Happy Veteran’s Day

It’s days like these that make me realize it’s been a while since I moved to Spain.

I admit I didn’t realize it was Veteran’s Day until I saw some posts on Facebook. Not even cnn.com which I log onto faithfully every morning gave me any hints.

I need to start putting the US holidays on my work calendar!

Meeting the Queen of Spain

Thirteen years ago when I was still living in the US I never would have imagined that one day I would be M.C.ing an event with the Queen of Spain and then taking a close-up photo together. Back at that stage I probably would have assumed the Queen of Spain would be older and wearing a crown as well. Not the case.

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That’s me with Queen Letizia of Spain

A few weeks ago I was approached at work to ask if I would be willing to act as M.C. at an awards ceremony where I work, The International Friendship Awards, an event that recognizes distinguished Chinese and African citizens, I didn’t really think twice about it. I said I’d be happy to help, assuming that the majority of the content would be in English. (if not there would be no reason for the Queen to have to suffer through a Spanishized accent). I think they asked me for two simple reasons: international female = showcasing our modernity and internationality. To make a long story short I had to put together a short script based upon the prior year’s awards ceremony, and this script (text, language (90% English, with some Spanish mixed in)) along with my profile was sent off to the Royal Palace for approval. I was approved.

Fast forward to last week. Generally I don’t get very nervous speaking in public, but the day before the event when I started to see all of the protocol and security issues going into place, this changed a bit. To give an idea I had a detailed conversation with a coworker to decide how we were going to communicate that the Queen had arrived (as I’d be presenting in front of the auditorium with about 200 people at that time) and to indicate that she was coming down the stairs to tell everyone to stand up before she came. Hand signals? Head nod? Phone call? In the end it was a combination, but I had the vibrating phone as the final sign.

The event itself went quite well. Some nerves right at the beginning, but then it was fine. My part was a brief introduction to the audience before the Queen’s entrance and then another short speech after everyone’s arrival. Then I basically was up at the podium between different speakers, to read off the prize winners’ names and to close the event. What I found funny was when I learned later that I was translated simultaneously into Spanish (go figure). As there were too many people attending to fit into the auditorium, the event was broadcast in two other classrooms.

Here are some event pictures:

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View of the auditorium center (other two sides of the room aren’t visible) from where I was. That’s the queen in the middle. Don’t miss the camera crews behind.

 

 

Here’s the official event report from the Royal Palace web site (surprisingly my name made it there): http://www.casareal.es/ES/Actividades/Paginas/actividades_actividades_detalle.aspx?data=14176

After the event there was a brief cocktail with her majesty at the center. It was a bit of madness. Despite the fact that the event audience was very senior-level, educated, etc., it was crazy to see so many people almost on top of her and trying to get pictures. I managed to get mine as well; this was the one thing I had on my list as a prize for my role in the event – plus I knew my mother-in-law was waiting with bated breath to see it.

The main question I’ve gotten afterwards is what was she like up close? Was she nice? What was she wearing? Despite some things you read in the news, at least from my very very brief experience, she was quite nice and pleasant. Of course this is being judged on speaking with her for about 30 seconds and then taking a photo, but I guess it’s better than nothing. She congratulated me on my MC role, asked where I was from (I guess the Boston accent is hard to hide) and asked if I wanted a picture (yes). I really can’t complain from my brief interaction. And yes, she’s very pretty up close. As for the clothes, well there were already news reports immediately after with the brand of every item she was wearing, so better to read that than listen to me. (more info here from Hola!: https://www.hola.com/realeza/casa_espanola/20191030152854/reina-letizia-international-friendship-award/)

What I can say is that I can’t imagine having her life and having to play that role every single day. I don’t think she even got to enjoy one cocktail during the cocktail…

Definitely a cool experience though to be in a formal event with the Queen of Spain and being able to direct my speech directly to her and receive feedback! I guess I can check this off my bucket list 🙂

 

Spain vs the US: The importance of informal relationships in the workplace

I just came across this article in the New York Times commenting (explicitly) on the importance of  “awkward” office chit chat and (implicitly) on informal networks in the office. This article really struck a chord with me, mainly in thinking back upon the differences from when I used to work in Boston 13+ years ago.

