So you want to be a leader!

David Ben-Gurion once said, and I paraphrase, that he understood what it was to be a leader the day he realised there was nobody left but him to lead the way.

With the wealth of modern-day examples, so often highlighted by this business school or that economic forum, who’d a thought that David Ben-Gurion would have been the example that first came to mind when I started writing this post. Given my origins, Winston Churchill would have seemed more appropriate but there you are, each of us has a role model or a paradigm that has, whether we’ve understood it or not, had such a strong influence on our way of interpreting leadership.

Ben-Gurion’s reflection on what being a leader meant to him is powerful yet simple. It came at a crucial moment as he realised that it fell to him and him alone to assume the responsibility and to assure the perrenity of a cause.

Enough of Steve, find yourself

Today, aspiring managers can learn about what, in theory, it takes to make a good leader, e.g. company values, applied ethics, one’s ethos, governance, empathy, experience, etc. They are all lessons worth learning, even if a certain triage is then needed to see clear but nothing prepares you for leadership like a challenge. Analysing the causes and effects of a crisis, determining the options & solutions and understanding that’s it’s you, not the guy next door, who has to assume the responsibility, especially when it’s painful, that’s being a leader.

A managing director once told me, it’s better to be regularly confronted with crisis situations and learn how to negotiate them, even at the cost of losing some feathers, than having it easy and then not knowing how to negotiate a crisis when it does happen. Being a leader is about making sure it happens and, as I read again recently, relying on delegation rather than micro-management, because what’s the point of having an employee if you don’t trust them to do the job.

What keeps you awake at night?

On the surface the rather banal question “What keeps you awake at night?” can hide a more significant purpose, that of seeing what’s occupying or pre-occupying a manager at any given time. It really is a rather subtle method of testing the aptitude of a manager to fulfill the role. Has a manager measured the importance, breadth, and depth of their role? Looked at all the angles, considered all the permutations & ramifications, outcomes & consequences and generally understood the scope of the job they’ve been assigned?

There’s one in each of us…

Is there a standard school of thought or a recommendation on how to be a leader? Should a leader show the way, lead from behind, or be everywhere at the same time, omnipresent and yet letting others do their job? Should a leader dominate, delegate or dispense guidance? Is the sign of a good leader knowing when to use all available levers? Here again, there is a multitude of “experts” spouting voicing opinions on the subject, look no further than here but seriously, for having read what the experts say, as well as from personal experience, the answer is no. It happens, and then it’s for you to step out of the anonymity and assure the transformation.

And if you have doubts about being a leader, feel coerced or influenced by others, are anxious about succeeding or feel you’re an impostor look to your role model or favourite paradigm and assume. You will grow into the role of leader as it will grow on you.

Meg and Elon, you and me.

The longer you look the more you will see all sorts of leaders, from the benevolent-looking patriarchs, and matriarchs, exuding business acumen …queue for the “quintessential” Steve Jobs quotation… to the mercurial, catch-me-if-you-can, entrepreneurs, always two step ahead of the curve. And then there’s the ordinary Joe & Jane Team Leader, invariably a step of two behind the curve – or so it seems, worrying about attaining objectives, assuring deliveries, filling quotas and mastering margins; slip-sliding between the strategy and the tactical, learning that having risen from the ranks, yesterday’s pals are today’s responsibilities and that diplomacy, tact, empathy, and politics go hand in hand with skills, experience, and expertise.

So who actually would want to be a leader? How do you become one? Where to start? Well, sometimes, mostly, it’s through blood, sweat, and tears. Sometimes, it’s just by being in the right place at the right time or maybe in the wrong place at the right time.

Post Scriptum. Empathy: The fall from grace?

There was a time, not so very long ago when empathy was hailed as the discipline to use to support, not just leaders and managers but also for employees with aspirations in their everyday relations with others but then recently voices have been raised against empathy accusing it of being a cold callous tactic used to exploit situations others are in. Contrary to sympathy, the caring and understanding for the suffering of others, or compassion, the act of suffering together, empathy was synonym with the ability to objectively understand and relate to another’s standpoint. It allowed you to look at and determine where the other person stood (c.f. that rather banal “how’s it going” question?) and process that knowledge to achieve results.

