Nov 6th, 2018, 12:30 PM

Life Behind the Bar

By Jane Addington-May
Neon bar sign. Image Credit: Unsplash/Steve Harvey
The realities of bar work as a student.

For AUP students looking to work while living in Paris, one look at AUP’s classifieds page will make your job options feel limited: choices are between babysitting, language tutoring, or one of the few campus jobs. What some students have found opportunity in is bar work. AUP students Frances Eby, Beatrice Spencer and Jamie Nyqvist discuss life behind the bar.

Frances Eby, a senior, has been working in the Parisian bar scene for about a year now. It took three different bars to finally settle on a waitressing job at a diner. Jamie Nyqvist has been at Bar Tennessee for two years, and Beatrice Spencer has been working at one of the Frog pubs since February 2018.

While service jobs may not be ideal, Paris doesn't provide many alternatives. Babysitting has its own vices, such as non-negotiable hours. Instead, campus jobs at AUP pay only €6 an hour. “It just isn’t enough to live on,” Eby points out, “and [AUP] gets through that legal loophole by calling it a student grant.” If you were to work a full twenty hours a week every week, an AUP job will make you €480 a month - barely enough to cover rent for a chambre de bain. Additionally, Eby points out, “most of the things that you have to do to socialize involve spending money,” and we all know Paris isn't cheap.

Bartending. Image credit: Unsplash/Taylor Davidson.

The pay you get from bar work makes a difference. Receiving tips on top of your salary can mean a significant change in lifestyle. The economic gap at AUP doesn't make life much easier. There are students that can focus solely on schooling, and go out and do fun things in their free time. Other students have to divide their focus between work and university. “It’s hard,” points out Spencer: “if I just focused on schooling I would be so stingy with my money." Having a job does help. Spencer states that "now I can afford to shop, I can afford to look nice, I can afford the luxuries of living here.” The money saved purely by not being able to go out every weekend makes a difference as well, and bars that serve food will give you a staff meal, meaning you save money on a dinner two or three nights a week.

Not having the time to go out is a double-edged sword - you’re going to miss out on things but you'll be saving money and your liver. “I actually had no time on the weekends to hang out with any of my friends because I did work every Friday and Saturday,” Nyqvist shares, “so I wasn't able to attend any AUP events and make those kinds of connections in my first two years.” However, other friendships are made possible: “most of the people I hang out with, to this day, I met in the bar,” she continues. Working in a bar is a great way to get out of the AUP bubble. Eby elaborates, “[it] connected me to a whole scene outside of AUP, […] it gave me an outlet, a chance to step out of the [AUP] community.”

Women with drinks at a bar. Image credit: Unsplash/Michael Discenza.

Working mainly with drunk people does have its downsides- some worse than others. All three women say they have experienced harassment at work, When asked if they had experienced sexual harassment at work, they laughed and gave a decisive “oh, absolutely,” from each of them. “It’s just something you get accustomed to,” Eby says, especially if you’re waitressing and don’t have the protection of the bar between you and the customers. Behaviors range from unnecessary comments and physical contact when taking an order, such as a hand pressed to your lower back, to being backed into corners, stalked, relentlessly pressed for your phone number, and outright groped.

In bars with a more night club ambiance it can be especially bad, explains Spencer. “They think they almost have this mask of night and darkness," as if their actions won't have consequences. Thankfully, in times like this, the comradery behind the bar comes to the rescue. If you have problems with a customer, your male, as well as female, team members are there to help you. Niqvist says that she's experienced a lot less harassment than when she just joined Bar Tennessee. Her advice: “understand that you owe nothing to anybody," she continues to state that "you aren't there to make them feel better about themselves, you’re there to serve them alcohol.”

This behavior doesn't just come from customers either, and the approach to combating it is the same. “I’ve definitely been sexually harassed by my bosses,” Spencer says bluntly. Eby seconds this, “I’ve definitely had managers I’ve felt were predatory... they’d play favorites and hit on the staff.” When being hired to work for the Frogs pubs, Spencer explains the lack of professionalism in getting the job. After having a few drinks at the bar, the manager approached her and her friend: "I thought at first he was hitting on me," until he came with a job offer. “He’ll hire only girls,” Spencer says, “we’ve got a one to six ratio of men to women at the bar," and whether waitressing or bartending, "all they want from me is to dance and flirt with customers.” Eby’s received similar pressure, on occasion being told to lower her top or give out her number for the sake of higher tips.

A beer in Paris. Image Credit: Unsplash/Yannis Papanastasopoulus

This isn’t the only way of being mistreated, either. “They’ll try to take advantage of you at any point,” Spencer warns. This usually takes the form of unreasonable scheduling. Eby had to quit a bar job after a few weeks because she was asked to work nearly double than what the student visa allows. “I explicitly told them I could only work 15 to 25, [yet] they were asking me to work 35,” and offered to pay her under the table to avoid legal repercussions.

“They’re all pretty shit,” says Eby about bar managers. “I think some of them are good people, it’s just once they get into their job, either they don’t have the proper experience to be managing a bar or they confuse personal and professional.” When requesting a morning off to attend Easter Mass, Eby was ridiculed the next several weeks by her coworkers and manager for it. Humiliation isn’t uncommon and is Spencer’s biggest conflict with her workplace. One of Spencer's bosses shames her and her coworkers "if we make mistakes, [she] will shame you, she’ll yell at you, ‘Are you stupid?’ ‘What’s wrong with you?’ And that’s no way for management to lead."

Bottles at a bar. Image credit: Unsplash/Sérgio Alves Santos.

This isn’t, of course, characteristic of all bars, and Nyqvist is the happy example of how bar work can be a positive experience. “I thoroughly enjoy working at the bar," Nyqvist says, and emphasizes the importance of having a good relationship with your coworkers. For Nyqvist, it "brings a different experience to the customers when you can see the bartenders having a really good time behind the bar. You really want to drink and enjoy.” Even so, she’s had her own struggles with it, “I’ve gone from hating it so much I wanted to quit, to being really happy there.” The key to making it work for you is setting the standard for how you’re treated. Spencer's advise: “do not let shit fly by you. If you genuinely can’t work or don’t want to work one night, you need to be so assertive. The more assertive you are the more likely you are to get your way.”

Bar work isn’t for everyone. If you’re someone who struggles working under pressure, or “if you’re strongly against people treating you like shit,” Nyqvist says laughingly, or if you get down on yourself for every mistake, bar work is going to be hard. People will be rude and will yell, "you need to know that it sucks, and that you shouldn't be treated like that. Because it isn’t okay,” Spencer warns.

The next time you go to a bar, remember to tip your bartenders. It’s a hard job, “people think because they’re having a good time that their bartenders must be also, but we’re dealing with your drunk asses,” Spencer jokes. And please, if you’re going to puke, puke in the toilet, because we’re the ones who clean it up.