From the book – Of pain, suffering, and inefficiencies


Not quite as romantic as you'd like to think...

Not quite as romantic as you’d like to think…

God, was that painful. You couldn’t get a damn’ thing done. Weather-related disruptions threw a wrench in everybody’s schedules and working styles, putting already tight deadlines at risk, and putting everyone on edge. Patience wore thin, tempers got hot, and nobody seemed able to reach anyone else – by email, phone, or IM. Exasperated and feeling the fetid warmth of management’s goal-oriented, results-driven breath on the backs of our necks, Anglo and Gallic factions spent a whole lot of time bitching about each other behind their backs, with managers doing double duty as confidantes and referees.To say there was tension, would be an understatement. The political divide was pronounced, and the antagonism was clearly bilateral. Our French colleagues made precious little effort to understand or accommodate American working styles, and those of us stateside returned the favor. There didn’t seem to be the least bit of interest in resolving our “dynamics.” Confusion ruled day, in terms of how things got done, and nobody was budging, either way.

Only one thing would solve our fractiousness, as we leapt from the starting gate of the new year. The American half of the team were ordered to get our asses to Paris for a little Kumbaya, shared meals, and an all-day team-building session led by an official facilitator whose job it was to strengthen the Franco-American connection. The intent was to rally and unite us as a cohesive new organization. The only thing the experiment accomplished was keeping us from getting our work done and giving us new reasons to dislike and distrust one another, as we sat around a U-shaped configuration of tables, Americans on one side, French on the other. But it checked the “team-building” box on our manager’s goals, so victory was declared. Now that we were all in alignment, we could continue with our first quarter meetings and calendar year agendas, which now included even more trans-Atlantic collaboration.

So, less than a month later, it was back to France.

 

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From the book – Winters of our discontent


FlowI was more than happy to quit traveling after three back-to-back trips. I love to travel, but I also love sleeping in my own bed in the heart of winter. Most of the nomadic enthusiasm was in the hearts of middle managers, who seemed to delight in turning their direct reports’ lives upside-down for the first three months of each year. It was expensive, counter-productive, and it came at a terrible time of the year. Every traveler had to pay out of pocket for up-front travel expenses; company credit cards were available, but reimbursement usually lagged enough to require personal funds to cover the amount.

What’s more, three trips to Paris in the first quarter was murder on project planning and execution. A full schedule in the US is not helped by a week of trip prep, followed by week-long absences from the offices, followed by another week of jet-lag – for every trip you make. To top it all off, northeastern snowstorms had an uncanny ability to coincide with my travels abroad, which put me in deep debt to neighbors who repeatedly cleared 18-24” of snow from my driveway, so I could actually reach my house on my return. And to top it all off, being away from U.S. winters was no great relief; the weather was often just as crummy in France as it was in the northeastern United States.

I’d had some less-than-stellar visits, with gray skies and damp cold, in the past. But the 2013-2014 winter was one of the most challenging ones in recent memory – and that was on both sides of the Atlantic. Winter in Paris is seldom fun, with lots of rainy, gray days, and sometimes a bit of snow. But the weather had turned nasty in a big way, dumping more snow than the Paris municipality was prepared to clear out of the way, and screwing up the flow of their already cold and gray daily grind. Several times that winter, they’d gotten not one or two, but four inches of the stuff. And without proper plows, shovels, and ice melt, the city and its vicinity had skidded to a halt. Buses didn’t run. Drivers were told to stay off the roads. People were told to lay low. Many folks worked from home, but nobody went to the office. And from home, their connectivity wasn’t great, which made communication even more of a challenge. In short, that winter sucked.

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From the book – Why we went to France – and then didn’t


IMG_3524By French business custom, the first meeting of the year was purely a getting-to-know-you affair, where little was accomplished other than learning your new team members’ names and personality quirks, letting them get to know yours, and mutually testing the political waters. The second trip of the year (usually in late February, early March) was when things actually started picking up speed, plans for the year were broached and debated, and tentative decisions started to form. And the third trip, customarily before March was up (and Corporate found out just how much the last two trips had cost them), was to reinforce your stated intentions, refresh memories on shared interests and promises made over dinners shared on your last visit, and to make sure people knew you were genuinely, deeply, unwaveringly serious about what you’d discussed, the last time you were there.