In my opinion there is a big difference between office cultures in the US and Spain, especially related to the importance of networking and getting along well with others. The “avoidance strategies” in the US definitely ring a bell. I think you can see this as well in movies with the idea (myth?) of everyone rushing in with their morning coffees, heading to their cubicles (or in modern day open spaces) and the prevailing silence that follows.

From my experience working in both the US and Spain, a big difference I noticed is that in the US the final result of your work is most important  –  there is not as much control over the actual work hours and time in the office, but more a focus on the end result. In Spain, it is equally (or in some cases even more) important how well you get along with your coworkers and the informal relationships you maintain within (and after) working hours. Although this is important in the US as well, I definitely noticed it to be much more important here, to have visibility within the company, be recognized and/or suggested for a promotion, etc. For me this was a big culture shock when moving to Spain. The “awkward” office chit chat or morning coffee/full out breakfast seemed too forced to me. And the importance of having lunch with coworkers (not just once in a while as a special occasion or team event, but as a regular occurrence) is a big deal here. I would say 80-90% of the people where I work sit down and have their hour lunch with other coworkers. In Boston I could probably count on one hand the number of times I sat down and had formal lunches with coworkers; lunch time was reserved for going to the gym and running errands.  However, over time I have come to realize the importance of these informal gatherings, especially within my previous working environment in FMCG.

Personally I see the benefit and importance of informal chitchat and getting along with coworkers, both for professional and personal reasons. But I still feel that the end result of your work, not the degree to which you get along and are popular with coworkers or the amount of actual time you are seated in the office, is more important. I guess it’s about finding that right balance – on a personal and cultural level.

 

 

 

 

Where to get good Halloween pumpkins in Madrid (and also rotisserie chicken aka pollo asado)

In my 13 years here I’ve found one place with decent Halloween pumpkins – Costco. If you’re like me and love Halloween and pumpkin carving, then you’ll probably be disappointed with the pumpkins you find at the local supermarkets. Even the “large” calabazas that some of them sell (compared to the small ones that look like overgrown apples) still aren’t that great; you’re lucky if you can even get a decent pumpkin face on one of the ones from Mercadona or Carrefour.

The best place I’ve seen so far is Costco, the American wholesaler. There are only two locations in Spain so far (one in Madrid (Getafe), fortunately, and the other in Seville).

To give you an idea of the size, here’s my almost 3-year old sons with one:

pumpkin size

For me going to Costco is like walking into the US – with all the American brands, everything in bulk like at Sam’s Club or BJs (or Costco) back in the US, and usually some scattered American accents around the store. I could spend hours there just browsing around. The only issue is that you need to be a paying “socio” to go into the store. It costs 36€ a year just to be able to go to the store and buy. The prices aren’t at all cheap, and you can usually expect to spend at least 100€ every time you go, but the quality is great.

Aside from pumpkins, there are two other great things at Costco:

  1. Cheap gasoline prices. With gas prices through the roof here (almost 1,3€ a liter), you can pay approx 20 cents less a liter, so it’s worth it to wait in the lines and fill up there.
  2. Rotiserrie chicken. Costco has great, inexpensive pollo asado at 4,99€. It seems this isn’t exactly a profit-generator for the store, but for now at least they’re maintaining this business, and it draws customers for sure

Here’s an image of the pollo asado factory and lines to get them today at Costco:

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Roast chicken lines @ Costco

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Rotisserie chicken factory @ Costco

And a recent article in CNN :

https://edition.cnn.com/2019/10/11/business/costco-5-dollar-chicken/index.html?utm_source=CNN+Five+Things&utm_campaign=a5be3cf6ad-EMAIL_CAMPAIGN_2019_10_08_10_22&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_6da287d761-a5be3cf6ad-105047417

Who knew the Costco rotisserie chicken was a cult item in the US even with its own facebook page – yes, I’m now a fan.

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Costco Rotisserie Chicken Cult Fan Facebook page

Happy pumpkin/chicken/US brands shopping!

Another Saudi Arabian law change

I’m starting to wonder if it’s because I’m more aware of this and noticing things more since my recent trip to Riyadh or really because Arabia is making headway and news headlines recently (I think it’s the latter).

