Wednesday, November 25, 2009
"You need me," my boyfriend said, pressing his hand against my back, keeping me close. I'd just jumped at him for a quick hug, and it was nice that he took time to savour it. I smiled.
He knows it's true. And I liked his confidence.
"You need me," he repeated. And after only a short pause, said it again, "You need me."
It was getting weird. But what the hell, I played along.
"OK, I neeeeeed you."
He squinted. What's he getting at, I wondered, feeling at a loss. Then he reached his hand down to the front of his jeans, gingerly cupping himself, before saying it one last time in a way I finally understood.
"You KNEED me!"
When he recovered, we decided both were true.
Saturday, November 14, 2009
It was a short, regrettable fling – one of the last, and it may have otherwise been among the most forgettable, had my suitor not resorted to theft to gain my attention, if not my affection.
Lasting only a few days of vegan lunches, soy lattes and his nervous mannerisms, even in its genesis, I knew the deal could never quite be sealed with more than a hops-sloppy kiss. It wasn’t in the stars. So when having the young Scottish import in my personal space became unbearably unpalatable, I delivered the terminal blow by phone and naively expected never to hear from him again. Instead, as it does, dinged pride guided its punch-drunk governor to commit criminal acts of idiocy.
Of the little he knew about me, other than my being the ex-girlfriend of one of his own friends – though the quality of their relationship continues to be debatable – was my love of cruising Montreal’s broad, tree-lined streets on my beloved beater bike, a ’67 Schwinn with just enough of its original paint to suggest it was once a decidedly Californian shade of blue. The bike had been a gift from the ex-boyfriend – a gift he particularly enjoyed reclaiming when it came time to exchange any love he had for me for seething, pathological hatred. Ours was the standard break-up to follow any 7-year union – savage, vengeful and sufficiently bitter to put any Canadian winter to shame. After all I’d invested, anything less and I’d have been offended.
The young Scot seemed an anxious contender for the post, but upon experiencing even a lesser rejection first-hand and over the phone, he both blamed my ex-boyfriend for having rendered me incapable of loving someone new, and set out to win over what he believed to be even the most damaged bits of my icy little heart. But, had he asked me, I’d have said it was less an issue with my heart, and more an issue of instinct. Something, I felt, just wasn’t right.
Within a few days, the misguided young Scot made up his mind and did what he thought best, and resolved to steal my bike back. I know how he arrived at this decision, because the entire decision-making process was recorded in a series of four voicemail messages, from conception to completion. The wayward gesture was highly successful, but only in proving me right about him being so wrong.
While I appreciated his sympathy and creativity, the plan was not very well thought out. My ex-boyfriend, and the bicycle, lived in Mile End, the same close-knit Montreal neighbourhood as me. Surely I’d be seen pedalling guiltily along and be accused of thieving it myself. Nevertheless, in the first message, he said he’d spotted the bike and thought I deserved to have it. The second message reiterated. The third announced he’d developed a plan to steal it. The fifth, told me it had been relocated to the entrance of my apartment building, with a key to its new lock hidden under the seat, awaiting me.
At the time, my ex-boyfriend’s wrath was a fitfully sleeping dragon, and avoiding inducing further nightmares was topped in my priorities only by basic survival. Already subject to random phone calls designed to intimidate and punish me for leaving, any new fodder would surely fan the hellfire. So, after running down three flights of stairs and out the front doors to the bicycle rack, you can imagine my relief to see that despite the young Scot’s strange trail of messages, the bicycle wasn’t there.
What was there, was someone else’s bike – a similar bike, but red, and not the right brand or make or year or, really, anything the same at all. Still, I checked underneath its seat, and there as promised, was a key. I was now in possession of a stolen bike.
After calling friends to rant about my new role as harbourer of stolen goods, I began posting flyers around the neighbourhood, asking for anyone with a bicycle stolen from the area that week to please contact me with a description, so I could return it to its rightful rider. But none of the many hopeful enquiries described the bike I’d been fostering. A week later, it occurred to me to lock the bike up in the same location from where I suspected it had been stolen. To it, I attached my email address, figuring the delighted owner would contact me for the key. Another week came and went, and still no word. When I checked on the bike, I saw that the paper with my email address had been torn away, but a second U-lock was attached and a note snaked through its grimy spokes. It read:
“Dear Bike Angel, I don’t know how you found it, but please call me.”
And he left his number. Bike Angel. I liked it.
Doing the right thing is good, but having it work out is great. The owner of the bicycle was a well-known local character and talented Montreal artist. His prints had been hanging in my home, years before his stolen bicycle made it there to join them. And, because it’s Montreal, and the English-speaking community so small, he was also an acquaintance of my ex, who, as it turns out, still has the blue Schwinn.
A small, awkward friendship budded in the fiasco, with the red bike’s rightful owner, and every time I saw him riding it through the same streets I loved, I felt a little spark of victory. And just once, we also shared a hops-soggy kiss, so every time we stumbled into each other’s paths afterward, my cheeks took the colour of the bike that started it all.
But all of that and all those people have become little more than anecdote. I’ve since fallen in love with someone else, someone without need to impress me, someone completely unrelated this story, someone English who’s never even been to Montreal, and to my own surprise, someone who doesn’t even own a bike. Still, my instincts say he’s also someone for whom it’s worth crossing an ocean.
My ex-boyfriend with the blue bike seems to be letting sleeping dragons lie.
The young Scot must surely have been deported by now.
The artist’s red bike has since been stolen – for good.
And even though it’s raining tonight in London, I’m warm inside with a man who’s doing well at proving I was right about him, and so I think, I may have been stolen for good, too.
This is me with my boyfriend, tolerating London, for some effing good reason.
Sunday, October 11, 2009
You might know him as the co-owner of a trendy London bowling alley chain, or the man behind a popular Notting Hill club, but he’s more than that to me – he’s the guy who wants a naked personal assistant. And he's hiring.
"First, I want you to understand; it's nothing sexual," he said ten minutes into the interview.
Keeping his eyes fixed on mine, he lowered his head and cocked a brow. I braced for the 'but'.
He was handsome enough to expect to get away with it, dishevelled enough to be non-threatening, and posh enough to reveal his unconventional lifestyle as little more than an egoistic echo of boarding school rebellion. But really, why shouldn't we all get everything we want?
The justification he made easily. Since I'd work primarily from his home office, and since he occasionally prefers to be nude in the privacy of his own home, he'd appreciate an assistant who would be comfortable with that.
Fair enough – I'd found the ad on Gumtree (the UK's answer to Craigslist), and the internet is bound to live up to its reputation now and again.
“Very interesting,” I said, and promptly lost my battle for composure to a smirk that carved clear across my face. While I wasn't quite right for the job, what with my preference for clothing while ironing shirts and drafting letters, I couldn’t wait to retell the story.
But I had this sneaking feeling he’d only just scratched the surface with his peculiarities, so I resisted the urge to run off and regurgitate the story, straightened my face and did what I had to do – waited for the juicy bits.
“Again,” he reiterated, “I want you to understand it’s nothing sexual.” There was another ‘but’ in the air. I could feel it. And I wanted to hear it. And I egged him on because I knew the story would be better for it.
When it came, I began looking for hidden cameras.
The scene was too contrived, too scripted – something was fishy. I’d inadvertently stumbled into a gag for a British reality TV show – something akin to Candid Camera, but with a desperate job-seekers theme – I was sure of it. Timely, I thought, for the credit crunch, if not a bit cruel. The air vents, I suspected, was where they’d most likely be, and I gave them all an I’m-onto-you squint, just in case.
