Monthly Archives: December 2012

All I want for Christmas is…not to be completely won-over by false advertising, pretty pictures and a vivid imagination

It was a clear, peaceful Christmas evening. We walked towards the ship’s dock, hearing children’s laughter tinkling in the background, and feeling full of the festive cheer which comes but once a year. As we reached the dock, excitement coursing through our veins, we saw it, rising up out of the water in front of us, like a beacon in the night sky

Not like this in any way...

Not like this in any way…

…Hang on…

It only had one string of soddin’ lights on it!

Much more like this...

Much more like this…

My expectations of a ‘Carol ship cruise’ were high, I’ll admit it. I’d heard stories of the cruise ships travelling in beautiful twinkly convoy, covered from bow to stern in thousands of beautiful, colourful lights. The reality – on that cold, crisp Vancouver evening – looked remarkably more like a family yacht, half-heartedly decorated by the teenage kids as a treat. Who had then run out of money. As we waited to board, we examined the queue of people who were starting to arrive around us. It was safe to say that even in duck years we were by far the youngest people in about a 1500 metre vicinity. The people were old, lost and confused…maybe they too were expecting more than one string of lights and a half-dead fibre-optic tree hanging, Titanic style, from the front; they thought they had happened upon the wrong ship. “Ho, ho my dear wife, this can’t possibly be OUR cruise…oh no! Ours, my darling, is going to be covered in lights, and we’ll be able to hear the angelic choirs singing even from the lowly shore. Oh no, this isn’t OUR cruise”. It was. And unfortunately, it was ours too.

On embarking the ship, with my boarding card printed out from the work printer, not being required to show my passport that I had hopefully brought along, we walked into what can only be described as a Phoenix Nights style social club with a mirrored gold ceiling and table cloths. We were greeted in a friendly and excitable way by the hostess, who walked us across the tired, plaid carpet and showed us to our window seat. Excellent, we thought, what a great view we’ll have – until we realised…we couldn’t see anything out of the window due to all of the condensation – that had no qualms about dripping all over my face and right down my neck. This was going to be a long, damp night.

On the plus side, they served alcohol, so a stiff glass of red and a lighted tea-light candle later, we were feeling much cheerier about the whole debacle. We could smell the food, and could see people returning from the buffet with their plates heaped high, so we ate our fill of the random combination Caesar salad, bean salad, bread rolls, tomato pasta, chicken in some sort of sauce, pilaf rice and beef. At this point, buoyed by our plentiful food and drink, and having wiped down the windows with my sleeves, we were looking forward to the delightful musical treat that would be the carols. We could hear it getting started…a crackle of electricity…some excitable mutterings, followed by………. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Huge mic feedback, and what felt like an electric shock through my ear drum – all the water that had dripped in there probably didn’t help. Take two. An excitable introduction, and, like a vision, a woman emerges (with her dress tucked into her knickers) and begins to sing that most famous of traditional carols “Santa Claus is coming to town”, followed by more traditional classics including a tortured version of ‘All I want for Christmas is You” and a much too low “Merry Christmas Everyone”. All this was complemented by the truly awful CD backing track, and the tuneless singing of our peers on the neighbouring tables. We thought we had hit the lowest point, but we were wrong – it was still all ahead of us.

An introduction began playing on the CD player that sent shivers down my spine…the (slightly flat) electric piano intro of one of my most favourite true Christmas carols, O Holy Night. I looked out of the window at the beautifully illuminated Vancouver night skyline, marvelling at the reflection in the water of the real thousands of colourful lights and beauty. When I turned back to survey my new friends the small boatful of old people, with gladness and merriment in my heart, I saw it. Two middle-aged couples were …. DANCING. Despite the small dancefloor, and the lack of follow-on participation from anyone else in the room, they went for it, gliding around the dancefloor like swans from Swan Lake, sliding and spinning to the poor-relation-cover of the Il Divo classic. And then it was over, just as quickly as it had begun, followed by ‘disco party time’ for the remaining 45 mins. It is the only Christmas experience I have ever witnessed where there has been such a seamless transition between Silent Night and ‘If You like It Then You Should Have Put A Ring On It’. It worked, in a strange way, and we all went home smiling.

