Coming to America: A European summer on Martha’s Vineyard

A European summer on Martha’s Vineyard.

Ekaterina flanked by Lanette and Stanley Larsen, owners of the Menemsha Fish Market. — Michael Cummo

“Where are you from?” I hear the same question again.

Being a cashier with an “interesting European accent” in a local fish market, I get to answer it a lot.

“Georgia.” I pause. “The country,” I specify.

“Oh, is that in Europe?” the question follows. “There are so many of you here. Why is that?”

The abundance of young European workers on the Vineyard in summertime hardly surprises anyone. Whether it is a little grocery store, a pizza place, or a prestigious restaurant, there are high chances of running into a hard-working European kid almost anywhere on the Island.As a matter of fact, most of these kids are participants in an international cultural-exchange program called Work and Travel that provides students from various countries with summer jobs in the United States. The main purpose of the program is to familiarize European college students with American culture and traditions. However, the majority of them take advantage of it to pay their tuition bills, which they would not be able to afford otherwise. Usually, tourist zones like Martha’s Vineyard are the most optimal locations for students to work, since there is an abundance of summer job opportunities.

“It is quite exhausting, since I work every day, butI love meeting new people with a very different culture and mindset,” said Teodora Georgieva.

Ms. Georgieva, 21, spent her first summer in America as a Work and Travel participant this year. The lack of well-paid jobs for undergraduate students in Bulgaria motivated her to apply for the program in order to afford the school tuition at the American University in Bulgaria. As a result, she worked three different jobs at BeeDee’s, Narragansett House, and South Beach Apparel in Oak Bluffs, which left her with barely any free time.

“One of the jobs was full-time and the other two were part-time, so I managed to fit them all in my schedule,” she said.

Georgieva was not the only student working nonstop, though. Erisa Kodra, 21, a student from Albania, has also spent this summer tearing herself apart between two jobs. In the mornings she served breakfast at Hob Knob Hotel in Edgartown. As soon as the clock hit 11 am, she rushed to hop on the bus that would eventually drop her off in the outskirts of Menemsha, where she would spend the entire day at the cash register in Menemsha Fish Market.

I am a college student myself, thus I can easily relate to Ms. Georgieva’s and Ms. Kodra’s stories. I was accepted by the American University in Bulgaria as a first-year journalism student in 2011. Since my family could not afford the tuition, I had to take care of it myself. That was when I heard about the perks of the Work and Travel program, and applied for it. Since Martha’s Vineyard was one of the most popular tourist places for a summer job among my friends, I started looking up job opportunities for international students and sending out my résumé to every local business on the Vineyard. I sent more than a few hundred copies of my résumé in less than a couple of weeks, but all of them were ignored. Meanwhile, the school semester was close to its end. Most of my friends got their visas stamped, while I still did not have a job. I was in complete despair, constantly refreshing my messages, waiting for desired job offers. I did not even care what would my job be, I just needed one. I refreshed the page again. “One unread message,” it said. “Probably another Facebook notification,” I thought. “Summer Job,” the subject read. I could not believe my eyes. Stanley Larsen from Menemsha Fish Market on Martha’s Vineyard agreed to provide me with a job offer. It meant I did not have to quit my college. It meant I would spend my summer in America!

Finally, after a month of exhausting job applications, visa procedures, and interviews at the American Embassy in Bulgaria, I arrived on the Vineyard on May 26, 2011, and I have been spending my summers here since then.

For me, a young European kid who had never faced real-life obstacles or worked before, the first summer was a challenge. Long working days exhausted me. New atmosphere made me feel uncomfortable. After all, I was on a different continent, speaking a foreign language, facing unfamiliar standards of life. The only aspect that made me happy was an unimaginable friendliness of locals on the Island. The way Vineyarders smiled, wishing me a good morning on my way to work filled me up with positive energy every day. I would never expect that from gloomy Europeans.

Time passed with the speed of light. Eventually, long working days turned out to be enjoyable. I started to like meeting new people, making new friends, and trying something new. As a result, a small team of my co-workers and employers turned into my American family, which made each of my summers better than the previous one. At this moment, I can hardly imagine my life without Martha’s Vineyard.

“Working is never easy, but working on the Vineyard for me has been pleasant,” Ms. Kodra said. “First of all, because the wages on the Vineyard are higher, compared with my first Work and Travel experience in Maryland. In addition to that, I loved the people I have met and have been working with. It makes your life so much easier to have people you can rely on at any time,” she added.

For the most part, the majority of Work and Travel students stay in America until the beginning of September. This is one of the reasons why local employers prefer hiring foreigners.

“We do prefer European employees, because they usually work until September or October. American kids go back to school in the middle of August, which leaves us short-handed during the busiest month,” say Stanley and Lanette Larsen, the owners of Menemsha Fish Market. Mr. and Mrs. Larsen have been hiring Work and Travel students for nine years already, and they are satisfied with their decision.

Summertime for Work and Travel students is a tough period indeed, since they try not to miss the chance to work extra hours and pay their tuition bills. Personally, I don’t take days off or hang out with other kids, because I work every day from morning until evening. So, my summer is pretty dry. Most of the kids do the same. The majority of us are from the same college, where tuition is very expensive according to European standards, so we all try to work as much as we can so that we can study after. Nonetheless, the anticipation of meeting new friends, learning more about their culture, and visiting major American cities afterwards helps students get through the summer.