Best Prenz Forever

In Prenzlauer Berg, graffiti artists simply tag buildings with helpful signs and directions.

When I used to work in Oxford, I sat all day in a cardboard cubicle lined with school-blue artificial felt, pounding at an old Dell keyboard that appeared to contain several primordial stages of life developing between the keys. At lunchtime I would shove my tupperware into my bag and march outside as quickly as I could possibly move, simply to get out and away from that stuffy little enclosure. 

Sadly, there wasn’t much to escape to outside the office. A grey, long and dull walk alongside some uninterestingly pristine hockey pitches, a wander around the edge of a park so waterlogged that you had to wade through the middle of it, and finally a bench overlooking some dying border flowers or, if you had time, a more distant bench where you could observe a depressed duck in the pond.

I’m now fortunate enough to be working in Prenzlauer Berg, or Prezzy B as the cool kids call it. I used to live in the district but that was during a long and very oppressive, so it’s rather a privilege to come back to it and experience it in the midst of its lazy summer glory. The office barely looks like an office but is inside an old and kooky Wohnblock with an enormous winding staircase that is very Hogwarts indeed. I sit in a comfy, airy room with two hilarious and generally excellent people and the soothing sounds of intensive building work drifting through the window. And the best part is that at lunch I can go for a curious little mosey around the streets of Prezzy B.

A lot of people rag on P-Berg because it’s like totally ‘gentrified’, which essentially means that they’re annoyed because it’s not ‘gritty’ (i.e. violent and falling down) anymore and instead has been filled with lots of nice cafes and organic delis. Gentrified or not, the district has simply developed into an insane patchwork of people and ideas, and because it’s all a bit posh these days everything is just a bit…well, nice. Even the bloke who runs the local Späti is a pleasant and bright-eyed young gentleman with a polite, intelligent air and a crisp clean poloshirt. 

But I did say it was insane for a reason. There are just so many shops around the place, and if you can dream it you can buy it in Prenzlauer Berg. In our little nook around the office we have some great specimens, including a gay clothes shop, a shop specifically selling ‘world musical instruments’ (I don’t think they stock vuvuzelas, however) and another shop which I was going to photograph because of the cool multicoloured plush ostrich standing by the entrance until I realised that the ostrich’s neck and head were actually an enormous rainbow fake fur penis. There is a shop that sells organic fabric – no, I don’t know why – and another that sells food portioned into exact quantities (half a lemon, three teaspoons of paprika, a little vial of soy sauce) for people who want to cook and don’t want to have a single TRACE of leftover ingredients. Near the office is also something which frankly took my breath away: a bad bakery. I have bought bread rolls there three times now, hoping that their family-run, hand-made-from-scratch promise would one day give me what I’m hoping for, but alas. I asked for a pumpkin seed roll and they handed me something so flat I thought it was a large cookie.

In between all the shops are more restaurants than you could ever hope to split the bill in. One of my favourites is ‘Links vom Fischladen’, a micro-oasis of incredible seafood in the middle of a city whose main dietary seafood intake is in the form of small salty fish-shaped crackers. There’s the usual obligatory slew of ‘Asian’ places all selling identical and cheap ‘crispy’ types of poultry, but there are also some truly spectacular ‘Asian’ places such as Mr Ho, who does Vietnamese food so fresh and aromatic you almost forget to make jokes about the unfortunate name of the place (almost). On the way up to the beautiful graveyard where I sit to eat my lunch, I wander along Pappelallee, a gorgeous little street which has several – sigh – macaron and cupcakey places, but also a curious pasta restaurant that advertises ‘Nudelkunst’; literally ‘noodle art’, although I suspect this sadly does not mean they will swirl your spaghetti into a representation of Cézanne’s Les Grandes Baigneuses. Slightly further up, on Kollwitzplatz, you will find Lafil and the most delicious Spanish brunch imaginable; there’s fresh tortilla, crab gazpacho, chargrilled vegetables, tiny vanilla-y bowtie pastries and a big tureen of homemade waffle batter so you can make your own fresh waffles to order. 

