Guten Tag, Bonjour, and Xin Chao, without practice

When I thought about today’s challenge of a machine that I would create, if I could, two recent obstacles came to mind: 1) My increasing dislike of crossing time zones and dealing with jet lag and 2) my insatiable desire to speak foreign languages fluently when I travel.

I stumbled on this strange concocted ‘machine’ attached to a side of a skyscraper in Tokyo. The odd scene out of metal looked like a well-coordinated parasite attached to the streamlined facade of a high-rise office building. It immediately conjured up thoughts of the films The City of Lost Children, Brazil, Clockwork Orange and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, all films I adored and enjoyed as a youngster.

One of the attractive attributes of these film is the ability to transport me to another place and time, without the ill effects of jet lag. I love to travel, but as I get older, I don’t want to deal with all the tiredness, headache and spaciness that accompanies jet lag. Perhaps I am less tolerate of inconveniences for the novelty of a new experience, and I am now more selective about what inconveniences I am willing to tolerate. Thus, I wish there was a machine that would transport me easily to other parts of the globe without forcing me to suffer the horrible time-zone effects. And to address my second problem, I would want the machine to be a real Babel fish, a la Arthur C. Clarke’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (another favorite), from which I could speak and understand whatever foreign language I needed to speak and understand, without having to practice and spend unimaginable amount of time and effort (and frustration) actually learning it. A machine that could do both would definitely open up new travel opportunities.

Guten Tag, Bonjour, and Xin Chao, without practice

Daily Prompt: Ripped from the headlines – Big in Japan

Daily Prompt:  Ripped from the headlines - Big in Japan

As I contemplated today’s daily prompt, I came upon today’s Big in Japan article in the New York Times. The article explains author David Gordon’s unexpected fame in Japan, hence the title of the article. The title made me think about other things “big in Japan” that are not quite big elsewhere. One of those is the Japanese breakfast – oh, how I love the Japanese breakfast!

Rather than a cold bowl of cereal, which is what I grew up eating for breakfast; or bread and cold cuts, which is the beloved breakfast of Germany; or pastries and coffee, the continental breakfast; Japan offers fish for breakfast. Yes, I know; it sounds wrong, at first, especially if you have never tried it. But trust me, it’s delicious and so good for you. Of course, if you are a die-hard fish fan, sashimi or sushi may be your preference at Tokyo’s famous fish market, Tsijiki; however, if you’re like me and prefer something cooked for breakfast, you can’t beat the grilled fish with assortment of savory dishes. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. If you get a chance to visit Japan, I highly recommend this ‘big in Japan’ option for breakfast.

Daily Prompt: Ripped from Headlines – Big in Japan

Overwhelmed, bursting at the seams: We have too much stuff.

Back in the pre-historic times, before Ipads and Iphones and before American cars were “super sized” to accommodate their owners’ “super-sized” frames, all my worldly possessions fit comfortably into my small 1985 Chevy Cavalier.  Not a great car, by any stretch of the imagination, but it transported me and my things – treasured books, hats and clothing, camping gear, and my beloved Cannondale mountain bike – from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific.  Fast forward a few decades to now and, as a true American, I have also super sized and changed drastically.  Instead of a small car, eight full-sized shipping containers were needed to transport our ever-expanding stuff from the Straits of Singapore to the North Sea.   Although I picked up a husband along the way, I don’t think I can blame him for adding all eight containers to our relationship.  Or could it?  When the movers asked my husband if we were planning to open a shop, I laughed and said, “Yes, my husband has lots of clothes, doesn’t he?”  The movers all gave me a funny look and one clarified, “We meant a ladies shoe and handbag shop, ma’am.”  “Oh,”  I said, disappointed and embarrassed.  My husband gave me a righteous smug that said, “Didn’t I tell you, you have too many bags and shoes.”  I left and let the movers continue packing up our stuff.

Apparently we are not alone in our zealous accumulation of stuff.  According to a study conducted at UCLA, which culminated in a book called “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century:  32 Families Open Their Doors,” ever-expanding stuff is a growing epidemic in the U.S.  Unlike the nuclear families showcased in the book, my family is just two: my husband and me.  You would think two people would manage better and moderate their consumption of things.  Sadly, that hasn’t been the case with us.  We have too much and we need help.

If you were to peak into our bathroom closet, you would find six pairs of relatively new and unused swim goggles, which might make you think:  “Ah, they must be training for the Olympics.”  Sadly, no.  We are not avid swimmers.  In fact, we rarely swim now.  But couple years ago, when we were living in Singapore, where it’s hot and humid 365 days of the year, we had the bright idea that we would try to swim couple times a week 1) to add some physical activity to our sedentary lives, 2) to cool down from the heat, and 3) to add variety to our nightly ritual of going out to dine. 

