Nobody move…don’t…even…breathe…this could collapse…at….any…time…

And just to add the cherry to the cake, on my way home I find a glorious example of German product naming. Just be sure to wear these when trimming your bush.

Wow, you guys. Like boy HOWDY. These last few days have honestly been an emotional rollercoaster (hand gesture).

I’ll be honest: my time in Edinburgh, as the first three days of my new job, couldn’t have been more doom-laden. I put on a happy face in my airport blog post, but frankly I was deeply morose, and it wasn’t just because my Kindle has finally bitten into the grass (that’s how you bite the dust in Germany). I was morose because I felt like I was looking into the mouth of a big, long tunnel, a tunnel I’d been in before and thought I’d never have to scrabble through again to get to the light.

Why do employers feel that the best way to ‘initiate’ their employees is to assign them some ‘buddies’ to ease them into the business? More pertinently, why do they always seem to choose the select few that are seethingly bitter and acidically cynical to fill that role? When I began my last job at the publishers’, I was told in the interview that I was to expect a varied and exciting role full of challenges and inspiring new projects to keep me interested and train me in new and eye-opening realms. I was then sent for tea with my buddies, who leered at me with wide grins, savouring their Schadenfreude as they told me what the job was really like: “Oh, you’re doing that project? HAHAHAHAH. Yes. I did the previous version of that. Hope you enjoyed the last few years of your life, because the next few are going to be doozies…”

Refreshed from a few idle months of unemployment (read: moving to a different country, moving flat twice, endless job applications, freelancing, fighting with German burocracy etc) and on this super-groovy business trip to Edinburgh, I was determined and enthusiastic that things were going to be different this time. This time I would have found something fulfilling and real, something where I would be useful and where ‘travelling’ referred to trips to different cities in Europe rather than hours spent loathing every chug of the train journey from Reading to Oxford. I arrived in Edinburgh, was shown to the company flat (a bedroom in an office) by a lovely Polish girl with cool hair, and collapsed in a fur-lined bed. Yes. This was the future.

I woke up and was picked up for breakfast by my initiation ‘buddy’ for this new job. She was a loud, slightly terrifying Spanish woman with a leather jacket and a voice like a Mariachi sergeant general. She marched me to breakfast, sat me down and began: “So. I’m supposed to tell ju some theengs about your boss and ze company now. Hm.” She glared into my eyes with pupils like the barrels of a gun and tipped four sachets of sugar into her coffee. Then she told me a list of things that sounded like hell on earth. People in her role in the company usually worked from early morning to late at night and at the weekend, she said. People gave their lives for this job. I should be ready to deal with my boss because he is a strong personality and sometimes you will need to be tough with him because he will be tough with ju. And you know Microsoft Excel? Be damn careful with the colours in spreadsheets. He has a thing about colours in spreadsheets. You change those colours, you a dead man, ece.

As I met more and more people, they revelled in sharing even more horror stories with the wide-eyed noob: “You know the CEO? One time he got so angry with an employee he shouted at him in the street and started unzipping his fly and….well…” “One time, I had to work for four weeks solid without a day off and then I got ill and then my boyfriend broke up with me and I had to move out of my flat on the same day and I couldn’t get a day off still but I’m fine now.” “I’m afraid I can’t meet you tomorrow morning because I have the 10am-1.30pm shift. And then I have the 2.30pm-11.30pm shift. But it’s ok because then I have to move to Denmark because my job has changed!”

I would say my heart sank, but by this point it had simply shrivelled to a raisin. How could this be true, that these brilliant people and this awesome-sounding job was so nightmarish? I pleaded with these guys to explain, and they chuckled and said, “Hey, don’t worry, we only tell these stories because it’s funny to tell them to you! We all do this because we love it and we want to be doing it! Honest!” At the time I narrowed my eyes and resigned myself to the agony that was to be the next few months of my life.

And then I came back from Edinburgh and spent my first real week on the job and realised exactly what these people meant. This really is an awesome thing to do and a brilliant clan of people to do it with. The office is full of incredible, diverse people, from a fluffy-haired Portuguese hipster to a lovable beardy Yorkshireman, all of whom are chattery and generous and overflowing with good humour. I share my part of the office with a fierce and erudite guy who looks exactly like Wolverine (yes, including the sideburns) and a hilarious accountant dude who makes the most tongue-drippingly delicious coffee in town. 

