I tried my very best to get up to speed by reading all the emails in the immense inbox of the pool and by (trying to) answer them. At this point, every email or letter I opened posed a new question. “Is the first weekend of the summer vacation still available for a tent night? And how much does it cost?” or “When does the next swim course for little children start?” or “Will there be another perfection course for the triathletes in Spring?” I had no idea. About anything. Thank goodness for the kind life guard, also working there since six years, who told me to call her anytime. I quickly learnt about all the different swimming divisions and all the classes the club offered, yes, even during the winter, in the nearby indoor swimming pools. There were the competition swimmers, the classes for kids, the classes for adults, even regular gymnastics in the nearby community center to keep moving over the winter. Every working day, which were Tuesdays and Fridays, I found out new things and got to meet new people involved in one way or another. I frantically wrote it all down in my notebook. I would also go through all the folders on the computer and the classifiers in the cabinets, trying to find out things as much as possible. And at home, I was taking all the online computer classes I could – available through my job coach – to refresh my computer skills. Accounting was next in line. But the truth was I wasn’t really swimming. I was trying to keep my head above the water. That was all. Say for example the Xmas-party that was on my to do list. Or filing all the documents anew. Both assignments came up at my meeting with the treasurer and the lady in charge of membership matters, two cool ladies trying to bring me up to speed. The treasurer had already picked out two possible dates and venues for the Xmas-party. All I could do was call the venues and check with the lifeguard what date she preferred. The treasurer had also already started with filing documents anew. She showed me how she had set up the invoices in the order she was used to at her regular job. It made me wonder if she and the president had even communicated about what I was supposed to be doing.
Over the years, the former office manager had set up the office in such a way that she had a hand in everything. Not sharing information, even withholding information from other staff members was her way to make her indispensable and secure her job. Forced to share information and reorganize the office by the new board, she had threatened to leave, believing that everything would fall into disarray if she did, but her threat had backfired. That’s what I figured out anyway, over time, in bits and pieces. She probably had also underestimated those two ladies with their excellent management skills and tons of experience. By her leaving, however, both did get much more on their plates than they had signed up for and on top of that, they now got a newbie on their hands, friendly and motivated, but totally inexperienced and clueless. So, I just tried to keep afloat next to them without asking too many questions. I would get my answers through my crash course. Hopefully.
On a Friday in the beginning of November, he called me at the office: “Are you there? Do you have time to join me to City Hall? I have a meeting with the mayor. I could introduce you.” He came over ten minutes later and I drove us to City Hall. He introduced me to the mayor as the new administrator and I listened in at their meeting. Afterwards, he introduced me to the clerk at City Hall, responsible for tourism and public relations. “This is our new administrator. She is replacing so-and-so, and will be working with you from now on.” “Well, maybe”, I said cautiously. But he shook his head reassuringly: “It is looking good”. In the car driving back, he told me more about local politics and all the things he was trying to achieve for the swimming pool. It was an impressive list. Some time later that afternoon, he asked me about a project I had been working on during my internship. For the first time, I was feeling a bit at ease with him and stayed longer than I had foreseen. At some point, however, it was really time for me to go and I told him I would have to leave soon. Just as I am about to go, he addressed me, making me sit down again.
– “Well, I just wanted to tell you that we are satisfied with your work.”
– “Well, I am happy to hear that, because I am happy to be here.”
– “I have two remarks though. Firstly, do you ever send out emails without a salutation?”
I was wondering what he was talking about, because I did not understand the German word immediately.
– “I don’t think so. And if I have, it would only be to you or the treasurer or the membership manager.”
– “Never send out an email without a salutation of some sort. Not even to your colleagues. They might think you are mad at them, or something like that.”
I can’t remember what I said exactly, but I made a silly joke at this point, trying to keep the mood light. He just continued talking, ignoring my joke.
– “I want you to treat everyone as your customer. That is the mindset that I want you to take on. Secondly, I want you to always think about what I need to know or not, as I am not physically present in the swimming pool.”
I didn’t understand.
– “What do you mean? Could you give an example?”
– “Well, for example, this shipment. I ordered this shipment on Wednesday and you did not let me know that it had arrived.”
– “But this shipment arrived minutes before you walked through the door this morning.”
– “This shipment was supposed to arrive yesterday.”
– “It didn’t. It arrived just before you walked in.”
– “What about that one?” (pointing to a little box on my desk)
– “That one arrived yesterday.”
