Friday, May 16, 2014

An Unexpected Twinge of Humanity

The art of the wallet for personal, sentimental, important and irreplaceable belongings seems to have survived the revolution of  the electronic everything else. So being robbed when away on business can make life very awkward, especially at 11pm at night in a train station.
It's not like thinking your phone is gone and then finding it after you look for the third time and find it down at the bottom of your bag. Well not in my case anyway. My ex-wallet was big and bulky and flowery and heavy and generally not to be missed. But still, when I got into the taxi and saw that my handbag was swinging open, I immediately checked to see if my wallet was there - no. So what did I do, looked again. Still not there. So I got out of the taxi and sat on the side of the pavement and went through my bag again. And then again. Despite my efforts at cognitive dissonance - otherwise called denial, I eventually came to the conclusion that I had just been robbed.
Then came the helplessness. In a flash I went from being respectable business lady about to take a taxi back to her hotel, to penniless bag lady on the side of the road. What to do?
Somehow, I found, or got guided to the police station. It was right there at the train station. In fact, I think they call themselves the train-station-police, but it was a bona fide German cop-shop, hats and bats and guns and all.
There was a queue - one other person. A very perplex young Indian guy who had had some sort of run in with his friends and was now missing his wallet. Whereas I tend to implode in a stress situation and just go quiet and pale (I was sitting on a bench staring into space with a white face), this guy was all hands and arms waving about the place and basically coming to the conclusion that since his wallet had been stolen, his life was now ruined. In fairness, he had some good arguments - his I.D. card was in the wallet, and he needed it to register for his upcoming exams, but now he would have to stay back a year, and his girlfriend was at home waiting for him and she was pregnant and she wouldn't believe that he was robbed and would leave him over this, and he would never make it home anyway because his travel pass was in his wallet and now he would have to walk 15 kilometres and that would probably kill him, but first of all the guy who he owed ten euro to would probably kill him since his fortune of 15 euro was gone.
I was a bit luckier. I had only been robbed of 180 euro, my credit cards, bank cards, Bahncard100 - which gives me free travel across Germany, my health insurance card, and basically any card that is vital for my survival. A different cop came and took all my details, and it was like, incredible what you have to tell the German police about yourself in order to report a theft. They needed to know how old I am, what I work at, and my marital status. I told them I was divorced, had a partner, a secret lover, a lesbian liaison and the occasional visit from a Brazilian call boy. Look, if this information will help find my wallet, then hey…
Actually no, I told them that my marital status is 'divorced but complicated' and that they now know more about me than Facebook does. The policeman laughed. Yes, as in sense of humour. The Indian guy was pacing the floor at this stage, and starting to get a bit too hectic. Another cop asked him to take a breathalyser. It was 1,4 promille, with the guy repeatedly telling them that he had only had two beers.
I myself had had two beers that night, and I was tempted to ask if I could do the test too, but no, I waited patiently for the policeman with the sense of humour to come back with the 25 million official forms that stated not only had I been robbed, but had now been legally and officially robbed.
But then it got interesting. I was done, but I had no money, no travel card, no relatives, no friends, no Irish embassy - no way home.
And that's where the unexpected twinge of humanity happened. The cop looked at me and said 'hey, you know what, I'll lend you 20 quid of my money if you like. I just feel I can trust you. I'll give you my bank details and you can send it back whenever.'  Then another cop said 'hey, we're not that busy, c'mon, we'll drive you home.'
I'm not sure what the hotelier thought about me arriving back at 1:30am with a police escort, but I definitely felt cool. I didn't take the offer of a loan from the cop, but I did tell him that when you've just been robbed, a gesture like that helps one to see the good in the world again.
I wondered if I was slowly going mad when I decided that whoever stole my wallet is either on drugs, so not in their right mind and not ethically in tune with what they are doing, or else someone who is down on their luck and doesn't have the same opportunities as me, so hence, the thief must be forgiven.
Next day I took a taxi to the bank to get some cash and I told the taxi driver my story of woe. He was a big old teddy bear with a foreign accent, and embarrassingly, he was almost in tears when I explained what had happened. He then told me that he often takes people who have no money and promise they will come back with it tomorrow, or send it, or whatever.
'And do they?' I asked. 'Mostly not', he replied. 'But then why do you do it?' I asked. 'Because you have to believe in people' he said, 'if you don't, you're lost.'
I have often cursed the wisdom of the taxi driver, but this time, I was on a learning curve. Yes, you have to believe in people, even the ones who rob you, for they will force you to find goodness where you never expected it. And if you don't, you're lost.





