“Oh my God- are you wearing perfume? Stand back! I’m allergic! I have to take extra medication now! Oh God…didn’t they tell you this is a scent-free environment?”
Thus started my first day at work in a Canadian office.
I am “temping”- recruited by a ‘temp agency” who sends me to various offices to replace staff on summer leave. This is a hassle-free way of earning some pocket-money that attracts many students and others who can’t or don’t want to seek full-time employment.
The temp agency gave me a brochure on how to behave and dress in my new work environment, sternly reminding me that I was was responsible for the reputation of their company wherever they sent me, and although I was employed on a temporary basis, I should be fully committed to any task I was assigned. They also advised me to “dress up” rather than down, until I got the feel of the office, and to avoid the use Internet for personal use such as playing video games, as there had been complaints in the past about the behaviour of “temps”.
For my first day at work, I wore white cotton pants cut off above the ankle, and an old but sturdy and well-tried flowered white shirt. Not a slimming outfit, but a comfortable one which gives the impression of a pleasant and competent personality. I also wore a pair of comfortable-looking but extremely uncomfortable black Mango sandals with cork wedges, which drew a cry of admiration from the temp agency manager. Light but visible eye-make and a fairly unusual browny-red metallic copper lipstick and gloss, just for some pizzazz. At the last minute, I added a couple of squirts of Estee Lauder’s “Pleasure”, which brought on the verbal onslaught described above.
However, I have to admit that apart from that first moment the rest of the day was very calm and relaxing…maybe because most of the office was on leave, and apart from a few persons wandering in and out, I saw only two female colleagues actually working; maybe because unlike my previous job, the nature of the office was such that clients were out and stayed out; maybe because my computer ID was not yet ready and so I could not really do any computer-related tasks, which in a modern office means nothing at all…
The hours passed smoothly enough as I sat in a cubicle surrounded by pictures of the woman I was replacing and her apparently blind fat husband, sorting and filing correspondences and licenses. It was strangely quiet, compared to my old office at home. There, senior management would often send out memoes requesting reduction of noise, which would be greeted by scornful hoots of laughter…. People were continuously gossiping, clacking on computers, shouting on phones, snarling at each other, comforting each other, laughing hysterically… A newcomer would be surrounded, asked questions, shown about, offered life histories. Elaborate plans were made for lunches, ritual coffee-breaks were held, recipes and diet plans were swapped, complicated social outings and visits with ex-colleagues were developed, nefarious plots to obtain various positions or benefits were hatched. In this government office in downtown Halifax, people made a point of not asking any personal questions (or perhaps they were really not interested???? Can it be???), and vanished during lunch and coffee-breaks. So dfferent from office-life in Tehran, so relaxing, so lonely.
As I say, perhaps it was the nature of the job itself. In Tehran, our office dealt with refugees. Every moment, we were conscious that a missing file, an unattached document, a delayed letter could vitally and materially affect the course and quality of a refugee’s life. This gave our daily office transactions a peculiar sort of intensity which will haunt me forever. Here, this office deals with monitoring and licensing a particular kind of business. No life or death. No stories of flight and generation-long wars. No sobbing or angry refugees. No wailing babies. Just a lot of e-mails and eventually a license to operate.