Thursday, March 8, 2007

Palestinian Mohel in London

On a Monday morning in April 2003, my boss came running to my desk to tell me that I had to hop on a plane and go to the company’s branch in the UK. My mission was to set up a supply chain program in order to pass a certain European industry standard. The deadline was weeks away and whether I liked it or not, I was on tomorrow’s red eye flight to Heathrow. Little did I know what was waiting for me on the other side of the pond.

I arrived the next day at 7am and had two hours to clear customs, get to my hotel, shower and shave before presenting to a noisy gaggle of Brits at 9am. That first performance set the tone for the next two months. My days were long and exhausting. The UK branch was squeezing the most out of me and my mere pittance of a Canadian salary. I had to drive around industrial estates, narrowly avoiding certain death at the roundabouts, all for the sake of meeting with customers to explain the virtues of the new program and addressing their potential concerns. My only consolation was a rather generous daily alcohol expense quota.

One memorable Thursday, my UK boss pulled me into a conference room and advised me that a key customer was coming in later in the afternoon to air his grievances about the new system. Apparently the customer strongly disagreed with certain terms and was threatening to pull the plug on us completely and give the business to the competition.

“Sure Thing Boss!”, I chirped. After all, 5 weeks of presenting the same PowerPoint slides and listening to the same questions gave me a definite sense of confidence.

Or so I thought…

“You do speak German, right Nizo?”

He proceeded to inform me that the customer, a known pain in the ass, was flying in from Germany uninvited. Apparently, this wasn’t the first time this particular customer was pulling such as stunt. What made matters worse was his obdurate demand that we present to him in German. Since the other two colleagues who spoke German were on vacation, I was stuck with this most unwelcome task. I didn’t have enough time to translate the slides, and even if I did, I had never been exposed to business German and wouldn’t know where to start.

Back in my university days, I had studied the language for three years, thinking it would open the doors to the works of great German writers and philosophers in their original untranslated splendor. I quickly realized that it would take many years of hard work to be able to properly appreciate Goethe in his mother tongue. Nevertheless, I attempted to immerse myself in the language as much as possible by watching foreign films and listening to ghastly Schlager music. I also went on a couple of trips to Switzerland, Austria and Germany. To my chagrin, most people there weren’t interested in engaging me in conversation and oftentimes switched to English. I was once told by a German acquaintance that Germans are such perfectionists that they would rather speak to you in English than hear you massacre their language.

So here I was, faced with the exception to the rule: a German, insisting on being served in German -- in London. I was as nervous as Richard Gere’s favorite pet gerbil.

Like a sheep to the slaughter, I was led to the boardroom where the customer was waiting. There he was in his full Aryan glory, an imposing giant of a man with a stoic square-jawed face chiseled from alabaster. He responded to my animated “Guten Tag!” with a curt nod. I wasted no time with niceties and delved straight into the presentation.

In order to avoid making mistakes, I tried to use the simplest sentence formulations possible. At some point, his facial expressions showed that he was being receptive to my message, and I felt emboldened to go further and showcase every bit of Hochdeutsch I had learnt in school. Luckily my UK boss was there for support, and it helped calm my nerves. This was going well, I told myself.

Or so I thought…

I had to discuss the customer’s main point of contention and explain that our company wasn’t going to hold itself liable unless he clearly shares his projected forecast ahead of time. This was the crux of the man’s grievances and therefore a most sensitive issue.

By the time I was done with my explanation, the customer looked absolutely horrified. His face was red and his mouth was agape. The look of an infant about to burst into tears.

Instead, he burst into a bout of uncontrollable laughter.

I thought the man was laughing out of sarcasm, and I frantically tried to accommodate him. I told him that if he could give me his forecast right away, I would personally make sure the new program would work for him.

My boss was giving me a dirty look: “you better not screw this one up”.

And the man laughed and laughed..

I was genuinely perplexed, what would cause the man to laugh so hard?

I attempted to use sarcastic humor myself, by winking and saying that we would love nothing better than a big forecast. Thinking he would find it humorous that although we were on the verge of losing the deal, we had the chutzpah to ask for more of his business.

Then he responded, in perfect English: “I think you meant to say “Vorschau” which means forecast, the word you've been using: “Vorhaut” means the skin at the tip of the .... "

“Foreskin!” my boss shouted, with the same gusto Floridian octogenarians yell “Bingo!”

I don’t think there was ever a point in my life where I felt so embarrassed. Here I was, a sweating nervous wreck, trying to put sentences together in a foreign language to save a multi-million pound business deal from going awry, and instead I was imploring the man to give me his foreskin, and telling him how much my company loved a big one.

Luckily, the gods had decided that I had suffered enough. With a sudden surge of courage, I decided to dismiss my embarrassment and use the opportunity afforded by the man’s elated mood to finish the presentation and bring the point home.


Although I didn’t get a favorable decision from the customer that day, he did call my boss the week after to say that he was ready to give the new system a try.

He sent me an e-mail thanking me for a most entertaining presentation.

Up to this very day, I smile uncomfortably whenever I have to say the word forecast.