germany: where the customer is never right, part two

In America I have seen crazed shoppers with Mastercard eyes tear clothing from each other’s hands like rabid animals. Over-weight, over-paid women fighting each other for the privilege of buying $200 pants for $20. You’d think that killing someone over a price difference like that would be legal in America, but apparently the law hasn’t yet been passed. Working at the outlet sales, I’d always hoped I’d see a fist fight or someone pull a shotgun out of an over-sized designer handbag, but I never got to see so much as a bitch slap. Afraid of losing too much face, the customers would restrain themselves to backhanded insults and hateful glances.

Then I moved to Germany. Here, retail shopping is a blood sport.

Retail clerks, not actually obligated to wait on you, tend to treat customers much better than their waitress cousins. In retail stores, it’s not the employees you have to worry about, it’s the other customers. The clerks ignore the shoppers while the shoppers jostle each other out of the way, grab clothing from under each others’ noses, and cut each other in the dressing room lines every chance they get.

At first I thought I’d just had the bad luck of running into the rudest people in the country all in one day. Then it all happened again. And again. And again. And I started to think that maybe it was just normal. There’s certainly a distinct difference in regard for personal space here. That is, there is no regard for personal space. Try walking down a busy shopping street (like, for example, the Zeil in Frankfurt am Main). In America, it’d be considered impolite to jostle a clumsy shopper or a slow pedestrian. Many Germans would agree. But not the shoppers buzzing through Germany’s highly populated shopping districts. There jostling is not only normal, it’s expected, and, once you embrace it, a great way to take out aggression on a Saturday afternoon.

I once had a student who worked in high-end retail. Department stores, then designer jeans, then onto high-priced Italian luggage. He was sweet and witty and flamingly homosexual. We would commiserate about rude customers over cups of coffee and call it an English lesson. His name was Danny.

In German, he told me one morning, they don’t say that the customer is always right, they say that the customer is king. An appropriate metaphor seeing as “the customer” is almost never actually right and often behaves like a moody monarch on a power trip.

Once during his designer jeans days, a customer came in and demanded that Danny take back a pair of pants clearly marked nonreturnable. Danny told him that he was very very sorry, but that it wasn’t going to happen.

“I want to speak to the manager!” the customer shouted.

“I am the manager,” Danny replied calmly.

“But the customer is king!” came the arrogant response.

“Yes, and I’m the queen, and you’re not returning those pants.”

Monday January 21st 2008, 6:34 pm 5 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,germany,teaching english


even cowgirls get the blues (tom robbins), reviewed

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues is a cartwheel. It’s a firecracker. It’s a chortle that sends soda bubbles popping out your nose. It’s a frozen strawberry smoothie slurped loud through a pink straw on a ranch in South Dakota during Indian summer. It’s a piano and a bottle of champagne. It’s a whooping crane. And an orgasm.

It’s plot that propels you through the pages of most books. You enjoy the suspense, but really you’re just waiting for it to end so you can find out whodunit and how and where and with what. (Mr. Robbins in the conservatory with his right thumb.) Reading most books you’re just killing time until you reach the finish line, not so much savoring the present as the present’s promise of the future. But Even Cowgirls‘ momentum doesn’t just come from the plot, but from moments and phrases and sentences, paragraphs and chapters that are so beautiful and complete in themselves that you can actually enjoy the ride, stop and smell the roses and accept the glass of champagne that Robbins offers you to celebrate chapter 100. Through his utterly unique style, Robbins recreates the experience of what he imagines as an ideal life: one lived passionately, in the present, and with frequent stops for masturbation.

It’s a book that doesn’t deserve to have to carry around any tiresome academic categories and descriptions. It deserves a good fuck and a cold beer. It deserves your undivided attention. It deserves a laugh and a chocolate sundae and an all-expense-paid trip to Hawaii. Try to stuff Even Cowgirls into your filing cabinet, and it’ll slip right out of your grip, skipping wildly around and laughing “Ha ha ho ho and hee hee” with sparkling eyes.

Monday January 14th 2008, 5:35 pm 3 Comments
Filed under: books,conspiracies


the christmas gauntlet: a guide to dresden christmas markets

The Striezelmarkt

German Christmas markets: The best thing to happen to heart specialists’ incomes since the county fair.

(For any Germans traveling to America, I highly recommend that you visit a county fair so that you can continue to fine tune your loathing for Americans and their culture. What’s that? You mean there’ll be a hog tie, deep-fried Oreoes, AND a competition where two grown men in plaid shirts and overalls attempt to wrestle each other off a floating log? Oh boy! Ma, put the gun rack in the pick up truck, we’re going to the fair.)

