Saturday, August 29, 2009

London calling

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

Evil within, more evil without

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

London and/or bust

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

Motivation from the trenches

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

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

London, in a nose-hole

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.