Monday, 31 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 6 - The Show Must Go On

As you can imagine, after the excitement of last night, there were long faces, big yawns and very little talk at the breakfast table. But, like the troopers that we are, we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and started all over again with a new topic – the most important of the course.

I started talking at 09:30 and they finally let me shut up ten hours later!If you’d seen me today, you’d have thought you’d raised a circus performer. At one point, I was juggling with my laptop, the paper copy of the presentation, my script, the microphone and the flip-chart. Last time I was here, all we had were 35mm slides – isn’t technology wonderful?

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 5 - If You Go Down To The Woods Tonight

I had the cabin to myself for most of this evening. The others were still at the office. So, there I was – alone and surrounded by trees, with curtains too narrow for the windows. They have Soviet standard windows and Soviet standard curtains – just different standards!. I spent the whole time ignoring the darkness outside and pretending not to hear the noises, imagining bears, wolves – or worse!

Then the girls returned – and stood shivering on the doorstep whilst I tried desperately to unlock the front door. The more I struggled, the tighter the lock seemed to be. They were just about to climb through the window into the swimming pool when I finally got the knack. and managed to open the thing.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 4 - Get Me Out of Here

You will be delighted to hear that it’s day 4 and still no vodka. Mind you, Boris arrives tomorrow, so it may not last.

It’s a bit like an Australian survival programme here at mealtimes. The food’s ordered the day before and delivered from the municipal facility.

‘Hey Elizabeth said Sasha as she rummaged in the box today ‘what do you fancy for lunch? We’ve got soup, fish, salad and bread. Wow, we’ve also got chocolates. I guess those are for you, the honoured guest’. After which, the girls preserved my figure by eating most of the box themselves.

When my class arrived on Monday, I realised that many of the faces were familiar from 1994. A little older, a few more inches around some of the waistlines, but still smartly dressed with gold teeth glistening and hair bleached and permed. I remember the looks of panic and incomprehension when we first talked to them about manufacturing drugs. Now, they are more confident and keen to learn. Today we had the ‘design a factory’ exercise – a mountain of virtual money to spend. There was much argument and laughter from the syndicates.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 3 - A Long Way From Swiss Cottage

Isn’t it typical – just as I’m getting ready to move out of the hotel, it starts to improve a little. I’m used to washing my hair with icy water; today I was able to take a hot shower. At breakfast, the waiter offered me pancakes, instead of pushing the dreaded fried eggs in front of me as he did yesterday – just like every other waiter for the past ten years.

My home for the next four nights is the company guesthouse. It’s a two-storey log cabin in the traditional Russian style. From the outside it looks quite ordinary, but inside there’s a swimming pool, sauna and billiards table. Less welcome, but equally impressive are the row of boar heads in the lounge. And as for the stuffed eagle and chicks on the top of the fridge – I don’t think I’ll be doing any midnight snacking this week.

Sasha and I share the cabin with Anna, one of the managers. She’s working late each evening to meet a project deadline and doesn’t want to drive back to town. The chattering and gales of laughter can be heard late into the night, like being back at college. Mind you, Swiss Cottage was never this luxurious.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 2 - Be Prepared

The factory is a converted missile base in the middle of the forest. Warehouses are underground bunkers with Fort Knox type doors a metre thick. I was so proud when we opened it ten years ago – a true example of swords into plough-shares.

I’ve always thought of the forests in Russia being pine. In reality, half the trees are silver birch. Their bare trunks and branches stand pale and stark amongst the conifers’ dark green. With the lingering patches of snow, it looks dramatic – but not so harsh as mid-winter.

Great surprises awaited me at the base; they’ve been decorating. Gone is the dark wood, replaced by glass, metal and light oak. They even have decent air conditioning. I’m not really sure why I’m surprised. Most of the companies in this part of the world have invested hugely in their offices. It’s just a pity the factories themselves remain so Dickensian.

Good job I came over a day early; no delegate lists!

‘Elizabeth, they explained ‘we were waiting for you to tell us who should attend.’

‘Everyone.’ I said, holding my breath and waiting for the protests. However, for the moment, I seem to have got away with it. Of course, when Boris arrives on Wednesday, and finds his factory shut down, I may lose half my class, but for the moment, the boss is a long way away and I’m calling the shots.

They’ve tried really hard to get everything perfect for this course. There’s all the equipment I might need. They even remembered the flip-chart pens. And, from the look of the microphone and pile of tapes, they intend to record everything I say. It’s a far cry from the first course we gave here. We used a bent paperclip to hang a notice board. Not so much a case of no screws in the hardware stores – more a case of no hardware stores!

The room seats 20 comfortably. We’re having around 30 delegates each day – it’s going to be an interesting week - not to mention cosy.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Emails to the Big Chief: Day 1 - The Long Unwinding Road

1960s furniture, no CNN and a dreadful bathroom. Casino, noisy disco and a bar full of prostitutes. You’ve guessed it – I’m back in Kostroma. The plane wasn’t hijacked and I’ve not been kidnapped, so you can stop worrying.

Earlier today, in Moscow, interpreter Sasha and I stopped for lunch at Boris's apartment before hitting the road. Remember the first time I met him? He spent an hour telling me the history of the project and how his company had been screwed by the multinationals. He’s given a repeat performance whenever I’ve met him since, and today was no exception. But it’s a small price to pay for being welcomed into someone’s home.

The road to Kostroma is five hours without bend or corner. Bored, I thought about other times I’d made that journey. I never told you about the first time. Our driver, speeding like Schumacher, swerved between the right side of the road, the left and the gravel verges, depending on the potholes. The road in front of us was empty for much of the time; but we always seemed to be about to meet a lorry each time he made a particularly violent swerve. Today was much quieter and slower. I had time to think about the training I am here to deliver.

Emails to the Big Chief

When I started travelling in the 1980s, I used to send my parents a postcard from wherever I stopped. Often they would reach home long after me. Once the Internet became available, we taught my mom to use it so that she could keep in touch with my travels. She was proud of what I was doing, but always frightened that something terrible would happen to me. To the end of her life, her standard reply on hearing that I had just won another project was "Oh dear".

After my father died (and therefore gained the Internet handle of "Heavenly Dude"), my mom became the Big Chief. My travel stories thus become "Emails to the Big Chief".

Saturday, 15 December 2007

December in Ljubljana

This small city is buzzing at any time, but in December, it seems more alive than ever. Trees are covered in small blue lights; all the buildings along the river are outlined by strings of light. The castle looking down on us is tinted deep , vermillion or vanilla and lights twinkle from all the trees on the hillside below. Planets, stars and suns are strung between the buildings. Young children have their photos taken in front of the ten foot ice-queen.

On every corner are musicians. Not for them the traditional carols of Christmas (although I hear one couple presenting a spirited rendition of Jingle Bells). Some are playing jazz, some traditional Slovene folk-songs. But above all else, we hear the pan pipes. A band of South Americans have come to town and treat the crowds to displays of song and dance while trying to sell woollen goods and CDs.

There is a smell of spice on the wind. The place is littered with small stands selling mulled wine and warm mead. Bars spring up from nowhere, with patio heaters and blankets to keep the customers warm. Even in December, the streets are full of people eating and drinking al fresco .

The embankment is lined with stalls selling Christmas gifts. You can choose from jewellery, silks and woollens, candies, crystals, wooden goods or candles. Shoppers stroll, browse and buy - but always slowly. No-one is in a hurry here - and there are always friends to meet and chat with on the way.