He did not reply. I just wished him a good weekend and left.
It surprised me, like an electric zinger. Saying my goodbyes and walking to the car, I would still be numbed out. In the car, driving home, I would slowly come to my senses, wondering about what just had happened and collecting my thoughts. I was frustrated. Was I now doing a good job or not? I made two resolutions that day: Firstly, I would no longer make jokes to him. Secondly, I would keep track of my every move and inform him of my every move. Which is why I anticipated his next remark. He came into the office one morning, asking me, in his formal way, where this specific letter was. I was mostly the only one there during regular working hours, except on Friday afternoons, when he or the treasurer would often come in, but other people would come in after their working hours to work or volunteer. And they would also open the mailbox and distribute the post, which he saw as my job. When he asked me about this specific letter, I told him that I did not know, because I was not the only one distributing the mail. He immediately took action. He ordered me to start an incoming post book, filing every letter I had opened and whom I had distributed it to. He also wrote an operating guideline about postal distribution that I had to review and then implement it. I guess he wanted me to make sure everyone would follow the guideline but I didn’t even know who else was distributing the mail. So, I used the incoming post book, writing down every letter, even though I was the only one.
Zingers came in different shapes and sizes. By now, I was working in a rental office container standing next to the main building inside the swimming pool gate. Once I had forgotten to close the shutters of the container. So, I immediately got an email asking me politely to always close the shutters when leaving. I wondered if I would let him know that he and the vice president had left the main gate open for two days after moving the office into the container. Or that someone had left the heater on in the container the whole weekend. But what was the point? It was paralyzing. It felt like being under observation all the time, like an ant under a magnifier, just waiting to be burnt. I started dreading having to go to work on Fridays, wondering what he had found on me this time. I would feel my senses sharpening if I heard the door of the container opening, always being relieved if it was the treasurer and not him. But even if he was not there, it affected my work. I focused on the paper mail and emails, trying to answer people’s questions as much and as well as possible, while following his instructions as precisely as possible.
A big zinger came in the beginning of December, shortly after the Xmas party. We had been working in the office for a while, each at our own desk, when he addressed me:
– “Misses Degryse, I want to show you something.”
I rolled my chair over.
– “I have been working on the contract for the snack bar. Misses X wanted me to make some changes to the standard contract. And I have added the changes in blue. Why?”
I chuckle-choked. Was he serious? Was I supposed to answer his question? But he was dead serious. And so I answered him:
– “You added the changes in blue, so as to be able to see them, but you did not use red, because red is associated with mistakes and corrections.”
– “Very good, Misses Degryse, very good. And I normally leave a white line under every paragraph, but I did not do so this time. Why?”
I told him I did not know.
– “Well, if the person I am dealing with is a more formal person, I add a white line after every paragraph, making the contract appear longer. If not, I leave the white line out.”
Class was over. I rolled back to my desk, and let the zinger wear off.
It was not as much what he said. It was the way he said it. Like a school teacher. For little children. It was sad in a way. This was him teaching me something, opening up to me in a sort of way, and all I could think was – at the top of my lungs: “WHAT IS HAPPENING? IS HE SERIOUS RIGHT NOW!?”
We continued working next to each other. When it was time for me to leave, I asked him how the Xmas party had been, while saying my goodbyes. I had not been able to attend, as we had a birthday party for my mother in law that same weekend. He answered: “It was very nice. We had a very enjoyable evening. Oh, and this reminds me of something. I still have to give you your Xmas present.” I joined him into the main building where the gifts were standing. As I am walking out the door, through the kitchen, holding my bottle of apple wine, he stops me:
– “Oh, and by the way, please take your used coffee pods home with you to throw them away.”
– … (Speechless)
– “There was some talk at the Xmas party about the fact that you leave your used coffee pods lying here on the sink.”
We both looked at the two coffee pods lying on the sink. I picked them up.
– (Still in shock) “Am I even allowed to use the coffee maker?”
– “Yes, you are. But please take your garbage home with you as to avoid irritation, you know?”
As the swimming pool was closed for the winter, there was no garbage disposal any more, so I had been doing exactly what he just told me to do. I would collect my used coffee pods in an empty coffee pad container over the week and then throw the whole thing away at home when it was full. The previous week, however, I had left two used coffee pads on the sink, waiting for my coffee pod package to be empty.
I picked up the coffee pods, turned around, walked outside and screamed in silence. I was furious. On my drive home – and every working day after – I kept wondering who would have complained about the coffee pods. I just could not believe it. My motivation went down the drain.
