There Is An International Language, And It's Not Esperanto

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Checking into the Barcelona AC Hotel recently I was greeted with an announcement so shocking, so unbelievable, so completely unheard of, I stared blankly at the front desk clerk for a moment and then asked him if he would repeat what he had just said. Slowly.

"The minibar," repeated the clerk as he pushed my room key across the desk, "is free."

"Free?!," I responded, and repeated once more for clarification. "The minibar is free?!!"

The clerk's English had been good to that point, but I found myself wondering if "Free" wasn't, in the local Catalan language, the word for "priced in a way that would make a payday lender cringe," as it is in the U.S. But he made it clear there was no charge.

I headed for my room thinking that perhaps this was a recession concession, that hotels were hurting to lift their vacancy rates and offering discounts to fill rooms.

Ahhh, but as Roseanne Roseannadanna so eloquently observed, "If it ain't one thing, it's another." So if you don't stick the guest with a minibar bill, you stick it to them in other ways. When I (and many others, I would come to learn), asked for an iron, we were told they weren't available to guests (the hotel cited "security reasons"), and clothes had to be sent out for ironing (cha-ching). Internet access? Just 11 Euros a day (cha-ching, cha-ching, thanks to the unfavorable exchange rate).

At least there were the free mini Cokes and waters. Gracias.

Other notes and quotes from the recent World Council of Credit Unions' World CU Conference in Spain:

* Observed by Bob Powell, chairman of Credit Union Australia, "It's great to be here in Barcelona. But then at my age it's great to be anywhere."

There are many paths to credit union involvement; Powell's was spiritual. Years ago he was invited to join the board of St. Ann's Credit Union, which served Catholic parishes, because he was Protestant and the CU wanted to show it was open to non-Catholics. Today, with the number of CUs Down Under declining at a pace similar to those Up Above (there were 840 in 1975; it's predicted there will be 67 by 2016), Credit Union Australia has set an audacious goal: it wants to eventually represent 25% of the country's CU assets. And how does the CU make it easier for others to swallow mergers? It compensates board members who lose their positions.

* While still south of the Equator, one of the most charming aspects of the World CU Conference is the quick peeks into the lives of people whom you meet during that brief moment you're in the same intersection. Janet Gibb, general manager for HR and marketing at Credit Union North in New Zealand, for instance, shared photos of her dog, her husband and her farm before speaking to an audience of people from more than 60 countries gathered in Barcelona about a three-way merger in which her CU took part.

Among the lessons shared by Gibb: the CUs sent management to work in each others' shops to get to know members and the cultures before the merger took place.

Gibb also demonstrated that people who live worlds apart can have much in common. For instance, she noted that in merging the "smallest things are the biggest issues," and not just among the merged CUs. The merger "created four large CUs in New Zealand, and then a lot of smaller CUs. (The smaller CUs) all became paranoid about 'what are these other guys doing, and are they out to destroy us.' Yet in our country the large CUs had always subsidized the smaller CUs...Our small CUs began to block votes at AGMs because they were concerned they weren't being heard. So be aware, even if it's the wrong perception, other CUs can get a position that is detrimental."

* Looking for another cultural difference from the U.S? Here's one from the world of politics. At a time when the behavior of some American governors is considered an embarrassment (at best), there were these comments from former Mexico president Vincente Fox, who admitted to credit unions-and with his wife in the front row-that he has "three girlfriends." But hold on. One of them is his wife, Marta, and he's been cheating on her with his other loves, "credit unions and microfinance."

Fox, incidentally, spoke in English without notes, meaning, ironically, his own words had to be translated back into Spanish at the WOCCU meeting for many of his fellow countrymen on hand. Speaking of English, Fox said he had recently learned a new word as the result of the economic meltdown in the U.S.: "gar-gan-chew-won." Yet when it came to describing credit unions, Fox used language unlike that you ever hear from a politician at GAC or Congressional Caucus to describe CUs: "That is what this movement does. To be for others. And in the process give a gift every day to all people you find during the day; bring a gift to them, a smile, a little bit of love, a flower, a loan, a credit. By being for others, that is your gift."

Finally, when asked by an audience member why some CUs are growing, Fox, a former Coca-Cola exec, showed he knew his stuff, pointing to one Mexican CU that has a truck that drives from village plaza to plaza with a loudspeaker announcing its presence. "The answer is promotion, promotion, promotion."

* While on language, one of the delights of international meetings is listening to the way announcements are translated into English, usually in an overly formal way. Consider this one: "I wish to please to inform you the last 20 minutes will be properly allocated for the discussion of questions and answers."

Frank J. Diekmann can be reached at

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