Friday, 24 May 2013

Culture Shock of the British Workplace

...or maybe just my British workplace.

I've been at my job for just over 2 months now and I must admit that when I started, I wasn't entirely prepared for the cultural differences between American and British offices.  Granted, I only have experience in one of each so I am generalizing x1,000,000, but based on my conversations with other interns with different work placements, a lot of things seem to be similar across the board.

For one thing, time is much more relaxed here.  That meeting that starts at 10:00?  Don't bother leaving your desk until 10:05 unless you want to sit in the meeting room alone for a while.  And the appointment you scheduled at 9:00 with one other person is just as likely to happen at 2:00 as it is at 9:00 because schedules are fluid and frequently change.  I've actually adapted to the change rather well which is as surprising to me as it probably is to any of you who know my schedule-loving nature.

People in the workplace are polite to a fault.  If you're in a meeting and you spout a load of rubbish, it's extremely rare that someone will call you on it.  Everyone will smile and nod and say "OK" rather than being direct and calling bull.  I've been a part of a few (very few) meetings where people have been more direct and gotten to the point, and after each one someone has apologised to me because they're "sorry [I] had to hear that."  It surprises me every time because in my mind, that's just how meetings are.  The whole overly-polite approach has been challenging for me.  I keep fairly quiet in these meetings because I'm afraid of being too direct and being perceived as rude.  I haven't worked out the right balance yet, but I'm working on it.

Speaking of being polite, co-workers and even managers will compliment you when you haven't earned it.  I feel like that's the complete opposite of the American office.  I've turned in reports here where I'm told I've done a really great job, but then get the copy back with edits up and down the page.  I'm thankful for the edits and happy to make the changes because I want the end product to be the best it can be, but I could do without the "great work" pep-talk when the work isn't great.  I'd rather be complimented when the work really is great so I know the feedback is genuine.

Technology is not a priority here.  I was shocked when I showed up for my first day of work and discovered that I would be using Microsoft Office 2003.  That software is a decade old.  I was still in high school when this software was relevant.  I feel so clumsy using it because you lose so much functionality when you downgrade from the newer versions.  Especially in Excel.  I used to know a decent number of Excel tricks, but they simply don't exist in the 2003 version (or they're a LOT harder to execute).  Outlook is the same way.  The first time I sent out a calendar invite I had to delete it right away because the default date was in the past.  Seriously?!?!  The calendar software couldn't figure out I wasn't planning a meeting for 3 days ago?  It assumes I want to schedule this meeting for Monday of this week, even though it's already Thursday?  Who designed Microsoft Office 2003 and what on earth were they thinking?

Cultural Awareness is a priority here.  It's really cool to see how people think in terms of working with other countries.  I think in America we focus very inwardly, whereas here people focus very outwardly.  The proximity of so many European countries almost demands it, especially in a business sense.  Perhaps it's the same for international organizations based in America, but I would be surprised if you saw it to the same extent.

Without a doubt, work-life balance is better here.  Employees get lots of annual leave, plenty of bank holidays, generous maternity and paternity leave, extended leave options, and so on and so on.

I'm still adjusting to the nuances of the British office, but it's an exciting change.  I like the feel of the workplace in London.  I'm very fortunate that I enjoy the work I'm doing and the team that I get to work with.  It's the exact opposite of the position I held in the states at the exact opposite type of organization (i.e., from an outwardly focused role to an internally focused one, from a small organization to a giant one, from a local non-profit organization to an international corporation), so I'm thankful that this proved to be a good fit.  It's an amazing opportunity to get to see both ends of the spectrum.  The hard part is deciding which one I like better when it's time for me to settle down after my year is over...

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Solo Saturday

Why Today was Awesome

1.        All of my roommates were out of town today for various reasons, so for a few hours I had the flat to myself.  I get along really well with all of my flatmates, but for that short window it was pleasant to be on my own.  It was the first time I’ve been alone since I’ve been here.  Back in the States, I had my own office, my own car, my own bedroom, et cetera, so it was easy to get privacy any time I needed or wanted it.  Here, all of that has changed.  There are always people around whether I’m at work, at the flat, or somewhere in between.  There is no way I would want to live here alone all the time, but it was nice to get that privacy and freedom for a day.  I could do my laundry without worrying about anyone else’s clothes being in the washer.  I could use the kitchen without sharing cooking space.  I could watch TV and not feel like it was interfering with anyone’s music/skype/phone call/whatever.  Now 2 of my flatmates are back and I’m glad to have them here.  =)

2.       Because my roommates were gone, I took the opportunity to go out in London on my own.  It’s really not a big deal to go out exploring solo.  Up until today though, I always had someone else with me.  Today I proved that I can make my way around town without getting lost and without relying on someone else.

