Sunday 31 August 2008

We lost our holiday, but the travel agents lost their temper!

Oh dear, oh dear, it's all gone horribly wrong.
Early on in my present grieving process I discovered that, at the moment, I am not able to deal well with upsetting people. Sadly, even armed with this knowledge, I have not been able to curtail my natural talent for doing just that.
For the last few years the Snapper and I have made up our fly-drive holidays as we went along, but this year, completely and utterly exhausted after the funeral and the wedding, we decided that for our September honeymoon we wanted something simpler: something that required no brain power whatsoever.
We hadn't taken a package holiday since 2001, and the idea of being flown to and dropped into a nice room by a pool under a blue sky felt perfect.
So off I went into a Galway city centre travel agent, where the helpful woman listened carefully to what I said I wanted, and came up with a self-catering complex in a quiet town in Crete, with flights from Knock.
We booked it, paid in full and felt mightily relieved that we could now forget all about it. A few weeks later we received a letter from the tour company, forwarded to us by our Galway travel agency, saying that our holiday had been cancelled. They had decided that it wasn't financially viable to operate a flight back from Crete in the second week of September. We could go earlier, or go for just one week, or get a full refund.
We definitely wanted two weeks, (this is a honeymoon, folks!) and didn't want to go earlier, as the Snapper had already booked time off work, and anyway, I figured they'd have to squeeze us into an already busy hotel.
So I called the tour company and asked for a refund. They told me that I should call the travel agency in Galway. This made sense to me, because it was the travel agency's name that had appeared on my credit card bill, and at the simplest of levels, it was the travel agency with whom I had dealt.
The Snapper and I were deeply upset about the loss of our Cretan adventure, and suddenly fearful of having no holiday at all. The travel agency said that they would chase our refund, but nobody offered to find us alternative arrangements for the weeks booked, so eager to find an instant and magical replacement holiday that might return the smile missing from my Snapper's face, I found myself going bleary-eyed at the computer, doing just what I had hoped to avoid.
We heard unconfirmed reports that in the UK, there is a statutory compensation payment of something like £20 per person, if your holiday has been cancelled within 28 days of the departure date. I'm still not sure if that's right, but it set me thinking.
I had gone into a shop and bought something that cost me over ¤1,600, and now, I didn't have anything to show for it except a credit card charge that has cost us a decent chunk of interest over the last two months.
I was only out of pocket because the tour company had made a decision to save some money, and I now had to find a holiday fast, and take whatever prices were on offer, so I emailed the travel agency, asking if they might consider some kind of goodwill compensation payment.
To be honest, a 20 quid gesture would have done the trick. Suddenly stressed and poorer than when I started, all I wanted was something to make us both feel a little less let down, a tad more human.
Wish I hadn't! There ensued a bizarre and frankly ridiculous email correspondence that stretched over an entire week. after which I was more than aware that I was not going to get any kind of compensation.
As a person who grew up in the retail industry, I found their attitude truly bizarre. The owner of the travel agency immediately wrote me off as a potential customer, told me to pursue the tour company, and ended up sending me a long list of all the other tour companies who had cancelled holidays in September, leaving holidaymakers stranded, along with the following:
"Not one of these customers has looked for compensation from us ... not a single one."
I have to admit, when I read that, I saw red. Why in god's name were they upset with me? And what was the nasty inference within that '...not a single one'?
That line annoyed me all night long. Clearly this person was upset with me, even though on the phone the next day, they said that they were not.
I didn't want to upset them, any more than I wanted to upset the person at the ITAA (Irish Travel Agents Association), but somehow I managed to do that too. The owner of the travel agent told me that after I had called the ITAA to ask for advice, I had subsequently misquoted and misrepresented the ITAA person in my communication. When I called the ITAA person back, to find out why and what they were upset about, I encountered a voice now both stormy and suspicious.
Blimey! Even though I thought the Snapper and I were the injured parties, I had now managed to upset both the travel agent and the person at the ITAA.
As I said, I'm not good at dealing with upsetting people at the moment. One never wants to do it anyway, but quite how I managed to upset two different people whilst trying to seek recompense for our own stress and monetary loss, I will never fully understand.
There's a lot I don't know, but travel I do know. I've hitchhiked over 200,000 miles; been around the planet twice, lived and worked in six countries on three continents and yet never have I come across such strange reactions to a customer's loss.
Next Tuesday we are flying to Mallorca, where we're staying in a tiny village on the quiet west coast. The owner of our 3 Star hotel sent me an email, saying that my booking was confirmed; that he didn't need my credit card number as a deposit, because my word was good enough for him; and what time would we like dinner?
I wish the travel agencies of Ireland well, but cannot see why I might ever go into one again.

