Sunday, November 27, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Sweden

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

Gothenburg, specifically. We quickly found out that our “all inclusive” EurRail ticket actually meant that we still had to pay up to half of the price of a regular ticket plus a rather large “reservation fee.” EurRail was still a pretty good deal, but not quite the bargain we were expecting it to be.

Once again we were in a new city without a place to stay. We tried a couple locations that looked close on the map but turned out to be a hearty walk from the train station. Gothenburg was a very hilly city so bargain hunting with all our personal possessions on our back was not a good idea. We walked up and down a steep incline of hostels until it became clear that cheap lodging did not come easy in Scandinavia. The hostel we chose was white, square, and very sterile-looking. It had a public kitchen and a lobby with a television showing reruns of Golden Girls dubbed in Swedish. Good enough, we decided.

Gothenburg turned out to be another city we zipped through at lightning speed. Most of our sightseeing centered on the Maritime museum, which was a collection of ships and submarines in the harbor. We walked through Hage, the oldest neighborhood of Gothenburg. It was full of red and orange-painted wood buildings with exterior support beams resembling lumber exoskeletons.  

Gothenburg was a fine city but not dynamic enough to slow down our attention-deficit disorder tour, so it wasn’t long before we grabbed the next train out of town in search of…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Norway

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

With our British work visas quickly expiring and a bit of savings in our pockets, we decided to take an extended trip through continental Europe. We caught a discount flight from London to Oslo, though when Ryan Air flew to Oslo, they meant “an area near Oslo, or any area in which the residents may have heard of Oslo.” The airport was several hours from town, but it wasn’t all bad. Our bus ride took us past mile after mile of Norwegian pines and beautiful red and white farmhouses. We weren't in a hurry, and found Norway to be a wonderful place to view from a bus window.

Once in Oslo, we needed to find a place to stay. Fortunately, the city was well-prepared for us. We waltzed into the student tourist center and within minutes, a friendly employee made a few calls and found us some open beds.

Our days included trips to the Viking Ship Museum, the Kon Tiki Museum, and a strange, fairly deserted reconstruction of a traditional Norwegian village. Oslo was beautiful and calm, though a bit sleepier and more expensive than most capital cities. Therefore, we decided to keep our visit short and move on to…

Friday, November 11, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Oxford

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

Our first item of business was to find a roof to sleep under. Fortunately, there was room in the Oxford Backpacker’s Hostel for only eleven pounds a night. We jumped for it. The hostel was filled with loud Brit Pop, which I had no problem with. The walls were colored with green neon paint, though the far side of the lobby was barely visible through the cigarette haze. My room smelled like old socks and Mexican food. My bunk bed sagged horribly, which in one way was a good thing because if it had not, I would have been squished by the sagging mattress above me. I didn’t mind these quirks at all though. I was just happy to have a bed and a roof.  

Hostels always seem to attract a strange flock of people. The crew I ended up rooming with preferred to sleep all day and play video games all night on their mobile phones. For hostel dwellers, it seemed, no matter how old you were, where you were from, or who you were, you could do whatever you wanted and there would always be somebody new arriving to smoke and drink with. If it wasn’t for the rotten conditions and the smell, I might have stuck around and tried to acclimatize myself. However, once a person has graduated from college, anything that smacks of dorm life gets old quickly. So off Karie and I went first thing the following morning, anxious to get out of the hostel and ready to receive the throngs of temp agencies dying for our services.


  Nobody told us it would be easier to find rooms than jobs. Well, that’s not entirely true. Karie managed to find high paying, career-oriented employment near the heart of Oxford at the first agency she visited. Her daily work for the next four months would be as a medical secretary at the Churchill Hospital, a converted army barracks in east Oxford.

As Karie started her job the next day, I began a grueling week tromping up and down cobblestone streets in growing desperation as I tried to find work. My high hopes of IT employment disintegrated bit by bit until I was elated to find a minimum wage job as a tv rental associate at a near-bankrupt company. More on that later.

While all this went on, we had to find permanent places to live. Lacking any sort of transport and not ambitious enough to figure out the bus system, we walked our feet to the bone searching for homes. We spent a small fortune on internet time, newspapers, and phone cards trying to track down landlords. We visited the House of Chain Smokers, the House of Moldy Mattresses, the House of Lava Lamps, even the Nice Little House in the Very Bad Neighborhood. It was nearly my birthday, I was coming down with a cold, and I ended up meeting with a landlord who had an oversized closet that he rented out on the top floor of his flat. Though I didn’t meet the other two renters and I barely knew this man and his house was entirely white inside and out and he had a gigantic, artistic straw throne in his living room, I took it. At least I had a home, even if it meant I had bills before I had any way to pay for them.

I had two flat-mates. One was a chatty Welshman, the other a computer science major at Oxford-Brookes, the technical school in Oxford. The latter loved computer war games, which provided a goodly amount of white noise that I often listened to as I fell asleep. He also - like a true computer science major - avoided nearly all social situations. To his credit though, he did come down from his room for nightly discussions with the Welshman and me about the news or cricket.