3.       I woke up unusually early.  I was up late last night figuring I would sleep in today, but I was awake without an alarm at 8:30.  That’s very unusual for me.  It worked out extremely well because it gave me time to lazily get ready for the day and run my errands before getting on to the more exciting stuff.

4.       I finally found a store that sells the basics for reasonable prices.  I bought a pasta strainer, a spoon rest, and hangers for just over 5 Pounds (I can’t find the button the insert the Pound symbol on this computer).  The store also sells storage containers, which I’ve been searching for ever since we moved into the flats.  I realize this sounds so simple to anyone back in the States, but it was a pretty big deal for me.

5.       I had Chipotle for lunch.  For free.

6.       I went to Harrods.  Thanks to my history of watching Project Runway, I could pronounce the names of most of the designers featured throughout the store.  Thanks to my history of working in the non-profit sector, I could not afford anything there.  To be honest, even if I did have enough money to spend 700 Pounds on a toothbrush holder (that is not an exaggeration.  I saw an actual toothbrush holder that cost over 700 GBP), I would never spend money on things that extravagant.  The store made me feel a little bit sad about society, but made me feel good about myself and my priorities.  I guess that’s condescending; I don’t care.  To be fair, I will admit that I picked out a dress, jewelry, and handbag for if I ever marry someone famous and have to attend a red-carpet event with him…

7.       The weather was GORGEOUS when I left Harrods, so I went to Hyde Park.  I sat on the edge of the lake and enjoyed everything happening around me—the people, the swans that swim right up to you so long as they think they see a speck of bread floating around, the sun reflecting off the gentle waves.  I wish I had brought the book I’m reading (The Fault in Our Stars by John Green) or a journal with me.  It was the perfect environment to sit outside and do something literary.  Without those distractions, it was still a good environment to think deep, important thoughts that seem a little silly once you get back to your fluorescent lit bedroom and are surrounded by drying laundry.

8.       Speaking of laundry, I finally found the washing machine guide today, which led me to discover the setting that gets my close almost dry!  I had three shirts that were dry enough to fold and put away directly from the dryer.  It was a momentous occasion.

9.       A new episode of Doctor Who was on.

10.   I got to Skype with my sister.  For some reason when we Skype I can’t see her.  She can see me through the video chat, but it never works from her end.  Even so, it was great to talk to her.

11.   I kept thinking it was Sunday today.  Every time I remember that tomorrow is still the weekend, it’s like getting a bonus day off.

And that, my friends, is why my “Solo Saturday” was awesome.


Norman Nine Fingers

It's always a challenge to remember where I left off in this blog.  I just had to read the end of my last post to figure out what I had yet to write about.  Not a whole lot happens during the weeks (work, boring life stuff like laundry and grocery shopping, endlessly trying to get this room organized when there isn't enough room for everything; you get the picture), so I'll skip ahead to the next weekend.

At this point we're up to 11-14 April.  That's how they write dates here, with the day first and the month second.  I still have a hard time figuring it out in numerical format.  Sure 20-03-13 is easy enough to figure out, but 04-05-13 means I'll have to think for a minute whether it's April 5 or May 4.  Anyway, back to 11-14 April....

Thursday and Friday nights I went out to celebrate my roomie's birthday.  It was a good mix of hanging out with other people from the program and hanging out with locals who had some great tips and suggestions to share.  One of the places we went was a mexican place called Las Iguanas.  I was disappointed I didn't get a quesadilla like I planned, but I did have a few yummy margaritas.  This was also the weekend that many people here met "Gay Stanley," my placeholder gay bff while I'm away from my real one back home.  Don't ask.

On Saturday I took a tour of the Globe Theater.  It's not Shakespeare's actual theater, but it is a very cool re-creation of what his theater most probably looked like.  Being there brought back such fond memories of my friends from high school and some very dear teachers.

