My "ten month" special project rotation finally ended, merely five years after it began. Looking through the diaries I filled, photos I took, and raft of business activities I completed, now that I FINALLY know it is behind me, I thought about the element of this that is LEAST understood by my friends. And that is: work overseas is work. It sounds obvious, but it turns out that it really isn't.
Here are some thoughts on the experience of often being overseas for work.
My assignment began abruptly. I worked long hours to transition my previous work to others in as orderly a fashion as possible, boarded a flight, spent TWELVE hours in the air (working part of that on a slide presentation without any background information), spent another hour in a van being driven from the airport to my destination, checked into a hotel, went for a walk, and tried to sleep, knowing I had to give a presentation at midnight my time, which is nine in the morning in Switzerland. I fell asleep shortly before the alarm went off, and struggled to navigate unfamiliar locations and my new responsibilities in a room of strangers. By four in the afternoon, I was deliriously tired.
By that same time, folks back in the US were at work and had questions for me, as if I was in any condition to reply. They also wanted to speak to me during my tiny dinner break, before I fainted. I could barely walk upright, yet was expected to provide coherent reports all evening, when all I wanted to do was close my eyes. My boyfriend of the time was annoyed that I wasn't available to receive his texts during his breaks on his time schedule. My email friends teased me that I should know everything about the city that I was in, not accepting that I was spending my time in conference rooms with the blinds drawn - and a conference room in one city is the same as a conference room anywhere in the world. When I did close my eyes, I woke up at 2AM, and then was unable to sleep. I woke at would should have been 11pm, and got ready for work.
This cycle of exhaustion, work, delirium, and communications from home continued for days.
Yet, my friends back at home, who had only a hazy understanding of what I do for a living, were convinced I was skiing, or in a spa, or having cocktails on a roof with James Bond.
What. The. Actual. Hell.
It turns out that people stop listening as soon as you tell them where you are working, and play out movie scenarios in their head, or recall vacations of their youth. You are complaining about lost luggage, slide presentations, and cold showers, and they are smiling above your virtual left shoulder while remembering being drunk on good beer and flirting with the waiter in that general geographic region.
There is nothing you can say to break the reverie. Your day in dry meetings is nothing relative to their youthful memories!
While you try talk about mixing adhesives to spackle the bags beneath your eyes before meetings, the same non-listening friends will realize that you somehow got paid to be in that European location. Which means your company paid to put you there. Which means you somehow became... important?
Back in my hometown, I wound up being introduced by friends to strangers with nothing but a summary of which corporation employed me, and which countries they habitually sent me to. The strangers looked impressed, and suddenly appeared to re-evaluate me more favorably. If those encounters had been in video games, bells would ring, and a little bar indicating my health and power levels would have shot up beyond one hundred percent, and a little victory song would play. I was the same... yet, also a new animal!
My work was hazily understood at home and wasn't worth discussing when performed locally, yet WHERE I performed it suddenly made me notable. (Again, what the actual hell!)
If you decline a few social events because you are away on business, the invitations will stop coming.
Later, when you reconcile with your friends for the crime of having abandoned them (for their projection of the fun you are having overseas with Bond, while wearing slinky outfits and using pseudonyms with shockingly sexual overtones), you will have to assure them that you DO want to see them, and have not traded them in for colleagues far away. They won't believe you when you tell them that colleagues overseas go home to their families after work, and leave you (alone) to eat in restaurants (alone - allein, allein, ganz allein!), followed by returning to your hotel room to battle insomnia.
You get neither sympathy nor interest from anyone who feels your project and related absence has impacted their workload. You can tell them that your slides caused rioting, and you ran in fear for your life from men with little hats with feathers in them, the sound of their lederhosen chafing furiously as the mob gained on you, and.... they aren't listening either. They will tell you what happened to the M- contract, or how the contractor who is covering your desk has been having problems with his laptop, which IT kept for three days, and now the work for brand X initiative is a week behind schedule. What is a torch-wielding mob compared to that? (Answer: NOTHING! Go away, kid, you're bothering me!)
Spoilsport. :) I haven't even gotten to the part about my friends, who already forgot me, being convinced that I was going to be swept off my feet by a millionaire who was somehow young and leftist but has a home in the south of France. *sigh*
Of course there were upsides, or I would have refused to continue.
I've written before that I'm not from a background where flying off internationally was a thing. (My father traveled when he was a soldier; my mother stayed with a friend who lived overseas in her youth. That was it.) The international flights I had undertaken on my own over the long course of my life were long and uncomfortable, especially going to and from Japan (10+ hours) and Nepal (24+ hours in three segments). I described them at the time as akin to torture. Domestically, I had flown often, and been upgraded to first class a few times, which was nice, but aside from attentive service and cloth napkins, hadn't felt significantly different than economy, which wasn't enjoyable. So when I'd learned that I would need to fly 12 hours each way from San Francisco to Switzerland, I anticipated profound misery.
Yeah, but no.
