Greetings friends! I’m up in northern New Brunswick, learning all about Acadian culture, but I’m thrilled to have guest poster Jill, of Couchtime with Jill, back for Part Two of her adventures as an intern in Cape Town. Part One provided a lot of great information about planning for an internship abroad, and in Part 2, we learn more about Jill’s adjustment to life as an intern at GLAMOUR South Africa in Cape Town, adjusting to living in a country that is very, very different from home, and her very own Devil Wears Prada experience with a terrifying Editor-in-Chief.
Interning abroad, Part 2
I arrived in Cape Town nervous and exhausted. It was my first time traveling outside of North America. I broke the law immediately.
All over the Johannesburg airport, which I connected through, there were signs declaring that tipping in a foreign currency was against the law. My dad, an extensive business traveler, had warned me that non-airport employees would attempt to help me with my bags. I was told not to let anyone touch my stuff. Of course, immediately someone helped me with my stuff. It didn’t help that I was a 110lb kid trying to get a 95lb suitcase onto an escalator. I didn’t have any South African rand on me. I tipped in American dollars. I saw the sign about 20 minutes later – off to a great start!
“I hope you’re better than the last girl. You probably can’t be any worse.”
These were the welcoming words I received on my first day at GLAMOUR. My internship program had a relationship with the magazine, and pretty much always had an intern placed there. All accounts from other interns confirm that, yes, the girl before me was a flake. Still, those words set a certain tone.
My supervisor, Jessica, was basically Emily Blunt from The Devil Wears Prada: Thin, pretty and eager to please. In fact, a quiet desperation could be felt throughout the whole office. I’ll call the the editor-in-chief “PF,” and she was intimidating. She dressed impeccably (I’d say “of course”, but the Style Editor had dreadful clothes), and breezed in and out of the office with a constant sense of urgency. Her voice was deep and elegant, and somehow her South African accent sounded even more beautiful than everyone else’s. She scared the pants off me.
My tasks, at first, were fun. I wrote little sidebar stories about new “research” on the differences between men and women, or that if you stopped buying a latte every morning you could probably vacation in Mozambique next summer. I researched who designed the dresses celebrities were spotted wearing, moved bottles of perfume to the left by a quarter of an inch at photo shoots, and – my favorite – African-ized stories. That’s what I called being handed a published story from an American or British GLAMOUR magazine and changing all the references and product recommendations to suit a Southern African audience. (Downside: Even if I changed a story so much that I was basically starting from scratch, the byline still went only to the original writer.)
I also did the typical intern stuff, like going for coffee runs, handing out mail and, every day around 3pm, taking orders from the entire office for rooibos tea. I made a lot of tea.
It was, as the movie says, the opportunity millions of girls would kill for. And I hated almost every minute of it.
I didn’t know the culture well enough to write substantial stories, I couldn’t do street interviews because it was technically winter (a frigid 23 degrees Celsius) and the issue we were working on would hit stores in summer, and NO ONE could understand my Canadian accent over the phone.
I was shocked at how much of the magazine was just entirely fabricated. Trends? Those are pulled out of the ass of a thirty-something woman in leather pants and a leopard print trench coat. Stories about horrible bosses? Why bother getting interviews out on the street when you can just change the names of everyone you used to work with at Marie Claire? After two weeks, I felt like if I Googled “new research study about sex” one more time I’d kill myself.
It bothered me how the only employees of colour were the security guard and the maid. It bothered me even more how no one else seemed bothered by that. Mama T, the maid, was the nicest person I worked with. I would go into the kitchen and lean out the window with tears in my eyes, wondering why I’d come halfway across the world for a job I hated. She didn’t speak any English, but she’d pat my back and smile. The second nicest person worked in the art department. (I also spent a few days interning at GQ, which shared the floor of the office building GLAMOUR was in. It was exactly the same, and again the nicest people were in the art department. Become graphic designers, not writers, kids.)
I know interns aren’t important, but I’d never felt so invisible. One of the nicest people I worked with, outside of the maid and the art department, was the Stories Editor. She’d compliment my manners when I answered the phone and was impressed with my research skills. But she never learned my name. Instead, she called me “Halifax”. Not even Canada – everyone at GLAMOUR was quick to tell people I was from Canada, because who likes Americans? She couldn’t remember the name “Jill”, but for a month solid remembered the name of the small city she’d never heard of before meeting me. It wasn’t a nickname or joke – she honestly did not know my name, no matter how many times she was told. And this was one of the nicest people there.
I hated how everyone bent over backwards to please the editor-in-chief, PF. It was like the company had one boss and twenty secretaries. Making her happy was more important than the actual work. Deadlines were tossed aside just to try and secure her a last-minute hair appointment at a trendy salon that was booked months in advance – departmental editors literally spent a whole afternoon in a frenzy, calling in personal favors.
I was on a typical coffee run with my supervisor, Jessica, one afternoon. We had a long list of drinks to purchase for a meeting, and of course everyone wanted something different. We almost ordered PF the wrong flavor of latte, and when I corrected Jessica she turned white, then green. Delivering the wrong coffee would have been the end of the world. The end of her world, anyway. It was then that I realized how much I didn’t want to be a part of it.
After I realized I didn’t want to work at a fashion magazine, the job became a lot more fun. And frankly, Cape Town is so amazing that I was simply living for the weekends and after 5pm. I hated my job and still had the time of my life. The food was amazing – Cape Town is very multicultural and overflowing with fantastic restaurants. I went dancing and to hear great local music. I went on road trips, checked off a bucket list item when I visited Robben Island, and spent lazy Sunday afternoons at the beach. I became pen pals with a Congolese refugee who worked at a monkey sanctuary. The security guard in my building once cooked my friends and I a traditional Tanzanian feast.
I grabbed morning cappuccinos from the café on the ground floor of my building. A short walk to work took me through a park that featured the art museum, the science museum and a family of baby ducks in a pond. A security guard who stood at the gate would smile at me, every day, and say “Working girl on the go!” I loved feeling like a local, and at 21 years old I loved feeling like a professional.
There were difficult things, too, obviously. I knew some people who were mugged (though I always felt as safe as I would in New York, or any other big city where you might want to make sure your purse is zipped up) and it was always best to take a cab after dark. I visited Khayelitsha, an impoverished township of mostly shacks, and I met a family in Simon’s Town who’d had their land stolen during apartheid. Every time I left a bar at night, I’d buy two chicken shawarmas from a street car – one for me and one for a kid. Long Street – famous for bars and restaurants – was full of little kids, anywhere from 6 to 10 years old, out by themselves after midnight begging for money. It was heartbreaking.
All of it, though – the good and the bad – made it the experience of a lifetime. When else can you take a month (or more) of your life and get an unpaid job in a foreign country? It’s an amazing luxury that is usually exclusive to your early twenties. I’m so glad I did it.