Monday, March 22, 2010

LOFT LIFE: One moment please

 I know they’re trained to be polite, not to argue with the customer, to make every effort to decelerate combustible situations, but, I just don’t do well with what I call the Tape Recorder Voice (TRV), especially when it is not really a tape recorder. I know, I know, my expectations are way too high. I expect human beings to be actual thinking, reasoning persons, not pre-recorded, automated responses, which if they came from an actual robot, would at least not leak emotion.
I hope it doesn’t sound prejudiced, or lacking in multi-cultural savvy, but when this TRV is obviously in India or the Philippines, the obsequious attitude is even more annoying than were it a dripping courtesy from someone in my own country. Really, if this were a person from the U.S. who is originally from India or the Philippines, that wouldn’t faze me, because I would imagine they can better relate to my questions, predicaments or needs. What it comes down to is that I think this trans-oceanic person actually IS polite, and will go to any length to keep cool as I heat up, even if they don’t understand what I am saying. (I’m aware I’m using the word actual multiple times. It makes me feel better in this virtual world we live in.)
On this particular call to India (purported to be a United Airlines call center), I was merely inquiring about the actual cost of changing my ticket from a return trip to Hartford from Chicago and adding a third leg--a quick trip to Los Angeles, then back to CT.
I haven’t seen my eight grandchildren in two years due to trying to sell or rent our Illinois home during the whole years of 2008 and 2009 when we lived in the hotel in CT.
My call to United was just a question of cost. I wouldn’t book the change on the phone. That costs more. My never-to-be-challenged get-it-for-less skills wouldn’t tolerate that. I needed to know cost so I could make the changes online.
“I’d like to know the cost to change my ticket, add the Los Angeles trip and fly back to Connecticut,” I plied.
“One moment, please,” came the exotic accent from afar.
I waited many moments, only to be asked back my own question. We were still at the beginning. I looked at my watch. A moment is less than a minute. I was willing to grant at least three or four.
“One moment please,” he repeated. Oh, and his name, which we all believe, is Mike. I am certain UA doesn’t want to stress out American callers by forcing them to pronounce his real name. Once I actually asked a call center guy for his “real” name. He answered. They’re right, hard to pronounce without the spelling. 
They don’t want us stressed over this irrelevancy. They’re saving that energy for the reaction guaranteed by the end of the call, when none of the questions are actually answered, and the TRV continues the polite thing, knowing full well he isn’t answering the questions.
I felt my blood pressure rising as five and then seven minutes passed. There was a storm this Chicago evening; my phone needed charging. By the twelfth minute, I knew I was losing the battle. The storm raged, my phone died.
You already know what I did if you follow me here. I made a second call to India, ever-positive, sense of humor mostly intact, believing I might actually find a real human being, ask my questions, get an actual cost of changing a ticket, adding a leg. Ha ha. You also know that didn’t happen.
My second android was named Nick. (Do they choose their own names? Is this some film star they admire, or a name in a novel when they were perfecting English?)
Nick had the “one moment please” down pat, and seemed to love saying it, even adding the polite phrase, “I’m attempting to get the information for you.” That sounded hopeful.
Alas, my storms, the inner and outer ones, deepened. I was put on hold. On Nick’s return, we started anew. I was put on hold again, the TRV continuing to say, “One moment please.”
“A moment is not twenty minutes,” I blurted, realizing I was beginning my uncool journey.  “A moment is two, maybe three, at the most five minutes.” 
“Yes, ma’am. One moment please.” No emotion sounds. I suspect there was some.
Okay, now I was officially losing it. I don’t mind not getting my own way (well, of course I really do mind), and I understand the question was a tad complicated, but my cell was approaching its own red zone, the rain worsening. I knew this conversation would soon be curtailed.
“If I do change my ticket and don’t return to CT directly, will I lose my frequent flyer miles?” I interjected, hoping a new question would let me know if Nick was still paying attention.
“Yes,” he said. “You would not get the miles.”
I sighed.
“I just want to know the cost of the ticket,” I pleaded. “It’s the change fee, and then the cost of the additional destination, minus the credit from my already-purchased ticket, right? Is this a difficult question?” I hoped against hope, as Kierkegaard would say.
“One moment please,” Nick said, as though my ranting hadn’t bothered him in the least, and as though this was the first, not the fifteenth time he had said it.
The phone died, the rain belted, and even I have a point where I give up. I flew back to Hartford, booked a round trip to L.A. for the following day. It worked out--probably cheaper than the change ticket.
I’m wondering. I had 14 more hours in the air and a three hour layover in Chicago, to consider changing my approach. After all, I do not want to qualify for insanity.
So on my next call to India or the Philippines, or to any super-polite call center, what do you think of my answering the initial, “May I help you?” with “One moment please.” Of course I may have to give up wanting to get answers, but then I don’t usually succeed anyway. When they ask me a question, I could put them on hold, and return to them as if they had not already clearly asked me something. I could delay asking a question, get them really interested in what I have to say, and still keep cool as they do. Maybe it is a little passive-aggressive. That’s surely better than being all-aggressive. 
So, you know I am not really going to do this. It’s not Mike or Nick’s fault. They are mere cogs in the wheels of “progress.” But, when United Airlines sends me their survey (which I wonder if anyone actually reads), I am going to let them know exactly what I think about this attempt to remove the customer from customer service. Polite is good if it isn’t a cover for, “I can’t really help you, so I’m just going to keep saying, “One moment please.”

