Monday, January 02, 2006


Learning Spanish at Age 47

I get so tired of xmas hype. It starts too early - right after Halloween, and just gets more and more intense. All that's really left of xmas is the push by the mega-retailers to get everyone to spend lots of $ on toys and high-end electronics for themselves and their families. OK, fine, I've got nothing against people spending their money. I've got no problem with the mega-retailers trying to push it. But the slathering of religion and tradition ontop of all the commercialization is just more than I can stand. The religion aspect has become just an advertising gimmick, to get people to spend more dough.

The most annoying part to me, though, is the endless xmas carols. I love music. Most of the xmas carols aren't that bad, musically, when left in their original formats. I've already learned to play some of the xmas music on my cello. But why do we have to be supersaturated with it? Everywhere I go - every store, the malls, car repair shops even, movie theaters, every channel on the radio, every channel on Sirius - I'm assailed with muzak of has-been performers doing their "unique twists" on the traditional carols. Except that they suck, big time. You can't escape it. I really doubt that many people even like all these crappy rehashed versions. But everyone plays them, because you're supposed to, right?

Learning Spanish at 47

Just at the high point of my career at Brand X in 1997, we got caught up in an internal takeover - the head of a different division kissed up to the CEO and convinced him to let him merge our group into his. What a disaster! That brilliant decision cost Brand X tens of millions of dollars in lost sales and missed opportunities - unfortunately it was the kind of soft money you can't go back and measure (how do you show what you might have done "if only..."?) As with any hostile takeover, the new regime started systematically replacing all the old managers with their own people, so I was clearly in their gunsights.

Just as things seemed to be at their lowest, I got a call from my good friend D, who worked in the Brand X Metropolis office. He had just heard of a unique opportunity that had come up. Brand X was expanding into Argentina and was planning a joint venture with a large Argentine company, Brand E, at their operations in Patagonia. The local Brand E manager wanted someone from Brand X to come in ahead of the joint venture starting up to try to spread some of Brand X's culture into his organization.

Tricky proposition, since they were the remnants of an old state-owned institution that had been downsized by more than 90%, just a few years earlier. Anyway, I had made my reputation within Brand X for spearheading culture change from within, so the X gods asked D if he thought I might be interested in pulling up stakes and heading to Argentina for a 3-4 year assignment. D said he'd find out, and immediately called me. It only took me less than 30 seconds to tell him that I was REALLY interested and only needed to check with Y.

We really didn't have a good reason not to jump at the opportunity. We'd been looking for a change. I knew the job at Brand X Salt Mine would no longer be the same, if I even managed to keep it. Although we knew no details, we decided to go for it, and I called D right back. Of course, like all corporatocracies, HR first had to post the job and review resumes, etc.; which meant it would take a month or so until they formally offered the job.

I suppose it could have been possible that we might change our minds during that delay, but we used the downtime to research everything we could find about Argentina, Patagonia, Comodoro Rivadavia, Brand E, and about Brand X's overseas policies. The more we learned, the better it looked. D was confident the job was mine. He knew that I was considered the logical candidate, but he also knew that several corporate eager-beavers were also going to try out for it, and far too often butt kissing trumps talent.

Brand E had been the major company in Comodoro Rivadavia, since 1905. The town's population was close to 200,000 but it depended upon Brand E for most of their jobs and revenues. Consequently the general manager of Brand E was the big dog in town. What he wanted he got. I would be reporting directly to him.

Comodoro Rivadavia is a remote outpost in far-off Patagonia, about 1,500 miles south of Buenos Aires. The nearest city of comparable size is at least a day's drive away. It sits on the Atlantic coast at the Golfo de San Jorge, with the vast, empty Patagonian desert behind it to the west. The winds come across the Pacific and slam into the narrow southern tip of South America where they dump any accumulated moisture onto the Chilean Andes (the western slope of the Andes is a rain forest). The now-dry winds carry up and over the top of the Andes and sweep eastward across two hundred miles of dry barren desert, picking up any stray dust particles before screaming through Comodoro Rivadavia at a continuous speed of 40 to 50 mph. So Comodoro is cool, dry, windy, and dusty.

We also learned that Comodoro had a bedroom community, a seaside "resort" town called Rada Tilly, located about 12 miles to the south in a small bay (rada). We quickly realized Rada Tilly would be our first choice for housing. We were told that there was a small contingent of expatriates living there, working for some of Brand E's upstart competitors, but we were also told that most middle class Argentines spoke english as a second language.

Politically Argentina was stable, its economy was relatively healthy with its peso tied to the US dollar, culturally they seemed to be leaning towards the US, crime was quite low, and they had an upwardly mobile middle class. Both Y and I had lived overseas before, in Jamaica in the early 1970s, so we (thought we) knew what to expect from the expatriate life. Back when Z was born, we had resolved not to let having another kid prevent us from doing what we wanted. Finally, the expatriate compensation package from Brand X was really generous!

All we had to do was learn spanish. I didn't feel that it would be too difficult...

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