Monday, May 12, 2014

The Madness of the Short Distance Runner

So after a short break of 8 years, I've started running again, and this weekend marked it officially when I ran the 'Badische Meile'. Sounds like bad-ass miles to you non German speakers, what it actually is though, is an 8,88km road race that marks the distance of some old city wall or something.
As I am a mere fan of Germany and not an actual German, I can not bring myself to say that I participated in an 8,88km run - let's just call it a 9k run, ok?
Running is an important activity for those who leave the house too late in order to catch buses & trams, handbag snatchers, people who get caught in the rain a lot, latecomers, and those who are not clinically insane but in general just a bit mad. I belong to that latter group of the 'just a bit mad'. So I started running again.
There are benefits - when your mind is racing 24/7, running chases it and calms it down, running gives you a high, gets you fit, and it is seductive. Once you get involved you will find yourself falling in love with running and out of love with the couch potato.
Running in the forest and feeling alive is one thing, running around the streets of whatever city you find yourself on business in, is another, but running an official race when you're about 20 years older and 20 kilos heavier than the average participant is a bit like trying to fit back into one's wedding dress again.

But hey, I'm at the start line and my three teenage kids have all declined the challenge to run with mother - possibly more due to the mortification factor of being seen with mother than actually running. But still - it's an official run and the fear of failure, the fear of an injury in public, the fear of looking downright stupid (I get a big red face when I run, from the outset), and the fear that I will publicly display what a stupid idea it was to think I was even possibly a candidate to be in the running, makes this very very different to my daily runs. I'm scared!
Besides, I run anywhere between 4k to 6k when I'm out running, so how the hell am I going to get out there and run 9k?
Before race day I had practised running 6k and then walking 3k, just to get the distance, so my strategy was to just get out there and push the 6k, then walk the rest, even if it meant that I would come last out of the 6,000 runners. I pictured the TV being there to film the crowd cheering me on for being brave enough to be the idiot who came last across the finish line. I'd be interviewed. I had my speech in my head. It began with 'I had a dream…'

But then, all of a sudden, I was right in the middle of thousands of other slightly mad people - and my feet were moving, and my Nike App was telling me that I was doing great, and suddenly I had run one kilometre and I thought, well if I can run one, surely I can do another eight.
But seriously folks, here is what got me from start to finish - the training, of course. You need to build up heart/lung function and muscle in advance. But that is not enough. I decided to run each kilometre for somebody in my life. The first was for my mother who is very unwell. I decided to send her all the energy I was creating. I ran for my kids - it was also Mother's day, so those 3k were happy gratitude kilometres. At 5k I was hitting my boundaries and started to get a pain in my shoulder. It felt like someone was stabbing me, but I decided that the only way to cure it was to keep running. So that kilometre was run for an anonymous person -  endurance to give me strength in a situation which is one of hopelessness and hope, pleasure and pain.
Kilometre 6 was for my goddaughter Catherine. Just because.
The last three were for three people who have made my life happier, better and been there for the peaks and the troughs.You see, I wanted to celebrate the power of love and it worked. The last 3k were easy.
The other driver was my playlist and the nice lady in my Nike App who kept interrupting my songs to tell me that I was doing great.
So 66 minutes after leaving the start line I jogged across the finish line, it was about ten minutes longer than the few other people I knew who were running it too - but a few minutes under the time I had expected it to take. Yay!
I was on a high. Full of fulfilment, pride and happy hormones. Yes, a big high for all of about 2 minutes.
And then? Then I got into the queue to pick up my rucksack. Got it. Took off the medal and the number and put on my jacket. Walked to the tram stop and got the tram home. Showered, threw on a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, sat on the sofa, watched Desperate Housewives and had a cup of tea.
All in a day - the madness of the short distance runner.




Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Journey & the Destination on a Delayed German Train

Sometimes when people ask me why the hell I exchanged living in a country with beautiful landscape and fun people for living in Germany, I like to answer that it's because in Germany the trains run on time. But this is not always the case…
And when German trains run late they do it properly. One of my favourite obstacles in getting to work is arriving at the platform and reading 'train cancelled'. In fact, it makes me feel that the Germans are becoming a tad Irish. Just like that - train cancelled. Oh, ok. And now? Well you wait for the next one, which, depending upon the reason for the cancellation may also be cancelled, and the one after it.
My record in cancelled trains was 4 in a row - with an hour wait between each one. It meant I ended up arriving to the back arse of nowhere in the former East Germany at a late enough hour not to challenge the neo-nazis on the train when they did the Hitler salute (it's banned in Germany). But when you are already running 5 hours late and sitting in a carriage with two drunk Russians and three neo-nazis, it is not a good idea to go over to them and suggest in a foreign accent that maybe they should not do that, as it is 'polizeilich verboten' as the Germans like to say - legally forbidden. Forbidden is a word that the Germans love. I love it too, but in a different way.
So this week was not so bad. I arrived to the platform to find an announcement that the train would not be leaving from that platform after all, or, indeed, from that station. No, today the train will start at Augsburg instead of Munich. Ok, so I get another train to Augsburg on the trail of my missing train.
Yes, it's leaving from Augsburg, but has a 50 minute delay. The delay is due to what the Germans describe as 'human damage on the line', in other words, a tragic human accident.
This is when it gets interesting. As Germans don't like making conversation with strangers, their way of communicating with other people on the train is to call their friends and shout into the phone so that the whole carriage hears it. In general, they are just not amused.
And even if I agree that anyone who decides to commit suicide by jumping in front of a train, should not do so at rush hour, I am shocked at the attitude. An ugly woman in her 20's loudly makes a call:
'Hi, can you pick me up a bit later because some total idiot threw themselves in front of the train.'
Again, I use my better judgement not to go over and ask her to please help me understand what a total idiot looks and sounds like if it is not you, because you are in the train, not under it. No, I stay put on my seat, trapped between my handbag and a box of Dunkin' Donuts that I have bought my kids in order to make up to them for not remembering what their mother looks like anymore since I started travelling so much for work.
I understand that one late train sparks off a whole load of missed connections, but hey, somebody, somewhere, is getting the news that they have lost a loved one. Somewhere right now there are people whose lives are falling apart, and somebody has been the victim of a tragic accident. I call it that, because nobody in their right mind is likely to jump in front of a train. Yes, they are strangers to me, and tragedies happen every day, but surely just the tiniest bit of respect is called for in these situations. Just a little twinge of human empathy. No?
In an attempt to understand the mindset of my fellow passengers, I decide that they are even more traumatised than I am, and in order to cope, they need to complain and act as if only their little lives were all that mattered. Except for the guy sitting beside me that is. He doesn't seem to understand German, English or the fact that it's really not kosher to keep letting his head fall onto my shoulder every time he dozes off.
We finally get to Stuttgart, where I can get my connection back home in ten minutes. I go to platform 9: '40 minutes delay due to technical problems on the line.' Technical. I want to become German and call home to loudly shout into the phone that they should know better than to have some stupid hitch delaying the train, even if it's now well past rush hour and the Dunkin' Donuts will be hard by the time I get to peep into the darkened bedroom where my offspring will be sleeping.
But I don't. I sit on the cold metal seat on the platform, plug in my earphones and listen to Marvin Gaye's Sexual Healing and feel thankful that there is always something good to come home to. Then I  pass the rest of the time looking at all the angry people on the platform, and wonder if they are in a hurry to get home for the same reason that I am...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Germany - The Home of Hideous Shoes