And the last real trademark of Prezzl Bezzl is the children. It is a district which students once settled into and made it cool, but have since then got married and had their first kid on a very comfortable income thank you. There are children swarming around the place left right and center, and so many prams you’d think the babies ought to start a car-pool. This makes things fun, for sure. I watched a man today speedily wheel his pram along the pavement and accidentally drive it with full power directly into a large concrete bollard, then I enjoyed his deserved anguish as the baby inside erupted with indignant rage.    

The mix of it all gives the district a really distinct atmosphere, one that is hard to pin down; if pressed to summarise it I would simply describe it as ‘contented’. No-one in Prenzlauer Berg seems stressed or upset or dysfunctional; the kids keep it a safe district and the shops and restaurants keep it endlessly interesting. And the people simply seem utterly relaxed. Each person in his own little cloud of satisfied peace, wandering up and down Schönhauser Allee.

In the graveyard today, there were lots of people sitting around on the soft green grass, writing and drawing and reading for no reason other than pleasure or idle fiddling. An old couple sat beside me, and the man took two books and two juice boxes out of his rucksack. He gave one book and one juice box to his wife, and then they just sat in the sun and read and sipped. I gave them a big grin, closed my tupperware, and headed off back to work.

Like this? Got something to say? Get in touch: ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com
 

Amsterdam: come for the sex and drugs, stay for the hamburger vending machines

“Ooh seeds, how nice, I’ve been meaning to get some more nasturtiums OH.”

 I am a ‘do stuff’ assistant rather than a ‘look pretty and take notes, doll’ assistant, and as the ‘do stuff’ assistant for a tourism company, this is going to involve a lot of business trips. The phrase ‘business trips’ alone conjures up elegant, luxurious images of people in fine tailored suits, sipping champagne in a quiet plane cabin, soaking in a broad sea of extra legroom. Unfortunately, as the economy is dying and midday champagne is the first step towards alcoholism, ‘business trips’ more often involve an early and cramped EasyJet flight with the added bonus of carrying a wadge of company papers, company laptops and expenses receipts in your minute executive rolly-bag. But I don’t care; something about going on a business trip makes you feel like a celebrity and this week, that cramped EasyJet helltube took me all the way to Amsterdam.

The reasons why I had to go to Amsterdam were sketchy at best. At first, I was to be visiting the Amsterdam office to attend a very important meeting. As soon as I had booked my flights, we established that the very important meeting was in fact taking place the day after my return to Berlin. As soon as I had rebooked my flights and had several arguments with EasyJet, we established that the meeting was in fact cancelled. By that point my boss, a man who makes decisions with the delirious immediacy of a drunken pirate, decided that we would both go to Amsterdam anyway because. So it was essentially a business trip for me to work at a slightly different desk (in actual fact the make of desk was identical but it was at a slightly different angle) for a couple of days.

Once my boss arrived to join me on the first day, everything got going. He marched me out of the flat and stomped all the way to the Apple store with me sprinting feebly behind (my boss is a muscly, striding, crush-a-beer-can-in-his-hand kind of guy), forged towards the counter and demanded that the man bring us a Macbook Air immediately and give us a corporate discount. The laid-back Apple guy was too cool for school and drawled his way through the sale with my boss flinging credit cards at him and abruptly answering urgent phone calls every three seconds. As soon as I was appropriately confused, the boss turned to me and told me to bring him a new iPhone case that was ‘good and manly’. Thus it was that I spent my first afternoon in Amsterdam looking at phone cases wondering which ones were most evocative of testicles and lumberjacks.

Once work was over, I had a chance to see the city in a less frenzied manner. My boss had decided that we were going to go on the ‘Red Light District tour’ together (please, no-one even try to interpret that decision, it is taking me all my energy not to personally) but a sudden crisis happened at clocking-off time, so I got to go all by myself. My regional manager helped me to find the meeting point by instructing me to wait by the monument that looked like a ‘giant white penis’. It was a fitting introduction to the city.

