10.2020 / Spain

Why I Left My Six Figure Hospitality Job and Moved to Spain in the Middle of a Pandemic

(Oh, I am also a single mom and brought my five year old)

Why I Left My Six Figure Hospitality Job and Moved to Spain in the Middle of a Pandemic

(Oh, I am also a single mom and brought my five year old)

By Somer Perez

I had what some would probably call, a sort of epiphany about 6 months ago. I’m not necessarily in love with the word……awakening? Moment of truth? Expensive therapists would probably call it a breakdown. Cheap therapists would probably call it a breakthrough. But something definitely broke. For the better? We’ll see.

It started with a lot of sweat beads and a little pandemic.

In the middle of what is now turning out to be the biggest health crisis in American history – here I am. At my latest attempt in a long history of food and beverage industry career twists and turns, I have the brass ring. I’m at the #1 luxury hotel in this particular Southern market. I am, quite literally, at the top position. A six-figure salary in my pocket and a title that at least in my own mind meant something. I am one of two, TWO, salaries kept on the payroll while everyone else around me gets furloughed and laid off one by one like that carnival game where you shoot the clowns off of the ledge. A little thing called COVID-19 has hit the industry, and hit it hard.

I’m wearing a mask. It’s before masks got good, so it’s suffocating. It’s the middle of June in the “deep south”, which really just means it is hot as absolute fuck. I can feel the sweat beading behind my mask, dripping from my forehead, congealing between my blazer and my underwire. The dry cleaner creased my pants, I specifically asked her not to. These pants are a size too small and in this moment I can really tell. My muffin top is feeling particularly robust today. I shouldn’t have Postmated that quesadilla last night. I’m standing on a “coveted and fabulous” rooftop bar at said

hotel, aren’t they all really, when I get the call over the walkie in my ear bud. Which is digging in my ear and pooled in so much sweat that it sounds like the person on the other side is underwater.

“Guest at roof wants a manager. What’s your twenty?”.

I want to respond and say that really hotel people have to stop using military terms as though our jobs are as important. We aren’t hunting terrorists, we’re serving chicken. I also want to lie and say I’m in the wine cellar. I’m changing a keg. I’m jumping off the roof to my death. Instead, like a good soldier I tell the truth. “Rooftop 1. Be right there”.

The problem “guest at roof”, I can spot him a mile away. One of the many droves of guests (don’t call them customers!) that have travelled, lucky us, from other states with travel bans and confinement restrictions. They’re all here, where we are pretending there isn’t a deadly virus looming, waiting to pop around the corner like an HR Director asking if you have signed up for the latest training session. The show must go on! The $17 cocktails must be made! Screw the pandemic! We will go where drinking on the street is allowed and masks aren’t mandated for anyone but these poor industry saps. We will have our Summer family vacation dammit!

He sees me, sticking out to him too I’m sure due to my ill-fitting blazer and name tag. He approaches. The usual type. White & waspy, sweat in weird places seeping through his pastel-colored polo. Is it possible to sweat on your rib?, I wonder…but quickly have to focus because Brian/Chad/Jeff isn’t here to chat. He demands a table that isn’t seatable, due to the 6ft rule. Because, pandemic. There is a giant sign on the table in fact that says NO SEATING, so big the table might as well be wrapped in construction tape. Which I actually, half-kidding suggested at a meeting today. I retracted when all of the men at the table gave me the common, “what is she thinking?” face. Now I think I should have pushed for it.

I tell him something he likely isn’t used to hearing…..I’m sorry sir, no. I say it professionally, I think – although after at this point 15 years of telling guests “no” in a variety of ways I can’t really be sure. Luckily, the mask helps at least with my Resting Bitch Face. Ashton/Pierce/Alec “can’t hear me”. I tell him again, no. He “can’t hear me again”. Jason/Chip/Troy gets about 2 inches close to my face and asks me to “pull down my damn mask”. He gets even more incensed when I don’t.

Don’t you know that you have a JOB because I am here spending MY MONEY to travel to your hotel? I don’t give a shit about this so-called flu, my wife and I want a table to see the goddamn sunset!” His voice raises an octave, almost to the point of shrill – “Can’t you see the IT IS almost setting?!”.

I argue with Brad/Kevin/Joshua just long enough to let the sun go down behind me, my own little private fuck you.

We all have had these moments. Where your surroundings slow down, everything kind of stops. Your thoughts stop and your rage bubbles. That deep pit in your stomach starts to turn over and you feel a kind of nausea-meets-wind-knock feeling. It passes, you move on. Especially in “hospitality” – it isn’t anything you haven’t felt before. Just this time, feeling it during an actual crisis hits different.

Later, when I visualize the encounter with the support of my shampoo and conditioner bottles, I imagine telling that piece of shit to go fuck himself. I rip off my mask, kick him deep in the balls, tell his wife she can do better, throw my blazer off the rooftop, unbutton my pants and walk….no – get on a motorcycle and ride – off into the sunset…..belt-loops flapping in the air, muffin top breathing freely.