I just wanted a simple piece of information; the robotic system makes that almost impossible. Maybe it has nothing to do with language and culture differences. But, then why in a half hour isn’t there a simple answer? Does anyone else feel this level of frustration at the TRV?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

LOFT LIFE: You (food) are always on my mind

OK, enough about lungs. One can only be passionate about a lung if one is in danger of losing one. Now that living is back on the front burner, so is food, my true passion, aside from Jay and my kids, and grandkids, of course. (Good thing no one can see inside my brain for the truth.) You may want to read my second hotel story (March 09) for my detailed perspective on packaged food and the American dilemma on finding fresh food.
It occurs to me how moving to a new locale really affects what and how we eat and what we buy.
In my neighborhood walkabout, (scroll back somewhere around November 09 of my blog stories), I talked about bread from Diana’s Italian bakery, and imported ham, turkey and cheese from Helen’s Polish deli, and then there’s Silvia’s, which is a one-of-a-kind experience each time we go there.
We did have Valentine’s brunch at Silvia’s with Thomas and Andi, and they enjoy the drama of the place as much as we do. We keep trying to figure out why there are usually so few cars in a place with such amazing food. Some of this may be due to Silvia herself, who seems a bit intimidating to some. We watched as one couple arrived for brunch, sat down, and then decided to leave. Silvia caught them just in time, and with her invisible shepherd’s crook, guided them back to their table, with them looking sheepish, and a bit disgruntled at the coercion. We had a hard time not gaping at the scene, but then, as I have said before, Silvia doesn’t behave how we would think of as professionally. She is a business woman as well as a hostess in her homey place, though hospitality may not be her gift. It feels like she just can’t stand to lose even one patron. I don’t think it’s about money. I think she truly believes that if she can get you to stay, and eat, you will come back. It ends up feeling less like an invitation than an order from a mom-like control freak. But, the food is great.
It turns out not all of Diana’s goods are raving successes with us, but we did love her fruit cake over the holiday (still some in the freezer), and we enjoy her multigrain bread, which is seldom available, and her multigrain ciabatta. That said, I still confess to sorely missing my Great Harvest Bread bakery, and even though there is one near Boston, and nearer, in Manchester, that surface street drive is more daunting than Holyoke (scroll back again), so I won’t be going there by myself. Multiple hints to hubby haven’t resulted in trips to Manchester. 
Helen’s deli is great, and obviously, from the clientele, a neighborhood pillar. Her imported deli meats, kilbasi, cheeses, and other Polish treats like chocolate and pirogues are special. But, one can only eat so much of lunchmeat and pirogues.
My big find has been the Turkish-owned discount produce store on Rte. 5 in Enfield. The small parking lot is always burgeoning with double-parked cars of shoppers who know they must get to this produce.
I took my daughter there. She was jealous and knows no place like this in the Chicago suburbs. It’s really like an enclosed European outdoor market, but no flies (so far). 
On my first few visits, I spent around $75, mindlessly throwing everything, which had been growing under the sun quite recently, into my smallish cart. I think it reminded me so much of Italy, I just couldn’t help myself. It was euphoric.
I started budgeting.  Though I could seldom stick to my list once I saw pineapples for $2.49, and clementines’s from Spain for $3.99 a box, and avocados, and ripe, but firm cucumbers and zucchinis, and so much more, I just had to get it to my fridge.
After four months, and the experience of some produce rotting in my fridge because we two couldn’t eat it fast enough, I have begun to shop with more discernment.
I now realize that I have to go there more often, buy only what I will prepare in a day or two, and really start thinking of this as a market, not a supermarket. I mean, what is the point of shopping here, if I still treat it like the place that delivers food already two or three weeks old to the chains?
And, I don’t need every jar of olives, or the big $16 aged cheese, or the exotic things I can’t even identify yet, or halvah, or the Turkish delight candies on every visit.
This week, I spent about $29 and got my pineapple, juices, fresh cream cheese, an amazing yogurt drink, some feta-like cheese (which the owner told me how to cook for breakfast. YUM!!), and the makings of tabouli. No more packaged tabouli in the box. I bought a 2lb. bag of bulgur wheat for the price of one (supermarket) box, and it will make portions equal to five or six boxes of inferior stuff at the supermarket. Then the grape tomatoes, cucumber, parsley (sooo fresh), and lemons were a steal as as well. I decided instead of using plain boiling water to inflate my tabouli wheat, I made mint tea and poured it over the grain. Wow. It popped. Then when I added the olive oil, lemon, and the produce, I had the freshest, most delicious tabouli I have ever tasted. It's robust grain morsels are chewy, flavorful even without that ridiculous little spice-packet, and it's healthful! 
This may not be what you eat, or want, but it is what I eat and want, and I am delighted that now I feel like I am eating similar food to my European friends, I am lowering my cholesterol, blood sugar and weight, and best of all, I am enjoying the freshness and quality of this incredibly cheap food. The Mediterranean diet has always made the most sense to me. Now with this store at hand, I don’t have to wait until I find produce that isn’t wilted or soft or spoiled. 
I still have to find a meat store. So far I’ve had the best luck buying online--steaks, chicken and salmon. Costco isn’t terrible, but I don’t always want the quantities. 
For now I have the market cornered for bread, deli goods, produce, dairy, grains and oils. I am eating like a princess, and soon, hopefully, will shed the hotel pounds that made me feel more like a sumo wrestler without the muscle tone. :(  Who knows, I may even start thinking about clothes, not just food.