Friday 22 August 2008

My very own Ground Zero? Sainsbury's Car Park, Stanmore, North-West London, England!

Alright already, I'm sorry!
It seems that some of you didn't take too kindly to a being called 'a bunch of nutters' in this colyoom a couple of weeks ago. To be honest, I never understand people who take things out of context simply in order to become outraged.
Yes, indeed I did say that a large chunk of the Irish population were a 'bunch of nutters', but then I went on to explain how, coming from me, that was a compliment.
But sure enough, there were the angry emails, flying into my inbox, the general theme of which was the horribly familiar cry of:
"If you don't like it here, go back to where you come from."
Sorry, lads, even if I wanted to, I can't, because I'm not sure where that is. Born in London, but only 2 generations British, and before that, who knows? One night many years ago, my much-loved recently-departed father was in his armchair, knocking back the scotch, when an item appeared on the news about Lithuania.
"Ah yes, that's where we are from!" he uttered in guttural croak.
"Really? But I thought you always said your side came from Germany?"
Having reached that point of his evening's drinking when it was more important to be right than accurate, he insisted his point by pointing at the tele with a swaying arm, and once more asserting,
"There. That's it. Where we come from."
Admittedly, when I mentioned this exchange to him many years later, he looked at me with utter amazement.
"Don't be ridiculous! I'd never say such a thing!"
But if you loved and respected Dad as I did and do, which Dad do you believe?
Add in the fact that I have spent far more adult years living outside England than in it; the fact that as a Jew, I resent and despise the historical and ethnic implications involved in being 'sent' from a country (especially from this country, which reflexively and ignorantly opposes everything about Israel) and you start to see why I don't know where is 'back'.
Anyway, my point is that I don't want to leave. I love living here.
If you only knew how I go on and on about loving my life in the west of Ireland whilst visiting my family and friends in England. There is something completely fascinating to me about belonging to two nations (three, if you count the Jewish Diaspora), particularly when the lucky winners are England and Ireland.
My countries share an uncomfortable history (a euphemism only an Englishman could use!), and (ex-Gaeilge!) a language. The really significant difference is population size, with Ireland having only 4 million lucky individuals, compared to 65 million English people having to get along with each other. Obviously, the English need different 'coping strategies', as they are wont to say these days; which brings me to my identity's very own Ground Zero: Sainsbury's Car Park in my family's North-West London suburb.
Underground, yellow-jacketed security men direct the traffic around in slow moving snakey jams, which come to a stop each time somebody finds a car leaving a space. The process requires good humour and patience, but the English are a warrior race, and soon enough, geezer in Ghia decides he's had enough, and swings around the wrong way, going against the arrows and all that is good, in order to 'alf-inch my parking spot.
Being now invested with Galway mentality, I smile and point and wave my hand, telling him in what I felt was more than reasonable mime that the space he coveted was mine.
Does he give a damn? Dropping a gear, he leaves tyre rubber on the car park concrete, and shoots his hatchback prematurely into my space.
Getting out of his car, he pushes his chin forward twice, like he's a Mitchell brother, staring at me, eager for me to 'ave a go if think I'm 'ard enough.
Despite knowing that a parking space is not really one of life's worthy causes, I am furious, and being a product of the same society as himself, want to beat him to a messy pulp of bone and gore.
But if I did that, how would I explain to my mum about the blood on her dry cleaning?
Instead I think back a few days, to a similar situation in the Claddagh.
I was just turning my car around so that I could slide into a parking space, when another car pulled up and started to park in my spot.
I waved my hands and smiled.
The bloke in the car waved his hand back, smiled, laughed a bit, pulled out of the space and drove off.
Of course I'm not saying that there are no aggressive arseholes in Ireland. What I am saying is that the chances of you getting into a physical fight over a parking space are infinitesimally smaller in this country than that.
The next morning I went down to the Maxol in Lower Salthill, my mind still severely tested from over-exuberance the night before. After visiting the cashpoint, I was walking to the garage shop, listening in the background to a rapid
'That sounds like a cashpoint machine with money hanging out of it.' thought I to myself. 'Oh shit! That is a cashpoint machine with money hanging out of it, and that money is mine! And if I don't get the money out in time, the machine will pull it back in, although it's already been deducted from my account, leaving me broke, with all hell to pay with the bank to make sure that I get my money back, and anyway, I need the bloomin' cash, right now, and-'
The beeping stopped. My heart sank. And then, from around the corner came a charming smiling local woman, clutching my cash.
"Oh hello! Is this yours? I thought I'd better grab it for you!"
To that woman, whoever you are, I say many thanks.
Thanks for being a wonderful warm trustworthy human being.
Thanks for restoring my faith in our species.
And thanks for reminding me why I live here.
Chances of that happening in England? Less than zero.
One country feels like my past, the other feels like my home; the rest of my life.
So sorry, you're stuck with me. And if that makes me a nutter, I'm sure you'll not hesitate to tell me.