For me the cooler part is what happened after we left the Globe.  A bit off the beaten path is the Rose, a theater that came before the Globe and which the plans for the Globe were based on.  Back in the late 80's (or maybe early 90's), excavation crews found the original remains of the Rose when they tore down a building in order to make way for a new high-rise.  The remains started to decay once they were unearthed so the site had to be filled in again, but they're working on re-excavating it now and properly preserving it.  I got to stand on the site on the original Rose theater and be a (very very small) part of preserving it!  That's not something you'll see in any London guidebooks, but I think that someday when it's all preserved and on display it will be on lists of top things to do in the city.  The hipster in me loves the fact that I got to be a part of it before it was cool.

Sunday started out at Camden and Camden Lock Markets.  A lot of the vendors at the markets have the same merchandise.  Even so, you can't beat the atmosphere.  Camden is a sort of crazy end of town and I think it's a great place to go for a few hours to get some energy.  Everything's a bit eccentric.

It was a beautiful day and the type of weather where you want to be outside, so after the market we went to the London Zoo.  I think I might like the Cleveland Zoo better, but there were a bunch of undeniably cool features at the London Zoo.  Without a doubt the best part was the monkeys.  You know how a lot of zoos have Butterfly Experiences where you can walk around in a hall where the butterflies are all around you?  The London Zoo does that WITH SPIDER MONKEYS!!!  You're walking through this habitat and all of a sudden there's a monkey right next to you.  You're not allowed to touch the monkeys because they'll bite you, but you are close enough that you could touch them if you for some reason felt like you had too many fingers and wanted to get rid of some.

I also got to see some animals I had never seen before and watch some zebras play-fight.  The birds were surprisingly beautiful--many with brightly colored feathers that were mesmerizing.  Normally I'm not a big fan of birds, but I could have watched these things for hours.

After the zoo we got yummy "knickerbocker glories" from an ice cream truck and walked forever to find an open tube station.  The ice cream tasted like cake batter and was the perfect treat to wrap up a day in the London sun.  I did manage to get a bit of a sunburn on my neck from being outside so long.  And yes, as far as I know, I am the first person to ever get a sunburn in London.  Let's face it, this place isn't exactly known for it's warm sunny weather.

Best regards,

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Remember the Time We Went to Putney? Me Neither.

I've had so many adventures that I want to blog about so I can share them with all of you back home, but the having of adventures takes up a lot of time, which means very little time to document such things.

Picking up where my last post left off--The Sunday after my tour of London and the National Gallery, there was a big boat race on the Thames.  The rowing teams from Oxford and Cambridge race every year and it's a fairly big deal here.  One of my co-workers told me all about it and I really wanted to go since this is a once a year thing and I'll never have the opportunity again.  Two of my flatmates and I made plans to head to Putney, where the race starts, to see the teams set out.  Due to several factors including us leaving later than we originally planned, closures on the underground, and a trip that was longer than we had realized, it took us a very very long time to get to Putney.  We spent about an hour riding the tube.  When we finally got to Putney and left the tube station, there was a mass of people flooding towards us.  The race was over and everyone was heading out.  There's really nothing else to do in Putney on a Saturday, so we had no choice but to turn around and get right back on the tube.  Such a disappointing day...

Monday's plans didn't work out so well either.  Since it will be a while before we get paid, we tried to focus on the free activities in London.  On Monday we decided to go to the Natural History Museum which doesn't have an admission fee.  I was really looking forward to it until we arrived and saw the line to get in.  It seemed like everyone else in London had the same idea we did.  The entire yard in front of the museum was a giant line of people, most of them families with young children.  There was no way we wanted to stand around in the cold for hours waiting to get in and then not be able to see the exhibits because of the crowds, so we gave up on the museum for this trip.  Luckily, we weren't too far from Hyde Park and Kensington Palace so we ventured there instead.  I'll be going back to the park and gardens as soon as spring arrives and everything starts to bloom.  Despite it being April already, it's still been very cold and wintery here ever since we arrived.  More recently we've had a few nice days, but over-all the weather's been rubbish.

The following weekend was Dorset Weekend, a team-building adventure with other people doing the program.  Dorset is nearly 3 hours outside of London and I got to see some decent scenery on the train rides there and back.  The weekend was split into different parts.  On my first day, my group got to go rock climbing and abseiling (repelling) on a cliff called Dancing Ledge.  It's on the English Channel and it's GORGEOUS there (Google Image Search "Dancing Ledge" and you'll see what I mean). I am so upset that I didn't have my camera with me.  I was really nervous for the abseiling and of course that was my first activity.  You start off standing at the very edge on top of the cliff and lean back until you're in a sitting position with your legs straight out in front of you.  Then you walk down the cliff.  It was a pretty neat experience.

