a valued customer

It’s a source of real irritation to me that, no matter how much you spend in an Australian shop, no matter how high-end, the likely greeting by the shop assistant at the till will be “Just these today?”. Once I was shopping for a whole new work wardrobe, assisted by a personal shopper. Even with the personal shopper’s discount my bill in one shop was a comfortable four-figure number. “Just those today?”, I was asked as I approached the counter. I almost asked whether she would prefer I shop a little harder just to gain her acknowledgement as a bona fide customer.
So I love shopping in Japan, where every transaction makes you feel like royalty. On a whim the other day, I stop by a Birkenstock shop on Shinsaibashi in Osaka. One pair of sandals and a $100 spend later, the shop manager escorts me right outside the front door before formally presenting me with a heavy cotton bag containing my purchase. With a low bow, he thanks me and I walk away. Fifty metres away at the corner of the street, I look back and he is still there, still bowing low.
For a $100 transaction.
A few days later a lovely shop assistant helps me choose a new yukata (summer kimono) and matching obi (tie belt) in the fashionable halls of Dai Maru. This young lady has almost no English, and embarrassingly I have even less Japanese. But fashion, colour coordination and commerce need no common language, and after an enjoyable trying-on session I spend around $80 on a lovely new black, white and red creation. My purchase is lovingly wrapped in tissue paper and placed in an iconic Dai Maru paper bag, with a clear plastic bag popped in for later in case it rains. The shop assistant asks whether we will browse some more in the South Building or return to the Main Building. When I indicate the latter, she politely escorts me to a set of marble stairs, indicates where I need to go, then presents me with my purchase with a low bow and an “arigato gozaimas-ta”. As I reach the top of the staircase I look down, and the young lady is still there, still bowing until I am out of sight.
I love this country.
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singapore weekend

Global cities are well defined in economic terms. They dominate the trade and commerce of their home countries and beyond; they have global decision-making capabilities, and they are centres of distinction and innovation in education, entertainment and technology.

Global cities to me always had a more visceral definition: larger than life, they know they are different, more important, create a larger vortex. And crucially, they don’t care. They are too busy being a global city to think about it too much, and they certainly don’t care what you think. A visitor to a global city is not required or expected to fall in love with the place, to applaud its many merits and achievements. Citizens of global cities really just want visitors to walk at a decent pace, learn quickly what side of the escalator to stand on, spend their money and generally not get in the way.

As a result, of course, we all adore these places. Never mind that New Yorkers are brash and direct, that the rents are as sky-high as the buildings. Those most critical of US foreign policy or cultural domination will sigh at the mention of New York and declare it their favourite city on earth. Never mind that London is congested and chilly, or that the tube has no air-conditioning, or that Heathrow is a nightmare. Everybody wants to go and live in London in their gap year. It’s the buzz, you see.

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Some people equate Global Cities with something more: on top of the economists’ definitions, they also expect them to be multi-cultural melting pots, intersection points for all the races and cultures of the world. To me, this melting-pot criterion is not necessary: you don’t really get that in Tokyo or Hong Kong, and yet they are true Global Cities.

In the late 1990s some academics in Loughborough University, of all places, made a catalogue of Global Cities. In A++ place were London and New York, naturally. In close second at A+ level were Hong Kong, Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney, Singapore and Dubai.

According to my definition it’s almost right. Hong Kong may technically be part of China but it will always be, defiantly, just Hong Kong. Similarly, Shanghai’s colonial past sets it a little apart from the rest of China and it has its own unique feel and sub-culture. Beijing is inextricably linked with the rest of China, both culturally and economically, but its citizens remind me more of the people of New York than the people of Xi’an. Come and visit if you like, just keep out of the way.

Paris, is, of course, Paris. Enough said.