My two office mates have fun executive toys like a LEGO sculpture of the Brandenburg Gate and an enormous cricket bat which they like to swing around until they break something, usually a lamp. Unlike my old cardboard tinned-air cubicle, the office is a weird old flat in the middle of Berlin with red desks and big breezy windows. Inkeeping with German etiquette, there is an entire room in the office used to store all the bottles of fizzy water the employees require, in a variety of different fizziness-grades.

And the work feels useful and relevant because it is about making sure that people who break their backs at their jobs to go on holiday get to have a really great time when they get there, and that people who have moved to an exciting new city and want a cool and interesting job can get one and put their personality to good use for a change. I even went on one of our tours as part of my training and had a brilliant time learning about Berlin, admiring the handsome tourguide and basking in the glow of my first real moment of street cred chatting to a sweet pair of first-year Durham students: “OHmiGawd, you actually live here in Berlin? Omigod that is like, soooo cooowuhl…”

And my boss? The guy who, according to all TV shows and films ever, should be a ginormous bastard practising a moderate-to-high level of sexual harassment? My boss is actually a forgiving, understanding and fundamentally good bloke who has given me real work to do and answers my twenty-bajillion nervous questions with admirable patience. And forgives me when I am unable to understand all of his sports analogies.

And all of a sudden, amongst all this, I have started to accumulate things like ‘Social security’ and ‘a work phone’ and ‘expenses’. I have to pay ‘tax’ and ‘pension’. I have identification numbers and HR profiles. I am in the system. I am part of the rat-race and nothing more than a file in someone’s filing cabinet. GOD it feels good. 

Come on hubris, this can’t last for sure.

Not dead yet (well, perhaps brain dead…)

Beautiful when it’s on a flower. Hell when it’s soaking into your trousers.

I am the sole editor working on a digital publication which is due to go live in June next year. The amount of work that needs to be done between now and then is the work originally destined to be done by two people, one with far more experience than myself. One of the jobs is to sort and edit a list of vocabulary, adding in individual feedback options for specific correct and incorrect answers, totalling roughly 3,000 words. I work in an office, and I have my own cubicle. The result of all this being? Seven hours a day spent glaring at a computer screen. 

Words on a screen have started to decompose into oscillating lines in front of me now. I imagine them warping into surreal dancing figures like some weird 1960s cartoon set to experimental jazz. I have ceased ‘typing’ and have reached the stage where I just flagellate my fingers at the keyboard and whack the letters in like the actions of an octopus suffering a tremendous electric shock. Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts and Alt codes are wired into my tendons. I read newspapers by lifting the page upwards in quick bursts because I can only read now in the jerky up-and-downyness of a scroll button. I am a German editing machine.

This vocab editing is probably the most punishing part of the project so far. The vocab testing component of the publication is vital, mostly because the poor guys in digital spent many hours and cried many tears trying to programme a vocab-testing template that would actually work and take into account all the ridiculous vagaries words necessitate: did you realise how many synonyms there are for full-cream milk, all of which ought to be marked correct if typed in and therefore have to be programmed into the system so that students don’t get penalised for typing ‘whole milk’ when it’s clearly the same thing? Then there are accents, which are their own can of bloodthirsty tapeworms, because they are different for different languages and although it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money to programme the French ‘é’ into the German foreign characters pad we can’t not because ‘café’ is such an important word. 


The important thing is that we end up testing the students on all of the vocab included in at least one exam board core-level specification, because that is the best (least worst?) yardstick there is for finding a base level of the minimum number of words you might need to complete a GCSE in German to a basic degree of competency. The spec we used, Edexcel, is frankly shameful; there is an actual booklet that students are supposed to print out and learn by wrote, and the booklet makes it unequivocally clear that students will be expected to know all of these words to at least scrape a pass. The list has clearly been sellotaped together by a gang of gibbons with some scissors and a dictionary. It is rife with spelling mistakes, genuinely incorrect translations and genders, and a truly inexplicable choice of words (‘banana’ appears in the list no less than ten times, yet the students are never expected to learn the word ‘animal’). Thanks to this mountainous heap of bollocks on which an entire qualification has been based, I have had to meticulously scrape through this selection of thousands of words deleting repetitions, correcting errors, adding in ‘sich’ for reflexive verbs and other silly bits of housekeeping which take hours and make my retinas crumble into something resembling muesli. 

