Tag Archives: leisure

Poorly Served: The Upside-Down World of Dining Out and Shopping in America

It’s not easy being a cultural transplant.

After almost three decades in the US, one thing in particular still makes me gibber and foam at the mouth: the absolutely awful service in stores, and especially restaurants.

Say, what? Let me explain.

I’ll be in a store — a supermarket, say — and deeply focused on my mission. I have a list, either on paper or in memory.  I’m juggling menus and selections in my head. I may be examining tomatoes, considering their ripeness because the recipe I intend to use them in is three days away, and I want them perfect then.

And from behind me, a complete stranger asks me how I’m doing today, not only startling me but also totally disrupting my chain of thought.

Or the restaurant where I’m deep in conversation with my wife or a friend, and every five minutes either the waitperson will interrupt us to ask how everything is, or some poor wretch tries to refill my water glass every time I take a sip. Worst of all is the breathtakingly inconsiderate habit of starting to bus our plates before everyone is finished, on the pretext of “let me get these out of your way, sir.”

You moron! Go away! They’re not in my way, and my wife hasn’t even finished her meal!

Okay, I’ve never called anyone a moron yet, but I have told water-bringers to “go away and never come back.” For real. And, yes, I like to linger with my empty plate, to adjust and tinker with the carefully-positioned utensils laying across it as we chat and refill our wineglasses. It makes me feel I’m not being rushed. What’s the damned hurry?

Why do I get so bothered over this? Because I’m European. I come from a place where a diner’s chief priority isn’t wolfing down their food and getting out of a restaurant in twenty minutes. Where sharing a meal is something to be enjoyed, a chance to be unwind and bond and connect with one another. Where once you sit at a table, it’s yours until you’re ready to go. Where people aren’t coerced into hiding their real feelings behind a corporate mask of bland niceness and fake solicitousness.

I’m sure the waitstaff at restaurants and the people who stock the shelves in the supermarkets are often wonderful people, but I don’t go there to have a social experience with them: I have friends for that. And greeting a shopper when you’re not even in their field of vision isn’t merely annoying, it’s downright creepy! (Trader Joe’s, where all the staff are under substantial pressure to be full of puppy-dog good cheer, has an especially bad problem, as revealed in this NYT piece).

I don’t care what my restaurant waitperson’s name is. I just want them to bring my food while it’s still hot (a particularly challenging item in the US, especially with soup), and leave me to enjoy my meal in peace. Why must they waste our time and confuse us by reciting an endless list of specials in mind-numbing detail which we’ll all forget two seconds after they finish? Surely the restaurant has a computer and printer, and could just slip a sheet of paper listing the specials into the menu like they once used to. Is the management  under the illusion that we’ll find it a bonding experience and like the place better? It’s nuts.

Look, good service isn’t intrusive — it’s discreet and invisible. Waitstaff and store employees should be around and available when you need them and stay out of the way when you don’t. Pestering people, interrupting them, interrogating them…none of this is good service. It’s pretend, flummery, stagecraft. Sadly, these are core American values. (Discuss.)

The same goes for clothing, household, and other stores. I understand acknowledging the customer as they walk in to let them know staff is aware of their presence in case they’re thinking of shoplifting. But if — as happened to me in the lovely Huntington Museum gift shop just a few weeks ago —  four different people come up to me in the course of ten minutes to ask if I need help, I just walk. Usually after telling them why, and sometimes handing them the item I had intended to buy until they shattered the last of my dwindling patience.

Once or twice I’ve sought out the manager in a supermarket and told them that the smiling attempts to catch my eye, the repeated greetings, and the dreaded, “did you find everything okay?” at the checkout are excessive. When pushed, they’ll mumble that they and their staff hate it too, but head office makes them do it. And head office is probably getting that advice from some consultancy firm or guru, for which advice we, of course, are ultimately paying.

Service industry protocols in this country are upside down. It’s like living in a sick mirror universe, and there’s not much one can do about it. When my wife and I go into a restaurant these days, I’ve taken to telling the waitperson, nicely and right up front, that we’re not in a hurry, want the food to come slow, and don’t want to be bussed before we’re ready. They nod and smile and seem to get it. And yet four out of five times the result is no different.

So does anyone actually enjoy all these forced interactions and interruptions? Or am I simply legend?

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Emeralds in the Meadow

When I was at SF writing boot camp (aka Clarion West), one of the highlights of the six weeks was the day that Joe Haldeman, an accomplished poet himself, asked us all to write a poem, using any metrical device we wanted. So indulge me here, friends: I’m going to talk about poetry—sincerely and unpretentiously, because (fortunately for you), I’m no academic, and lack sufficient erudition to bore you with  tedious analysis.

I think everyone ought to read poetry, at least occasionally. And GOOD poetry, not fluff. How do you know if it’s good? It’s good if it quickens your pulse, or sends a shiver down your spine; if it’s stood the test of time, far outliving its author, it’s likely very good indeed.

We ought to read poetry because it frees us from the ordinary, giving us a glimpse over our claustrophobic urban horizon, or possibly even beyond the veil. Because great poetry is drenched in magic and speaks of immortality. And because sometimes it just delights.

If you’re a writer, you ought to read poetry, even try your hand at it, because nowhere will you find metaphor, compression, and precision of language  to equal the best poetry. I begin or end most days reading a favourite or two; sometimes, I’ll spend a few days memorizing something I really love, and then recalling it at odd times. It’s an exercise worth the effort.