Transatlantic flights in business class are a different world. On the correct airlines (which is to say, not U.S. based carriers), you get SPACE, both to stretch out and for your bags. You get doted upon, in ways you wish happened in other circumstances in your life. (See my five volume illustrated treatise on how bad I am at dating.) You get enough food and drink to make you docile and compliant with all intercom instructions.
You get a lay-flat bed, and if you were sensible enough not to sleep for a couple days prior, you can sleep a bit in it. On some flights, you get a narrow cubicle of your own.
You receive a little pouch with at the very least earplugs, tissues, hand lotion, and lip balm. At best, it also has some scented potions and cooling face cream.
Your cabin is relatively quiet, and feels intimate. The ceilings are high. You are able to freshen up in the bathroom when you need to walk, and the experience, while cramped, isn't bad. The plane feels clean and bright.
Movies that are still in theaters are available on a screen at a comfortable distance from your eyes.
The flight attendants are both male and female, extremely professional, multilingual, and unfailingly helpful. They are happy to confirm your special meal is aboard. They are happy to welcome you back. They are happy that you are settled into your usual seat quickly and without fuss. When they come around with coffee again, they know you want it black, with one sugar. (I've been in multi-year relationships where that information was not retained!)
There are special rooms in the airport for your use between connecting flights. Lounges, which are clean and quiet. There are espresso machines there, fresh fruit, sparkling waters, buffets of hot foods, open bars, comfy chairs, glossy magazines, abundant power outlets in multiple configuration for your devices, free WiFi. The bathrooms are all the size of wheelchair accessible ones, so you can bring your luggage in and change clothes if you need to. They are never out of toilet paper or paper towels. There is both soap AND lotion. Sometimes there are showers.
The only disconcerting thing about the lounges and the flights is that your peers are OLD. And mostly tired-looking men. You develop a game upon entering the lounge to try to spot someone younger than you. (Sometimes, men bring their grandchildren!). In certain countries, you can also play, "spot the female passenger who is not you or with your company." (I'm looking at you, Germany!)
You know those hotels where you want to go for a swim, but the pool is filled with an army of screaming kids? That won't happen to you, because you don't have time to swim, and there is no pool.
No, your hotel is filled with serious looking adults with roller bags, who have their passport out before they approach the check-in counter. (You hope not to see any of them in a swimming pool, ever. You pretend that, as haggard as you look after your long flight, they aren't thinking the same about you.) They have a reservation, they have a reservation number, they have a confirmation number, they know they are supposed to be there.
If you have chosen well, (and you learned to choose well after that incident with the hotel that reeked of cleaning fluid, and was torn down months after you stayed there - you would have torn it down with your bare hands if you'd had the time), you ensure that the entire hotel is non-smoking, was remodeled within the last four years, and has breakfast included. As a result, your hotels are both reasonably priced... often historic, and somtimes palatial. Serious hotels for serious people.
Did you know Napoleon stayed here? (What, recently?) Members of the prior generation of a royal family and their entourage were here, when in town for a wedding. (Oh, my invitation must have been lost in the mail.) Is the Maserati parked outside waiting for me? (NO?! Are you CERTAIN? It looks just like mine - ha ha ha). The drapes go on for miles. The soap is GOOD soap. If women stay at the hotel, there is even hair conditioner! (Though it is for European hair, and doesn't try very hard. Men's preferred hotels don't bother, damn them.) The colors are the historic colors from the region/era, but have been refreshed. The carpets are immaculate, and only where they need to be. There are real hangers in the closet, and you'll be there long enough to use them. There is also a real espresso machine, and you will use it repeatedly. The toilet paper is as thick as paper towels are back home. Getting into bed is like climbing between layers of a cake. Everything smells nice, or even better, smells like nothing at all. (The only things that don't smell good are in your own luggage, and are likely the clothes you wore traveling here, which are quarantined in a thick plastic bag.)
Your own meals are modest and often hurried. However, when the local office leader is hosting, you want a copy of the magazine that the event photos will be appearing in later.
"I can't text now: I am crossing a bridge over the Rhein near the cathedral."
"Now, I'm out at a business dinner in a historic building, and am using my practiced, still-unnatural Swiss-ish accent and am being perfectly understood. No, I won't be able to talk until after dessert, but it will be late, because we might be singing German songs later, so let's talk tomorrow."
"On any other night, I'd be alone in my room on long conference calls with the home office, but NOT TONIGHT. Tonight, I'm meeting the team for dinner in Buda on the other side of the Danube. So: no, not NOW. Really truly, NOT NOW."
Waking up and thinking in German is novel; giving others a tour of a City established around 450 AD is fun; having the hostess at the Spanish Tapas restaurant or the secret-menu Italian restaurant greet you like an old friend in front of colleagues is amusing; ordering good beer in German at the Vietnamese restaurant for colleagues with Indian passports IMPRESSES them. None of it makes sense, and you are tired ALL THE TIME, but... it works.
And only the people who went through it, and who sat beside you during slide-presentation-marathons, understand.
And that's okay.
James Bond says hi.
images and text Copyright © 2019 A. E. Graves
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