Now it seems, this is not the case and those speaking out against the, by me, generally accepted and logical purpose of empathy, take it as a callous exploitation of a situation, often at the expense of others, for their own purposes and to further their own hidden agenda. To the antagonists, I’d just like to say this: Use a tool badly, it will cut you, use a tool the right way and it will work wonders.

(edited to include citation “Against empathy”)

Posted in Everyday life, Society, Work

Personal Development: Exploiting the Alpha Moment

If there’s a topic trending today that’s up there among the top 5 most discussed topics on professional social media, alongside fake news and AI in HR, it has to be “Personal Development” and the many theories, tools, methods and opinions associated with it.

Don’t get me wrong. For having benefited a lot from Personal Development advice and training I’m all for it because it’s helped me to close a deal here and settle a conflict there.

Alpha ThinkingIn fact, there’s one particular Personal Development theory, called “Exploiting the Alpha Moment” that’s helped me a lot. The theory maintains that by exploiting the so-called “Alpha” moment you can improve your personal motivation and develop a) your mental acuity and b) your intuitive/psychic abilities. In so doing you cultivate the positive while nullifying all the negativity that affects the decisions you make and the objectives you fix.

TL;DR? Simply put. The technique helps you analyse, fix and eliminate a problem preoccupying your subconscious you, e.g. a difficult project or a refractory team member, before your next meeting with the MD.

The “Eureka” moment

The theory explains that by exploiting that instant (whenever it occurs) – when the conscious and the subconscious are on the same level – normally deeply buried problems and angsts manifest themselves as conscious, accessible thoughts, rather than as dreams (or cold sweaty, partner waking nightmares).

This “instant” can happen in several ways:

  1. During meditation when your mind is totally void of all conscious thought.
  2. If you are particularly receptive, during the day when your brain slips into neutral between two mental tasks.
  3. At night, just as you are falling asleep1 or in between two sleep cycles2.

1 The Alpha moment occurs in the instant between waking and sleeping when, the brain having finished mentally processing the day’s activity, the conscious and the subconscious may fuse. At this precise point, an underlying (read: Nagging) problem can surface and, free of the day’s immediate requirements, the brain can use its full potential to think it through and find solutions and options that would have been unlikely during the day.

2 The Alpha moment occurs when waking between two sleep cycles. Not quite awake but mentally totally lucid, a problem suddenly become extremely clear and everything falls into place.

Not convinced? Just think “Eureka”. Example: You’ve got a problem and you’re frustrated because you don’t know why. Yes, you have the facts but you can’t pinpoint the purpose or the cause. Gurus and experts will tell you that what’s needed here are intuitive abilities or receptivity (to verbal or non-verbal signals) or simply a flash of inspiration.

The problem is, though, these psychic solutions rarely happen when your brain is actively tackling the problem. My solution was to go home, sleep on it and, Insh’Allah, see how things developed the next day, except that in the meantime I started experiencing these bedtime “Eureka” moments when the brain simply went into overdrive.

When I eventually read an article about this technique I understood that I’d already been practicing it without knowing what it was. It had definitely helped me anticipate and overcome situations (read: challenges) more or less intentionally created.

Post Mortem

“Personal Development”: Snake oil quackery or a valid life hack? Today we have the possibility of doing extensive, cross-referenced research into such techniques and it doesn’t cost anything to read a Life Pro Hack, e.g. about personal finances, especially if it teaches you something because they invariably come from someone’s personal experience.

Posted in Everyday life, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mentors and Managers

wordle_mentor

I was reading an article on my favourite professional social media platform the other day encouraging readers to name their favourite manager and a question, actually several, came to mind: Why a manager and not a mentor? What’s the difference between a mentor and a “Favourite” manager? When does an experienced professional stop needing a mentor?

Let me just give that last question some context:

  • Professionally, you’re approaching fifty, you’ve already had a career change or two, your current job can be a bit stressing but voluntary work helps you decompress and you’re climbing the ladder nicely so all in all, the outlook is positive – and why shouldn’t it be?
  • At home, the family unit’s established, you’ve paid off a couple of major budget-restricting debts, you’ve got your emergency fund tucked away and your mortgage / property / investment plan is coming along nicely so why would you need mentor at this stage of your life, after all, mentors are for those just starting out, aren’t they?

