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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