Take a Seat

When we got to London, we moved into our fully-furnished and equipped flat with our clothes and our bedding. And some music. I was always told to be of good chair, so it wasn’t long before we had to go and purchase an additional piece of furniture.

We walked down to a local second-hand furniture shop to browse through their seating equipment. The bored helpful owner of the shop came over to greet us and shoot the breeze over his cup of coffee. He was a right proper Londoner, wearing a flat cap and everything.

We told him we were looking for a desk chair. He showed us his wares. And then he showed us his chairs. Kidding.

(Exaggeration alert.)

We tried out his wheely chairs and raced around the shop in them going “Woo!” and “Beep beep!” and “Check how this one turns!”

He strolled over to us, kicking his legs like in a slow-motion goose-step, and said, tentatively, and with his head cocked to one side, “Is that an Australian accent I hear?”

We said, “Not unless there are Australians hiding behind the sofa.”

Not really. We said that we were South Africans and feigned offence. Well, maybe we didn’t feign offence, but we pretended we were feigning it. He laughed nervously, “Ha ha, jolly ha!”

He took another sip of his coffee and asked if we were new to the area. We told him we’d just moved in. He asked us what brought us to the area. We said we were new to London because my husband was doing his doctorate.

The guy stared at us blankly, like the letting agent had when we told her my husband was doing his doctorate. She said, “Can you write that down for me, please? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

We were about to tell him question time was over, when his gaze turned to me and he said, “And what about you? Are you a lady of leisure?”

My husband had to hold me back from grabbing him by the scruff of the neck. (Not really. But please note, for health and safety purposes, that the exaggeration alert is still active.)

I smiled sweetly and said to him, “Actually, I’m job hunting.”

He said, “Pleased to meet you, my name’s Bob.”

What he actually did at that point was whistle, raise his eyebrows and make his eyes all slitty. Clearly a multi-tasker.

“Ooh, job hunting. Not easy these days, is it? Not like in them days when it was just us. Not with all these foreigners about.”

He proceeded to tell us how little he thought of the (then) Labour government and its lax immigration regulations and how foreigners were coming in thick and fast and taking all the jobs from people “like us”.

We nodded, paid for our chair and tiptoed backwards out of the shop trying not to say another word and leak out our foreign accents again. Just in case.

We carried the chair down the road and all the way back to our house. We stopped briefly for my husband to go into a convenience store to buy something, and I sat on the chair on the pavement. If I spun quickly I could keep an eye on the road and on the shop at the same time.

As we crossed the threshold into our flat, we greeted the rest of the furniture with, “Three chairs for the foreigners!”

Sunshine signing off for today!

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The Otherness of Being

Our family moved around a lot when I was a child. Every new place we went to, I had to adjust to a new school and make new friends. My parents did the rest. I learnt quickly to adjust, to settle in and to feel like I belonged. It’s not so easy when you’re older.

Some years ago, I worked for a non-government organisation in Cape Town. I worked there from 1993 to 2000, straddling the regime change in the South African government to a welcome democracy. Apart from the work that the organisation did, it focused keenly on organisation development; ensuring that the work it did, as well as they way it did the work, transformed appropriately in line with bigger changes in the country. Change was something we could always depend on.

We did loads of workshops and bosberade (literally “bush councils” – meetings in isolated venues to focus on a particular topic), learnt massively about ourselves as an organisation and as individuals, and laughed and cried as we grew in so many different ways. It was an incredible time in my life, and I learnt much that I loved and hated about myself.

Accordingly I changed in ways I hadn’t recognised even needed changing. It was about shining the mirror clean to get a clearer reflection of myself. I will always be a work in progress, but having the opportunity to develop a consciousness of that is something for which I am eternally grateful.

One workshop we did was presented by a daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. An amazing speaker and awesome personality, she gripped our attention for the entire day. I don’t remember what the workshop was called but she delved into loads of different awarenesses of self.

The strongest learning point for me was in identifying my own primary identity. I am totally oversimplifying this, but she told us that once we understood our own primary identity, we could understand how we view the rest of the world. And we tend to view the rest of the world in relation to that identity. So if I see myself primarily as a woman, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”. Equally, if I see myself primarily as white, I see everyone else as the “same” or “other”.

