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...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Cure for Warts

A few years ago my daughter had a wart on her foot. But warts are like mice - they rarely come in ones. Soon it was a little cluster of warts so we paid a visit to our local GP who decided to use a selection of treatments.
First of all he scraped at her foot with a little instrument that looked like a shaving razor for dwarves. When doctors do things like that it makes me wonder what the big attraction is to studying medicine and becoming a medic. "What do you want to do when you grow up little child?" "I want to scrape dirty warts of peoples feet."
But it didn't end there. He also put some sort of ointment on it and gave her a few of those little homeopathic pebble-like sweets.
Then he gave us both some serious instructions. There were 7 warts on her foot. We were to get a paper bag and put 7 small pebbles in it - not the homeopathic ones, real pebbles. Then we were to leave the bag at a crossroads. Whenever the bag disappeared the warts would also go.

Of all the remedies I thought the latter made the most sense. Because apparently warts go away on their own eventually, and I was sure that if my daughter just believed that the warts were going to go that it might have some sort of influence on the mysteries of the immune system.  Needless to say, the doctor we visited was in the West of Ireland.
Despite similar university education, there seems to be quite a difference in cultural attitudes regarding best practise regarding the cure of the patient.
Problem was, though, that my daughter wasn't sold on the pebbles in the bag idea. She wanted an operation, crutches, bandages, plaster paris and a week off school. It never happened, and years later the 7 warts had started to have offspring and I knew if we didn't treat them that eventually these warts would start taking over the family.
So I decided to go the absolute safe medical route. I bought one of those sprays that freeze off warts.
My daughter took a look at the wart spray and screamed, telling me that it would hurt too much. I assured her that it wouldn't, and that the only reason her brother had gone through severe agony whilst I used a similar freezing spray on  a wart he'd had on his finger, was because he was the oldest kid and you use the oldest kid as guinea pig to test things on, and that I'd put on way too much by mistake, and that no, I was not going to accidentally burn a hole in her skin in the effort to remove the warts with a freezing spray. I would get the hang of it this time.
We agreed to do it 'tomorrow'.
Then the next day we agreed to do it the day after tomorrow. And then about a week went by.
So I decided I'd have to spring on her when she'd least suspect it.
So as we sat on the sofa, I hid the freezing stuff in my pocket and took hold of her foot to give it a massage. Oh, wrong foot. I took the other one. Also wrong foot.
"Hey, where are your warts?" I asked.
She felt her feet. I felt her feet. We looked at her feet. And there were the warts - gone.

So I decided that buying the freezing tube of stuff had the same effect as the bag of stones would have had, if she'd only believed. The fear of her mother's use of poetic license with medicinal cures, rather than taking careful medical instructions, had just made her warts go away. It must have been the mysterious workings of the immune system.
So here's my advice. If your kids have warts, forget about all the hocus pocus. Just buy some of that aggressive freezing lotion stuff, and then tell your kids you've bought it. If the fear of you using it on them doesn't make the warts disappear, then just go use it.
You're cured.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A Revolution at my Kitchen Table

So this is it. I've just published my first ebook. It's an ebook for kindle and available on Amazon. I'm still fiddling around with how it all works, but I've gotten as far as putting the whole damn thing together and publishing it.
The cover is a photo of a deserted house. Now let's analyse - arsekick is diverse, it has many rooms, hence the house. The house is falling to pieces, so hence the relationship to my dishevelled life. The house started out in life with different aspirations. There is a story there. Stories. History.
And you could also say that the trees and shrubs growing up around the deserted house are lush and fertile and that nothing is ever linear.
In actual fact the only reason that the cover is such, is because it is a photo that I took myself and I was afraid of taking a photo from the web in case I get sued. I'd prefer a photo of a female warlord throwing a punch, or at least something sexy.

I also downloaded a book written by a guy who has a number of bestsellers on amazon. He makes the very good point that 'vanity' is a word for private publishing invented by publishers. If a person opens their own business is it never referred to as 'vanity' business.
And the way the publishing world is changing is really exciting. I've brought out this book all on my own. No editor, no publisher, no marketing, nothing. And because of the low costs, I will also be giving a chunk of the profit to charity - but I need to work that one out, more to follow.

Most exciting is that it all happened at my kitchen table. When I finished uploading all the amazon files I baked a lemon poppy seed cake without having the feeling that baking the stupid cake and being the crux of a family meant the end of my writing career. This is a revolution!

So next step is that you read the book, either for free from the Amazon library, or you buy the book which about the same price as a cafe latte - no cheaper actually, it's euro 2.60(ish) I'm not sure exactly. And if the link below doesn't take you there, than just search my name in amazon or the name of the book: Arsekick Pick.

And if you think this is a good revolution, you might press a few stars on the amazon page to give me a bit of a reputation?

And remember that this is all because of you. Without readers I never would have been inspired to take it further.