Friday, 30 May 2008

Earning Pounds, Losing Pounds

Beginning the 9-5 Hi-ho

So since my last post I’ve picked up an office job. My first office job. There are some pretty cool perks involved, but before hearing about these I was already elated that I don’t have to clean anything at all before I go home. This is the first job I’ve ever had where I can just leave. Scrubbing mugs, dismantling coffee machines, sweeping, mopping, polishing, cling-wrapping, dating and rotating, changing bins, restocking syrups and condiments, refreshing griller foil, emptying grinders, wringing out dishcloths, unpacking dishwashers, wiping dried milk out of blenders and all those other tasks that left my hands looking and feeling like crunchy-nut cornflakes (but probably tasting more like Windex and off milk) are – hopefully – a thing of the past. Here I can just turn off my computer and go. And someone else cleans up after me.

I’ve noticed that each morning when I come in the bin next to my desk has been changed, and the corners of the bin-bag have been tied in neat, thoughtful little knots so the bag doesn’t collapse in on itself under the sudden clunk of my banana peel missile. I wonder who this person is that I never see. Maybe it’s someone else who dreams of that glorious peach-flavoured day in the future when they don’t have to clean before they go home. Maybe I should leave them a little present with a note tied on:

To the lovely soul who empties my bin. Sorry about the unfinished cup of tea the other day. Please accept this jumbo-sized packet of Revels and a charcoal still-life entitled Basil plant and daisy in shot-glass on Hackney table* as a token of my appreciation. Yours with neat, thoughtful little knots: Sarah.

*based on a true still-life.

I’m working for the Admissions Department at a college in London and, after only a week, I have been hit multiple times around the ears, nose and throat with a giant plastic cliché bat, and tickled on the shoulder with many obsequious feathers. To explain, as part of the application process, students have to submit an essay/personal statement outlining why they have chosen this school, what they will bring to the campus community, where they see themselves in five years and all the usual gaff. Occasionally you will read one that’s well-written and touching, but in general the opening emails (read: the obsequious feathers) and personal statements (read: the cliché bats) go a little something like this:

(a) The emails

Dearest respected sirs,

Hope by the grace of God you are doing fine. I just put in my applicant to your highly esteemed and most honourable institution and hope very much that your excellences will give me a place in your grand school. Your excellences must see my English skills is being very high, and I think my applicant must be top priority. While waiting to hear from your quick and positive actions, I will remain your future student. Thanking you, and God be blessing you abundantly.

(I don’t mean to sound quite so mocking, because I happen to like being referred to as ‘your excellence’ (even though they assume I’m a man). It’s a definite step up from ‘that coffee wench’.

(b) The personal statements

It is my personal opinion that you must dare to dream in this life to achieve all of your life’s goals. You must aim for the moon because that way if you miss, you’ll still end up amongst the stars.

From a very young age I have dreamed about working in Marketing – it all started when I found that I had a knack for cross-promoting animal crackers in the playground at Our Lady of the Sacred Cheesewheel in Venezuela – and since then I have been slaving over hot quantitative studies and praying at the mosques of advertising shamans to earn a place at your fine institution. I see your school as the next step on the pathway to my dream, and if my hard work and naked determination to succeed is not enough to convince you, please take the following into account:

When I was sixteen my father had the hide to lower my Jimmy Choo budget and told me I’d have to start working if I wanted that new pair of orange silk pumps. This significant life set-back contributed to my low self-esteem and I ended up with a serious eating disorder where I could only ingest purple-coloured foodstuffs. It was many months before I could look at an orange, and to this day star-fruit upsets my fragile constitution, but I pulled together and, green grape by green grape, I reached my goal of ‘total dietary colour incorporation’.

When my father saw my determination to conquer broccoli rapids and scale the dizzying heights of sushi peak, he decided that I was obviously of the highest managerial and marketing calibre, and reinstated my Choo budget. He is also going to pay my tuition fees, so if you ever have a problem with payment (which you won’t, because he owns Belgium), just let me know and I’ll threaten him with a bag of aubergines and purple cabbage.