I thought back to the ad. He described himself as the owner of clubs and entertainment venues across London, looking to expand his business to the realms of adult dating, and required a personal assistant to help him stay on top of it all, someone open-minded and willing to dig right in and take care of whatever needed doing.
Spotting three red flags in the text – club owner, adult dating and the much-abused term ‘open-minded’ – my initial questions to him during my phone interview were direct. “What exactly do you expect from a personal assistant?” I asked, drawing ‘exactly’ out as long as I could without suggesting I had a speech impediment. Anything as menial as ironing a shirt before a meeting and helping him bounce ideas around for his business, was his tempered, professional answer.
“So there are no specific skills you’d expect that I might not have?” I asked, satisfied with his response and now wanting to clarify, thinking HTML or catering. He barely stuttered and went on about how the one-on-one nature of the job requires above all that we get along. Agreeing to meet, we scheduled a face-to-face interview in Notting Hill the next day. In hindsight, the stutter was either a blazing scarlet-red flag or a guardian angel intervening on my behalf to choke him.
“And because it’s really, really important to me that you are absolutely comfortable with me being naked,” he went on, “and that you know it’s nothing sexual…”
Brow cocked, dramatic pause engaged, he was about to deliver the payload. This, I knew, would be the biggest ‘but’ yet.
“I need you to demonstrate your comfort by occasionally being naked, as well.” And then he let out a little burp. Seems my guardian angel went deep.
As far as collecting stories goes, I couldn't believe my luck. But I had to think of something to say, settling on, “I get where you’re coming from,” as the groundwork for my own enormous ‘but’.
In a small way, I felt sympathetic to him. He’d been pleasant, up-front and maintained appropriate physical distance throughout the interview. He told me what he wanted, and asked me how I felt about it. It was an extension of the classic secretary fantasy cum affair. The difference being that he incorporates it into the interview process.
I’ve always questioned social norms – which might have something to do with my degree in Cultural Anthropology, or just having lived in liberal Montreal for a decade – and I do consider myself to be open-minded and non-judgemental. Lifestyles that buck convention have never personally offended me, so long as they’re consensual and respect basic human rights. The lines I draw for myself are, however, very clear.
“But, that’s just not something I can do,” I concluded for him, in case he couldn’t already tell from the look on my face. Had he stopped talking then, my opinion of him would have cemented at the extreme end of ‘quirky’. But making the same mistake as billions of his forefathers, he went on to justify his desires.
While he appreciates her naked body, and is very certain she appreciates his, he’s never “f*cked” his current assistant – despite being in an open relationship – because that would ruin the professional dynamic. I think he’s right about that.
And it went downhill from there.
A telecom blessing, his mobile rang and it was time for me to go. Leaving the club, I still expected a production assistant might jump at me with a disclaimer to sign, so I could make my first appearance on low-budget British reality TV. But that didn’t happen.
The only person outside the club on the posh Notting Hill street, was a high-heeled, bleach blonde in her early twenties, wearing a little too much eye make-up – the next interviewee.
Looking her over I thought, "She's about to make herself a lot of money."
Thursday, October 01, 2009
If you know London, you know The City refers to the financial district – the new-money hub, the once sparkling centre rife with slick suits, the testosterone traders, the bankers – City Boys. Or so I hear.
By the time I came to England, the credit crunch was in full bloom. My boyfriend took a redundancy package not long after my arrival, and my dreams of jump-starting my international PR career began to wane.
Still, in the face of back-to-back refusals from recruitment agencies – the only real way to get a job in London – on the basis of being a foreigner without at least 6 months experience on the island, I managed to land a PR job through an independent ad. And after about 5 weeks, I quit. Not because I'm a quitter, but because the man I was working for was one of the most difficult personalities I've ever encountered. Even worse than that. And he'd just had an unplanned baby, so even worse than that.
Since then, I've held a total of eight different jobs – each with distinct advantages and horrors, an I've written about most of them in my blog. And it is the eighth job I'd like to introduce now.
You may wonder what happened to my recent 'chugging' job – face-to-face fund-raising for UNICEF – which I spoke about not long ago. Or you may just assume I've grown tired of strangers telling me to 'F*ck off' for the criminal act of saying 'good morning' while wearing a charity t-shirt. That's how I'd assumed it would end, but alas, that's not the case. It ended because I cried. I cried my face off. I sobbed like a 10-year-old, hyperventilated even. And not because someone was mean to me, but rather because I was surrounded by people who were so nice.
Breakthrough Breast Cancer was to be our next campaign. Everyone in the company was gathered in a conference room for a detailed briefing before heading to the streets to pass the word on. Looking around at my colleagues, I felt privileged to belong to a group so good-looking, bright and young. It's the level of overall group beauty to which I imagine cult leaders aspire.
I made it through the munch and mingle breakfast portion, and even a few minutes of the video presentation. But when pre-recorded personal accounts began, I choked up. My face burning hot, I looked to the floor instead of the screen, and began singing an entirely unrelated song in my head. My body needed to be there, sure, but my head requires no warming up to the idea of finding a cure for breast cancer.
When the video was finally over, I took a deep breath and passed a tissue to my tearful neighbour. For a moment, I was quite sure I'd recover. I was, however, very, very wrong. Next up was the mother of a breast cancer victim. Her personal story broke me into crumbly, gooey little bits – and I cried for everyone I've known, and for everyone I'd never had the chance to meet, who've battled this horrible disease, and for everyone who's lost someone they dearly love. And ultimately, I cried myself out of a job.
My manager comforted me in the reception room, the Breakthrough Breast Cancer employees brought me water and tissues, there were hugs all around, and I said good-bye to my other tearful colleagues. They were all incredibly sweet, which exacerbated the profound and overwhelming sadness I felt. There was no question about it, my manager suggested I not work on this campaign, but that I would be welcome to join them for Save the Children in a few weeks' time. Apparently, the global suffering of children I can handle.
After sleeping off an intense crying-related headache, I began worrying about where my next pay-cheque would come from. But I struck it lucky, and landed something within three short days. And get this: I work in The City.
The one profession left untouched by recession hysteria, in the heart of the financial district, is mine. I'm a full-time barmaid in a gritty old English pub. Sure, instead of helping people, I'm getting them drunk and sending them home to the wrath of their wives – who've apparently dubbed the spot, The Flying Toilet – but it's fun.
And so far, it hasn't made me cry.
Monday, September 28, 2009
Note: Even if you don't make it all the way through this post, it's worth scrolling down to see the picture.
There's a lot ironic about being run out of town by police from a place like Chelmsford.
Partially because it’s apparently being done to protect townspeople from charities; in a big way because I had a legal right to be there for my job; and, even more so because people in Chelmsford didn’t seem bothered by face-to-face fundraisers.
They certainly liked me more than shoppers near Oxford Street liked me. People with bag loads of sweatshop-produced high street fashion never quite seem ready to indulge in hypocrisy that soon after swiping their card. And they liked me way more than the wealthy population of the aptly named London borough, Richmond, did. The only donor in a seven-hour shift there was the guy who makes their coffee at the local M&S department store, and he lives in Brixton.
Sure three of my new Chelmsford acquaintances were despondent, drunk and homeless, two were evangelistic racists, one declared George W. Bush to be the ‘great leader of our times’, another asked for my phone number for a business proposition requiring a ‘pretty face’, and yet another claimed to have done 8 years in prison for robbing banks, shooting people and working for Montreal's notorious Italian mafia, but maybe that's precisely why the police might want to run United Nations-endorsed charity fundraisers out of town. Our kind, we just don't fit in.
Our first post was on a small footbridge over a canal – the idyllic sort of bridge you might imagine belongs in an old English town with its resident troll waiting to eat, or at the very least, maim wayward offspring. My fundraising partner and I were the slightly less hideous, though no less terrifying trolls on top of the bridge, with intentions to do exactly the opposite for the world’s children. The other half of our team wasn't so lucky.