But Sydney? To me, Australia’s largest city is still far too self-conscious to be a genuine Global City. Yes, technically its economic and political influence is significant both in Australia and in Asia Pacific, so the Loughborough University definition stands. But it tries too hard to be liked, admired, acknowledged. It’s like the younger sibling of one of the cool kids in high school, hanging around with the big boys, trying to fit in. It’s Sandra Dee, or a young graduate with their first proper job, hiding their lack of self-confidence money and swagger, but little sophistication.

Also, to this Old-Worlder, it’s difficult to see such a young city as a real Global City. To me, Global Cities are simultaneously ancient and new, patched together, organically developed, hectic places where you can almost see the growth rings like those of an old tree.

The chaos is only barely under control; the plumbing and sanitation and road works and public transport survive each day somehow, and everybody heaves a sigh of relief. One unfortunate passenger under a tube train, one set of Manhattan traffic lights on the blink, one Star Ferry running late, and London/New York/Hong Kong teeters on the brink of rush-hour annihilation.

That to me is what a Global City feels like.

A weekend in Singapore, then, was an interesting scenario. This famous city state holds around 6 million citizens in an area about the same size as the Tasman Peninsula in Australia, half of County Dublin or the Isle of Man. There are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see, but those in the central business district are so tall that the “regular” buildings further out don’t seem to warrant the name.

I had few expectations except for tales of humidity, pristine streets and underground shopping malls built to shield Singaporeans from the heat above ground. I looked forward to the biggest observation wheel in the world and plenty of rooftop cocktail bars.

Did it feel like a true Global City? I don’t know. Again, the economic influence is undoubted, and the urban landscape is sensational. The shopping is fantastic, the street food legendary, the coffee alone worth the trip. A smattering of world-class iconic structures make the cityscape interesting: the enormous Singapore Flyer and the Marina Bay Sands, a warped surfboard resting on a wicket.

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But…. It was a little sterile. Of course, Singapore is renowned for its cleanliness and order, rules and regulations: no chewing gum, no littering, no durian fruit on the trains.

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The trains run on time, the people all stand on the correct side of the escalator, and they all walk on the left hand side of the pavement. The result is a little futuristic and surreal, if like me you come from an ancient and chaotic town like Dublin. The people were unfailingly polite, friendly, warm and helpful, which was lovely. Whilst it was an incredibly busy place, there was little of the barely-controlled frenzy you often feel in other huge cities. I liked it, mostly.

The vast warren of inter-connecting underground shopping malls was a real eye-opener. I’m not a bit claustrophobic, but I ended up feeling quite relieved each time we emerged chilled and blinking from that air-conditioned fluorescent netherworld into the tropical sunlight. At any given time, six million Singaporeans are hermetically sealed in vast steel-and-concrete tubes, either horizontally underground or vertically reaching for the sky. It can’t be right.

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The rooftop bars were a delight. No matter where you are in the centre of town, the views are sensational. From the understated sophistication of the seventh floor Lighthouse Bar at the Fullerton, to the de trop ostentation of Ku De Ta atop the Marina Bay Sands, we tried them all (or many of them, anyway).

The Lighthouse was just delightful. “You look beautiful!”, exclaimed the (female) manager to me as I emerged from the lift. I didn’t, but I accepted the compliment graciously. A perfectly made Bombay Sapphire and tonic was the way to enjoy the tacky but entertaining laser show across the water at the Marina Bay Sands. Time your visit for 8pm or 9.30pm (and 11pm on Saturdays) to watch the dancing lights in understated luxury.

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Ku De Ta is of course the place to see and be seen, and they keep away the hoi polloi with plenty of rules: men must wear closed-in shoes (women are good to go in strappy sandals). No shorts, singlets, slippers or tank tops. You’d better book ahead even for drinks (but the minimum spend is quoted as S$80 a head, and you don’t get a seat). The door staff on the ground floor will vet you even before you get to the lifts. The result was a spectacular view, no shelter if it rained, a disappointing drinks list, far too much ice and marmalade (you heard me) in my cocktail, very little space to take it all in and a quick decision to move on to the next bar.

