Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Office Politics and Tea

I'm typing this as I sit here desperate for a cup of tea. Something hot, wet, delicious and ever-so-slightly stimulating while I tap away at my keyboard and click my mouse. There's a kettle just through that door over there. Mugs too. I've even brought my own tea bags in.

So why can't I just go and make one?

Well, it turns out this is the sort of office where anyone going into the kitchen to make a cuppa also goes round all of their colleagues' desks offering to make them one too. It presumably began when there was just a small team of developers huddled in a poky office above a bar but the obligation has lasted through the growth and expansion of the company - now there are more than thirty desks on this floor alone.

The thing is, in theory the system should be a good one. You would need to make only every twentieth cup of tea, with the intermittent nineteen being brought to your desk free of any personal effort. Sounds great, right?

No. It's not what I want. No-one makes a cup of tea the way that you make your own. You know exactly how long to keep the tea bag in the water, how much milk and sugar to add and the correct order to do it all in. You know whether you have to wait for the kettle to fully boil and whether to pour it immediately afterwards (that's a 'yes' to both in case you don't).

And the most vital reason why I don't want a cup of tea brought to my desk is this: we spend upwards of eight hours a day staring at computer screens. We already know that doing so is bad for our long-term vision but more recent studies have also shown that it can confuse your brain too by affecting production of natural chemicals like melatonin and seratonin. It just not good for you! So I don't just want to drink tea, I want to step away from my laptop, walk into a different room and stand there for at least ten minutes while I make it. I'd stand up, stretch my legs, stare at a dark wall and breathe.

So I opt out of the system. Every time someone offers me a drink, I politely decline.

But I still can't boil that kettle over there without eyes boring into the back of my head, eyes of the desk-constrained awaiting their turn for a free tea. Because I can't tell them I'm 'opting out', can I? It would be selfish, anti-social, billigerant...

It looks like I'll have to wait until I get home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

I can still be a tourist!

Well I've been back for twelve days now and it feels like forever. The sky doesn't seem willing to stay up where it belongs, instead constantly pushing down grey clouds and wet spatterings, I've got allergic rashes from all the pollution and everyone's grumpy. It's like a darker, colder, less healthy Belgium. But we have to find happy things wherever we go, don't we?

Stimulating debates

I always wanted to join the debating team at school but it clashed with drama group and so was set aside. There's nothing more invigorating than a flat-out argument with someone who's wrong! That's why I've so enjoyed this week's fights with:

 - The Barclays staff who refused to give me my own money after a half hour queue, because I happened to mention that my debit card was in another country.

- The London transport system that made me tap into a train station, wait fifteen minutes for my platform to be allocated, then forced me to tap back out to get to the required platform by which time I'd been fined £10 for failing to travel anywhere, meaning I had to run to a nearby shop and top up my Oyster card again in the three minutes prior to the train leaving.

- Virgin Media (yes, again) for my internet being down for five days, which wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't kept saying "it'll be back on in the morning".

- Admiral Insurance who called to say that they forgot to mention: yes, Cecil is insured to be in France, but only until 7th August after which he'll be legally compliant but not in fact covered for any damage costs to himself. But don't panic - an hour later they called again to say they'd gotten their facts wrong and that he is covered after all.

Aah, Britain's customer service personnel, how I've missed you!

Touring London

This year more than any other, London is a hot global tourist destination. And I was lucky enough to be sent there to work for a week. Lucky me! I took a photo of St Paul's Cathedral in the rain to demonstrate what fun I had.

There can never be too many kittens

But at the end of the week, when the work is done, the hair shaken down and the heels kicked off, there's one genuine joy. Remember the little black kitten I told you about? Well she's back and she's brought a friend! Two curious, friendly, sweet wee cats with matching white bibs. I don't know their real names so I call them Cutey and Skinny Face (Skinny Face is a bit more wary than her sister).

"Oi! Get that camera outta me face..."

Friday, July 6, 2012

Back to the 'Diff

I promised to continue the blog despite putting the travel on hold for a few weeks. So here's a little update for ya.

Power dressing

I had a slight panic as I flew back to Cardiff; would I have anything to wear? I remembered selling a lot of my clothes and for the last four months I'd worn nothing but hiking gear and flowing cotton... if I still owned office attire I didn't know whether it would still fit. Thankfully I arrived back to a rail full of smart dresses and appropriate shoes, so I donned a Karen Millen number with medium-heeled court shoes for my first day.

How could something so pretty hurt so much?
Well that was a painful day! Apparently all this wandering about in super comfortable walking boots has robbed me of my ability to gracefully trip through the town in stilettos - for the first time in my life my legs are the wrong shape. I bought a pair of insoles from Clarks which helped a little but still my calves ached and the balls of my feet felt shredded, even into the next day. It looks like I'm going to need more practice!