Alas, what really happened was that aside from my private fuck you – the prick got his way. I removed the sign. They sat, drank their $17 cocktails and $26 not-really-burrata smugly smirking every time I walked by. And while I did not remove my mask, I did remove something else. I’m pretty sure it was my ability to give a shit. I’m done. I think to myself. I’m just…..done. How do I get out of this? I can feel the valve of life practically shutting off inside me. This isn’t the life I chose…if it is, I chose wrong. There is still time to change, right? There Has. To Still. Be Time. To Change.

This motherfucker is not the first, second, fifteenth, or even fiftieth person that has made me feel this way lets face it (man who threw a pager at me in 1999 while I was a hostess in Times Square – I still think about you). Is this….it? Is this where my deep love of the industry has gotten me? Masked, sweaty, crying at red lights on the drive home for years on end?

I wistfully run through old industry memories. Long nights on the Expo line with a pocket full of tasting spoons and a stack of kitchen rags, standing until my heels feel like they’re bleeding and loving every second. The long, wine-filed Manhattan nights with fellow bartenders and servers, debating whether or not white truffles are worth their price. The sidestation arguments during service hearing snarky comments from our Somm about how the movie Sideways ruined wine. First in line with my pastry chef roommate at Barnes & Noble waiting on the new Zagat and being enraged at the top rated restaurants (yet secretly circling them to visit during Restaurant Week since that’s the only time we could afford to go). The absolute unabashed, unfiltered, completely defiant, deep motherfucking love for arguably the most thankless industry on the planet. I stood up for you industry! I defended you when everyone else told me to get a real job! This is how you repay my loyalty?? A hamster wheel of jobs in one disappointing city after another, seas of unappreciative smart-ass Chopped-watching guests? One misogynist boss after another, each one driving me deeper and deeper into my dad issues?!

I have to say it out loud….at least to myself. I’ve fallen out of love with you. It’s not you, it’s me. Wait, no actually – it IS you. You, “The Industry”, you’re the longest-running relationship I‘ve ever been in, and believe me, there have been many. Industry relationships have always held more weight than the rest. Bartenders and Sommeliers, rock band lead singers in Astoria (I wonder if they ever finished that third demo) and drummers who lived in their parents basements in New Jersey. Almost writers and beginner stockbrokers who sell dividends (I still don’t know what that means but that apartment was right on the Park). Line cooks, Sous Chefs, saucier chefs, garde manger cooks, externs, interns, all the ‘terns…..

Then, THE CHEF. THE CHEF who demoted me after I said no when he gave me his hotel room key and told me that “giving this key to you means what you think it means”. Don’t worry Chef, I’ll get to you at some point. The hot dishwasher from Algeria, or maybe it was Albania. At one point, there was a block of great restaurants in Manhattan I couldn’t even frequent because I had slept with at least one cook at each one. Sigh.

Later and more maturely in life, there’s a divorce and a European love affair. An actor with a girlfriend, an NBA coach with a wife. A deadbeat of a kid’s father and a gem of an ex husband. But the industry…this business….you’re my constant. Through all of the above, you’re the fucking saffron in my bouillabaisse. You’re the finishing salt on my foie terrine. You’re the oven burn on my hand that I love to hate. You’re IT. I can’t quit you. And so, why do I feel like we need to break up? Especially since I don’t want to. I refuse! Not until we have been to a bunch of expensive therapy, and have lots of hate sex at least.

I’m staring down forty. I have a beautiful kid, yes….but is this all there is? Surely, no….right?

At the third red light and the fourth sob hiccup I remember…..wait. I have a friend…well, an acquaintance….well, more like someone that I sort of vaguely remember from middle school but thanks to the throws of social media I know she seems to live a cool life in a little place called Spain. What was her name again? How was she able to do it? Did she have an epiphany? Was it easy to shift to a life of three hour lunches, wine before noon, and naps? Did she watch Under the Tuscan Sun and just decide to Diane Lane her life?

I go on the ‘gram. I find her. No way – this chick lives on a Spanish vineyard. Surely, this is a dream, no? A tiny bilingual daughter. A husband who looks like a cross between Antonio Banderas and a prep cook. I do a shameless “How have you beeeeen??” DM. After a few email exchanges the ball starts rolling…..okay….YES…I will…..live in Spain. You will let me and my daughter stay with you? Great! You will help me learn Spanish that isn’t just acceptable in kitchens? Perfect! Why the fuck not? 2020 is shot anyway. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, plenty. But I’ll table that in my brain for now.