People come to Amsterdam for the sex and the drugs. But wandering through the streets, it was less like a raunchy night of hedonistic urban pleasures and more like a beautiful Monet painting that someone had dumped in a phone booth. The city itself is stunningly beautiful; the buildings are charmingly Seuss-like and lean slightly sideways and forwards all over the place so you feel slightly woozy. Canals ooze between all of the streets and are lines with trees, hanging baskets, chic bistros… And slotted in amongst all this, like pieces of litter in a manicured flowerbed, there are hundred of strip bars, peep shows, sexy-fun-time-‘toy’-shops – and, of course, the infamous booths. Prostitution is allowed in Amsterdam but not on the streets, which is why those lovable prostitutes set themselves up in tiny windowed cabinets facing onto the street so they can gyrate and flirt at passers-by until one of them takes an interest and steps inside so the curtain can be drawn. 

It would actually have been more interesting if the prostitutes actually had gyrated and flirted, however. I was prepared for shocks and lascivious smut on this tour, but the last thing I had expected was quite how seedy and dull it was all going to be. The whores looked pissed off and bored, loitering about in their windows while occasionally scratching their armpits or having a packet of crisps. The peep shows and strip bars were crass demonstrations of nudity rather than thrilling spectacles; apparently there isn’t a single burlesque-style show in town, and the most popular shows involve you simply sitting in cinema seating while a couple of bored people shag each other for a bit or shove bananas up their wiff-waffs for no good reason. Even the few fellow Brits on my tour – a group of four unspeakably white boys with acne, buck-teeth and T-shirts with dragon motifs – couldn’t even muster the energy to give an adenoidal chuckle after a while. Those poor boys came to Amster hoping for the erotic time of their lives, but they were so disappointed I almost felt sorry for the sad little goons.

The sex scene in Amsterdam is like a vending machine. It’s nothing to do with the thrills and the taboos and the lick-your-lips juicyness we hope it will be. It’s just a market, a group of traders carrying out basic transactions: here is a naked lady, would you like to view the range of tarifs or simply pay for a one-off basic option? I began to feel that a lot of Amsterdam is much the same, after a while. The food is deep-fried, portioned up and handed out with no real intent of enjoyment; yes, there really is a chain of ‘restaurants’ that simply have vending machines with burgers inside.

The pot isn’t smoked in a louche, bohemian manner but is ubiquitously tacky, with those awful marajuana-leaf icons everywhere as if we were all fourteen again and thought this was a marvelously risqué, naughty thing to contemplate. Little pockets of the city reek of weed, which itself smells like burnt llama hair and is deeply nauseating.

And this all made me sad, because the time I spent in between the Red Light streets and the chip shops, when I would stumble upon the beautiful streets and historical corners, showed me Amsterdam as a real human city which is worth spending time in. It’s a fascinating place, with masses to do and see and so much character and good GOD such excellent cheese. But I sympathise with the locals, who are sick of being associated with nothing but sex and drugs. Amsterdam has nothing to do with sex and drugs, after all. Sex and drugs are naughty and exciting. Amsterdam’s legend is nothing more than a pervert’s fart. Amsterdam’s brilliance is every single thing that lies in between.

Next week, Barcelona! And don’t forget to keep commenting and emailing the new site email address, ampelfrau[at]gutenmorgenberlin.com with your ideas and questions!

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.


Click ‘OK’ to restart your commuter

There is a sign on the vending machine on the left which says: “THE CHOCOLATE HAS MELTED. YOU ARE ADVISED NOT TO BUY.”

Working in Berlin, I became a dynamite commuter. I worked in at least two different schools or Kindergärten per day, and they were perfectly geographically arranged to be at least an hour if not two away from each other. I learnt – after many long, hard days of getting it wrong – how to get the right trains and buses at the right time and in the right directions, which stretches were actually quicker on foot, which trams never came on time and which lines would always feature the maximum ratio of on-the-edge-of-sanity people to normal people. I thought, at the end of my year abroad, that my days of travelling for hours to earn my daily bread were over. How wrong I was.

