Ducks not doves – but it’s close enough for me!

December 15, 2010

This month the three of us went to Geneva – Alastair, me and The Black Dog. 

 Al’s been offered a job in Switzerland and we needed to see if we could live happily ever after there.  I believe you can tell within a few hours whether you can thrive in a city or not. 

 It was way back in 2005, on my first visit to London as an adult, that I realised the city and I didn’t gel.  I arrived at Stansted Airport from Dublin at 6 o’clock in the morning and made my way to my cousin Hayley’s flat.  I emerged from Archway Tube Station and blinked into the spring sunlight.  I looked at my map and it wasn’t clear which direction I was facing or where I should turn.  I asked a tattooed, fat-bellied construction worker for directions and he said, ‘Luv, turn left then right, then right then left, then left again’.  I glazed over and all I absorbed was the first turn left then right and I thought I’d be fine from there.  I wasn’t. 

It was as if someone had blindfolded me, turned me round and round and then taken it off again.  I dragged my two bags and 30kgs of luggage through the quiet, unrecognisable streets.    I was hot and tired and I could feel lines of sweat dripping down my back, tickling me as they converged in the crack of my back side.  I got to a random street corner, stamped my foot, flung my bags aside and thought, ‘That’s it.  This place sucks’.    I then bellowed ‘Hayley!  HAYLEY!!  HAAAAYYYYYLLEEEYYY!’ and hoped she would magically emerge from one of the buildings.   Ever since then, London and I haven’t got on.

I have a wild imagination and when Al got the offer, I had visions of skiing on weekends, yodelling and skipping with joy across the mountain tops like in Sound of Music.  I had to root myself firmly in reality and force myself to control my fantasies during the weekend, which felt a bit like stuffing a lid on a steaming pot. 

The weekend wasn’t a holiday.  It was emotionally exhausting.  The opinionated ‘yes’ me and ‘no’ me played tug of war in the bag seat of my brain and it wore me down.  There’s some litter in street.  NO!  It’s so peaceful.  YES!  That building looks a dump.  NO!  This place is cleaner than London.  YES!  Where are all the people?  It’s too quiet.  NO!  The scenery is beautiful.  YES!  We don’t speak French.  NO!  But it would be fun to learn a new language.  YES!  I’ve just had the most expensive, effing pizza of my life.  NO!  NO!  NO!  Yes no yes no yes no yes no. 

My first impression of Switzerland was of precision and cleanliness.  My life experience so far has taught me that this is not necessarily a good thing as precision comes with loads of bureaucracy.  Nevertheless, Geneva airport was clean and clinical and I would happily have had an appendectomy right there in international arrivals if I had to.  Even the Swiss flag looks like something out of the Red Cross.

Geneva has been voted one of the most boring cities in the world.  Why would we want to move to a city with those credentials?  It doesn’t bother me though as it means fewer tourists.  No Asian families taking photos of post-boxes or street lamps.  No tourists ambling along the pavements, gazing at their surroundings and clogging my path.  What the city lacks in exuberance, soul and sparkle, the surrounding countryside makes up for.  It is deeply and endlessly gorgeous and as we walked along the lakeshore, my spirit felt light and free.

The week before we arrived, Geneva had the fourth largest snowfall since 1895.  This made the landscape crisp and clean but we were concerned because, while freshly fallen snow is stunning, it is like heavenly tip ex and temporarily covers a multitude of sins.  We wondered, what is lurking beneath all this snow?

The price of things in Geneva is unreasonably exorbitant.  On our first evening, we were on a quest to find something affordable to eat.  Even McDonald’s was too steep.  Eventually we settled on a pizzeria and I ate the most expensive Margeurita of my life.   I stared at my pizza forlornly because it felt as if I was just eating cash for my supper.  I couldn’t bear the thought that a simple little pizza was costing over R300.  And that’s cheap!  The average price for a spaghetti carbonara was around 40CHF/£35/R350. 

I wondered, ‘If pasta costs so much, how will I afford run-of-the-mill hygiene expenses like a hair cut?’  I pictured myself in front of my mirror, hacking away at my hair with the kitchen scissors the way I used to do when I had a fringe.  Al’s salary is adjusted for the extra expense but you can’t justify the Geneva prices for a spaghetti carbonara or haircut no matter how much you earn.  It’s ironic that 250 global NGOs are based in a place like Geneva where the price per person for a simple office lunch could feed a family in Sub Saharan Africa for a month.

After all the too-ing and fro-ing, yes and no’s and pros and cons, it came to this:  We are weary of London and we need a change.  Britain is depressing me and I’m watching it become a nation state equivalent of Asda.  London is cold and anonymous.  My favourite writer Charlie Brooker is correct when he says, ‘Rather than break their stride, pedestrians in London would blankly step on your face if you were dying on the pavement, quietly tutting at the blood on their shoes.’  Maybe the Swiss would stomp on my face too but at least I would bleed to death in picturesque surroundings.

