Accent · British Traits · Expat Dilemmas · Fitting In · Life · Life On The Road · Lost In Translation · Shopping · UK

Snippet on Adjusting to Life in the UK

I realize that I haven’t posted in a while; and I am a little half-hearted about jump-starting it with a grumble.  In particular, it will be about (the virtually non-existent) customer service in the UK…. again.  It’s the one thing about  UK life I can’t quite get my head around, just because it’s a puzzle that in a country where everything is about civility, politeness and niceties, very few stores (or “shops”) seem to be able to get it right.

Today I headed into town to run a few errands at the bank and the post office.  Too early for the return train — and yes, I DO have to rush back home as I have a conference call to Chicago by 9:30 Central Time — I decided to go to Debenhams to use up an expiring gift card.  The gift card had a 24-month lifetime, and we got it as a wedding gift 2 years ago.  Hence the urgency to use it before its expiration.  I got a few small things at the home section, and headed up to pay.   Here goes the convo at the till:

Cashier :  Hi, you alright?

Me :  Hi, yes, I’m good how are you (waited for her to scan the 2 items, tell me the total, and then I handed over the gift card)

Cashier :  (peering from the top of her bifocals for some time and swiping it) — Do you know how much money you have on the card?

Me : (slightly surprised why it was up to me to tell her how much was left on the card — she could swipe to find out couldn’t she? — and trying to remember how much I had left on the card).  Hmmmmm…. I’m not too sure.   I think I might have around £120-something on it….

Cashier : (looking back at me)  So, in other words, — you do not know…..

Yup, those were her words  — “so in other words, you do not know….”

I am only slightly amused, but  mostly annoyed at myself, for being thrown off by comments like these, especially when they come with an accent and a nose in the air (literally, as it tried to hold up her bifocals).  I am not too sure whether to react the “American way” of always being right as customer; or to tread the polite line of putting sales staff softly in their place by a slight change in my intonation, the right choice of words, or the just-enough raise of my right eyebrow.  It really is tricky to make that split-second decision to either dare to be yourself and risk awkward attention; or to live as the Romans when in Rome and tone everything way way down.  I just know that each time I come over to the UK, I do not stay long enough to get out of the mode of being the visitor or the outsider, and to know how to deal with situations the way locals do.  But because that is my choice and this is my life, for now all I can do is sigh.  Until I get it right, if they don’t.

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Shopping

Customer Service is an oxymoron in the UK

Customer service leaves much to be desired here in the UK.  No offense meant.  Just stating a fact.  Let’s begin with basics like customer convenience and the “enjoyment” one normally likes to associate with a shopping experience. These do not seem to be high on the retailers’ priority list here.  Big department stores tend to tuck their restrooms at the remotest corners, without adequate signs to show where they are located.  You just have to ask, or guess, or both.  I can almost swear this is part of a deliberate design to just have restrooms used less — less maintenance, less cost, less headache for them.  Perhaps a conspiracy among the retail giants?  Ok, I’ll try not to be too cynical.  I can tell you they have signages that guide you towards everything else but the loos though.

Today I took the train from our hotel in Falkirk into Glasgow, and did the rounds of the shops.  Mostly window-shopping.  It’s hard to really shop here knowing how much cheaper prices are back in the US.  But hey, every girl needs her retail therapy now and then; — or sometimes we shop with a purpose, as was the case for me this time.  The objective:  find shoes for a formal dinner event this Saturday evening.  It’s the hubby’s motorsports club’s annual gig (where he gets a few awards too), and although things have toned down a bit now, it used to be a “penguin suit” sort of affair, I heard.  Since I’m newly wed, and newly-moved, this is going to be my first time to attend.   I’ve decided to wear one of my Vivienne Tams.  I just need new shoes to update the look, since most of my dressier shoes are in Chicago.  I started the search in a few smaller shops and later turned into Debenhams, a large UK department store.  If I had to make an analogy it would probably be like the US’s “Macy’s” chain.  The store occupies an entire building on Argyle Street, if not a significant part of that building.  Inside it has 5 huge floors full merchandise — and guess what?  Only one floor with toilets.  Yup, only on the second floor, the women’s floor, tucked in one of those obscure corners.   But as if this disproportionate lack of facilities wasn’t bad enough, —  the restrooms were actually boarded up, blocked with cones and crates, and with yellow tape marking the area off much like a crime scene.  Then the almost “apology sign” (a common sight here), “we apologize that the toilets are under repair….”  With the amount of debris blocking that area, I get the feeling that this “repair” has been going on for some time, and no, no other restrooms available in the whole building.  You would think with the price ranges in such a store they loved their customers.  And if this is the condition in a big store in the largest city in Scotland, I can only guess how much worse it would be in smaller places.  But this is how it is, and what can customers do but get used to it, right?

