Tuesday, October 18, 2005

In Which Our Heroine Improvises around the Key of Pistachios
Ah, so much to tell, so much. I almost don’t know where to start.  So once again I shall go the easy route and just answer people’s questions.

So what about the new job?
So far, so good.  I have not at least been sacked, although due to European working practice being a bit different from American I spent the first week utterly convinced I was about to get stopped before I even started.  I had to fill out a health questionnaire when I started work, and then when they admitted that they weren’t doctors and didn’t understand what it was I’d just told them, they sent off my form to some specialist doctor they use.  I had to consent to this (privacy regulations and all that) and I was quite sure it was only a moment of time before either the epilepsy, Cushing’s or PTSD meant that I was not long for the working world of Devon.  The stress was seriously getting to me by the end of the week, and I had placed a call to my friend Steve, who conveniently happens to be an employment mucky mucky partner up at Hammonds to ask him what my rights, if any, were in this whole thing.  He filled me in on what was actually going on, which was that legally they were under a duty to make sure that if I could be accommodated, I would be, and were just getting background information and it was all standard.  The law is pretty much the same in the States, actually, but they don’t ask you these things ahead of time, the onus tends to be more on you to go and say “I have a disability.”  Disabilities make it one thing, but I do not consider myself to have one as it really doesn’t interfere with my work, so in the States disability law doesn’t really apply to me.  There are certain times that they’re allowed to say “this condition means you can not be employed in this job”, for example I could not pilot a plane as an epileptic, for the safety of the passengers, and I am too tall to be an astronaut as they’d have to redesign the space suits (I am not making that up.  I checked the NASA website.), but really I can do almost anything else.  I was glad Steve phoned me and sorted this out, even though it was late on Sunday night, as first thing Monday morning the doctor phoned me up and started asking the practical questions on my illnesses, etc and what work could do to help. Knowing what was actually going on made the conversation quite practical and focused, and not panic inducing at all, and then I could get on with my work.

What is your middle name?
I don’t get Gmail at work, so I set it up to forward automatically to my work account, and I reply from there.  People now frequently get reply e-mails from axw@my new firm.com and consequently keep asking me suddenly “What is your middle name?” (frequently phrased as “What does the X stand for?”).  The answer is, I don’t have a middle name, but the convention of the firm uses three letters so for those of us without middle names, they put an X.  I suppose were there more of us with the same initials, they would move to Y or Z or Q or something.  In the meantime, the new answer to the above questions is that it stands for what Xs usually stand for in my correspondence.  Kisses.  Now that makes a great middle name.

Are you making friends?
Of a fashion, I guess I slowly am making friends.  Mostly from work so far, as that’s who I’ve met.  There’s my landlord, for a start, who also works in my department (if you look over there off to the left you can see him.  He’s by the window.  Wave if you feel like it. The whole place is open plan, so you can see all the people I talk about here if you would just look around.)  He’s been very sweet and kind, and things keep arriving at my flat to compensate for the fact that I don’t own, say, a Hoover, or chairs.  And when the washing machine didn’t work (even though it was brand new – there was a leak somewhere) and I was running out of smalls, he offered and executed to drive me home one night, pick up my laundry, take me to his, cook dinner (ok, I wound up making us soup from scratch, but he did offer to cook me dinner so points for effort), let me do my washing and then take me home.  He’s also offered to take me to the store outside town to do a big shop if necessary, but I’m managing so far at the shops in town and toting it on the bus.  I’m working on a minor deal with him as well, and so far have managed to not get berated, either because he’s exceptionally nice or my work is sufficiently up to scratch, maybe both.

I haven’t really been out though, as I’m not so good at meeting people and really dread walking into places on my own.  My one night out was to watch another work guy play water polo.  Yes, I said water polo.  I will even confess that this is not the first time I have watched water polo – there was a period a while back where I knew someone who played and would go along and cheer.  After nights of being cooped up watching telly (which has arrived, and is very good, although it looks rather odd having a big telly in a room whose only other furniture is two folding chairs, a file cabinet and a small table), even a night out at the water polo watching someone who at that point I didn’t really like that much seemed like a welcome respite.  I didn’t like him mostly because a) I was greeted the first time I met him with the phrase “So, you’re South African, right?”  This confused me.  I did not find it insulting, just very very odd.  When I said no, not to be deterred, he said “But you’ve just been there, right?”  Well, no.  Not recently, not ever, although I would like to go at some point.  Puzzled, I went off.  Then followed what I now refer to as “The Great Beehive Hat Debacle”.  As most of you know, I have my little knitting pattern for a Beehive Hat published in Stitch and Bitch Nation.  After a conversation with a potential client about knitting (it happens, and she brought it up, not me) I’m sending her a copy of the book and some local organic wool to go with it.  Having ventured into town for this, I brought it back, and water polo picked up the book, immediately liked the look of the one sweater, kept going through, and when I suggested to look at the appropriate page, took one look at the hat, at MY hat, and said “That’s awful! Truly heinous!  Hideous!  Who would wear that?”  It took two days for someone to point out to him that my name was at the top of that page, by which point the iron was starting to enter into my “I’m going to get fired because of my health” soul.  He was, to his credit, truly sorry for what he’d said, and was happy I was going to go to the water polo.  For my part, I was just happy that I wasn’t sitting home of an evening.