When you endeavor to start any new activity, the first thing you have to do is attire yourself appropriately.  We learned that when we lived in Japan.  The Japanese dress appropriately for whatever sport or activity they engage in.  Because we already had bathing suits, from our love of tropical beach holidays, we were halfway there; all we needed were some swim goggles.  Like good sports novices, we did the research, getting excited about the prospects of doing some physical activity, and made our purchases. 

The thing about being DINKs (double income no kids) is that, because you have no kids, you work really long hours slaving away for your employer, who gives you a good salary, which blinds you from making economical decisions about your spending habits.  You think, “I have a job.  I can afford it.  I want it.”  And then you buy, buy, buy. 

And savvy merchants like Amazon offer Amazon Prime (one click purchase), so that you don’t even have to bother getting up to grab your credit card, because if you’re like me, after you get up from the computer to grab your credit card, you may pass by a stack of clothes on the floor and immediately stress about how much laundry you need to do or remember the comments made by the movers, who seemed to think that your wardrobe could fill a clothing shop, and then by the time you get into the hallway, you’ll have forgotten all about that non-Amazon store purchase because you’re suddenly wondering if you do indeed have too many clothes, and then your field of vision focuses on something that requires your immediate attention, so you forget about the village, you forget your potential purchase and you walk into the kitchen.  This happens to me and my husband all throughout the day.  For example, I’ll walk into the kitchen and see that the fridge door is open, but my husband is nowhere in sight.  I’ll call out to him and he’ll be on the phone in the living room or climbing up a ladder in the bathroom?  When I ask him what he was doing in the kitchen, he will respond with a blank look that says, “What do you mean the kitchen?  Can’t you see that I’m busy replacing a light bulb right now?”  There is no good way to reply to those types of questions, especially if you don’t want to start an argument.  I’ll usually pretend not to hear and then walk back to the kitchen to do some sleuthing on my own.  After surveying the room, I may find a half emptied bag of groceries that my husband was busy putting away, before he received a phone call or walked into the bathroom to put something away, and then remembered that the light bulb was out and needed to be replaced.  Is this how our lives have always been or have they become more convoluted as we have aged: from one distraction to the next, we jump from this to that, not really living in the present. 

That’s how we came to own six pairs of swim goggles between the two of us.  I ordered one, used it and put it somewhere that I couldn’t find it again.  I had to order another one and then, of course, I found the first one.  And then there were two.  I think the third one was ordered during the same time I ordered the second one, but I had forgotten that I clicked purchase on one website and then when I received two in the mail from different vendors, I realized my mistake.  I should have returned one, but I was too busy to bother and I figured that I could use them all.  Now what do I do with six goggles, that neither me nor my husband will need in the foreseeable future?  The scary thing is that it’s not just the swim goggles.  Today I finally set aside time to organize the mess in our bathroom closets.  And it’s a good thing I did; it turns out we have a big, growing pharmacy and drugstore in our bathroom.  For another two decades at least, we don’t need to buy any more shampoos, lotions, soaps, toothpastes, toothbrushes nor any drugs like Tylenol, Tylenol PM, Ibuprofen, Aspirin, Nyquil, etc.  I, for one, am glad about our newly discovered stock of medications.  All this stress from too much stuff keeps me up at nights, but now that I have discovered our abundant supply of Tylenol PM, my nights won’t be restless anymore. I hope.

Here’s a link to an article discussing the book I mentioned above:  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/28/garden/an-anthropologist-on-hyper-abundance-and-the-american-home.html?_r=0

Biting my tongue at Muji Frankfurt

As a seasoned American expat, living in Frankfurt, I feel very thankful to be experiencing a different culture, learning a different language and enjoying (sometimes) an environment different than I grew up with.  However, with the good comes also the not-so-quite good.  For all the positive things I love about living in Germany – better quality of life, ubiquitous mass transit, German beer, wine and sausages, ideal location in the heart of Europe – there are still things that drive me nuts about this country.  One in particular, which continues to baffle me and other expats, on a daily basis, especially when we have to shop, is the lack of customer service.  Everybody knows what bad service is, don’t they?  It’s like pornography, you can’t describe it, but when you see or experience it, you know it.  I experienced another bad service again yesterday, at Muji on Kaiserstrasse in downtown Frankfurt. 

For those not yet familiar with Muji, it’s a Japanese store that carries simple and streamlined products including stationary, organizers, candles, as well as clothing and other home furnishings.  Muji has a presence all over the world and they pride themselves on the ‘less is more’ principle of design.  However, each time I have shopped in their stores in Japan, Great Britain, Singapore, France, Hong Kong or even Korea, their customer service was always ‘more’ welcoming and ‘more’ attentive than other similar retail shops.  Sadly, somewhere between Tokyo and Frankfurt, their customer service commitment seems to have taken a plunge.