And at the Striezelmarkt, Germany’s oldest Christmas market, you’ll find enough deep-fried, sugar-coated, cheese-covered confections to give a funnel cake a heart attack.

There are bratwurst of every size, shape, color, and denomination. There are barrels of candied almonds, rows of chocolate-covered pears, and alp-en heaps of gummy bears. Snausages at the Neustadter Markt There are snowballs—a sugary confection made of strips of dough woven into a fist-sized ball, plastered together with your choice of filling, and baked until cookie-crisp. There are crepes. And langoes—a deep-fried flat bread served with your choice of cheese, extra cheese, or eminent heart attack. And of course waffles. (I’m sorry, was that whipped cream, Nutella, or diabetic shock?)

Local legend has it that the calories don’t count if you wash them down with a glass of Gluhwein (mulled wine).

You’ll also find Miss Stollen. In the first week of December, the chefs from The Night Kitchen get together and bake a 3,500 kilo stollen. They then parade the cake up to the castle, cut it with a five foot knife, and force the newly crowned Miss Stollen to eat the entire thing as quickly as possible.

Last reported, Miss Stollen was recovering from triple bypass surgery in St. Mary’s Hospital.

Weihnachtstadt Dresden

This little strip of Christmas market extends into the city’s shopping district and was the result of a top-secret meeting between Gluhwein vendors and several chain stores. The meeting went something like this:

Gluhwein vendor: You know, customers will spend more in your stores if they are drunk. And the rest of the people, well once they’re drunk, they might consider coming into your store in the first place.

Corporate manager duder: Where do I sign?

Weihnachtsmarkt am Frauenkirche

If you have strong elbows and no conscience about pushing gray-haired yuppies out of your way, you’ll love the Frauenkirche Weihnachtsmarkt! Weihnachtsmarkt am Frauenkirche (That exclamation point is not sarcastic. I hunt yuppies for sport.)

After browsing through stalls with the same bric-a-brac you saw at the last three Christmas markets you visited, you can duck into the Frauenkirche. For those of you with deteriorating long-term memories, the Frauenkirche is the bombed out church from the pictures in the World War II chapter of your high school history textbook. It has since been restored, and entry is free. So take a seat, oogle some historically significant architecture, and pray that you’re feet will someday thaw.

Advents-Spektakel

Once upon a time there was a medeival Christmas market in the courtyard of the Dresden castle. People have claimed that it was both charming and electricity-free. However, early on the morning of our arrival, the market burned down in a tragic and mysterious fire, the cause of which remains unknown until today. Authorities are offering a reward for information on the whereabouts of a small plastic gorilla, last seen dunking bananas into a glass of Gluhwein on Prager Straße. The subject is considered highly dangerous.

Neustadt Weihnachtsmarkt

The Neustadt Christmas market slumps up Neustadt’s main street with booths offering yet more hand-crafted sausages, hot-spiced ornaments, deep-fried wine, and, ah fuck it, you know damn well by now what’s in those booths.

Walk through the market, making sure not to make eye contact with any of the vendors or you might find yourself buying another little moose ornament, up into the Neustadt, and into the first pub you come across. There you can start drinking off all the Christmas cheer that rubbed off on your during the day.

Königstein Medeival Market

Though located about an hour southwest of Dresden, this Christmas Market is an adequate replacement for the charred remains of the Advents-Spektakel. Though both the Königstein Market and the Weihnachtsmarkt am Frauenkirche offer a similar variety of aggressive, slow-moving tourists, Königstein also offers a dizzyingly long drop, convenient for disposing of the tourists you’ve bludgeoned to death with old sausages.

After disposing of the corpses you can beat your chest and scream “No one has ever taken the Rittermark/Königstein!” with confidence because, indeed, no one ever has. Then freshen yourself up with a hot plastic cup of Gluhwein and an authentic virgin waif.

Unfortunately, getting to the market and then actually getting in will set you back at least 20 euros. The train ride from Dresden with a family ticket that allows up to 5 people costs 14 euros and an hour and a half. The Festung Express round trip bus ticket is 4 euros and is accompanied by ominous urban-bus-driver legends discouraging you from attempting the way through the woods and buying one-way. The Festung entrance fee is 5 euros for adults and 3 euros for students, children, and retirees. Then of course there’s elevator use at 1.50 euro per person, the obligatory glass of Gluhwein at the summit at 2.50 per plastic cup, and a fried something or other for 3.50. But the chance to cop a feel on the busty stable girl behind the crepe stand? That’s priceless.

Marauder’s tip: If you can stomach the food, Christmas markets are a table-diving bazaar. Show up around closing time and ask vendors if they have any leftovers they were going to throw away. Most of them never want to see another sausage or crepe ever again, and will gladly give you the day’s leftovers. Sausages abound, vegetarian choices are mildly limited, and vegan choices are practically nonexistent.