Here’s another change moving toward modernity:

https://edition.cnn.com/travel/article/saudi-arabia-unmarried-couples-female-travelers/index.html

Although this specific news won’t affect my next trip to the kingdom (likely in a few months), it will still be interesting to see if I notice any changes vs. the last trip (See more about my trip to Saudi Arabia here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

Saudi Arabia just changed its formal dress code for international female visitors

 

How interesting that only a couple weeks after I visited Riyadh they have just made a public announcement of a huge change in the way the country will receive, perceive and welcome foreign female visitors. Now women will be able to enter with conservative clothing but not the formal abaya and hijab like I donned during my visit.

https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-26/saudi-arabia-opens-to-foreign-tourists-and-their-foreign-ways

I remember speaking with an executive from the General Entertainment Authority, a fairly new organization dedicated to opening KSA up to international tourism and also promoting national leisure activities, modernization, etc. a few months ago while he was at IESE for a leadership program. He was telling me all about the changes going on in the kingdom and how there is now this big push for international tourism, all in line with the 2030 Strategy. He mentioned things like tourist visas upon arrivals and the idea of KSA as a top international tourist destination. I wasn’t sure to what point this was really going to happen, but it definitely seems now that things are moving in that direction…

I have to say I’m happy that I had the opportunity to visit Riyadh when I did, in this “older” state, as it will be interesting to observe the changes and difference over time as I go back for future trips.

(you can read about my past experience in Riyadh here: My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work)

 

 

 

My experience as a female traveling to Saudi Arabia for work

Since the start of my blog I’ve talked about cultural differences between the US and Spain, from my point of view as an American living for a third of my life in this country. As I travel quite frequently for work, for example to Germany, the US, Hong Kong, Nigeria, I have seen many cultural differences vs the US with these travels. However, nothing has been as interesting as my recent trip to Riyadh. So, for this blog, I’m going to talk about my perception as a Spanishized American traveling to Saudi Arabia.

To give a little background, in my work I talk with a variety of potential clients from all over the world. In the past year and a half the number of requests from companies within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) has increased significantly. I see this as a result of two factors: 1. Strategy 2030 within KSA – a move to become more international and modern, a top international tourist destination, etc. and 2. IESE’s FT rankings as the #1 Executive Education institute in the world. They’re tied together: as KSA is looking to gain more international exposure they’re looking to top educational institutes to grow. I have had many phone calls, proposals, etc. with a number of companies, but nothing was ever really moving forward or the conversations were difficult. Finally, however, one did move forward and after a year of conversations, proposals and negotiations I finally found myself on a plane traveling to Riyadh for a full day of meetings with the company CEO and VPs.

I didn’t travel alone. After my not so great experience last year traveling to Lagos, Nigeria, I decided that I wouldn’t travel alone, and in this case I needed to go with a male. I may not completely agree with the cultural norms in KSA, but my feeling is that if I’m going to travel and enter into a foreign country I should be respectful of the norms there  – if not, it wouldn’t make sense to go.

First off the visa process is a bit complicated. If you have to go make sure you have plenty of time. In my case as the trip was pretty much right after summer vacation there wasn’t a lot of time to get everything together. There are a number of different forms and papers to gather including an invitation letter from the KSA company, which, as one would assume, comes in Arabic. This ended up slowing down the process as the job title they had put in their letter didn’t match the one I had put on my form. Note to self – learn Arabic beforehand next time.

Before traveling I did quite a bit of research online and spoke to a female who travels there frequently for work. The main things I learned were that I shouldn’t worry too much about saying or doing anything wrong; it would probably just be best to follow what others were doing. And I definitely needed to buy some appropriate clothing (=hijab and long shirt/very loose clothing, preferably black, that covers your entire body). By the way, thank goodness for youtube with the Hijab or I wouldn’t have had much of an idea of how to tie that thing together. Apparently 1.6M other viewers also feel the same: search for “youtube how to wear a hijab”; that’s all you need.

So with a bit of preparation and hijab in hand I headed off to Riyadh. Originally we were flying with British Airways, but due to a pilots’ strike we ended up flying out with Saudia. I had never flown or heard of this airway before although my past experience with Asian or MEA airlines has been that they tend to be more luxurious than US/UK Western airlines. I was right. The plane was nice, and the business class Furla present was a pleasant surprise.

