Archive for January, 2009

Service with a Smile

I received a hand written thank you note today from the owner of a children’s shoe shop, where we stopped in to buy a pair of shoes a few weeks ago for our daughter.  It was eloquent, long and completely shocking — in most stores in London, you’re lucky to get someone to wait on you, let alone smile, or help you buy anything.  A thank you note?! Handwritten?! It’s as though we’ve moved to another planet.

We once bought a wardrobe in London, and discovered when we got it home that the wood on one side was warped. When we asked a customer service rep from the store if we could exchange it, she said no — we could only return it, because it was out of stock.  Nobody we spoke to wanted to special order another for us, or somehow make sure that we didn’t return it.

We actually wanted to keep it.  And we assumed the store would want to keep our money.  But no — they insisted they take it back, and give us our money back.  

Sometimes, I wondered if sales people in the UK understood that their purpose was the make money. Obviously, that’s the motive behind the children’s shoe salesman.  But darnit, I’ll go back to his store, because he cared enough to send a note, AND offer a $6 discount if we bring the note with us.

Call Failed

On the subway today, I noticed a man chatting loudly and belligerently into his cell phone.  He used decorative language to describe what he would do to the guy on the phone if he failed to pay back a loan.

My fellow subway riders looked a bit intimidated by the man’s steadily rising voice. But I was intrigued.  A cell phone call on the subway?! I thought you could only do that in Asia!

Mobile phone service is loads better in Europe than in the US.  I remember seeing a billboard ad in the US for  cell phone company — I think it was AT&T — claiming that the carrier had fewer dropped calls than any other network.  In Europe, you couldn’t get away with that. Inherent in that ad is the fact that calls are indeed dropped, even if the carrier’s rivals drop even more calls. In my many years of living in the UK, and traveling in Europe, I never got that irritating beep-beep-beep and “Call Failed” written across the phone, like I do here.

And yet, there was that man on the subway, happily shouting obscenities into his phone, on a call that presumably hadn’t failed. Maybe that’s the secret — network operators could hear his call, and could tell they didn’t want to mess with him.  I saw how mad he was about the prospect of an unpaid loan; I’d hate to see his reaction to a failed call.

Sorry, You’re Going to Step on My Child

images3British people apologize swiftly and profusely, when they bump into someone, when someone bumps into them, or even when they have nothing to be sorry for.  This phenomenon was immortalized in National Lampoon’s European Vacation, when the Griswolds run over a British motorist who insists the incident was his fault (it wasn’t).

After nearly eight years in the UK, I have become one of these sorry sayers. Last year, I was in the Children’s Museum of Manhattan.  Another mother wasn’t looking where she was going, and almost stepped on my daughter as she crawled across the floor.

Seeing that the woman’s high heeled boot was about to be embedded into my daughter’s head, I said the first word that sprang into my mind: “Sorry! ”  The woman looked at me, surprised. Disaster averted, I continued: “You’re about to step on my daughter.”

The woman replied, “Don’t be sorry.  It was my fault.”  

Of course it was. But the Brit in me kept me from saying, “Hey you! Get your spiky heels away from my kid’s head! Why the hell would you wear those to a kids’ plush play area, anyway?”

I now say “sorry” when I want to get the attention of the guy behind the counter at Starbucks; when I bump into someone in a store; even when I walk into a wall.

The Business of Caring

Perhaps the hardest part of relocating to the US from the UK is getting used to paying to see a doctor.

I tried to make an appointment today with a GP who was recommended by a friend. After holding on the phone for about five minutes while the receptionist checked to see whether this doctor would even consider taking on a new patient, I found out that the doctor didn’t take my insurance. I said I would pay, and try to get reimbursed. She said she would have to check if that would be OK, and get back to me.

In the UK, your local GP has to take you on. And it’s free — or at least, included in your National Insurance payments.

Drugs are free in the UK for children under the age of 7. So is medicine for mothers of children under the age of 1, and pregnant women. My birth control bills were free, before I had kids. I never figured out why.

So when I took my sick son to the pediatrician here in the US, having to pay $90 (not including the $5 parking charge) was a rude awakening.

Of course, in the UK, I used to complain that our “free” GP wasn’t a specialist. In the waiting room, the age range ran from babies to the elderly. I always wondered how one doctor would be able to recognize afflictions in that huge range of ages. So at least the $90 gets you a visit with an expert.

The Cigna slogan — “the business of caring” — always made me laugh, because it begs the question: “If it weren’t a business, would they care?”

Of course, the UK doctors have to see patients, because that’s their government issued mandate. So it’s a business either way. Maybe the right way is somewhere in between.

Plastic Shame

U.S. shoppers, it seems, are allowed to use countless plastic bags to carry groceries from the grocery store, to their cars, without being subjected to shaming from the grocery store staff.  

While I appreciate having someone put the groceries into the bags, a task that is left to the shopper in the UK, I feel huge pangs of guilt for walking out of the store with about ten plastic bags, knowing that I have a stash of about fifty and growing at home.  Those bags will sit in landfills for eternity, or perhaps drown a sea turtle, just because I couldn’t be bothered to bring 15 canvas bags. 

In London a few months ago, a photo of a family carrying groceries in plastic bags was splashed across the front page of a tabloid with the the headline: “Will we ever end our addiction to plastic?!”

I tried to hide my plastic bags when I walked down the street in London.  When I forgot to bring my canvas bags with me when I wound up in our local London grocery store, I would apologize to the cashier, who would nod solemnly, as though to say: “We won’t kick you out today, but I can’t promise you’ll be allowed in next time.”  

Our local London Whole Foods completely stopped using plastic bags, and offered a 5p discount to customers who didn’t use the paper bag. 

They do have a recycling bin for plastic bags at our new local grocery store.  But it’s a strange feeling to be able to take limitless plastic bags, without a disapproving cashier stare.  I am a bit nostalgic for the London cashiers who expected me to be a non-abuser of plastic.

Back to the US

I have just moved back to the US, after nearly eight years in London. I moved to the UK alone, with no furniture, and am returning with a husband, two kids, about 100 boxes of belongings and a British passport.

It is not as easy to fit back into life in the homeland as I thought….

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