The tragic thing is that I discovered this booklet before I started. My lovely Mexican colleague, who is on Spanish, didn’t know there was an electronic version available, and typed every single word in the Spanish spec in by hand. When I then discovered that the booklet had been extended since her first collation and new essential words had been added, meaning that she would now have to look through the new booklet and check through her whole list to see what had to be added, she looked at me with such heartbreaking sorrow in her eyes that I felt like a war criminal. 

That’s the ‘core’ list. Then, to make the list extend to the kind of vocabulary higher-level students might aim for, I had to compile a list of more advanced words based on the course structure this digital product is built upon. It’s a slightly wild and left-field selection of ideas when you get to the higher-tier stuff in this course, so this means that higher students will be learning basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘youth hostel’ alongside ‘desertification’, ‘individualist’ and ‘ice-blading’, whatever the heck that last one is. It’s not really within my power to add the kind of words I would want to know into the selection, so sadly they will never learn ‘hedgehog’, ‘moustache’ or ‘unbelievable’. 

As I mentioned, each word needs to have the translation added for it and then potential synonyms so that students don’t get told they’re wrong for getting the gist but putting it in different words. This is difficult. There are thousands of ways to say ‘pleasant’, but since they all basically mean ‘pleasant’ if you’re struggling through an oral exam and you just want to say your holiday was nice, you deserve to get a mark for guessing any of them. My job is to look into the future and think of all the different words and variations people might guess. Then, of course, there are potential wrong answers. Thankfully the Company have deemed that it would be insane to have to enter in every single possible wrong answer the student could give, but we do have to have a couple of specific ones for the occasions when the student might have forgotten the right gender and need a useful hint to pop up that says ‘Hey dude. Did you really think that ‘waitress’ was a masculine noun?’ Unfortunately this means these possibilities must be typed in for every. single. noun. Every noun needs a feminine, masculine and neuter entry without a capital letter (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget that German nouns always start with a capital letter’) and the two incorrect gender entries (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget to choose the right gender’). It’s important though, because if you’re miserably ploughing through tons of dry vocab the least you deserve is a bit of feedback reminding you that you were on the right track but you just needed to think a little bit harder. It’s a shame that we can’t also account for morons who spell ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ the wrong way round and that kind of thing, but what do you guys want from me? I’m only one person!

Why am I bothering to spend so much time on this and do it so meticulously? Because I have studied German to the end of degree level and I can say without doubt that the majority of real German-learnin’ time gets spent rattling through vocabulary. It’s monotonous and it’s dry and the genders really get on your biscuit (one of my favourite German expressions). You have to do it for life. And in the end, you have to learn to enjoy it and love packing your mind with hundreds of useful words because grammar is the skeleton of a language and the words are the meaty, juicy bits that flesh it out to make a magnificent body. The more words you have, the more you ‘own’ the language; feeling eloquent is almost a form of power, because eloquence is the power to express what you want to say in exactly the right way so that people know not only what you want to say but how you want it to be heard. And when you’re being asked what you think about ‘drug taking among young people’ it’s great to be able to say what you mean, not just a key phrase about the dangers of parties.  

‘Nother day, ‘nother dollar…

Thank god they put up this sign; Cornmarket used to be crawling with people walking five or more dogs.

So, I’m now doing an official 9 to 5. Well, an 8.30 to 4.30, but that’s less catchy. I’ve told you about the 6 till 8.30 and 4.30 till 6 part, but what about the big long gap in the middle? What do you do, anonymous blogger? Make the tea? Do the photocopying? Sit at a desk idly making mobius strips out of bits of printer paper for seven hours?

In a way, sometimes, I wish. I thought that was what I had to look forward to; graduate entry-level jobs have a reputation for being a selection of the most menial, pointless tasks assembled into a day’s work which is then labelled a ‘scheme’ or ‘development programme’ or such like to make the poor graduate feel like they’re ‘making it in the real world’. I’ve done jobs like this before. I once worked briefly in an HR office where the real employees had so little to do that they were reluctant to give me anything for fear of fatal boredom, and where the most frequent task (which, give it its due, involved teamwork and problem solving) was to play Jenga with everyone else.

The first day started exactly as you might expect. I was ushered into an HR office where I was shown a number of videos promoting the company and featuring lots of floating graphics and words like ‘synergy’ and ‘innovation’ and ‘globalisatular feedback targeting’. Around me sat a bunch of glazed-eyed graduate interns who had already been there a week and seemed slightly peeved at having to be inducted a week after they had actually started. We then had the health-and-safety chat from a man who was identical to the man you imagine in your head when I say ‘health and safety man’, right down to the moustache. There was a shorter version of the planned tour because a great deal of the premises was being immersed in a deluge of rain, and then I was shown my desk and given my plan for the week. Then my boss and I found out that my email hadn’t been set up yet and neither had my company network ID and as such I was essentially useless for the rest of the day. And much of the week, as it was to turn out – apparently to make an employee log-in you literally have to grow a tree from seed, cut it down, and slice off a nice chunky log to make it out of.


