Friday, September 24, 2010

Doing Business in Europe is Hilarious

Before I get into the chalet-hunting and the Tuscany trip, I have to pass these two little tidbits along before I forget.  I have written very little about the reason we were sent over here in the first place:  Mr. Big’s job.    There is a reason I don’t write about Mr. Big’s job very much.  A) because he gets pissed when I write about it and B) because it is kind of boring.  Well, not kind of boring, MAJORLY boring.  However, just recently two things happened that made me chuckle.

Mr. Big works for an American company that had a small to medium-sized global presence.  Well, his company bought a ginormous German company and now their presence in Europe is really, really big.  All good.  Mr. Big was sent to Switzerland to try and make all of the employees of the former-German company come together with their new American friends and be one big happy family.  It is no secret that Europeans and Americans conduct business differently.  Americans live to work and Europeans work to live.   So, Mr. Big has his work cut out for him.  Americans might think that they are culturally very close to Europeans, but that is not true.  There are huge differences.

Take, for example, The Whorehouse Controversy.   In a beautiful, historic town in Germany along the Rhein river, Mr. Big’s company has one of their factories.  It is a lovely, old, brick factory and it’s been there forever.  It reminds me of those old cotton mills up in New England that developers convert into trendy loft apartments.  Anyway, this factory is situated rather close to the red light district in this particular town.  As a matter of fact, for as long as anyone can remember, there has been a whorehouse located directly behind the factory.  Note that keyword, behind.  In other words, the “girls” did not bother the people in the factory and vice versa (or so they swear).  Actually, the folks who work at the plant know that if they ever need a cab, they just run half way round the block to the whorehouse and they can always find an empty taxi that has just dropped off a customer.  As far as whorehouses go, Mr. Big tells me, as I have not seen it firsthand, this one is rather discrete.  The only advertisement of its’ services is a big, red, neon heart over the door.  Swear to God.

Anyway, fast forward to two months ago when the city council of this town decides that the red light district is getting out of control.  Now, remember, prostitution is legal in Europe.  Apparently, their red light district was experiencing urban sprawl and encroaching on other neighborhoods.  To rein in this rampant growth, (at least one industry is experiencing rampant growth!), the city council decides that they will build, at their expense, a new, improved No-Tell Motel DIRECTLY ACROSS THE STREET FROM THE FRONT DOOR OF MR. BIG’S FACTORY.  And, get this.  It is not actually going to be a house, as it were.  The plans call for a series of modified shipping containers stacked four across and three high with individual entrances, furnished inside with a mattress, a lamp, and, one would hope, a sink and a toilet.  Not unlike those FEMA trailers they handed out in New Orleans after Katrina.

Mr. Big, of course, goes apoplectic.  The Europeans are like, what?  What is the matter, Mr. Big?  It is right there in the existing parking lot, convenient for the men to get in and out, no?  The girls, we think, will stay mostly inside and only come out for cigarette breaks, no?  What is the problem, Mr. American Uptight Puritanical Corporate Person?

Mr. Big’s company did protest, but they lost and the whorehouse is a-comin’, (no pun intended).  I cannot tell you the number of jokes that are going around the water cooler at the company headquarters in the US about their factory in Germany that comes equipped with its’ own special stress-relief and wellness program.  I’m sure they are all talking about Mr. Big’s crème de la crème expat assignment.  Not only does he get to live on Lac Leman and buy a ski chalet in the Alps, but he also has Happy Hooker Availability approximately 18 feet from one of his desks.

Another thing that Mr. Big inherited when his company bought the big German company was a sponsorship to a professional ice hockey team in the Czech Republic.  This is a VERY BIG DEAL.  This team plays in the Czech Republic for the equivalent of the National Hockey League in America.  As a matter of fact, Dominic Hasek was on this team last year.  Even I, who couldn’t care less about ice hockey, have a signed jersey from Dominic Hasek.  I have never worn it because it is not really fashion forward, but I do own it.

Representing the Czech Republic and Russia and Poland and other countries that Americans have never heard of like Moldova is Mr. Big’s Eastern Europe Guy, Vladimir.   Vladimir is a hoot.  First of all, English is, I think, his 7th language.  He does not have a great grasp on the parsing of verbs in English, therefore, Vladimir only speaks in the third person.  A conversation with Vladimir goes something like this:

Vlad:  Oh, lovely wife of Boss, Vladimir is so happy to see you!

Me:  Well, thanks, Vlad, it is good to see you too.  And how is Mrs. Vladimir and the boys?

Vlad:  Mrs. Vladimir fine.  Boys fine.  Vladimir also fine.  You would like a Vodka?

Me:  No, thanks, Vlad, I’m good with this wine.

Vlad:  Vladimir is having a Vodka.  Vladimir would like to get you a shot, or, uh, what is the word?  A shooter.  Vladimir would like to get you a shooter of Becherovka.  This is national drink in Czech.  You try it.

Me:  Thanks anyway, Vlad.  This is a business dinner and I’m trying to be a good Corporate Wife.  Puking is not on my agenda this evening.


I’m telling you, if I brought Vladimir back to America, he would have his own reality TV show inside of a week.  He’s like Borat except not as creepy.  So, back to hockey.  Vladimir is upset because The Company always plans their meetings/planning sessions/etc. in WESTERN European cities.  He wants The Company to come to the Czech Republic for once.  Vladimir thinks his district is like the red-haired stepchild of Europe.  He has these big plans to do their giant yearly get-together next year (140+ people) in Prague.