It’s something that I have regularly been challenged to look at afresh in my own life. As a Christian, I am secure in my identity as a child of God. It’s finding my identity in my humanness that is my biggest struggle right now.

It’s no secret how much I miss my sons who are both back in Cape Town. Being a mother is a huge part of my identity, as is being part of a loving and close-knit nuclear family. We speak often, our love for each other is unquestioned, but we’re far apart. A month or two ago, a young couple in our church had their baby son dedicated. Both of their extended families filled our church for the service. I looked at them all together and I wept like a child with longing for my own family.

It is a conscious battle for me to choose not to find my identity in my work. Having worked constantly since I graduated from university (apart from a few years when my sons were born), I find it difficult to reconcile my identity as an unemployed person in London. Because of my job hunting nightmare here, I tend to view others from that perspective, and I find I see everyone around me as employed or with an income or livelihood of some description.

Finding my identity as a friend extends me too. I have wonderful, close friends back home – ones I hang out with regularly, talk with deeply, laugh with incessantly. They know who I am; I share a history with them. I have lovely friends here too, but I’m only just beginning a journey with them. That’s not a bad thing; I’m just trying to find where it all fits.

Starting a blog has been an amazing and positive experience for me. I love to write, to tell stories and share experiences and adventures with a growing community of wonderful writers, many of whom have also become friends. I haven’t quite found my identity through this yet; sometimes I see myself as a writer until I read the work of real writers, and I realise I am just a blogger. That’s okay too, and it keeps me reading and learning and growing and honing.

As you well know, life is not all bad in London! It continues to be an amazing adventure for my husband and me; we explore the city; we walk and we talk and we laugh; we grow memories and share a life here that we could never have imagined for ourselves. I know there is a deeper purpose in all of this for me and only with hindsight will I recognise what it is.

I don’t really know where I belong right now; I’m an absent Saffa and a visitor in London. Mostly I’m okay with that, but this topic has toiled through my mind for the whole weekend, circling and circling like a dog in a basket. I think it has now found its comfortable space and is ready to surrender to welcome sleep. As for me, I couldn’t have found rest until I wrote this.

Sunshine signing off for today.

Now I’m the Cat’s Pyjamas

Last week, our church small group had a social evening where we played a bunch of games. One game involved passing a small, ticking grenade from player to player as you each had your turn. Yesterday, my “friend” Maura, threw me a grenade from Ohio.

Right. The game we played last week goes by the subtle moniker of Pass the Bomb. You have a deck of cards, each card has two or three letters on it, and you have to think of a word that uses those letters in order but not necessarily consecutively. You may not repeat a word – obviously, duh – but you may modify the word by making it a plural or adding –ing or whatever. Or you can be entirely original and think of your own word.

You have to think quickly; the grenade is ticking and you don’t want to be left holding the bomb when it explodes. Well, when it fizzles, really. Each time you set the grenade a-ticking, it ticks for a random length of time, so you never know when it’ll go.

The grenade got thrown around the circle at such pace, some of us got shrapnel injuries. It seems that the Memetastic award is doing the same.

So, thank you dearest 36×37 aka Maura (who is, in fact, one of the most gifted writers I know, disguised as a friend) for throwing the kitty-bomb my way. I am eternally indebted to you for passing this extraordinary honour to me. I am taking it back taken aback. I’m glad you think so much of me. Or not.

So here’s the deal. I’ve been Memetastic-ed. And read quickly, because I don’t want to be left holding the grenade.

Jill, at Yeah, Good Times, created this Award. Thank you, Jill. Thank you very much.

The Memetastic Rules

The Memetastic Award

1. You must proudly display the graphic (above), which Jill describes as “absolutely disgusting.” According to Jill: “It’s so bad that not only did I use COMIC SANS, but there’s even a little jumping, celebrating kitten down there at the bottom. It’s horrifying! But its presence in your award celebration is crucial to the memetastic process we’re creating here.”

2. You must list five things about yourself, and four of them must be bold-faced lies. Quality is not important.

3. You must pass this award to five bloggers you either like or don’t like or don’t really have much of an opinion about. As spoken by the great Jill: “I don’t care who you pick, and nobody needs to know why. You can give a reason if you want, but I don’t really care.”

