Invisible Subjects is a series of anonymous interviews, conducted by me, with a member of the public. The purpose of this series was to find the extraordinary in strangers’ lives, to pull out the truth that we can learn from absolutely anyone. I believe the things that will drive us forward as a society are empathy and togetherness; people are all we’ve got, and I wanted to showcase people here. It’s important we do not take for granted the wealth of knowledge and experience that surrounds us each day – for in every face we pass on the street, there is an unbelievable story, something absolutely unique, that we can learn from them. To gain the riches of knowledge from others is fundamental to succeeding together. I have loved these conversations, the subjects and their subjects. I hope you do too. – Madeleine
This was only my second interview ever conducted, and here I was, sitting in the bedroom of a person I barely knew. We laugh as I express my nerves, and she says, ‘Nervous? I’m not nervous! Should I be?’ I explain that this is a series of interviews, and she is the first. That there is no agenda, no specific ‘content’ I want from her, but that she is free to discuss anything she wants from me in her life story. She smiles, and we begin.
MG: So, the purpose of this is just to ask you about your life. My belief is that everyone is interesting and everyone thinks they aren’t interesting. I want to show people that anyone can be interesting, have a story to tell, and make people learn about life.
I agree with that!
MG: Great! So tell me a little about yourself. Where you’re from, a little of your background…
So, I’m from Portugal. I came – I was born in the north of Portugal, then my parents moved, as there was no work anymore there. They had to move to look for jobs, to make a life. So we moved to the south of Portugal, to Algarve, where I spent basically ten years of my life. After that, I moved to the UK. I came here to study, to go to uni. I studied forensic science, and while I was at uni, I was working too. I also realised that I didn’t want to do my course, so now I’m here, working, figuring out my life.
When I was at uni, that’s when I really started working and earning money. It was a whole change. Before I was living with my parents, with my mum, and then I was living on my own, so I grew up a lot while I was at uni. Organising time to be at uni, to work to pay my rent and my bills. It was a new experience for me and it helped me a lot in growing.
MG: You say you lived with your mum. Do your parents both still live in Portugal? Do you have siblings?
I have one brother. My mum is still in Portugal, and my brother and dad are in the UK. My dad moved here, again, for work, because there was no work in Portugal. He became unemployed there, so he had to move here. They’re separated for a long time — ten years now, or more. My brother moved here to study, and he’s starting this year.
MG: Do you feel you learned a lot when you moved here?
I’m so glad I moved country. It was the best thing I’ve done. Even though I moved to a city here I didn’t like, which was Luton… My first impression in this country was: I don’t like it. But I was still like, this can’t be it! I wanted to know London, because when you’re in the UK, you need to come to London, you need to know it. That’s what drove me to keep staying in this country. I didn’t really want to finish my course or stay here, in fact, the only reason I wanted to stay here was because I had my own life. Back in Portugal, I was at school, and doing everything my parents wanted me to do. When I was younger, maybe I would have been engaged in sports, but I didn’t, I did music, because I was put into music by my parents. That’s what changed when I moved to the UK, I started to think for myself, and to do things for myself. I earned my own money, I paid my own bills, I paid for my own stuff that I wanted to engage in. That’s what really changed.
MG: Was your family life restrictive? What’s your relationship to your family?
It’s not a restrictive relationship. It’s not like they forbid me to do things, or forced me to do things I didn’t want. I just didn’t have a say, and I also didn’t want to, because I thought my parents knew it all – I trusted them with my eyes closed. Still now, we have a close relationship. Our family is like a small group, we go along with each other very well. We are really close. Since I came here, actually, our relationship, got even better. We have more openness to each other, showing our feelings. We didn’t really have that before. Now that we miss each other we are a bit more open. Changing countries, once again, helped me with my family too. I really like the fact that I’m free, like a free bird.
MG: You said that when you moved here, your first impression of life in Luton was that you didn’t like it. What caused that?
