July 29, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Partly Cloudy 24°C

Tales from the crypt

"Sales of top wines, VIP visits, sales of top wines – did I mention sales of top wines?"
By Oonagh Stransky
Published: 2014-07-12

o, you want to make the plunge and work in the Old World? My advice: bring a plunger. Years spent working at a European-owned winery in Tuscany has given me privileged insight into this topic, insight that I want to share in order to illuminate your journey and come to terms with mine.

It all started very innocently. I was hired to teach English to the business office of the winery, asked to insta-solve the communication gap between the northern European owner (who was shocked Italians didn't know better English), the staff (shocked that the owner would pay for such fun), and their client banks and distributors around the world. Conversation, role-play, grammar, writing, quizzes and off-key singing ensued. Most of it in English. All of it with great joy.

There was one other Anglo-Saxon company employee when I joined. But then she left. No one could say exactly why — something went sour in her relationship with the owners. I didn't have time to investigate and didn't really care: I was promoted. I started writing for the company - articles, blogs, press releases. I edited the website and, in a crowning moment, coined the company tagline. I lent my work ethic to their can-do attitude. I was taught about wine by the experts in the field: the agronomists spent time with me in the vineyards and at the table, the winemakers explained their craft in the cellars during harvest and throughout the year, the export team gave me the lowdown on numbers, and the tour guides, chef, and waitstaff all did what they were good at while I happily wrote about the company, photographed the team, and promoted the Brand.

I was trusted and appreciated. And when, after two years, the owner asked me to become the manager of the historic estate, I jumped right in, both feet first.

All of a sudden, I was responsible for a historic 25-acre estate, 14 staff members, sales of top wines, VIP visits, sales of top wines, major events, structural problems, major purchases, sales of top wines, merchandising, markup, discounts, and... did I mention sales of top wines?

Don't be so American, and be sure to look beneath the waterline.

Gone was the chance to chat with my colleagues about their work. Gone was the creative freedom that had prompted me to create an illustration of the company based on Saul Steinberg's iconic New Yorker cover, with the cypress-lined dirt road to our estate like Ninth Avenue, and the thirsty markets of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Hong Kong in the distance. I still have the illustration, never had time to finish it.

Gone was the nice, easy relationship with the owners. Profits increased but communication became unpleasant. Each week, I was asked to prepare conflicting financial reports; I was instructed that it's better to screw someone up the ass rather than get screwed and advised to pre-select the kickback of choice; it was suggested that I needed a well-endowed, wealthy partner to keep me happy; I heard the term "horror" and non-organic strawberries in the same sentence, I was told to become like the "rest of the staff." I had received a mandate from the whited sepulchre and found myself in the Sargasso Sea, and I only lived to tell the story thanks to Queequeg's coffin.

Sometimes I wonder what I did wrong, but then I remember that a job description never existed for the position, that I was the first person to hold the role, and that I did implement positive, important changes for the company, and was appreciated by the staff. Ironically and in some strange psychological twist of fate, as I gained confidence and aided the company, the owner's trust in me diminished.

As for me now, I'm abandoning the illusion of corporate loyalty to employees in favor of the undying loyalty of literature towards its reader.

Key Phrases

  • "You are so American." Translation: Welcome to Europe. You might think you're a global power, but this is the Old World and we invented God.

  • "You are so innocent and naïve." Translation: Figure out what kind of kickback you want and obtain it.

  • "You're good with words." Translation: You are an idiot. Are you sure you know how to count?

  • "You know how much we love you." Translation: We will continue to pile on responsibility. When you can't take it any more, we'll replace you.

  • "You're a pain in the ass but we love you." Translation: Certain members of the staff hate you because you make them look bad.

  • "Remember, the cemetery is full of invaluable people." Translation: Forget about a raise. We'll find someone cheaper who will profit from your hard work.

  • "If you find a similar job where they pay you more, I'll match the salary." Translation: Start looking.

  • "If you find a similar job where they pay you more, I'll fire you." Translation: Draft your letter of resignation.

  • "What? You're resigning? Why?" Response: Just. Walk. Away.

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