So yes, readers, I apologise once again for the huge gap between this and my last post, which is a direct result of me having started my new job. Living at home and commuting into Oxford every day seemed like it would be such a doddle; Google maps cheerfully told me that the bus journey from the station to my office would take a scant 25 minutes even including the walks between stops, and the train journey itself is a relatively painless affair. I invested in a month-long bus pass and readied myself for being one of those people, salt of the earth, who willingly brave the public transport every day to get to work. 

But commuting in England is a very different kettle of very frustrating fish compared to commuting in Berlin. In Berlin every line runs smoothly and like a large, symbiotic lifeform; the lines link up nicely, the tickets work on every single mode of transport and the coffee being sold on the train platforms is generally OK enough to drink and enjoy for a mere euro per cup. In the UK, such an idea would be seen as a naive utopic dreamland to us bitter, British commuters. The trains stutter to and fro like elderly people driving golf carts, their arrival time on the electronic board simply an estimate of some time in the hypothetical future when a train may or may not be present for a hypothetical person’s needs. The tickets cost as much as a rare white truffle and even then are received by the ticket collectors with furious suspicion, as if you were handing them a Cafe Nero loyalty card with two stamps and a bit of old gum on it. And the coffee? Knowing that you are compelled to buy yourself something warming and dark at a cold 7am in the morning they charge £2.50 for a cup of lukewarm woodchip water. And the buses. Oh the buses.

The bus on my bus pass is like communism: heavenly in theory, impossible in practice. This is a bus which only has roughly 2 miles to travel along a completely straight road and is part of a group of buses each of which follow the same route and collectively depart every three minutes. It sounds like a foolproof, solid-gold system. What actually happens in reality is that this ‘every three minutes’ idea transforms into four of the same bus arriving at the same stop simultaneously, at which point thirty people all begin to board the same one. The other three become redundant as they neither have any passengers nor could leave if they did accrue passengers because they are stuck behind the first one which is currently being mounted by a shuddering old lady carrying a lot of empty plastic bags and a teacozy. Finally, ten minutes after the bus was actually timed to depart, it powers up and leaves only to stop seconds later at the first of about fifteen red traffic lights along this straight and short road. The lights go green, so some Italian tourists decide to saunter casually across the road at this moment to grab a cornish pasty. At the first bus stop, the driver has a long and cheerful chat with the old lady while she makes her slow way out of the bus. A schoolchild has a question which he begrudgingly and slowly answers. In Summertown (half-way there) people daringly run-walk in front of the bus out of sheer desperation to get to the Co-op having waited at the pedestrian crossing for an hour already. At the next stop, someone alights simply to ask if they have the right bus or not and if not, what is the meaning of life? I have arrived at Oxford train station at 8.10am. I get to work at 9am. I could have got to work quicker on a child’s tricycle. 

So now I am an even more hardcore brand of commuter: a bike commuter. I am among the leagues of stringy businessmen wearing high-vis everything and bike helmets that look like a robot shark from the future. I am among those intense commuters who have invested thousands in their carbon-fibre-framed-folding-bikes and bike-to-business converting trousers. These are the scariest commuters of them all; they are unspeakably dedicated, slick and efficient, coated in neon yellow and swiftly lifting their bike from train to train like a basket of feathers. I seem to have joined this sect without reading the pamphlets first, as their looks tell me that I am certainly doing it all wrong. I am the only bike commuter among them who is a short becardiganed girl feebly hoisting my second-hand old mountainbike with the wicker basket held on with string and a beer bottle opener on the lock key. They glare at my ginormous and cumbersome bike shunted between their beautiful slim vehicles which they have expertly hung from the bike hooks on the train (mine does not hang; it is too heavy and too small. If anything, my bike squats).I suspect they imagine I am on my way to visit my grandma or doing my year 10 work experience. 

I then hoick my bike off the train and drill my thunderous thighs up those hills to the office, and arrive half an hour earlier than I ever would using a thing with an engine. On the way home I get to go downhill and go ‘weeeeeeee’ all the way to the station. My coat often gets chewed up into my gears, I cycle into puddles with such ferocity that the water goes right up my skirt onto my knickers, my hair billows into an angry scribble and I arrive home with my hands covered in mud and oil. Good god, I love it.