4. If you fail to follow any of the above rules, Jill will hunt you down and harass you incessantly until, according to her, “you either block me on Twitter or ban my IP address from visiting your blog. I don’t know if you can actually do that last thing, but I will become so annoying to you that you will actually go out and hire an IT professional to train you on how to ban IP addresses just so that I’ll leave you alone. I’m serious. I’m going to do these things.”

5. Once you do the above, please link up to the Memetastic Hop so that Jill can keep track of where this thing goes and figure out who she needs to stalk.

Excited? I thought so.

Here is my offering:

  1. I have often been mistaken for a ballet dancer. However, when people study my style, they realize that my motif is more contemporary slash jazzart, if you will. Interpretive dance is my preferred movement.

    Dance (via societies.cam.ac.uk)
  2. I am easily bored and take little interest in anything around me. Especially other people.

    Boring (via jmorganmarketing.com)
  3. Nothing relaxes me more than sitting down with a mug of hot cocoa and a jolly good game of Sudoku.

    Sudoku, or as I say, "let the fun roll" (via stellalunaa.xanga.com)
  4. I wish I was funny enough and brave enough to be a stand-up comedian.

    To stand up or to sit down (via dailycomedy.com)
  5. I love applying for jobs and going for interviews. These are the funnest things you can do in London.

    Ah, mad fun at interviews (via utahtechjobs.com)

So, study these points carefully because hidden among them is a truth about me that you would never be able to guess.

Maura, you’re fantastic – thanks for sharing this award with me. Jill, you’re the bomb. Pleased to meet you.

I think I am going to cop out of chucking the grenade towards anyone in particular, as I know many of you have had this honour already. If anyone reading this feels so inclined and wants to grab the mic, or the grenade, or the kitty – knock yourself out. But beware … the ticking starts now.

Sunshine signing off for today!

How to win friends and interview people

I don’t know if it started with my sons’ response to me showing them my 70s disco dance moves. Or if I said it to my husband when he was trying to speak like a Jamaican. But somewhere along the line, in our family, we started to say, “Let’s not do that.”

Yesterday, I took great delight in unsubscribing from all the job alerts I had signed up for. My email inflow has dropped drastically but what a pleasure not to have to wade through all of those. It also got me thinking about something else I won’t have to do again (for a while, I hope!) now that I have a job: I won’t have to go for interviews.

Now that I am able to start reflecting on my interviews with a sense of amusement rather than failure, I thought it might be helpful – a public service, perhaps – to provide some feedback to interviewers, from an interviewee’s point of view. And I thought what better way to approach it, than to say, “Let’s not do that.”

1. Let’s not freak out the interviewee

I had an interview last year with an HR manager and a head of communications. The HR manager asked me a few random questions, then sat back, rested her chin between her thumb and forefinger, and gave me the hairy eyeball. She just stared at me. The head of comms grabbed the mic and asked me a few questions, but it was hugely off-putting to have another pair of eyes drilling into the side of my head. She was also the one who said, “Lovely to meet you.” Perhaps she wanted me for dinner.

2. Let’s not play games

A few months ago, I applied for a job and got short-listed. The recruiter called me to tell me I had been short-listed and invited for interview. I was thrilled (as I always was!) and, during the course of the conversation, I asked her how many people had been short-listed. She immediately said, “Ooh, I can’t tell you that!” O-o-k-a-a-a-y…

My interview was preceded by a test. I arrived at my designated time, was met by a frazzled HR person who failed to introduce herself but just dragged me upstairs to the test venue. She – seriously – kept the test paper face down as she looked at her watch and synchronised her time with the clock on the wall. She was almost hyperventilating and then told me she didn’t know whether she was Arthur or Martha. I said to her, “Have you had a busy day?” Her instant retort was, “I’m not going to answer that because you just want to know how many people have been interviewed.” How about, no? How about, that’s the question I would have asked anyone in a similar state of frazzled-ness?

She then waited for the exact second at which to turn the test paper over, and my 30 minutes began. Good afternoon, Miss.