Then, around the end of March, the Accounting department would realize how much coin was flowing to the airlines, chain hotels, and restaurants in Paris, flaming red flags would go up, and all that travel would skid to a screeching halt. And for good reason. Travel to Paris got pricey – even on the most Spartan of trips. You wouldn’t think that staying at the company-mandated Holiday Inn… inhaling a quick complimentary hotel “breakfast” of espresso, chocolate croissants, and containers of cold cuts and fruit… lunching in the company cafeteria… with maybe a dinner or two out with colleagues… would cost all that much, but multiply that by all the Americans who were jockeying for position with colleagues in France, and it added up. Unfortunately, many of us weren’t placed high enough on the food chain to command a travel budget that included elaborate team-building dinners and accompanying entertainment, so we got the closest scrutiny. There was a fine line between expediency and perceived excess when traveling to France, and Accounts Payable only had eyes for what it considered excess.

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How it all began…


From the book Zen and the Art of Moto Taxi Survival:

When I stepped out into the blinding glare of a Roissy morning, little did I know I’d feel like a different person, by the time I got to my hotel. I was a senior web manager with one of Europe’s top technology companies, overseeing a team of 20+ associates, running projects that spanned the enterprise in 25 countries on 5 continents worldwide. When I wasn’t on conference calls with Japan, China, Korea, or Singapore, I was coordinating marketing activities with colleagues throughout Europe, Latin America, and ANZ. I was on-call pretty much 24/7, my days often started around 4:30 a.m., and the action could keep coming till around 10:00 p.m. A 40-hour work week was a nice thought, usually reserved for lulls when my European colleagues were on vacation for the month of August. That dreary spring day was nowhere near August, and there was work to be done.

I’d flown to Charles de Gaulle International Airport on the red-eye, hoping to get a jump on my meeting schedule before my American colleagues arrived the next day. This was my third business trip of the year, and it was barely March. It was also my second trip to the Paris area in less than a month. And another was in the early planning stages.

Groan. 

You might think this was a great thing. Who wouldn’t love going to Paris – let alone three times a year?

Well, I, for one.

Looking back, it seems odd that I would feel the way I did. After working for a global corporation based in Paris, France, for four years, I’ve been stateside since March, 2014. How time flies. And how different my life is now, compared to then.

When I tell my current coworkers about my last job — when I tell current coworkers about my last job, actually — they almost always tell me how envious they are of my past opportunity. The chance to travel, the chance to spend time in Paris… What could be wrong with that?

See, here’s the thing — traveling to Paris for fun and pleasure is a very different experience than traveling there for business. You’re not there to enjoy the cuisine and take long, langorous walks by the Seine. You’re going there for work.  And when you’re working in an environment where people normally fly around the world as a matter of course, it doesn’t actually seem like that big a deal. Everybody does it. A lot. It’s just part of your life. It’s just part of your regular day. Talking to people all over the planet and flying to and from to visit them, is just what you do for your work.

Looking back, the contrast between my “grounded” life now, and my life in a global corporate environment seems like night and day. They really are two different things, and “going global” doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I’m one of those people who really took to it. I lived in Europe for several years, back in the late 1980s (before the Berlin Wall came down and East and West reunified throughout Europe), and I’ve been back and forth across the Atlantic a number of times, since then. I actually grew up in a very global village — literally. We had one stoplight in town, just down the block from the little grocery store, but because there was an international agency headquartered there, you could walk down the street and encounter people from anywhere and everywhere in the world.

So, “doing the global thing” came naturally to me.

However, having to haul myself all over creation in back-to-back trips, left something to be desired.

I discuss this a lot more in the book.

Winter’s here – let’s run away to Paris!


paris-weather-feb52015

Doesn’t it look nice? (Source: Weather.com – http://www.weather.com/weather/5day/l/FRXX0076:1:FR)

 

I used to have to travel to France for work on a regular basis. Usually in the beginning of the year, when organizational changes had been announced at Paris HQ, and I needed to get some “face time” with my new French colleagues.