Tune in next time for some stuff about what my actual job is actually like!

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.

Chapter 4: The Dark Ages

Thank you The Guardian, for once again representing students in a fair and accepting light.

Apologies for the brief hiatus, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for your patience. Where have I been, you may well ask. But the question that might be more pertinent is: where have I not been? The answer: university.

It’s over, people. I am no longer a student. The discounts stop here, no more trips to the library or arbitrary essays or poncy formal dinners from now on. From now on, we are adults, now doomed with nothing to looked forward to but the ever increasing woes of taxes, ageing and petrol prices. Unless of course you have chosen to do a masters or postgraduate course of some sort, in which case go back to bed and sleep peacefully knowing how lucky you are that you are still on board the student gravy train.

Or so everyone will tell you. Graduating is a horrifying, morbid prospect nowadays. Whereas once you might peacefully lope back home, spend a few months squelching about the house wondering what you were going to do to earn your bread and placidly absorbing the light naggings of your parents, these days the new graduate is immediately plunged into the black abyss of abject terror that is Being A Graduate. The breath-taking fear that you will never find a job wraps itself around your neck like a boa constrictor as you read article after article lamenting that 90% of graduates never find a job, or end up working at Asda for the rest of their lives, or are simply laughed out of every job interview they ever have simply for having been stupid enough to think a university degree might get them as far as some schmoe with plenty of experience who’s been working since he was 16. The gentle nagging of parents has been replaced with franting bleating, urging you to start applying for things immediately and take any work experience you can get, whether paid, unpaid, menial or requiring huge chunks of the day shovelling excrement out of a middle eastern dungeon. Newspapers fling up their hands in desperation at the state of our Young Adults, who have been mollycoddled by ‘soft’ degrees and student loans and are now not fit for a job in the real world. 


Graduates themselves absorb all this with passive, worried cooperation, simply because we have nothing else to go on other than what we are being told by these factions. We frenziedly apply to graduate schemes, most of which promise a pittance of a salary for you to end up in some job called Accounts System Human Resources Coordination Overseas Consultant (i.e. professional email forwarder). Companies offering these schemes, aware that these jobs appear like glistening gold nuggets held in their pudgy fists, demand that graduates complete a four-step application process including two online questionnaires and aptitude tests, a 2000-word essay on your suitability for the role, an interview held in either London, Glasgow or Helsinki (applicants will be informed of the interview location two days before interview) and finally a submission of a felt effigy of the Hindu god you feel best evokes your positive qualities. We freak out and worry that our CVs are poor, and do anything to accumulate experience. We start blogs under the delusion that they will be a worthwhile arrow in our quiver (cough cough). Ever day spent at home simply enjoying yourself or remembering that you actually quite like your parents and/or your cats is tinged with the guilt that you are not at that moment on a train to The City to be interviewed for something. Even living at home for longer than the couple of weeks it takes to sort out a placement is seen as somehow pathetic – as if your graduating changes your living at home from being the standard state for young unmarried people into the type of ‘living with your parents’ which becomes the immediate No factor on dating websites for the over 40s. Any recent graduate who reads this article will find themselves whooping with joy that at least one public voice has recognised this and is happy to affirm how preposterous it all is.

Graduating isn’t a sudden plunge into adulthood. It isn’t the end of hope, dreams and fun. To begin with, we should take time at home or abroad to think things through, partly because we ought to have a chance to relish a few weeks without any deadlines or tutorials whatsoever, and partly because these are life decisions that shouldn’t be made in panicked haste. We should recognise that it is a prudent and normal decision to live at home for as long as necessary because rents in the UK are organ-thievingly high and there isn’t the lovely flat-share culture you find in places like Germany. And if we want a job, we should be allowed to feel confident about the fact that for the time being, any job is good enough, whether it’s a low-level lackey job or a part-time thing on a shop floor. Earn money, gain experience, meet new colleagues, great. Just don’t do it out of the fear and illusion that it’s the only chance you have from now until your final breath to break into the industry of your dreams – the course of life is endlessly and astonishingly forgiving, flexible, and it goes without saying that there are no absolute final chances.

