To heat or not to heat…

If I had woken up early last Monday and gotten ready for the day, even without a job lined up for the week yet, and headed into town, chances are I wouldn’t have heard from my temp agent, as prepared as I was.  But no – chance would have it I decided to sleep in a bit, have a leisurely breakfast, and didn’t get out of the shower until 10.30, when my agent called – with excellent news.  She had a placement for me for the week, one that actually paid fifty cents more an hour than my job with Statistics New Zealand.  Funny how life works sometimes.

With my new post needing me as soon as possible, I rushed around throwing clothes and makeup on and drying my hair in record time.  After my four-minute commute to SNZ last week, I wasn’t quite so spoiled this time around, but a twelve-minute walk is still pretty hard to complain about.  I soon arrived at my new post, a non-profit, charitable trust that subsidizes the cost of heating – insulation, heat pumps, etc. – for lower-income households or other individuals who qualify for various schemes.  I was given a brief introduction to the office before I assumed my role of receptionist, i.e. phone-answerer extraordinaire.  I couldn’t have asked for a cruisier job, doing nothing more my first day then take calls and log messages in an Excel spreadsheet.  And, of course, keeping track of the growing list of names customers mistakenly thought I introduced myself as:






The spreadsheet itself was a way to track my “progress,” or acclimation to  the job.  By Monday afternoon, the list totaled over thirty, but as Thursday and Friday came around I took only four or five messages a day I didn’t know how to handle.  One thing that helped was learning to tell people “no” when they called asking for a quote.  As bad as I felt giving the spiel – “I’m sorry, ma’am, but our funding for this project is currently complete, but please call back in June” – it did cut down on the amount of customers other people in my office had to call back.  I also got to know the company’s online customer database, figuring out my way around the mobile agenda and answering basic scheduling questions.  Then, of course, the fun part – making myself sound professional when I had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. 

When time allowed, I took care of other quite miscellaneous admin tasks, such as stuffing envelopes, running deposits to the bank, or opening the mail.  However, when I asked a colleague if I should keep the envelope after I’ve opened a letter, she looked at my stack of mail and said rather reverently, “Oh, I wouldn’t know – we’re not allowed to open the mail.”  I also soon began taking care of all the customers who came into the office to purchase plastic window insulation kits – something I would normally have not a clue about, but pretty soon I was pulling out a calculator to help figure out window dimensions (in centimeters, mind you!) and the number of kits they’d need.  I actually loved the return to frontline customer service, something data entry fails to offer.  Whether it was on the phone or in person, all the interactions with the ordinary NZ public reminded me why I worked in retail environments for so long.  And as frustrating all that bad customer can be – complaining, shouting, swearing – you always get a good one to balance it out, someone who seems so genuine when they thank you for your help and your smile.

And as a show like The Office so fully demonstrates, the dynamics between colleagues is a vital consideration in a job – who you work with can make or break your experience.  I found a little bit of everything at this office – a twenty-year old girl with a great sense of style and humor who’s fun to share a bit of harmless gossip or stories with; a few older women who take you under their wing and take it on themselves to be your surrogate mother; a surly, eccentric, middle-aged woman who keeps you guessing as to what she’ll say next; an adorable, white-haired chief executive who sits in on morning tea and tells you he’s delighted to have you around; and – of course – the cute guy who gives you a reason to look good for work.  There’s an American from Illinois who moved here nine years ago and is essentially here for good, and a New Zealander who lived in Vermont for six years and has permanent residency in the States.  They all laugh about “the American who wants to be a Kiwi and the Kiwi who wants to be an American.”  Wonder where I fit in all of that…

Now what has been perhaps most fascinating of all is my new-found understanding of the differences between how Americans and New Zealanders heat their homes.  I’ve grown up with central heating, well aware of the thermostat and the fact that my dad preferred it to stay set to a frigid sixty or sixty-five degrees (Fahrenheit, obviously).  We had a wood-burning fireplace in our old house that we used regularly in the winter, but it was by no means our primary source of heat.  It’s a different story on this side of the world, though – as I soon found out from the lack of heating in my own room.  The Kiwis seem to use everything but central heating – insulation (in the roof, walls, and underfloor), heat pumps (machines attached to a wall), electric heaters, electric blankets, pellet fireplaces, gas fireplaces, double-glazed windows – or in lieu of those, the plastic shrink film I mentioned earlier.  I don’t know if it has something to do with the houses here, on a whole, being smaller than in the States, as the majority of homes here are one-story – a rarity in my neighborhood back home.  Or maybe it’s just the energy-efficient conscience of New Zealand as an entire country, everyone striving towards the national motto of “clean, green New Zealand.”

But this seems to be where the real differences lie between here and my home country.  Like I’ve written before, I was immediately struck with how similar the two seemed, how weirdly Americanized New Zealand seemed to be.  It takes time, though, to recognize the ways this country sets itself apart – and I’m not just talking about its decision to decriminalize prostitution.  They have a three-color system for rubbish removal – red for trash, yellow for recycling, and green for “organic food scraps.”  You have to wonder if it isn’t some sort of subliminal message the government is trying to engrain in them.  The trash cans/rubbish bins/waste receptacles are all smaller, especially the ones you find in the kitchen.  I’ve also yet to see an automatic ice machine, so it’s been back to the ice-tray-in-the-freezer method.  And when I started helping out with the retail store at work, I foolishly asked where we kept the bags to use for purchases – of course these energy-conscious customers would just carry their items, leaving the plastic bags for the occasional elderly shopper needing assistance.  Some of these differences make more sense, some of them don’t.  Overall, though, it’s enough to keep me guessing and waiting to see what else will surprise me…


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