I know… life is hard. “Having” to travel to France for work is a wonderful problem to have.

Unless it’s in the winter, when the weather starts to turn really bad at home.

Just look outside. If you’re in the northeastern U.S., like I am, things aren’t looking all that great. There’s friggin’ snow everywhere, with more on the way. Right now, it’s coming down in soggy little “blops” that won’t be much fun to clean up before I leave for work, later this morning. I hear snow plows driving by my house. It’s still dark outside. This doesn’t look promising.

Sign of the times – 2015
(Source: WBUR http://www.wbur.org/2015/02/02/boston-snow-stats)

I wouldn’t mind being in Paris, right about now. It’s 39 degrees (F)  and sunny. It seems is unfair that I’m stuck here in below-freezing temps. Within a few days, though, that will change on the other side of the Atlantic. It’s going to warm up even more, but it’s going to get cloudy. And while Paris can be quite beautiful even on the most overcast of days, cloudy skies are still cloudy.

No matter how attractive your destination, if the weather doesn’t cooperate, it’s not much fun. And if you’re going for work, rather than pleasure, it’s even less entertaining. You take the red-eye, show up jet-lagged and disoriented, and all the romance in the world is pretty much lost on you. The sights aren’t nearly as exotic, and even the most beautiful language starts to sound like gravel. Firing on two out of six cylinders after 7 hours in a flying tuna can, surrounded by all sorts of folks, doesn’t make for great sight-seeing or epicurean delight. Jet lag will suck the joy out of anything and everything – including Paris.

Plus, leaving your family at home to fend for themselves in multiple snowstorms and power outages… that’s not much fun. For those who make enough money to hire maintenance companies or plow guys to keep their property snow-and-ice-free, it’s one thing. And for those who have a bunch of family members who are ready, willing, and able to clean up, it’s not necessarily so terrible. But if you’re the one who normally cleans up after the latest storm, leaving the country on business can be stressful for everyone.

You can check in with your family upon arrival at CDG, only to learn that Mother Nature has dropped 24″ of white stuff on them… and for the rest of your trip, you hear all about what you’re missing. You put in 18-hour days, covering your duties on two continents, coordinating efforts across the Atlantic, eventually giving up on the idea of sleep until after you get home, walking through your days in a daze.

And when you return after nearly a week away, you come back to a driveway that’s been partially cleared and then frozen over (and possibly with another inch or two of snow on top of the hardened slush)… outside stairs that need to be aggressively salted… and a roof that hasn’t been properly raked. The icing on that cake is your cabin-feverish family members, who may or may not harbor resentments over your “working vacation” in Paris, and who may or may not absolutely love the souvenirs you brought back.

Of course, the proper cleanup must commence, the errands need to be done, the chores must be caught up with, and family ties need to be refreshed — while you’re trying to bounce back from the second round of jet lag… fighting off a cold you picked up on the flight back.

Winter’s here… and Paris has nice(r) weather…

Actually, it might make more sense to stay home.

Last two chapters winding up


Last two chapters are winding up… The book turned into a much bigger project than I expected. What was originally supposed to be a little story about how I got on the back of a motorcycle and flew through Paris traffic, has turned into something more involved.

Zen, business travel, French-American relations, global business, motorcycles, and a handful of realizations that kick-started my energy…

Once you start looking a little closer, it’s surprising what you find.

And now, here’s a little something to pass the time:

Chapter 2… In the can


Making progress

Traveling to France… doing business in Paris… dealing with taxi strikes… connecting with transatlantic colleagues… and the zen of it all. It’s all there in Chapter 2, and it’s bringing back memories.

Thinking back on that wild ride I took in Paris, last spring, it’s like I was in a completely different place and time. Actually, I was. I had a very different job at a very different company than where I’m working now. I was back and forth to Paris on a regular basis… I was back and forth to a lot of places, actually.

What a change from today.

My life these days is pretty staid and mellow. Plenty of time to reflect, contemplate… and think back on how my past experiences changed me. The changes were almost all for the better. They usually are, if we know where to look for the good.