Friday 15 August 2008

My recession is like peanut butter, more smooth than crunchy!

recession cartoon

Sitting outside Neactain's, sipping my coffee and watching the world go by: it doesn't get much better than this. Happiness comes fleeting though, and as I open my newspaper I leave myself vulnerable to doom and gloom tales of the 'Credit Crunch'.
'Stuff that for a laugh!', think I, laying the paper back down on the table.
Standing opposite me, on the corner of Quay Street and Cross Street, two young people are standing motionless.
The bloke is wearing a sandwich board advertising the Bold Gallery, while the lass is holding a post with an arrow sign pointing to the Living Room pub.
I wonder how many people actually respond to those signs? Both the art gallery and the pub are successful businesses, and successful businesses don't waste money on pointless advertising, especially if times are so hard.
As a freelance writer who used to try to sell advertising space in the 1980's, I know only too well that when recession hits, the first cutbacks companies make are to their advertising budgets and their freelancers.
So how can these two local outfits afford to employ these inert adverts? Maybe they pay for themselves in spades, and then again, maybe times are really really hard, and these are the owners themselves, acting in pure desperation.
I think not. I think they are gainfully employed young things showing patience and endurance, oiling the wheels of enterprise in what looks to me like a pretty vibrant High Street economy.
Far be it from me to suggest that I am right while the combined experience and genius of the world's economists are wrong.
But if we're to believe what we're being swamped with by the media, the economic times they are a-changing. A hard rain's gonna fall. The boom is over and we're all going to have to tighten our belts, and all that phooey.
There's a very good reason why politicians and economists talk about the importance of 'consumer confidence'. They know that the entire premise of modern western capitalism is a confidence trick, and the whole shebang can come tumbling down as quickly as you can say 'Berings Bank.'
At some point we are informed by the combined forces of media and industry that times are good; that there's people out there getting stinking rich, and isn't it about time we applied for 56 different types of credit card?
Off we go like happy little shoppers, enjoying the fruits of this wondrous yet illusory boom with money we don't have, thereby keeping the cash pumping round the pyramid.
And never forget that it is a pyramid. Even though it might be illegal to construct and run pyramid selling scams, there can be no denying that the entire premise of capitalism is pyramidal. The only notion up for debate is whether the Thatcherite 'Drip-drip-drip' theory works, whereby the compassion of the rich allows a certain amount of affluence, social welfare and health se
rvices to seep down into our proletarian lives, or whether the rich bastards just sit on their piles and don't give a flying fahooley about us and our miserable existences.
Hmm, tricky one that.
After all, we all know that super rich would be the very first people we'd turn to for the price of a cup of tea, don't we?
Let go of that romantic notion that by investing in stocks and shares you are supporting the job security of those companies' workers.
Nah mate. These days economic players gamble with vast amounts of money that never physically existed. The markets are only about making a quick killing and moving on. Think millions of buffalo on the Great Plains of America, then see them all dead: that kind of thing.
Booms are a mug's game, unless you happen to be one of the five incredibly rich people who became yet more incredibly rich, by selling high whichever assets you bought low. To make that possible there has to have been a sustained period of 'consumer confidence', so that the Price Is Right to cash in your wad and disappear to Mauritius on your 200 foot yacht.
As soon the rich have cashed in their chips, word goes out that the good times are over, and whaddya know? The money oiling the machine has become laden with debt that nobody wholly owns, the machine gets hotter and hotter with inflation until it goes into meltdown, and then we get mass unemployment, and nobody wants to buy anything because we're not 'confident'.
Except that there are still sandwich boards on Quay Street, and six different newspapers on the streets of Galway every week, which hardly smacks of recession. Newspapers need advertising to survive, and as I said before, that's the first budget to go. Thankfully this Noble Rag is a proper newspaper, worth paying for because it's filled with more newsworthy words than products availiable to purchase.
I know, I know, I would say that, wouldn't I! But it's true: newspapers carry news, while freebies carry adverts, and as four of our weekly papers are freebies, I cannot see them all surviving a true recession.
Oh sorry, should I say 'Credit Crunch'? Can lickle diddums no longer face the word 'recession'? Some bloke on the radio was saying that 'Credit Crunch' sounds more like a Ben and Jerry's ice cream flavour than an economic crisis. Love it.
Personally, I couldn't care. I certainly don't wish hard times upon anyone, but there's the goings on in the world's economies, and then there's my own tiny existence. Round in Chazzaland, things are financially as tight as they could possibly be, but for the best of reasons.
After the madness and mayhem that has been my life for the last six months, I've put away enough for a holiday in September, and am now taking a few weeks out to write my fiction, break the back of the novel's final draft.
So I've been living on less than the dole, and am therefore unaffected by all talk of major economic downturn. Sure, living thus requires a certain discipline, but I am simply happy to be doing something that makes sense to me, (only time will tell if it does the same for others!) and suggest that rather than buying into the idea of economic disaster, you do something that's free and guaranteed to put a smile on your face.
Keep it clean people, please.
Ooh, okay then, don't.