The story goes that one particular community officer has developed a nearly clinical, Seinfeld-esque obsession with street fundraisers. He's studied the rules and regulations in the hopes of catching us on a technicality, and having us purged from his town. He doesn’t see us as face-to-face fundraisers – our official title – but rather as ‘charity muggers’ or the pejorative, ‘chuggers’. And just as much as we’re tasked with raising funds to eradicate preventable diseases that kill five children every few minutes around the world, he is tasked with eradicating us.
While I missed the opportunity to meet the stocky, cocky antagonist myself, I certainly felt, smelled and trod in his effects.
The psychological warfare was multi-faceted, and according to my team leader, has been fine-tuned over the course of several years. Just keep smiling, she advised, and never let him know he’s getting to you.
I’ve encountered plenty of schizophrenic members of the British public on this job, and I’m loath to develop any comparable paranoia. I’d rather not think the police and town council of Chelmsford are actually out to get me, but indeed that seems to be the case.
Their first strategy is to cause physical discomfort. Usually we stash our purses, lunches and civilian clothing in a large waterproof bag and chain it to a post like most would lock a bicycle, so we’re more comfortable and agile while attempting to charm people in the street – but not in Chelmsford. In Chelmsford, that’s now illegal.
Until recently, as I'm told, kind shop workers took pity on our small groups, and offered to hold our things until the day’s end. But they’ve been ‘spoken to’, and it seems that’s no longer an option. So now we carry everything, all day long, and nurse our sore backs at the end. This tactic is subtle, but effective.
Seemingly convinced we’re criminals cleverly cloaked under the guise of charity branding, Chelmsford police are also rumoured to subject fundraisers to spontaneous criminal checks and enlist ‘mystery donors’ who are tasked with making us slip up to a reportable and ideally banish-able degree. Unfortunately for them, the company I work for drills fundraising ethics into the heads of new recruits from day one, we’re always very careful to let donors know exactly what they’re getting into, and none of us are convicts.
Still, it’s unsettling to do my spiel with a British officer circling me like a Great White, lunging in for nibbles of my shtick – his teeth almost visibly gnashing beneath his stiff upper lip.
There was nowhere to escape – the council has restricted fundraisers to working inside very specific areas of the high street, clearly marked by circular patterns in the bricks of the pedestrian lane. Not one foot was allowed to stray over the border of our small posts, but that was fine. We could do our jobs just as well with or without the freedom of mobility, I thought. But that was before they brought in the cavalry.
Naïve perhaps, it being my first day in Chelmsford, it surprised me that the police would not only force us to remain inside a very small space, but that they would also fill it with horses for our entire first shift of the day. When asked, the equestrian officers’ response was, “We’re on a job.”
So are we, I thought – and one of the horses made a large steaming deposit on the tiny bit of workspace which remained beside my co-workers – but yours is way shittier.
I took this on my lunch break, which, by coincidence or not, also happened to be when these officers and their horses moved on to greener pastures.
Friday, September 11, 2009
There are two kinds of clipboards. The kind my boyfriend likes using to interview celebrities and festival goers, which attract 5-minute fame-seekers like free money, and the kind I've been issued for my new temporary job, which makes even grown men jump into traffic-heavy streets to avoid me.
That's the power I wield.
Since I have to work a student job for modest pay to stay afloat, despite having first graduated in the not-so-auspicious year 2000, until I find something better (wish me luck with my phone interview tomorrow), I suppose it's fortunate to have found one that comes with a superpower.
Given the choice, I'd have gone for the ability to fly, or to speak and understand every language of the world, but the power of repulsion is fascinating all the same.
Each morning in the blustery streets of London, I don a bright blue T-shirt emblazoned with UNICEF across my chest, hang the laurel of my ID badge around my neck, and tuck my clipboard as discreetly as possible under my arm, and become my alter-ego: The Bane of Your Existence.
I am a charity fundraiser for United Nations Children's Fund. And I am loathed.
Here, street fundraisers are also known as 'chuggers', short for 'charity muggers', and to be sure, some have earned the slander. I've been backed up against a post box, desperate for escape from an aggressive, toothy street fundraiser, and that's never made me sign up for anything. But my company has a strict no guilt, no pressure, no cornering and absolutely no flirting policy, so I have to use charm and logic to counter my unfortunate superpower, and that's really hard work in a city known for little eye contact or warmth of any kind.
So like a monkey, I dance. My sister calls it 'the dork dance', and it's the only thing I've come up with that makes even busy Londoners smile, even those who just really want to rant about charities overdoing their fundraising, the Credit Crunch, inept children who refuse to move out, student loans, medical bills, wives and husbands, having been declared legally insane, Gordon Brown, immigration, unwanted pregnancy and conspiracy theories. I haven't heard it all, but I expect I will by the end of today when I finish another shift at Brighton Pier.
Sure I look like an idiot, but amid the flow of thousands of people, I can easily slip into the shell of merciful anonymity - anonymity being London's only guarantee.
Thinking back to my early years studying Cultural Anthropology, as far as observation goes, I'm in a really good position. With license to speak to anyone, any trace of a stereotype I'd brought along was blown to bits in the first hour, though I'll admit seedlings of new ones are taking their place. Women, for example, can be very scary people. Old people aren't necessarily nice people. Saying 'good morning' is just as likely to receive a Big F as a 'good morning' in return. And the average Londoner is a terrible actor.
Just as I spot prospective donors 5 metres away, they spot me. Commonly, they'll pull a mobile phone out and fake a conversation, without bothering to turn it on. I'm both flattered that they'll go to so much effort to avoid having me say 'hello', and offended they think my powers of observation are so weak. In quieter areas, my presence parts the sea of pedestrians. They'll climb over bicycles, squeeze around lamp posts and dodge traffic to avoid me.
And then there are the runners.
While there are fewer, they're the best. These maintain composure until the very last moment, and then sprint just a little way. Just enough to get past me. Sometimes I feel like the oracle from that children's movie The Neverending Story, wondering, maybe even hoping I really might be able to zap those not true of heart with my laser eyes.
Some choose partial blindness and simply close their eyes while they walk past me. "I can still see you," I say with the same lilt I use when I play hide-and-seek with children who haven't quite figured out that you need to hide your whole body, and not just your head.
Others simply unload. They see my smile and 'hello' as an invitation to vent all their frustrations and disturbingly common racist views, and while I understand how this might happen when dealing with the general public, "F*ck you!' never really feels like an acceptable response to 'good morning', no matter what I might be wearing.
So, thankfully it's Friday, and I can come home and relax with all the reasons I have for enduring this sort of treatment: Friends, love and a new, albeit challenging, life in London.
That, and the fact that UNICEF really does do good work for children.
Saturday, August 29, 2009
I went for an interview at a call-centre.
I know. I know.
But when the going gets tough, the tough'll do anything to stay afloat. That's what I tell myself. And being a foreigner and a job-seeker in the midst of credit crunch hysteria – melancholy so severe and so adored by Londoners that advertisers city-wide use it for rhymes and puns – I can't even splurge for the discounted 'Credit Crunch Lunch'. It's a blessing really, that food in England has the reputation it does.
Basically, if I can trade my time for money, I'll do just about anything until I can find a real job – one that's somehow, even mildly related to anything I learned during 8 years of university.
Getting hired by an inbound call-centre is harder than I'd anticipated. From a customer's perspective, it seemed anyone could get a job at one of these places. Anyone with the aptitude to speak a language and don a headset. Anyone with the ability to read a sales script like a robot and put me on hold. But it's just not that easy.
