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Monday, July 19, 2010

Chapter 2 - part two

A month later I was standing outside an ugly grey concrete building, an hour from central London, thankful that the grey skies hadn’t opened up despite looking angry all morning. This drab 1970s block held the promise of a working life full of European cities and culture - museums, history, cuisine, party nights, fashion, languages.

I reread the letter clutched in my palm. “…At your group interview you are to present a five minute talk…” I took a deep breath and went inside.

I was shown into a conference room where I shook hands with about a dozen other hopefuls.

“Hi, I’m Shannon, a lawyer from Perth,” I said, as I tried to smooth away the wrinkles my freshly ironed suit had quickly reacquired on the squashed peak hour tube ride.

“I wonder what they have in store for us?” said Kerry, an accountant.

“I’ve heard they like to push your buttons, the key is to be relaxed,” said a Norwegian guy. “One of my friends did this last year.”

He shared his tips and we made excruciating small talk (get today over and done with, please!) for about twenty minutes, until an important looking man strode to the front of the room and stood still, surveying us. Silence descended immediately.

“Welcome to your group interview. I’m Richard, and today you’ll also be assessed by Graham and Rebecca.”

We all turned around in greeting, surprised that we hadn’t noticed the suited couple seated in the back row. I couldn’t help wondering how much of our chatter had already been noted by them, especially the shared concerns and tips on how to do well in the interview. They had been talking to each other and we had assumed they were candidates too. Sneaky sods.

Richard ran through the day’s events. Beside him was a small TV. Plasmas hadn’t been invented yet.

‘After an introductory video, we will have your presentations. Keep talking until I tell you to stop. We will have time for questions after all the talks have been completed, then that is all for the first round. You can telephone us after 1pm to find out if you have got through to the second round and if so, to arrange another time for a more traditional individual interview.’

Was it just me, or did he smirk when he said that it would be a ‘traditional’ interview?

‘If you are offered a place on a training trip for either Europe or Great Britain and the date or region doesn’t suit you, you will forfeit your spot. We don’t care if it’s your sister’s wedding or that you applied for Europe. If you’re given an offer, I’d advise you to take it. We have plenty of other applicants to choose from. The seven weeks of training is unpaid and it is definitely NOT a holiday. Insurance and spending money is your problem, but your time on the trip is entirely ours. We will tell you when to sleep, when to eat, when to pee. You have a hell of a lot to learn.’

So it was their way or the highway. Got it. I didn’t flinch, but I peeked at the other candidates and noticed some appeared ruffled, with some frowns and whispering at his hardline approach. Others were unfazed; they wanted this shot so badly they would’ve done their talks naked if required.

The first round began. Most people had interesting stories, and the audience was kind. We all wanted each other to do well. First up was the Norwegian guy whose name was Sven. He was decked out in lightweight, waterproof tan pants, hiking boots and a North Face coat, and looked the part of a trekking tour guide. It turned out that he was, in fact, a trekking tour guide, having run camping tours in North America for his previous job. Damn. He would be hard to beat. He talked about a sign of the times, the emergence of the mobile phone culture.

“How many of you own a mobile phone?” Nearly half the hands went up. “Do you remember when it was only the top level executives that had mobiles? They were the size of bricks! Then everyday people started using them, mainly for business. As the phones got smaller the number of users went up. Nowadays if you visit a high school in Norway, you’ll see every kid is glued to their own Nokia handset, that’s a Norwegian brand. Imagine what it’ll be like in ten years time…”

Sven was laidback and easy to listen to. When Richard said ‘Stop’ after five minutes we all wanted him to keep talking, but today we were playing by Richard’s rules. ‘Thanks Sven,’ said Richard. ‘Who’s next?’

I didn’t go straight after Sven, he was too hard an act to follow. I volunteered to do mine after the next speaker and felt unusually nervous, but I clasped my palm card tightly, and was determined to use my high school drama skills and at least not look nervous.
(The next part of this chapter will be uploaded next Tuesday)

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