Monthly Archives: May 2011

Customer Service!!!

A common refrain in the expat community here in England is the one that complains about poor British customer service and misses excellent and attentive American customer service. After today, I’m wondering if something about the poor economy of recent years is causing a major change, or if the gradual creep of the dreaded Americanism into British culture is the culprit. No matter the explanation, I experienced back-to-back brilliant customer service today, and I’m much the poorer for it as I tipped extravagantly to try and encourage the excellence.

First off, I had booked a much-needed haircut for today. I have long hair and am remarkably lazy about getting it cut regularly, which is funny because I love the hour of pampering that comes with a good haircut. It had been more than six months since I had managed to go for a trim, and my hair was really getting unruly so I booked an appointment (over the internet, of course) about two weeks ago, for today. Now I have frequented the same (admittedly upmarket) salon since I moved to England almost 5 years ago, but this was the first time I had quite purposefully booked to return to see the same person as I had had for the last haircut. (Normally since the haircut is such a rare event and yet when I finally relent and admit I need one I take what I can get.) His name is Luigi, which is awesomely memorable as he happens to be British (?) and is also perhaps the first heterosexual man to ever have cut my hair. I’ve had a long string of wonderful gay male hairdressers, and also a series of amazing and mostly rather young women, especially at Aveda salons in the US.

Luigi won his extravagant tip in a number of ways. He remembered me, even though I was last in his chair about six months ago. And no, he could not have been faking it. He remembered details. I was amazed. He must make notes. (I guess that’s a great tactic as a person in the service industry in general: if the person does come back you win by remembering them, and if not, you’ve only lost a few minutes jotting down a few thoughts.) Luigi is also clearly a professional flirt; he’s got that fantastic ability to chat you up without intent, as he drops stories about his girlfriend into the discussion. And even better from my perspective, he was willing to chat about his job. I find it fascinating to try and understand jobs that are different from my own. So from hearing about how he got into the hair business and how he stays “fresh,” I got some insight into something I find fascinating. And heard about how boring it is when there are hair trends, as when 80% of the people coming in during a given day want Victoria Beckham’s new bob. The other thing I learned about Luigi is just how seriously he takes his job–stories of going to watch live hair trends demonstrations in London, and how he watches videos of haircutting techniques when new ideas filter through the community. From my perspective, all of this makes Luigi a consummate professional and I was delighted to part with a significant number of pounds when I left. Oh and did I mention he gave me a voucher for £5 off my next haircut, delivered with a joke about how perhaps this will entice me to come back a little bit more often? Don’t worry, Luigi, I will.

It happened to be late shopping night in town (a phenomenon that must mystify Americans used to evening shopping on a regular basis) and I took advantage of being free as a bird a few hours before I normally leave the office to run some errands. I decided I was hungry, and that in the spirit of haircut-related pampering, I deserved a nice dinner. I popped over to the local branch of “Jamie’s Italian,” the Italian restaurant chain that has exploded across Britain in the last year thanks to the owner, celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. I was skeptical when I heard this chain was coming to my town, but I’m now a real convert. And this is not the first time that I have dined there alone, with a flirtatious and thus extravagant tip-gaining waiter. The interesting thing about this restaurant, and I admit I’m a fan now, is that the food is surprisingly interesting but the prices are reasonable. For a while they had a pasta dish with truffles in a cream sauce, and eating the slices of truffles on the top was the first time I had really had the option to taste this delicacy. Every time I’ve been there, and it’s probably about a half-dozen times now, I’ve tried something that I had never had before. The truffles. Burrata cheese. Courgette blossoms. Always something. Tonight I had ordered a half-sized pasta portion as my main course (the half-sized portions are another reason I love this place, you can get a starter and pasta without being too full) and a plate of flash-fried greens with chili and garlic as my side dish. When the waiter came to take away my empty pasta plate, he noticed that I had only picked at the greens and asked if there was anything wrong. I admitted that they were a bit tough. He went away, and came back a few minutes later with the dessert menu and the following statement: he had tasted the greens (!) and agreed that they were both tough and had too much chili (which was true but I had not mentioned it) and so he had passed the information on to his manager and taken them off my bill.

I was gobsmacked. I dine out frequently when travelling, and I can’t actually remember the last time a waiter had noted my not finishing a dish and asked if there was a reason. I certainly can’t remember the last time something was taken off my bill when I did not vigorously complain about it. So again, I was in the position of adding a significant tip for the actions of a really good waiter who just happened to have picked out my displeasure at a restaurant, and in the environment in which I would not have normally said something as bad as to warrant action. I’ve changed, because I would normally have complained in the US, but the UK has changed, because they would not normally have noticed.

Oh the times, they are a’changing.

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A Very English Adventure

I was back in the Brighton area this weekend, for the arts festival that I’ve now visited three times. The first year I went, I saw jazz and sculpture. Last year it was modern music and AfroBeat. This year it was classical chamber music. All fun. As a former serious musician, I love to see live music, and I don’t do it often enough in my own town. So the now-annual Brighton trip is an excuse to spend a few days immersing myself in concerts and related things, to re-visit a town I really quite like (and now know my way around) and to tour around a bit of the English Countryside, which I–as a non-driving (when in England) person–don’t get to do much. I always be sure to convince at least one friend to join me for the weekend, and said person has to either have a car or rent a car in order for the trip to work.