And cheer up, noble graduates! There may be some who are doing masters because they want to stay in the student lifestyle, but the adult lifestyle is so much better and so much richer! Yes, you have to pay taxes, but you are still left over with a bit of income which is all yours, and the satisfaction of that is thrilling in itself. Yes, you have more responsibilities, but there is a total pleasure in finally being in charge of your own things and having to clean your own loo and find your own dentist because you are now mature and tough enough to be trusted with such things. Life is better because it is less easy: people are not parcelled out in societies and corridors but rather you have to find your own people whose company you can tolerate, and for that you develop a smaller but much more pleasurable group of friends; you don’t have essays and worksheets to fiddle with so you have to find new and more interesting hobbies to fill up any formless stretches of time you might have; even losing the student discount is nice, in a way, because it means you are now finally recognised as a real and respected member of society rather than a poor yet gullible well of profit who needs the incentive of a saved pound fifty to be goaded to spent nine pounds anyway.

Because in the end, and this may sound sad, all I can think of is the things that I won’t miss about being a student. I won’t miss never being taken seriously, and the assumptions that if it’s 2pm you’ve probably only just woken up from your drunken stupor. I won’t miss relatives assuming that I’m waking up in strange beds and subsisting entirely on Pot Noodle. I won’t miss nebulous work that expands or contracts to fill whatever time you might have to do it in and nonetheless is expected to be of the same exemplary quality every single time. Look at the photo at the top of this post again. The way that the ‘student voice’ is evoked by a photo of three drunk idiots dressed as zombies. That is why graduation is wonderful: university is one big coming-of-age ceremony, the western version of having to spend a day hunting in the rainforest having taken a poisonous drug extracted from vine toads, and only after you come out of it do people finally treat you like a man. We hope. 

Congratulations! Your life now no longer has meaning!

Hey dude, sup. Just chilling. Word.

So, I did it. I sat a full degree’s worth of final exams and they are now completely behind me, never again to be touched until the examiners get their mitts on them. I revised for about 11 weeks, got through three books of lined paper, developed a variety of stress-related illnesses and wrote a blog entry about cheese graters. It was like wading through a swimming pool of congealing cold porridge, desperately trying to reach the sympathetic-looking lifeguard beckoning from the other side of the pool; and when you finally do get to him, you realise it was just a high-visibility vest propped up on a broom. The problem is that Oxford was always perfect for me in one way, in that I have to be busy and partially under stress at all times in order for me to really do or be anything worthwhile, and four years of marching about producing essays and library-hopping and running societies was the ideal habitat for a busy-body like this. Revision and exams was just a slight elevation of this, really. Then there is a sudden and almost surprising spurt of exhausting activity which really does feel like a spontaneous purgation of built-up mental fluid, and then all of a sudden, you’re on your own. You can relax!!


Except: what does that mean? For a start, it means gazing watery-eyed around my room regarding the sheer casualty of living that developed while I was glaring at irregular verbs. There are sacks of laundry, dirty and clean, everywhere; piles of mugs in every corner; incongruous things in all kinds of incongruous places (hiking boots in the recycling bin, mp3 player in a slipper, gloves in my bed); folders and notebooks smeared all over the floor and desk like the residue of autumn leaves that cover the street. My supplies-cupboard (which I like to call ‘the pantry’) used to contain most of my food and ‘supplies’ but now has been reduced to some Ryvitas, half a jar of pickles and thousands of dark chocolate Tunnocks teacakes which my mother brings me every time she comes to visit once a fortnight. My right eye is a large throbbing growth which arrived the day before my last exam and apparently is going to hang around for a few more days to soak up the atmosphere before it leaves me alone and returns me back to looking like a real human being and not half of Admiral Ackbar. Needless to say, some things need sorting out here before we can properly move on.