The City Space bar on the 70th floor of the Stamford, on the other hand, may look north away from Marina Bay and That Building, but the atmosphere is relaxed, welcoming and much more grown-up. Karen the manager got to know us by name, scored us window seats every time and brought our “usual” cocktails to us with a smile.

The Lantern on the top of the modern Fullerton Bay is a great spot, not too high but perfectly placed to enjoy the unique Marina Bay skyline. It’s a bit after-worky in the early evening, but a great place to watch the sunset and get in the mood for the night ahead.

So is Singapore on my personal lists of Global Cities? No. Is it a good destination for a weekend break, a spot of shopping, a reason to sip a Singapore Sling by the pool, a chance to overdose on kopi peng (Singaporean iced coffee), an opportunity to dress up and bar-hop with the best of them? Absolutely.

See you next time, Singapore.

 

 

 

living simply

A recent blog post by my close friend Fiona has got me thinking. Could I live with just 100 belongings, not including shared items and necessities?

I suppose it depends upon what you call a necessity. My Tiffany bud vase (and indeed my iPad) are not necessities, and yet I love them, not to mention the limited but carefully-selected bookshelf of books I allow myself in our space-challenged home.

Never mind my three dozen or so pairs of shoes, including countless pairs of spangly flip-flops (all different colours of course).

This might be more difficult than I thought.

I have been thinking back to recent purchases. Apart from necessities like groceries, toiletries and the like, what else have I purchased in the past month or so for myself – that is, not gifts for others? It’s not exhaustive but here goes:

  • a new red singlet top for our holidays (hmm not a necessity I suppose)
  • spray-on waterproofing for our backpacks (necessary in pre-hurricane season Mexico)
  • water purification tablets for our holiday (necessary)
  • a new scented candle – no, make that two (I shall admit one is challenging, and two is a luxury)
  • new specs which I have not picked up yet (definitely necessary)
  • three basic A5 notebooks, one for my holiday journal and two for work (necessary)
  • a new fountain pen (an indulgence given I already have three)
  • quite a few books, maybe 6 or so (necessary for the soul, I believe, and also I give the vast majority of books away when I have finished them)
  • half a dozen iPhone/iPad apps (an indulgence, just like my i-devices)
  • a new necklace and two new pairs of purple-stoned earrings (definite indulgences)
  • a new winter hat (necessary even in Australia, unless you count the three or four I already have…)

Not awful when I list them, but there were quite a few unnecessary purchases in there including the jewellery, the candles, the hat and the fountain pen.

I am satisfied that I only spent $3.40 on one basic red singlet top as additional holiday wear: everything else I have packed I have owned for quite some time. So no pre-holiday splurge. And for me, it is easy to be frugal in terms of purchases when travelling, as anything I buy has to fit in my 65 litre backpack and be carried by me.

Perhaps when I get home from our trip I will see how long I go before my first non-necessity purchase. A winter of frugality, maybe.

Or will I wimp out?

can I just grab…?

Standing in a queue for takeaway coffee, the person in front of me orders: “Can I just grab a large skinny flat white?”.

Dining with friends or colleagues, it is not unusual for at least one person to say “Can I grab the wagyu beef and a glass of shiraz?”.

This manner of ordering or requesting service rarely, if ever, is accompanied by a “please”.

Why do so many people trivialise their order or request in this way? Servers and shop assistants are here to serve us, in a shop, cafe or restaurant. The “just” implies that theirs is a small, easy to deliver request. Nothing big, complicated or time-consuming. The “grab” implies the server can quickly reach for said item with no effort, and the customer can grab it from them (itself a little rude) and be on their way.

Are these “just grabbers” trying to show they are no trouble, easy to satisfy, unimportant, taking up little time? Or do they have little respect for the person serving them? The lack of “please” further emphasises the latter to me.