I think it could be a great city, it’s very close to London, there’s many people who live there who come to London to work. Unfortunately it has a lot of gangs, a lot of trouble and it’s not safe to be on the street when it starts to get dark. Actually, not when it’s light sometimes. You need to be careful and know where you’re going. It’s the vibe of the place as well, it’s like something is dead there. It’s like an energy that died. They’re trying to get it back, there are events, summer events that they do for the kids…
Luton is actually big, but it feels like such a small place. I lived in the town centre, and literally, I would walk the same way and see the same people every day when I’d go to work, and when I’d finish work. It looks like everyone has the same routine, and they cross the same paths every day. You don’t know them, but you feel like you know these strangers.
MG: Yet it still seems like you felt unsafe.
Yes, it didn’t feel like we were neighbours when I saw them. I felt more unsafe there because I was working at night time, at Amazon. I would take the bus, and after that a ten minute walk to get home. My night shifts there were on the weekends, Friday and Saturday, when people go out, you know, that’s normal… It happened a few times that a few guys came after me. They’d try to talk to me, and you keep on ignoring him, but they don’t really care about what you’re saying or what you’re not saying — because ignoring them was my strategy. But they’d keep on following you. There was this guy who stopped me and said, ‘I’m just asking for a fucking lighter,’ and I said, ‘Well I don’t have a fucking lighter,’ then he became aggressive. So I keep on walking, and he keeps on walking after me, and I realise that I’m going to have to run. So I run, and he was kind of tipsy, so I think that was my luck, because I ran and I eventually lost him. I didn’t really look back, I just ran home.
I remember, my tutor in my final year told me, ‘In this place, it’s better not to look at the newspaper. If you do, you get traumatised.’ There’s a killing or a stabbing every day.
MG: Wow. So you worked nights at Amazon – tell me about Amazon, or your jobs in general while you were at uni.
I had a lot of jobs there, yes. When I got to the UK, I came with very little money, because I failed one of my exams back home, and they told me I couldn’t come. Then, I got a call, and uni says I’m allowed to come. This was two weeks before, so I had two weeks to arrange everything to come here. I had very little money, and I got given uni halls, which are the most expensive things ever! I was paying a fortune there, I had the money for only one month’s rent. I tried to cancel my contract with them, and they wouldn’t let me, but I told them I can’t afford it, I can’t stay here.
Eventually I got moved to other halls, cheaper ones. I still had to work a lot, to grind a lot, so that I could pay my bills. For that, I started working in two jobs. My first one was at Debenhams in the restaurant, which was cool because I was interacting with a lot of English people. That’s the thing in Luton, there are a lot of Portuguese people too, so at uni, I was speaking Portuguese all the time. And at Amazon, nobody spoke proper English. So I was lucky, with my first job, that it was with English people. It was really hard at first, because when I came my English was not good, I couldn’t really speak. I could understand you, but to keep up with conversation was really hard. So that was the first challenge, to work in an environment without my language. The other job I had was in the mall, in a suit shop. I wasn’t in that job for very long, because I had a bad experience there. I ended up leaving not in the best way, because the owner of the shop ended up being ruthless with women. He started to have behaviours that I didn’t like, so I had to just leave. But that job helped me pay rent for however many months.
When I left that job, I found another job at Poundworld – I’m pretty sure I had another job, I can’t remember, it’s confusing to explain by now, but eventually I was at Amazon. It’s really easy to get in. You go to the agency, they tell you they’re going to start recruiting for the peak time before Christmas. I’m not going to lie, it wasn’t nice, I wasn’t used to working at night and for ten hours, which to me is a long shift. But it wasn’t bad, in that it was just easy money. I knew I’d only be there for one or two months, I’d get my money, I’d go. They can’t fire you in the first month, but if you’re staying more than one, you have to meet the targets they give you. They give you three weeks to start meeting your targets. If you want to stay more than a month, you have to work your ass off. You’ve got to meet the targets, and to meet the targets, you literally have to run for ten hours. That’s when it starts to feel not nice, because I’m pressured, I’m tired, and my body is telling me to sleep.
