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Thursday, June 5, 2014

The customer is always wrong

Every once in a while The Discreet Traveler rants. What follows, though, is supposed to be humorous. I am sending up the country I happen to live in, but if I traveled through yours, sooner or later I would have something to say about that place too. Enjoy.

In the U.S.A., there used to be a saying that "The customer is always right." I don't know if anyone else remembers that saying now, let alone lives by it, but it's an American saying. And every once in a while, no matter how long I've lived "abroad," I find myself getting all American and writing obnoxious letters of complaint. Because if the saying was ever true in the United States, it is pretty much unknown outside.

Twenty years ago, when I lived for some months in Great Britain, I wrote a little piece called "The customer is always wrong." (It was meant as entertainment, too.) I had a whole host of little anecdotes like the one that follows, but this one happened only last month. Picture the scene: It is midday, a beautiful sunny day, about 60 degrees Fahrenheit (see, I'm getting American). A van with the words HOT DOGS printed prominently on the side is open for business. Lest there be any mistake, a sign propped outside the van--obviously put out this morning--also proclaims HOT DOGS for sale.

Nonetheless, there are no cooking smells, and I approach the van with caution. I have learned to expect to have to ask:

"Do you have hot dogs?"

Now, let's leave aside that "hot dogs" means something very different in England than it does in America. I do know this. I don't expect the same experience in a different country than I would have at "home." What I do, partly, still expect is that the merchandise for sale in a place might match what it says on the tin (as the British themselves say).

"No," the saleswoman tells me (I have to say, with a look of some incredulity). "We don't have hot food." Then, by way of explanation, "It's hot."

Now first of all, it is by no stretch of even the British imagination "hot." It is warm enough not to wear a jacket, but that is another matter. Second--did no one ever eat hot dogs in hot weather? One might rather ask, when else would one eat them?

"Well it's just that--" I gesture to the words HOT DOGS permanently imprinted on the van, but it's no use.

"You're the first person today who's asked for hot food," she adds, almost reproachfully.

Yeah, but there's still the temporary sign. You'd think at least that bit of false advertising might not have been set out for the day, or that a bit of paper might have been stuck over the words HOT DOGS--something. But no, the saleswoman would rather apologize, not just to me, but (as I hear) to each subsequent customer who also asks for the products she does not have for sale.

It happens. It happens a lot. I, culturally, would much rather cross out the sign than have to keep apologizing--or hey, sell my products! But the hot dog incident pales by comparison to what followed a few days later, and unlike this poor non-hot-dog lady, this is a named business that is trading on its brand.

So I am going to name names here: The Globe Theatre. Shakespeare's Globe. Audience full every performance, visitors from around the world. Antony and Cleopatra and, as luck would have it, the poor actor playing Antony is sick. So far, out of the theatre's control.

Now, what I would expect to happen in this instance, and what has happened numerous times at plays I've attended in my life, is some hardworking young actor (probably paid a pittance) has understudied not only Antony's but another couple of parts. He gets his big break, steps into the role of Antony, and the audience applauds. Win, win.

Not at the Globe though. No, the Globe has no understudy. No one? Not even for Antony, the lead role?

What they do instead is ask another actor, who obviously knows but has not memorized the part, to read it from a pile of paper, complete with yellow highlighting. And so we are treated to the (admittedly well-blocked) spectacle of Antony running about with these notes in his hand, which he reads from as he sword-fights, as he kisses Cleopatra...even, most memorably, as he dies. There lies Antony, shuffling up the ramp, reading his dying lines as he shoves the paperwork before him towards the stage.

You couldn't make it up, or possibly have predicted such a fiasco--I thought. I was not even wholly surprised, though disappointed, that the audience was offered nothing at all in light of this disappointing performance--no discount on tickets or even merchandise in the shop. Oh well, perhaps it was hot dogs and they didn't have any either.

But when I wrote my (very American) letter of complaint later, what did I get? The policy of the Globe is not to have understudies. Surely I (the customer) can appreciate this. The Globe is a charity.

Now, I know what this means. The definition of "charity" in Great Britain is incredibly broad; it emphatically does not mean do-gooders. You could be raking in millions of pounds in profit and still be a charity, as long as your ends are artistic or something like that. So no, I do not appreciate this. A professional theatre company without understudies? How often do they expect such substandard performances?

And did I get a £3 token or the kind of thing I might expect to get even from the tightest of British businesses? No, twenty years has rendered even those gestures too generous. I am only a customer, after all, who paid for my tickets (not cheap, by the way). I should be supporting the "charity" that is the world famous, name-brand Shakespeare's Globe.

I should be grateful this has-been hot dog stand was offering any product at all.

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