workzine

W.F. Lantry, 7/9/2012

Current Occupation: Lead System Profiterole Benchmarker at Mon Ami Gabi Bistro

Former Occupation: Champagne Acquisition Expert for the French University System

Contact Information: W.F.Lantry, a native of San Diego, received his Maîtrise from L’Université de Nice and holds a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. He taught for many years in Europe and still reminisces about the gorgeous view of the Mediterranean from his classroom window, and daily moped trips to the patisserie for pain au chocolat in the morning and forêt noire in the afternoon. His publication credits encompass print and online journals in more than twenty countries on five continents. Recent honors include the National Hackney Literary Award in Poetry, CutBank Patricia Goedicke Prize, Crucible Editors’ Poetry Prize, Lindbergh Foundation International Poetry for Peace Prize (in Israel), Atlanta Review International Publication Prize and in 2012 the Old Red Kimono Poetry Prize, Linnet’s Wing Audio Poetry Prize (Ireland), Inspired by Tagore Publication Prize (India) and Potomac Review Poetry Prize. His poetry collections are The Language of Birds (Finishing Line Press 2011), a lyric retelling of Attar’s Conference of the Birds, and The Structure of Desire   (Little Red Tree Press 2012). He currently works in Washington, DC, and is a contributing editor of Umbrella: A Journal of Poetry and Kindred Prose. References available upon request.

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An Office in Paradise

Our windows looked out on the Mediterranean. Southern France: most days the sky was blue, the wind was calm, and the beach was a short walk away. I was fresh out of college, and working my first real job. Life was good.

The people in the office came from all over the world. One was from Chile, another from Kurdistan. I was born in California. There were Italians, a couple local French women, a young woman from Japan. We needed every language we could get in the office. The place was an international Summer School. People traveled from everywhere for three week “semesters,” taking classes in French during the day, dining in the local restaurants at sunset, hanging out in the evening, enjoying the nightlife. Monaco and Cannes were a short train trip away.

My job was to organize all the details: make sure the professors were in place, arrange travel itineraries for visiting speakers, schedule receptions, solve every daily problem so the Director could concentrate on strategic issues. I learned a lot about which Champagne to order for celebrations, how to get things done in difficult circumstances, and ended up on a first name basis with people at several consulates.

I soon developed many wonderful and naive ideas about how a workplace should be organized. The French work day is different: you arrive in the morning, work from nine to one, go away for a few hours, then come back and work from four to seven. That means either a siesta or a three hour lunch. And since I was almost obsessed with staff harmony, I encouraged everyone to hang out in the cafe across the street each afternoon. Most evenings, we’d all go to one of the pubs in the Old Town. We were a happy crew, and that’s how I liked it, everyone working and laughing together, all for one and one for all.

You can probably guess where this is going: one beer too many at the end of the table, a glass of wine tipped over onto someone’s dress, a shirt sleeve stained by an accidental encounter with profiteroles, a heated political discussion one afternoon over coffee and croissants. Each one no big deal, but by halfway through the summer they started to add up. People came to me quietly, asking not to be paired up with a certain other person. One cornered me in a stairwell to complain about another. I thought my job was to listen, to solve problems, and I tried to do that, but they started to spiral out of control.

The kicker came at a reception for a visiting author. The chairs weren’t set up the way I’d asked, the sound system was down, and the foie gras and Camembert were late in arriving. The author took it all in stride, thank goodness, and the Director only looked at me twice. But I got the message, and knew I had to do something. So I called an All Staff Meeting for the next day.

Worst. Idea. Ever. Never call a meeting unless you know exactly what’s going to happen, what people are going to think, exactly how they’ll feel when they leave. None of that happened. Every frustration came out, every spark of friction that had been repressed by people’s natural civility blazed up into a fire of argument and accusation. It was out of control. I threw up my hands. I did what I had never done: I asked someone to get the Director.

He came in and listened for a few minutes. Then he just said, “The work needs to get done. It can be in a good atmosphere, or a bad one, but the work needs to get done.” He sent everyone else out of the room. Then he looked at me and said, very quietly, “I’d prefer these problems get solved before they reach me.”

So much for harmony and idealism in paradise. There’s a bottom line, and it’s not about money, it’s about things getting done the way they should. Everything else is gravy. Or, to put in into local terms: the sauce may be pleasant, but if the filet mignon isn’t cooked properly, the dinner is ruined.

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