Explain how the targets work – what were you doing, and what happens if you don’t get them?
I was a picker. I just know this job, I don’t know how to be a packer or a stower. There’s many jobs in an Amazon warehouse, I was chosen to be a picker. As a picker, I’d have a trolley and a scanner on me. You enter the picker tower, as they call it. Firstly, I found it really funny that every time I went into an Amazon warehouse it’s like going through airport security. You don’t take your phone, any metals, your wallet, you just take yourself. They have a lot of security.
Back to targets – I’d have to pick a certain number of items per night – let’s say that I had 1000 items per night. It’s an intelligent system that they have, it’s all computerised.
So the scanner itself tells you your targets?
Yes. I would start, I’d turn on my scanner, and it would tell me to go to a certain shelf and pick an item with this barcode. When I pick that up, I scan it, and the scanner will tell me that I have X minutes or X seconds, depending on what I’m picking, to go and pick the next thing. Normally, when I was on CDs, DVDs, books, it’s stuff that’s more localised to one area of the warehouse, so it’s easier for you to pick, sometimes you pick five or ten at a time. If you have bottles or cans, or nappies – big items – the scanner gives you more time to get there, but also it’s harder, because you’re walking around way more. It’s a warehouse, there’s a lot of corridors. The one I worked there were about 100 corridors in one line. And there were four levels of that in the picking tower. Imagine Asda supermarket – all the aisles – imagine 100 aisles, and four levels of that. I thought that one was big, but then I worked at other warehouses…
I would only work peak season. It’s easy to go in, earn quick money, and that’s it. I actually tried to go to Amazon as a permanent worker part time, but I couldn’t meet the targets and they fired me. I was trying, I was trying hard, and that’s when you feel the pressure, that’s when you get tired.
Would you recommend someone to work there?
If you want to make quick money, yes. It’s the easiest way to do it, if you don’t want to stay there for a long time. You can do day shifts, but for me, the difference of money – nights you get paid more – I wouldn’t do a day shift in there. You’re still stuck in a warehouse, you still can’t see the sunlight, you still can’t do anything with your life, and you’re being paid less for the same amount of work. You’re there for the money, not for the sake of being there.
All this experience, in Luton, at uni, making money, different jobs, bosses… Do you feel it’s made you a better person, or more jaded?
That’s a question I’ve thought about a lot. It made me grow a lot. It made me know myself a lot. It’s not because I’ve seen bad realities, that’ll make me say, ‘No, I don’t like life any more.’ No, I’ve seen good things too. I’ve fallen, I’ve done mistakes, but all of these jobs I went through, the people I met and didn’t like, I would do everything again, the same, if I needed to. It formed who I am now, I know a lot, and I have a better perception of the world, and I know myself because of what happened. Because I moved countries, because I’ve seen the good and the bad, it’s shaped me the way I am now, I don’t regret it at all.
Is the way you enter the workplace different now – are there different priorities now?
I still am very naïve! But now I go with a different attitude to an interview, because I know what I’m capable of, and my qualities. Yes, I won’t allow certain stuff. I will state my place, even in the interview, and I’ll go confident. That was one thing that I learned in this whole process – embracing change. I don’t mind to change, or to be changing. I’ve already changed so much, that going through more changes helps me grow. If I go through it, it means something in my life either needs to go away, or I need to grow with it. Change has only good sides. It’ll be for the best. If there’s something challenging to me, I actually like it because I will learn something, I’m sure of it.
Moving away from talking about work now. Since you moved from Portugal, how easy did you find it to make friends, to form relationships with people? I personally, even though I didn’t move countries, I just moved down from Manchester, I found London a quite lonely place, certainly at first. It took me a while to figure it out. Did you ever experience that?
