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Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Farringdon Apple Orchard

Working in London was just as I'd expected. The people were civilised and polite and curt. The weather was like something out of a dream. I started shopping at Waitrose instead of Tesco. And of course, everyone had an Apple.

I took up the familiar role of 'intern'. Though it was the same internship with the same company, my experience London office could not have been more different to my time with newly set up the Mumbai outfit. It felt like the Shravan who was took the tube to Farringdon station and drank coffee was a few years older than the Shravan who jumped off the rickshaw in the mid-July Monsoons in Mumbai. There, you see, I drank tea. I would walk into work at 10am and make myself a cup of milky chai as the marble sized rain drops pounded the large glass windows. The air con was always on full blast. There was no air con in London - the sun that shone gloriously through the window was all the seasoning the 5th floor office's micro-climate needed.

I had a long commute. By the end of my stint, I completed it without even thinking. I knew where to stand on the platform, which carriage I needed to get on at Hammersmith to get me closest to the exit at Farringdon and even where to position myself to get a seat when the packed tube car emptied as the school kids got off at Ravenscourt Park each morning.

I'd leave the west London suburbs each morning at 8 and be at work at 9:10. Coffee and a banana at 11 became a habit. Between my arrival and my mid-morning snack, I usually faffed around as all interns do when there isn't any work or anyone pressuring them to do anything. I'd read up on case studies I'd been given previously or fiddle around with some slideshows that are pretty much as good as they're going to get. I would try to modify my 'decks' to get them looking as professional as possible. Decks are a funny thing in the marketing communications world: everyone makes dozens of them but when you ask someone what a 'deck' actually is, you don't get one straight answer. There is no simple answer. There are many interpretations of the simple platform. One of my first assignments was to make a deck outlining the competitors in one of our client's market. One colleague told me a deck was like a deck of cards - a group of simple slides light on content but very memorable visually. Someone else told me a deck is a framework for presenting - its more of an framework that your slideshow has to follow. It was one of the many things I'm thankful I came to know about through my internship.

The office itself was large and being the industry it was, filled with all kinds of crazy ornaments. The walls had zany posters and pictures and the corners had very artsy stuff like mannequin heads or abstract sculptures. The windows let in a lot of light and so the office was usually bright. All the tables were large and their wood was a dark brown. Against the earthy tones of the tables, the white Macs jumped out at one's eye. The design guys had two gigantic screens while most of the others had slim white laptops. *ahem* Macbooks. Sorry.

Though my actual tasks were pretty similar in both offices, the atmosphere and the dynamics between me and my co-workers were totally different. In India, the 'intern' is a novel idea. In my, case I was always the boss's friend's son and had to be treated well and sort of ushered along. Just moved from project to project so that I don't get in anyone's way and do some unwanted work in the process. I was not taken seriously until I stood up and did more than was expected and really went out of my way to contribute. And after that I was taken in with open arms as part of the team. By the end I was sometimes even respected as an equal. I have also only interned with relatively small offices in India. London was different. I had no friendly aunt/uncle to watch over me; no inherent claim to fame amongst my colleagues. I was just another intern. They were used to interns here. I was definitely a small fish in a big pond.

I was always greeted with a smile by everyone at the office. But they were rehearsed smiles, only face deep. And why should they be any different? These smiles were wheeled out for one or two new interns every few months. Know this: all my colleagues were friendly and yet none of them were my friends. I think deep down I was probably seen as just another kid there for some work experience to add to a fledgling CV. Who knows? It wasn't like being a new employee. I saw the induction of a new employee. There was much more warmth and effort taken on the part of my co-workers to get to know the new member of the team. I was just another young face they'd sit along side for two months and then never see again. Is this all coming across as a big negative? I had a blast in Bombay but I learnt more in London.

It was a real job and I was being paid real money. My bosses spoke to me frankly and I was given assignments in a firm manner with real deadlines and couldn't slack off. No one else did. I did my usual duties of photocopying, editing images, researching and hiding my face in meetings. When I did something wrong, people told me. I couldn't go home early for no reason. I had to be back from lunch at a reasonable. Not that I didn't do that stuff in India, but people cared much, much less.

Everything was so routine. My boss wore the same clothes everyday. He always walked from place to fast, laptop in one hand, iPhone in the other. The English make it a point to engage in small talk. Like every interaction, every conversation, has to be prefaced by some inane question and dry answer otherwise one cannot begin one's business in earnest. To ignore the small talk - to enter straight into the meat of the conversation - seemed rude and against protocol.

My boss would be busy all day, getting a second to deliver my small-fry progress report was tough. He was a boss, not a friend of my father's. After the first few weeks, people begin to realise they can use you to do their mundane tasks and the photocopying assignments start to fly in. I love photocopying. I love everything an intern does. That's what I signed up for.

If I could change one thing about my experience in London it would be not being alone all the time. I got given a place on a table that was empty apart from me. I had no one next to me to chat with. If I wanted to talk to someone, I had to email them and then set a time and then have the 5 second chat. When people went out for lunch, they called me sometimes but only sometimes. And even when they did, it was hard making conversation. And for me, that is simply never the case. To put it bluntly, I had to go out of my way to reach out to people, even though they were perfectly amicable young people with similar backgrounds and educations to myself. By the end of the internship, I'd get to work in the morning with the intention of doing my work and leaving and perhaps learning something new along the way. Not having fun, and definitely not making new friends. I should have made more an effort to engage with, say, the football fans in the office. I should have joined the clique as they went for lunch. But instead I read and my Waitrose Pastrami sandwich in silence.

For people who commute, who have 9-6 jobs, I realised that doing things on weeknights is simply out of the question. I got home exhausted mentally and physically. The District Line really takes it out of you. By the time I got off my tube station and started walking home, it was beginning to get dark. The classic, identical English row houses that flanked my path had their large front windows open and the warm glow of the table lamps inside spilled out into the street. Flat screen TVs were being worshiped by toddlers and quiet dinners were being eaten by the elderly. A wife rested her head on her husband's arm as they both sunk into the sofa, watching whatever it is was on Sky One that night with a glass of wine in their hand. And when I got home at 7, to the house of my parents' friend with whose family I was living, I set the table and gobbled up dinner and that was what I came home to. That home exuded such warmth, such love. Every evening I would sit with the family and enjoy the summer air.

When I start working for real, after a friendless day doing thankless tasks, that warmth is what I want to go home to.

1 comment:

Vijay said...

Lovely..and lonely.

I do hope you will NEVER have to stay a day longer in any place that is friendless or thankless to work at.

Still, all good learning, eh?