Well yes and no. Every newbie, recruit, fresher, blue or beginner should have a mentor. I did and I’m glad I did but I’m also glad I’ve continued to meet mentors and people over the years who’ve influenced my career. And just how do you recognise a mentor? What differentiates a mentor from a manager or even a leader? Does taking someone under your wing and teaching them the trade make you a mentor? Does being a certified trainer?

Forget Google, Find Your Own

Mentors aren’t unicorns (the legendary animal, not the overvalued start-up kind) but they are rare and you need to be perceptive and receptive enough to find one. Once found, mentors come in all forms: willing, or not; benevolent or manipulator (because helping you helps them); empathetic or paternalist; guide or leader (the best lead from behind, they say); there are old school mentors and there are mentors who mischievously play with a concept to see if you’re on the same wavelength.

I define a mentor as being someone who, whether by chance or design, crosses your path one day, redefines your thought process and having got you used to going beyond your comfort zone continues on their way leaving you with the impression that what you just learned will influence the way you think, work and coexist with others for years to come.

Now, do I think experienced (read: senior) professionals still need mentoring? Is mentoring the solution for assuring senior employability? Yes, a mind should stay curious and hungry because there is always one more obstacle to overcome; one more objective to reach; one more target to hit… and one more lesson to learn.

… Oh, and by the way, to answer the question posed in the LinkedIn article. No, I don’t have a favourite “manager” but yes, there are several “Mentors” I’ve worked with and who I’m grateful to for provoking a change of attitude over the years… debout mes ami(e)s.

Posted in Everyday life, Work

Globalization and the Fifth Estate.

Not a day goes by at the moment without hearing from some antagonist or another (Orange is the new Red) about the struggle between Populism versus Elitism; Isolationism versus Interventionism, Sovereignty versus Accord, Treaty, Alignment, Convention, Entente… Entente Cordiale, and not just across the “Old Continent”, or since the UK voted to leave the European Union, last June (2016).

It’s a debate as old as the hills and one readily served up by agenda driven politicians across the political spectrum, aided (and often abetted) by media mouthpieces of all hues and colours in search of traction, reaction or simply revenue. Wielding illusions and concepts such as jingoism and protectionism the aim is to provoke the most primal of reactions from target audiences (whether electorate or reader base) often at a tangent with traditional mainstream and established political dictums and the more “Deplorable” the reaction, the better but it’s a strategy with a risk.

The Paradigm

While the “Executive”, and those aspiring to higher offices, follow their agendas, an established Fourth Estate is facing a paradigm shift and a resulting dilemma:

The movie "Citizen Kane", directed by Orson Welles in 1941

The Prime of the Fourth Estate

Which way forward? A once deeply rooted, respected and invariably socially orientated Press is now confronted with a loss of traction and even credibility in the face of a radically different style of “counter” communication, often unbridled and fueled not only by coffee shop pundits*, bloggers, redditors and “4Channers” but also professional journalists, writers, analysts and editorialists seeking alternative channels to voice opinions. Called the “Fifth Estate”, this counter communication is supplanting traditional media for information (as well as disinformation) and news (as well as rhetoric) creating a paradigm shift and with it the rules are changing and will change further as limits are tested.  Rules and red lines, often imposed by journalists themselves and that helped win over a certain tolerance from (most) administrations and governments the world over, are getting blurred, or worse, are no longer valid. It’s hardly surprising then that the first thing monitored or blocked during a national conflict is not the Press but an unbridled Social Media.

(*Coffee shop punditry isn’t new, nor is it a Starbucks thing. Read about Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps) and John Dryden, two influential 17th century diarists (bloggers, if you prefer) and coffeehouse pundits here.)

The “Shift” in motion

Often supported by Hi-Tech sponsors and activists, century old pillars of journalism, such as the Washington Post, have understood, read: been advised, that if they want to maintain their reader base and sources of revenues the options are few and very clear: Adapt or disappear. Where the likes of Reddit, Twitter, Google and Facebook, with their A.I. aggregation and curation processes, have the advantage over the traditional Press, is that with their already established client base and they offer much more than just news. In fact, if a Social Media platform tells you they have no pretension of being a News company you can believe them. For them, news about Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump is clickbait, a means to an end: To get you onto to their platform and keep you there.
NB, I read an article recently about a certain platform’s Behavioral Debt dilemma. An interesting concept. Whatever your opinion of the platform in question their concept is frighteningly simple: 1) Make sure that the 1.71 billion, and counting, monthly active users never logout, 2) blur any distinction with Internet, 3) build a walled garden and remove any user incentive to want to go over to Google or Amazon.