I will bring my daughter, obviously. “Zoom Pre-K” is really something she can miss, given it’s mostly parents staring at each other to see who has the cleanest living room while trying to politely death grip their writhing 4 and 5 year olds. I’ll expose her to something more than the latest babysitter. I will stop the carousel of futile job attempts and relocations. I will stop working so that I can pay a stranger to raise my kid. I will stop. I will pause. I will learn what it’s like to get off the hamster wheel. I will make a decision not decided by an offer letter and a relocation package. I will make a decision not influenced by an ex-husband’s latest emotional state (really, we should have never left NYC). And perhaps most importantly, I will make a decision that isn’t just for my daughter, it’s also for me. Maybe my one true love, you, “the industry”, will be there in Europe, waiting for me with a double kiss and a sherry. We will forgive each other and throw our heads back and laugh – remember when we almost broke up? How silly that seems now! Pass the jamon!

It has been said, at least to me, that people tend to renovate their houses when they are really needing to look within themselves. Having never owned a house (renters unite!), I had to look to an Olivia Wilde interview for the reference….

We had this beautiful Italian castle of a house. I kept finding all of the things wrong with it. Renovation after renovation. We put up new windows, we changed the lawn, we built an addition, a skylight, re-did the attic. We created a guest suite, added a bathroom, put in a pool. We kept it going until I realized that it was not in fact the house that was the problem. It was our relationship…..…..we were divorced 3 weeks later”.

I realized that is exactly what I have been doing. Renovating my inner-house, if you will. Moving and moving and searching and attaching myself to company after company in city after city thinking this will be THE ONE. And when I say moving and moving….I mean – moving and moving. NYC to LA. LA to Chicago. San Diego. Tampa. Savannah. A foray into mountain life by way of Telluride somewhere in the middle. When, in reality, something else is missing. Making a literal trip around the U.S. following job after job and never making it more than a year in just about any place. This has to mean something isn’t right. Right?

While working daily 12 hour shifts wearing a mask, gloves, and so much sanitizer I started to smell like a walking Purell bottle, I definitely used company office supplies, time, and scanner abilities to secretly apply for 2 Visas in the middle of a pandemic. In between budget meetings, COVID meetings, layoff meetings, what the fuck are we doing meetings, I went and got the absolute mountain of paperwork together needed. I got them approved, promptly flew to and from Miami in one afternoon to pick them up (very Scarface of me), and essentially high-tailed it with my five year old on a flight across the Atlantic. (Covid Perk Alert….I’ve spent more on dinner than this flight cost

me). A quick goodbye tour to friends and family, most of which think I have truly lost my mind (well, only family thinks that actually) and off we went.

Currently I am chronicling from quite literally, the middle of nowhere. I am pretty sure that save for, say, Antarctica….I couldn’t have gone further away from my past life decisions. I am in the beautiful Spanish countryside, yes – but not in the romantic coastal area of San Sebastián. Not in the trendy culinary epicenter of Barcelona. Not in the flamenco-dancing vibrancy of Sevilla. I’m in the get-in-the-garden-and-grab-a-shovel-we-are-about-to-cook-dinner middle of no where. I’m in the “what is a clothes dryer? Here’s a bag of clothes pins and some twine” kind of middle of no where. “The cat drama in this pueblo is really so fascinating – truly, it’s better than TV” kind of middle of no where. Hey, charm has it’s price.

This is my “burn the motherfucking boats” moment. Because, well, I did. Sold off all of my belongings. Stashed sentimentals into a 5×5 storage unit. Begged a good friend to babysit my giant American mom car. Cashed out my 401k (dear god, don’t tell my mom). Took out 2 credit cards (maybe don’t tell her that either), resigned from yet another F&B Director job. My fifth to be exact. The excuse? This time I was honest. I thought back to the rooftop moment with Jim/Joe/James and simply told my boss, “I just…..really can’t do this anymore”. The look on his face, peering over his 3-screened computer at the honesty was really something to behold. I can’t blame him.

Breakdown? Breakthrough? Jerry Maguire moment? Or more like Mad Max? The only way to find out is to go through. Is it possible I’ve really lost it? I used to have a valet pick up my garbage and I dropped off my laundry, literally paying a stranger to fold my thongs – now I just hung them on said twine with clothespins and I don’t think anyone here even wears thongs that aren’t on their feet.

Something about it feels right though. Not the thongs, they never have, but the shift. I mean, all things considered – there has to be something said for saying fuck it. Take control. Don’t let life live you, and all of those awful quotes that pop up on social media. If I didn’t do this and transported myself forward say 5 weeks……..there I would be. Standing on that rooftop bar, ill-fitting blazer, still wearing those pants. At least right now I can look at a mountain backdrop, eat jamon for breakfast and say I made something happen.

Industry love – I’m still looking for you. I didn’t see you yet with my sherry but I have faith you’re here somewhere. I can feel the ghost of you, and I believe you haven’t left me. I’ll keep searching for you through the narrow winding streets because, well, I miss you. The weight of this decision is real, and not lost on me.

But it does feel good to know that I burned those fucking pants with the boats.

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