A Belfast Summer
Editor’s note: In the spirit of summer, columnist John Piotti has taken the week off. He’s passed the job along to his daughter, Anna. Anna — who will soon begin her sophomore year at Bowdoin College — worked at the Cool Spot on Main Street this season.
I’ve spent a good chunk of every summer of my life in Belfast, which is where my grandmother lives and where we moor our family boat. Belfast is also where I learned to ride a bike, and where my parents trusted me and my little brother to get around on our own. We’d go to the playground or the city pool or maybe even the candy shop downtown. One year I took classes at Waterfall Arts. During summers in high school, I’d invite friends to grandma’s house to hang-out, or to gather before going to a movie at the Colonial.
I thought I knew a lot about Belfast. But this summer, I experienced the city in a very different way. This summer, I scooped ice cream to tourists.
Tourist season is not like deer or turkey season — Mainers haven’t been loading their guns. But they have set some tourist traps throughout the state.
There’s Old Orchard Beach with its legendary pier, the iconic Portland Head Lighthouse, the trinket shops that fill coastal towns like Boothbay Harbor and Bar Harbor, and the world-renowned Acadia National Park with its Sand Beach, Thunder Hole, and Jordon Pond House Popovers. This is what lures so many tourists to our state.
And then there’s Belfast. Our city (tourists laugh when Belfast is called a “city,” but laughter is good, so I’ll stick with that) is not as flashy or famous as Maine’s major tourist destinations, but it boasts a classic main street, a picturesque harbor, fun galleries, unique shops, several parks and walkways, and some great restaurants — including one that serves lobster quesadillas. Who wouldn’t want to visit?
After a summer scooping ice cream, it’s clear to me that people travel to Belfast from all over. They come from the East across the Atlantic, from the West as they finish cross country road trips, and from the South to escape the heat. Our Canadian neighbors from the North seem to love it here, too. I’ve witnessed a wide variety of cultures, ethnicities, and languages in my Main Street shop this summer — far more than I had expected. Perhaps the biggest surprise was all the Europeans.
Europeans get excited when they learn my shop has free WiFi — always pronouncing it Wee-Fee. I can almost predict what will transpire when they walk in. European children want chocolate or vanilla ice cream in dishes, no toppings, and their parents will order either a small house coffee — and be astounded by how large it is — or a double espresso. After ordering, they revert back to their native tongue and pull out an ipad or a small laptop to take advantage of the Wee-Fee. They drink their beverages slowly and methodically, while clicking on their screens or keyboards and bantering with one another.
Meanwhile, I try to figure out where they are from. The British are the easiest — the accent gives it away. Most French-speakers are Canadians, but not all, and those who travel here from France are just so French that I can usually pick them out.
Many of our customers linger at the shop, sometimes because of the free internet or the wide variety of board games we have for them to play — and at other times just because it is raining. So when I’m not busy serving ice cream or coffee at the counter, I try to talk with the customers at their tables. That’s a big part of the job.
I enjoy the Germans and Austrians most. Having studied German in high school and now majoring in it at college, I can follow their conversations. If I don’t have the opportunity to talk with my German speaking customers when they are seated, I’ll call goodbye (like I do I for all my customers) on their way out the door, but in a different way: “Tschuss! Kommen Sie bald wieder!”
Their smiles make my day. Often they’ll pause, turn around, and exclaim, “You speak German?” They are always happily surprised, and perhaps we’ll have a short conversation until there are other customers for me to return to.
The key is to try to make someone from away feel more comfortable. With foreigners, I work hard to speak clearly and slowly. And when a child is eager to use her limited English skills to order for herself, when she can only say “vanilla,” I don’t respond with a “do-you-want-it-in-a-cone-or-a-dish?” but instead, point to the paper cup and then the sugar and regular cones in front of me and say, slowly, in turn: “Cup? Brown Cone? Yellow Cone?”
I want my customers to have a pleasant time in my shop and receive the special attention they deserve. Another example is with my “regulars.”
I had two older men come into the shop almost every night a few weeks ago. The man who paid always wore a yellow slicker and ordered a small lemon sorbet in a waffle cone. His friend was a bit trickier, switching between an espresso ice cream and a small black coffee. Their last night in town I welcomed them with a glorious, “Hello again!” as they ducked into the shop out of the rain. My coworker asked them what they would like to have, and I answered for them: “Lemon Sorbet in a Waffle cone and…” The second man laughed and said: “Now I’m not as predictable as that, am I?” I grinned and said, “And a small black coffee, correct?” He laughed, surprised, and approved the order. I smiled and responded: “I know my customers, don’t I?”
As I prepared the coffee, I knew what would come next. The sorbet would be eaten leisurely and the coffee sipped even more slowly, and never finished. We would continue our conversation from the previous night and when the time came for them to leave, I would pick up the half empty coffee cup and wave goodbye. That night, they left wishing me luck in my rugby season and reminding me to continue to eat lots of ice cream, as they had before. (They felt I was too skinny to be a rugby player.)
I greatly enjoy remembering my customers, being able to greet them by name or by their “usual” order, or continuing a conversation from another day. And they clearly enjoy it, too.
Serving customers 10 hours a day could be exhausting, but the different tourists and their stories and personalities often kept me going. These wonderful people who didn’t grow up in Waldo County have opened my eyes. They have given me some great experiences, as well as a summer job. More importantly, they have made me more conscious of the needs of others. They have also made me a better customer. I’m now committed to the following actions that I so appreciated in my job behind the counter: 1) I will always thank people for the service they provide; and 2) I will always tip.
My family will laugh to hear me say how I’ve learned valuable lesson from tourists. That’s because not too long ago, my summertime line was “I hate tourists.” I’d say this whenever we were caught behind a slow driver or couldn’t find a parking spot downtown. Of course, I never really meant it; but I did used to say it. Now I know better.
This summer I’ve eaten my words. But still not enough ice cream.