Archive for January, 2011
My phone rings. It’s Spring of last year, and “unknown number” appears on the caller-ID. While most people associate that with a telemarketer, I’ve come to know it as the calling card of Skype. It’s an international call I’ve been waiting for a week to receive. I take a deep breath and answer the phone.
“Hi John, it’s _______, and I just wanted to follow up with you on your interview last week.” It’s the woman who interviewed me via videoconference from Minnesota, and she was calling about the job for which I was a finalist — the job that, judging by the tone of her voice, I was about to get rejected for. She spent fifteen minutes on the phone explaining what a great candidate I’d been and why they were going in another direction, she urged me to apply again in the future, and left me thanking her from the rejection call. Being rejected was painful, but her professional demeanor left me feeling positive about the experience and genuinely willing to apply again.
But that story is hardly the norm. For the past two years I’ve become somewhat of an expert on the job-hunting process, casting a wide, intercontinental net and applying not for one specific kind of job, but for whatever interests me. Living abroad and working hourly-wage jobs like the one I have now gives me the ability to apply only for jobs I really want, as opposed to the desperation of job hunting when I’m unemployed. Some jobs I’ve gotten (like the tour guide job I start in March or the TV show I’m working on). Some jobs I haven’t (keep reading). Two years of this means I’ve applied for plenty of jobs, and I’ve learned an important thing about the hiring process: There’s a way to conduct interviews for your job opening, and there’s a way not to.
Since last September, I’ve been applying for a job as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. State Department. It’s a highly competitive interview process for a job that would’ve taken me to one of the 285 U.S. diplomatic missions located abroad to work in a series of two-year posts. I applied to take a test, studied intensively for a month, visited the US embassy in London to take the test, passed it (no small feat considering its failure rate: 80%) and was invited to write a series of “personal narrative” essays, As you can see in the letter at the top of the post, I found out this week that I didn’t get the job. Throughout the three months and roughly 60 hours I put into the application, I never dealt with a human, simply the automated bot operated by the folks at ACT.
My American friend here in Cardiff finished her graduate degree last spring, and since then has moved in with her boyfriend and began job hunting. She has a visa to work in the country for two more years, and she’s been up front about about that fact as she’s applied for jobs across the U.K. She’s been invited to interview by phone, and then in person by a few prospective employers, but invariably, after investing countless hours of preparation and mental energy on the interview process, she gets the same answer: “We’re not able to hire someone with a fixed-term visa.”
It’s last March, and I’m going stir-crazy in my not-so-glamorous retail job in Galway. Following advice from the oh-so-helpful Gary from Prosperity, a tech recruiting firm based in Dublin, I crowdsourced my job hunt. One of the emails I received as a result of that blog postwas from an employee at Yahoo!’s Dublin office. They were hiring a few “ISO Search Creative Advisors”, and based on my CV, he thought I’d make a great fit. So I applied and one cover letter, one phone interview, one three-hour bus trip to Dublin and 2.5 hour in-person interview later, I sat at home, waiting for the call. The call never came. Neither did the email. In fact, after two months, two follow-up emails and a follow-up phone call Yahoo! never got back to me with a decision. To their credit, they weren’t unresponsive. The HR manager just kept running out the clock with “No decision has been made yet”-type emails. Ten months later, I’ve yet to receive a definitive answer from Yahoo!.
The Great Recession has made landing a job even more difficult than it already was. New positions are flooded with applications within hours of a job posting, and I’m sympathetic to the challenge that creates for HR managers. But that challenge doesn’t excuse them from acting ethically. If you’ve asked a me to spend my time and money to come to your location, I have a few expectations: Don’t invite me unless it’s within the realm of possibility that you could hire me. Give me a contact email of a real person (instead of a robot) and for the love of god, let me know if you’re not giving me the job.
I love this one: Plaza Mayor is Madrid’s old town square, and when we walked through it on a Sunday afternoon, we could barely move because of call the circles that were formed around the various street performers. See a woman have knives shoved through her head, a dancing Spongebob Squarepants and a shirtless man who has no business being shirtless — after the break.
I thought I was a sarcastic person. I thought I had a quick sense of humor. I was wrong. We Americans are as earnest as they come in terms of humor. I want to tell you just how ruthless the Irish are in pursuit of a joke, but in order to do so, I’m going to have to buck up and tell you a story I hoped I wouldn’t have to tell. It’s the story of my more embarrassing moment since moving abroad.
Deep breath. Here we go.
Rebecca was my best friend in Galway. She’s a sweet German girl who was studying at the university and she’d put herself out there when I first moved to Ireland and needed a friend. Her boyfriend was also a nice guy, but he had a razor-sharp wit about him. I learned quickly to try not to give him ammunition against me, because if you did something too embarrassing, you’d be the butt of his jokes all night. Somehow though, despite myself, I always managed to give him ammunition.
One night we were out with Brenden’s friends, drinking Guinness. He says he’s not drinking tonight, but I don’t hear him. When he returns to the group with a red drink, I ask what he has. “Vodka cranberry,” he answers with a completely straight face. It strikes me as strange that he’d get such a girly drink amongst the guys, but I tuck away this bit of knowledge to use at a later date.
We’re out drinking with the same group and I’m not feeling like another Guinness, so I approach the bar and recall our previous conversation. “I’ll have a vodka cranberry,” I say with gusto, proud of my ability to recall that with these fellas, vodka cranberries are A-OK.