I found the ad on Gumtree – England's answer to Craigslist – and sent in my CV, claiming front-line customer service experience would fortify my PR skills, for my real profession. This became my mantra. I'd never pull it off if I didn't believe it.
Within a few days, I was called in for the first of two gruelling group interviews. Seated at a table with two nervous and sweaty men in cheap suits, I filled out the first of many forms. The Kiwi recruiter's bulging eyes – presumably a side-effect of years of forced enthusiasm – drilled through to my tarnished soul. She could see I have experience in PR but what, she wanted to know, have I done to qualify me for customer service. Could it be possible I'm not skilled enough for even this?
What came out of me next, I really don't remember. I'm pretty certain they were words, strung together, and I qualified for the big-time group interview. The one involving 35 other applicants vying for 12 open positions that would pay £6.50/hour. For those of you who need a conversion, that's just about not enough to actually live on. Or from my perspective, better than nothing.
After signing a contract surrendering my basic employment rights, I shook the recruiter's hand and headed home reciting my mantra to prepare for the next interview.
Business attire is mandatory, which is the company's first mistake.
On the wage the call-centre offers, such business attire will either have to be found, stolen or borrowed. Only the lucky few who've recently lost well-paying jobs might manage looking sharp at their stations. The working poor aren't generally noted for the contents of their wardrobes.
There were roughly 100 contestants waiting at the entrance of the brown brick building, which we were blocked from entering by two angry security guards, even when it began to rain.
I was the only woman not wearing spike heels, most of which were black patent leather, some of which were platform. I was also the only woman able to keep up with the dowdy interviewer when he led the herd of soggy ill-fitting suits and toddling prom queens to the board room.
The atmosphere was highly competitive, and we were warned to make ourselves stand apart from the crowd, to be a real 'shining star'. Scanning the room, I knew I'd already done it by virtue of being a sore thumb. This was a perfect hybrid of The Office and The X Factor, and I stand no chance in either.
First up was a written test for spelling, basic maths and common sense. Disturbingly, because numbers are generally gibberish to me, I was the first to finish. I asked to be excused to go to the toilet to call attention to my minuscule little victory. All those years of elementary school finally paid off, and someone was going to notice.
The final task, three hours later, after various painful group exercises designed to piss you off and see if you can handle it, was a 2-minute personal presentation about why you rock for the job and to share a favourite customer service anecdote. While I fear public speaking more than I fear traffic in London, thanks to Laurette and Yvette, this segment was my favourite of the day.
"I like talking," was the most popular opener, and I was pretty sure I could beat that. I formed words, strung them together and projected them to my catatonic audience, and I didn't even die of agoraphobia. Without knowing whether I'd bombed or aced, I was glad to have survived.
Next up was Laurette, a pretty girl whose hair was visibly glued on in the front, wearing her interpretation of business attire, an extremely mini skirt, in black. When the interviewer called for her to speak, she nervously adjusted her name card to face herself, again, and stood.
"You already know who you are! It's me, me who needs to find out!" yelled the interviewer – possibly the most disenchanted man in the world. She was chewing gum, and her skirt was caught on her thigh. Even I was trying to catch a glimpse of her underpants. When she sat down giggling, he called on Yvette.
Yvette was a robot. Everything she said came from a slow-motion teleprompter in her mind. She'd be perfect for this job, I thought, until she shared an anecdote of her experience in customer service involving drunks, police and possible law suits. And then suddenly her face lit up, showing evidence of life beneath her dense shell of beauty, and she finished with, "and then he vomited blood."
I was desperate to catch someone's eye, to make sure I'd not inadvertently fallen through a wormhole in the space-time continuum and landed myself in a dimension where a statement like this in a job interview had no comic value. But no one, not a soul would look at me, and I confirmed that I was indeed in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then I lowered my head and said a little prayer of thanks to my mother for not smoking crack while she was pregnant with me.
I left not knowing whether I was exactly wrong or exactly right for the job, but yesterday I got the call saying I could start next week. Politely, I declined.
And that's OK, because I start work on Tuesday for a different, unrelated job. One just as taxing, but which comes with a UNICEF t-shirt, twice as much pay and a little itty bitty more hope for future generations.
It's hard to know what to do when you're balancing good and evil.
Monday, August 24, 2009
Mornings like tomorrow's, I need to start with coffee. The really strong stuff. The kind that gives me the shakes after a single cup, to rattle yesterday's London out of my head and prep me for a grand new adventure – even if it's not really grand. Or an adventure. Even if it's a group interview for a demoralising temporary job I swore I'd never ever do. Especially if it's that. And it is.
But coffee's not yet considered a necessary over-the-counter medication in England, and since I've been staying with various friends throughout the city for the past few months, I far too often find myself desperately, maniacally, selfishly and judgementally rummaging through their cupboards in search of a good old fashioned morning fix.
Usually, I find only tea. Lots of tea. All the tea in England, and not a drop of coffee to spare.
On rare occasions when I do find some, there are one of three outcomes:
a) It's Nopecafé, the freeze-dried imposter
b) There's coffee but, strangely, no actual maker
c) I binge guzzle it all away
That, I remind myself, is precisely why I'm getting up so early and travelling 90 minutes across the city to secure a demoralising temporary job. It's all so I can get a flat of my own and invite my new friends over. Friends who'll no doubt be appalled by my terrible taste in tea.
What you see here is the coffee addict's equivalent of a cigarette rolled in newsprint. Who needs coffee filters when you have paper towel? Don't judge me. I've only done it three or four or five or six times.
Thursday, August 20, 2009
I'm living in a privileged state of poverty. Somehow despite chronic joblessness – since my ill-fated stint as a D-list TV show host / life coach's assistant (read: fall girl) – I'm still living in one of the nicest neighbourhoods in London, in a house with a sunny garden, thanks to a sweet couple I met one year ago today.
While I'm choosing rice over roasts and eggs over chicken, and avoiding leaving the house – because even that costs money in London – my new friends have chosen me over privacy.
And it is here that I should note, they've recently gotten engaged to be married. I like to think of myself now as their trial child, as I'm currently occupying their yet-to-be-firstborn's bedroom. To make it more authentic, I've asked them to please adopt me, but they played the British bureaucracy card, claiming that laws restrict people from adopting adults older than themselves. Despite their loving nature and kindness toward me, it's become apparent I've got no chance of being the favourite.
Not long after I made my request, they proposed another living situation for me. One that'll keep me in the neighbourhood, but out of their house. I'm seeing it today, and if all goes well, I'll have a space of my own – shared with two others, that is. Meaning I might finally unpack my suitcase, hang the art I carried from Canada 6 months ago, and solidify friendships over for dinner and wine at mine.
Sure I'll have to work my ass off, working back-to-back shifts at the first jobs that come my way, be they street canvassing, conducting telephone surveys or collecting glasses at a pub for the privilege, but nothing has ever seemed more worth it.
It's about time I start thanking all my new friends for letting me in on London's best-kept secret: It's not all smog and rain.
This, I've since been informed, is the requisite photo newcomers take of London's residential streets and power lines. I may not be original, but at least I'm starting to blend in.
Friday, August 14, 2009
There's nothing quite so motivating as looking a call centre job dead in the receiver. Motivating, I mean, to find something else. Anything else. Anything but that. And there's nothing quite so ironic as the motivational introductory speech they give you at the outset.
"Here, we work hard and party even harder!" The recruiter's lavender eye shadow and the bright blue barbell through her tongue glimmered when she said it. Body modification often shows up where hope can't manage on its own.