3. Let’s not interview in a warehouse-sized boardroom

When my above 30 minutes were up, I was met by one of my prospective interviewers. He escorted me to the interview room, which was the biggest boardroom I have ever seen. The three interviewers were scattered around the table and I could have done with a megaphone to answer their questions audibly. Shouting through cupped hands seemed to do the trick, but I didn’t get the job.

4. Let’s not interview at the gym

A few months ago I was invited to interview for a job in an organisation similar to the one I worked for in Cape Town. The interview was to be held at a Club in Chelsea, near the Thames. It sounded like a maritime-themed Club, and I envisaged it to be a business club, where you can hire a meeting room for such occasions. I arrived at the venue, walked through the door and realised this was a gym. I panicked a bit as I thought I’d got the wrong venue. I approached the uniformed woman at the reception desk and said to her, with a question in my voice, that I was there for an interview and I told her with whom. She smiled and nodded and took me through to the coffee shop where two women were waiting to interview me. With the overwhelming aroma of chlorine floating through the room, people coming and going and meeting up after or before their daily workout, shouts and screeches and splashes all around, I had an interview at a gym coffee shop. Funnily enough, this was the job I didn’t get because I was “too nice”. Perhaps I should have walked in and said to them, “WTF, guys?” (Why The Funny-venue?)

5. Let’s not panic

About six weeks ago, I got a frantic call at 8am on a Monday morning. It was a recruiter who could barely speak through her worried breath. She told me of two jobs she was recruiting for, and asked if I was interested. I said they sounded interesting and would be happy for her to email the job specs through to me (as is usually the case). She said she needed to know that moment as she had to get back to the employers.  (They’d called her at 7 that morning to brief her on two jobs that needed responses by 8.30? I don’t think so.)

I then outlined my concerns about the jobs, given that they were looking for someone with local media contacts. I reminded her that, while I had media experience, I didn’t have local contacts. In increasing panic, she said she would get back to me. I never heard from her again. Ever.

6. Let’s not wander off the subject too much

I have registered with about a million quite a few recruitment agencies. Some of them ignore you completely. Some of them invite you for an interview to put you on their books. At one such interview, the agent spent more time talking about her upcoming holiday in Cape Town, than my job requirements. Hmmm, thanks for that.

7. Let’s not interview like David Brent

I can’t say I had an interview exactly like this, but I did often feel like poor old Stuart in this clip:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtfUn6b4NBY

8. Let’s not become a recruiter

Last year, I had an hour-long interview with a recruitment consultant. She had my CV in front of her, she asked me loads of questions, wrote copious notes all around the perimeter of my CV, gave me some useful advice about job hunting (I was new to London at that time), and said she would chat to her colleagues and get back to me about any job possibilities. I never heard from her again. Ever.

I know recruiters are inundated with applicants. But she never responded to any email I ever sent her, even when I asked about jobs her agency was advertising. To me, that was most bizarre. I would imagine that relationships are your stock-in-trade when you are a recruiter, and communication – and communication skills – should be a given for the role. If you don’t like dealing with people, find another career. Surely?

I met a woman at my gym in Cape Town a few years ago. She ran her own horticulture business. She told me she loved her work, she loved working with plants and the joy of watching gardens grow.

“I’m a plant person, you see. I’m not a people person. I like people, but I don’t think I could eat a whole one.”

Perhaps some recruiters should take note. And, interviewers, I hope you have found this feedback useful. You were all strong candidates but unfortunately you didn’t have the exact match of skills and experience that I was looking for and someone else gave me the job. Thank you for the time and effort you took in interviewing me.

Sunshine signing off for today!

The college type

Yesterday I applied for another job. Yes, I am still on the hunt. I still have the boring task of seeking salaried employment, with slightly less desperation but equal amounts of post-application stress disorder.

For yesterday’s application, one of the items on the person specification was “keyboard skills”. I wanted to adopt a Will Ferrell pose, hand on hip and one eyebrow raised, and say, “Yeah, I tinkle a few ivories, in my own classical, yet syncopated, infantile way.” And then I thought that would be super-lame. (And that’s different from everything else I say, how?)