Then I suppose I’ll just be doing everything I’ve wanted to do for the past two months and haven’t been able to. I’m going to go to the garden and dig some things, go to the shops and buy more than just milk, maybe even find the time to treat myself to a trip to the doctors to deflate my eye. Go punting and visit the botanical gardens. Make some jewellery and paint my toenails. Collect some stories for you lot.

And beyond that, what? Are we adults now? Was that the poison-arrow-frog initiation test? You’d think it was from the way you emerge from the final one: blinking in the sunlight and hand still aching, you find a thronging crowd outside the exam building held back by riot gates, poised with tubes and bags of silly string and confetti and gooey things and powdery things and stainy things all waiting for their own one friend to come out so they can smother them with the stinking, crusty coating of ‘trashing’ ingredients that is their own way of saying ‘We love and admire you for your bravery’. The medics finished with me and of course got the royal treatment, which I can only imagine was the precursor to sheer apocalyptic hedonism because we all know what medics are like. I got flower garlands and one made of lined paper because I’m a classy gal and because we were once sent a very threatening email from our college warning us not to use food products for trashing because it’s offensive to homeless people who might look on in jealous peckishness (“I’d give anything for a raw egg mixed with cocoa powder right now…rich bastards…”). The weather is blistering, the day is young and there’s still one more box on the exam schedule that needs crossing out with a big red pen. I’ll catch you all later, bunnies.

I wonder if revision is detrimental to the kidneys…

Cup of tea no. 134. Of this day.

Writing a blog entry after an exam? Wow, now that’s a professional. That’s a real writer. That’s a blogger we want to employ for our television and soup making business, they’ll say.

Or maybe not. Either which way, if you deciphered the slightly cryptic previous post, the reason for my absence was the down to my exams FINALLY starting. Thanks to the preposterous system this university insists on keeping going from the early middle ages, my (and most other people’s) final year exams make up the entirety of their degree grade for the entirety of their course. Four whole years worth of reading and typing and scrawling and lecture-sleeping and small-child-humouring have gone towards these few precious hours in which I get to prove that I’m not a true moron, after all. The system is so amazingly wrong that I am going to have to explain it to all of you who are not aware of what happens here when the final exams begin for the first time to flicker their shadows over the distant horizon.

Ok, so first things first. We’re doing our final year at Oxford. That means that from the very start of term we’re going to have to endure a lot of ominous and frankly unnecessary warnings from our professors that we simply have no time to lose at this point. This, of course, is patently a lie as these professors are the people who are going to spend the next few months wasting our time with vigour and aplomb. We’re also going to have to contend with the fact that us fourth-years have just been on a year abroad and now are going to have to have a quick read over everything we studied almost two years ago – oh yeah, and then sit entire papers on it. We’ve got to do a break-neck dash through a few new topics, spend two eight-week semesters lurching from essay to pub, and then finally get down to revision in the Easter holidays when everything is finally starting to not be cold, grey and just so damp all of the time. 

Then we have to get our Fusc and Sub Fusc sorted. Sub Fusc is our exam uniform: a white shirt, black skirt/trousers and black shoes with a black ribbon tied around the neck for the girls and a white bow-tie for the boys. Oh, and why is it called Sub Fusc? Because it goes ‘sub’ (under – come on!) the ‘Fusc’, the big, black, flappy, pointless gown that undergrads have to wear to add the misshapen cherry to the clumsy-looking cake. If you did ok in your first year exams you get a funny square sleeveless gown with long straight strands hanging down from the shoulders which sort of makes you look a bit like you’re wearing a broken set of window blinds. If you managed to get good grades in your first year exams you have the privilege of shelling out almost fifty quid for a big billowy gown with sleeves which is a cross between the lovely drapey things they wear in Harry Potter and the enormous decomposing carcass of a bat. It is important to note here that the first year exams count towards absolutely nothing beyond the question of whether or not you will be allowed a gown with sleeves. You will also need a mortar board, which you will have to carry around like a clipboard but YOU MAY UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES PUT IT ON. We joke, but there are actual monetary fines in place for the wearing of your mortarboard before you have graduated. I have never even let my mortarboard anywhere near my scalp because of the sheer taboo of it, as if simply putting it on on my own in a locked room would nonetheless incur some kind of destructive karmic revenge. 


