He brought his fist down with a thundering crash onto the desk. The pens in the pen pot jumped and trembled. The tirade continued. He had been shouting non-stop at full volume for over ten minutes so far. I wondered vaguely how long it would go on for, watching the veins in his temple throbbing. He flung his arms about to emphasize a particularly important point. I tried to look interested, maybe even sympathetic, casting the odd glance over to my translator for hints.
In a situation like this it is a tremendous advantage to not understand a word that is being said. Of course I knew the gist of it. One of his ships was stuck in port in West Africa because I had slapped an arrest notice on it. Well not personally of course, I’d spoken to someone in legal who’d spoken to someone in a law firm who’d spoken to someone in West Africa. But effectively it was me. I’d made the decision.
My translator glanced over. “He’s not happy,” he translated. Helpfully. I almost laughed out loud but stopped myself, switching to a serious frown and nod in time. Outside his small grubby office window the port of Constanza was clanging.
I considered my options. I could use the translator and try to engage in the debate. Every now and then this poor fellow would repeat the ‘not happy’ summary of several minutes of outraged ranting. He told me afterwards that once he eliminated the swearing and repetition this was about the size of it. I decided instead to focus on a non verbal connection with my irate customer. I acknowledged (silently) his need to defend his position and the gross annoyance of having a ship out of action, the probably trouble he was in with his boss. I also recognised that his company – fairly recently a commercial organisation following the collapse of the Ceausescu government and dismantling of the old Eastern bloc shipping fleets – probably was strapped for cash. He was in a pretty hopeless position. I wondered what he was expected to achieve in this meeting? I had reached the limit of my scope to subsidise the recovery of the Romanian economy.
The gulls squawked outside and people came and went along the corridor outside the office. We had been there about an hour I thought though I was trying not to look at my watch. Suddenly he came to an abrupt halt. Mid sentence it seemed. I looked up. He smiled broadly at me, tapped his watch and leaned over to open his bottom drawer, whipping out a bottle of Johnnie Walker and 3 glasses. I’m not normally a whisky drinker but it seemed the polite thing to do to accept the proffered measure. Baffled with the dramatic change of tune I looked at the translator for help. Instead the customer switched to passable English and announced “4pm. Work finished. Let’s have a toast to lasting relationships!” I was amazed, relieved and glad I hadn’t become emotionally involved with the argument when clearly there was no need. We chinked glasses and the two locals switched to friendly chat about the way one flawed political system has been replaced by a possibly less flawed and definitely more chaotic one. The gulls outside were still squawking and everybody was doing their job. Sort of. The purpose was less clear than ever.