I then realised that I do have some mean keyboard skills. I have worked on PCs, Macs, laptops, word processors, electronic typewriters, electric typewriters and, way back, I learnt to type on an ancient, massively heavy manual typewriter.

Working on those machines, I developed muscles in my fingers in places where I didn’t know I had places. When we made mistakes, we had to use typewriter erasers and backspace the heavy machinery before retyping the letter. When we typed to the end of a line, we would grab the return lever and push the carriage way to the left to start a new line. We had to take out indemnity insurance in case the machine fell and crushed us to powder. It would.

And all of that took me back to my year at commercial college after I finished my first undergraduate degree. I went, kicking and screaming, into that college year at the insistence of my parents. I honestly felt it was beneath me to do a course that taught me typing and bookkeeping when I had a university degree. How embarrassingly arrogant was I? My parents thought it would be a good and practical idea. I hate to say it, but they were right.

Not only did I have fun there, but I learnt skills that I have used in every job I’ve had. I learnt shorthand, which I still use today when I interview people. I learnt touch-typing, which has been useful regardless what machine I have been typing on. And I met two characters who will stay with me forever. Let’s call them Mr M and Mrs P.

Mr M was our book-keeping lecturer. He arrived at college every day in his smart three-piece suit and hair neatly parted. He had a gap between his front teeth that caused him to whistle every ‘s’ through the lecture room. He would close his eyes, nod his head slightly and say, “Ladiessssss, ladiesssssss, ladiessssss!” (We were only females in the class – it was the 80s and it was Zimbabwe).

He would explain everything to us in precise detail, and we would practise and practise until we got it right. In bookkeeping there is no room for error, so being kind of right was never an option.

We had no Excel spreadsheets or any other programme that would work things out for us. We had no calculators or adding machines. We had to work with ledgers and journals, make credit and debit entries, and make the columns balance. All by ourselves. In our heads. I know the accountants and bean-counters out there will be tapping and trilling the tips of their fingers together in delight, but really – it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds.

Mr M would get exasperated with us “ladiesssss”. And he would be delighted when we got things right. Then he would say, “That is execkle what I am tokking about!”

One of my classmates would get equally exasperated with Mr M. She would battle with the concepts and try and make her columns balance. And then she would yell out, “Yussussss, Mr M! I can’t do this!”

Our office practice lecturer was Mrs P. She wore faded cotton frocks that were tightly belted with full round skirts. She wore her hair in a bun and wore pointy spectacles. Seriously. She had stumbled across a fashion style in the 1950s and heck, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? She stuck with that fashion forever.

Her hair was so tightly squeezed into a bun, I was sure sometimes she had grabbed some scalp along with her hair and tied it right in with the bun. That usually explained the raised eyebrows and ears that moved round the back of her head. And a constant, scary grin.

She would totter around in her sling-back heels, occasionally tottering over, and tell us about what good office practice entailed. She would also regale us with tales of her and her husband’s other life in Spain, but that’s material for another day.

She would always start the day with, “A-kay, ladies! Today we’re going to talk about how to watch paint dry. A-kay? Any questions? Good,” and she would then ramble on and on. None of us really listened. We just watched. I think the tight bun prevented her from forming the letter ‘o’.

I left college that year with a diploma in hand, a bunch of valuable skills and a plate full of humble pie. I hated it when my parents were right.

Sunshine signing off for today.

The glare of the no

This was a big weekend in the life of one of our favourite reality TV shows – the X Factor. Last night’s show ended with the top 12 acts being picked for the live shows. I cried.  I could so relate.

Not with the acts going forward. But with those who didn’t make the cut … rejection is an ugly thing to deal with. The contestants had pinned their hopes on “making it” in the music industry by getting through to the top 12. Many of them didn’t want to go back to their normal lives, they felt this opportunity was a make-or-break one for them. I do feel sad that so much rode on the show for them, and I do hope there was emotional support for those of them who didn’t get through. It’s tough to get a no with 13 million people watching.