The first big adventure this year was a piano concert at Glyndebourne. I have to admit, when I booked the tickets I did not even notice it was NOT in Brighton, as it was part of the festival and I was going gaga over the performer. It was Leif Ove Andsnes, who is one of (IMHO) the best pianists in the world right now. He is also Norwegian, which triggers my geeky “I’m Norwegian too” side. And the first time I saw him play, it was the Grieg piano concerto, which was my high school graduation piano lessons piece. So I had to go see him, even if I had no idea what a Glyndebourne was. Well, I was schooled. It turns out that Glyndebourne is a full-scale professional opera house that is entirely on private property–it was built by the wealthy-and-eccentric owners of a country estate in the 1930s. The current incarnation is world-class and holds well over a thousand, and it just sits in the middle of the house along with restaurants, gardens, sculptures of world-quality art, and other oddities. The tickets said “opens at noon for picnicking” but I did not know where to even begin with that, so had lunch in town and then went out with my friends in their hatchback vehicle, they parked in the grass space in the parking lot, and we wandered around. So apparently because this is private property, it’s only on concert days that you can just tour around and look at the gardens and the sculptures and the like. And the place was jam-packed with picnickers of an elaborate sort that I had never seen before. Almost no one was sitting on blankets on the ground eating chips out of a packet. No. Not only did they have lawn chairs, but tables with table cloths, wine and glass goblets, elaborate picnic baskets that held proper plates and real silverware (not plastic) and really exotic picnic food. Note to self: must up the level of picnickery when in England. Whew.

The concert was, as I had hoped, amazing even though I was suffering from elaborate-picnic-envy. Somehow, again without realizing it, I had tickets in the third row on the “good side” for a piano player, so the views were amazing (as was the music). So a good day. Back to Brighton, right? We went out to the car, and realized much to our chagrin that because it was parked on grass on a slight down-hill gradient, and the grass was a bit damp, the thing would not back up and the wheels were just spinning on the grass. There was an enormous SUV parked directly in front of us, else we could have just pulled through the slot and drove off. After about 15 minutes of waiting, no SUV owner had yet arrived to save us, and the driver was getting pretty antsy. I was very much against the “just get out and push the car” idea, especially when it was floated that I as the smallest should drive and the larger driver should get out and push. I could just see myself getting disoriented and doing something wrong so as to pin my friend against the SUV and require emergency medical care in the middle of nowhere, when the car park was flooded with cars trying to LEAVE the estate. So we left the driver in the car and I and another small female got out to push. This was immediately noticed by a middle-aged British man getting into a car in the next row, and he came running over to help, along with his gray-haired wife in her floral dress.

We did it. We managed to free the car, and I with my American accent thanked the nice couple profusely for helping us out of a bind. They made some hilarious comments about how useless that (German) car brand was and how they would never have travelled anywhere in such a heap. I kept my composure long enough to get into the car, but once we drove off I couldn’t stop laughing; the entire situation was so ridiculous as to be almost unbelievable. American girl with a few nice Brits, pushing a German car uphill through wet grass after a Norwegian pianist played a concert at a world-class opera house on a private English countryside estate. Seriously, you cannot make this sh*t up.

Globalization, Anglophilia and Anti-American Sentiments

I hit a wall today, when someone introduced a blatant anti-American comment on Twitter and I was not amused. This is one of those things that I was not at all prepared for when I moved to England nearly five years ago (gasp!). After living for many (30) years in an America full of Anglophilia, I sort of assumed that the former monarchist leaders of our state shared the same sort of historical affection for us that we had for them. The last few weeks have demonstrated the fact, more clearly than ever, that I was wrong.

We all have witnessed the great Anglophilia that took place in the form of the Americans' obsession with the royal wedding a few weeks ago. Although a few arguments tried to logically argue against an American being obsessed with the wedding of Prince William and future princess Kate, this seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears. I am, through the expat community, very much aware of a number of blatantly Anglophile blogs (here, and here, for example).

So in this general framework of Anglophilia, it still comes as a surprise to me that, while Americans can be classed as generally England-loving, here in England it is politically sound to be America-hating. Or, at very least, America-resenting.

Here is the example of the tweet that sent me over the edge today, in terms of Anti-American sentiment and frustration. I note now that it was only the latest in a series of such things. I do not harbor any long-standing or particular bad feelings to this particular tweeter. But it did put me into the place where my blood was boiling and I was flat-out angry, after nearly five years of living abroad.

My response is as follows: we live in a world where globalization reigns. Changes to language will take place, and they will be influenced by many sources. Americans, desperately in love with England, will pick up on English words. English folk, in return, should not be so violently against supposed Americanisms (although with “staycation” I’d challenge the locals to prove, that even if the word was American in origin, it was not picked up in the British press far more than in the American one!) We are a group of people who happen to share a language, and in many cases, who happen to share the same values. Emphasizing the differences, as opposed to the many similarities, is just an annoying bit of xenophobia. (The brilliant show “Gavin and Stacey” had a great bit on the difference between “racism” and xenophobia, and I want to quote this over and over because it was accurate and much-misunderstood in modern British usage!)