Sunday 10 August 2008

I love living in a country where people don't agree with their own answers!

Hoo yeh, the summer madness goes on and on, and I’m still hiding away from the crowds, exploiting the hell out of the builders’ holidays.
For the last 3 years I have tried to work each day through the brutal noise of the neighbouring hotel’s building site. Nothing affects me or my work like noise. Shreds me to bits.
Today there is peace, and I might work. Praise be for that.
Later, I jump into Shaaanny car and nip round to Angel’s for a cuppa. Out of my office cocoon for the first time today, I wonder what’s going on in the world, so I flip on the radio, expecting to hit NewsTalk, but the Snapper drove home last night, so it’s on Today FM.
Fine, who needs to know what’s going on in the world, when you can have a good old sing song? Ooh, even better, they’re doing a quiz.
Unfortunately, I missed the question, but evidently there’s a big weekend for two away in some posh resort spa (I think last year we just called them ‘hotels’) riding on the answer.
Yer man Gerry on the end of the phone sounds like he’s havin’ a right old blasht. Everything is just so funny to him, he can’t shtop wid da larfin and da larfin, so he can’t. In my mind I see Gerry as a spray of long curly balding hair, cascading over a ball-shaped head, his stubbly face stretched in ecstasy.
“Well, now, Gerry, you said 83, Maria, you guessed 189, and Sean, well you reckoned it was 458. The right answer was.... 112, so Gerry in Dublin, well done mate! You’ve won a weekend away for two!”
“Oh tanks! Tanks Tony, tanks tanks tanks! Wow, dat’s grea’, really grea’! Who’d-a tortit? Who’d-a tortit? Jaize, I tort I was way off!”
Driving along, I have a big smile on my face as I hear the harmless happiness of a winner. But soon enough my mind starts to spin around, and then the driver of car behind me is hooting his horn at me because, instead of noticing the traffic lights have gone green, I’m staring into space, lost in philosophical wonder.
Unless my ears deceived me, I just heard Gerry on the radio say he thought his winning answer was “way off”.
But hang on. If he thought his own answer was wrong, then why ...
Fantastic! Bloody marvellous! It couldn’t happen anywhere else. If I made it into an Oirish joke and told it at a dinner party at London’s poshest suburban table, I’d be considered vulgar and racist, but right here right now, I’m living in Galway and loving the fact that whenever I think I might be going loopy, the people of Ireland make me feel strangely sane.
Now before ye all get uppity and irascible and accuse me of accusing you all of being nothing more than a bunch of nutters, I would suggest that were I to do that, it would, from my perspective, be a compliment.
But anyway, I wasn’t calling you all a bunch of nutters: just some of you; well, quite a lot of you, but I reiterate, it’s only a form of praise, coming from me.