So, as you can see, I know what it’s like to suffer outrageous fortune (as King Lear said), and I will always hold a strong desire to overcome any obstacle and attain the freedom to eat white-chocolate mousse, or – in this case – study Marketing. Most of all, I know that we can’t let our dreams die. Life is a challenge and you have to take it up or be left behind.

Of course these letters are also usually full of so many punctuation problems that I am left with an acute stage of apostrophitis, and are peppered with so many ‘your/you’re’ mix-ups that my grammar Nazism starts marching down my internal Nuremberg square, but I just can’t bring myself to write a totally realistic replica for you all (or all two of you, at least. Hi Hayley!).

The Roman Heist

One sunny day, deep in the heart of Europe, someone decided that a five-course meal overlooking the Pantheon was the only way to truly experience Italian culture. Being rather short on cash, but of a naturally conniving and gluttonous disposition, this person decided to rob me of £205 as I sat innocently at my London desk. As I was deciding which colour post-it note to use – pink or green – they were deciding which Main to have – the Wagyu beef or the Lobster. As I was pouring my Tea de English Breakfast, they were pouring their Chianti de 1950. As I was typing in my 40th application, they were placing a 40 Euro tip on a crisp white tablecloth. And, as I was crying over the discovery of a depleted bank account, they were rubbing their bellies and sighing over an orange sunset.

To make this heinous crime even worse, I only made the discovery on a Friday afternoon before a Bank Holiday long weekend. And when I called the bank, they cancelled my card straight away – before I even had a chance to replenish my wallet, which, at the time, was only home to one weathered pound. So instead of the trip to Brighton I had planned, I had to settle for a trip to the discounted section of Tescos.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

This Hackney Life

The Move East

I wish I was able to say that the move to Hackney was fraught with hilarious hiccups and tearful pleas to an eccentric old man named Tete-Raki to move his collection of glass pick-up sticks and jade marbles from the path of my rolling luggage juggernaut. I predicted slanty rain and a slow ´leak´ in my luggage that would leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of plastic orange shoes, purple pashminas and Kinder-Surprise toys along Euston Road. But the move actually went quite smoothly. Even though I had banned myself from TopShop and Spitalfields Market until I was earning more than lint and shoelaces, I still managed to accumulate a lot of STUFF, and it all had to go.

Kyle loaded 3/4 of my STUFF onto his bike and rode all the way to the new place (amazing, I know. My junk probably weighed more than he does), leaving me with just my big black suitcase to take on the bus. No slanty rain, no encounters with Tete-Raki, not even an impatient busdriver. England was in a generous mood.

The New Pad (I hate it when people call houses ´pads´...)

The cunning reader will recall that I was less than impressed with the Fitzrovia flat. The new place is about 20 rungs up on the cleanliness ladder, and apart from a well-stocked kitchen, the place is also well stocked with people. I am one of seven. And, thank God, all six flatmates are more likely to share and clean than eat my mushrooms and leave Kosciouszkos of dishes in the sink. AND, bonus of bonuses, all except Kyle have English as a second language, so in exchange for helping some of them with my mother tongue, I´m learning snippets of French, Spanish and Portuguese. I brought home a beautiful leaf from Victoria Park and can now say ´C´est un jolie feuille´. Sure to come in handy in Montmarte, I know (along with ´grille pain´ (toaster), ´tortue´(turtle) and ´briquet´(lighter)).

(As a side note, I may be starting French lessons soon with a multi-lingual prodigy whose first word was ´rhinoceros´ and who apparently dances like an octopus: Jean-Marc. His fee is a pint an hour - not bad! Incidentally, he too has a blog, which you may indulge in here:

More on the people later, but ´the pad´ is 3 storeys, 4 bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, 1 kitchen/living area, and a courtyard out the back that, I regret to tell you, is densely populated with garden gnomes, terracotta squirrels and a pig and an owl pushing wheelbarrows. People at home may remember the ´Great Garden Gnome Kidnapping´of 2007, where I successfully relocated the $2 garden gnome Dad received as a ´joke´ Christmas gift yet somehow managed to make a home for itself beneath our Silky Oak. I am not a gnome fan, in general, but our courtyard is so kitsch and overdone I can´t help but love it.