You really do have to hand it to the Germans, they are absolutely unbeatable when it comes to bad shoes. There seems to be some sort of belief that shoes are supposed to be practical, comfortable and long-lasting, and let's face it, if one were going for a long hike in the hills, or even prone to taking a pleasant walk along the seafront each day (oh sorry, I meant along some cemented walkway with a few withering trees, beside a motorway), well yes, it helps if you are not wearing stilettos or dainty little ballerinas that give you blisters.
Exhibit 1: Mad Shoe Professor & Daughter


But hello - it doesn't end here. Do they really have to be this hideous? In an attempt to understand the minds of the shoe makers in the country I now call home,  I am desperately trying to come up with a theory that might justify how these shoes came into existence. Exhibit 1 - wide, wild flowery peacock look shoes with cork insoles. 100% comfort, 100% durability, 0% cool,                        minus-a-gizzilion% sexy.
My theory here is that the shoe factory hired a mad shoe professor and asked him to design the perfect pair of shoes. As this professor was the traumatised son of war refugees who walked across Siberia, tragically walking in the wrong direction, sharing one pair of second-hand shoes, arriving to Japan only to find themselves surrounded by people walking around in flip-flops with wedges,  and then walking all the way back until ending up in Germany, one can understand that his only thoughts were those of comfort and durability.
But then the boss of the shoe factory decided that a fashion factor would also be important, so the shoe professor took the nice wide cork soled inventions home to his six year old daughter who 'coloured them in'.
Exhibit 2 - No nonsense, cost-saving design made in Swabia.
Exhibit 2: 
This shoe has obviously been cleverly designed by cutting out little pieces of the leather and recycling them in order to make the fun ('fann' as the Germans like to say), pretty, attractive bow at the side. The practical, dog-poo, brown colour also means that the shoe is camouflage compatible should the wearer have to go to war at short notice, or alternatively should the wearer just wish to play hide-and-seek in the woods. In this case, exhibit 1 wouldn't stand a chance, unless the game of hide-and-seek took place in butterfly land. Again, 100% in the durability department, but only an 80% for comfort, as the tips of the flower may cause irritation. Reader, if you find this shoe in any way sexy, please visit a therapist. But that's the thing, I'm in Germany, shoes are not supposed to be sexy, right? In fact, I'm beginning to wonder if anything is, but this question will be explored in a later blog. It's all about cultural integration I guess.
So I'm here on a train looking at shoes and feeling sorry for German foot fetishists. I'm also terrified to take any photos as the one time I did that on a train here, there police were called. I only wanted to take a photo of the nice train conductor and write a blog about train conductors don't have personalities and ponder on whether they are really automised robots, but it all fell flat when he objected to the photo and I objected to deleting it and at the next station the police boarded the train in order to clear up the problem. Then I really really really wanted a photo of the policemen with the ticket inspector, but instead I just showed the police my camera with the already deleted photo of robot-ticket-man (who I bet wears open-toe sandals and white tennis socks in private, at the mini-golf playground).
So all I can do is post a photo of my own shoes, just to let you know that despite the recent sabbatical in order to research German shoe culture, I have indeed, managed to retain my 'ageing grungie converse' look. I swear…