What’s wrong with the traditional, polite “May I have…”?

It happens in reverse too, and that really winds me up. You browse through Borders, or Priceline, or an expensive clothes shop. You wander up to the counter with $250 worth of books, or $75 of toiletries, or $500 of new clothes. The assistant says “Just those today?”.

Am I not purchasing enough to please? Is the shop dissatisfied that I am spending “just” that amount? This has happened to me when purchasing multiple outfits, expensive computer equipment, ridiculous amounts of money in a single shop for Christmas presents. At times I have been standing there trying to decide whether I am being excessively indulgent in my purchase, then decide to go for it, only to be asked “Just those today?”.

Next time you are out and about, listen to how people communicate with each other when shopping or dining out, and ask whether we can find better ways to do so without trying to trivialise, disrespect or dismiss.

thinkgeek.com – the ultimate customer service organisation

On Monday evening, I cannot resist the urge to purchase a few things online from thinkgeek.com. Slogan teeshirts, Star Trek lapel pins, you get the idea. Tragic, I know.

After three days of correspondence, this is the email I’ve just sent to their customer services people. Be warned: it’s like trying to buy illegal firearms or something.

Just so you know, the other option I received was to fax my bill to them. I was also instructed that any email attachment must be less than 500kb or it would be rejected by their email system.

Not sure these dudes qualify as bona fide geeks.

Dear Christina –

1. On 15 November you ask for “A copy of a statement from a service provider or financial institution, that shows the billing address submitted during checkout.”

I send you a statement from our internet service provider with my home address on it.

2. On 17 November you say this is not acceptable. You ask for “a phone bill or other utility bill showing the same billing address as your credit card.”

I send you a statement from my mobile phone provider showing the same billing address as my credit card.

3.  On 18 November you now say this is not acceptable. You now tell me “You need to physically scan in a hardcopy of your bill or take a photo of it.”

Like many people, I do all of my banking and utility bill-paying online. I only receive bills of this nature by email. In order to purchase some sci-fi trinkets from you, are you seriously asking me to:

  • Go online to my electricity/gas/phone provider’s website;
  • Save a recent bill to my hard drive;
  • Print it out (perhaps I should do it in colour to make it look more “genuine”?);
  • Scan or photograph it back into electronic format just so it looks even more genuine;
  • Attach it to an email and send it to you so that you can verify my identity?

Is this what I really need to do to obtain approval for my transaction? This is a genuine question to which I expect a reply.

On a related note, why didn’t your original email back three days ago specify the explicit instructions you only found the need to share with me after two attempts on my part?

Please be kind enough to send me a non-automated response to this email. I have now spent more time trying to respond correctly to your increasingly demanding verification emails than I did shopping on your website. The stuff you sell is really not that important to me.

Yours sincerely

Mairead Doyle

stringy knickers

Somebody sent me this article from the local broadsheet:

www.theage.com.au/articles/2007/08/16/1186857681627.html

And it got me thinking (as a dedicated VPL-avoiding string-wearer):

What are the undies of choice for the 21st-century woman, and why?

Are you still a firm (in conviction at least) g-string girl?

Or have you converted to boy-leg?

Do you favour the Bridget Jones Big Knicker or a more conventional high-leg M&S-type brief?

Have you stuck with the bikini brief or kanga all these years?

When – if ever – would you choose to go commando?

What does the man/woman in your life prefer and why?

I thought: this may be even bigger than the Sandwich Question!

So I sent am email out to all my girlfriends, asking them to reveal their undies, and this is what they wrote.

Anybody else got anything to say? Blokes, what are your views?

REPLY 1

I am still a believer (and wearer) of the Bonds cotton g’s (or mini g’s). They can’t be beat.  They are far superior to any other g on the market; comfortable, cute and practical.

Boy legs slide up my bum, but maybe that is because I don’t have one?  I don’t find them comfortable as they always want to bunch up my crack.

