It was interesting being a consultant. I was able to do a lot of traveling on someone else's dime and got to see a lot of interesting places. My best and most interesting job was working for the First National Bank of England.
It all began in 1991. I had been working for a large developer in London who had a project in Portugal that he was selling out of a sales office in Leicester Square. He had seventy sales people, and his marketing program was failing. It was my job to fix it, and I did.
As part of that assignment, I somehow came to the attention of the bank. I had an interview with one of their vice presidents, who happened to be an American. The interview took place at one of the best sushi restaurants on Bond Street in London. I have no idea how much sushi we ate or how much sake we consumed, but I do remember that when I finally found a cab, I couldn't remember my address. Never mind; somehow I made it home, and I turned down the job.
A few weeks later I was back home in Amherst, Massachusetts when the phone rang. It was the bank. I was told they had a failing project in Greece and they wanted to fly me over to take a look and see if it could be fixed. Again, I said no. Less than a week later I got another call. When they waved a giant check in front of me, I weakened and agreed to fly to Greece. They promised that if I got to Logan Airport in Boston two days later there would be ticket waiting for me. Now, Greece was quite warm at that time of year, so I packed clothes suitable for late spring and early summer.
Arriving at Logan, I went to the ticket counter and gave them my name. “Oh yes, Mr. Hagberg,” the agent said, “we have your ticket right here,” and she handed it to me.
“There must be some mistake, I said. “This ticket is for Salzburg, Austria.” A quick call to London and my destination of Austria was confirmed. Damn, I've got all the wrong clothes! No matter; I'll buy what I need when I get there.
I arrive in Salzburg and was met by a German named Stephan Von Casteel. What a great name. We headed to his 1969 Ford Econoline van and off we went to Schladming, about an hour south. When we hit the Autobahn Stephan picked it up, and we were soon traveling at about 120 miles an hour. The van was shaking and so was I. Stephan was cool, though. He calmly looked at me, saw my terror, and said, “Don't worry. Here in Austria we have very few accidents.” He paused a moment and then said, “Of course, when we do have an accident, everyone dies. See? There is no need to worry, you'll be dead.” I hoped he was kidding.
After about an hour of my being afraid to look up, we arrived at the Alpine Club in Schladming, Austria. It looked to be right out of the Sound of Music … which it was, since the next town up the mountain was Rohrmoos, where they filmed the movie with Julie Andrews. The other big advantage was the Schlaminger beer factory, which was just a short walk down the hill. This is where I took advantage of my fabulous language skills. Knowing I was headed to Austria, I had contacted a friend of mine who spoke German. I wanted to learn a few phrases that would help me in my assignment. The first phrase he taught me was “Ich würde gerne ein Beir, bitte. Nicht ein kleines Bier; ein großes.”
Roughly translated, this meant that I would like a beer please. Not a little beer; a big one. This phrase stood me well at the beer factory, since a big beer was 32 ounces.
Arriving at the resort, the first thing I did was call a meeting of all the department heads. The meeting seemed to be going well when I noticed that some of them were speaking German among themselves, believing that I didn't understand them. This is when my second phrase came in handy: “Ich verstehe genau was du sagst, und von nun an werden die Treffen auf Englisch durchgeführt.” I understand exactly what you're saying, and from now on the meetings will be conducted in English. They all looked up in astonishment, and for weeks they were very careful around me, thinking that I spoke perfect German. Whenever they started speaking German around me, I would simply give them The Look, and they would immediately switch back to English. Works for me!
I met quite a number of characters in Schladming, but most of them will have to wait for another blog. The most memorable one was the resort bookkeeper, Ingrid. To say Ingrid was a no-nonsense person would be vastly underestimating her intractability. Although I was in charge of the entire resort, when I asked Ingrid for something the first time, she looked at me with stern eyes and said, “I don't know you. I have no papers on you. You get nothing.” I had to call the bank and have them send her a formal memo explaining who I was and that I was authorized to see anything I wanted to see before she would even acknowledge my existence. After she got the memo, she gave me what I asked for. “Next time you want something, bring me the proper papers or you get nothing again.” Okay then, Ingrid's in charge here, not me. I would be putting it mildly to say that Ingrid was a typical Austrian.
I had only been in Austria for a few weeks when the bank asked me to set up a sales program across the border in Yugoslavia, in the city of Zagreb. If you look at the date above, you'll notice that my journey to Zagreb coincides with the start of the Bosnian war with the Serbs. Yes, I was right there at the start. Not a good place for a guy from Cape Cod to be. Stay tuned.