Sunday, July 7, 2013

On Sightseeing in Görlitz

A number of weeks ago I took a visit to Görlitz, the most easterly town in Germany. From where I live down south it was 7 and a half hours on the fast train, so in other words I probably could have made it to New York in the same amount of time. Even though the nature of my travel was business rather than pleasure, I did feel a tad smug at the fact that I am slowly beginning to lay claim to the fact that I have indeed seen a lot more of Germany than many of the Germans themselves. 
I guess it's understandable that if you are going to spend a day travelling to get somewhere, that you might just choose a trip to Italy above that of one to a smallish town on the Polish border, but still...
Germany is a fascinating country. Culturally speaking it is very much like two countries because of it's divided history, and what I love about the east is that mixture of progressive can do newness combined with the remnants of the past. And being an island woman, there was also the buzz of being able to walk over a bridge and arrive in Poland. (Phone call to daughter: 'hey, I just walked to Poland, WALKED to another country like!' 'Mom, you're so pathetic.')
Görlitz, without a shadow of a doubt, is worth a visit: beautiful buildings, culture galore, old churches, cobblestones and all that... 
My room, including cupboard with skeleton
And of course that eastern German flair whereby I wasn't really sure if my hotel was a shabby 'aul attempt at being posh, or if it really was a beautiful Jugendstil room with character. It was one of these run down places in an old building with old furniture and chandeliers, but it was a bit dead, and one of the doors of the wardrobe in my room was locked and without a key, so I did spend the night wondering if there was a skeleton in the cupboard. 

But here's the thing. There were a few tables and chairs outside the hotel bar on the street and they were occupied by a few dodgy looking characters. As I arrived to the reception (where there was a sign saying to check in at the bar), a little car pulled in that was from one of these mobile carer companies, you know, those dudes who go to old peoples houses and check on them to distribute medication and whatnot. So the guy gets out of his car and I go into the bar to check in. The guy at the bar takes me  back over to the reception where I see that in the meantime, the carer dude is in the hallway and one of the dodgy old guys from outside is sitting on one of those posh looking sofas taking off his shoes. As I check in, the carer dude proceeds to change a bandage or something on the old guys foot. I look away feeling nauseous.
At this stage I am tired and giving them dagger looks from the part of me that is a  cranky intolerant withering woman. But I keep the mouth shut and go to my room - the one that I'm not sure whether it's posh or not, the one with the skeleton in the cupboard.  
I decide I need to see more of the city (this is the part where I walk to Poland), but as I leave the hotel, I see that the old guy is back outside again, drinking a beer in the evening sun. He gives me a smile.
The bridge to Poland
And that's when I see the beauty in it. A city where people can work around caring for the elderly in a way that means they still have the freedom to sit outside a bar and enjoy the evening. Humanity, that's what I saw - a twinge of humanity, in a country that gets a lot of flack for being otherwise. I wondered where the old chap would be sitting if powers that be decided it unfitting to attend his wounds or whatever it was with his feet, in the public hallway of a run down hotel. What about the legal aspect? Insurance? Hygiene? The logistics of the whole thing? But you see, Germany is country as diverse as it is big, and for me, this kind of 'sightseeing' ranks higher than a holiday camp on the riviera. 
Because this was something that told me that the world was an ok place and that's when the room and the skeleton didn't matter anymore. And even if there had been no cobblestones or culture or impressive buildings, I'd been to a place where I'd caught a glimpse of something beautiful, and a place where all of a sudden, I stopped being afraid to grow old. 

Friday, April 5, 2013

How Important are Corporate Values?


Do We Really Need Corporate Values?

