: A Waiter in Paris by Edward Chisholm.

European lifestyles – the other side of the story

I’ve written about this before: Americans tend to have the idea that Europe is this super-sophisticated place where everybody’s a high-brow culture buff, sipping champagne under massive chandeliers after a night at the opera.

(Or at the very least, they’re enjoying fantastic work-life balance, surrounded by IKEA furniture, eating fancy cheese and benefiting from a generous welfare state.)

These stereotypes, while generally positive, completely ignore the amount of underpaid semi-legal – or illegal – immigrant labor that keeps Europe running.

I know a lot about this, because I used to be illegal immigrant labor myself. Here in Spain, a couple of decades ago, it seemed like that was half the economy.

Since then, I’ve changed my social scene a bit. I’m not sure if working under the table, or on some sort of fraudulent contract, is still as normal as it was. But looking around at the people in my new barrio here in Barcelona, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.

The tax system and government’s insane anti-business laws make working (or paying) under the table the only plausible way for many people and businesses to keep their heads above water.

And all those people from other countries who show up every year have to do something. A lot of times, they’re hired without a contract, or they otherwise end up forming part of the underground economy… where the normal rules of work-life balance don’t apply.

Check out this article in the Guardian for one local example – it’s about the chatarreros, who collect and recycle scrap metal on the streets. The estimate there says there may be 50,000 to 100,000 of these “informal recyclers” just in Catalonia.

Or have a look at the continuing saga of the riders for companies like Uber Eats and Glovo. It seems like a dismal job, that maybe gets some tips. And how many of them are fully legal?

paris cityscape

All I know is that in my old barrio, there were several chatarreros who I knew by sight, from seeing them day after day. One guy would sometimes set up a camp stove and cook chicken on the front step of my old building. There was also a whole family of okupas living in an abandoned commercial space on my block. Here in my new barrio, I get the idea that there are flats where 6 riders live in a space designed for one or two people.

High-brow European lifestyles, indeed.

How to waste your youth for 1100€ a month

Full disclosure: I was illegal immigrant labor in the English teaching “industry”.

I was working in the service industry back in the US, but I took one look at the conditions out here and decided to do something else. As a teacher, I ended up working insane hours for 1100€ a month anyway, but at least I could sit down some of the time, and I didn’t end the day covered in grease. It was fine, for a while. Then it was less fine.

Eventually, I got legal. That improved my life. But scraping along at the bottom end of the unregulated private tutoring industry didn’t seem like a good way to spend my middle age.

Eventually, I made a plan and got out. Not everyone is so lucky.

paris bridge

Although to be fair, the average Spanish job isn’t much better. Working on the legitimate job market might get you a couple thousand euros a month. Or less.

If you’re working in the service industry, you’ve often got a split shift and less than 15,000€ a year.

(Spanish tax code, by the way, makes it possible to have multiple jobs, but almost completely impossible to have an independent side hustle – unless you’re doing it for cash under the table.)

Yesterday, La Vanguardia sent me a newsletter called “País de Camareros” – a country of waiters.

The government spent the day patting themselves on the back for record high employment numbers (although it’s still well under 50% of the population that’s actually working).

But the fact is, much of that increase is due to seasonal jobs in places with a lot of tourists: waiters, bartenders, shop assistants and the like, in Catalonia, Baleares and other places near the beach.

Is the situation in France similar for regular working people?

Chisholm’s book suggests that it is. High-brow lifestyles are probably a thing among the rich, and work-life balance (5 weeks of vacation or what have you) is real if you’re an office worker.

But I’ve been here for 20 years, and never had a paid summer holiday.

I’d guess a lot of other people haven’t either.

Final thoughts on A Waiter in Paris

I picked up A Waiter in Paris at a bookshop in Stockholm last summer. It sat around on my shelf for a while, then on my bedside table. I was putting off reading it, because I was worried it would be another shallow, clichéd coming-of-age-but-in-Paris love story. It wasn’t. Once I got into it, I was hooked, and read it in a week.

A lot of writers move abroad only to pen self-congratulatory memoirs in which they buy and remodel an old ramshackle farm-house, for example. Some younger writers make liberal use of daddy’s credit card as part of their creative process.

And – not that anyone’s blogging anymore – but here in Spain, one would get the impression that everyone on the expat scene spends all their time drinking sangría in the sun. So much fun!

A Waiter in Paris doesn’t have any of that nonsense. Check it out.

Yours,

Daniel AKA Mr Chorizo.

P.S. For another “aspiring artist in Paris” memoir I enjoyed, check out my article about Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I also quite liked Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer when I was younger – although I hesitate to re-read it now for, um, several reasons. What’s your favorite book about life abroad? Hit me up, right here in the comments…

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About the Author Daniel

How did I end up in Spain? Why am I still here almost 20 years later? Excellent questions. With no good answer... Anyway, at some point I became a blogger, bestselling author and contributor to Lonely Planet. So there's that. Drop me a line, I'm happy to hear from you.

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