Don't believe everything you see on the internet

Vancouver – Don’t believe everything you see on the internet

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Ladies and gents, this is your Captain speaking…

“It’s not as if I’m never friendly. Okay, maybe I don’t go around loving everybody I meet, maybe my smiles are hard to come by, but i do care for some people.”  (The Hunger Games)

North Americans….they’re all about the friendliness, yes? I could write an ode to the friendliness of Vancouverites, but I’d get stuck on the verse about customer service. I can’t decide which way to go with it, the experiences have been so diverse. I get the same buses every day stuffed in Kate’s bag and have therefore gotten to know a lot of the drivers on the bus route. They span the whole cross-section of humanity – some practically know my name, they’re genuinely happy to see me and really hope I have a good day when they wave goodbye as I get off the bus. A great example was a recent new driver on the route – his ‘in-flight’ announcements were phrased as if he were the pilot of a plane, rather than the driver of a bus. He announced things like “ladies and gents, this is your Captain speaking. There is another bus behind me which is empty if you’d like to get on that when we stop. Don’t tell him I sent you…!” and berating passengers waiting at a stop for a different bus “Ah come on, get on – I’m paid by the kilo”. What a guy – he was entertaining us for his own amusement, there was no hidden agenda with his attitude, and we all got off with an extra spring in our step that morning.

However, when we move across different industries, we encounter a different set-up. One of the main, marked differences between the UK and Canada has to be the customer service element to every tiny interaction throughout every day. Now, this is not to say that in the UK there is no concept of customer service, or that in Canada they have great customer service, just that a whole different approach is taken. The cynics among us might call this ‘doing it for the tips’. Customer service in Vancouver bars and restaurants takes on a life of its own – it is the friendly elephant in the room – the one wearing a short tight skirt and high heels who greets you the second you enter a building. Now, this is great for lots of reasons – you don’t have to queue at a bar in lots of places, someone brings you drinks (a massive plus), you find yourself being drawn into conversation and occasionally learn new things, the quality of food tends to be higher and service is quicker. Generally. Strangely enough, however, this concept doesn’t filter through to industries other than the hospitality sector. Shops, for example, have a whole other customer service code, which I am still trying to figure out. They smile, they chat, they ask you how your day’s been….that isn’t the problem. The problem arises when you ask them for help and they don’t know the answer. This is where the two countries divide – in England, if this scenario crops up, on the whole the assistant might attempt to help you find out the answer. They might call another store, they might ask a colleague.They might look up the answer online or in a catalogue. In short, they see your problem as their problem. In Vancouver, we have the opposite – your problem is your problem; if the assistant can help by telling you something that they know off the top of their head, they will probably do so. But if they don’t immediately know the answer to your question, god help you. They might give you some helpful ‘advice’ (“have you tried googling it?”), or just look at you like you’re crazy. They might (in some instances that I have witnessed) snap “well I don’t know the answer to that, try someone else”. Or they play the ‘I don’t understand your accent well enough to understand what you’re asking’ card, which is the one they keep under the counter for unintelligible foreigners such as the Brits. It never ceases to amaze me – in a country (and indeed a continent) that is renowned for the smiling fake customer service (“have a nice day, now”), the contrast between these different elements of service is startling. And neither really feels honest – you veer wildly from the effervescent, chatty sometimes intrusive hospitality sector to the sullen, sulky and downright unhelpful attitude of some people behind a retail counter – are either of these attitudes real? It seems that people become caricatures of themselves when they accept these positions – they can’t really be that happy or that sullen in real life. Unless…everyone here begins life with a natural demeanour, genuinely interested in the world and people around them. Until someone tips them 20%, and a new beast is born – ladies and gents, meet the career barmaid hostess.

Would you like fries with that?


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