As I said, I’m no academic. So instead of making an ass of myself by attempting to deconstruct the work of the greats, I’ll simply quote a few fragments of my favourites, hoping you’ll savour the words with me, and rest my case there. Take just five minutes, and read these slowly, let them get under your skin. If you were turned off poetry—as I was—at school, maybe these will make you look again.

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There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

– Robert Graves, To Juan at the Winter Solstice

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But pleasures are like poppies spread:
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.

– Robert Burns, Tam o’Shanter

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I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn
looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly
connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

– Allen Ginsberg, Howl

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Never on this side of the grave again,
On this side of the river

– Christina Rossetti, A Life’s Parallels

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— Then do the clouds like silver flags
Stream out above the tattered crags,
And black and silver all the coast
Marshalls its hunched and rocky host,
And headlands striding sombrely
Buttress the land against the sea,
— The darkened land, the brightening wave —
And moonlight slants through Merlin’s cave.

– Vita Sackville-West, Moonlight

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The force that through the  green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer

– Dylan Thomas, The Force that through the Green Fuse Drives the Flower

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THIS is a wild land, country of my choice,
With harsh craggy mountain, moor ample and bare.
Seldom in these acres is heard any voice
But the voice of cold water that runs here and there
Through rocks and lank heather growing without any care.
No mice in the heath run nor no birds cry
For fear of the dark speck that floats in the sky.

Robert Graves, Rocky Acres

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If you enjoyed any of the  above fragments and care to read any of the poems in their entirety, I’m sure they’re available online. I’d also recommend three marvelous volumes:

– The Mentor Book of Major British Poets
– The Oxford Book of Narrative Verse
-The New Oxford Book of Light Verse

To close, here’s one in its entirety. Beyond its gentle humour, I love this one because it reminds me of England, and the vanished eccentricity of its people; and for the poem’s wonderful, strolling rhythm, every bit as suited to the poem as that of Longfellow’s The midnight Ride of Paul Revere.

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The Rolling English Road
by G. K. Chesterton

Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
A reeling road, a rolling road, that rambles round the shire,
And after him the parson ran, the sexton and the squire;
A merry road, a mazy road, and such as we did tread
The night we went to Birmingham by way of Beachy Head.

I knew no harm of Bonaparte and plenty of the Squire,
And for to fight the Frenchman I did not much desire;
But I did bash their baggonets because they came arrayed
To straighten out the crooked road an English drunkard made,
Where you and I went down the lane with ale-mugs in our hands,
The night we went to Glastonbury by way of Goodwin Sands.

His sins they were forgiven him; or why do flowers run
Behind him; and the hedges all strengthening in the sun?
The wild thing went from left to right and knew not which was which,
But the wild rose was above him when they found him in the ditch.
God pardon us, nor harden us; we did not see so clear
The night we went to Bannockburn by way of Brighton Pier.

My friends, we will not go again or ape an ancient rage,
Or stretch the folly of our youth to be the shame of age,
But walk with clearer eyes and ears this path that wandereth,
And see undrugged in evening light the decent inn of death;
For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

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Intermezzo

A writer I know on Facebook a day or two ago asked their ‘friends’ (a once-clear term which now requires qualifying apostrophes) what they did when they weren’t writing. Several people replied that they watched television. A little self-consciously, I answered that I enjoy cooking; that I read, often a good deal. I pore over my collection of maps and atlases sometimes, armchair-traveling the world; I love Google Street View, especially using it to visit Mexico where people throng the streets and stately plazas, and every house sings with colour. I frequently take walks, and go to the gym usually four times a week. I play the guitar. And in the last couple of months, when not busy with CAD work, my day job, I’ve been spending a lot of time working in the garden.

The back yard of our 1950s suburban rental has a large, red-brick patio mounded and warped by the roots of a couple of large trees. It gets a good deal of shade, welcome on the scorching days of the East Bay summer, and is a delightful place to enjoy a meal alone or with friends  in the evenings as the day cools.

Both Linda and I have a put a lot of work into the yard. It was a barren, squalid place when we moved in three years ago, with broken beds of bare, tired earth surrounding the weed-infested brick. We moved yards of earth at first, and Linda built low decorative walls with the round river rocks that were strewn everywhere. She uncovered a brick path at one end of the garden that had been buried, probably for many years. I restored the beds, removing the most rotten planks and shoring up with new ones, turning the heavy, black clay and digging in hundreds upon hundreds of pounds of soil amendment.

The first thing to go in was a kitchen garden for fresh herbs; after that came flower bulbs, mostly cheery daffodils and showy gladiolus. We drilled holes in the bottom of an old concrete pond basin and turned it into a pansy preserve. I moved a sad, unproductive rose bush from where some idiot had planted it in the shady driveway to a sun-drenched corner of one of the beds, and added three new rose bushes to keep it company. We planted more bulbs, iris and tulip, and shade flowers on one of the more sheltered beds, and added some petunias and snapdragon. The geraniums thrive, the hydrangea is picky and difficult. I’m learning all of this on the fly, and experienced gardeners will doubtless laugh, but it makes me very happy. And Linda has fresh cut flowers every day.

So I don’t get television when there’s so much else that’s pleasurable in life. We have one, but it’s not connected to anything other than a DVD and VHS player. We watch the odd film or British period drama in the evening sometimes, and that’s it. I’d no more have cable in the house than walk into a roomful of people with Ebola. It’s a matter of psychic peace and hygiene (not to mention physiological health, since watching TV induces something very close to a vegetative state, while reading requires active engagement and keeps the mind limber; plus the pictures are so much better). How people can stand to have the thing burbling away all the time, I can’t begin to comprehend; and the notion of having a TV in the bedroom fills us both with loathing.

Here are some more pictures of our garden.

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