Eight years of university and good experience in Public Relations does me nothing but a disservice here in the middle of Britain's credit crunch hysteria. It won't help me block out insults from irate callers when I tell them their warranty is about as useful as a Poundland umbrella. But it will help me see through management's spin tactics – intended to make me feel less like a complete failure, and more like a bolt in the wheel of the cab that will deliver me to the pub where I will commisserate and self-medicate with my new call centre friends.
"We're all Aussies, Kiwis and South Africans here, so we know how to have a good time!" she continued, as she passed me an agreement to sign stating that I don't require standard labour laws to protect me. We're all from the Commonwealth, she meant, and now England will reclaim your soul.
"So we'll need you to be flexible with your hours, and the rate is 6 quid per hour! Sound awesome!?"
It sounded like I'd be commuting on the London Underground 2 hours in each direction every day for an 8-hour shift, consuming 12 hours of my day, 5 days a week. It sounded like a 60-hour work week actually.
"I feel really good about you!" she said. "I'll call you next week and maybe get you started on Monday!" She over-punctuated everything, as though the blue barbell wasn't enough.
What she meant was, "You will soon be the bane of modern existence." But that's a hard sell, so she was right to cloak that one.
"Great!" I lied, with emphasis.
During the 2-hour tube ride home, I calculated how much I would need to live on versus how much they intended to pay me per month, and wondered how everyone else managed to still self-medicate at the pub – each pint costing a full half-hour of work, before taxes. By my calculations, there's not enough left over for food.
It's good, I decided, that I'd be on a 60-hour work week for peanuts. It wouldn't leave time to live life, which is a relief, because that costs money. Besides, I'm Canadian, and I love peanuts.
Then, I came home and applied for 30 more jobs.
This is a one-stop board in Brixton. You can find work, a room to share, get your hair done, and have an erotic massage.Oh Brixton, you've got it all.
Sunday, August 09, 2009
The Heathrow Effect is apparently the name for what's happening to me. Not the standard 60-day vortex of depression newcomers suffer as a rite of passage, but rather the fatty buffer that seems to be forming between my belly and the rest of London.
In a way I'm grateful. I'll need the reserve to live on when my bank account runs dry.
I'd previously thought the extra luggage had something to do with my sugar-obsessed boyfriend's ready stock of sweets – I'm loading up on carbs because real food is too expensive.
Don't pity me because my new-found poverty might lead to malnutrition, scurvy and teeth that live up to the English stereotype, I've got Guinness on my side. London's pubs are especially generous in the caloric respect and the diet there is mostly liquid anyway.
Getting a little squishy is a minor, common side effect to attempted survival in the United Kingdom – as I've recently been enlightened – and the thousands of other working migrants from old Commonwealth countries have come to know it simply as The Heathrow Effect.
I think I'll fly out of Gatwick from now on.
This was my inaugural pub crawl, following the route of the original Monopoly properties. It's a popular outing for the English, who usually dress as moustachioed millionnaires for the tour, but we buccaneered a little tradition. The fact that I'm packed far in the back only means I was the first one in. If I look scared, I was right to be.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
During my first four months in London, I only had work for five weeks. And since London ranks among the most expensive cities on the planet, if you do the math, whatever else you do, don't share your findings with me. If that burning turmoil in my torso is agitated any further I might just auction a few organs before they're ruined.
Anyway after a month-long respite in Canada – where I did things other than stress about money, my career, and finding reasons to get out of my (borrowed) bed in the morning – I'm back in London, recharged and ready for Round 2.
And I'm hopeful, because this time I have an advantage. Now I usually remember that pedestrians do not have the right of way and it's in my best interest to look left before crossing the street. And I know how to count quid and pence and queue for groceries without making people think I'm stealing their PIN.
This time around, I won't work for a super-achieving life coach and compare my accomplishments with his. Nor will I work for someone with a Jesus complex. I won't bother trying to get a bank account without specifying whether I am a Miss or Mrs. I'll accept the fact that authority figures and strangers will address me with diminutives, like 'sweetheart' and 'honey'. I'll ignore the ubiquitous tabloids objectifying young women and the celebrity-obsessed culture.
And dammit, I will find a job I love.
People told me London wouldn't be easy, but that it's the sort of city that gets inside you, and once it does, it's always got a place in your heart. Maybe I'm ready to admit that I feel like I'm finally getting closer to that day.
I just hope that when it comes, The Big Smoke will stop trying to 'get inside me' via my nose.
This is both what I find in my nostrils every day that I ride the London Underground, and the reason I'd never raise kids here.
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
I've been visiting my Nova Scotian hometown for the past few weeks, trying to find myself. Since I'm still busy looking, I haven't yet updated on the goings on here on Canada's sweet, albeit misty North Atlantic Coast. Most has to do with whales, lakes and wondering how everyone from my graduating class in high school has managed to get married and pop out a few kids already.
If you find me, please return me to London, England by August 1st, so I can update this ol' blog properly.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
As a Canadian living in England, it's confusing enough for me to have to call fries chips, and chips crisps, but to make chips that look like fries, or rather crisps that look like chips, or chip-crisps and call them chipsticks?
England, you mess with my head.
If you are what you eat, I'm an identity crisis.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
"It's brilliant," my boyfriend said with the kind of enthusiasm he usually reserves for sweets. "We really, really have to get some."
The opportunist in me agreed wholeheartedly. If he was that excited about buying a Lush massage bar, I'd be a fool to dissuade him. But then he went on.
"This massage oil really is just so nice," he said, sniffing each tester in the shop's display. "Mmmm." And he paused thoughtfully before adding, "Really, really nice."
It was that last "really nice" that busted open the Pandora's box of things to strategically ignore for the benefit of any modern romance, and the ghost of one of his ex-lovers popped out to tell me just how nice she thought the massage oil was too.
"How exactly did you find out you like this stuff so much?" my inner-masochist prodded, and in the same breath I asked him not to answer that. He knew what I was thinking though, and just as much as my face didn't conceal jealous discomfort, his didn't conceal annoyance.
"How exactly did you find out you like sex so much?" he countered.
That shut me up.
With a little breath, I locked Pandora's box again and reminded myself that having a boyfriend who likes to give massages is far better than one who doesn't – no matter how he developed a taste for it, or the skills. You can read further into that if you want.
So we went back to the task at hand, and agreed on our favourite scented oil, which was easy, because we both liked the same one.
But the universe couldn't just leave it at that.
The next day an old fling found me on Facebook and sent the message that he'd been "thinking fondly of old times". While that fling was brief and lacked long-term significance, I realised I hadn't walked away empty-handed. In fact, he'd taught me something I've gone on to share with most of my friends – something just as, if not more intimate than massage oil ... breakfast.
Delicious, delicious breakfast – and I make a mighty fluffy scrambled eggs with cream cheese.
This is what dating looks like in England.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
"What I want to see is pure, unadulterated blogging – a total exposé."
It's a gutsy thing to say considering I've just moved in with him. But he meant it, and I knew it, because he's the sort of man who likes to get down to the gritty uncomfortable truth of ... everything.
My other new flatmate, his long-term partner and also my friend (the one who brought me along as her fashion assistant for a day) immediately clocked the risks, "No, no, no, no, no!"
The rest of their dialogue was lost on me, with both arguments presented simultaneously, enthusiastically, and with English accents, so I only caught her "last word", which went something like this:
"...because I don't want the world to read about my shit taste in films and your insane rants!"
With that, she won.
I assured them I'd never expose their private life on my blog – despite that I find them both to be fascinating individuals and exponentially so as a couple. Besides, they've been loving enough to offer me their spare room in a beautiful area of London, helping make it a little less expensive for a bit and a lot more likely I'll be able to stay. That, and it was only my first night here.