Before I even sit down, they’re ripping into me for my emasculating choice of drink. “But you ordered this exact thing a few weeks ago!” I say. A long pause as Brenden remembers what I’m talking about. He bursts out laughing before saying, “I was joking!”
Thus, I proved my gullibility to Brenden, and he took it as a challenge. What piece of information could he get away with passing off to me as true?
A big group is at Massimos, a noisy Galway bar on Friday night. The bar blares dance music over the speakers so loudly that you can’t hear the person next to you without yelling. We’re sitting at a booth when he sighs and talk/yells at me, “I’m not looking forward to tomorrow.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“I’ve got to be up at 7 p.m.”
“I said I’ve got to be up at 7 p.m.”
“Oh,” I reply, just thinking I’ve misheard him. I’m deaf in one ear, so mishearing things is something I’ve learned not to let phase me. But upon reflection, there’s no way I’ve misheard him here.
“Wait, you have to be up at seven PEE EM?” I ask.
“Yeah, we’ve got a gig to play to Cork at 8 a.m.”
I sit back, thoroughly confused. He sits back like an expert fisherman, just waiting for me to take the bait. He’s not too eager. He doesn’t push it. He just waits. Inevitably, I dive back in.
“Wait: You have to be up at 7 p.m. tomorrow MORNING for a gig at 8 a.m. tomorrow NIGHT?”
“Yeah,” he replies, looking uninterested. I pause again, confused.
“Hold on,” I say, “What the hell are you talking about? 7 p.m. is nighttime!”
“Ohhhhhh ho ho ho, I’m sorry,” he says with a good-natured chuckle. “I forget you don’t know Irish. In Irish, a.m. is p.m. and p.m. is a.m.”
“No way, seriously?”
“Yeah, sorry, when we’re hanging out with all my friends I forget you’re new here sometimes.”
“You’re fucking with me,” I say.
“I’m not! Hey Maidhc, in Irish a.m. is p.m. and p.m. is a.m., right?”
“Oh yeah,” Maidhc replies without a moment’s hesitation.
And with that, I’m convinced. How could I be living in Ireland for so long without learning such a basic anachronism of the native language? I start telling everyone of my new discovery. I post it to my Facebook profile. “I can’t believe I’ve gone this long without knowing that a.m. and p.m. are reversed!” I tell plenty of mutual Irish friends of Brenden and me. They just smile and nod, letting Brenden have his joke. Most embarrassingly, the American woman I was dating had her family out to visit from California. She asked me to join them for dinner, and you better believe I told my new tidbit there. I remember her dad even saying something along the lines of, “I think someone’s pulling your leg.”
“No no,” I tell him. “A real, live Irishman told me this. This is true.”
But it wasn’t. And it was only weeks later that Rebecca finally told me the truth. I turned bright red. And I swore never to believe another Irishman again.
It’s happened too many times to count now. I’ll be catching up with a friend from back home, and as I go on about living in Wales they suddenly pause, as if considering if they should even ask what they’re thinking.
“So — where exactly IS Wales? Is it the same thing as the United Kingdom, or what?”
One of the more difficult things about living abroad is the normalization of the unfamiliar: Of course everything is closed on Sundays; of course the Queen gives a Christmas greeting; of course plastic bags cost money at grocery stores; of course you can tear that can of beer off the six pack and buy it individually. Of course Wales, Scotland and Ireland all have their own native languages.
There needs to be some sort of cheat sheet for anyone looking to spend time abroad, a cheat sheet that would answer the “of courses.” These are the things you should just know and not ask or you will look silly.But there isn’t any such cheat sheet — so in the meantime, I challenge you to ask the question that will make you look stupid. It may generate some condescending looks, but I’d take the condescending looks in favor of living in ignorance of what Wales is.
So without further ado, I present to you, dear readers: The answer.
Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland and England are all countries within the United Kingdom much like Minnesota, Texas, South Carolina and California are states in the United States. They each have differing powers and laws, but ultimately the power lies at Westminster in London. Great Britain is just an island where Scotland, Wales and England reside. Wales is the little nub that just out of the west side of Britain, but not the nub in the very southwest. That’s Cornwall, which is part of England.
What’s the dumbest question you’ve ever asked (or not asked) while traveling?
Just a few hours after ringing in the New Year in Madrid’s Plaza del Sol, we returned, with a bit more tequila in our stomachs and fatigue in our feet. The resulting video is exactly what I was hoping for when I set out to make this web video series. See if you can spot all the vignettes: a couple kissing passionately, some rambunctious Spaniards running through the crowd with a flag, dancing, sanitation workers attempting to clean. It’s a smorgasbord of human interaction. Hopefully there will be a lot more where that came from as I continue my travels through Europe with camera in hand (or on head).
(Video after the jump.)
Two Passports presents: View From a Tall Dude — well, that’s the tentative title, until I think of a better one. (Got a better idea? Let me know in the comments.) I just got a GoPro Hero HD camera for Christmas, which means I’ll be able to take all sorts of videos on my travels through Europe this summer. I got started early this time with my trip to Spain for New Year’s Eve.
This one takes place at Plaza del Sol. Oriented at the exact center of not just Madrid but the entire country of Spain, Plaza del Sol plays host to the main New Year’s Eve celebration. In Madrid, citizens show up with a bag of twelve grapes to listen to the clock tower bells ring. Eating one grape for each chime means a year of good luck. It also is cause for some bizarre silence at the stroke of midnight, followed by exuberant cheering.