I’ve often wonder how this country is going to be ready for the 2012 Olympics in London because the concept of good customer relations/service is simply not in the retail service providers’ psyche.  I don’t think they mean to be this way.  They’re just not conscious of what needs to be done and how they have to be done.  You walk into a store, and the sales people look away when their eyes meet yours.   Very rarely do they bother to say greet you.  You can be queueing up to pay and see cashiers talking to each other over their tills and delaying the lines.  You see lazy unattentive sales attendants who do not know their products.  You get very fast “no” and “I’m sorry, we don’t have that here” answers, instead of — “let me check if we have that somewhere in the backroom” or “let me check in our other stores if I can get that for you.”  You will also see the sales staff blocking the very cramped merchandise aisles chatting away while the customer pretends not to be annoyed.  Worse, some stores seem to have staff who “size-you-up” on entry and if they think you cannot afford, they just turn away.  I know I’m sweeping with my statements, but seriously these are not uncommon.  So for now I am keeping to mostly window-shopping (except maybe bookstores and Boots), and there are days when I miss the American “can-do” spirit and positive go-get-’em attitude.

P.s., I did achieve what I set out to do and got shoes from another store.

British "stuff" · Christmas · Gifts · Holidays · Shopping

The Hot Water Bottle As Heating System

I first came across it in the Next store in Manchester more than a month ago.  It looked interesting enough — a colorfully knitted, flat-ish, matryoshka-design doll, lying among the “specials” arranged by the entrance to the women’s section.  But when I lifted it, it was heavier than I expected and had a wobbly feel to it.  What on earth is this?  I looked at the tag, and, surprise, surprise …. found out that this knitted “matryoshkha doll” was but a casing that housed a hot water bottle underneath.  Curious, I asked the sales attendant what exactly it was for.  “It’s something you can bring with you to bed to keep your bed warm.”  Oh.  Ok.  How ingenius I thought. 

I would soon find that this in fact is a popular Christmas item in most stores — at least among women and ladies.  (Note:  Hubby didn’t know that these hot water bottles came in “designs”, although he DID confirm that warming beds with hot water bottles was fairly common).  That’s one thing I’ve had to adjust to, coming over to the UK.  I used to gripe a lot about how cold it was/is/can be here in the UK, in response to which the Hubby would often remind me that “It’s not even close to the kind of cold you have in Chicago.”  Which is very true, … and for a while there I couldn’t figure why it just felt colder here in the UK.  THEN IT DAWNED ON ME.  The reason was largely due to the fact that in Chicago, once I get INDOORS of anything — a store, a building, even the bus — there would be heat.  The condo where I live in Chicago has centralized heating (with each condo unit having its own regulator to switch on and off) as part of your monthly association dues.  Over here (UK), you have to knock the heat on and it takes a while for the radiator to get busy.  And you can’t just keep the heat on forever because it is expensive.  So we usually keep it on by the hour and dab to extend the timer if the house isn’t warm enough.  Of course, we DO have a small fireplace which mostly heats just the living room, leaving all other rooms cold.  So the best, most efficient, low-cost and maintenance way to warm your bed?  A water bottle, of course.  :)  Who woulda thunk?   

These loveable little heating systems are found in ALL the major stores.  They come in the guise of dolls, reindeers, cows, — and just as they are, hot water bottles but in their winter coats:

From Next:

From John Lewis:

For a while while searching I had thought TopShop was spared this wonder of a merchandise…. until I looked  underneath at the lower rungs — aha, there you are hiding….

And in that girl-paradise of a store, Accessorize (the stand-alone accessories store of the Monsoon chain):

And even the Charlie-and-Lola series have their own.  I found these in an indie store on Cockburn street in Edinburgh:

There is a  small side story to all this, closer to home:  A few days ago, at the end of an 8-hour overnight flight from Chicago to Manchester, I came home to an house underheated due to the hubby being away on an off-site project.  Extremely tired, I barely made it through the usual post-flight cleaning up routine, and finally dragged myself to bed, ready to plop and bracing myself for the cold bed.  Guess what little surprise I found tucked underneath my blanket, all filled up with hot water? —

AH, THE BRITISH.  UNDERSTATED, BUT NEVER UNDER-ROMANTIC.

Fashion · Shopping · UK

Fashionista or Recessionista?

I’ve been asked a few times which UK clothing store is my favorite.  I find that Q hard to answer simply because I have none.  In the UK, clothing chains like TopShop, H&M, Monsoon and River Island have styles that are …. I don’t know, hard to label.  Part Boheme, part downtown, punk rockish, Kate-Moss-ish, the long tunic/shirt (and everything else) with tights sort of aesthetic that I neither dig nor understand, much less appreciate.  Unfortunately.  Good middle reliables like Marks & Spencer are bordering on the boring.  Then there are the nice high-ends which are very nice and very high end.  But being the newbie that I am in the UK, I have neither occasion to dress that way up, nor inclination to suffer any dent to my patrimony for that kind of fashion. 