For those of you who don’t know the show, it is a singing show, a lot like Idols, but with a slight spin. The acts are divided into four categories – boys (under 28), girls (under 28), groups and the “overs” (male and female, over the age of 28 but with no top age limit). There are four judges and each judge is assigned a category to mentor, so the competition ends up being not only between the contestants, but between the judges too. I know it is starting in the USA in the fall of 2011, so watch out for it if it’s the kind of show you enjoy.

Last week was “bootcamp”. Acts that made it through from the initial auditions held all around the UK had to perform to the judges again, and, after a series of whittling downs, eight acts per category were chosen to go to the judges’ houses. Each of the judges was assigned a category, and their eight protégés flew to their homes to sing for their place in the top 12: boys went to Australia (to Danii Minogue’s home), groups went to Marbella in Spain (Simon Cowell’s villa), the “overs” went to Dublin (Louis Walsh’s ‘castle’) and the girls to Ascot (Cheryl Cole’s estate).

On Saturday night we watched each of the categories, in turn, singing for their mentor and on Sunday we watched the mentors telling each of the acts, in turn, whether they had been successful or not. In true reality TV style, the emotion is squeezed till the tears drop; and the wimp that I am has tears rolling down her face from start to finish. The ones who have been successful scream and whoop and jump and stomp and hug their mentor. The ones who are unsuccessful sit and sob and hug their mentor.

I can’t imagine how the mentors feel, to have such power to bring tears of joy and tears of disappointment. I applaud anyone who has the courage to enter such a show, and my hope for each one of them – top 12 or not – is that they go on to make their dream happen, away from the glare of TV lights and sensationalism.

So what does this mean in my life? Apart from being a huge fan of the show – I can’t deny it – I also love watching young and exciting talent and hidden confidence unfurl. I always support the slightly shy guy who doesn’t look like a star but sings like an angel. My favourite favourite is exactly that, and he made it through.

But for me, I can so relate to the disappointment of being so close, yet not making it through. One of the contestants said last night that he has heard no so often, it would be easier to deal with a no than the unknown of a yes. He got a yes, and I threw my arms in the air. I look forward to the day that I hear that all-too-unfamiliar word too. And I might just scream and whoop and jump and stomp and hug. Even if no-one’s watching.

Sunshine signing off for today!

My life on the island

Job hunting in London can be fun. Not. Ever. It feels like my working life is a reality TV programme, and I keep getting voted off the island. And I have to keep going back on to the island to be voted off again!

If I could do anything that meant I could cease the hunt, and leave the island of my own volition, I would do so in a heartbeat.

I send off applications and the wait feels like a results programme, complete with a loud heartbeat soundtrack. “And the winner is ….. not you!”

Please don’t feel sorry for me! That’s not the purpose of my writing about this. I’m a survivor. While I do allow myself the indulgence of self-pity every now and then, I keep praying and going and know – through gritted teeth – that this thick skin I’m growing will serve me well. One day.

I recently applied for a writing job with a charity based in central London. I sent in the detailed application form (it wasn’t the one where I mentioned mud-wrestling with Mathew McConaughey, promise!) and waited to hear if I’d been shortlisted. A few days after the closing date, I had heard nothing, so I knew I’d been unsuccessful.

However, I decided to make sure. I sent an email enquiry, and got a reply, which is unusual; I guess I should be grateful for small mercies. The emailer advised me that unfortunately I’d not been shortlisted, but said I was welcome to call her for some feedback. I arranged a suitable time to do so.

We eventually spoke at the end of the day yesterday. She said I had completed the form well and my application was strong. (“Good girl! You made that song your own.”)

She said the fact that my experience was largely South African, was a key factor. (This is the first time I’ve been told that directly, and somehow it felt discriminatory. “We don’t know that song. Is it big in your country?”)

She went on to say how inundated they’d been with applications, and also gave me some feedback about my style of writing, and saying that how I wrote the application form did not fit their brand. Fair enough. And whatever. (“Maybe you need to work on your vocals.”)

However, the gem is yet to come…

She said to me, “If I can give you some advice as you continue your job hunting, it would be to get as much UK experience as possible.” Seriously?

All possible responses escaped me. All I could do was listen in bemused silence. Gob-smacked, that’s what I was! What I really wanted to say was, “And you are the weakest link. Goodbye.”

Sunshine signing off for today! The tribe has spoken.