Yesterday, I stepped into Muji Frankfurt, attracted by a display of candles near the front of the door.  Unlike the other Muji stores that I have been in, which tend to occupy larger retail areas, the store in Frankfurt is narrow, small and cozy.  I stood in front of the candles, picking up different types of candle jars to decipher which scent I preferred.  As I was holding one in my hand, reading the bottom of the glass, a young woman stepped directly in front of me, separating me from the shelf of candles.  Her interruption forced me to step backwards to avoid her hair ending up in my mouth.  I thought, “Geeze, how rude.  Why don’t Germans say ‘Please excuse me.’ before stepping in front of someone?  Had I been in an English-speaking environment, I would have reacted immediately with a  “Ah, excuse me, but I would prefer to smell the candles and not your hair.  Would you mind moving out of my way PLEASE?”  Unfortunately and because I am not a native-German speaker, I rarely say anything when Germans are rude or do something so contrary to how I was raised.  Again, as a foreigner I bit my tongue and said nothing.  As I stared at the back of her shirt, which was irritating my nose, I thought to myself, “Why are some German so rude?  Why the frequent lack of consideration for others?”  I took a step to my right, cleared my throat and that’s when I saw that she was holding a sheet of paper with a bunch of numbers on it.  Unbelievable:  Instead of being a rude customer, as I had originally suspected, she was one of the staff!  She never acknowledged me or looked back at me.  She expected me to step out of her way, even if she had to trample me in the process.  She was completely oblivious to my presence or the fact that I was trying to select a candle jar to purchase.  She was so intent on her sheet of numbers and trying to match it to the candles or whatever her task was that nothing else came into her vision, even when she could probably feel my breath hyperventilating with anger on her back.  Is this what they call customer service in Germany, a ubiquitous state of perceptual blindness?  And if she has it, what is she doing working in a customer service field such as retail for a Japanese company?  I expect more from a retailer, especially Japanese one.  If anyone knows the management of Muji Frankfurt,  please let me know.  I would love to share with them some clues on how they can improve their customer service training for their staff.  Yes, ‘less is more’, but not necessarily in customer service.

Why is Germany a customer-service desert?

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Although the U.S. offers its share of great customer service, Japan is the best place that I have lived where customer service reigns supreme.  “Irrashaimase!”, as any who has entered a Japanese restaurant or sushi-bar hears, is the ubiquitous greeting welcoming new customers as they enter an eating establishment.  From there, the hospitality and service blooms and improves.  Whether it is the waitress running to get the pitcher of green tea or sake or the warm hand towel that is placed in front, so that you can wash and freshen up, the Japanese know how to treat their customers like royalty.  Sadly, that doesn’t exist in Germany.

When I first asked my teacher the German translation for customer service, she replied, “Customer service.”  Our class laughed, but that should have been the clue, and we should have cringed.  Walk into any German department store or shop and it is rare that someone greets you.  Try to find a salesperson at department stores like Kaufhof, Karstadt, or Peek and Cloppenberg to pay for a purchase, and they are usually nowhere to be found.  The salepersons usually stand behind a counter talking on their cellphone, talking to other salepersons, or trying to hide behind rows of WMF knives.  They avoid eye contact with shoppers or rarely approach shoppers to ask if they need assistance.

Today I stopped in the Galleria Kaufhof at the Hauptwache to look for some linen place mats.  As I walked through the housewares section, looking at different items, not a single salesperson approached or asked if I needed assistance, which I did.  When I finally managed to find a saleslady over by the glasswares, she was standing by the wine glasses staring into space with a look of boredom and apathy.  As I approached her, she looked right through me: no greeting, no eye contact, no acknowledgement that another human being was within her presence.  After I said, “Entschuldigung Sie bitte; koennen Sie mir helfen?” she didn’t answer, but her expression was loud and clear:  “Why are you bothering me?  I don’t want to help you.  Why can’t you let me daydream in peace about my six weeks of vacation that I am entitled to take any day now?  Whether I help you or not, I still get paid and I still get my vacation.”  Normally, I would have allowed her sour mood to affect me, but for some reason, I didn’t this time.  Maybe it was the festive Christmas music streaming throughout the store.  But no matter what the cause, I didn’t react to her.  Instead I ignored her unpleasantness, her rudeness and just peppered her with my questions, talking to her as if I could not see how uncomfortable she was or how she, obviously, didn’t want me to interrupt her peace and quiet.   Why does she work in a service industry when she obviously has no desire to provide service to customers?  For that matter, why do so many Germans who work in a ‘service’ industry lack any aptitude, skill or even feigned interest in customer service?

Obviously, I am not being completely fair comparing Japan, the epitome of customer service, to Germany, where even the word doesn’t exist in the language.  But come on, I don’t expect salespersons to throw bouquets at me when I enter a store or carry my shopping bags to the front of the store and bow to me as I leave (as they do in Japan), but a little smile, a greeting or eye contact surely isn’t going to kill anyone?