Arnon Grunberg
Switzerland - Dining car

Everyone calls Frau Jiazhen L. just plain “L.”; she says to me: “Call me L. too, that makes things easier.” The double-decker runs on this line. The club car is on the top level, the bistro and kitchen are downstairs. The prices are the same in both bistro and restaurant, but in the restaurant you’re waited on. There is a little service elevator between the restaurant and the bistro. The woman who works downstairs is from the Balkans.
L. and I work in the restaurant. L. is a Chinese woman in her late twenties. She has a seven-month-old son and a husband who works as cook in a Chinese restaurant in Zurich. She came to Switzerland when she was seven. Her parents still live in China, but she also has foster parents in Switzerland. Why she came to Switzerland alone at the age of seven, I prefer not to ask.
“Take a croissant,” L. says.
Our shift started at six-thirty. Things will only get really busy once we’ve returned to Zurich and are headed for Bern.
Filling a glass in a moving train is no mean feat. We take a curve fast and I end up in a gentleman’s lap.
Just after Bern the colleague downstairs lets us know that two men have left the bistro without paying. They had run up a sizeable bill, even ordered a cheese platter. When guests eat and run, the rule is that the employees have to pay for it themselves.
The staff organizes a manhunt in the train, in which L. and I take part, but the men are nowhere to be found.
“When this happens, you end up working for nothing,” L. says.
After Fribourg, things get quiet. L. and I sit down at a table. “What do you want to eat?” she asks.
I look at the menu.
“The Indian curry,” I say.
On-duty personnel receive a sixty-percent discount.
L. has tomato soup. “I love tomato soup,” she says.
In theory, we get a fifteen-minute break at Geneva Airport, but the first guests come into the car as soon as we stop.
An American family with their daughter-in-law. Or is it their son-in-law?
A little past Lausanne, L. hears me doing my best to speak French. She tells me: “You don’t have to do this. You could be a conductor. The pay is better.” “I’ll think about it,” I promise.
L. saves the caps from cola bottles, you can use them to win something. Around Bern I slip her a handful of bottle caps. She beams.