Friday, October 30, 2015

The Business of Culture and a Box of Chocolates

For the last couple of blogs I have dealt with the idiosyncrasies of how I was engaged and slightly overwhelmed by my arrival in Europe and my return home (?). There is another part of this whole ordeal that I need to attend to with a couple of observations. First, dealing in the business world is totally different and second, there are multiple cultures just as if you were entering a new country.

A real cowboy John Wayne as
Rooster Coburn coming to
save the day from the
movie-True Grit.
Let me start off by saying that everyone sees any U.S. salesman as a cowboy!!!! I have been called this on many occasions throughout the years. We are primarily known for saying yes before we have heard the question and being completely overconfident when we have no plan. This is not always the case but this how many perceive our presence. Americans are never expected to speak any other language except English and we aren’t in some cases prepared to do business in terms of the country and culture we are invading.

The first time I tried to get an appointment with a person from Ford Motor Company in Koeln, I was truly taken aback. I had known this person from dealings in the U.S. for many years and had a contact number plus he was expecting me to call. I called the number and got his secretary (the gatekeeper). She spoke pleasantly and dutifully in German. My German at this point was almost nonexistent and I was really expecting her to speak to me in English (cowboy). I said politely in English that I would like to speak to Mr. Peck. She curtly answered in English you mean “HERR PECK.” I got the message that I had made a mistake. I inquired if “Herr Peck” had time to see me that day and what company I was from in that order. She replied that she had never heard of my company and that I needed to make appointments 2 weeks in advance, “Punkt aus” (period). I made a tentative meeting time for that period and was told to call back in a week to confirm. WOW!!! Culture shock!!!! Not only had I taken things that seem simple for granted but I thought that I had truly insulted the secretary. I did get in 2 weeks later and by then had discovered my errors in judgement.

"That Guy," the Ugly American Tourist.
Was I truly “that guy”, the ugly American. I did some homework and discovered my potentially damaging mistakes. In the first place, I truly was a cowboy expecting the secretary to speak to me in English. The solution was that I could have taken the time to learn a few German phrases (my wife does speak the language fluently) before making the call to convey “Hello”, my name, “My German is poor”, and “Can you speak English?”. At least it would have shown that I was trying and maybe made her laugh (after meeting her, I doubt it). Second, in the U.S., we are not overtly formal, however in German society as well as in business, formality is a given especially to strangers. I had to prepare and adapt apparently to all situations as Dorthy said, “…we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

Berlitz can be a life changer for anyone
traveling and especially living in a
 foreign country.
Over time this is what happened. I took a Berlitz total immersion German course for 8 weeks. This entailed going to class for 4 hours a day for 5 days a week for 8 weeks speaking nothing but German from the first day that I stared the class. It was hard but it turned out to be fun and of course later on profitable. By the 8th week I was nowhere close to fluent but I could hold my own in most social situations without embarrassing myself or most importantly feeling left out and dependent. The course taught me the language but also the culture and protocols of the country. This gave me a true advantage over other American companies trying to do business as I could later on fit in as one of the guys (Herren; formal).

I learned the hard way to be better prepared. Always Speak in the language of the country if possible but at least try to learn a few phrases to be polite. Understand the correct way to address a person because not everyone wants to be called buddy the first or even second time you meet them. Understanding how things are done there (not in your country) is the almost the most important thing you can do.

The most important thing you can do is to remember to bring the secretary a small gift every time you meet her. Frau Kopf (Herr Peck’s secretary) preferred Chocolates (the key to the gatekeeper)!!!

You can find Berlitz courses in every major city in the world. It makes your life easier and helps you to feel like you belong and a part of your new world. Don't forget to check Expat Focus for other great information about travel and the expat lifestyle.

Monday, October 19, 2015

The First Time’s a Charmer

As I stepped off the plane, many emotions sped through my mind. Fear, anticipation, trepidation and curiosity gave me bust of adrenalin that made me extremely invigorated after the 7 ½ hours Germany. I had truly never been out of country. I was a new explorer moving overseas for 3 years and I was not sure that it was right.

Die Polizei, Franfurt Flughafen
This sounds extraordinarily familiar as I felt this way returning to the United States after living for 12 years in Europe. My Journey was beginning and I as nervous as I was on my first real date. As I arrived in Frankfurt, I was feeling very alone as I passed through customs. My wife to be had arrived weeks before and was meeting me at the gate. I was never gladder to see her. The airport had some differences that I instantly noticed. First, I heard no English being spoken except by my wife and myself. My wife speaks 4 languages including German so she was right at home. I personally had taken German in high school and college. I couldn’t understand one word. Second, there were people walking around with machine guns (a bit disconcerting)!!! What had I gotten myself into? We found our car and began our trip to Koeln, which is north of Frankfurt about 1 ½ hours by taking what is lovingly called the race track (the autobahn connecting Frankfurt and Koeln).

The A3 Autobahn, "The Race Track." Bucket List item.
As we pulled on to the highway (autobahn) I noticed one thing immediately, cars traveling at a rate of speed which land you in jail if attempted in Michigan. Little did I know that I was in for the ride of my what felt was going to be my short life. As we accelerated in my wife’s new Opel (the GM of Europe), I was surprised by the smoothness of the road and the pecking order of rules followed by every driver. Slower vehicles were always on the right and no-one and I mean no-one passed on the right (a favorite pastime in the US). As I was taking in the sites, I looked over at the speedometer and we were traveling at the sedate speed of 115 miles per hour. That truly took me for a loop as it felt like we were going slowly and ploddingly down the road. The true realty hit me as we were being passed liked we were standing still by a plethora of cars. I had never been so grateful for seat belts!