Karie had a more difficult time finding somewhere to live. She wanted to find a place within walking distance of mine, which meant she couldn’t be too picky about who she lived with. The first time we met her future landlords, they seemed perfectly nice. They even offered us tea and cookies and asked us about our opinions of George W. Bush (He’s no Tony Blair! Ahahahaha. Cheers!)

We should have paid closer attention. The house was cluttered, stale, and the landlords gave off a strange vibe. But we let our instincts be over-ridden by our increasing desire to leave the hostel. Plus, it was a perfect location at a reasonable price.

After Karie moved in, the landlady rarely spoke to her. When she did, it was because Karie had broken one of the many rules for renters. These rules included, but - due to space restrictions here - were not limited to: no visitors, no leaving for work too early, no staying out late, no cooking with the door open, no answering the front door, no cooking fragrant meals, and no using the trash cans. Karie was instructed to give her rent payment to the landlady and her husband on alternating months because, as the husband explained, they had “different spending priorities.”  

There were odd occasions when Karie or I would see the landlady at the front door or in passing. While most people in these situations usually respond with “Hello” or “Cheers,” she would only emit a startled, ghostly “eeeEEeeeEEEEeee” sound and then vanish into one of the many debris-filled rooms in the house. We often heard her berating her children two floors below. For several unfortunate neighborhood youth, she taught piano lessons. Afterwards, both student and parent would receive an earful about how poor they sounded and how little they must be practicing. Throughout the house there were paintings of people looking bored or sad in drab rooms. We were afraid that they were all previous renters she had permanently cast in canvas.  

Karie was not the only tenant in the house. There was one other renter, who liked three things: complaining about the landlady, researching World War II, and eating. The problem was, there was only one small kitchen for the renters to share. If we wanted to make a meal, we had to dive in and cook quickly while she hovered over us, making it silently clear that she would very much like us to be done using the kitchen.  

My job search continued for most of the first week. I walked every square inch of downtown Oxford and spoke with almost every temp agency. My wallet was bulging with business cards. I’d written out my employment history so many times I could recite from memory the phone numbers of all my former employers. Several times I received calls for jobs I didn’t want, decided I would take them anyway just to pay my bills, only to call back and find out the work had gone to someone more desperate than me. Finally, I landed a job selling TV rental contracts in the prestigious Westgate Centre in central Oxford for a company known as BoxClever.  

Despite its name, BoxClever was not a terribly clever business. TV rental was perhaps a thriving industry in the 60’s when TVs were expensive and not something on which people wanted to spend a lot of money. Eventually, TVs became commodities, the prices dropped, and nobody in their right mind wanted to rent one. Fortunately for BoxClever, many people who started renting TVs never stopped. Nor did their rates go down. So somebody who began renting a TV in 1982 at $8 a month would have paid nearly $2000 by 2002 for a box that probably didn’t even get BBC1 on rainy days. BoxClever was raking in millions of dollars from their customers but also began racking up millions of dollars in debt, probably as a result of renting expensive store fronts in High Street centers. Into this new bizarre scene I stepped, a lowly temp in a world gone clever.

Fortunately, my co-workers had a good sense of humor about the situation and more or less knew the hoax we were pulling on our customers. They also knew that soon we would all be out of work as BoxClever began cutting expenses to pay its debt. As it turned out, we were informed within a week of my arrival that our store and many like it would be closing in a month so that TVs could be rented out of a central warehouse in Northampton. Judging by the age of most of the people who came in to the store to pay their bills, there seemed to be a very real threat that our best customers would soon pass away before that happened. So we all had quite a bit of fun knowing that nothing we did really mattered. My boss didn’t mind when the employees got in marker fights, nor when we greeted customers with Zoro masks, wielding swords made of rulers and masking tape

Because of the store closing, I soon needed to find another job. As luck would have it, my landlord introduced me to a local tree surgeon who was “always looking for strong young lads to help out.” That was pretty much the extent of the interview. Realizing I had no other options, I took the job. The tree surgeon agreed to pick me up and drop me off every day as long as I agreed to help chip up the branches he cut down.  

English winter weather was not as cold as it was in my home state of Minnesota, but the rain created a wet cold that went right to my bones. I would start each day cold, become very warm while working, and take layers off. After a short break, I would become quite cold again as my sweat cooled. To fend off my new-found cold, I would put layers on and start the whole process over again. I was responsible for hauling large amounts of thick tree branches across vast, soggy English estates and into a shredder. It was good work. I picked up catchy little phrases such as “bollocks,” which one said after something bad happened, like when one got hit on the head by a very large branch. Another was “it’s like Christmas, mate,” which one said after something good happened, like when one got hit on the head with a slightly smaller branch.

I gained first-hand insight into the inner workings of a low-tech tree surgery operation. The company operated out of a camper with no electricity, parked in a rented field owned by a local farmer. The old farmer liked to cut firewood from the stumps we brought him. We liked to dump stumps in his farm, so it was a perfect marriage.