Climbing up the cliff was more challenging for me, as my fingertips went numb from the cold rocks and I lost my grip.  I swung and spun on my rope and crashed into the face of the cliff pretty hard.  I was a good sport and tried to keep going only to have the same thing happen again.  Luckily the only damage done was a gash on my knee and a very big bruise.

The following morning was a ropes course that was AWESOME.  Those of you who know me well know that I'm scared of everything, but I approached each activity with the mindset that I would try everything and go as far as I could, and that it was OK if I didn't finish it as long as I tried.  With that as my guide, I was able to complete all of the activities.  The first big one was a tall pole that was topped with a see-saw.  Four people climbed up the pole onto the see-saw and then had to make it balance.  Do any of you know how hard it is to stand up 50 feet off the ground on a plank of wood that is MOVING with nothing to hold on to???  I was shaking so badly from the cold, the nerves, and the adrenaline.  We got the see-saw to balance, then did  the can-can (because hey, why not?).  Getting down was an adventure too as the guide had us all push each other off.  As I was being lowered back to solid ground, I got to flip upside down, grab the rope with my feet, and let go with my hands.  It was such a free feeling--I loved it!  The next challenge was similar.  A 50 foot pole with a small platform on top.  Two people climb the pole and both have to stand on the tiny platform.  It was so small that when my partner got to the top, I had to stand on one foot to make room for us.  Then, as a team, you both JUMP OFF the platform 50 feet in the air to catch a trapeeze.  I only managed to catch it with one hand and lost grip after a few short seconds.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed the activities.  I felt so safe in the harness that I would have been happy to keep climbing and jumping off of things all day.  I definitely want to do another ropes course sometime, and try ziplining.

On Sunday we were back in London and despite being exhausted, I wanted to go out and explore.  The weather was a lot nicer than it had been, so I went to Covent Garden Market.  Browsed around for a long time, checked out some really neat stores, and found a lot of things I wanted to buy but that were too impractical.  The problem with shopping here is that you always have to question what you're going to end up doing with it.  Am I going to be willing to pay to ship it back home (because my luggage was full coming here and it's going to be full when I leave) or am I going to be willing to leave it here?  I don't want to buy a lot of things that are going to get left behind because that feels like a waste of money.

After Covent Garden, my roommate and I wanted to other parts of town and went to a giant bookstore and then to a comic / cult show store where they have a TARDIS (a Doctor Who thing for those of you who don't follow the show).

I'm trying to make the most of every weekend here.  There is still so much to see and do here that I can't imagine ever being bored in this city.

I would say I'll try to update this blog more often, but that would be a lie.  Adventure comes first, journaling comes later; and when you live in London, adventure is never far away.

Warm regards,

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Longest Walk Ever to the National Gallery

I finally saw some of London!  It’s a four day weekend here in the UK with offices being closed for Good Friday and Easter Monday.  I ended up sleeping through most of Friday in a failed attempt to shake this nasty cold.  My cough and my voice are worse than ever, but at least I felt well rested.  Ran some errands and then went out for the night to celebrate the birthday of a girl in the program.  We went to Piccadilly Institute, which was a really cool club!  We spent most of the night in the 90’s room dancing to Spice Girls, Destiny’s Child, and I think even one S Club 7 song. 

Saturday was my tourist day.  Had such a wonderful time exploring the city!  My roommate and I decided to go to the National Gallery, which is in Trafalgar Square.  Luckily, I had my handy Rick Steves’ Pocket Guide from my former colleagues.  The book outlined a walking tour that ended at Trafalgar Square, so we ended up taking the longest possible walk to get to the museum.  The walk took us across the South Bank of the Thames River, which is basically a carnival.  There were food vendors and street performers all over the place.  We saw dance crews, fire jugglers, Darth Vader and Captain Jack Sparrow impersonators—all sorts of stuff.  There was a guy playing guitar in the Thames, a sand sculptor on the beach, and a giant used book sale.  We walked right past the London Eye (which I will be doing at some point in the future after I’ve been paid).  From the South Bank, you get your first glimpse of Big Ben.  It’s so iconic that seeing it finally made me feel like I’m here, truly living in London.