We, as English-speakers, have to adapt to the fact that this is a language based in other languages and one that evolves quickly. I think this is really cool. I love that my language has no problems with invention of words to address new technology, because I am a scientist and sometimes I really need those new words. I’m unclear as to what is to be gained by “blaming” any English-speaking country for new words or compounds that happen to make it into general usage. Words only become popular because people are seeking a short-hand term to describe a concept that is in need of expression.

More importantly, I think, it is detrimental to the language as a whole to demonize words as being “American” in origin, when that distinction is being seen as “ultimately bad” without context. If a word gains traction in the larger English language, that language being spoken across many institutions including science, why can’t we live with it, no matter the origin, if it expresses the concept that we wish to express? And in that vein, why should we care if there are differences in the words used in British and American English for the same concept, when we are most likely next to deal with the important translation effects that result in trying to convert between English and Chinese? Neither “English” nor “Chinese” is a single dialogue, so we have years of mis-communication to ensue. Can’t we at least stop arguing within our own ranks, of supposedly “English” speakers, and try for a degree of communication instead of petty disagreements?

MasterChef, or the interesting thing that happened before everyone went gaga over the wedding

When I arrived back from the US early last week, I was arriving just in time to settle in with my iPad and watch the 3-night MasterChef finals while I tried (and failed) to get myself back on UK time. (I’m still not. 8 days in and my typical bedtime is still 3 am. This is not good.) I had seen every episode up until the point at which I left for the US, and I watched the results from afar each week that I was gone, scouring Twitter archives with the MasterChef hash tag to try and see who had been booted out. Why had I become so obsessed? Well, aside from the fact that I’m a big-time foodie on the side, who loves cooking and eating, one of the contestants was American. And not just American, but midwestern, from Wisconsin. Right next door. I don’t share most of my family’s hatred of all things Wisconsin (I still find that one odd) and as an expat I feel like it’s extra super important to be all midwest supportive, given that most locals here in Europe don’t know about the midwest at all. I’ve commented about this before.

In the early weeks of MasterChef, the voiceover constantly mentioned Tim’s American-ness. It was annoying. But as the competition went on, and it became clear that he was really talented, and they showed bits of his life with his British wife, they turned it down a notch. And the unthinkable eventually happened. He won. I cried. I know. Utterly ridiculous. Blame the jetlag.

The press went nuts. My favorite article attributed him as being both from Wisconsin and also Canadian. (Clearly the person who wrote that had not been watching the show…) I was riding up the lift one afternoon last week after the big finale, and mentioned how excited I was about the entire thing. Now it’s important to the story that my two team-members in the lift with me happened to be one Brit, quite local to where I am, and one very proud South African. So I asked if they had been watching it, and expressed my excitement, and made a joke about how I was sure that no one would ever allow the American to win MasterChef.

Now this was a flippant comment, obviously, but it was rooted in nearly five years of experience. “Britishness” is very popular right now. I’ve written about it quite a lot before, because as much as the Brits will claim they are not like Americans in being publicly effusive about anything, “The Great British _____” (fill in the blank with any number of things) is a phrase I hear everywhere. And nowhere is proud Britishness more evident in my daily life than in the food culture. Stickers with Union flags on items all over my local grocery store. “Best of British” written on everything (a phrase whose grammar I still can’t parse). And nowhere is this more obvious than in the cooking shows on the BBC. I thought of developing a drinking game in which you drink every time a food programme goes on and on about British produce and British meat and British everything, but I realized I’d end up terribly soused and probably without a job.

One of the other three MasterChef finalists was a classic “modern British” guy with all of the nose-to-tail specialties that make me (vegetarian-turned-grudgingly-pescetarian) wince. Root vegetables all the time, fresh green vegetables almost never. Now I’m not criticizing that bit per se, I’ve come to love root veg purees and things (especially now that I’m barred from eating my beloved mashed potatoes). But for all of these reasons, and because the third finalist was also foreign (Italian), I was absolutely sure I knew who was going to win and I was not very happy about it. I didn’t just like the American because he was American, I liked him because he was talented. He made me think about food. He renewed my recent interest in learning more about Japanese cooking. He probably played a part in my visit to Nobu in Las Vegas last month. (But that’s a story for another day…)

So I was genuinely surprised and excited that the American won MasterChef, and I was really mostly innocent in expressing this to my two team members. But what interested me the most was the reactions. My South African colleague got it immediately, and agreed enthusiastically with my assessment of how unlikely this result was. My British colleague did not seem to share my amusement at the story, as far as I can tell. (And this was not the first time I’d worried that I’d pissed him off either; the whole story of how affirmative action has played out in the UK always has me worried when dealing with British males.)

So it was an interesting day, and I’m still excited that the American managed a win in this difficult contest, and more than ever I’ve realized how cautious I need to be when I talk about these things in public, especially when I’m in danger of offending my local colleagues.