  Something caught my eye with regard to the Barclays scandal. It was the term: cultural corruption. I'm so used to skimming over details about complex derivative issues, that it made me curious to read more.
What was identified as cultural corruption was that Barclay's had pursued a 'revenue at all costs' strategy, fostered a culture of fear and intimidation, were actively hostile to compliance with banking rules, presided over a 'broken culture' where problems were ignored or buried, and ultimately allowed the business to 'spin out of control'.
That pursuing revenue at all costs has been highlighted as corrupt signifies the importance of corporate values. We all need to pursue revenue to some degree, but doing so 'at all costs' can ultimately end in disaster, as with Barclays.
When I explain to people that my work has a strong focus on delivering workshops on Vision, Mission & Values, I am often told how naive I am, and that ultimately corporations are only interested in the money. My argument is that the 'only' needs to be taken away. All businesses are profit driven in one way or another, but without a corporate culture that embraces even the most basic of values, they are headed for trouble.
Fostering a culture of fear and intimidation is not something unique to Barclays. From large organisations to the smaller family run business, I have witnessed this over the years as being almost endemic. Often during workshops and training interventions I've had a rosy view of the organisation, then when it came to one to one coaching sessions where individuals felt themselves to be in a safe environment, another story would emerge. I often got to hear alarming examples of the business not living it's principles. I also heard some fantastic ideas that were never put forward, all due to fear. People fear losing their jobs, bonuses, promotion opportunities and at times even subtle things such as shifts, break times and vacation approval. Bullying and harassment also effects self esteem and confidence, causing people to feel unsure and less likely to pose a challenge to superiors. This type of resignation is not only a heartbreaking let down for humanity, it is also destructive for the organisation, not only from a legal perspective.
I've noticed there is a paradigm shift in our attitude to business ethics when we now see cultural reforms up there on the top of the to-do list.
I worked for a company once where it was my job to workshop the business leadership principles with all new hires on the management team. I was impressed.  Impressed, that is, until my boss told me that the leadership principles were 'good in theory, but nobody uses them.' He told me that actually, within the company it was more important what got done than how it got done. I soon realised that I may as well have been making sand mandalas with the new hires, and, coupled with a culture of fear and intimidation, stating my opinion meant that luckily I didn't last long there. That  organisation have since had extremely bad press with regard to how they treat their people, along with very high fluctuation.
Despite all that, they are still an international hugely successful organisation. And it is important to note that as far as I am aware, they are not operating any scams. But the bottom line is, if a company doesn't foster a culture based on it's corporate values, it is only a matter of time until the fallout  from this will force it to rethink it's strategy.  High fluctuation, low morale and financial setbacks are the cost when it comes to double standards in corporate culture.
So what values do we need to live by in our modern organisations? How about: Communication, Respect, Integrity & Excellence. Sound good? Four essential values that could be the axis of any organisation. Oh wait, we need to live them, not name them. After all, these were Enron's core values!

Monday, April 1, 2013

After Lent

I've just had a glass of wine. I didn't really want one but I had to, because Lent is over.
Giving up alcohol for lent is not easy. I don't mind abstaining from the drink, it's the explaining that's difficult. People can never understand why an atheist would do something for Lent. So I have to explain that as I eat a shit load of chocolate at Easter and masses of food at Christmas without being questioned about religion, that it is only prudent to adhere to the fasting traditions if one is also tagging along for the feasting ones.
Alcohol - if you are Irish you will probably have an unhealthy attitude towards alcohol. Most people drink too much or don't drink it at all, neither of which are healthy. The ones who drink too much are either raving alcoholics whose whole life has been destroyed because of drink, or alternatively, people who function at about 60% of what they could be, but because they 'enjoy a jar', and pay a massive price to do so.
Those who don't drink are either 'recovering alcoholics' (which to me is an oxymoron), who go to AA meetings and talk about drinking and live their lives thinking and talking about drink but just not drinking it. Alternatively they are crashing bores who chose not to drink and have a slightly condescending attitude towards those who do, but pretend that they don't. And there are the pioneers, but if you're not Irish you won't understand, so just imagine people who are clueless about drink and don't want to taste it because their mammy, or teacher or local priest said so.

I should be one of the above, but the secret German in me causes me not to always fit in to Irish ways. So I gave up drink for Lent. I like a little tipple I have to admit. A shot of rum in my hot chocolate, a glass of wine with dinner a few pints in the pub and the odd mouldy night. So it's not as if I were giving up lollipops or condoms or sauerkraut. The first week was the worst. But then, the less you drink, the less interest you have in it.
I only remembered today that I could have had a drink yesterday, so I had a glass of wine at dinner.
And that made me feel that the whole thing is a bit silly. I'm just not a black and white sort of person.
I'm also not a very balanced person either though, so it was good to see, just as a test, if I actually would miss alcohol. I didn't really, and I remembered that I've often been off it before as I never drank whilst pregnant.


So now what? I've decided to open a bottle of wine and have another glass, to celebrate my successful lenten fast. A nice red rioca reserva. And then because it's open I'll have some more tomorrow and then finish it off on Wednesday. It's good wine, I can't let it go off.
All the same, I'd love a nice cup of tea...