I won't say too much about the work I'm doing, mostly because it's not that interesting, but I can tell you that it's no fun being back in an office after such a fulfilling adventure. The people there seem lovely and the location is perfect, but I'm still staring at a computer screen all day long. And my day is forcibly structured - get up at 7, walk to the bus station at 8, spend exactly one hour having lunch... this is not natural, people! Worst of all, I keep thinking. My brain is used to being free to ponder and meditate on a subject of its own choosing and it won't be reigned down again. Working on complicated website stuff is made much more difficult when your imagination keeps drifting off into post-apocalyptic survivalism and flying goats. Sigh.

I don't have a touchtone phone

Before this adventure had started, I'd noticed that one of the scart sockets at the back of the Virgin cable TV box was broken. I hadn't have time to see to it before I went and neither of my current housemates bother watching television so it wasn't an issue. This week I decided to call the media company and get it sorted - a tick for the 'to do' list. After all, it can't be that difficult to just call them up and report the breakage, right? Check out a transcript of my 1hr and 21 minute phonecall.

Tufter II

Last night I had a somewhat surreal experience as I arrived home after catching up with my good friends in the drama group. I stepped out of the taxi and was greeted by a young black cat who fixed me with round green eyes and trotted over with a small miaow.

My pen drawing of a young Tufter
She was actually a short-haired female with a white bib but her personality was so like old Tufter's! She was instantly affectionate, quite happy to be picked up and sat on my shoulder, and incredibly keen to come inside the house (which i didn't allow). I quizzed some of the neighbours and found out who she belongs to - a lady just across the road from me. Hopefully we'll see much more of this little fuzz ball!

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Town in Three Countries

My final weekend of the European tour was spent in the City of Basel, Switzerland. With a little time spent in Basel, Germany. All with a fine view of Basel, France.

I was here to meet Jenny, an old school friend who now lives here with her German fiance Bjoern. With SatNav's help I negotiated the one way system but we still had the challenge of parking Cecil. Jenny and Bjoern hopped in outside their flat and we drove around the quarter on the lookout for any empty space marked in white (not blue) that was large enough to parallel park in. After around fifteen minutes we found an end-of-the-row. To my surprise there was a cream Late Bay with its hazard lights on across the road! But there was no time to take any pictures - we found our way neatly into the space and switched off the engine with relief.

The first evening consisted of dinner, fine wine, gossip and an early night since we'd all had long and tiring weeks to recover from.

Lots of Friends

It was difficult to miss the concentration of VW buses in this place. Having not seen another T2 in all my time in France, I saw 5 within a day here in Switzerland - four late bays and one early bay - plus countless T3s and T4s. I don't know why. But Cecil felt quite at home.

Just one of our new friends
Wave at the Animals

On yet another hot, sunny day, we took a long walk across the city (and across a country border) to a public animal park. Many of the animals, particularly those of a cat persuasion, were sensibly hidden in the shade but there were plenty of large birds including herons and storks perched on distinctive high up nests. Peacocks and peahens skipped away from small children on the paths and occasionally peered into the monkey enclosure looking charactistically grumpy.

Baby storks, not yet strong enough to leave the nest

Drowning in the Rhine

Jenny confided in me that 'Rhine swimming' was her very favourite thing to do, and that we should partake that afternoon to cool down from our sweaty hike. I agreed, imaging splashing about on a little stoney beach somewhere, and we changed into our swimming costumes.

It wasn't until I was chest deep in the river water that I understood what we were actually doing. 'Rhine swimming' consists of packing your gear into a waterproof bag, swimming out to the middle of the Rhine, and then trying to stay safely a float while the undefeatably strong current thrusts you downstream at a rate of several knots. It's important to avoid being flung into any obstacles along the way, such as moored boats or marker bouys. Then, approximately 2km later, you paddle desperately back to the side and grab a ladder in the wall with which to make an exit.

An exciting and frugal way to see the city
I took my waterproof camera again - there are still more photos to take before I can develop the film though!

Switzerland falls down

Once we'd showered, changed and eaten Jenny's fabulous home cooking, we wandered into the City centre for a tour of its sights and a beer on a busy high street that buzzed with every variety of human being. We ambled home and reentered the flat within seconds of a mighty hail and thunder storm, which we then enjoyed from the covered balcony with a cup of hot tea.

It's Art

The rain continued throughout Sunday so we hopped on a bus to the Tanguely museum to enjoy its range of 'machine art'. This local artist focused on putting together bizarre combinations of objects and then making them move in interesting ways. One particular piece included musical instruments to add an eerie sound dimension and another was large enough to enter and walk around. Frustratingly for us visitors, the machines were only allowed to be turned on infrequently so that they wouldn't wear out... there seemed to be a group of excitable children constantly ahead of us turning the sculptures on so that they were immobile by the time we arrived.
Exploring the art
The afternoon was spent back at the flat playing Carcassonne, a highly addictive board game, with a fourth friend of Bjoern's and enjoying a traditional Swiss fondue with some surprisingly drinkable English white wine.
A healthy meal
The end of the Adventure

... Or this leg of the adventure, anyway. I said a sad farewell on Monday and drove back South into France. Cecil was cleaned and aired and left in a sunny airport while I flew back to the grey and drizzly UK for work. Now my task is to get through my contract as quickly and efficiently as possible so that I can return and squeeze just a little more Europe in...