I think that everyone has at least one pair of Bridget Jones Big Knickers. Maybe you bought them for that “one” dress that was a little TOO clingy???? You know what I am talking about.  We don’t like to admit it but we all wanted to have smaller hips, perkier bottom or slender thighs (you know the full bike pant type of pull all in) and bought those BIG undies!

And as for commando…… That is just a yucky thought in general……..

REPLY 2

What an interesting question.

Bizarrely until I had my 2nd daughter (2 years ago) I was a fervent G string girl but I think my body must have changed cause they are just so uncomfortable now!

So sadly, until I finally reach my target weight (or I just stop being in denial about this being my “comfy” weight) I am in M&S comfy cotton standard pants.  I do wear them a couple of sizes too big but that suits.

Boy pants are just so not me – I have hips!

I did for 4 weeks, nearly 2 years ago own and wear what I can only describe as Granny knickers but my caveat here is that I was recovering from a  c-section and needed seriously “big” pants to avoid the scar!  Sad thing was they were really comfy but were thrown the minute I had recovered…..

I also own a pair of (for those in UK) Trinny & Susanna style flesh coloured/hold-you-in/no-vpl shorts-style pants for those clingy dress situations.

Not one for going commando but my 5-year old would do at the drop of a hat!

REPLY 3

Now this is what I like to see being discussed on email………..real conversation topics! No bad luck if you don’t forward it on etc….

I once knew a women with a very saggy behind, she swore by G-strings for every ocassion. After years of watching gravity take its toll on her I came to the conclusion that it was a lack of cotton support that may have sped up the sagging process and  immediately threw all my G’s away.

I now choose a different variety of supportive briefs for various situations.

There are the monthly oldies that are all about comfort and their ability to stretch.

Then there’s the boy leg for those tighter pants that have a tendancy to exentuate my untoned backside. The boy leg firms up the look of this region and provides a smooth visual line, no bulges!

Then there is the Victoria Secret semi briefs that are for evening apparel they can go under a nice little dress or pair of pants, they’re the after 5 version of underwear!

Never do I desire to use my clothes as underpants hence my decision to avoid commando, also, being anaphalactic and ocassionaly ending up in hospital (totally unexpected) I would rather die than have get carted off in an ambulance without my underpants on…!

REPLY 4

What a fabulous question and one that many a psychology thesis could be written on!

I was a committed G wearer for many years until I had my little one and all those ladies who have had stitches will know what I mean when I say it takes bravery to put them back on afterwards.

Now I have a range of underwear depending on my mood/what I am wearing/the weather.  But never never would I go commando, that was something we giggled about at school so I think a woman in her late thirties going commando is a bit “mutton” (dressed as lamb) and quite frankly an arrestable offence.

Interestingly I do own some marriage savers or “bridget jones big pants” but they do make me feel like I’m encased in stretchy bandage and so they are only really saved for those occasions when I’m too bloaty or the dress is too clingy.

REPLY 5

Well now. Interesting topic. Bet this would cause some stir as a work mail-shot!

Hmmm. G-strings? Nah. Hate em. So uncomfy. Will wear them only under the odd tight pants, which I don’t tend to wear at the moment anyway because my behind is quickly entering the zone where it qualifies as geography.

I have never in my life worn boy legs – just wouldn’t feel feminine to me. I do own SOME Bridget Jones type pants but don’t really like to wear them except when you need to feel covered.

No – for me it’s the conventional M&S high-leg in black or white cotton, usually. I have made a foray into the area of bikini briefs but like another girl in this list, I had a caesarean 19 months ago now (my doesn’t time fly) and believe it or not it’s still uncomfy to have anything rub against the scar. Plus there’s that little “overhang” – you mums will know what I mean! That needs to be kept tucked in and out of sight!

As for my lovely husband, I’ll leave it to him to let you know what he prefers!

Commando? Ugh. Nasty.