Thin, Verdant Hills: A Mystery in Tuscany’s Olive Garden
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When the sun sets everything is plated in gold, and the full extent of nature’s wealth is exposed. Jaime held her fingers up and found that she, too, was some kind of dark, valuable metal. The yellow walls of Florence were themselves transformed, as if the city had disguised itself long ago to doom all of Europe’s foolish journey west for a legendary city of gold which sat right beneath its nose.
The Florence Cathedral stole the most light of all. How could someone look at it, see how the sun grew dimmer and weaker while the dome of the cathedral held fast in the sky and grew more radiant and powerful as night approached, how could that not convince the onlookers that God’s hand rested on the building?
Despite its glow, Jaime’s hand was small by comparison. That was fine, she would never want to be that big. A glimmer from the wall beside her stole her attention from the dome. The stones around it lost the sun’s gift quickly, but the plaque on the front still shone. It read “Artie Bell – General Manager.” That was the man who had been granted the responsibility and honor of stewarding Olive Garden’s first foray into Tuscany. He chose Jaime, among others, to help him because she was the best waitress at the Albany location, and she was going to use this opportunity to vault up into his position. Whether here in Florence, back in the United States, or at one of Olive Garden’s other international locations, Jaime was going to get her name on a plaque.
To get there, she needed to be the best waitress at this branch, at the very least. Everything asked of her, she would do. She rolled her shoulders around, pleading with those troublesome knots of muscle to relax and leave her be. Her break was almost over, and she didn’t want to steal one second of time from Olive Garden, so she said goodbye to the faux-stone facade which would one day be her castle and returned indoors. Dim yellow light fixtures and high wooden baseboards welcomed her back. Everything was chosen to grasp the essence of Tuscan decor, and by bringing it home they were giving an incredible gift to all of the Tuscans in Florence: here is the core of who you are, and now you can enjoy it.
Sure enough, the restaurant was packed for dinner and the air was thick with the smell of breadsticks and the lively Italian language. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak Italian; none of the staff did. She brought by menus in Italian and could recognize the names of dishes amid the mystery. All of the patrons knew the deal at this point: none attempted chit-chat, and none asked for substitutions. This made it difficult to excel at her job, even though she was still attentive and observed when they needed water or more breadsticks.
In an attempt to show initiative, she suggested to the other staff that they all learn Italian together. It would make them better at their jobs, and it would be a fun flourish they could bring back to their branches in the U.S. if they ever went back. Even greater authenticity was at their fingertips, but when she brought her proposal that all Olive Garden employees, regardless of country, should learn Italian to Mr. Bell in order that he might pass it on to the higher ups, who Jaime hoped to impress, he set it aside and invited her to sit.
“Ms. Shecht, this is in an incredible proposal. I want you to know that. Just, fantastic, high-level vision. Keep thinking like this and you’re going to go far.” Artie Bell talked with his hands, much like the Italians did, but where they gained emphasis and clarity with their gestures, Mr. Bell created a fog around his words. Conciliatory, flapping hands. The proposal was going nowhere. “If it was up to me, we’d do this. Not just here, but everywhere. And if we keep crushing it here like we have been, that could happen. But those higher ups, you know, they were really specific. No one’s supposed to learn Italian. Not even me! You can imagine how hard that makes dating.” His wedding ring caught some of the fluorescent light, but Jaime knew better than to call attention to it. “I wish I knew why, but they told me it’s about aligning with our strategic objectives. So that’s where we’re at. But next time you come up with an idea like this, you bring it right to me, okay? You’re gonna go far here.”
She left his office with a smile, a nod of understanding, but let it drop as soon as her back turned. There was no way the higher-ups would order something as senseless as that: Mr. Bell’s affable incompetence was a ploy, put on to disguise his scheme not to let anyone ascend past him to the halls where real decisions were made. Jaime bided her time and waited for confirmation, when suddenly they would announce the execution of her idea, but with Mr. Bell’s name on the front page. That never came, and none of them learned Italian.
The next few weeks passed uneventfully. Jaime worked her shift, ate her discounted pasta, and went home to her dingy one bedroom apartment. The plaster was a bit cracked, and the paint flaked off, but the appliances all worked and it was cheap. On her days off, she spent her waking hours parked in front of her laptop; resentful that she couldn’t make direct progress toward promotion on those days, she studied what online business courses were available. When they finally inscribed her name on a plaque, she would be ready to guide the restaurant wisely.
Her studies got her thinking about what a remarkable success the Tuscan branch was. It was always more full than Albany, which ran counter to what she’d expect: in Tuscany, the competition for Italian food should be much more intense, which would cause the market to fracture more. And yet, every night there was a line out of the door for a table at Olive Garden. Maybe it could be explained by there being more Italians, and therefore more aficionados of fine Italian cuisine, but that thought felt like forcing two mismatched puzzle pieces together. Jaime briefly considered that Mr. Bell might be phenomenal at his job. That would explain why the higher-ups, in their wisdom, chose him for this task, but it flew in the face of her own observation of the man.