Then, illustrating her point, we settled in with a glass of Merlot to watch the last half of Bridges of Madison County – still on pause since I arrived with my bags an hour earlier – and then he led a short analytical discussion about family values and gender inequalities.
While I made a quiet little wish about how I hope these two stay together forever, I also decided to make an exception to my promise, and write about them ... just this once.
This is to illustrate how I'm not actually invading my sweet friends' and benefactors' privacy – except maybe just a little.
Monday, June 15, 2009
"Jake Gyllenhaal kayaked past me with [so-and-so] in Mexico."
And with that, she'd won the celebrity-spotting competition. So-and-so was a reference to some annoyingly famous and annoyingly hot young actress, but I don't remember who. After she said Jake Gyllenhaal and kayak, I was too turned on to listen.
My entry was thrilling but weak, as I'd recently brushed by Claudia Schiffer at the toilets during London Graduate Fashion Week. Dammit. I should've faked a stumble and grabbed her on my way down.
Damn me and the poorly timed instinct to play it cool – it hardly ever kicks in – why then? I surely would've won with, "I scared the piss out of Claudia Schiffer at the toilets."
Saturday, June 13, 2009
Because I generally lead a charmed albeit somewhat pitiable life, I spent a fair amount of time touching topless 19-year-old girls this week. If you can say the same, I pray it's because you work in fashion, and that it's genuinely in your job description.
I did it because, being unemployed, I have nothing else to do at the moment and one of my favourite new friends in London – who happens to work for a popular women's fashion magazine – took sweet, sweet pity on me. Inviting me to stand in as her fashion assistant at a photo shoot might be a good way to keep me busy, she rightly thought, but gave me fair warning that there's little glamour to be had behind the scenes.
"You'll have to steam the clothes for the shoot," she advised, "and probably get coffee and tea. And you'll have to take orders from me when we're in the middle of everything."
"So, I'd be your bitch?" I asked, amused with the prospect.
"You'd be my bitch," she answered, just as amused.
"I'd love to."
Just in case, she called again when I'd had time to think about it."If this is your idea of Hell..."
But equal parts curious and clueless about what might be ahead, I genuinely wanted to be her bitch for a day. Maybe it would remind me of what it feels like to be employed, I thought.
I arrived with my own ideas about the fashion industry. The kind derived from Nineties-era teen magazines – when Hareem pants were still Hammer pants – packed with beautiful people and clothes you'd never find in rural Canada. Not unless Frenchy's, the second-hand clothing warehouse, received a particularly rich bulk shipment from the United States. But you had to be careful in those days. Creativity could get you pummelled, and I already did my fair share of running from bullies.
All the way from a Frenchy's in small town Nova Scotia to working behind the scenes with models, make-up artists and photographers at a fashion shoot in London. And to think I would be listed in miniscule among the magazine credits for steaming clothes and getting drinks, regardless of the fact that everything I know about fashion I learned from Sex and the City – a TV series that ended years ago. I considered it my duty to see the irony through to fruition.
She knew what I was thinking. "Just try not to mention the name of the magazine when you write about it, okay?"
First, she showed me how to use the steamer without burning myself, but as soon as she left me alone with it, I did. When she came back to check on me, I was still struggling with the same top, alternately removing and inadvertently adding creases. But she had bigger things to worry about. The model was late.
The woman who'd be paid to pose in the clothes I burnt myself steaming was late, and no one knew where she was. I expected her to be moody, rude, demanding and beautiful, but not late.
All morning there'd been a buzz in the studio, as everyone prepared a specialist element: makeup, lighting, cameras and clothes. All the model had to do was show up. That's when I realised that the success of the day depended on a 19-year-old girl.
Forty-five minutes later, when she finally arrived, there was an audible whistle in the room, as everyone exhaled through clenched teeth and then slapped on their most professional smiles as she sat down to be primped and beautified. I poked my head around and thought that despite her height, she was surprisingly average. But I was soon to discover, when it came time to dress her that she was actually above average, by a few unexpected kilos.
"You have to dress them," my friend, the stylist and artistic director, had warned. But I didn't really get it. I thought I'd be handing her clothes and straightening collars, but not lifting off her tops and doing up her shoes. It was surprising for me to discover that models expect others to dress them in even the simplest of articles, and even more so that I would be doing it. When I first lifted off her top, I felt remarkably unqualified for the job. I was shit at steaming, and I'd never dressed anyone over the age of two.
What was most surprising, though, was that the model was too big for the clothes. The UK size 10 clothes (a Canadian 6) didn't fit, and we couldn't zip the first outfit up. My friend tugged, tucked and arranged the girl as best she could without drawing on any of the heavy words floating in the silence of that tiny back room.
When the model emerged to pose in that first outfit, the team threw each other worried looks. Finally the photographer discretely whispered, out of the model's earshot, "I can't shoot her, she's too fat." Another audible whistle passed through the room, this time from air sucked in through that same collection of clenched teeth – an apt soundtrack to the sort of what-the-eff-are-we-going-to-do awkward position they were in.
But the model was ready, in all her robust glory, and the team tried their best to make the shoot work – more blush to thin her cheeks, strategic positioning of clothes and limbs, and finally cropped shots and cancelled outfits. It wasn't until mid-afternoon, when the model had successfully sausaged in and out of everything at least once, and was photographed with the standard pouty lips and sultry gaze into the aether, that the team's whispered panic grew into an unavoidable reality: I was going to have to steam those clothes again.
The agency was sending a thinner model, scheduled to arrive once the first was safely out of range so as to avoid any upset. We were going to redo the shoot. Apparently the agency had told this first model to gain weight as she was previously too thin, but she'd taken the idea and run with it a little too enthusiastically. I think she knew, though, because she didn't even touch the green salad she'd requested for lunch.
By the time the second model arrived, my relationship with taffeta, rayon and even cotton was on the rocks. She was thin and perfectly proportioned, and everything I'd assumed a model would be except high maintenance. But we still had to help dress her.
In a taxi on the way home, my friend asked me whether the fashion shoot was as I'd expected. It wasn't, and I told her so. Pleasantly surprised, I've always thought of the fashion industry and modelling as terrifyingly superficial, cut-throat, and self-esteem destroying, but everyone treated the first model so sweetly, and they managed the issue of her terminal weight gain impressively discretely.
"Oh, you have to always, always keep your models happy," she assured me, in a tone which implied this was a golden rule. "Always," she repeated for emphasis.
"Is that because they can be so tempermental?" I asked, vocalising the stereotype and offering a final bit of naïveté to close the day.
"No," she smiled wryly. "If they cry, you have to stop and redo their makeup."
Tuesday, June 09, 2009
I didn't think I'd be visiting a pawn shop within my first year of settling in London. Not because I wasn't aware of its ranking among the most expensive cities in the world, but rather because I'd taken preemptive action and sold all my belongings before moving here.
But today I did.
Inside everything was encased in bullet-proof glass, including the booth at the very back containing the service staff. To get there, I reluctantly walked the blinding gauntlet of disappointments, broken promises, and general golden woe – a long row of hawked engagement and wedding rings, anniversary gifts and heirlooms.
Visiting a pawn shop's not the most uplifting of things to do in London to be sure, yet judging by this one's extensive stock, it seems to be a popular one. But like I said, I've nothing left to sell, so I approached the woman with my passport, a working visa and an uncashed cheque – from my 5-week stint of being underpaid and overworked – that no British bank will accept. Not until I have a UK account, which they're more than happy to give me, just as soon as I've lived here for at least one year.
It's not that I don't want to stay in one of the world's most expensive cities that long, but if I'm going to, someone's going to have to give me money in the interim. So far that someone is the friendly neighbourhood pawn broker – my only ally. And all for as little as 5 per cent of my earnings, because they're cool like that.