Just thinking about how tightly wound and regimented I was, back then– I had to be — is certainly interesting. Working for one of Europe’s top 10 technology companies was no small deal, even if most folks in the United States had never heard of them. They’ll remain nameless, to protect both the innocent and the guilty, but suffice it to say, working for them was … transformational. I had some fantastic working relationships with folks in France (and throughout Europe and Asia), and I miss my former co-workers very much.

A funny thing happens when you work for an impossible corporation. Everybody develops a sort of corporate Stockholm Syndrome, where we’re put through the wringer by our “captor” (the company that pays us every two weeks and makes it possible for us to live to see another day) and are forced to do more with less. We develop these strong ties with one another, forged from shared suffering and commiseration over injustice, unrealistic expectations, and the constant threat of being pushed out of the way or tossed aside as “excess” human resources.

It’s all part of living and working in the First World — maybe all the world, for that matter. It’s how things go, and when you sign up for the gig, you agree to go along with it and take the bad with the good. Of course, there’s a lot of good. A decent standard of living, the opportunity to travel and see the world, structure and order in your daily life, and the chance (not guarantee) to move ahead and advance in your career.

So, yeah – it wasn’t easy, but I’ve got no regrets. I got a lot out of my time at that company. Including some kick-ass experiences that will stay with my all my life. And a few of those experiences are making it onto the printed page at a pretty decent clip.

I’m well into editing Chapter 3, and I expect that to be done in a few days.

Swimming right along…

Woot! Chapter 1 is Done


Chapter 1 (of 8 total) in Zen and the Art of Moto Taxi Survival  is now done.

I’ll be posting a sample later today, so keep an eye out for the download.

At this rate, I expect the book to be ready by mid-February at the latest — ’round about the time when northern folks who live to ride, but can’t because of all that snow, are getting a little antsy.

But for now, let’s just tick the checkbox on that one.

And stop by later today to download your copy of Chapter 1.

More intro… more book


moto-tax-beside-van

Just inches away from the nearest vehicle – right down the dotted white line

Still crankin’ away at the word-mill… I’ll be posting bits and pieces from the book Zen and The Art of Moto Taxi Survival in the coming weeks.

Here’s a bit more from the introduction:

So, you may ask, what’s all this got to do with Zen, the French, Life, and everything else in the subtitle? And why should you invest the next x-number of hours in reading about my stupidity?

Well, here’s the thing with regard to the French – in my extended experience of dealing with Europeans both personally and professionally, since the late 1980s, I’ve learned a whole lot about what works and what doesn’t. And since working almost daily with French colleagues from 2010 to 2014, I’ve learned even more. I’ve watched movies and read a bunch of books. Everything from Peter Maille to Pamela Druckerman to Stephen Clarke, and a bunch of more obscure yet no less enthusiastic Francophile confessionalists. And yet there’s nothing like climbing on the back of a very powerful motorcycle, and spending 40 mind-numbingly intense minutes with a Frenchman, to bring home the lessons you gleaned from mere words on a page.

So, if you’re like me and you can’t resist yet another contemplation of the nuances of Gallic temperament and shenanigans, why don’t you join me for the next little while.

As for Zen, I’m not sure I can – or should – speak to that. In my mind, by its very nature, Zen precludes discussion of itself. Of course, you’d never know it from looking around online and finding so many voices coming up with so many different versions of truth about all things Zen. From where I’m sitting, putting my finger on the particularly “zen” aspects of this ride is a little like trying to get a small piece of shell out of the eggs you’re scrambling. It’s slippery business, and if you’re not careful, you can end up wearing your breakfast before it’s cooked, if you’re not careful. Those who are into the Four Noble Truths and tread the Eightfold Path with glee may find plenty to hold their attention. And they may even discuss amongst themselves. But I’ll leave it to my readers to do their own finger-pointing at what I’m mooning about.

Regarding Life, well, nothing makes it sweeter than a passing brush with death. And nothing makes your near miss seem more dramatic, than writing a book about it after you’re safely back at home.

