Friday, February 25, 2005

They're Paying Me In Beer

The company I work for is being bought out in May; no worries though, as my work visa expires shortly thereafter anyways. Allow me to explain, briefly, why it's being bought.

The backpacker travel market here is insanely competitive -- my company stands to profit heftily. The foreign youth sector is a niche of the travel industry that's completely untapped in the U.S., mainly because our country makes it incredibly difficult to get a working visa. The only program I've ever seen is for working in America is for Summer Camp Counselor positions. Let's be honest, the pay of these positions wouldn't get you out of Podunk, Ohio, let alone to San Francisco's Golden Gate, to Disneyworld, or even Niagara Falls. (I love a proper dig at those Canadian-embracing Niagara folks.)

Also, up until the last four years or so, our dollar proved stable and strong. The exchange rate for us was quite accommodating. For instance, in 2001, $0.49 AU equaled $1 US. This afternoon, it sits at AU $0.81 to $1 US. And the Euro was just another loony fiscal scheme from abroad. "Sure Europe, you'll all get together and form a Union. Right after you finish building La Sagrada Familia!"

So you don't have to be a macro-economist to suss out that it was easier for us young Americans to afford foreign trips and difficult for young foreigners to afford American travel. Perhaps that market will open up in America as we spend, spend, spend our way into foreign debt; only time will tell. But in Australia, youth travel is booming, or at least on the tail-end of a major industry expansion.

I've veered completely off the topic I intended to write about, which was my new job. I was hired to help in the reservations department of a backpackers-aimed travel company. I've finished a week of training -- starting with those two free, excellent trips to acquire some "product knowledge," a rather clever way of wooing in potential employees. Since then, I've spent four days learning how the tour-booking program works, dealing with phone reservations, and just getting a sense of the office procedures. I work alongside several Australians, a Kiwi, and more than a handful of displaced UK-ers. I'm the only American. So far, it's the most entertaining "office" environment I've ever worked in, if it can even be called that.

Just today I was offered a bonus assignment. My boss's boss would like me to covertly survey a few local hostels and travel agents sponsored by my company and ask about a travel package to Uluru. The hosteliers and agents are supposed to present my company's brochure first, as we're paying them to do so. When I report back after an hour or two of easy investigation on Monday, I'm to be paid with "a case of the finest beer in Australia." This agreement sits well with me.

I also must clarify that they needed me for the gig as much as I needed them (and the beer).

Due to my general out-of-placeness and evidently strong accent, they thought I'd be well-suited to pose as a backpacker. Though I'm trying my best to fit in, referring to "bathrooms" as "toilets," substituting "Where's the nearest liquor store?" to "Where's the bottleshop, mate?" and pronouncing my letter "z's" as letter "zeds," I still find I'm struggling.

Today, a man showed up at the front desk selling "new and improved water dispensers" and asked to speak to a manager. So I sought out Loise, one of the senior staff, and said, "There's a solicitor at the desk wanting to speak to a manager."

Her face went white and she jumped up out of her chair.
"Are you serious?" she asked.
"Yeah, something about water dispensers?"
She began tucking her shirt and said, "Wait here, I'll take care of it." She looked entirely too serious. Another Australian co-worker looked to me and raised an eyebrow.
"I hope we're not getting sued."

And that's when the bizarre linguistic discrepancy was evident and her behaviour explained. Apparently in Australia, "solicitor" only refers to an attorney or a legal representative. As the company has endured its share of disgruntled passengers over the years, legal threats are a recurring concern.

In the future, they've ensured that all the beer-paying, "We need an obvious foreigner!" positions will keep coming my way.