Wednesday, March 30, 2011

cultural differences... some amusing, some not...

My goodness, where to start?

My first comment... the words customer service don't mean as much in some places, as they generally do to Australians. Or is it that I have just been going to the right places in Australia? Or, is "good customer service" only considered to be good when one is fluent in the language and cultural habits of a country?

Earlier today, I went to have lunch in what has become a favourite destination in the centro of Granada. The Plaza Bib Rambla is a lovely square a few blocks from my hotel, with restaurants around the perimeter and little alleyways of interesting shops leading in every direction from it. The lunch was lovely, as usual. But, something that was more obvious to me on this particular occasion, was the poor customer service. The waiters were more intent on conversing with one another and sharing stories of home life and jokes than getting their clients what they wanted. A cafe con leche took almost thirty minutes to receive. I have often joked in Australia about growing a beard whilst waiting to receive my order. Here, in the Bib Rambla, I almost literally grew one!

Luckily for the cafe, the food was great and thoroughly enjoyable, so I could not complain about the service - ultimately, it was worth the wait.

But, I realised that after weeks of travelling through this beautiful country, I have grown a little weary of not being able to apply a little pressure on waiting staff about the lengthy time taken to receive what I want. After we left the cafe, immediately opposite the front door we stopped. Here was a little shop-front, with a woman serving. My mother asked her if she sold any postage stamps. The woman was looking directly at us, then some of her friends passed by at that very moment. They were calling out to this woman from behind us, and this woman, rather than addressing our need, moved her head towards them, reciprocating their greetings whilst completely ignoring our question. I was amazed. When she finished laughing and answering her friends, she spoke to my mother, saying, finally, that she didn't have any stamps for sale. I stood there, agape.

This was a big contrast to the restaurant we ate in last night. I chose a little place near our hotel, purely for its name, La ermita. The translation? The Hermit. It's also a way of describing a way to contemplate and live out life by one's self. It's more of a concept than a person, if you know what I mean.

This place was more up-market than the cafe I just described in the Bib Rambla. Again, the food was impeccable, although presented in a far better way, which is more appealing to the palate. Of course, with such effort, the cost of a meal is much higher. The waiters were attentive, taking great care to explain anything on the menu we didn't understand. We were treated like queens. This made me ponder how the concept of customer service works... here, as in Australia, money talks. You pay for the service, as well as the food and the good experience, overall.

Sure, the food is mainly great everywhere, so far. But, when I don't pay as much for it, my frustration at the service sets in... leading me to the conclusion that this is a cultural difference, or culture shock on my part. I dislike the fact that I cannot express my disappointment, or insist, in an assertive way, that I should be receiving better service.

Perhaps I have chosen this subject to complain about in this blog post because of the hair-raising morning I had. Today, I had to pick up the car rental I had arranged in Australia for the next leg of our trip. It was easier to get from Granada to Murcia, to Cuenca, then Zaragoza by car, than taking a train back and forth to major cities to get to each place. So, off we went to AVIS to collect the compact Mercedes which was given to me. (The fact that it is a Mercedes ALONE makes me a little nervous about damaging the thing.)

I'm not sure if I mentioned this before, but the Spanish like to touch-park. They manage to get their compact cars into the tightest little parking spots... and how? Car moves forward, BANG, and stop. Car reverses, BANG, and stop. (BANG = tapping another's car forcefully)

I have been noticing the amount of cars which have scratches and dents all over them, throughout the trip. I'm sure that car insurance is only used here when there is major damage and a panel beater and/or complete overhaul is needed. Australians have coronaries at the slightest dent (unless they own a bomb), and run to the panel beater to fix it immediately.

The last time I was in Europe with a car rental, I totally freaked out when I saw a Frenchie banging my rented Citroen to park his car. I blurted out, in English: "Are you kidding, mate? This is a bloody rented car!", which, of course, was no use to me when the Frenchie didn't speak English.

So, since arriving in Spain, I have watched the drivers here - they're crazy too. They fly through the narrowest of streets. I have found myself hanging on to the Jesus-bar in the back seat of taxis on a few occasions. I remember a taxi driver going on an 80km zone at 120kms per hour. I don't white-knuckle often, but when I do, it's with good reason. This taxi driver needed to be locked up or have his licence revoked, one of the two.

I have also thought about my own car back home, a GIGANTIC Ford Falcon sedan, which would, no doubt, have gotten permanently wedged into a medieval intersection somewhere along the way. You appreciate the space we have in Australia a whole lot more when you're in old, claustrophobic city roads and streets in Spain.

This morning was scary. Keep in mind that I am driving a compact car here. I had to pick up the rental, and drive it on the wrong side of the road continuously. Then, I had to navigate the car down a narrow, narrow alleyway, that is considered to be a main thoroughfare. On either side of this road, scooters and motorcycles were parked, with their tail-ends hanging out on the street, making the space for cars even narrower. I was getting beeped at by motorists behind me, as I was taking things slowly - I didn't want to hit any of the parked bikes. Even though I took the greatest care, I still managed to brush my passenger-side mirror against the padded seat of a Vespa. This made me more nervous. Not the Mercedes! I'll be paying off that damage until I'm fifty!

Of course, it took even longer to get back to the hotel, as all the streets around the central part of Granada go in different directions. Some are one-way, some are not to be entered, some are restricted only to taxis and buses. That'd be fine, but the signs are strange to me - round, red-circled ones with crosses through them - wtf? Ah, of course! No parking allowed! How silly of me! If you're not a local, you'll have more than a little trouble knowing which street you are able to traverse safely and legally.

A scooter rider took pity on me... He spoke to us, telling us that we could follow him, after he asked where we were trying to get to. (See? The ability to speak Spanish helps!) This enormous gordo of a man on a itty-bitty little scooter led us to our hotel's street, and we gratefully gave him some Euros for his troubles, even though he did spit the worst exhaust fumes into our faces most of the way there. If I could have said so, I would have given him the money for his help, with a small comment about getting his scooter serviced and its shocks attended to. I mean, how long did he think the poor little thing would last?

The hotel's porter was amused when I gave him the keys to the Mercedes nervously, begging him to park the car for me under the hotel. I wasn't about to start attempting to park this GIANT compact car in a tiny, underground car park!

So, after that nerve-wracking experience, naturally, I practically ran to the Bib Rambla to calm down and have a nice lunch. It was only after I got there that I realised that I'd be insane to order my usual sangria - I'm driving now! I can't afford to have even the tiniest bit of alcohol in my blood when travelling on Spain's roads! It'll have to wait until the car is returned to AVIS at Zaragoza... six days away...

The question is... will I make it to Zaragoza in one piece? Time will tell...
If none of you ever hear from me again, you'll know what happened.

Hasta la vista, mis amigos... I hope!

:)

xx

3 comments:

  1. LOL... great post! Love the image of your car (which shall be nameless here) stuck in one of the "medieval intersections." She is currently enjoying a large stall and plenty of breathing room here in Melbourne.

    I think there's another factor besides poor service at work -- when I was in southern Europe, especially Greece and Italy, everyone dined much more leisurely than I was used to. It seemed very slow and frustrating to me, but they were just used to more relaxed eating. Could that be part of what you're experiencing? Or is it just that you're in yet another non-tipping country? I find the wait service in this country appalling -- I much prefer to pay a tip and get great service, in the US!

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  2. good point, gillian... they are more leisurely eaters here... makes it even harder when i'm having a meal with an impatient chilean for company... ;)

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  3. Hello
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