The second day I was inducted into the project I would be working on. I am working on a computerised German learning system for kids at secondary school, a project which was done about two-thirds of the way before being abruptly abandoned for a French textbook (sssssssss….). Well, in actual fact, when I say I’m ‘working on it’, I gradually came to understand that I am in fact the only one working on it and am therefore sort of a bit in charge of the whole thing, as I like to tell myself. It is a vast sprawling LAGOON of a project, involving hundreds of tiny manuscripts which need multiple edits, many freelancers each of whom is only available in brief snippets of time, programming which is picky like a four-year-old girl and hundreds of floating loose ends still left untied since it was put on hiatus. Without a log-in or email access, I couldn’t do nice things like set up my profile and so I simply dove straight into editing the mini-uscripts on my second day and by the third day I was basically a full-blown and inducted editor; I even knew where to make tea.

Since then, The Project (as it shall from now on be called in the interests of anonymity and pathos) has grown and grown in volume like bread dough in the airing cupboard. Simple formatting issues demand that I check through all of the mini-uscripts I have just checked through all over again; freelancers have buggered off on holiday for what seems like an unreasonable amount of time; the second recruit who was going to come and share this project with me is now not coming any more, doubling my workload and meaning that when things go wrong there is nowhere to hide – they will hunt me down and they will make me pay. 

The complexity of a digital publication is so vast and swirling it is, like the universe, impossible to visualise or comprehend. Microscopic issues can cause such enormous trouble that typos have become a sweet little joke, an endearing smear of chocolate that you wipe off your child’s face while ignoring the fox excrement they have collected all over their clothes and hair. I spend my days debating pixels, ultra-laser-precise filenaming and something troubling called ‘metadata’. This is not publishing as we know it, this is something from space which has come down to teach your kids Deutsch. It’s almost a joy to see the moments where the traditional German teaching format I know and love so well has persisted: it is European law, apparently, that every language course for secondary school has topics on drugs (‘hey kids, don’t do drugs – Xavier says it’s bad for your health (vrai ou faux?)’), the environment (‘I never used to recycle, but then I read something in Encore Tricolore which blew my mind’) and healthy eating (tackling the obesity crisis with fill-in-the-blank passages).

But despite this verbose rant, I love having My Project. Despite its foibles, it is going to be a terrific tool – an incredible, co-operative, reflexive way for kids to learn a new language and for teachers to help them do their homework in a way that is as non-boring as possible. The Project kicks those crackly and broken cassette tapes out of the language lab and sets fire to crumpled bits of lined paper with vocab listed on them. Kids do need to be using computers to learn as they are going to be glued to them for the rest of their lives, and teachers need to help them do more of that, and they need help to make that happen without constantly asking the students to create more and more agonisingly garish powerpoint presentations about Hamburg or the U-Bahn.

And as The Project, it’s a hell of a thing to be doing as a fresh and squidgy graduate. This company trusts me to be clever and reliable, organised and efficient, multi-taskerrific and responsible like a veteran babysitter. I attend meetings and liaise things not like a trainee but like a real and valued worker who they believe can do a proper job of things. There is a lot to do, but there’s nothing more appetising than a loaded dinner plate, and it’s my job to get my teeth in. Let’s hope I can stomach it all the way to pudding.


What to expect when you’re not expecting anything whatsoever

“Hmm…the cards seem to be suggesting an internship with KPMG…”

Look, I know what you’re thinking. “Has she really just graduated, or has she been a crazy old craft-obsessed hermit this whole time and the student thing was just an elaborate front?”

I know you’re expecting blog entries about the graduate job scene, about applications and interviews and the looming sense of dread, but what would be the point? Between newspapers wailing about the dearth of graduate employment, job sites publishing lists of the top ten positions new graduates aren’t qualified for or skills new graduates are expected to have but don’t, and various relatives demanding to know why the situation is so thoroughly dire, I am sure there is not a single one of you who hasn’t had your fill of the entire doom-ridden shebang. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t; make a concerted effort to find something and all you meet with is reports of how impossibly, excruciatingly hard it is to get a job unless you are a forty-five-year-old trained accountant, take a breather while you figure out a strategy and you receive only admonishments for not getting into the game and spewing CVs out into the stratosphere like a huge, chundering lawn sprinkler. Good fun, right?