We walked down the South Bank to Westminster Bridge and came across the Thames right in front of Big Ben.  Fun fact, the name Big Ben officially applies to the Bell inside the clock tower.  Since the bell isn’t visible, the whole tower and the clock itself sort of adopted the name Big Ben.  Now you know. 
We passed by Big Ben, caught a glimpse of Westminster Abbey, then turned down Parliament St. to see a lot of the official buildings.  We got to walk past the Banqueting Hall and #10 Downing Street where the Prime Minister lives and the Horse Guard that ceremoniously guards the old entrance to Buckingham Palace.

(For any Doctor Who fans who have seen the latest episode, the walk I took is pretty much the same path the Doctor and Clara ride on the motorbike.  The TARDIS shows up on the South Bank and from there they cross the Westminster Bridge and go through Trafalgar Square.  It was so cool to see that on the show just a few short hours after I’d been there in person!)

When we finally got to Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery was directly in front of us.  It’s a gorgeous building with huge stone lions and fountains out front and a grand staircase up to the front of the building.  At that very moment, the sun came out for the first (and only) time all day.  The pictures make it look like it’s very gloomy out, but I swear in that one moment it felt warm enough to stay outside all day.

The gallery itself is really impressive.  We spent three hours there, which for me was just the right amount of time.  My roommate and I spent the first hour or so looking at our favorite works in the collection—a lot of Degas, Monet, van Gogh and other similar artists.  The rest of the rooms we moved through a bit more quickly.  We did get to see some works by DaVinci and Michelangelo.  There were rooms upon rooms of religious art, so after a while a lot of it looked similar to me.  There is absolutely no photography allowed in the gallery, so I don’t have any pics to share from that part of the adventure.

After a nice browse through the gift shop, we took a ride on a very crowded tube to make it back to the flat in time to watch Doctor Who.  As I mentioned above, the episode featured a lot of the locations we had just visited, so of course I loved the episode.  The show is on at 6:15 here, so I see it several hours ahead of those of you who watch on BBC America.  I’ll be sure to avoid posting any spoilers here or elsewhere when new episodes come out.

It feels good to do the touristy bits here in London.  Work got started so quickly after we arrived and then moving into the flat on our first weekend here made it easy to fall into the day-to-day routine, but getting the chance to see some sights makes me appreciate this opportunity all the more.

More updates soon on the rest of my extended weekend, or as I like to call it, Adventures on the Tube.

Kind regards,

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

London Calling

Hi everyone!  I’m assuming the entire audience for this blog will be friends and family from back home, but in case anyone else happens to stumble across this page: Welcome!  I’m Jen and I’m spending the next year living, working, and studying in London.  I plan to keep you all updated with my adventures (both in London and on holiday) and post pics when I can.  I invite comments on my posts, but please DO NOT post where I work.  Though most of you back home know what my job is while I’m here, getting too specific is never a good idea.  Along that same line, I’m never going to post anything specific about where my flat is, particular work stuff, or detailed upcoming plans.

My time in London thus far has mostly consisted of orientation to the program and then starting work.  I haven’t gotten to do anything touristy yet, but that will all (hopefully) change this weekend.  With Easter on Sunday, we get a four day weekend.  My roomie and I plan to go exploring.  Unfortunately, I have a terrible cold right now.  If it doesn’t go away quickly, I might not have the energy to do too much.

The one touristy thing I’ve seen so far is the London Bridge.  Last week for lunch some of us from work headed to Borough Market and on the walk there and back, we had a clear view of the London Bridge across the Thames.  The Market itself was awesome.  What seemed like millions of food vendors were set up with foods from around the world.  I had a bratwurst that was so good it could give the West Side Market a run for its money.

Since I don’t have fun Traveling-Around-London stories to share yet, I’ll fill you in on my day-to-day.  So far, I’ve walked to and from work every weekday.  It’s a half hour walk each way.  It’s been very cold out; that’s probably why I’m so sick at the moment.  Getting around London can be confusing because there are so many little alleys and there are streets that change names every ten feet and then there’s my personal favorite, the 35-way intersection near my office.  Okay, I confess, 35 might be a bit of an exaggeration, but it is a lot and it made it very difficult for me to learn directions to my office.  The highlight of one of my paths to work is walking through a really old cemetery.  It’s a very popular shortcut.  The cemetery closed for burials in 1854 after serving as a burial site for over 1,000 years.  The poet William Blake is buried there! 
I meant to write more, but as you all know, I’m easily distracted.  Spent time talking about Doctor Who with the roomie and now it’s time to get some sleep if I ever want this cold to go away.

Warm regards,