You only have one!!!!
The trip was progressing and I was beginning to feel more comfortable with the speed. About 45 minutes into our journey, we hit a traffic jam lovingly known in Germany as a Stau. As we progressed though the jam I began to notice parts of a car spread over the closed section of the highway. The parts got larger as we got closer to the accident which covered over a quarter of a mile. At the end there was what was left of a E Class Mercedes rolled up into a smoldering ball. Fire and police units were on hand with my final sight of the carnage being 4 body bags side by side on the road, a graphic reminder that you only had one accident on the autobahn. I swore to myself that I would never drive that fast (Ha, Ha, Ha!!!).

The Koelner Dom, guardian angel of the city.
After the shock of the accident, we arrived in Koeln and I settled into our temporary abode (a 4 star hotel) in the middle of the city. It was midmorning and my wife had class at Berlitz as part of her expat introduction to the country. I decided to come along for a brief tour of the city center while my wife was in class. We left the hotel and started toward the center of the city. I looked up and saw one of the most awe inspiring sights of my life, the spires of the Koelner Dom (cathedral). Getting closer, the spires loomed over the city like a guardian angel protecting the humanity below. It was a sight I would never forget and one that haunts me to this day. We finally got next to the Dom which dwarfed everything else with its grandeur. How did man ever construct this monument dedicated to God without his divine intervention? “Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore!” (Dorthy from the Wizard of Oz) We reached the Berlitz building and my wife informed me that I was on my own for a couple of hours and to walk around and take in the wonders. I was about to be intrigued and dumbfounded.

The neat and clean streets of Koeln.
Walking around, I was surprised at how clean the city was. There was no garbage on the ground and the smells were of street food and biergartens tickled all my senses. People were everywhere hustling and bustling to their destinations. I decided to get a coffee at an outdoor restaurant and watch the crowd. It was then that I saw one of the most amazing things. As in every city, there are the downtrodden of society. I noticed a homeless man sitting quietly against a building, invisible to everyone but me. He had a bottle of water, a sprig of grapes and a dirty backpack containing his worldly possessions. As I watched him eat his meager meal, I could not help but wonder how he got to such a point in his life. Then I discovered in part why the streets were so clean. After he finished his meal he did something that surprised and inspired me, he stood up and walked 50 feet to a garbage can and deposited the grape sprig and empty water bottle (a sight I would never expect to see in a major city). I was truly inspired by the fact that he was in the lowest rung of society and yet had respect for himself and those around him. I often wondered who he was after he walked away back into invisibility.

"Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore!"
Finishing my coffee and being male, I noticed from afar a tall slim woman approaching in a mini-skirt and looking sharp. I decided to sit a while longer to watch her pass before I left the restaurant. I finished paying the bill and waited. The closer she got, the more I began to notice there was something different about her. She was in a sleeveless dress and heels walking quickly and looking pretty good. The closer she got, I noticed something sticking out of her nylons and dark patches under her arms. Then she was directly in front of me when it came to me. She had not shaved. The dark patches under her arms were denser than mine and the something sticking out of her nylons was more hair than I had on my own legs (not all women in Europe are this extreme). A more interesting awakening to a new culture could not have left a bigger impression on an expat to be. Dorthy was right!!!

I’ll see you next week with more adventure into cultural differences and exciting escapades. The reality of travel can be truly experienced only by being there yourself. Take the time to get to know the world we live in personally and up close. Follow me on Twitter and check out my Facebook Fan Page by clicking the buttons on this page. For more travel information regarding Cologne, Germany follow the link to their Tourism Board:

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Most Adventurous Trip

As I stepped off the plane, many emotions sped through my mind. Fear, anticipation, trepidation and curiosity gave me bust of adrenalin that made me extremely invigorated after the 7 ½ hours flight back to the United States. It had been over 10 years since I had spent more than a few weeks at a time in country. I was a terminal expatriate returning home (?) possibly forever and I was not sure that it was right.

My wife and I both worked in the automotive industry and both had our own little world s to venture into and expand in our new home Europe. At first it was different and difficult dealing with new rules of community and language as we had decided to live in smaller towns where English was definitely at best a second language. I lived next to castles and in mansions overlooking vineyards. If I got tired of a culture, I got in my car and drove 2 hours to a new country. Heck I had 2 months of vacation and the money to do something about it.
Weinachts Markt in Germany

Things were about to change dramatically as I was coming back to nothing. I had no home: I had no job: and I had grey hair (it was brown when this whole thing started) which made me over-qualified. I was a tool and die man coming back to a country that had no tool and die manufacturing. The fact of the matter was that I knew more about the world than I knew of the country that granted me a passport.

The pace of life was doubled. Vacations were cut in half. Crime was higher and to top it off I had to live in an apartment till we found a suitable city and house. My wife’s job was back at her company’s headquarters in Troy, Michigan and the job market was horrible.  The most difficult part of the whole episode was getting back with some old friends and trying to make new ones with people that I really had nothing in common with and no familiar points of view. I was a stranger in a strange land.

Notre Dame, Paris
I had to change something. I had to reinvent myself to fit into this new culture and ways of doing things. What I was used to was not better it was different and I had to adjust as if I had just started my expatriate journey 12 years earlier.

This blog is about change and adaptation, adventure and culture. In the following, hopefully, years the adventures will be full of whimsy and curiosity. The different will become the norm and languages will start to blend. You, as I did, will start to feel as if you are going home with every story and feeling a part of something more than what you can see out your window. I am Dan Pavelka and I proud to be your tour guild as I try to explain the world as I know it.
Home (Rochester, Michigan)