I've been working for the Big German Investment Bank
Recently someone there decided that we're not allowed to use the firms name in communications that are NOT related to business activities, hence my allusion. Don't want to break the rules and get some German style discipline now.
But if you can translate the word GERMAN into GERMAN then you're pretty much there since 'Bank' is the same in both languages.
I simply don't know how I'm going to apply for a loan or engage in any other activity requiring me to name my employer, but most of us have agreed that we'll just wait and before long this silly rule will get superceded by another silly rule.
Anyway, I've been taking private German lessons since June 1999, or for about two years now.
How I started taking lessons is an interesting story by itself, and worth a brief digression.
In early 1994, I was writing tactical applications to support the banks Swaps desk.
Swaps are an extremely interesting derivative financial product that, simply put, allows two counterparties to "swap' payments on some obligation. In other words, you pay my bill and I'll pay yours.
The reasons why they do this are complicated and varied, and in my Financial Engineering at class University we spent over six weeks studying swaps and nothing but swaps, but in the end I can assure you that it all comes down to one thing : money.
Swaps provide cheaper access to funding. Its that simple.
The swap market is incredibly huge, with a notional value of about fifty trillion dollars. Just as point of reference, the US equity markets are worth maybe five trillion dollars before the recent correction, so you can see we're talking a huge, huge market.
And like most investment banks, the Big German Investment Bank wants a piece of that action. So I slung code that helped traders do their stuff.
Pretty cool job, and like most (good) code slingers I worked long and late.
One weekend when my girlfriend was out of town I seized the opportunity to really have at it. I was still coding at about 3AM Saturday morning and had been working since about 8AM the previous morning.
As one of my friends sez, 'Code is a Harsh Mistress' and I'm trying hard to get something done by Monday morning since that would be a couple of weeks before I said I'd have it done.
I always underpromise and overdeliver. Manage user expectations well, and you're golden in this business.
Now that was back in the days when I was a caffeine fiend and Jolt Cola ("All the sugar and twice the caffeine") was my beverage of choice, preferably of the two liter variety since I didn't have to cram that many bottles in my backpack.
Its about 3AM, I'm trying to kill this bitch of a bug, I've got my headphones on, I've been at work for almost twentyfour hours and I'm driving hard when I feel this HAND ON MY SHOULDER!
I must have jumped three feet in the air and turning around I'm greeted by the image of a laughing mountain of man, blonde hair blue eyes, about six and a half feet tall.
His name was Karl, and he was from Frankfurt. Seems like he's got this odd hobby of wandering around the trading floors at all sorts of ungodly hours and talking to the folks he runs into.
He's pretty high up in the organisation, but finds this an effective way to keep up on what's really going on. Sharp guy too, and unlike my immediate manager at the time (the archetypical pointy haired bastard), Karl had no problem understanding what I was up to, Unix, C++ and the swaps valuation model I was implementing. All the good things.
So we sorta became friends after that, and kept in touch by email.
Sometimes he'd run things past me and ask my opinion, and every now and then we'd get together for a meal if he was in town.
It was cool to be able to see the organisation his perspective, not just because he was really, really high up there (reporting directly to the Vorstand, or corporate board), but because he had joined the firm right after school and had just one employer - Big German Investment Bank - his entire life.
A very German quality that we seem to have lost (or maybe never even had in the US), he would do anything or go anywhere for the firm, and he knew that company would stand by him.
Short of a major, criminal type fuckup on his part, he'd always have a job.
So in early 1996 he asked me to start working on global projects, and I began to travel a lot. I end up living in London and see Karl more frequently, since Frankfurt is right in the European neighborhood.
He was a great guy to hang out with, but there was one stunt he'd pull about every six months that annoyed me after a while.
We'd be having dinner or lunch, and towards the end of our meal, he'd ask "So, Mr Smith, how long have you been working for the Big German Investment Bank?".
Now he has access to my Human Resources file and already knows this and I know that he knows this but I've got to stay in character.
"Five years Karl".
"Five years and you STILL don't speak German?" he'd ask, acting surprised.
"No, I don't speak German Karl".
Six months later, same question, same surprised response. And six months after that.
So I get fed up with it, and finally decided to start German lessons.
Unsurprisingly, the firm is really helpful, and I get a private tutor to visit me at work, twice a week at their expense. Big German Investment Bank likes you to speak German.
Next time I see Karl I answer in bad German "Fur seben jahre Karl".
His face lit up and he visibly swelled. It was like I was his fucking son and I'd just hit a home run, or got a A at school, or some shit like that.
But he was always so nice to me that it felt good to make him happy.
And I actually enjoy German. My tutor and I get together and sprechen zie Deutsche and we've become quite friendly. And since I make a lot of trips to Frankfurt, its time well spent.
Now my German teacher is pretty interesting.
She's from East Germany and is an unabashed communist, something that as a dedicated capitalist I find quite intriguing. So I talk to her about what's going on over there from time to time, just to get a better feel for the people and their culture.
It was during one of our earlier conversations that I discovered the most interesting aspect of her past. It was the anniversary of the reunification and I asked her how she thought it was going.
"Its a disaster", she snapped.
Now this caught my attention not just because she's usually quite pleasant, but since I know most folks from the West weren't super thrilled with it, if for no reason other than they've spent by some accounts over twenty trillion dollars modernizing infrastructure in the East.
"But why? Aren't things better for you now" I had images of her living in some drab government flat, eating equally bland commie food, listening to Castro-style day long commie rants on an East German made refrigerator sized black and white television set.
"No, things are not. Its very difficult for me now", she replied firmly.
"Why? You can go where you want, do what you want, and you can buy all the stuff you'd like, so I don't see what the problem is".
"David you don't understand. I must work and work and work now to make ends meet. Sometimes I must work forty hours or more. My struggle is terrible!"
I swear her big expressive eyes were filling up with tears, but she wasn't going to get any sympathy from me - I do a fifty hour week minimum.
"You see" she went on. "Back then I had a huge flat, two bedrooms with a terrace and garden and I had all the money I wanted and I only worked four hours a day and I spent all my free time at cafes or the theater".
Well this certainly sounded like a good gig, and I wouldn't mind having all the money I wanted while working so little, so I immediately followed up.
"But what did you do? Who did you work for?". Maybe get a deal like that for myself.
"I worked for a department of the government and they treated me very well, not like I am treated now. Now I have only our weeks of holiday and if I get sick I must get a Doctor to issue me a note if I am away from work for more than five days". Her voice was quivering. "Very stressful and demeaning" she concluded.
"But what did you do? Its sound great, but were you a diplomat or official?" Those were about the only things I could think of that would require so little effort, and pay so well. Corrupt fucking commies, she was probably some Youth Leader or some shit like that.
"No, no, I was a common worker, nothing special" she said dismissively, almost as though she wanted to change the subject.
Well it took a little more prying, but I finally got it out of her.
She was paid to go to libraries, sit in an assigned location, and using this clever camera-in-a-book, watch for folks that were examining, perusing or otherwise showing an interest in forbidden books.
AND COVERTLY PHOTOGRAPH THEM!
She also sometimes rode trains traveling about the East. Foreigners couldn't move about without travel permits or at least consulting the appropriate officials, so sometimes She'd get a phone call saying some American or British diplomats were going from point A to point B on such and such train, and she'd shadow them.
If a local showed more than a passing interest in the foreigners, using that same little camera she'd add them to her 'Treasured Memories' collection.
Even now sometimes I'll look at her and I can't help but nervously laugh to myself while I think - Claudia, payback on that one's gonna be a bitch!