Sunday January 13th 2008, 8:15 pm 1 Comment
Filed under: conspiracies,germany,gorilla travel


germany, where the customer is never right

We didn’t like each other before we’d even met.

It was nothing unusual. This was, after all Germany, and we were, in fact, in a restaurant. The hungry passerby and the German waiter are natural enemies.

“Can I get you started with some drinks?” the waiter wanted to know. He’d eagerly watched us from the bar, waiting for us to take off our coats before pouncing with the menus. I had high hopes. Maybe here, in a tiny, old-school German restaurant that proudly proclaimed “Futtern wie bei Muttern!” (Chow down like you do at Mom’s) on the sign, we would find a unicorn, a revolution, a miracle: the German waiter who had not only heard the words customer service, but who had actually looked them up in the dictionary.

“I’d like a coffee, and we’d also like two waters, not sparkling.”

“Ah, we only have sparkling water,” he replied. He said it resolutely, firmly. Oh you silly child! No one ever taught you about how everyone in Germany drinks sparkling water? Silly tourists, tap water is for National Socialists.

(This aversion to tap water had, in fact, once been mentioned to me in a small high school German classroom over an out-dated book filled with pictures of badly dressed people named Heike, Sven, and Lars who liked to go hiking and introduce themselves to each other over and over and over again. Upon arriving in Germany, however, I learned that sparkling water was not the sole monarch, and that while many people preferred it, still water and tap water were not, in fact, extinct. Or poisonous.)

I looked at him, and then at the faucet hanging smugly over the bar sink. “Well, we’ll have tap water then.”

Up until this point, he had managed to maintain the front of polite etiquette he’d put on that morning with his little white chef’s hat. But this was the last straw. The sausage that broke the waiter’s back.

“I can’t sell you tap water!”

“Why not?” (And by ‘Why not,’ I of course meant, “Oh! So you can give it to us for free!” If only I could manage to be so pert on cue.)

“I can’t legally sell you tap water. There are German grocery laws!”

He started waving his arms around, as if to point out all of the invisible food inspectors who would shut down his restaurant if he sold us two glasses of tap water. I glanced around. We were the only three people in the restaurant. Maybe he thought we were the inspectors.

“Listen, I live one block away. Am I supposed to go home, fill up my glass there, and bring it back?”

He threw his hands in the air. His eyes said “Who do you think you are!!?” His fingers said “This is GERMANY!” And his shoulders cried, “THERE ARE LAWS.” Then he disappeared into the kitchen. We never got our water.

Ladies and gentleman, I’d like to present to you German customer service. Or perhaps, quite simply, the stubborn insistence on following the prescribed rules that is as common here as dandelions in midsummer. I might even go so far as to say that certain historical events could not have happened if people…oh never mind. Point is, it doesn’t just apply in restaurants.

For example, telephone “customer service” agents have repeatedly told the residents of my WG that they would, in fact, send a technician to set up the internet service we’d ordered from them. That was two months ago. Approximately one month ago, another customer service representative told my house mate, in the first sign of intelligent life we’d seen from the company since signing up, that he would do everything he could to figure out why it was taking so long. He then proceeded to say that he would email his findings to my house mate later that day.

I guess he’d forgotten that they were talking about how we didn’t have any internet service in the first place.

And I had been under the impression that internet providers were interested in collecting as many paying customers as possible. But after considerable thought, I’ve decided that I’d misjudged their business strategy.

I sometimes try to imagine what sort of training German customer service representatives receive. Do they skip the training all together? Or are they just too underpaid to give a shit? The latter I can understand. What I cannot understand is how any of these restaurants and companies are still in business. People complain, but nobody complains as loud as the expats. And the “there is no fucking customer service here fuck this country” is a complaint I’ve heard from almost every expat I’ve met here.

It’s not that these situations wouldn’t and don’t piss your average German off as much as your average Amie expat, but it seems that, in the end, most people just sigh and resign themselves to the policies of whatever company they’re currently at the mercy of. At the end of the day it’s not the customer who is always right, but the rule or policy being enforced. And to be fair, anyone who’s worked in any service industry anywhere knows that it’s full of asshole customers who treat you like shit and expect you to wipe their asses in return. Clerks at the mercy of policies, customers at the mercy of clerks who had no say in the policies that they’re enforcing. Bitters anyone? Perhaps the disrepute of German customer service is not due to misguided training programs or incompetence, but a subtlety planned workers’ revolt. Dear Capitalism, I want a divorce.

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Sunday January 06th 2008, 3:20 pm 10 Comments
Filed under: conspiracies,germany