Saturday, March 5, 2005

Seis tequilas, tres cervesas, dos cafes con Baileys, y "Brass Tacks"

My time working in Mexico City this week was fairly uneventful ... well, until night fell (which is where this story will arrive after it takes a brief stroll). In short, the days were filled with meetings, appreciation of how good we have it in the States, more meetings, and more appreciation of how good we have it. I was watching presentations, asking questions, and taking notes non-stop from 9-2.

Finally, as my hunger reached its limit, we would brake for a long afternoon lunch (but no siesta!) and hit it again until 8. I have to admit, I enjoyed the business environment and found it much different than I expected. By the way, what's the deal with our "expectations" anyway? It's not like I expected mariachi bands strolling through the office while the bull-fighting oversight committee huddled together to tackle some urgent bull-fighting initiative. "Pedro, you must adjust your Cost-Benefit analysis to show a more attractive net present value for the matador's wardrobe. And don't forget to leverage synergies across the bull aggressiveness development program."

To interject -- when I digress, I digress ... to continue my digression ...

It's not like I expected twice-daily salsa dancing breaks kicked off by a short chubby guy wearing a sombrero, blowing a whistle while he passes out tequila shots. "Log off of email and hang up the phone mi amigos, it's time to salsa! Fiesta!"

Well, maybe I did expect all of that in some wacky way, but what I didn't expect was the level of professionalism and advancement that I found in the office. As what I hope to be an atypical American, I still have a hard time shedding the American assumption that not only is everyone else in the world behind in business and technology (which we know isn't the case), but also that *all* of Latin America is made up of shanty houses, dirt streets, overcrowded buses with chickens and hogs running up and down the aisles. Sure, unfortunately much of Latin America is very poor; however, there is also a vibrant business environment full of educated professionals working in much the same way as we do in the States, across the Pond, in Asia, etc. Well, I can see that my brief stroll with this story has turned into a sit-down session on one of those comfy coffee shop chairs, so I'll ask my story to stand up, stretch, and walk itself back to the office description.

So what's it like to work in corporate Mexico? Can't answer that, but what I observed in my short visit was a formal business atmosphere -- suit and tie for the gents. I'll avoid getting into trouble by not delving too much into describing the attire for the ladies, which was professional, but also very Latin American. I have to admit, after enjoying the business casual environment in the States for my entire career, I had great appreciation for the formal environment ... yeah, I know ... the grass is always greener. Large numbers of people hustling and bustling in business suits just made it seem like everyone was doing something important. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George found that by walking the halls of his office looking busy, hurried, and stressed, everyone thought that he was being productive -- when in fact, he was doing nothing. Suits accomplish the same thing.

Aside from attire, another major difference was office space. The equivalent to our maze of spacious cubicles in the States was what amounted to a farm of tiny, tiny desks ... in the open with four co-workers within four feet of each other, separated by 3-foot high walls. Yes, life in the States is grand. Even manager types work in open offices -- without full walls and without a door.

When I first saw the office, I related it to a newsroom ... ala CNN or a newspaper: lots of activity, people coming and going, small meetings everywhere. There was a buzz in the air -- an energy and openness that I think is hard to find with the cells that we create for ourselves with tall-walled cubicles and closed-door offices.

Ok, enough of the office talk -- here's where things get interesting. On the way to dinner, I received the obligatory lecture on the patheticitude (a term I just coined) of tequila in the States and prepared myself for an evening of buzz-laden business talk.

When our local host offered two choices of tequila -- strong or mild, you can guess which I chose. You can also guess the volume I selected (single or double). After a huge double-shot of tequila (which all members of our group indulged in), tongues began to loosen. And let me tell you, this was fine tequila -- top shelf sipping tequila, not the typical bar-slamming variety.

It took the next round of tequila to really get the conversation going though. Thankfully, our kind hosts spoke in English for most of the night. They also were kind to compliment me on my broken Spanish, as I would often throw out a phrase and hope that the reply would come in English.

At some point, we ate an appetizer. I don't remember what it was -- I honestly don't remember anyone ordering it. All I know is that between rounds of tequila, plates of tortillas and 'fixins' simply arrived on our table. We switched to cervesas ... I ordered one -- my last planned drink of the evening. Yep, I was full, tired, and quite buzzed. Time to pack it -- it was close to midnight. "Fuhgetta bout it." Before I knew it, I had ordered more tequila -- as the cervesas were too filling for me. I must interrupt here to say that despite by best efforts, I was not keeping up with my hosts. Mas cervesas .. then another tequila -- then cafe con baileys (yes, I was fading after a while, so I switched to caffeine). The conversation was lively -- mostly on business, with bizarre tales from around the world interrupting occasionally.

I was in my element -- thrilled to be immersed in a different culture -- experiencing an adventure -- on someone else's tab. The night wore on. Whenever I (or another member of the party) appeared ready to pack it in, someone would order another round.

Tequila and cervesas flowed -- I ordered mas cafe con Baileys y mas tequila. At some point, the conversation migrated to Spanish only. This lasted for nearly an hour. An argument of sorts ensued -- all in Spanish. I listened, not understanding a word, but happy to nod my head to flow with the conversation, raise my eyebrows at what I thought was the right time, and laugh when my hosts laughed. Sure, I probably looked the fool, but I don't think it mattered to anyone -- certainly not to me at the time!

I have to jump into my own story with another interruption here (yes, I'm throwing my story back onto that comfy coffee shop couch) and mention that my Mexican amigos talked at one point in the night about a major cultural difference between Mexico and the U.S. In Mexico, when friends get together, whether it is for dinner or a child's birthday party, there is no schedule. In the U.S., it's more typical to host a party from a set starting time to a set (or understood) ending time. We most often feel the need to leave a friend's house before midnight because we have tasks scheduled for the next morning ... we don't want to impose, etc. In Mexico, the social nights are long. A child's birthday party brings the adults together at 5 PM -- and likely keeps them together until the sun rises. Forget the tasks for the next day -- enjoy our time together -- that seems to be the mantra. So that's what it was all about for this meal. We all had loads of work scheduled in the morning -- we all knew that we wouldn't get much sleep -- but the camaraderie was more important than our never-ending lists of responsibilities. It was a good lesson for me, as I think we all need a reminder once and awhile on the value of relationships in our lives.

Back to the night (get off the couch story ... move along) ... the Spanish-only argument raged on -- and apparently hit on a list topics that I haven't been around the company long enough to know about. So, it didn't matter that I couldn't follow the conversation. In a nutshell (or more applicable ... in a shot glass), this conversation, which took four hours and gallons of tongue-loosening booze to arrive at, was the type of honesty we needed from this trip. Good grief -- what is sometimes required to get down to brass tacks!

We finally packed it in around 3:00 AM. I slept well for a few hours, although I frequently awoke to the sounds of the city (which our hotel's walls did little to dampen). I was up at 6 with only a slight hangover -- which a quick session on a treadmill resolved. Another day of excellent meetings, and before I knew it, I was in a car being driven back to the airport ... with new friends, an appreciation for a taste of Mexican culture, thankfully without the multi-day hangover that I was expecting, and with excellent fodder for my blog.

Coming up next month -- I hope -- will be stories influenced by Chilean wine.

Thanks for reading!

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