Globalization: A Jekyll and Hyde conundrum?

So what’s all this go to do with Globalization? Well, with all the stories of tax avoidance, post scandal write-downs, data privacy scar stories and other examples of crass global exploitation by western companies, populists may be forgiven for thinking that the leviathanesque firms, apparently without borders or state allegiance, are the unacceptable face of Globalization.

But that’s not Globalization, as in understanding the problematics of a local market and communicating on customer success in the face of strong competition. What the populists take for Globalization should in fact be called “Dystopian Global Exploitation”. It has nothing to do with a company, bound by governance and adhering to ethics, aligning its products with local market trends or needs. It has nothing to do with convincing clients and prospects, of differing cultures, ethnics and values of product superiority nor of a resulting “Win-Win” alliance, which I’ll admit is not always easy when dealing, for example, with countries demanding, say, product re-branding as a sine qua non for a successful entry into their market.

Globalization also happens every day and in an inconspicuous ever day way and are people are better off for it? Yes,  I am convinced they are. This interaction makes us all a little wiser and a little more tolerant. People conversing on LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, or wherever, are everyday globalizers passing on, even promoting, often unintentionally, not just data but also insight about their respective environments. It’s what makes the world go round and we are all the richer for it.

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Note from the editor: The views and opinions expressed above are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views, opinions or policy of any 03rd party or anyone else for that matter… but that’s OK.

Posted in Everyday life, Society | Tagged , , ,

How not to feed the troll in you

Meet FUD the friendly troll

FUD, the troll within

Trolls aren’t just those abject creatures lurking in the lowest and murkiest levels of social media, they are also those intangible elements, such as fear, uncertainty and doubt, that haunt and taunt you into aborting a venture you so dearly want to bring to life, making you think it’ll be more of a Mini-Frankenstein than a Mini-Me… fear of mockery, uncertainty of your worth, doubt about getting that message across, the one that seemed so clear in your head a few minutes ago.

Still there? Super, because that, in 83 words and 479 characters, was an example of a proverbial long sentence, something you don’t find too much today in the fast paced, lowbrow, short attention span orientated communications we usually get served. Communications have to be short, to the point, above-the-fold, bullet listed and in-your-face if they’re to catch a reader’s interest and don’t bother about Anaphora and her sisters Anadiplosis, Polysyndeton and Hypophora, whoever they may be.

But don’t lose faith because, to paraphrase and abuse of that already much abused quote from Mark Twain, “The reports of their demise have been greatly exaggerated.” There are still writers who believe that in order to write Buzzfeed-style you first need to master the art of literary writing, writers who still present their work to a publisher knowing there’s a 99,95% chance of it being rejected, writers who strive to do better and are able to harmonize grammatical accuracy with flair and imagination. And the average blogger in all this?  It’s important to understand that while grammatical rules can be bent, it’s best to master them first after which, and only then, you can warp them to your heart’s content, write like a little green Jedi and still be credible.

Cudgeling word processing into the 21st century

Continuing on the subject of writing for hard print publishing, purists claim that the best works are produced on an old-fashioned typewriter because it forces perfection. If you have never typed on Remington (my parents had one) you will never have known the joys of ripping out a sheet of paper for one small typo and having to start all over again. Word processing changed all that by removing, not only the need for paper notebooks full of penciled notes but also the mental effort of having to do it right or do it again. Perhaps  I am thankful for the evolution. It may look romantic watching a writer in some movie typing away at his or her next bestseller but the image doesn’t always bring across the toil and trouble word processing has taken out of writing.

