Thursday, June 21, 2007

Getting Hot


July is rearing its hot and humid head a bit early this year, and the sauna of a summer in Budapest is accompanied by a certain occurrence that I have previously avoided reflecting on. I’ve avoided reflection on this subject in an effort to hide a dark secret of mine, a proclivity that I know might make some uncomfortable. Despite my best efforts, however, life here in Budapest means I cannot deny my own urges. So I’ll admit it.

I like looking at scantily-clad attractive women.

I know, and I’m sorry. Know this, if it helps console you, Dora is aware of my nature, and she is doing her best to understand. She helps me in ways I can’t describe. The woman really is something; I’m a very lucky man to have found her. All that aside, today I’d like to share with you the conditions that have brought me to this admission.

You see, when the mercury rises in Budapest, the women of this city unveil what I like to call the “Nearly Naked Fashion Show.” While many people will rightly extol the beauty of Hungarian women, what such praise fails to make clear is how the display of that beauty is amplified in the summer months.

It may not always be tasteful, but in Budapest the ladies’ warm weather attire screams sex. The clothing in this city is not clothing much. Midriffs are exposed by tube tops that don’t really qualify as tubes, and would be more aptly called “band tops.” Short shorts are painted on in such a way that I often see skin where the leg meets the crotch. And sometimes those shorts surprise you by turning out to be skirts, flipping and a flapping in the breeze. As a result, I see the bare curve of an unfamiliar woman's cheeks nearly everyday. Then there are the breasts. They are everywhere - and just barely covered in most cases. Popping out, hanging out, and plain old out. Don’t get me wrong. The women are not topless. They are simply as close to topless as one could get.

So a man with my condition has little choice but to walk around the city wearing sunglasses and trying not to hurt my neck. But don’t feel sorry for me. This was not a cry for pity. I only write this so I might deal with my issues more openly.
Now watch this, because it will make you smile:

Monday, June 18, 2007

Pointing Fingers

I want to address a comment from last week’s post. The comment was made by Bradley, friend of the blog.

AMERICA, FUCK YA! but seriously no matter how good service gets, you always have some people that will find something to complain about. you are seriously justified in your "angry" as this story is pure steven king grade a+++ horror.
i'm sorry to hear about all the crappy commie-left-over social economic failure. perhaps in 50 more years all the companies struggling in bungary can be bought out by att, walmart or exon mobile for the win.

While I understand the irony in his comment and its concerns with global corporations, I think we are missing a major point here. T-online is a subsidiary of Deutsch Telekom - a huge global corporation, westernized in every possible way. AT&T is not getting a shot at them.

Deutsch Telekom is a company that knows how to train employees as well as any American company, but they aren’t getting that job done in Hungary, because... well, I think it has a lot to do with what I wrote last week, but there are other factors, factors that speak to Bradley’s comment: people’s need to complain, capitalist greed, socialism’s failings, and so on. And while these issues all frustrate me, there’s one finger I’m not going to point.

I’m not going to throw all the blame at corporate driven globalization. That argument is tired. I think the anti-globalization crowd is holding an umbrella before a tidal wave.

What gets me upset is consumer apathy. If we want to channel the forces of globalization, I think efforts to stem consumer apathy will be more effective then marching whenever the G8 holds a meeting.

It is a lack of consumer awareness and consumer assertiveness that allows the T-online Customer Service Center in Hungary to be managed by morons.

That is only one instance, but it is telling. We get walked on because we don’t know we’re being walked on - or else we just don’t care. This passive attitude, illustrated by the employee I wrote about last week (and by my own actions during the whole ordeal), is pervasive in this country. Hungarians love to complain, but they complain to themselves. They rarely take their gripes to an authority that might make changes.

That seems backwards, but when I look at the bigger picture, I can see that this is not just a Hungarian trait. Blaming Coke for ruining the world hasn’t switched that many people to Shasta. Only the finger pointers participate in those boycotts.

If you want to steer this ride, I think the answer is in customer education. Here in Hungary, and really everywhere else, people don't understand the rights and responsibilities of the consumer. This is not unimportant. The consumer is the market, and the market drives corporations, and corporations are stoking the fires of globalization.

While I think there is a role for governments in all of this, I don’t think they’ve got all their ducks in a row just yet. The US seems to have all the carrots, while the EU favors the stick. It would be nice if they could get together on that, but democracy is slower then business. This is really in the hands of the consumer.

What we can do as consumers is communicate, vote, and consume wisely. With the kinds of communication now available, we should be capable of relaying this information, but the key is acting on it.

Do you use energy-saving light bulbs?

Do you avoid companies with poor human-rights records?

Do you write a letter when you feel your rights as a customer have been violated?