And by cool, I mean they don't just know how to give it, but they can take it, too.
British banking bureacracy, you can kiss my boyfriend's tighty whities, and you can do it in front of Butt Textiles 2001.
Monday, May 25, 2009
I live with two of the most creative people in London. Or rather, two of the most creative people in London are letting me loiter in their home, pending a more permanent living arrangement and employment, in exchange for not being a pain in the ass, restocking the toilet roll, and sleeping with one of them.
It's OK, he's my boyfriend.
Among the many perks of living here, including regular sex, is a sunny back garden. Oh, and bearing witness to the creative processes of a talented resident musician, through the bits of genius that seep out from under the door of his studio.
While the production of this – the most mainstream of his side projects – was initially top-secret, I was able to memorise a good block of the lyrics before the trio went public with the Google Maps-inspired song and video. And it went very public. The whole thing's gone viral since. It's been blogged about by The Guardian, covered by BBC TV, and it made the front page of The Metro, a free London daily with a readership of over 1 million.
What really speaks for the mini-project's success is not its tally of more than 10,000 views on YouTube, or the fact that it's approved for sale on Amazon and iTunes, but rather the ever-expanding following of people dedicating time and effort to slagging it off, and complete strangers coming to its defence.
Friday, May 22, 2009
"London's changed so much," lamented the roast beef-hued elderly Englishman beside the pool. His kindly, obese wife reclined next to him, bobbing her head in agreement. She was one of the few women at the resort to conceal her mountainous breasts from the sun. For the purpose of conversation, I was grateful. It's not that I'm offended by the human form, but heaps of oiled, cascading flesh is nothing short of completely distracting for my relatively conservative Canadian sensibilities.
"I hate to say it," he continued, "but it's full of immigrants now". It was the second time he'd said it. I wondered which time he hated saying it more.
I thought about how any friendly banter I've had in London has been with the immigrant population and how in contrast, the English had for the most part successfully avoided me. Then I thought about the Canadian jokes I've endured, all involving some mispronunciation of 'about' and using 'eh' as a suffix for everything, and finally, pretending to mistake me for an American and expecting me to be offended. Usually in that order.
"I'm an immigrant," I said. Sure my great-grandparents emigrated to the United States, then to Canada and then I emigrated back to England, but that just makes me an immigrant to the power of three.
The rest of my family was from Poland – a group particularly disliked in England – but I like to wait until someone says something disparaging specifically about the Polish before mentioning that portion of my DNA. It's a weak sucker punch, but a jab all the same.
The Englishman stuttered and rubbed his hands together before clarifying, "Well, we don't mean people like you."
People like me. Outspoken, agnostic, half-Polish liberal humanist environmentalists from a nation built on immigration, and one of the world's most successfully integrated multicultural cities, Montreal? Or white, English-speakers from the Commonwealth?
Three months since my emigration to London, I'd finally settled in enough to want to get the hell out. So, my boyfriend and I decided to celebrate the occasion with a super cheap 4-hour flight to Cyprus – a hot, dry island flooded with English ex-pats. Seven days on the coast in Paphos and save for the service staff, there were no obvious signs of Greek Cypriot life anywhere – just traditional English breakfast, pendulous English breasts keeping time with the sun on the beach, and daily papers flown in from London. I learned more about Pete and Katie Price than the local culture.
"Cyprus has changed so much," I imagine an elderly local lamenting simultaneously. "I hate to say it, but it's full of the English now."
This is me on Coral Beach in Paphos, Cyprus, feigning surprise after a Cypriot piña colada. That's my shark-master partner in crime in the reflection of my sunglasses. He's the reason I'm in this part of the world at all.
Tuesday, May 12, 2009
"If Morrissey doesn't throw a tantrum at least once tonight," I said again on the way to the Royal Albert Hall in London, "I'll be disappointed."
I meant it, too. He's notoriously temperamental and shit-fits are at least half his allure. A Morrissey gig without incident is like Mexico without machismo; like the Sixties without psilocybin; like Disney without dead mothers. And I wanted the full post-Smiths experience. If all went well, he'd be insulting me along with his thousands of adoring, pissed off fans. It was going to be sweet, and I was going to write home about it.
But I said it one too many times, and if manifest destiny played any part, I'm entirely to blame for what happened.
Always one to disappoint, Morrissey indeed threw his shit-fit, but long before we got there. He cancelled due to a "mysterious illness".
Mysterious = mental.
That's me outside the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington, London, just moments after realising I got what I'd wished for.
Saturday, May 09, 2009
Throughout London, there are signs and warnings indicating what not to do. It's the antithesis to Latin America, where you breathe, eat and sleep at your own risk, without warning of actual and imminent danger.
Some warnings I appreciate – keep left, look right – because I'm still new to the reversed flow of this culture. But others are universal common sense – basic warnings, and the privilege of a country where the most dangerous animals are knife-wielding children and my neighbours in Brixton.
I used to find it unsettling to think anyone needed to be reminded that there's wheat in Shredded Wheat, that children shouldn't play on scaffolding, and that old people can be slow. It bothered me that authorities express so little faith in the capacities of the kingdom's occupants that there are even expiry dates on fruit.
One morning, on my way to work, I came to understand the value of stating the obvious. No longer happy with my job – overwhelmed, exhausted, dissatisfied and numbed by ibuprofen – I read the warning on the hatch of a dank, dark charity drop-off bin along the way:
Do not enter.
And for a moment – faced with another day working for a motivational life coach with colossal and unrealistic expectations – I was thankful for this particular statement of the obvious, because I'd considered it.
Wednesday, May 06, 2009
When I told people I had a job, instead of asking me what it is I was doing, they'd just say, "Wow!"
I try not to take this personally. Jobs and sunshine are rumoured to be on short supply in London. To the general population, any job is now considered a good one, so long as it pays.
That's not been my experience though. It's been relatively sunny and warm since I arrived, and I've been working as a Marketing/PR Assistant for exactly a month – exactly the same amount of time I've been letting this blog slide. I feel guilty, so please let me explain how I've allowed this to happen.
The short version involves me popping ibuprofen like Skittles and fighting the urge to lie down on the office floor in the fetal position. I beleieve, in the animal kingdom, that's called "learned helplessness". It's what impalas do when they're tired of running from the lions.
The long version involves me working for the most intense person I've ever encountered – even more intense than the Zapatista rebels in balaclavas who interviewed me to decide whether to allow me onto their reclaimed land in southern Mexico. Even more intense than the Cuban officials who interrogated me for two hours to determine whether I was a literary threat to the state, or a sun-seeking booze hound. And even more intense than my mother while she's cooking Christmas dinner.
Intense. And just as committed to the cause.
In this new job – my first real job in England – I worked for a life coach, a Cambridge-educated psychologist, a BBC reality TV presenter, an ex-Playstation advertising executive, a serial entrepreneur and a leader of a social innovation movement that's meant to change the world. Normally, working with a team like that would thrill me. But it wasn't a team. It was one guy. One guy, and I was his one assistant.
I was the 666th person to enquire about the job. Looking back, that may have been the first sign of what would come. My first day was the second sign. Following a 5-minute briefing in the shadow of Westminster Abbey, I was to memorise a list of tongue-twisted jargon I was quite sure no one would grasp, in the time it took to walk across London Bridge to our meeting. Thirty-six days in the country and I was about to mingle with mid-level MPs and quasi-celebrities at a televised Channel 4 event. Basically, flirting for funding. Every key word I remembered to use elicited a similar, "Sorry?"
That's when I realised I'd jumped – head first into London, and slightly more metaphorically off the London Bridge.