It’s a complicated part of my life, to be honest. Friendships, relationships, it was always very complicated. When I moved here, I moved straight to university. I don’t think I had a great experience, to be honest, because of the friendships I built and lost too. I remember when I came here, I met this girl, and we were super good friends, and all of a sudden I just didn’t know anything about her. That left me a mark, as well, because you know, you’re in your first year as a fresher and you just do stupid shit. That was me, in my first year here, I was very naive. I was completely free, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I did loads of crap.
Like what? If you don’t mind me asking.
Like going partying with people you don’t know, getting in a taxi with people you don’t know, already drunk. Not knowing where I was, losing my phone, wallet, keys and someone I didn’t know having to bring me home.
Anyway, relationships and friendships… I had friends at uni, but I actually didn’t maintain that, so I don’t really count it as a friendship. It was something at the time, and it made me go through that process, and it was really good because I didn’t feel lonely. I don’t think I felt lonely, no. But I’m also a person who doesn’t mind being with myself.
Since when you were a child?
I was always a very shy kid, so maybe that’s why I’m used to being with myself. In Portugal when I moved cities, I suffered some bullying too. I went to a new school and was trying to be part of the group, in my class, and they just said, you’re not from here, you can’t be in our party – they were doing a party for the teacher. I know that hurt me a bit. So I’ve definitely felt it, but not for too long.
I actually did have a serious boyfriend here. He wasn’t from uni, I met him at work. I don’t really feel like I had a full uni life, because I was mostly at work, not at uni.
Do you feel like you missed out on uni, because you’re one of the students who had to work all the time?
Yes, I did, I did miss out on uni. I wish I could go back, do one part time job, and just do uni and enjoy the experience. I liked it, but I had half of the experience, not the other half.
Do you feel like the university system appreciated the fact you had to work a lot?
They definitely did understand, my lecturers were very understanding. Some of my lecturers would tell me I wasn’t coming enough to uni. I would explain my situation, and they were understanding, but they would also remind me that I’m at uni and didn’t come here to work. I definitely didn’t feel, though, like I was put aside because I had to work.
You were talking before about your serious boyfriend and that experience…
Yeah. We met, we started dating, he asked me out, and basically that was that. It was a bit too quick, but it was good as well. We were together for a year, and it was really good, no complaints. I think we just had different views to life, and we couldn’t deal with it. Also… I don’t really know, like… He wanted to go and live somewhere else after I finished uni, and I didn’t want that, because I wanted to travel and I still feel like I have a lot to go through before I can settle. That’s when the fights started, and that went on for a couple of months. Until this one day, everything was fine, I thought, and he just stopped talking to me. Stopped texting me, didn’t reply to my calls. All of a sudden, from one day to another – the day before we were texting, planning on meeting each other. The next day, I texted him, no reply, I called him, no reply. From that day, I don’t know anything else about him. My friend after a while saw him in Luton, but I’ve never seen him again or talked to him again.
Wow… OK, let’s talk about now. Where are you now? You’re not in Luton any more. Was that a big achievement?
Definitely. My motivation was, as soon as you finish uni, you’re going to move to London. Everyone told me I was crazy, because how could I move to London, it’s so expensive. I didn’t know, I just wanted to try it. I am actually interested in London, I should really do those free tour guides!
Sometimes when you live somewhere, you take it for granted…
Exactly! I learned that after changing country too, I never cared about my country and now it’s the best of them all! Now that I’m not there. Yes, I have a keen interest in London. It’s a city with a lot of history, a lot of hidden secrets that I want to find. Now that I’m in London, I’m very happy. I still don’t know what to do with my life, but I know I’m going somewhere. I’m working now, not in any field that I really love, but I know I’m heading somewhere. And I’m doing things for myself! I’m not thinking about what anyone else would like in my life, I’m thinking, ‘What do I want my life to be like?’ Right now, I’m interested in saving money, knowing the city I’m in, enjoying it to the most – I don’t know how long I’m gonna be here, now we don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’m trying to accomplish what I want. I’m studying martial arts, and travelling. Right now it’s just about keeping on doing my thing, and right now, my thing is living in London and exploring it.