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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.

Monday, February 14, 2011

A Passenger in Germany

When I got off the plane at Berlin Schoenefeld Airport on that mild October day, I really didn't know what to expect or what I was doing. In a strange turn of events, I had fought off my laziness and my inertia and my will to take the path of least resistance and gotten myself a German visa and a ticket to study exchange year.

As many of you know, I've moved around a lot in my life. I'm used to the packing, the double checking of passports-tickets-wallet-phone-keys and the checklist of things to do on arrival. I love traveling. After over a 100 flights, I still get that shiver of excitement when the captain revs up the plane's engines and your body is sucked back into the seat. I love people-watching at airports and being watched in return at cafes. They are, after my house, where I feel most at home. I love the fish pond at Changi. I love the race between the EU and non-EU lines at Gatwick. I love the KFC at Bangkok's transfer terminal. I love the sail like roof at Hong Kong. I love the blue-purple lights that line the runway at night in Bombay. I love the airport in the middle of Kenya, which was the size of our school car park. I love Dubai's vast array of migrant workers and their uncertainty about what they themselves are doing there. I love the cranky immigration officers at Heathrow and their surprise when I use my English accent. I know my way around.

And yet on arrival into Germany, I felt lost. It was the first time I was moving to a new home, alone. You feel you've got everything covered - and you have - yet when you arrive, there is no one to confide your initial observations in. There is no one to help decipher the language with. My dad was at home and I was at the wrong baggage carousel. And then it began. I met my first friend in Germany and I've never looked back. My tutor, Bart, arrived and got me my first Döner kebab and got me on a train to Frankfurt Oder, an hour away.

I'd always considered the UK to be the pinnacle of Western civilisation. I'd lived there when I was young, go to university there and always associated myself with its culture, at various levels. But after a semester in the land of Bratwurst and Bayern Munich, I have no doubt that Germany is the greatest country in the world. I do not make such a bold claim on impulse and love-drunk enthusiasm. I have experienced it, I have learnt from it and I am in awe at how a country can function without so many of the problems that others face and even take for granted. I am in awe at how cultured its people are - how friendly and welcoming they are to a total stranger who does not speak its language. Where do I begin?

If someone asked me the best thing about my experience over the last 5 months in Germany, I would say the people and the friends I've made. In my first two years in England, I accrued about 70 new friends on Facebook. I was reluctant to attend all the university events and didn't mix with a wide group of people. I was introverted and stuck tight to my friend circle. I grew tremendously close to them and do not regret anything about my time in Birmingham. But in Germany, at EUV on the Polish border, I was simply not allowed to keep to myself. I have over 150 new friends in a little over four months. I made 3 or 4 of my current best friends, on the first day I arrived. The first afternoon in fact. I went to the orientation event (a scavenger hunt across town) thinking it was for fellow exchange students. When the coordinator stood up on the bench and asked "is there anybody who doesn't understand German?", I was the only one to raise my hand. The crowd of about 70 native freshers who had all gathered in the courtyard outside the auditorium all turned to me and I sheepishly said, "sorry mate!". Within five minutes, no less than 10 eager English speakers had quizzed me on my name, home university and country of origin and had promised to translate the rest of the Scavenger Hunt for me as we went along. I was a passenger. I was ushered from place to place with such warmth as I've never felt before. These people - all my age or thereabouts - were genuinely interested in me and what I was doing there.

My thoughts of home disappeared. The image of my dad, pacing up the down our hall way had changed into one of him resting on the sofa, glass folded on his chest. We walked all around town until evening came, completing challenges and making friends along the way. I was the nucleus of the Gernglish speaking crowd, whether I liked it or not. The Scavenger Hunt finished at a bar - a recurring theme, as I'd come to find out in later months - and our team had won. I really didn't care, because I had 10 or 12 friends that I had not had that morning. I was part of a community in less than 5 hours. And it was no honeymoon - I am still close to nearly all of them to this day. They were warm and curious and fun loving and just like the friends I have in England and India. And do you know what? Nearly everyone else I've met in Germany is like them. Their attitude towards me is, anyway.

Their curiosity is not intrusive and excessive, like it is in India. And yet it genuinely exists, like it doesn't in the UK. It's a great balance. I smile when I walk down the street. I smile at people. I never smile in India. Maybe that's more to do with me. The shopkeepers and I have spectacularly awkward conversations about politics, sex and religion in their three words of English and my four in German. I can now order a subway sandwich with aplomb.

The public transport, the state of cleanliness and order, the punctuality and the ability to cut loose and have a great time are all probably the best I've seen after Singapore. What sets Germany apart from places like Hong Kong and Singapore is that while all the stereotypes about organisation and methodical execution ring true - and how! - centres for art and music and creative energy like Berlin exist and thrive and provide a fantastic theatre for exploration. Germany has its underbelly, like any country, but it does not spill out into spaces for public interaction like it does in the UK. All that stuff is there, all that comes to expect from a 1st world country who's cogs and gears have been refined and oiled to near perfection is there.

And yet there is one thing about my time there that I feel best sums up my opinion that Germany is the benchmark, the goal everyone else should aim to reach. It is unnervingly difficult to put my finger on it, but I shall try and articulate:

When I'm at the lunch table and I'm facilitating or over-hearing different conversations about current affairs or international news or pop culture, something odd occurs to me. The Germans don't feel the need to care about happenings in other countries and to compare their standards to those. As an Indian I'm used to thinking in terms of how well other countries do something. As a UK resident for 5 years, I'm used to discussing the rise of other economies, the superiority of other sports team over England's or, for argument's sake, some catastrophic event somewhere else in the world and what the British government is doing about it. In Germany there is simply not this sense of looking outside, of measuring against others or of wanting to feel adequate on a global stage.

My friends talk about their country's issues. They watch German comedians as well as international ones. They are not pawns to a small club of media outlets. There is not this sense of impending doom, of constant pessimism and unwavering cynicism. Its a pessimistic, cynical doom-monger, this is a shock to my system. And let it not come across that the Germans are self-obsessed. Far from it. My peers are amongst the most well informed I've come across. They read. Do I have rose-tinted glasses on? Maybe. Probably. But I'm only telling you what I've seen, what I've experienced. Young people in Germany are satisfied and when they aren't, they do something about it.

I know the country has issues. My friends have explained them to me in detail. It is no utopia (especially not for a foodie like me). But by God it is the closest I've seen in my short time on this earth. Forget the democracy, the export driven economy, the high standard of living, the roads, the art galleries, the nightclubs, the ability to deal with snow, the foreign policy, the history, the scenery and everything else. It is a country filled with sensible people who go out of their way to make you feel welcome and wanted.

I fear I have rambled. I shall conclude by saying: I love Germany. I love everything about it. I have not even mentioned the women!