As defined by the cold harsh steel of Northern European Protestantism, ‘Sanity’ is a fearfully boring and staid state in which to exist.
I love living in a country where people don’t even agree with their own answers!
And here is the news:
Residents all over Galway City were dismayed to wake up this morning to find that Galway City Council had overnight painted white squares around every single car, and installed Pay and Display meters in everyone’s driveway.
A spokesperson for the Council made a lengthy statement:
“I think we would all agree that everyone who works and lives in or visits Galway City is fed up with the constant traffic congestion. So last night an action was taken which we consider to be the logical conclusion to our very successful existing parking policy. Everybody knows that if you build more roads, such as the major Galway City outer by-pass and fifth bridge that we are planning to start any decade now, you just end up with more cars.
After an extensive ten-year study costing several million euro, funded at a local level, our report has been released today showing that not only do more roads mean more cars, but more roads also mean less parking and more jams too.
“Oh yeh. That’s you impressed now, I shouldn’t wonder, eh? Never say we waste your Tax euros!
“As a Council, we clearly had to act to rid ourselves of the extra traffic that building all these new roads will produce, and failing that, try our best to keep it off the roads. With the extras revenue accrued from all recently installed Domestic Pay and Display appliances, we will be able to move forward with our plans to completely pave over Galway Bay, and turn it into the largest and most impressive Car Park the world has ever seen. Ahar. Ahar har har.
“The Council plans to call it Car ParkLand, and tell the tourists it’s really a Theme Park. That way, they’ll even pay us to go in and have a look! A hah har a-har.
“Of course we do understand that due to the Two Hour limit we have imposed on all Galway’s parking machines, people will only have just enough time to walk into and then straight out of Galway City, in order to top up their Domestic Parking Appliances.
”Naturally, we are aware of the implications for our city’s shops and restaurants, in that nobody will be able to visit them or spend money with them any more, but we are sure that our loyal and hard-working traders will take this bitter financial blow on their collective chins, happy in the knowledge that the traffic on Galway’s roads is flowing freely at last!
“Now don’t forget, if you fail to renew your car parking fee every two hours, we’ll come to your house and take your car away. How green is that, eh eh eh? Living without a car! First we gave you three wheelie bins, and now we’re taking away your car! We are making you all so green, you lucky lucky people. You’ll thank us in the end, ahar aha aha har.”

Friday 1 August 2008

The worst eyes in the Opticians are the ones that chisel upon your soul!