It was fun, actually.  I enjoy watching sports, and I enjoy watching men in their swimmies (although desperately trying to avoid looking at work colleague as, well, I have to work with him.  This is a basic rule of mine: desperately try to avoid seeing work colleagues in their Speedos.) and I enjoy shouting at really lousy refereeing calls, of which there turned out to be many.  Thankfully, Water Polo’s team won, which puts them through to some sort of national final.  And then in the great English tradition, everyone adjourned to the bar, which I was duly warned was not very nice, and there might be (and there was) karaoke.  Exceptionally bad karaoke.  And loud as well.  Never mind. It was an interesting exposure to Devon nightlife.

That’s it?  Water Polo and Karaoke?
Well, no.  First, I went to church at the Cathedral on Sunday, where one of the nice vicars turns out to have done a year of his training at my church in Boston, and also introduced me to the younger people of the congregation, meaning people my age.  This is good, as up til that point I had been chatting to a nice man in his late 70s who had been a Hammer Horror (I think in the States this is what we classify as a B movie) film actor long ago and freely admits to having ripped off Bela Lugosi in his portrayal of Dracula. A bit of a shocker, actually, as this morning a formal, handwritten card has arrived here at work from this gentleman, asking me to dinner.  I was stunned, to say the least.  Then I thought I might be getting the wrong end of the stick, so I handed said card to Water Polo and said “Am I misinterpreting this?”  His reaction, and I quote here, was “Oh My God!”  Watch this space.  And no, I can’t get Kirsty MacColl’s “I’m Going Out with an 80 Year Old Millionaire” out of my head either, so just you stop.

I’m not going to church this weekend, however, but nothing to do with that. Instead I am away on the Company and Commercial Department (affectionately known by all as CoCo) training weekend.  Near as I can figure, the training involved is the surfing lessons we have arranged for tomorrow morning.  Wetsuits, boards and instructors have been hired for those of us who don’t know how to surf.  (Lots of people in my department do know, actually, and own their own boards.  Surfing’s popular here.)  This seems to violate my rule about work people and Speedos, though, and I think if pressed that rule also applies to seeing work people in wetsuits, or in fact being see in a wetsuit myself by work people, or for that matter by anyone.  Being new, I’ve been roped into providing dessert for Saturday night dinner.  This has proved good fun, as I haven’t had a good cook up for a while.  I’ve spent the last two nights poaching pears (most of you have had those), making an absolutely divine cheesecake with an artistic topping of pistachio brittle, a tart of apricots roasted in earl gray tea leaves, sugar and lemon and surrounded by cardamom infused cream, and making chocolate caramel and fleur de sel truffles by hand from scratch.  Given that my kitchen gear is all borrowed, this has proved a challenge as I’m rolling dough without a rolling pin (tin of apricots), and chopping nuts by mooshing them with a bottle of framboise, and haven’t really cooked in Centigrade before, there is a lot of “work around” going on.  Hopefully it will all pull together in time.

Waves for the weekend are rumoured to be ten feet high, and we’ve been asked (jokingly, I think, but I’m not sure to be honest) to submit our blood type to the coordinating secretary.

And on that note, back to work.

Monday, October 10, 2005

In Which Our Heroine Puts a Roof Over Her Head

Well, here I am. The great South West, by hook or by crook. And I have to say, initially it wasn't looking like a good idea but things have settled down.

You wouldn't think, with cash in hand, that finding an apartment would be all that hard down here. Looking on the net, there were lots of furnished places that seemed to be going, and I wrote and left messages for the estate agents (in American, that's "real estate agents") thinking that ever eager to make a sale and get commission, they would be eager to help me find a place. Turns out, this is not so. I don't know what if anything the estate agents are paid by the landlord's over here, but rather than the month's rent in commission you'd have to pay them in Boston, here you just pay a flat fee, which ranges from £60-£100, at least here in Exeter. Consequently, the push just really isn't on so much from the agent's point of view. Lots of places don't even "do" letting of places.