When IBM first came up with the maxim “Machines should work. People should think” they were responding to a growing business need of the time: Replace physical paperwork with an electronic alternative and when word processing went mainstream in the 1970s little thought was given as to how word processing would shape up 40 years on. Fast forward to today and a new, perhaps foreseeable debate is forming: If typewriting was to be eclipsed by word processing, then what next for word processing*? If typewriters were associated with ribbons and blue carbon paper, then word processing as we know it today, is undoubtedly linked to printers. So the question is, can word processing adapt to modern-day cross-device writing requirements, i.e. for the Web and mobile devices, or, if not, will it get substituted, like the typewriter, by cross-platform technologies such as the deep learning startup Anyline?
* One idea for a next step could be to make the word processing tools talk to each other and to other platforms. This post was written using MS Word but it needed reworking once in my blog site (WordPress), same thing if I transfer it to OpenOffice or Polaris.

Murder, he wrote

I was going to call this post something like “The precipitous extinction of the long sentence in writing” but those who know better suggested it would kill the post stone dead before it even got read. It seems a title like that doesn’t quite, and I quote, “trigger a strong, actionable emotion the reader already has about the subject at hand” and that if it got the reader nodding his or her head it would be from weariness rather than interest. In other words, the title has to light a fire, preferably in the reader’s brain, as should the sub headline, then hit the reader with all you’ve got. Wordsmithing is an art but writing can also be fun so if you ever feel the troll in you taking control a) read through someone else’s blog to see how they’re doing and take a leaf out of their book and b) take advice from sympathetic professionals.

Acknowledgements to the following, among others, for inspiration and a lot of research material:

thecopybot.com

www.copyblogger.com

@demianfarnworth

Posted in Everyday life | Tagged , , ,

Finding your place as a writer, author, chronicler…

(This post has been edited)

Hot off the press! Entrepreneur and LinkedIn Influencer James Caan CBE was recently called out by someone in the comments section of his Aug 10 post. The keen-sighted “commentard” spotted a first line blooper, a classical grammatical mistake – one grammatical mistake, long since corrected – and took him to task over it. And you know what? I’m pleased the whole “non-story” came to light. Pleased not through Schadenfreude (Oh, how the mighty may stumble and fall), not because Mr. Caan thought it necessary to take the time and write his Mea Culpa.

No, I’m pleased because Mr. Caan explained in an unassuming way that he, not a PR team, ghost-writer, bot or whatever wrote the article and in doing so raised a good point: With the abundance of advice and counsel available today, are we becoming more critical and less tolerant of even occasional and benign mistakes others may make when communicating (he who has never sinned, etc.)? I’m pleased because I’m not sure people even draw a benefit from criticizing others and this was an exercise in putting things back into perspective.

Error, what error?

I know one Localization team – stand up, you know who you are – who apply (or did so when I was with them) a noteworthy error grading structure (minor, major, critical and blooping show-stopper) for all their translations, that basically asked: Does an error corrupt the messaging, yes or no and if so, explain to what degree. The aim was to get the reviewer to qualify the error and rate its impact on the overall message. This helped optimize content flow, eliminate redundancy, reduce endless, often unnecessary communications, hold people accountable and best of all, neutralize unqualified comments.

As for me, James Caan’s recent (Aug 16) post was helpful in several ways. Firstly, it motivated me to move on with an article that had been sitting in my pending folder for a few weeks now and it inspired this post. Secondly it also helped to confirm that if you have the aptitude you can write, you just need the tools: a subject, inspiration, motivation, time, a thick skin, discipline, a good level of grammar, an eye for detail, a faculty for expression and a vision of where you want to go”. Finally, it also confirmed, as if it needed saying, that no matter how good you are, people will also find matter to criticize your work (again that John 8:7).

Personally, I love writing, not because I like the sound of my own voice but because I love playing with words, syntaxes, meanings etc., and writing gives me the canvas to do it on. Different people have different ways of expressing themselves. Some people paint, some build, some teach, others debate and the really gifted communicators do all of that. Me, I like writing, and you?

Posted in Everyday life, Publishing, Society, Uncategorized, Work | Tagged

Tales from Bishkek: Far from the madding crowd

Fleeing the turmoil and nonsensicality of recent events in Europe (the UK’s utterly shambolic and farcical Brexit referendum, the ensuing political meltdown and the tragic terror attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, through which my wife and I had transited, not 2 days earlier) and wanting to go off-line for a while, what better than a trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that intriguing little country in central Asia, situated along the Silk Road, south of Kazakhstan.

