Sunday, 26 March 2017

A habit of fainting - Working in a French factory

Moissac (France) - August

         At the end of my first week in the plum factory, I was told that we alternated shifts with another team each week. Therefore, the following Monday, I would be starting work at six in the morning. Ouch. (I know this will not be early for many of you but remember I was a student and it was a big shock to the system!) 

        Monday came and I dragged myself out of bed at five am. It was still dark and the outside cellar felt particularly creepy as I extricated my bike from it. I hurried back up the stone stairs as quickly as I could with a bicycle in tow, the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. I never did like the dark. The sleeping village was deserted. There was not a soul to be seen and no noise to be heard apart from the whirring of my wheels as they turned. It was an eerie atmosphere and for once I pedalled fast, along the cobbled streets of Moissac. Arriving at the factory, I was put to work as usual on the second section. I had been standing there, battling plums, for about half an hour when I felt a familiar but extremely unwelcome sensation creep over me.

Fainting at school

I have a habit of fainting, you see, thanks to my low blood pressure which seems to run in our family. The first time I fainted, I didn’t really understand what had happened. One moment I was standing up leaning over to draw a picture at my friend’s house, the next I was lying on the floor having knocked over the hamster cage. My most spectacular performance was in the dining hall at secondary school. It was just a few weeks into my first year and I had been standing in the queue for ages. It was a warm day and when I reached the front, the added heat from the hot plates was too much. I started to feel dizzy and wobbly and then everything went black. I regained consciousness to find the giant head of a dinner lady in my face.

           “It’s alright dear”, it said.
“Where the hell am I?” I thought.

           I now know why, when a patient wakes from being unconscious on Casualty, they always say, "You've been in an accident, you're in hospital." I had always thought they were stating the obvious. But, seriously, I didn't have a scooby what was going on and it was quite frightening.

          The giant headed dinner lady (actually, it turned out she had a normal sized head once I could see properly) led me through tables of pupils. The normally rowdy dining hall was silent. Every single pair of eyes was focussed on me. Every fork poised half way to someone’s mouth. Apparently I had made quite a noise going down. I had knocked my friend’s tray out of her hands and her plate had smashed to the floor. I was told afterwards that I was not only deathly pale but my lips had turned a ghoulish shade of blue. And this was how I introduced myself to my new school.

Fainting at a French factory

 Over the years, I had learnt that, if I sat down as soon as I started to feel faint, then I could usually manage to avoid blacking out completely. So, as I stood there in the factory, feeling lightheaded and shaky, I knew I had to sit down immediately before I sprawled headlong in to the plums. I called out to the passing supervisor. Fortunately, I didn’t have to explain; she took one look at my white face and hurried me over to a nearby chair. There she handed me a sugar cube and I dutifully sucked it, foolishly feeling like a child who had just had their vaccinations. All I was missing was the sticker that said “I was brave at the doctors today”.

          I was aware of my co-workers all staring at me. I guess they were wondering if l'idiote anglaise had managed to staple her finger again. (See previous blog post A French hospital visit ) Half an hour and three sugar cubes later, I felt stable enough to return to my post, although I made sure I had a chair close by just in case.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Keeping up with the plum line in a French factory

Moissac (France) - August

       After the stapling incident (see previous blog post A French hospital visit ), I worked the rest of the week at the factory in France on the one till eight pm shift. My co-workers were not particularly friendly and, as I had feared, I found little opportunity to practise my French. Three times during the shift, the supervisor would hit a large button and the machinery would grind to a halt. Everyone would troop outside to perch on two long benches facing one another. There we’d sit pretty much in silence, munching on snacks whilst the hot sun glared down on us and reflected off the concrete jungle all around. After just ten minutes it would be back to the monotonous treadmill.

The plum line

        At one end, plums would pour onto a conveyor belt. This passed four women (two on either side) who removed any of the fruit with bruises or other defects. I soon learnt that this was the most coveted task since it was done sitting and involved the least manual labour. Being new and only there for a month, I was naturally considered the lowest of the low and never got a look in. The plums then rolled onto the second piece of machinery where they were channelled onto the third and final part. Here they dropped into small wooden crates which were fed empty into the machine on one side and shot fully loaded out of the other side.

        Mostly, I’d work on the second section ensuring the plums continued through the machinery in an orderly fashion. This meant I spent most of my time clawing back handfuls of plums to ensure that they went through one by one and didn’t clog up the machine. I should point out at some point that the word ‘plum’ translates as ‘prune’ in French, another one of those crafty false friends. (See previous blog post German false friends ) The English ‘prune’ is ‘pruneau’ in French. In a similar way, grapes become ‘raisins’ in French and the English raisins become ‘raisins secs’ (dried raisins).

A race against plums

It goes without saying that I was kept far away from the stapling section. Occasionally, I would be put to work feeding empty crates into the machinery. There were four areas through which to insert the boxes each with a conveyor belt leading into it. When there was a lull in the amount of plums coming through, I would manage to get quite a few crates lined up ready on the conveyor belts. At other times, the crates would shoot into the machine and my lines of waiting boxes would rapidly diminish. I would have to race between them trying desperately to always have at least a couple of crates on each conveyor belt. I often got nail bitingly close to losing the race against the onslaught of plums. 

        I felt like I was in one of those Saturday evening family game shows. The kind where the Dad has to keep thirty plates all spinning on sticks for two minutes. If he fails to reach a wobbling plate and it smashes to the ground, then he loses the promised campervan, widescreen television and food processor. If I failed to keep all four conveyor belts fed with empty crates, then hundreds of plums would fall to the floor and I would likely lose my job. Fortunately, however, I always managed to just about keep one step (or rather one crate) ahead of the game.