Mr. Big is OK with that, I mean, Prague is fabulous.  Then, Vladimir has another brainstorm.  Vladimir will combine a trip to one of the hockey games that The Company sponsors for all 140 people in the meetings!  Vladimir is so excited!  Until Vladimir looks at the hockey schedule and realizes that the dates of the games and the dates of the meetings do not coincide.  Not even close.  Oh, well, there’s always 2012, Vlad.

Y’all.  Last Friday evening, when Mr. Big and I are driving through Italy, Mr. Big’s cell phone rings.  It is Vladimir.

Vlad:  Boss man!

Mr. Big:  Well, hello Vladimir, what’s up?

Vlad:  Boss man, Vladimir has solved problem with hockey game.  Vladimir is here in meeting right now with owner of hockey team in Praha!

Mr. Big:  Um, OK, Vladimir, that’s great.  What have you done?

Vlad:  We change schedule of hockey league to provide game for The Company!  Here, here is Mr. Owner Boss of Hockey Team to speak with you!

Y’all.  He CHANGED the league schedule in all of the Czech Republic so that everyone from The Company would come to his hometown for their meeting.  Picture for a moment, if you will, if some sales guy in America called up the owner of the New Jersey Devils and said “Hi, would it be possible for you to switch your schedule around to accommodate my strategic planning session of 140 people?”  For the love of God, Vladimir, you are a crazy person!!  Next time I see you, I WILL have that Becherovka!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Chalet?

Wow.  I am getting really slack with this blog.  It’s not that I have stopped doing stuff, I have just stopped doing funny stuff.  I’ve been here in Switzerland so long that everything just seems normal, unremarkable and certainly not blog-worthy.

Hopefully, after 14:00 today, that will all change.  We are meeting a realtor this afternoon to go look at a chalet.  I am incredibly excited about this.   The chalet is a WRECK, but a hot mess is the only kind of chalet we can afford in Switzerland.  For those of you who know me personally, you will know that buying a wreck doesn’t scare me one bit.  I love me some renovation.  Renovating a house while speaking French, however, is another matter entirely.

So, to that end, I have enrolled in yet another French course which starts a week from Monday.  This is an intensive course.  3.5 hours per day, five days a week, until the instructor gives you the greenlight to cut back to only 2 days per week.  The teacher at this institute swears that she will have me speaking understandable French in just two weeks.  We shall see.  I believe she has her work cut out for her.  I still sound like I am chewing on a bag of rocks when I speak French.  But, it is essential that I learn how to say things like “I want to buy a pressure washer, a pry bar and 82 liters of paint” in French.  Also, I will need to brush up on my swear words if I’m going to pass myself off as a contractor.  The only one I know now is “merde” and that is just not going to cover every situation.

Mr. Big and I discovered the chalet when we were looking for another one that we had seen on the internet.  I am deliberately withholding the name of the village because there are a number of Swiss people who read this blog and the competition for housing being what it is, I am just hedging my bets.  Although the Swiss probably aren’t interested in buying a wreck.  They are all rich and can buy one that’s properly renovated, so I’ve got that going for me.

This particular chalet is three floors high and, I fear, having only seen it from the outside, cut up into 3 separate apartments.  It looks like it hasn’t been touched since the 1960’s but it has great views and sits right on a high, alpine lake.  Of course, we will only be looking at the one house this afternoon, because the realtor for this house cannot show us any other houses, even if they are just down the road.

No lock-box system, remember?  So, for every chalet that you even want to look at, you must make an individual appointment with the proper listing agent to see each and every house.  Do you think that this highly inefficient system drives Mr. Big crazy?  Of course it does.  I have a sneaking suspicion that this entire buying process is going to be one giant gripe-fest for Mr. Big but at least it will give him something to talk about besides Swiss driving habits and the procurement of speeding tickets.

After we look at our wreck-of-a-chalet, we are driving directly across the Saint Bernard pass, (yes, where the monks train the dogs), into Italy.  We have a long weekend here in Switzerland.  It is some kind of holiday.  I have no idea what holiday.  I have stopped asking.  It seems that every other Monday or Friday is some kind of holiday.  As a matter of fact, if Mr. Big actually has to get up and go to work on a Monday, it is noteworthy.

ME:  What the hell is that sound?

MR. BIG:  It’s just the alarm.  Go back to sleep, Spouse.

ME:  Dude, it’s Monday.  Why are you going to work?

MR. BIG:  Today is not a holiday.  Europe has decided to work on this particular Monday.

ME:  You better recheck that.  Something doesn’t sound right.  You are going to look like a real tool if you are the only one in the office.

Since we have this nice, long weekend and since it happily coincides with our 24-year wedding anniversary, we are going to the famed Tuscany area of Italy.  It seems everyone on the planet has already been there, is there right now or is making plans to go to Tuscany and I want to go see what all the fuss is about.  We are doing our normal thing, i.e. no reservations, no plans, etc.  Wherever we find ourselves at dinner time, that is where we stay.  This modus operandi has never failed us and by that I mean, that we have never had to sleep in the car.  We have slept in some rather sketchy places but that is all part of the fun.  One night in the UK about ten years ago, the only room we could find was directly above a pub.  Unfortunately for us, it happened to be July 4th.  Mr. Big had to buy rounds all night for the Brits because his ancestors had the gall to declare independence over them some 200+ years earlier.

Anyway, subsequent blogs will have many pictures of chalets and Tuscany.  Since I haven’t shot these pictures yet, for today’s blog, you will just have to be satisfied with some that I have taken in the last couple of weeks. 

Most of them are of an antique fair that we went to in L’Isle Sur Morges in Switzerland. 

The ones of the valley are from a mountain excursion up to Veysonnaz and Nendaz.  The town you see down below is Sion.  The Alps you see on the other side of the valley are where you find the ski resort Crans-Montana.

Ciao, friends.