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Saudia Airlines Business Class swag – not too shabby

The only thing that was a bit strange was the prayer that was played over the loud speaker and accompanied by video and captions before takeoff, but I did recognize that I wasn’t going to California…

The trip started ok, but we ended up landing in Riyadh 9 hours later than originally planned… Thank god (Allah) I wasn’t traveling alone. To make a long story short, the plane had technical problems. We took off about 3 hours late from Madrid. Then the planned 45 minute layover in Jeddah where we shouldn’t have gotten off the plane turned into a 2 hour excursion into the airport while we waited for a new plane.

Unexpected stopover @ Jeddah airport

Trying to figure out a plan – @ Jeddah airport with plane technical problems

Once on the new plane and about to take off we received a message that there were new technical issues and we had to go back to the airport and back to the lounge. At that point I wasn’t even sure if we would make it to Riyadh for the meetings I’d been working on for so long. To top things off my companion had his Apple watch stolen (I still find it hard to believe that this happened in a place where you could get your hand cut off for a crime like that), but in any case it disappeared in the security line when they made him take it off and put it in one of the trays. The only thing I can think of is that either it (a) fell down somewhere and got lost in the moment or (b) was stolen by another passenger behind him. What didn’t help is that I was in a different security line as a female so I didn’t see a thing.

 

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Getting off the plane in KSA. As soon as the plane landed everyone put on their formal outfits and covered up

What was interesting to see was a number of women more relaxed with their clothing on the flight from Spain. As soon as the plane landed in KSA, however, they immediately covered themselves up.

There were many women working in the airport, mostly in the security lines and in the passport immigration section, all completely covered except for their eyes. I had seen this type of clothing in pictures but it was quite shocking to see so many women walking around only with a small slit to see through, especially as an “uncovered” woman watching the scenes play out.

Fast forward – we finally made it to our hotel at 9.30 in the morning, over 9 hours later than originally planned. As we had all important meetings planned for that day sleep wasn’t an option. A quick shower and a hijab/loose clothes change later we headed out to our meetings.

Everyone has asked me since the trip and since seeing pictures if I had to wear the hijab. The short answer is no. No one was there forcing me to put it on or watching over my shoulder (probably two years ago when women weren’t even allowed to be out on their own this would have been the case), but, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable without it seeing that all other women that I saw around the city had their heads covered. To me it was showing respect to my colleagues as well. As I was making a presentation in front of 50 (almost all) men I didn’t think now was the time to be making statements. In my opinion it was already quite modern and a statement to be having a female in this role.

Overall I was treated very respectfully and felt comfortable speaking during the meetings and presenting in front of the group. Probably the most uncomfortable part was having my hijab falling off during the presentation and awkwardly trying to fix it with one hand as I was holding onto a microphone at the same time with the other…

 

Business meeting in Riyadh

That’s me with my black hijab and my colleague in his black suit. Apparently, no one told us about the dress code…

As for the office setting, overall it was very formal. Despite all the changes and modernity that the country may be going through there is still a long way to go. Two years ago females couldn’t work or drive or probably be even seen alone… there were a handful of women at the office where we went (half totally covered except for their eyes, the rest showing only their faces), but overall it was still a very male-dominated environment. All of our meetings were very formal, and you could see the strong sense of hierarchy within the organization. You could also see the strong sense of hospitality – I can’t even remember how many fancy types of dates we were offered or fancy Arabic tea/coffee and chocolates. At one point we had to just refuse, even if it could have been seen as rude. One can only have so many cups of Arabic coffee…

As I said I felt quite respected in the meetings and the overall reception was great. However, there were a couple times where I noticed a man not being able to even look at me, and one instance in which I was refused a handshake (I only offered it as I saw that this was in general what everyone was doing, but I guess in this case as he was wearing a different type of clothing I should have guessed there was something different – I still haven’t figured it out). While we were in the hotel I took off my hijab, but in general I definitely felt more comfortable with it on.

My experience in Riyadh was short-lived; 12 hours after arriving we were already making our way back to the airport. I can’t say that I was sad to be leaving given the overall experience, but it was certainly eye-opening to be there as a female and not exactly out of the spotlight. I’ll be going back in the future for work and, while I don’t see myself running around doing touristic activities or driving a rental car, I’ll look forward to seeing continuous changes as the kingdom itself keeps evolving and modernizing.