Let the record show that I do actually regret making the choice to hop on that moto taxi. I understand why I did it, and it eventually came to make sense in a pragmatically twisted sort of way, but the record should also show I will never, ever do it again. At least, not that way. There were way too many close calls, and I was eminently unprepared for the ride I took – or the potential consequences of my driver’s various choices that could easily have gone south.

Let the record also show that I do NOT recommend that anyone without motorcycle riding experience follow in my footsteps. I’m clearly not going to stop you if you decide to do this stupid/crazy thing called being an inexperienced rider who hops on the back of a motorcycle with an untested driver in a foreign country and tears down the road at top speeds through snarled traffic. If you do this, yourself, and you get maimed, killed, or castrated, it’s on you. Consult your significant other. Consult your doctor. Consult your lawyer. But don’t come crying to me, if you do what I did and it ends badly for you.

Then again, if you’re an experienced rider – either driving or riding pillion (as a passenger) – taking a motorcycle from the airport could be the ideal way to get around. It’s probably a great way to get around Paris, too. Sure, it’s a little more expensive than a regular taxi – maybe 20 euros more on the trip from the airport – but for the time it saves you and the feeling of being out in the open, instead of inside a stuffy cab, I think it’s well worth it. Moto taxis are fast, convenient, and they can be a lot of fun. If your pilot knows what he/she is doing on two wheels, and you’re comfortable on the back of bike, I say go for it.

In any case, if you do decide to try it for yourself, make sure you have ample travel insurance that covers repatriating your remains to your home country, as well as providing for your funeral and the future welfare of your loved ones. After all, French motorcycle riders are – to be indelicate and possibly impolitic – fucking crazy. And you’re not going to be the one driving.

Enough flap. Let’s get started.

Introducing the book… a bit at a time


moto-tax-under-cdg-sign

Let’s go for a ride…

Crankin’ away at the word-mill… I’ll be posting bits and pieces from the book Zen and The Art of Moto Taxi Survival in the coming weeks.

Here’s a bit from the introduction:

It had to be one of the dumbest – and most exciting – things I’ve ever done.

It also turned out to be one of the smartest.

In a world where people routinely leap from cliffs, bridges, and the tops of skyscrapers with barely a shred of nylon tied to their backs… travel into regions rife with civil war and wasting diseases… and bet fortunes on securities designed to fail… it wasn’t the most insane thing a person can do. But on a personal scale of 1 (harmless) to 10 (suicidal) in my First World Ultra-Responsible Dependent-Supporting Adult Life, it was around a 9.75.

One March morning, while running late for important meetings at my employer’s headquarters just outside Paris, France, I hopped on the back of a stranger’s Honda ST1300 sport touring motorcycle taxi (a “moto taxi” for hire at Charles de Gaulle airport), and raced at top speed through heavy Paris-bound traffic. My driver was not losing any time, and in the process of getting where we were going very, very fast, we violated about as many rules of common sense and motorcycle safety, as I can think of.

What took place on that day was one of the few times in my half-century of “adventure living” when I was pretty much convinced I was going to die. I tend to err on the side of risk in my life, diving into nascent industries and emerging technologies with gusto… taking on challenges at work that most shy away from… and running multiple side businesses on a shoestring – one of them a national presence for nearly 20 years running. But I don’t often deliberately put myself directly in harm’s way. When it comes to my daily adventures, I have One Rule: Make it home in time for dinner. That overcast day in March, 2014, was one of those times when I wasn’t at all sure if I was going to make it home. Or make it anywhere – especially for dinner.

You might ask yourself, why the hell would anyone get on the back of a motorcycle, driven by a total stranger, and race at top speed between clogged lanes of a highway far from home, weaving through stalled traffic, just inches away from surrounding vehicles – and narrowly missing disaster not once, but more times than I can count? It was practically a death wish. At the very least, it was a really Bad Idea. What the hell was I thinking?

But if you’ve ever flown into Charles de Gaulle (CDG for short) in France, and then tried to get to Paris by car, you’ll probably understand why I did it. If you’ve ever been racing the clock on official business anywhere in the world, only to be faced by a seemingly insurmountable crush of stopped traffic, you’ll probably be able to relate, too. It wasn’t m y finest (or worst) hour, but it happened.

And I lived to tell about it. . . .