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.

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.

Summer days in Pleasantville (population: mowers)

Apologies for the unseasonal photograph; just imagine it’s marshmallows, not snow.

I grew up in a mansion. This is true.

My first house in conscious memory was a poky little box on an infamously cat-pulverising road, but I was only there for a couple of years before we moved to my official childhood home. And yes, it was the building above. To clarify, we didn’t live in the whole building – we lived in the largest segment of it, the bit denoted by the glowing front door and all the windows to the right of the black dormers. (To clarify further, the crouching figure in the doorway is my brother adjusting his salopettes, and don’t ask.) It was an ancient house with draughty halls and a real stuffed deer’s head hung in front of the main staircase which spanned the three floors. We had a five-acre garden, which had an enormous square lawn and pond and was surrounded by acres of mostly untended woodland, full of deer, rabbits and the occasional creepy stranger who would sneak onto the grounds and nose about the place. Our neighbours were mostly quivering geriatrics who used to largely leave my bother and myself alone in favour of bothering my poor father on a constant basis to ask him whether the gutters/windows/roof/boiler/plumbing needed cleaning/replacing/repairing; however there were a few kids our age around, mostly boys with whom we crashed about the place on our miniscooters and constructed complex settlements in the woods complete with a financial infrastructure and class system. 

As you can imagine, it was a dream location to spend your formative years. The old bricks were porous enough that in times of high wind the carpets would inflate until each room resembled a bouncy castle. The enormous staircases allowed for excellent flight practice, and the sofas we inherited with the house provided a fantastic landing pad after my mother had finally tired of their hideous ugliness and taken an axe to them, leaving us with the huge foam chunks from their padding. The eternal driveway was smooth and had the perfect gradient for one to soar down it on one’s miniscooter at a speed close to terrifying. It also meant that we got used to a lot of things: isolation, for one. The house was on a hill in the middle of nowhere; there was little traffic noise, wildlife roamed free in the fields surrounding us and the only bus to anywhere was infrequent, unreliable and manned by surly old men with mustaches and a vehement hatred of children. We got used to an environment of gentle but ever suspicious surveillance; the aged neighbours would watch us out of their windows or regard us with dismay from their gardens, which faced directly onto ours. My dad stopped coming home from work for his lunch hour because one ancient lady would watch all morning for his car to arrive, wait two minutes from him entering the front door and then, without fail, phone him to complain about the gutters and windows and roof and boiler and plumbing. This treasure of a woman was ironically named Joy.

We absolutely had to leave. Over time, our quaint old creaky castle seemed to become a crumbling, hostile crypt. The entertainingly draughty walls also meant that room temperature in winter was always perishingly cold; you could see your own breath and I used to wear my ski jacket indoors every day from November until March. The neighbours gradually wore my father down to a shred of a man. We weren’t allowed to build or change anything because the place was protected for historical posterity. While I was in Germany, trying to find a place to live, my family finally upped sticks and found a new place to live. 

The second house was similar, a smaller, boxy sort of terrapin quite literally in the middle of a working farm, complete with electric security gate. It was even more isolated than the last. We were eons away from everything and our windows looked out onto nothing but fields and garrulous-looking crows fighting with each other. There was an unused boathouse in the garden edging onto a stretch of river and a scrap of woodland inexplicably full of junk – we found a hammock, thousands of plant pots, bits of discarded metal, odd handfuls of some kind of shredded plastic wool that looked like afro clippings and hundreds of pieces of ugly and decaying flotsam. Again, we were surrounded by nothing but silence and birdsong and blood-sucking insects.

But now, finally, for the first time in my life, we are in the suburbs, and this is the longest stretch of time I have ever been living in this, our new house. It is brand new. It is one of lots of nice, appropriate houses facing onto an appropriately leafy and child-friendly street, appropriately close to a corner shop and a bus stop and a playground and a pub. It’s the kind of place where the vast majority of Brits spend their lives and yet to me it is utterly foreign. The novelties of suburban life are strange and charming, as if I were an ex-marine living with an indigenous tribe in the Bornean rainforest for a TV documentary.

For starters, the sheer noise rattles me like a cockatoo with people kicking its cage. Every morning I am woken up by the sound of a different but yet equally loud piece of heavy machinery; no one knows why one might want to take a chainsaw to one’s front hedge at 7.45am on a Tuesday, but it seems to be a popular hobby, when the street cleaners or bin men or Bastard Leafblower Man aren’t out with a vengeance just after sunrise. There are also a couple of anonymous testosteronis around who plough their ridiculously souped-up engines down the road just after breakfast, as well as the sweet and naive adolescents that loiter about in front of each others’ houses right outside my bedroom window shrieking tipsy nothings at each other. Living on a road also means roadworks, and they have been treating me to diggers and pneumatic drills every morning like the atrocious opposite of breakfast in bed. Once all that industrial hard labour is out of the way and the dawn chorus has been appropriately extinguished under the bellows of grinding machinery, the second phase of suburban living begins. Mowing. There is never a day, nor time of day, nor season of the year that does not require at least one person to be mowing their lawn at any one time. It is as if no-one in this area is at all employed, because the mowers’ burring can begin or end at any time from any of the neat gardens surrounding us regardless of whether that house contains a young family with children or a retired couple with a black labrador. 

Suburban living is also a very vulnerable state, it seems. You have to lock windows and doors quite frequently, I am told, when going out, because there are people called thieves that come in and nick your stuff. Because your house is so close to civilisation that people actually know it exists. As a reminder of that fact, the garden fills up with tennis balls, footballs and those holey golf balls tragically lost by neighbouring children. (Not knowing which garden they came from, I try to just evenly distribute the wealth by throwing a few back over each fence.) Because we are now surrounded by real people rather than scrubby wilderness, our vegetables are finally safe from deer and rabbits so that the deserving slugs can have a crack at erasing them all from the earth. The real-life Jehova’s Witnesses even came round once, which made me so happy I was unshakeable for the rest of the day, even though they did ask me if my mummy and daddy were in.

The main thing, however, which I love about these new surroundings is feeling a part of everything. Now finally joined on to our garden rather than separated from it by a long pathway, we can move from street to house to garden without thinking about it, like a glorious and peaceful human osmosis. There are people around enjoying themselves and making noise and walking their dogs, making you feel like you’re not some ostracised Boo Radley figure up in ‘that weird-lookin’ place up the hill’. I can cycle to the gym and back and thus escape that much-loved ironic remark that you leave your bike at home to drive to the gym where you ride the bike. I feel like I am a real member of the world now, and am overjoyed to find that not all convenience is a homogenous symptom of consumer culture but that it’s perfectly usual and harmless to enjoy the ease of taking your lunch onto the patio or walking to town. But goddamn, are the suburbs a loud place. Oh god, there goes another chainsaw.