Saturday, August 2, 2008

Portrait #41: A business consultant

The other night we were invited to dinner-with-the-Bishop. This was billed as a big deal. And since, even though I don't know him personally very well, I love this bishop who has been our host for the past two months, I did feel honoured by the invitation. Also invited were several members of a family community group that he leads. The dinner was out at a church that was built as a monument commemorating where Paul had his vision of Jesus and was knocked off his horse. It is in an idyllic setting just out of Damascus, surrounded by farmland and marked by a constant gentle breeze.

The bishop was late, and we ended up sitting enjoying the view and the breeze on a covered patio for over an hour. It was pleasant enough, but we were hungry and so perhaps not as friendly as we should have been. On this large patio which could easily seat a few hundred people, a dozen foreigners (us) hunched together on one side, and about three dozen families from the church chatted amongst themselves on the other side. We started to joke about how they were sitting on one side of the table gearing up for the food arrival, and we were sitting our side of the table doing the same. On your mark, get set, GO GRAB FOOD... and hence would begin the third world war. So much for the noble goal of reconciliation which brought us here in the first place!

When the kind and dignified bishop arrived, he led us in prayers and introductions for about half an hour before the food was served. It was nearly 11 p.m. by the time we ate our dinner, which was distributed by half a dozen volunteers, thereby evading any potential fights at the serving table. And as soon as we were done eating we were pretty much ready to go home. But the bishop, late though he was, had somehow picked up on our failure to blend with each other. He went to his side, where his community group members sat eating, and instructed them to come socialise with us. Then he instructed our leader to pass on the word that mingling was good. So we couldn't leave until we'd chatted with each other.

A man in his late fifties came up to me to mingle. He asked me in broken English if I speak Arabic and when I said yes, he continued the conversation in a mix of classical Arabic and English, in a very quiet voice. When he talked he leaned in close to me and I had to lean in as well to make out what he was saying. At this late hour, the surrounding farmland was beginning to smell a bit like manure so I will always have the impression that this unsuspecting gentleman smelled bad. But it wasn't his fault at all, it was the fault of the neighbouring cows.

Between the noise of other similar conversations happening around me and my own exhaustion, I had a terrible time making out what he was saying. So he pulled me over to a bench and we sat down for a chat. He asked me two questions about myself, the usual suspects: where am I from, and how long have I been in this country? These are two somewhat complicated questions for me to answer, and I think he took my confused answers as indicating I'd misunderstood the questions, so he asked them again a few times. Then I don't think I asked him anything before he dove into a description of what he does.

He is a business consultant. Right now he is working for a Dutch pharmaceutical company that just this summer got bought out by an American pharmaceutical company. His former employer had an office in Brazil, but he never had an opportunity to go there. But he has been to Europe, sometimes for several months at a time, and with this new merger maybe he'll get to go to America. His job is very interesting, especially because he changes employers every five years or so. Always something new. He gets to travel a lot. He's worked for several of the major multinationals operating in this country. And he's very good at his job: any company he works with succeeds. So even though he wanted to leave his current job at the beginning of the summer, they persuaded him to stay through at least until the merger was complete. He does get three weeks holiday per year and travels with his family but, honestly, he's so used to First Class seats when he travels that it's hard to switch back. He loves his job because there is always something new.

In this midst of this conversation, which entailed a lot of glorious praise for his successful career as a business consultant on his part, and a lot of nodding on my part, I asked him if he had family. He pointed to a woman who had not taken the bishop's advice - she was sitting on the far side of the room chatting with a friend - and said she was his wife. Then he pointed at a girl who was chatting with other members of our group and said that that was his daughter. Then he went back to telling me the name of a company in Switzerland that he'd worked at and being surprised that I'd never heard of it. He has always worked locally, never been permanently posted abroad, so his wife and daughter have always lived here, but he has done well for himself nonetheless.

At first I thought I'd never met someone who loved his job quite so much, but in retrospect I think he simply wasn't sure what else to chat about. In my state of exhaustion I wasn't good at suggesting different topics of conversation, and this was the thing he knows best. I felt a bit sorry for him when I realised he felt forced to come chat with me, and then found that he didn't know how to make small talk with a foreigner who wasn't able to follow his classical Arabic-English combination. Somehow, a bank that he works with came up in the conversation and then he mentioned that the director of a local bank was also with us that evening. He called that man over and introduced us, then he escaped to chat with someone more interesting. In turn, the banker and I chatted for about two minutes, then we each went our separate ways as well.

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