Escape Rooms

Nobody could have expected this, but finding a job in the capitol city of the most bureaucratically rigid nation on the planet has proven, oh, difficult. I was interviewing with this travel company for six weeks (!!!!!) over the phone, email, in person, and they sent me an email last week saying “Yo it was suuuuuper hard deciding between you and this other dude, but with went with the other dude. You cool though! You cool!” Which is just as well because judging by their sub-par interview skills — I think they googled “what to ask in an interivew” about ten minutes before I showed up and asked them off a laptop, for two intense yet wholly indirect hours — I’m not sure I’d enjoy working there. This was the most egregious example of what I’ve been dealing with here, but eh. One place asked me to write an example news article, and then after I’d written it, told me “oh actually we wanted a different kind of article” and I said “Oh, that wasn’t clear.” (because they had, in fact, not asked for that kind of article.) “Can I write one now?” and the reply was a swift “No.”

So in the meantime I’ve taken a job at an escape room as a stopgap. An escape room, for those who don’t know (I wrote an article for that paper in Turkey about them), is a game where you get locked in a room and have to solve puzzles to escape. There are ones kind of like haunted houses where you have to search for a key, and then there are ones where everything has a padlock on it and you need to deduce the combinations from wheel-charts and numbers scrawled on the wall.

The interview there was a ten-minute interrogation from a woman from the former Soviet nation of Latvia about my deepest hopes and dreams. I was taken aback, but answered the questions as honestly as I could. “We like to help people achieve their dreams here,” she said. “Are you ready to work 12 hours a day?” Okay. There was no contract nor forms to fill out. I was hired.

We have three rooms — a pirate themed room, a “witches and wizards” (read: Harry Potter) room, and a serial killer room. It’s kind of fun. There are secret doors, codes written in ropes or crazy drawings, a magic star, a cryptex, a life-size floppy man who’s been locked up in a cell, and plenty more.


Congratulations! You opened a wacky puzzle-tube.

In the pirate room, you actually start out locked in the brig. I get into the spirit of things sometimes: I dyed a bunch of paper yellow with Earl Grey and wrote longhand clues for our pirate room — the previous clues had been typed out on construction paper, and it looked not at all like an antique Ship’s Log.

The actual job consists of watching people scratch their heads on CCTV, and sending them hints if they can’t figure it out. You greet them, of course, explain what they’re about to do, and then follow their progress on camera as they notice and piece together all the elements of the puzzles. Our “hints” consist of pictures of powerpoint presentations, broadcast on to screens in each room. Then, after the guests have torn off every drawer handle and unscrewed every lightbulb and thrown every prop in a pile in the middle of the room, you go back in, tidy, reset the puzzles, put the clues back into their drawers, relock the locks. It is monkey work, but it is by far the strangest monkey work I’ve ever done. After six or so rounds of this, you can go home.

I was trained by a neurotic Chinese-English girl five years my actual junior but who comes off as much younger, because her entire life is work, martial arts class, and family time. Every time I mention something outside those topics, she freely admits ignorance. I mentioned that Harriet had snagged 15 pound tickets to a West End show. “Oh, I don’t know much about theatre shows.” I once identified a customer named Jesus as Spanish. “Oh, I don’t know much about languages.” (She’s bilingual.) One time someone buzzed the door, and she moved her mug down behind the desk.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want the guests to see my tea,” she said.

“God forbid they find out you drink tea,” I teased.

“Haha, right. It’s much too casual,” she said, completely serious. An employee at a game room drinking tea in the UK: yep, sounds hugely unprofessional. I admit to cultural ignorance, and perhaps Turkey has skewed my perceptions on when it is okay to drink tea (100% of the time, with anyone and everyone) but still.

She is of course very good at her job of greeting people, entertaining them, sending them hints, and resetting the rooms at blitzkrieg speed. It just becomes difficult to work with people, for me anyways, when I can’t get a sense of what they care about outside of work.

The hardest part about my job are honestly the hours: the times that people play escape room games are, surprise! not during the work day, which means I’m busy in the evenings and on weekends.

Really, I’m beginning to look at the prospect of finding work in this country as its own escape room, but with much shittier puzzles. Here’s the setup: you’re trapped in a dead-end job in a foreign country, you work unsocial hours and make minimum wage. Your employer is trained in Soviet-era interrogation. You have to decode both the postal system and two government websites in order to obtain an NI number so you can be taxed at the correct rate. Most employers and government services are impervious to the sorts of cajoling that worked in the last country you lived in. How do you: 1) find challenging employment, 2) make friends, 3) earn enough money to enjoy one of the most lively cities on earth while still being able to save a little on the side, and 4) do everything legally? You have one more month before you go mad. Aaaaaand the clock starts now!


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