  I loved working with the crew. The friendships I formed more than made up for the fact that the weather was horrid, the equipment was often broken, and the work was exhausting. As a bonus, I got to see much of the central English countryside in a way that no tour bus could ever reveal.

Tree surgery filled most of my working life in Oxford, but I had two weeks to fill in April because I was tired of tree surgery and my boss was going to Spain for a spring break rowing trip. I found the cushiest job I could, as a receptionist for NHS Professionals. Working at the Churchill Hospital in the same building as Karie, I sat in a comfy chair in a dry, climate controlled office, picked up the phone a few times, and turned paper clips into the shapes of small animals.


Life in Oxford settled into a comfortable routine. We had our favorite pubs: the Turf Tavern, where we could sit outside in the middle of winter in an enclosed courtyard and roast chestnuts; The Plasterer’s Arms, which was conveniently located at the split in the road where Karie’s journey home departed from mine; The Goose, which was owned by the former chef for Princess Di and sold very cheap lager and meals to Oxford students; and The Eagle and Child, a tiny, smoky haunt made famous as a hangout for C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.  

In addition to a great selection of pubs, Oxford had wonderful van food. Every night around nine o'clock, white vans appeared on High Street, all of them there to feed pub crawlers. These portable restaurants parked curbside, opened their little van-kitchens, and began churning out baked potatoes covered with cheese, salt, or beans; kebabs covered with cheese, salt, or beans; and hot dogs…covered with cheese, salt, or beans. They were all fantastic, but the king of all British late night foods was chips and cheese, or french fries covered with mozzarella. They were guaranteed to go straight to our thighs, but after the pubs closed, all that mattered was whether to cover ours with ketchup or vinegar.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: London

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

We arrived at Heathrow at noon and quickly had to get into downtown London before our 3 PM orientation at BUNAC. BUNAC, an unintelligible acronym which stood for British University North America Campus, was our sponsor in the UK, supplying us with work visas and other paperwork before saying cheers to us several times and ushering us quickly out the door.

  We navigated Heathrow about as well as could be expected. Heathrow is a nation unto itself, comprised of endless corridors, moving tramways, directional arrows, and Hoof and Mouth warnings. Getting through is no small task and when you finally reach the tube or the cab or the bus or the train or whatever transport you are seeking, you find you are nowhere near central London. In fact you may be in France for all you care, because it will be at least an hour and a half and maybe more before you get into town.


  We made it to a tube station on our map, which in map-distance was mere centimeters from our orientation location. However we still managed to spend another half hour walking in random directions before my arms gave out due to the weight of my luggage, which technically had wheels, but every time they were engaged would fall off. So I was forced to lug all my worldly possessions, which had been violently smooshed into one garment bag and the aforementioned wheel-less suitcase, under the meager strength of my shoulders for many, many city blocks.  

  We made it to our orientation with seconds to spare. In the twenty minutes that followed, a young British lady led us through the ins and outs of surviving in Britain, followed by strong hints that we would never make any money or enjoy ourselves one bit if we stayed in London. I didn’t remember much else of what she said. I was just glad I didn’t have to lug my suitcase anymore.

  With the orientation out of the way, Karie and I checked into our home for the next two nights, The Generator. If you ever get the chance to stay at The Generator Youth Hostel in Bloomsbury I highly recommend it, especially if you are between thirteen and fifteen years old, like to smoke at breakfast, and enjoy banging into walls and yelling loudly all the time. “Maybe this is just culture shock we are experiencing,” we thought.

It was a strange night to say the least. We both felt pressure to decide whether or not London would be our home for the next six months. Having been in the UK for nine hours, we were clearly not informed enough to make that decision and not in much of a mood to decide anything important. There were tears, there were nerves, there were sirens, and there was crashing and shouting in the hallway all night long.

We decided, based mostly on the fact that our first day in London was painful, that we would head for a quieter setting. I wanted to try Oxford, due to its name, history, and close proximity to London. We ran that idea by some of the BUNAC employees, who all seemed to agree that any plan that did not include living in London sounded pretty good. The only problem with Oxford, they said, was that there was nowhere to live due to the influx of students during term time. We didn’t care. It couldn’t be worse than The Generator, we thought. With a long list of temp-job placement agencies in hand, we made some calls, set up meetings with very intelligent and proper sounding people who we felt could place us in interesting career-advancing positions, and went looking for a pub.

After a second night at The Generator, we were more than happy to lug our lives to Victoria Station and board the first shuttle to Oxford. Our bus driver, who was nice enough to let both of us on his bus even though our bus ticket was only a single-person ticket (for which we had foolishly paid twice the normal amount), grew up in Oxford. When he found out we would be moving there, he wanted to give us a detailed history on greater Oxfordshire from 1960 until the present. This did not sit very well with the German lady behind us, who felt that his chatter would send the bus careening off the road in the light drizzle that fell outside. She whispered in our ear not to “encourage him to talk.” Eventually he heard her complaints. Annoyed that she doubted his driving skill, he told us all quite loudly that her comments really “chapped his tits.” He was more than pleased to have “that witch” off his bus when she exited. He continued his brief history of Oxford until we reached Gloucester Green Station.

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