Do you tell your friends when you learn/experience a company’s failings?

Maybe we should.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Acceptance


Dora and I have come to the end of a long and trying road, a road that clearly illustrates the hurdles placed before anyone who lives in Hungary. While it may sound trivial, the act of moving our internet service from our old apartment to our new apartment proved to be the single most infuriating experience I have endured since arriving here in Hungary.

Understand that for Dora and me, our link back to life in the States relies heavily on the Internet. It goes beyond email, this blog, and Skype. We listen to weekly podcasts from NPR news, Fresh Air, Lake Wobegon, This American Life, Wait Wait…, and America Abroad. We try to keep up with “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” over Comedy Central’s website. And while we don’t watch TV in the traditional sense, through the use of torrent networks, Dora and I are up-to-date on “Heroes” and “Prison Break.” And we are only a season behind “Battlestar Galactica,” “Lost,” and “24.” I can, by the way, heartily recommend all of the above.

That said, we were quite frustrated when our ISP told us that it would take four weeks to move our ADSL signal to the new apartment, but we took that in stride. You have to let some things go in this country.

Let me take this opportunity to say a word or two about the failings I will not address in this entry: 1) the problems with customer service in Hungary and 2) the issue of efficiency in Hungary. These are the topics most often bitched about among ex-pats. The local English-language newspapers include at least one editorial a week on customer service nightmares or inefficient episodes involving bureaucracy. So, while these issues help to keep my blood pressure up, I believe they are only symptoms of the problem that led to me screaming and pleading with a T-online phone representative last month.

The problem: an unshakable unwillingness to step outside of institutionalized thinking.

The example: my interaction with T-online while I tried to shut down the ADSL signal at our old rented apartment.

Let me explain. When we left our apartment on March 31st, we had informed T-online that we were moving and we wanted to bring our ADSL account (still under contract) with us. They told us about the delay, we accepted that, and on the 31st we left. On the first of April the new tenants moved in, and we discovered a problem. T-online hadn’t stopped the ADSL signal at the old apartment, and the new tenants had a different service provider. The two signals could not share the same line. To me it sounded like a simple problem to solve. I called T-online and told them they had to turn off that old signal. Problem solved, right? That’s what I expected to hear, but instead the rep told me, “Um, I’m sorry sir, but until your new signal is in place we cannot stop the old signal.” My pulse sped up just a bit. I was asking my service provider for something relatively simple, but the request was refused. I calmly explained that a third party was now involved, and it was no longer an issue between me and T-online alone. I told the rep that the signal had to be stopped or we would be wasting someone else’s money. The answer came back the same. I mean, exactly the same. He repeated his previous sentence verbatim. Creepy, right? So I asked to speak to his supervisor. (You’re going to love this.) He said I couldn’t speak to his supervisor. I asked why. He told me that his supervisor could not change the company policy, so it would be pointless to speak to him/her. At this point I was mad. I told the rep in no uncertain terms that while the supervisor may not be able to help me, I still wanted to speak to him/her and express my disbelief and disgust at the inflexible and seemingly irrelevant policy I had come up against.

“He’s not here. Can I have your phone number so he can call you back tomorrow?”

Those were the words I heard. I objected - strongly - but was made to understand that this jackass was not going to transfer me.

Anger.

Over the next week or so I experienced some variation of this conversation daily. Sometimes I would get transferred, but never to anyone with any real authority. I was told that someone would call me back at the end of each call. No one ever called back. So after 10 days of this, I told the latest rep that I would not hang up. I said, “No. No one calls back. So I would like you to put me on hold. I will wait for your supervisor.”

“He’s not here.”

“I’ll wait”

“You can’t. Please. My supervisor will call you back.”

“No he won’t. I will wait on hold.”

“I can’t do that.”

“Please put me on hold.” And I looked at the clock. I was on the phone for fifteen minutes, but I was not on hold. I was going back and forth with this rep. He told me to hang up. I told him I would not. Over and over. Voices were raised. I explained, pleaded, and voiced frustration. I only wanted to be put on hold. I was speaking to T-online, a subsidiary of T-com, the largest communications company in Europe; certainly they had they had call waiting. “Right? You do have that button on your phone, don’t you?”

He did not think that was as funny as I did. We continued. He eventually hung up on me.

The problem was solved only after another week of going through the proper channels, and this leads me to my conclusion: thanks to 40 years of institutionalized thinking under the Soviets, very few people here are willing to take up the reins, even if doing so would actually make the job easier. That young man wasted 15 minutes of both of our lives. But T-online reps are not trained to use the hold function, so even at my insistence he refused to step outside of protocol. He was powerless, something that might have gained my sympathy, but did not because he chose to be powerless. No one would have fired that kid for putting me on hold. There would have been no punishment for doing what the customer asked. But he looked at his backwards set of standards and practices (A customer calls with a complaint and you say, “We’ll call you back tomorrow?” What is that all about?) and he accepted it as law.