Thanks to crazed greed of our city's parking policy, I'm only allowed two hours to do all the things I need to do this morning. Number one on the list is to head down to the Opticians and finally sort out the business with my new frames; that business with them plunging into the flesh of my temples, so that when I take them off I feel relief, and there for all to see and point and wonder at are the still intact deep-impacted canals.
I'm dreading this, because the place is always packed, and this is my third visit. The first fitting had gone well, I thought, having completely trusted the young lass in the smart coat and name badge.
Possibly I was a little bedazzled by her presence; maybe my paternal side came out, admiring how she was doing a very good job, in a second language and all. Whatever the reason, I discounted 39 years' experience of wearing glasses and knowing that they really shouldn't sit on your nose like that, no no they shouldn't.
So I returned a couple of weeks later and had them fitted again, and a slightly more experienced woman fitted the little plastic nose pads and pointed out that I hadn't been able to see, which I knew, because let's face it, you know when you can't see.
While my frames had been sitting on my nose, a metal line ran through the clear-focused universe below and the blurry one above, and yet I said nothing. They seemed to be better now, and she had been so nice and what was the point in being a smart-lipped arsehole a long distance from wit?
Much better they were, sitting now comfortably atop my shnozz, but within hours I noticed the developing tranches along my temples. You don't have to be all Ginseng and Tai Chi to know that these bits of our glorious bodies are pretty important. Visualise somebody under pressure trying to think fast important thoughts, and more than likely they'll be rubbing their temples round and round with their fingertips.
So cutting off the blood to precisely those bits can't be a good idea, and I really should have gone down and dealt with such a vital thing as this a long long time ago.
But what with life in the shape of burying my father and getting married, finding a job and losing a job, well, it's taken until now to arrive at a place where I can start to look after my own needs a tad.
Hallelujah for that.
For weeks everything has been on the run, making it up as I go along within blurry exhausting exercises at being there for everybody else whilst trying to accept the love and support coming my way, which has been in no short supply.
Unfortunately, for myself and for those loved ones, their nurturing has appeared in front of me a little like traffic passing as you drive at speed the wrong way up a motorway.
Recently, whilst visiting my Mum in London, I took professional advice about my frames, and was told that they didn't fit me.
Genius. Glad I asked.
No, there was more, They could never fit me, because the frames were just too small. No amount of adjusting would make any difference.
So today I'm going to the Opticians to see the Manager. No more fitting fiddly nosey bits and dazzling assistants; no more vanity or paternity: just be able to see.
Stick to the plan Chas. Don't deal with anyone else. And if there's a long queue, explain you're on a time limit.
Wow! The place is completely empty. What a relief! Maybe this is all going to go swimmingly after all.
A little too excited by the absence of any other punters in the place, I approach the lass at the counter, and splutter:
"I've never seen the place look so empty!"
"I said I've never seen the place look so empty!"
"Oh, it really doesn't matter. I was just saying how quiet the place is, but really it doesn't matter."
Hmmm. This was not going well. Clearly my opening remark was not worthy of repeating once, and already I had said it three times, the last of which I had really tried to bail out, what with all that 'it really doesn't matter' stuff, but she'd just thrown it right back at me again with that bleedin' "Sorry?" of hers.
It's not that she doesn't speak English. She is as Irish as I am not, and in this instance it is my accent that is funny to her, rather than the other way around.
Refusing to persist with what I had said, and therefore explain myself to her, might make her think I'm being hostile, excluding her in some way, which I'm not. But oh, oh dear, when I ask to see the Manager, she'll probably think I'm asking to see the Manager because she has failed to understand me, or because she thinks I am mightily pissed off or angry with her for some reason.
Worse, if she really pushes me to say it until she understands it, I will doubtless be faced with that look people give you when these misunderstandings happen; when they finally understand you and stare at you with utter contempt.
No, please Momma. Please don't make me see those eyes.
Hard to try and guess what to do really. I'll try it once more, and then we can move on.
"I was just saying that it was very quiet in here, but really, let's leave it now and move on."
Oh fuck this.
Unable to conceal a wobbling tone of impatience beefed up by a soup├žon of anger at the absurdity of it all.
"NEVER ..... SEEN...... IT .... SO .... QUIET.... IN ..... HERE."
And there were the eyes! Those blasted damnable eyes that I knew I'd get, but fortunately there also was the Supervisor, and from that moment on, everything went so well I would almost have forgotten the whole episode, were it not for those eyes, those eyes, chiselling upon my very soul the words:
'Was that it? Was that all you wanted to say? Was it worth it? Was it really worth it? Was it worth all that bloody bother, just to say those pathetic useless irrelevant words?'