Tuesday, 3 May 2011

My name is Suzie and I am a workaholic

In London I was overworked, underpaid, always cramming my social calendar with too many things, always counting the days till the weekend and forever dreaming about THE trip to Buenos Aires where I would learn castellano; while away the afternoons in cafes sipping espressos while leafing through newspapers; hang out in bars sipping malbec, read all the books I’ve never had time to read and absorb the city like the proverbial sponge. And all those things I have done in spades (except the castellano which is definitely a work in progress).

Four months in and where am I? I have a paid almost full-time job, I am not overworked but I am definitely underpaid, burning the candle at both ends and living for the weekend. As I awoke this morning to a grey Saturday after the most splendid deep sleep I had the urge to make my way to Marks & Spencer to buy the Guardian and an almond croissant before settling down to the crossword. Instead I made coffee and toast and settled down to the Saturday edition of La Nacion to read about Guillaume y Kate and the royal wedding. Likewise, I have done the commuter run numerous times and, lost deep in my own thoughts, almost forgotten I am in BsAs. After all, the lulling motion of a traffic-bound bus and the weary faces of fellow commuters is much the same in any metropolis. But as I fall into something resembling a routine I find myself feeling more content than I have for weeks. Now I have purpose and a reason to get out of bed before 10am. Does this make me a workaholic?

While the routine is akin to my previous London existence there are certain things that keep me grounded in the reality of being here in Argentina.

Take for instance how I got the job in the first place. After several weeks of part-time voluntary work for the company I had never met Boss Lady. She writes me an email: when are you leaving Argentina / it would be great to meet you / do you have experience in making instructions for making garments, if yes I can pay you / let’s meet to discuss things. You would think this would be simple enough, but this woman is what you might call ‘elusive’. Everyday for a week I try to confirm an appointment with her but everyday there is an excuse, then I get tonsillitis which delays us another three days and I start to wonder if this was just not meant to be.

Then the interview: we meet in the Evita museum café and over tea and toast we discuss in a random cocktail of English and Spanish the endless challenges of fair trade, my time working in London, and the possibilities of me going to work in Salta with the producers that make the clothes for her company. Then she asks me how much money I need for me to stay in Buenos Aires before telling me she cannot pay me more than a minimal amount but that she will do what she can to help me find a cheaper place to live. We leave after agreeing to work together for an initial three months. Of course there is no job description as such, never mind a contract. I catch the bus home dazed, still a little weak from the tonsillitis I’ve had, and not quite sure what I have let myself in for.

The following days I am nothing short of engrossed in the task of finding the perfect place to stay for the next three months. I drop Boss Lady a quick mail during the week just to say sorry for not being in touch but I am muy ocupada with room-hunting. Her response comes within minutes:  ‘maybe you can try Craigslist [wow, hadn’t thought of that one…] or couch-surfing [yes I would really love to kip on someone’s sofa while I am working]’. That is the sum total of her assistance.

First week of work and I have not been given a proper brief for what I am supposed to be doing. One day she is sending me design inspiration ideas; the next sending me emails in English to correct at 9pm on a Friday evening. One day telling me she has magazines and fabric swatches I can borrow; the next asking me to join a team meeting at her huge apartment in one of the most exclusive neighbourhoods of Buenos Aires (as my colleagues have already informed me, she never sets foot inside the office).

I am confused. I like information, I like structure and I like boundaries.

I begin to wonder if I am just another clichéd product of the western world with our infamously over-developed work ethic, but my workmates seem to have similar doubts about Boss Lady. Perhaps she is someone who has more money than she knows what to do with and this is merely a recreational distraction for her. Perhaps I have misunderstood what we agreed to work on together and the antibiotics were still clouding my mind when we met.

Or perhaps I simply need to step back and be patient. I have studied Anthropology after all. I know about 'participant observation', the methodology that advocates a subtle level of involvement in the foreign 'society’ while maintaining a degree of distance to be able to observe and make sense of everything. So this is how I will proceed, and I keep my fingers crossed that everything will become clearer.

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