So the entire 2 months that I last was in the UK (between June and August), I did not buy one piece of clothing.  NOT ONE.  Simple reason:  didn’t find anything I really liked.  Until the last day…. we were in Scotland, on the day we were to drive home to Manchester and from there to the airport with me bound for the US the next day.  In Debenhams in Edinburgh, I finally found a shoe with lust factor and appeal, at least to me.  It was a Jasper Conran, and was in the style of the YSL Fatale, for a frac-frac-fraction of the $930 price.  So the toss that remained was between black and the softer brown suede.  IN the end it was easy.  Black suede — tacky and cheap.  Brown suede  — visions of Pochahontas, especially with fringes, yes but never mind.  I liked it.  Thumbs up.

My "Steal"
My "Steal" (Jasper Conran for Debenhams)
.... versus the "splurge" (YSL Fatale)
.... versus the "splurge" (YSL Fatale)

 And meanwhile, my feet are happy, as in flower-happy.  (ok, you can groan….)

3905021630_9db0b74e43

Carrie: But I rationalized that my new shoes shouldn’t be punished just because I can’t budget.  (from “Sex In The City”)

Cooking & Kitchen · Shopping

Kitchen Kitsch


Korean Store Glory

Originally uploaded by Miss Chicago

I love going to Asian stores in the US. They are generally more spacious that those in Chinatowns in the UK. Well, generally. Many are just as cramped, that’s for sure.

I love the diversity of the food stuff on display, dry and wet. I love to look through the foggy doors of the frozen foods section — dumplings, crab cakes, frozen fish (with heads), cuttlefish and fishballs. And best of all, I love browsing through their dinnerware, tableware, cutlery, pottery, kettles and other kitchen stuff. Everything is always beautifully made, without compromising on its utility. And interestingly, how many variations of a rice scooper can one have? Apparently, not enough. :)

Friends · Shopping

Coasting and Coasters

Today was a day of no-agendas, just coasting along : Bonding time with best buddy who lives in Kansas City.  We simmered in Borders, pored over books and giggled ourselves sick over “Chinglish”, a picture book of signages and billboards in mainland China with their funny (read:  crazy) English translation.  That these hopeless translation continue in post-Beijing Olympics China makes it even more surreal.  We laughed until we almost cried.  The book is edited by Oliver Lutz Radtke.

Then we went to TJ Maxx and I bought this set of linen coasters —

mr and mrs
I thought to put a sense of humor in our everyday life.... :), coasters including.
Chicago · Fashion · Politics and Current Events · Shopping · Uncategorized

The First Lady and Chicago Style

Michelle Obama’s style is definitely “Chicago”.   Solid on basics, with quirky twists here and there.  And — always ready for a change of weather. :)

michelle-obama

For gallery of photos, click here.

And for the “power” behind the fashion, it’s Chicago’s own icon, and dresser of the best dressed, Ikram

Fashion should be eye candy, right down to  a simple t-shirt and sweater.  Even these things can have the most beautiful cut and be luxurious.   — Ikram Goldman

Chicago · Family · Food · Shopping

What Chicago Lacks —

…. is Walmart.  Yes, Chicago has no Walmart, at least not in the city.  We have our usual grocers Jewel, Dominicks, Whole Foods, Trader Joes… no Walmart.  Which is good and bad.  Our groceries are on the average more expensive than places with a neighborhood Walmart.  We support our local grocers and the long-timers who have served our community.  But read this — Walmart is creeping up the backdoor… via the “burbs”…. http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/chi-sun-wal-mart-0322-mar22,0,1095756.story

Fashion · Friends · Shopping

aFASHIONato :)

I hope the title’s play on words is not lost on you.  The Italian “appassionato” means to pursue something ardently.  So I am indulging my mild (ok, passionate) interest in fashion.  This time its nothing  really serious, but today I found myself a pair of Doc Martens in a style that I like and feel comfortable in.   At DSW in Kansas City, with best bud JaryMean of course — yes, her! or how on earth would I even think of shoes, right?. 

So anyway, back to the topic.  Over the Christmas holidays, C and I were looking high and low for a pair especially with the harsh (snowy and icy) Chicago weather. I slipped so often when we’re gliding on the ice that C had seriously suggested getting a pair of “DM”s.  Of course, he being dyed-in-the-wool Brit, he grew up on those (and Wellies).  DMs are known to be resistant to slips caused by everything from petrol to acid, so hopefully it will keep me from those embarassing trips over the ice. So here’s the pair I finally chose, and with JaryMean’s validation that they are cool.  The style is very “young” (which would be the only reason I do not like them,  – they’re not exactly elegant)  but hey, these 7-holers are also serious battle gear more than fashion:

3207951773_d6c035895813207952373_2ea361fbd11  I got them on further 40% discount, so yeah, this pair cost $60.  I checked online and the cheapest I could find is from zappos.com for $100.  So I did pretty good.  And finally, I know they’re chunky and clunky and may look like men’s shoes.  Which is why I took two shots which would show you the little “flower” of sorts at the upper rear side of the shoe.  That “girls” it down I hope.  :)

3207953219_d70507337912

“Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes.  That way when you criticize them you are a mile away from them, and you have their shoes.”  – Jack Handey