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Opting for Underemployment in an Exotic (Compared to Ohio) Locale


London. -- Not getting a job did not come as a surprise. At least not to us, who graduated from Oberlin College in May 1992. In the periodical section, seniors could on any given day find national, regional and local papers prophesying the poorest career prospects for young hopefuls since goodness knows when.

So, adventurous and (for the time being) non-careerist, we decided we could best avoid bitter disappointment by not trying too hard to begin with. We reasoned thusly: If we're going to have to scrounge around for work, we might as well do it somewhere more foreign. Some of us sent grad school applications off to bake slowly (just in case), and then we left the country.

It had begun as an escapade brewed up by a pair of former roommates, fueling their zeal for parts unknown with midnight coffees in a late-night college diner. Throughout the spring and summer, however, Recession '92 made itself ever more manifest, and by October our movement had snowballed into a minor migration of ex-Obies. Eight of us ended up in England for the winter, with six-month work permits secured through the British Universities North America Club.

We settled in London and started scrounging. We managed to find jobs temporary and permanent, full and part-time -- working in a record store on Piccadilly Circus; in a second-hand bookshop on Gloucester Road (which included the enviable duty of cataloging the contents of Graham Greene's private library); as a secretary at the University of London; making sandwiches in Covent Garden; making sandwiches in an office cantina; waiting tables in a pseudo-French bistro; ushering for Kenneth Branagh's 4 1/2 -hour performances of Hamlet; setting lights for rock concerts at Wembley Stadium; temping as a receptionist in a department store and a German bank and a dentist's office; typing as an academic secretary at a European business school; and picking up the phones for a company that sells synthesizers to all the pop stars we used to listen to when we were 13.

Written up, it makes a not unimpressive list, but those jobs weren't easy to come by either. Work is thin on the ground here, just as it is in the States. Still, some of us were able to find work almost immediately (by strokes of luck unfathomable to those others of us who, after umpteen ads and scores of resumes, were still unemployed and feeling economically depressed by the dollar-pound exchange rate). None of us managed to find a career to further, but at least we managed to pay our rent and buy vegetables and noodles and chocolate biscuits -- and still have enough money left over for occasional clubbing and spending Sunday afternoons at double features of classic '40s films.

Finding work and finding housing were related problems. There are flats to let all over the city, but rental agents often require proof of employment as well as enormous deposits and rent in advance to reserve the property.

Four of us, two women and two men, lucked out by pulling the strings of acquaintance. Someone's father knew a young London publisher who was about to take his family to the United States for three months. Could we possibly pay them for the privilege of housesitting, we wanted to know? That house was excellent for us, situated in a mixed-transitional-up-and-coming neighborhood sandwiched in between the respectable Maida Vale area and the hip and funky Portobello Road. (We gravitated toward Portobello. . . .)

There were other perks besides the location, such as the owners' idiosyncratic style of interior decoration (my bedroom had mint green walls with blue trim and pink velvet curtains, the color scheme complemented by an ornamental iron grille across the window and a most excellent string of glowing plastic fish lamps hung across the wall) and their enormous private library, which literally and literarily contained every book any of us has ever wanted to read.

It was, however, not without its drawbacks. Victorian houses are dime a dozen in London, and though they're a charming idea they are a chilling reality, at least during a London winter. It's not that the weather was so terribly cold. It wasn't a patch on the bitter winters we had at college in Ohio. But boy, was it damp. There's damp cold that just gets into every corner of every London flat or house that's in our studenty price range. The hardier among us simply put on extra sweaters to compensate for the breeze coming in through the gap at the top of the living room window. More sensitive individuals ran out to invest in electric blankets and compact space heaters.

All of us drank gallons of hot tea and coffee, washing down those superb chocolate biscuits that were a staple of our diet. Plain chocolate Homewheats and Hobnobs are somehow slightly savory or salty, so that you can eat them endlessly without feeling sick from the sweetness, as you would with excessive quantities of American chocolate chip cookies.

Our diet was nothing to write home about, but it was typical (stereotypical, even) for people reveling in the student lifestyle. We bought basic staples communally and ate lots of toasted cheese. We often cooked joint meals, the household specialty being a sort of vegetable stew with noodles and lentils, not unrelated to minestrone except that ours often ended up with curry power and parsnips in it. Curry powder even managed to weasel its way into our spaghetti sauce (provoking a culinary dispute between those of us who do and those of us who don't routinely curry our marinara).

For Bill Clinton's inauguration, all eight of us got together and went to the Thai restaurant down the road for a celebratory feast. Being budget-minded, we also liked to go to the place with the all-you-can-eat vegetarian Indian buffet.

When the publisher and his family returned from California I answered an ad for a room in a shared house in Camden Town. After six months in London, I could recognize a housing bargain from a hundred paces. I saw the house and wrote out a check on the spot.

This time, my room resembles nothing so much as a cupboard done up in early '80s peeling wallpaper, and the house itself is actually condemned, or so I've been led to understand. (But it's been that way since the 1960s, and no load-bearing walls have collapsed yet, so I'm not terribly worried.) It's dirt cheap for London, and well-organized and friendly for that. There are six of us: five former students (three Brits, an Australian fencer and me) and a professor of imperial history who's an absolute gem. The tenancy is in her name, so she handles the rent and has devised a system of communal expenses that means our monthly rent includes the sensible luxuries of milk delivery, two newspapers daily (The Guardian and The Times) and rental of the TV and VCR.

We were eight Obies in London at New Year's, but our numbers are diminishing now as our work visas expire. Back in the States, our vanguard is already facing Recession '93 -- some are scooping ice-cream on East Coast boardwalks, though the grapevine reports that a lucky one or two has received grad-school admission with grant money attached.

As for me, I have a different piece of luck in hand -- a European Community passport that lets me continue to enjoy the recession abroad instead of at home. I'm thinking about upping the ante now by experiencing the recession in a foreign language. I've heard there might be work in Paris. . . .

Juliet Berger, from Baltimore, wrote this while working as a secretary in London.

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