Respecting a standing arrangement, to visit the in-laws every second year, this particular visit also coincided with the birth of my stepdaughter’s 3rd child, initially planned for 2-3 days after our arrival in Bishkek (one week later and much to the daughter ‘s consternation, there was still no sign of the baby).
The other reason for going to Bishkek this year was that my wife and daughter had recently acquired some real estate. Paperwork needed doing, the newly acquired real estate needed renovating and builders needed persuading, this was my job, that work time doesn’t rhyme with vodka time, even if the conveniently placed corner shop lady was more than happy with the workers’ patronage, because, well that’s what “Convenience” means in Bishkek.

Convenience, as in…

Popular some 50 or 60 years ago in Western Europe, before the arrival of the mega supermarkets, little street corner “Convenience stores”, that flourish in Kyrgyzstan, are now something of an anachronism in most western urban or suburban areas – if you’re curious, I’ve written at length about these Convenience stores in my book “Destination Bishkek – especially when the said “Convenience store” is often nothing more than a circa 70 cbm shipping container courtesy of the “China Shipping” conglomerate, with a facade and air conditioning, parked on some street corner. And if you’re wondering at the “unusualness” of such installations just remember that the Kyrgyz are a traditionally nomadic and pragmatic people so let’s say the containers are just replacing the traditional “Yurt”. Actually, there are so many shipping containers in Bishkek – just go to Bishkek’s Dordoi bazaar to get an idea – it’s a wonder the Chinese, themselves, aren’t wondering where all their shipping containers have gone. And if you still can’t imagine a shipping container being used for something other than its primary function read up on the East London container city complex.

For me as a westerner, going shopping in Bishkek, whether at a convenience store or at one of the bigger “Narodny” stores, is like a kid in a sweet shop. I love discovering the local and regional products (i.e. from neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and China). Sure, you can find universally familiar brand names, American sodas, French shampoos, Swiss chocolate bars, German brand coffees, Turkish beers, etc. but what’s more interesting is trying the local products*, sausages, smoked fish, pastry goods, salads, cheeses, dairy products, cakes and drinks and because the exchange rate is so favourable for westerners, shopping is (still) very cheap. It’s a standard of living related issue and what may shock a western visitor is that while there are obvious signs of social distress Kyrgyzstan has its 1%ers who are doing extremely well. In fact, in some ways, it’s a bit like the US, without Walmart.
* NB. while I tend to steer clear of the clothes, basically because, made in China, the quality is lower compared to clothes in Europe, I do recommend carpets, tableware, household articles and most of all the crystal, China porcelain tea and coffee sets and sundry metal dishes and bowls.

The taste

Discovering local food products is fun but comes with a caveat. The quality isn’t always up to expectations; origins are vague and contents approximate. For all the bickering going on in Europe, and specifically in the EU, and even more specifically in the UK, regulating the origin, descriptive and content of products has gone a long way to ensuring that sausages actually contain a guaranteed quantity of sausage meat and that when a cheese is labeled “Dutch” it really does come from the Netherlands and not from some factory somewhere in Russia or Kazakhstan.

Originating from Kyrgyzstan, it affects my wife, each time she goes back to Bishkek, to see the quality of the foodstuffs changing so. As an example take the German style breakfast Schinkenwurst sausage sold in Bishkek. The sausage used to contain large chunks of real ham in with the processed meat. Now there is less and less “real” ham and more and more “processed” meat. The aforementioned Dutch cheese doesn’t come from Holland and the industrially produced, 10 cm long, Hovis style Russian bread – always a symbol, always a barometer – is such that I personally prefer the local Kyrgyz bread.

I suppose if you eat such foods each and every day, it’s a matter of taste but even though food is still cheap in Kyrgyzstan it does make you wonder what the foodstuffs would be like if EU-style regulations dictated their production. Would food be more expensive? Certainly. Would food be healthier? Perhaps. Explaining to people, earning very basic wages with minimum social protection that it’s for their benefit might take time and be difficult, very difficult. It took the EU decades and a lot of coaxing to eventually align member states to the same standards and if I research further I’m sure I could find examples of where the EU has exerted influence over non-member countries, eager to trade with the EU, to adopt certain of its standards, e.g. health, safety, education, or forego access to the EU’s trade market.