Exploring the ´hood

My little Lonely Planet London guide reported that, a few years back, a popular TV show named Hackney "the worst place to live in the UK". It also said, however, that this caused a huge backlash amongst Hackneyens (ites? siders? a-thons?), who pooled together their resources and launched an ´I Love Hackney´campaign, complete with t-shirts, bags, bumper stickers and mugs.

Now, it´s early days yet, but Hackney isn´t half bad! On a rare sunny Saturday I went for a long walk with Kyle so we could discover Hackney´s nooks, crannies and orange leg-warmers. A few highlights:

- Bohemia Cafe: live jazz and salsa music every Sunday night
- Hackney Empire: theatre, music and a bar with quiz nights on Tuesdays (they also do the auditions for ´Britain´s Got Talent´ here)
- Victoria Park and Hackney Marshes: my new running tracks
- Marks and Spencers Food: for when we feel like spending £3 for a banana
- Primark: for when we only have £1 left but need 3 t-shirts, a pair of ballet flats, a new scarf, a red cushion, vanilla-scented body wash, new underwear and 5 pairs of 40 denier stockings.
- And, something I never really expected to see in London:

Hackney has a city farm. It´s mainly for kids, of course, but at least if I miss that thrilling feeling of interconnectedness with "Nature" that pervaded my life back home, I´ll know where to go. If the cityscape feels like it´s closing in on me, hurling gum wrappers and neon signs at my ankles, if the bendy buses and cyclists collude to splash oceans of oil-streaked water on my innocent suede shoes, if the echoey soundtrack of five-hundred pairs of heels stomping down narrow tube tunnels starts to invade my frazzled mind, I can go look at a goat and know that it´ll all be okay.
Perhaps the best part of living in Hackney is that it´s so close to my favourite part of London so far: Shoreditch! When I made it to Brick Lane and saw the hole-in-the-wall pubs, the coffee shops with vintage lounges and Indian lamps and Hookahs to smoke out the front; the curry houses, intricate street art and the all-embracing fashion experiments of passers-by (a girl sitting near me right now is wearing a black bowler hat, white Ray-Bans, a red and black polka dot shirt tucked into a ruffled white and red polka dot mini skirt, black suspenders with silver buckles, black thigh-high socks, platform saddle shoes, dangly silver star earrings and plenty of multicoloured bangles), I knew I made the right decision moving East. There´s a pub on the corner of Brick Lane - Casa Blue - that has a queen-sized bunk-bed covered in fairy lights in one of the rooms.
The Sun is the Underdog in England
My first music festival in England was a free one in Victoria Park called ´Love Music Hate Racism´. It was the first festival I´d been to where the grass was plush and plentiful (the kind you walk on, kiddies. But come to think of it, the other kind was plush and plentiful too), but also the first festival I´d been to where the wind was a bratty toddler, making my £4 umbrella bob and twist and buckle like a spinning top when it´s almost used all of its spin juices and starts going all skewiff and falling off the table. And the rain. God, the rain.
I went with two Marcs (one a Mexican vegetarian base player and the other my potential future French tutor) and it really was just a day to hang out and pay too much for alcohol and fajitas because the sound quality was pretty bad. The lineup was great: Hard-Fi and the Good the Bad and the Queen played, and Fyfe Dangerfield from the Guillemots did a cool cover of Mr Springsteen´s ´Dancing in the Dark´, but for me the best part of the day was at about 5pm, when the underdog sun finally overthrew the tyrannical cloud government and proclaimed that there shall be free t-shirts and cupcakes for everyone. I don´t think I´ve ever witnessed such a communal outpouring of excitement over the sun before. Thousands of people cheered, turned their faces to the sky, stretched up their arms and danced. It was such an instinctive reaction. I cheered and then laughed because, back home, at Big Day Outs for example, we´re more likely to cheer when the rain arrives, and stretch our hands out for the precious icy droplets that bands might throw from their water bottles.