This acceptance is what I believe to be at the heart of so many of the other issues that hold the service sector back here in Hungary.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

A Little Travel Writing




Last week Dora and I traveled to Valencia, Spain where we were guests at a spectacular wedding, tourists, sea-side sunbathers, witnesses to the beaching of a corpse, and participants in the miraculously fashioned Spanish lifestyle.

We traveled to Spain for the wedding of Nick and Maria. Nick went to college with Dora in Southern California, but he is originally from Montana. He met Maria while traveling through Europe. They fell in love. After Nick spent some time back in the States, he returned to live with Maria in Madrid, and last weekend the two of them were married in Valencia, Maria’s hometown. It was an incredibly festive blend of two cultures where family and friends from all over America came to offer their fun-loving spirit to the culture and traditions of family and friends living on the Continent.
If this story doesn’t sound familiar to you, then you do not know me very well, do you?
I was deeply touched when mid-way through the reception, Nick told me that he drew a lot of inspiration for his wedding celebration from the wedding he attended in Hungary nearly three years ago. This complement was particularly poignant because the party going on around me was absolutely stunning in its every detail.
Five-star hotel on a quite Mediterranean beach outside of the city. Ceremony under a crisp blue sky. Moments and dedications that brought those in attendance to tears. A cocktail hour with, among other things, a guy carving jamon (Spanish ham that you must eat before you die). Then a buffet diner with food that went so far beyond my expectations I couldn’t properly express my shock: crabs, shrimp, pâté, a range of meats grilled to order, and this mousse thing with citrus custard that blew my mind. And there was the band.
Oh, the band. They played jazz standards during dinner, but when the last course had been served they returned from their break doing a New Orleans-style funeral march in white straw hats. They proceeded to stake their claim as one of the most authentic Dixieland bands in Spain (I’m not sure what such a title imparts, but be certain, they were damn good). I eventually got rather enthusiastic about the dancing. I think the call-and-response version of “Oh, When the Saints” is what did it for me. I had worked off most of dinner on the dance floor when the party moved to Maria’s family beach house - a ten-minute walk down the beach.
There Maria’s ultra-hip friends deejay-ed an outdoor dance party until sunrise. There were moments when I looked around at the group of us, dressed up and dancing, and felt I was witnessing the Plutonic ideal of the word “party.”
So, that was nice.
However, it was not the whole trip. Dora and I arrived a week early and rented an apartment in the center of Valencia. It’s a nice city: lots of young people, hip storefronts, a beautiful central market, great museums, a diverted river that has since been turned into a park that surrounds the old city, and much more. After two days our friend Kat joined us, and we toured the city streets, drank Spanish wine, and ate wonderful dinners late at night - as the Spanish would have us do.
They’ve carved out a nice lifestyle for themselves, those Spaniards. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’m jealous.
The beach helps drive that home. Valencia’s coast is an endless stretch of fine gold sand. The water was chilly, but great for swimming once you were in. And then there are the topless women. Now, I did not ogle, but I didn’t shut my eyes either. Coming from prudish America, it was nice to see so many… women feeling comfortable enough to avoid tan lines.
At one point I was on a walk, just stretching my legs and admiring the… women feeling comfortable enough to avoid tan lines. On this walk I encountered an older woman and her dog playing in the water. Dog aren’t allowed on the beach, so the two of them got my attention. She must have been in her late sixties and, judging by her matted hair, either a hippy or homeless. Then I noticed that she was completely nude, no bikini bottom for this lady. She was going commando in the truest sense of the word. I thought I would return to Dora with the “Strange Story of the Day.”
Dora trumped my story before I was in earshot. She was sitting up on her beach towel, looking away from me. I followed her line of sight and saw several policemen on quads riding toward the shoreline. When I caught Dora’s eye, she mouthed the words, “Is that a dead guy?”
Sure enough, the body of a man in swim trunks had washed up on shore just 50 meters from where we'd laid out our beach towels. He was not a natural color, and his limbs were stiff - held in the position of a man following through on a basketball lay-up. It was unsettling, but what really struck me was the group of women laying-out on their towels less then 10 meters from the body. They did not feel compelled to move. They were laying in a spot just outside the cordon the police eventually put up, and apparently that was good enough for them.
Dora and I called it a day.
The next day Kat arrived, and we have since told the story a dozen times or more. So, now I’ve told you, but don’t let it discourage you from heading to Spain if you ever get the chance. It is an amazing place.