Good local cooking

One of my other favourite pastimes in Bishkek is eating in the local,  i.e. frequented by the locals, canteen style, no frills, honest worker food restaurants serving generous portions of regional dishes, though not necessarily of Kyrgyz origin, such as Lagman, Pilaff, Ganfin, or Bortsch washed down with a natural homemade fruit juice called Compot and/or tea and all that for 5 USD for 2!
(NB. Don’t look for bottled water or sodas either in such canteens… you’re more likely to something called Kvas, the Russian equivalent of a Coke, made from plants, with a slight taste of liquorice or Schoro, a fermenting (no spelling mistake) cereal drink but that’s it).

And just why would I prefer such a non-descript canteen to a more upper market downtown eatery? Because, for having worked a long time in the hotel and catering trade, and for having had my own restaurant, it’s frustrating to be treated like a tourist, to be fleeced, overpriced, short-changed and badly served in a downtown restaurant.

It’s tempting to make generalities about the Kyrgyz people and the local Russian people in Kyrgyzstan but as a rule and although apt at trading, they, generally, have no feel for the finer points of, let’s say, customer satisfaction. You are there to leave your money or get parted of it (I’ll explain this in a bit). One good example of this is the flourishing local used car business. The locals love trading big powerful cars, mainly Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and SUVs of any brand (“bought” in Germany and/or the Baltic countries, e.g. Lithuania) and I suppose this replaces horse trading but go into any shop and the notion of service with a smile is an alien one, especially when for lack of customers you interrupt the shop assistant while they’re watching a local/Russian soap opera or chatting on the Russian Facebook.

The expression “A fool and his money are soon parted” has never made more sense to me than in Kyrgyzstan, except that here fool rhymes with foreigner. A hard thing to say? Perhaps. In any case, when in Kyrgyzstan I try not to look like a pigeon but a +100kg/1,86m white, albeit tanned, male Caucasian Gaijin does rather tend to stand out in a group of locals. Whether you’re asking for Aspirin at the local pharmacy, or ordering a beer in a shopping mall bar there’s a chance you will get short-changed. So one word of advice, be streetwise, be on your guard and if you don’t speak the language, go with someone who does and you’ll enjoy the experience all the more.

To finish on this particular subject, when in Bishkek my all-time favourite occupation is taking a Marshrutka to one of the local bazaars, of which Bishkek has many: Osh, Ortezai, Madina and of course: Dordoi. It’s a real journey into what Bishkek is really like, rather like the North African souks. Along time ago my wife used to have a stall – a container – in the Dordoi bazaar and she often tells me stories about the people and their techniques for selling. I also notice that she keeps a particularly tight grip on her handbag and is forever telling me to pay attention. She will even occasionally tell me to come and stand next to her using a tone that urges immediate compliance.

As a side note. When in Bishkek I strip my wallet of everything unnecessary: driver’s license, fidelity cards, photos and the such like but when visiting a bazaar everything else is removed as well, leaving just some cash for shopping so that if the wallet does get lifted then tough on me. I’m out-of-pocket but not by much and everything of value is safe elsewhere. No, the real pleasure in visiting these bazaars is in the experience. It’s not quite Moscow rules but there is always someone watching you and if you don’t pay attention well, then say goodbye to some personal belongings. In such a closed environment with all the hustle and bustle, you will get bumped into any number of times and any one of those encounters is potentially an attempt to test you and maybe rifle your pockets or shopping bags.
Finally, I like to think I’m a physiognomist and I like observing people and situations and have subsequently seen or have been able to negotiate situations that had I not have been paying attention could have gone differently. You can’t avoid or avert each and every situation but I like to think it’s a good way of putting into practice what I’ve learnt at one of those on-the-job “E.I.”, “Empathy” and “Situation Management” training courses most of us go on during the course of our working lives.

Post scriptum. And if you’ve got this far and are wondering whatever happened to the baby we came to Bishkek for (and bless you for asking) I can say yes, my step-daughter gave birth to a blue-eyed, 3 kilos something, 50 cm baby girl in the early hours of the day we were to fly back home from Bishkek. What a magical finish to our stay in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

 

Footnote: for readability sake, all Russian names have been typed phonetically.

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