Most exciting of all, I think The Black Dog may not enjoy my company as much in Switzerland and I’m hoping I can leave her behind in London.

 I have felt lost, alone and directionless for many months.  I recently had a picture of being stuck in snow and a dove suddenly appears to guide me in the way I should go.  While we were in Switzerland, I would have loved some literal sign of the dove as a definite, overwhelming confirmation.  On our final day, we walked on the lakeshore.  We saw hundreds and hundreds of ducks in the water.  They were cold and still but they were a community and seemed happy and settled.  I didn’t see any actual doves but I saw ducks and felt peace.  That’s good enough for me.

Al has a 3 month noticed period and resigned today.  From now until March, we’ll walk across the carpet to the light of the open door.


Planet I.T.

December 11, 2010

Let me tell you about a very important lesson I have learned in my working experience so far.  You must never ever burn your bridges with some key groups in a company.  If you do, it is a CLM (Career Limiting Move).  When these people say the sky is green, then green the sky will be.  You should nod in agreement.  These two groups are PAs or secretaries and the IT department.

IT people use certain tactics to maintain an aura of exclusivity and competence and keep the computer illiterate at bay.   For the sake of your own productivity and sanity, it is therefore essential that you earn their favour.  You must not be intimidated by the following three techniques that they use to ward off potentially hysterical or whiney customers.

1.  IT people are bureaucratic

IT people are rigid about procedures and you have to follow a certain protocol to get things done.  Most of the time, they prioritise issues based on electronic support request forms that you must submit when you have a problem.   First in first out, that’s the rule.

On many occasions, I have spun into computer departments, desperate for them to resolve a crisis on one of my projects.

They always say, ‘Have you put in a support request yet?’

‘No! No!  I don’t have time to put in a support request dammit.  This is a major crisis!’

It’s a bit like flagging down a police car because your house is on fire.  You scream, ‘Help Help!’  They respond calmly and say, ‘Please can you dial 999 and put in a support request first’.  You must then back off, with your tail between your legs, and submit a form while the fire rages around you.

When I was an accountant at a Big 4 firm, I had to liaise very closely with our internal computer department.  Working with IT people, especially in the process driven UK, is a bit like signing up for the annual winter Tough Guy competition.  It is an obstacle course that is a gruelling test of pain and endurance.  The computer teams constantly put bureaucratic land mines in my path that made it mission impossible to achieve milestones on time.

2. IT people work really fast

IT people often create an illusion of competence by working really fast.  They click the mouse here, click the mouse there and click the mouse everywhere.  Screens pop up and then close as they race around your computer, trying to find solutions.  The speeds at which they flick around, even if they have no clue what they’re doing, convinces you they have some sort of expertise.

3. IT people love jargon

IT people love jargon.  If you hang around in their offices, it is as if you’re listening to a complex medical procedure inside a hospital operating theatre.  You feel as if you’re an extra on a Grey’s Anatomy episode and it’s very intimidating.

  • Scalpel!
  • Drupal!
  • He’s in b-fib.  Charge to 500.  Clear!
  • Clear the cache.
  • Give him 210 of EPI.
  • Reformat the hard drive.
  • Get him to the OR stat.
  • Run a query on live in SQL.

In South Africa, they allude to IT security but don’t really practice what they preach, especially in the public sector.  This means it’s much easier to high jump over bureaucracy and gets things done faster.  In the UK, server rooms are secured with locks and bolts and passwords but, in South Africa, I remember being left alone in the server room of a strategic government department after my contact, called Chilliboy, disappeared.

When I was working in Johannesburg, one of my clients was in the media and broadcasting industry.  I loved visiting their chill office because the lack of urgency in everything they did was refreshing.  One day I had to install some accounting software for them.  My contact at the company was a dreadlocked, gum-munching guy called Aaron and he padded down the corridor to greet me, in his socks.

He led me into the server room, where we were to spend the day.  The room contained big black machines that were bolted to metal shelves all the way up to the ceiling.  It was filled with controls, with bleeping, with flickering red lights and the constant hum of processors.  It felt like the inside of a cockpit.  Aaron explained this room controlled the data, the security and the connectivity of the company’s computers throughout Southern Africa.

I crawled under a table and looked for an empty socket to plug in my laptop.  The floor was covered in a bird’s nest of cables and all sockets were full, if not overloaded.  I asked Aaron for some help and he joined me on his hands and knees under the desk.  Aaron scratched around, popping his gum and mumbling as he pondered which plug we could replace with mine.  ‘I think it’s this one’, he said and boldly pulled the plug out.

The room went silent.  The machines were still.  The humming and bleeping stopped. The red lights no longer flickered.

Aaron and I looked at each other under the table.  ‘Oops’, said Aaron.  ‘Oops’, I said too.

Aaron quickly popped the plug back in and the machines whirred back to life again and the staff throughout Southern Africa were reconnected to the network.

Only in Africa.