 
The most fun of the whole experience is, in fact, nothing to do with the progress and success of your job search whatsoever. The joy of the experience lies in how the minute you graduate your friends, family and acquaintances unexpectedly begin coming out with their personal suggestions for the careers they see you fitting into. All of a sudden you are evaluated and receive a momentary insight into the ways the people you know see you and have always considered you, interpreted into a job description. Everyone has their own suggestion and each suggestion is tellingly revealing about both you and the person suggesting it, and it is endlessly fascinating to hear what people have to say.

My mother has been the most diverse contributor, having variously suggested that I go to catering school, become a journalist, work in broadcasting, get into politics, write novels, study horticulture or make and sell my own pickled produce online. My father seems fairly indifferent to the direction I take just as long as it is NOT TEACHING, for that would be ‘too easy’ to get into and a daughter of his ought to be aiming at something far more likely to lead to high blood pressure and a stroke in early middle age. My brother generally agrees with this view with the one caveat that I also ought to aim for something which will, as the saying goes, help me towards the goal of ‘rolling in the benjamins’.

I have been told by media people that I would make the most of my life by going into a career in graphic design, something which I have never studied or even remotely considered but for which I am apparently suited because I can pronounce ‘Adobe’ properly and know what a vector is. I am told that I should follow my dreams and do something in Berlin, although the precise nature of that ‘something’ is rarely explained so I assume they  are referring to wandering about Görlitzer Park drinking Club Mate and accumulating piercings. Others suggest that I write for a living but I can’t afford the drinking problem right now. Many people think that I would be ideal as a food critic because of my love of cooking, but I have enough trouble keeping my pot belly under control without being contractually obliged to eat fried foie gras with black pudding jus. A careers website stated that I should be a ‘counsellor’, but of what and why it was unwilling to reveal. Press, marketing, branding, stand-up comedy, youth work, teaching, translation, PR, professional silversmithing…I appear to be suited for so many different positions that I ought to simply advertise myself as an executive bob-a-jobber.

The difficulty in dealing with all these suggestions is firstly knowing how to respond: for the suggestions that are clearly miles wide of the mark it requires enough energy simply to not choke on my tea in stunned outrage, while many hit tender areas of beloved and wistful dreaming that unfortunately I have to abandon out of a crazy hope to one day earn enough to pay rent and see a film from time to time. Secondly, any time spent with people who have been working for a decent length of time just goes to show that the whole idea of ‘aiming for a career’ is entirely moot. You will rarely find anyone who aimed for a certain job and have spent their lives doggedly and appropriately marching their way up the ranks to become the person who does the thing they wanted to do and then the person in charge of the people who do the thing they wanted to do. Mostly, people’s career anecdotes are sheer, unadulterated serendipity. I met a journalist who writes for one of Northern Ireland’s most popular papers having started his path with a casual letter of complaint to the editorial staff of said publication. The boss of Keo, an excellent factual TV production company, didn’t study anything that even rhymes with ‘television production’, let alone qualifies a person to be one of the main players in the industry. The people who are doing what they love and what they are suited for are almost always there by accident or coincedence, having met someone in a bar once or left their CV on a train or tripped and fell into the lap of a secretary at some huge conglomerate somewhere. It seems that if you want to do what you love, you almost have to wait for it to come to you, and only when it comes to you will you know what it is that you love to do in the first place. 

In the meantime, I have decided that the best strategy for the time being is to aim not for a career that will satisfy your aspirational hunger and quell the yearnings deep inside, but to keep it simple and humble and aim for the mere nuances of a thing that will mean you doing something vaguely difficult for money. I have pinpointed that I want a position, for the moment, where I will be busy and find the work hard and see a value in what I am doing and not be using too much unbearable business jargon. I’ll aim for things where I think that will be the case and where I know I won’t want to slit my jugular with the office stapler. Maybe I will love it and climb the ladder (to da stars, babe) or maybe I will serendipitously end up becoming famous as the new Charlie Brooker after my blog accidentally gets published on the Financial Times website due to a coding error. And in the end I’m not worried, because I always have my pickled gherkin business to fall back on. 


My next entry will indeed be about pickled gherkins.