Always looking up

“My favourite spot in College is looking through the big door frame of the Eagle gate. It is like a picture and I often walk more slowly or stop for just a moment”

You might not know her name, but Norma Paterno-Lotto is a very familiar face in the Buttery – she is the cashier who asks if we really want to buy a bar of chocolate or would we prefer a nice tangerine instead?! Jo Tynan finds out more about the Argentinian catering assistant who has been known to shed a few tears when the students graduate.

I met my husband in primary school at home in Argentina but he was only my classmate then. He went off to study in Buenos Aires and I was in Formosa where my mum still lives in the north of Argentina. Every summer he would come back to Formosa and there would be a party for school classmates and we would meet. One year he came back for work and we crossed on the corner and started to chat. I always say that true love is just around the corner. 

I waited for him for five long years. He went off to work in England and we only saw each other once or twice a year when he came home. I once came on a holiday for a month and we visited Cambridge and we came to St John’s as tourists. I thought straight away that it was a very nice College but I never imagined I would work here. 

Norma in the Buttery
Norma helping to prepare the Buttery for lunch. Credit: Ben Phillips.

I was a PE teacher at home in Argentina but I couldn’t speak any English when I first moved here. I could only say ‘excuse me, hello, yes, sorry and thank you’. I wasn’t scared of not knowing the language but I was scared of the cold! I began teaching myself English from a dictionary when my husband was at work at his job as an electrical engineer. We lived in a house share to begin with and whenever anyone spoke to me, I would get my Spanish to English dictionary out. I’ve been to several language classes since. I am still learning, my English isn’t the best but it is better than when I started. We should all keep learning. 

I volunteered at Oxfam near The Grafton centre to get some work experience. That is where I got to know the money here and I practised English. I started as a casual worker in the Catering department at St John’s in 2007 and then I got a permanent job as a lunchtime cashier and it works around my family. My husband Max and I have one son, Giovanni, who is 10. 

Even after all these years working at St John’s I still can’t believe that I work somewhere so beautiful. I walk through the College and I try to imagine what the first students felt 500 years ago when they arrived in the cold in Cambridge. My favourite spot is looking through the big door frame of the Eagle gate as I arrive at the College through Cripps. It is like a picture and I often walk more slowly or stop for just a moment. My mum always says to me that when you go to a new place, never look at the floor – always look up. Now I always do that and spot something new.

I’m here because the students are here and all the staff are here because the students are here. I have my problems but I don’t think it is right that they come into the Buttery with me because maybe the day of the person I’m serving is worse than mine. A student might be stressed or something might not be going well for one of the staff, they need me to be cheerful, they don’t need me to be grumpy. I try to be a happy face. 

I haven’t seen my mum for three years, I know what it is like to feel homesick. We had a visit home booked for just after the first lockdown happened and we haven’t been able to go home since. Before I moved here I bought my mum her first computer but she didn’t know how to use it. We would talk every day when I first came here before I had a job. We are hoping to visit Argentina next Easter and we WhatsApp call every week now.

Catering staff in the old Buttery
Norma on the far left and other members of the Catering team after the old Buttery closed its doors for the last time in preparation for the building of the new Community Hub. Credit: Nordin Ćatić.

When coronavirus happened, there wasn’t any time to say goodbye. A lot of the students know me because I work on the till, I don’t always know their names but over the years we get to know each other a little and we joke together. When they had to go home, it happened so suddenly that we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. Many of the students would tell us when it was their last day when they got their final meal from the Buttery but because of the lockdown, I didn’t know if I’d ever see the Covid students again. I cried during general admission this year when the 2020 group who had missed out came back to graduate. It was very, very nice to see them again. 

The lockdown was strange and at first I came into work and it was scary driving down Histon Road when no other cars were around. I was furloughed and then I was able to homeschool my son. He corrects my English and I correct his Spanish. 

I don’t miss my old life, but I do miss my family. In Cambridge you can walk down the street or even just at St John’s and if you listen you can hear Russian, Italian, Korean, Spanish, German, Polish – lots of us are a long way from home. Sometimes we practise our language together, sometimes a student will ask to practice their Spanish with me and I will reply in English. I like how many different people there are from lots of different countries, it makes the College a very friendly place. 

Sometimes I mention it if someone just has chocolate for lunch. I don’t want to make anyone feel bad but I do sometimes feel like their mum. I know what people like to eat, and I mention if something is missing from their tray that they usually get. Everyone likes roast dinner day now they have returned to the Buttery. 

I try to eat healthily and I’ll often have fruit for my lunch when it is time for a break. I’ve learned a lot of recipes from the menus at work, I make toad in the hole at home for Max and Giovanni and they love it. We didn’t have that meal in Argentina. 

I love knitting, my grandmother taught me to knit and we learned at school too. I find it very relaxing, I’ve just finished knitting a cape for a friend. And my husband and son like trains so we often have days out to look at them. 

My son wants to study at St John’s when he grows up. He will change his mind but at the moment he thinks it would be nice to see me every day in the Buttery. I would make sure he ate his vegetables like I’d like to do with the students!

Published 03/12/2021

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