It also turned out that I chose the week to come down and look for a place that was the same week that the freshers and the post-grads started at the local Universities (of which there are two in town). So I found myself traipsing from agency to agency, recognizing the same groups of people, almost all of whom were looking for two bedroom furnished flats. It then became clear why just being invited to sit down at an estate agents was becoming a major accomplishment. Heck, now it is two weeks later and I still haven't had a phone call returned from four places. In fourteen agencies, I managed to arrange one place to look at, that appointment would be in three days, I got a phone call subsequently to say it had already been let, and frankly at that point despair was beginning to set in.

All those freshers and post-grads seem to have Mummies and Daddies and require interim places to stay of their own, so it had been impossible to find a B&B or hotel room for under £150 a night, so I had grabbed a bed in a youth hostel. In fact, I managed to grab the last bed in the youth hostel. It was close enough to town and things for walking to all those estate agents, but really it wasn't very nice and being stuffed on the bottom bunk with my feet hanging over the end just wasn't helping the situation any. It was starting to feel as though I just wasn't meant to live here, whatever job I'd arranged, and I was getting more stressed about it as the hours wore on. Yes, hours. Nervous just doesn't cover it!

The answer came, as it so frequently does, by way of my friend Lian. Through my wailing and gnashing of teeth down the phone at her about how horrible it all was, she quickly pointed out that I had one thing that the grad students didn't have, which was an income and therefore I could rent an unfurnished flat and quite simply purchase a sofa and bed and chairs and the like. It didn't need to all happen over night. She made complete sense. Immediately after her, I talked to the Bakers (who I spend Christmases with) up in Bristol, as I was going up there for a home cooked meal and a little TLC the next night. I told them my new plan. Mr Baker immediately threw his shoulder behind the grindstone, and got quite excited in fact. Things were moving quickly. In fact, very quickly, as I had been notified that someone in my new firm in fact had a flat for let, but since it was unfurnished, I had written it off as a prospect. Arriving the next day at the firm to sign contracts and things, I asked if it was still available, and on finding out it was promptly was whisked upstairs to be introduced, and as it turns out, to head out and look at the flat immediately.

It was fine. More than fine – it is great. It is brand newly built, so it doesn't seem to leak or anything, and the insulation and heating are all top notch efficiency, etc. I am the first person to live there, and while I was given the keys right away, I had to take up the sticky plastic they'd put in on top of the hallway carpet to stop construction people from getting mud and stuff all over it. It is also an easy 15 minute walk to work (and an even easier walk home since that's downhill that way). Life was goo again, and so I left for Bristol with a large chunk of life seemingly settled and a huge weight off my shoulders.

The Bakers were incredible in helping, but they really do excel at this sort of thing. While I had been just coming up for dinner and to stay the night since the trains would be late and I wouldn't have to be anywhere the next day anyway, I wound up staying most of the day going through their attic, and having them take me to look at the bed a friend had for sale cheap since she had moved to Australia. I arrived back in Exeter with a box full of cutlery, plates, saucepans, and a radio to make me feel not quite alone in my flat. Even more importantly I had not just one but two types of home made Mrs Baker jam, the pleasure of which cannot be over-estimated.
With my little radio (complete with short wave for listening to cricket commentary) plugged in, I rapidly became addicted to Radio Four, which was a little odd as it kept never being what I expected. First up was "Book at Bedtime" which rather than being a soothing little nighty night story was this week excerpts on the devil from Milton's "Paradise Lost." Not quite soothing. Thankfully it has now finished with that, and is on to Graham Greene. I then recognized the theme tune to the Archers (very perky, very quirky and upbeat, and suggested by Billy Connolly as the alternate to the British national anthem) so I listened for the first time ever. I thought it would all be tepid and rather, well, geriatric, but no. Someone's leaving her husband, telling him that the baby is some other guy's, etc, and then whap, after the high melodrama, there's that perky theme tune again. I was shocked, shocked I tell you! And of course immediately addicted.

Never mind, there was a flat to set up. With still no bed (the Bakers were bringing it down on Sunday, with a spare chest of drawers, bless) I attempted to blow up the air mattress to discover it had a slow leak. Still, sleeping bag on the floor was fine, and much better than the bottom bunk of the dorm room in that hostel. And I thought a hot bath would go down a treat, but it meant that I then had to figure out how to turn on the never before used hot water, and at that moment I was not up to the task. So after a cold bath, and the discovery that totally unfurnished means things like no toilet paper, paper towels, etc etc, I gave up and went to bed anyway. All that could get rectified the next day, and indeed it did. I also got to discover my closest town, which is Topsham. Topsham is very Olde Worlde and pretty with an excellent real ale pub down on the water, and is less than a ten minute stroll from the flat. It also has an incredible cheese shop. These things matter to me.

Right, that's long enough. I have work to do and I'm going to do it. More on starting work later. Suffice it to say for the moment that everyone is incredibly friendly and nice so I'm sure I'll fit in eventually!