Sunday, March 30, 2014

Don't Worry, We're Professionals

Notes and vignettes of life in NATO.  

At least once a week, my office hosts an update briefing for the senior leadership.  Our responsibility is primarily administrative:  we organize everyone's contributions into a single presentation, and we set up the computers and the broadcast to geographically separated participants.  It should be a routine task, but we experience new and different technical problems every session.  We often have a technician on hand to help us, so there are two or three of us clustered around one computer while the briefers address the Generals.  One time, one guy was typing a message to an out-station, and another guy grabbed the mouse and clicked elsewhere on the computer...

This week, we had a mysterious hot-mic in our room - but every microphone was turned off.  Turns out a camera in the room had a microphone that had never been activated before this week.  We don't know how that microphone was activated; we didn't even know there was a microphone on the camera...

When I go to work each morning, a team of middle aged men is cleaning the compound.  I don't know whether they're contractors, conscripts, or convicts.  Each morning, the same guys are sweeping the very same spots.  What with cats and birds and trees, there's always something to be swept up, but I just can't imagine sweeping the same spot, the same path every single day.  I feel sorry for them.  But then, how different is it from sitting at the same computer every day, checking my email?  At least they're outside in the sunlight and fresh air....and then I feel sorry for myself.

These are my experiences, and my truths.  They will not be true of everyone, nor of every situation.

A German Lt Colonel, whose ordinary conversation is sprinkled with swear words, paused, and told me, "You know, we don't swear like this when we are speaking in German.  It's unprofessional, and rarely happens in the workplace.  We pick this up in NATO, working with the British."

I'm no longer Major Tomlinson or Major T, I'm Sacha.  Major Sacha, if I'm very lucky.  Pretty much everyone calls pretty much everyone else by the first name, except the most senior of Colonels, and of course the Generals.  I hate it.

There is no order, task, or assignment so important that it cannot be discussed in NATO until it just goes away and doesn't matter any more.

NATO:  Nothing After Three O'clock.
A typical day for some of our co-workers:
(Duty day starts at 0800)
0815:  Show up, change clothes, start computer
0830 - 0900:  Coffee break
0900 - 1030:  Work
1030 - 1100:  Coffee break
1100 - 1130:  Work
1130 - 1230:  Tennis
1230 - 1330:  Lunch
1330 - 1430:  Work
1430 - 1500:  Coffee Break
1500 - 1645:  Work
1645:  Shut down computer, change clothes and leave
(Duty day ends at 1700)

A French officer I work with is actually in a civilian billet. So he's in the French Army, but is coded as a civilian and works in a suit and tie.  He says there are many benefits, but it becomes a problem when he goes into war zones and is not permitted to handle a weapon because he is a civilian, but simultaneously required to handle weapons because he's a military officer; a bizarre French Catch-22. Anyhoo, this French officer has an outrageous, Python-esque accent; I love listening to him talk.  He's incredibly strict and treats his contractors like dirt: "Faysal! Click on the f*#king link, or I will cut off your bloody fingers!"  

Some nationalities will spend 20 minutes explaining why they will not do a 5 minute task.  This explanation usual comes right after they agree to do the task.  "Of course, Major Sacha, it would give me great pleasure to do that!"

I've mentioned before how impressed I am with all of these people going about their jobs in a foreign language - I could never do it.  On the other hand, I find some days terribly taxing, working with people for whom English is a second language.  Trying to explain concepts when people don't understand the words I'm using; reviewing emails and explaining that something should be written one way and not another; them explaining that when I use a word or phrase it sounds to them that I mean something completely different - mostly because they deal in the purest definitions of words, and we Americans and Brits don't use our own words properly.  Some of them think Americans are very rude because we don't pepper our conversation and email with polite nothing words (would you be so very kind as to...?  Thank you very much indeed!) It all makes my head hurt, it makes their heads hurt, and we all go home with headaches and not much done.

But sometimes very funny things come from the language differences:  One dour Croatian published a Rooster for all of us to update with our vacation days.  (So I drew a chicken on the board...) Another guy was telling us about the Army Corpse.  (So I drew a dead body on the board...)  A German was describing something he saw in the Angel of his Eye.  Took me a long time to understand that wasn't a German expression, but merely a mispronunciation.

When Czechs have multiple responsibilities, they "sit on two chairs"

The Polish have a saying that I've adopted as my personal motto; I use it as often as possible, and you wouldn't believe how much of my workday it applies to:  Not my circus, not my monkeys.

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