Since then, I've done everything from copy editing a motivational manual, hiring and firing suppliers, re-branding a product two weeks before its launch, writing copy for everything and acting as a sounding board about the trials of being a new husband, new father and entrepreneur. It's been a challenging experience, not because anything I've had to do was difficult, but rather because it was not humanly possible to meet deadlines tighter than American Apparel leggings. And it's hard to admit I'm human.
Working for a professional life coach means emotional sharing is part of the job description. He arranged the seating so that we faced each other all day long, never more than a metre apart, to allow a free flow of 'energies' between us. Energy, in plural. Toward the end, my 'energies' started getting so thick, you could cut them with a metaphysical knife.
As a coach, he expected his motivational tactics to help me accomplish more and more each day. Soon, 12-hour days weren't enough to keep up. So on occasion, I'd try to get a couple of hours in before heading to work for 9:00, where I'd remain until at least 6:30.
But that was just the first problem. My boss wasn't just a coach, he was a psychologist, which means I also began feeling like an office case study. Then, I began having to squish my 'energies' over to make more room for the elephant ego in the room, as is to be expected when working with a successful ex-ad exec. Because he is a serial entrepreneur, everything should've been done already, and exactly the way he's always done it. Every passing second is a second farther away from the deadline: yesterday. And more than that, working for a TV presenter requires grinning and bearing it all, and looking pretty no matter what.
He is a self-proclaimed leader of a social innovation movement, and as this experience just confirmed, I'm still not much of a follower.
So yesterday, I cleared my head of London's favourite past-time – the favourite after looking at page-3 boobs in public, discussing celebrities like they're close relations, emotionally investing in football, worrying about getting the last Tube home before midnight, and recycling tired jokes about Canadian English – and that's recession fear-mongering. I cleared my head, and I resigned.
"I think I'm gonna "peace out"," is precisely what I said.
As soon as I did, I knew it was the right decision. My 'energies' were pissing him off anyway. But I learned a lot during that intense second month in London, including a bit of wisdom from my now former boss, and I am going to "imagine beyond my imagination" what to do next.
Right now, that involves an icy cold beer in a sunny backyard in North London.
This is what the air traffic-heavy sky looks like every day in London, whether you can see it through the clouds or not. Quite often I remember what it felt like to land in Heathrow for the first time, wondering what might be ahead. The love part's going well. The job part? I could use a little help.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
Don’t ask George for directions. Or, if you do, at least buy one of his papers – they’re only 50 pence.
George, more cockney than elderly, has been vending papers at the London Bridge Underground station for 50 years. And for just as long, he’s begrudgingly given directions to strangers who’d rather ask him than read the station map. Paper-selling is the only job he’s ever had. I know, because I spent a few hours with him, promoting The Evening Standard on one of his many days. Paid £13 per hour to harass unwitting commuters during the rush, it was my first job in London. I’m not looking to make a career of it.
I’d signed up as an on-call promotions person with The Network. All I had to do, according to the Gumtree ad, was speak English and have good hygiene. Sweet. Most other jobs require a three-month unpaid internship and degree qualifications that don’t translate into Canadian. Hygiene I’ve got covered. Still, I wondered what I might be getting into. The Network. To me, it rang of The Matrix. Or, something more Orwellian. The Network. As it turned out, David Lynch should buy shares.
When The Network called, I’d been in London for a month already, and I was desperate for human interaction. The city’s too large and disjointed, and its population too rushed to allow much in the way of casual encounters. All fun is pre-scheduled, plotted on Google Maps and timed with the Transport for London journey planner. Everything between my house and my destination is white noise – queues, buses, underground trains, and swarms of bone, blood and flesh churning to Point B.
Occasionally a high heel gets stuck in an escalator and a woman topples backwards, or a fight breaks out, police dogs sniff for drugs, and drunks sing football anthems. When I began to cherish these interruptions, I knew I was really, really bored.
Then I discovered The Network. Fully ready to take London’s eye contact-avoiding culture head on, the prospect of having legal permission to harass thousands of Londoners at one of the city’s busiest stations sounded positively dreamy. So I agreed. From 3:30 to 8:30 PM the next day, London Bridge would be mine. And George the paper seller would be kind enough to share it.
Determined to suck the marrow from the experience, I began drilling George about his half-century of selling papers as soon as I arrived. I had time to kill anyway, while I waited for further instructions.
“Who’d you kill to get this primo spot, George?” And with this, my first question, George became an instant, unwavering ally. He didn't deny killing off the competition, so that was the last time I brought it up.
My team leader, Jessa, greeted me by the pitch – that’s promo lingo for newsstand – and introduced me to my fellow promo-girl, which is apparently what I’d become. Jessa’s skin was orange, her nails acrylic and hair platinum – a poofy synthetic coating over a solid Pinochet centre. When it came time to decide who was to work at which pitch – the one inside where it was warm, or the one outside in the rain – George insisted on keeping me. Bless him.
After introducing me to the team supervisors – a pale, balding thirty-something and a heavy-set bearded lady – who’d oversee my performance, Jessa handed me my sash and steamrolled off to be orange somewhere else. I was now an Evening Standard princess, as the sash implied, and I was about to promote the paper with all the sardonic pomp of a working migrant.
“Go on,” said the bearded lady, gesturing toward the turnstiles where thousands of people would emerge from the Northern line beneath the station. “Tell them the Standard is half price today.”
My amusement gave way a little, to make room for humiliation. A mob of tailored suits began closing in on me and I knew, to get through the next five hours, I’d have to seriously self-entertain. So, I made fun of myself, and it went over big.
“The paper’s half-price today,” I’d call out, then pause before finishing with, “and I came all the way from Montreal, Canada to tell you that.”
Most people laughed, but some just looked sad for me. I told them they were allowed. Then I moved on to soliciting candies and drinks, because I’d been yelling in an Underground station for hours.
“My mouth is really dry,” I’d yell in my new-found promo voice. “For a donation of candies or drinks, I’ll let you have the paper for half price today.” They liked that one, but no one offered me anything. No one but George who, with the profits from three papers sold, bought me a bottle of water and gave me a ink-smudged thumbs up.
So, I started making eyes at people, going saccharine, “You know, the paper’s half price today.” Some were suckered in. A few stopped to chat, which was for the most part regrettable. One even asked for my number, but he’d never have aced my hygiene requirements. Most smiled despite themselves, and a few just looked terrified. Those ones I prodded with, “But I’ll give it to ya cheap,” thrusting my hips a little – just enough to not get fired. Anyway, I was talking about the Evening Standard.
When people started asking me for directions, I knew I’d been there too long.
“If I knew how to get around in London, I wouldn’t be promoting The Evening Standard,” I'd answered. They gave me a look that said, fair enough, and queued up to ask George instead. He didn't mind so much though, because that night, his sales were up.
Tuesday, April 07, 2009
You may be wondering, considering my last few posts, whether it was my neighbourhood, a double-decker bus, bubonic smog, Margaret Thatcher or my extremely intense new job that killed me – because clearly that's the only way I'd ever take so long to update.
But you should know me better. It was the partying.
Look! There I am in my backyard with great intentions to write. It's not my fault the lawn was so irresistibly horizontal after a night out with some quality, new friends in London. That's not really juice, by the way. It's the hair of an extremely vicious orange dog.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
While I applaud Carlo for bucking multiple conventions with his pink ice cream truck in North London, I do wonder whether – considering his target market – he's chosen the right catch phrase.
If Carlo is truly Venetian, and English is indeed his second language, I worry he's not aware of the other, more sordid pun in:
Often licked ~ Never beaten.What's more, I worry that he is.