By now, the job opening had been officially published. The sports director came in asking me about it: “I thought you were the new staff member in the office. So, why has the job been posted in the paper again?” “Well, I sure hope to have the job. But I don’t have the job yet! He did not promise me anything!” The sports director shook his head while leaving.
In the week after the coffee pods zinger, I got an email of the president reminding me to apply for the job. I sent an email back, thanking him for reminding me, providing him with yet another application letter and updated resume. He sent an email back, asking me to send the email again and “omitting the second sentence”, the thank you part. He explained it to me later: “Never leave a paper trail”.
A couple of days after Christmas, I got the official invitation for the job interview mid January. On New Year’s Day at eleven p.m., I got another email, asking me if I agreed to an extension of my current contract: until the end of February. Which was odd, considering the timing of the job interview, but I still was not suspicious. Mostly because by now I was wondering about whether I actually still wanted to work there.
I knew I was in trouble the minute I set foot in the container, that rainy day mid January: The vice president was too grumpy, the treasurer too kind. I finally got an answer to my lingering question about whether or not he had consulted the board about his solution to “a difficult situation”: He had not. I was on my own. So, I repeated to the board everything I had told him already that sunny August day: my employment history so far, my education, my reasons for applying for this job, my strengths and my weaknesses. He then started asking all the questions and making all the remarks the board had; the others did not speak. Questions like: “Don’t you get lonely here all by yourself?” “Wouldn’t you rather work in an office with colleagues?” and “How is it going with your accounting skills?” This was a very painful question as everyone in the room knew I had none. The official dismissal was phrased as such: “We are worried that you are not capable of standing your ground when the pool is fully operational. You seem not capable of making decisions on the spot.” I wanted to tell them: How can I with someone watching my every move, but said nothing. I defended myself as well as possible, but I knew it was over. Over and out. I made notes at the meeting, left smiling and drove home. I told Frederik: “I don’t think I got the job.” He did not believe me.
I got the phone call the next Tuesday at the office. He said: “It pains me deeply to having to tell you this, but the board has decided that you are only second in line. I wish I could keep you on until June, but I can’t.” I interrupted him to say it was okay. With a broken voice, I just asked him: “Could you at least write me a good recommendation letter?” “Of course!” And that was it.
All my close friends and family members were surprised. And angry. Frederik said: “I can’t believe they kept you hanging like that! It is like giving someone a job, but just until someone better shows up!” Another friend said: “But they had you believing that you had the job already!?” “Well, he never made any promises.” When I told her that I still had to go back for six weeks to finish my contract, she was in disbelief: “But you were basically FIRED? How can they want from you to still be there?!?” I told her: “It doesn’t matter. I am legally bound until the end of February.” She got upset with me: “YOU CAN’T GO BACK THERE! WHAT ARE YOU, A DOORMAT?!?” And I just thought: “You are exactly right!”
My job coach was flabbergasted: “I had been wondering what you wanted to talk to me about, but I never thought this would be it. In my whole career, I have only seen this a couple of times. And I didn’t think it would happen in this case!” Another friend, a journalist, told me that she had been working as a freelance reporter for a magazine for about a year, hugely underpaid with the “promise” she would get a steady contract afterwards. When it was time to “cash in”, they gave the job to someone else. She quit being a journalist shortly after.
I called the friendly lifeguard a week later to set up a work meeting, also telling her I had not gotten the job, but she already knew. He had already told her, as he wanted to set up a meeting between her and the future office manager. She told me she had been surprised: “I thought you already had the job!” When I told her that it was probably because I had no accounting skills, nor any training or experience in office management, she said: “But they knew all of that when they hired you in October!”
I wondered for a while about what he was thinking. At some point during my internship he said to me: “It must be really hard for you to be the wife of an academic.” Was he thinking he was doing me a favor, and that we would both gain something out of this “difficult situation”? Maybe he thought that I had no better options anyway, that he at least was giving me a chance. I also kept wondering about the coffee pods. It made me think that there might have been other electric eels in the swimming pool, maybe even worse ones. I got my answer from my job coach when my contract was finally finished. He had called her. With a list of six complaints. The most painful ones being that I did not know my place and that I was probably mentally disabled to some degree as I had to write everything down.
All in all, I consider myself lucky having survived swimming in the pool with this electric eel. For a long time, I didn’t know if I would make it.