Next, it’s time to throw away all of the lecture notes you ever made, because unlike most universities where lecture series are given depending on what might be of most use and interest to the students according to what they are studying, the lectures given here are more a selection of unrelated and strange themes brought to you by the few members of the English Faculty who are devoted, chatty or in-trouble-with-the-faculty enough to feel the urge to get off their arse and actually do a lecture series. Every term reading the lecture list is like being offered a chocolate from a 4/5ths empty box of Celebrations: “Oh…umm, aren’t there any Maltesers ones even? Ok, thanks I suppose I’ll have a Seventeeth Century Fungus Ballads on Stage and Screen if that’s all there is…” 


And now you will work, and once you’ve finished working you will work some more because this is the one chance you get to use all of that knowledge and reading you accumulated over this brief but intense period of scholarly dilettantism. Friends of yours will look at you with sad and sympathetic eyes as you shuffle mournfully into the kitchen to microwave your seventeenth cup of tea, you will perhaps stop shaving your legs and you will spend your children’s inheritance on coloured stationery items in the dogged belief that the more rainbow fineliners you have the higher your mark will be. And then things will begin, slowly but steadily, to go wrong.


During the revision period or any period of intense personal effort and struggle, small and isolated things choose that moment to go tits up, in the determination to rob you of your time, energy and mental integrity. One morning’s revision was interrupted by the disheartening sound of my mini-fridge grinding to a sudden death; another morning I awoke to find that my eye had swollen to a squidgy red golfball-size, to the horror of the poor tutor I had to see that day; my radiator broke and flared to the temperature of the molten innards of the sun…another recent joy is that my alarm clock has begun to stutteringly break down but only on certain unpredictable days, meaning that some days I am woken up to the interesting mixture of John Humphrys, Classic FM and some traffic radio bint from BBC Oxford, and on some days I am not woken up at all. Like today, when I had a morning exam. Not to worry, chums, I have been setting another alarm clock to go off five minutes after the first one just in case, but I mean it really is the living end.

Now you have to sort out your carnation. No, not the condensed milk, the flower – it’s tradition for students taking exams here to wear a carnation to their exams pinned to their gown, for the double joy of having a bulky floral pompom on your breast and an open needle ready to snag your tender skin. You are given your pompom – sorry, carnation – by your college child, who is the student allotted to be under your maternal care when they begin their time at college and whose carnation you bought when they sat their first year exams. If you are a returning languages student your child becomes your colleague and it all gets very complicated and in the end some flowers somehow arrive at you by wonderful underground clockwork. Complicated? Well, it doesn’t stop there, because of course there is also a colour code, white for the first exam, pink for the middle, and red for the last one. It symbolises – and this is true – the blood gradually shed by the student as they fight through each paper, one by one; although I prefer to see my pink carnation as a metaphor simply for my own sanity as it gradually gets withered and mushy over time. In my first year exams my pink carnation actually shed petals onto the paper as I closed the booklet of my penultimate module, a poignant reminder that life is an endless but slow march of decay. As I say, it’s a charming tradition.


Then – oh, then – you have to go to your exam. You stick your pens and university card into the hat-bit of your mortarboard because it’s really only useful as an inadequate pencilcase, and then you enter the colossal exam room, an elaborate hall with huge Hillaire Belloc-style clocks and lion sconces and incongruous pulpits all over the place. The chief examiner will read out the exam regulations and then, in the couple of minutes before you begin, say something jovial and sweet like “And now…think beautiful, restive thoughts…” 


Then threehoursofsolidwritingandnotverygoodquestionsandnotbeingabletorememberandrememberingotherthingswhichyoucanwritedownandparaphrasingandalmostherenowonemoreessaytodothreeessaysinthreehoursmyhandmyhandohgodmyhandohgriefwriteaconclusionanyconclusionandfinish.


And then you go home. Let’s do it again tomorrow!