The Per Diem End-Run

 The Per Diem End-Run is a play that I’ve witnessed twice. It consists of hustling meals off the organizer to avoid spending your per diem allowance, then billing it anyway.
The first time gave my client (an agency rep who was quarterbacking the end-run that day) a chance to show off his lightning-quick wits. He had to have the line ready.
Six interpreters, the rep, and I were standing in line for lunch. We were going to blend into the delegate lunch and eat whatever they were having. It was a buffet with open seating, so no harm done, right? It was a moderate-size event, probably 300 delegates. It was not big enough, however, for us to go unnoticed to my client’s client. He was walking in the opposite direction of the line, passed us, stopped, did a 180 and then came back to address our leader.
“Don’t you guys have a per diem?”
“Per diem? Of course we do.”
“Well, that’s for you to have meals with. You’re not supposed to have lunch with the delegates.”
“Have lunch? Oh, we’re not waiting to eat lunch. We’re just waiting to see if we have to interpret for the delegates while they have lunch.”
“No. You don’t.”
“OK! Let’s go have lunch in the restaurant, then!”
He definitely had it ready.
A more recent end-run occurred at another mid-sized event. There was some confusion about the opening night reception, and it honestly looked like we had been invited to it. When a handful of us showed up and started heaping free food on our plates, our client got the equivalent of a “don’t you guys have a per diem?” e-mail. She then sent a reminder to us to use our per diem’s for all meals and refreshments, and to stay away from the client’s.
What surprised me was the amount of feathers this ruffled. The feeling among some on the 14-person crew was, “How dare they?” True, coffee breaks are usually open. On the rare occasion they’re not, a separate coffee service is usually provided for us, which is actually even better than trying to beat the masses for java and a roll. I think this time they managed to get the coffee break ban rolled back. I didn’t stick around to find out.
The way some interpreters act, you might be led to think that meals, as in going out, ordering and paying for one, was tantamount to purchasing a house. It’s beyond complicated. It’s out of their league right now. Can’t be dealt with. When I see those brows furrowing and sighs pouring forth, I cut loose and find my own way.
My experience in Barcelona’s hunter-gatherer interpreting culture primed me to expect nothing. To be ready to round up a hot-dog and a coke in the grimiest trench of a bar if needed. To have that hot dog eaten and the coke drunk and a constitutional taken in 15 minutes. And yes, to pay for it. Because it’s almost never that bad. When it comes down to it, most clients don’t mind having you to lunch and coffee. When they don’t invite, us, if resentment begins to rear its head, I just think of how many times I’ve eaten free food, drunk free wine and even smoked free cigars. And thinking back to that first end-run, glorious even in failure, always brings a smile to my face.