During a break, smoking out back with a busboy of the slicked-back hair and Brooklyn accent variety, she brought up the topic. “Do you ever wonder why we’re so popular? There are probably so many Italian restaurants here. Is it just because we’re doing it the best?”
“The fuck are you talking about. This is nothing compared to real Italian food. Come to my ma’s place when we’re back in America, I’ll show you what good Italian food tastes like.”
“I’m sure your mother is talented, but I doubt she’s somehow come up with something that all of our food scientists and chefs haven’t.”
It took a while for Jaime to pacify Tony, who took that as an insult to his mother, but eventually he calmed down and said, “You want to know why there’s Italians out the door? There aren’t any other Italian restaurants in the city. We’re it.”
“I know it says in our contract we’re not allowed to eat other Italian food, but we don’t have to pretend it doesn’t exist.”
“You seen another Italian place since you came here?”
“I haven’t looked.”
“Huh.” Tony smiled, blew a triumphant plume of smoke out of his nose, and stubbed out his cigarette. “How ‘bout that?”
When Jaime got off her shift, she turned toward her apartment, but felt the tug of curiosity. That night had been particularly busy, which only enflamed the question further. It would explain everything, even though it was probably a strange joke on Tony’s part.
She walked down the narrow stone street, where the buildings looming over her would prefer to crush together and leave no space for cars or pedestrians. There was no space between one building and the next: there was a facade of blue bricks and then a stark border where a building took on Florence’s traditional ochre instead. In these alleys, Jaime found nail salons, barber shops, karaoke bars, but not only did she find no Italian restaurants, she found no restaurants of any kind. Two months into her time in Italy, and she realized that she hadn’t even looked for anything to eat outside of the break room at Olive Garden or the economical comforts of her apartment.
Was there a particular district to which restaurants were confined? Olive Garden’s refusal of this tradition could explain their popularity: suddenly there was a place to eat within walking distance. It would be the crown jewel of its neighborhood. But narrow street after narrow street offered her no wisdom, and as she crossed the bridge, she noticed it was already dark. The river below was black in the night, thick like gelatin beneath the glare of the streetlights. She gazed up at the stars, enough of which could pierce through Florence’s mild light pollution. Canis Major, Auriga, Orion of course, so many of the constellations which she had known above Albany’s sky greeted her here. She missed it, that small city that made so much more sense to her. But at least she had the stars, which seemed like they’d travelled across the ocean with her to bring her comfort.
She tried to ask various passers-by where she might find a restaurant– her insistence on a specifically Italian one was waylaid by hunger– but none of them spoke any English. After the fifth such failure to communicate, Jaime resolved to learn Italian. She just wouldn’t speak it at work, and Mr. Bell would never know the difference.
An hour passed beneath the moonlight and Jaime wondered if she should just go home, but that would be another hour’s walk and her stomach gurgled and shouted in hunger. At last she turned a tight corner and saw before her the lit sign of a restaurant: Red Lobster. One of the Darden Group’s restaurants, along with Olive Garden. She was surprised to find that, of all restaurants, but she was hungry enough not to question it.
The Red Lobster was, just like Olive Garden, swelled with customers. It took thirty minutes just to squeeze her in at the bar, which Jaime thought she only achieved when the hostess finally appraised her uniform and saw in her a colleague. Red Lobster’s menus weren’t like Olive Garden’s. No fancy script, no enticing poetry in the description of the meal. Just a picture of the fish or lobster, a picture of the meal which resulted from the creature, a price, and another number inscribed in bold by its side. The Italian language swirled all around her, happy mouths full of cheddar biscuits and shrimp.
When the waiter came by, he gestured to himself and said, “David” and pointed to the menu. Jaime said, “I’ll have-“ and David flinched in surprise before her uniform registered to him.
“Sorry, I’m just not used to my customers speaking English.”
“None of them do here either, huh?”
“I can’t blame them. It’s a beautiful language. Do they let you speak it at Olive Garden? I feel like since it’s an Italian place…”
“Nope. Not allowed. I tried it. Also, I’m starving, so I’d like some lobster rolls.” David nodded and left to place her order. They chatted a bit more in the course of the evening, but he didn’t know much more than she did. His only addition was that he’d been around for six months, and the only restaurants he’d found were Darden Group members.
Jaime ate too much food and spent too much money, and went home that night with more questions than answers, though Olive Garden’s popularity no longer felt like the center of the question. Where else were any of them going to go?
Rather than resting up for her shift, she spent the night in a queasy haze. Early in her nausea, she suspected food poisoning: some foul shellfish which had snuck by the restaurant’s rigid safety standards. As the night aged, visions of a poisoner, an infinitesimal blow dart buried in her neck, took over. She reached too close to some great mystery, brushed against a deadly secret in her idle curiosity. How were they to know that she wasn’t an enemy?