Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Shrugville

You know that ‘temporary’ glitch in transmission which meant that I wouldn’t have internet for one week? Well, I *still* don’t have a connection – two weeks on. The company is ntl. I would usually recommend that people steer well clear of such a shoddily-run organization, but in this case it’s quite hard.

You see, it’s one of the largest providers of cable TV/phones/internet on this soggy little isle. There are alternatives out there, amongst which are British Telecom and keeping carrier pigeons. I considered the only REAL alternative and found that it was difficult to train the little bastards to fly across the Atlantic.

Let me give you a brief rundown of the (almost unbelievable events) so far:

• 2 weeks before moving, inform ntl of move. New property actually has all ntl connections as previous tenant was a broadband customer. Will this make any difference? Can I just plug my little black box of wonders into the socket and get going? Hell no, they need to send a technician out.
• So when can they send a technician out? The day of the move? A couple of days later? We’ve given them notice, remember?...one week after the move. I was assured I would have a connection on Thursday.
• Thursday rolls around and so does a South African with a jaw that could slice cheese. He looks startled and asks me why I have ntl equipment (said little black box of wonders) in my home. I tell him I’m an existing customer and took the box with me as instructed.
• After much murmuring into a telephone and plugging in cables that I could have done a week ago, he gives me a broadband installation disk and instructs me to install it. Now, I’m the wife of a certified geek – I know all generic installation disks perform carnal acts of lust with system settings. I tell him I won’t install it – I don’t need to install it, all I need is an active connection as the system is already set up for an ntl connection. It seems to make sense to him so he tells me to wait for a call from his supervisor to get me a PIN to register my connection. I am promised a connection at 4pm.
• 4pm rolls ‘round.
• 5pm rolls ‘round and I decide to give them a call. I am apologized to. I am told that someone will call ‘in minutes’ to get me my PIN.
• 6pm rolls ‘round.
• 7pm rolls ‘round and I become proactive again. This time, I’m told that the PIN generating staff have gone home for the day. My number is taken and I am told that I will get a call ‘at 9am’ the next morning.
• 9am rolls ‘round.
• 10am rolls ‘round and I settle in for another interminable wait on hold to speak to a drone. I begin to seriously resent their cheerfulness when lying to me. Nice or no, these people seem to be willing to promise ANYTHING without any cognition of whether or not that promise will be fulfilled.

‘Uh huh, yep. So we’ll have a yodeling Alsatian outside your bedroom window tomorrow. In a tutu. Absolutely. You have a nice day now.’

• I get through to someone who tells me that he has put a request in for my PIN (What, now? You mean there wasn’t one on the system?) and that they need to wait for overnight processing for the PIN to generate. Tomorrow then.
• Saturday. The birds tweet, the household awakes, I sit listening to hold music and actively imagining taking a paintball gun to ntl’s city offices. I can’t say I’m surprised that my PIN isn’t there. I can say I was surprised that they didn’t seem to have a record of an account at my new address AT ALL. The conversation was somewhat surreal.

‘And the address?’

I tell him.

‘There’s no record of that address.’

‘How could there be no record? One of your technicians was here on Thursday.’

‘Are you (old tenant)?’

‘No, I’m Monica White – I’ve moved my account from another address to this one.’


‘The record is in the name of (old tenant)’

‘Well then, looks like you’ll have to change it, right?’


At this point, he began to be snappy. The kind of snappy you usually associate with a woman. I hate that kind of prissy snappiness and sure as hell don’t expect it from a customer SERVICE person. His supreme benevolence in the face of such a demanding customer allowed him to press on, however:

‘What’s the address on your account?’

I tell him my old address.

‘So you’ll be wanting to set up a connection there?’

At this point I pause. Reality seems to shift a little to the left.

‘No, I’m actually calling for my PIN, I was told yesterday that it would be waiting for me this morning after the overnight generation cycle. The account was moved weeks ago.’

‘I don’t have a record of you at that address.’

*gritted teeth* ‘Well then, can you MAKE a record of me at this address?’

This hilarity ensued for a while. It was evident that I wouldn’t get my PIN that day, in fact I would be lucky to escape with all of my wits from this tête-à-tête. I resolved to wait until Monday when the ‘normal’ drones slithered in. I use normal in it’s loosest sense – remembering the benchmark is the average ntl staff member. I begin to wonder if this is the place where bad little boys and girls go if they don’t listen to their parents or knock off a car or are found bleeding in a gutter and need rehab.

• Monday happens, a connection doesn’t. I finally get through to a manager, an Australian. All I had to say to him was ‘You KNOW this isn’t right, don’t you?’. He knew what I meant. ANY expat here would know what I mean. The best he could do for me was having a technician over on Wednesday.

Today is Tuesday – a day of limbo and hope.

So if the moral of this story isn’t ‘Stay away from ntl’, what is it, given that I tend to have some morsel of an idea behind most of my ramblings?

It’s that after a little over a year in this country I have definitely come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was shaky on his geography. Something isn’t so much rotten in the state of Denmark as in the state of England. What passes here for ‘good enough’ isn’t – not by Australian standards, certainly not by what I understand to be American standards. My thinking is that if Americans and Australians can do it, there’s no goddamn reason any other nation on the earth can’t.

My little broadband story is but one of dozens weaved into my life and the lives of those around me. It’s indicative, though, of an illness that has seeped into the working culture here and it’s consequences are very, very ugly.

To wit, here are some other examples, in case you’re thinking I’m extrapolating from just one incident:

• I had set up a new bank account for my business. One of the ATM cards didn’t arrive in the mail and I went to the bank to trace it. I spent over an hour in the corner of the branch glued to a little red phone on the wall to speak to someone in Bangalore who had no idea what the hell was going on. I have a card now – it’s taken 5 weeks.
• M and I have to travel to Croydon – 1.5 hours away – every week to go to training. This entails upgrading M’s annual travel pass from 3 zones to 5 zones for the night. Every week – without fail – there has been some drama or other about doing this. My favorite included an inane conversation with a woman who had screwed up and didn’t understand that a refund meant actually giving us our money back, not just a receipt that stated we had received a refund. She wasn’t impressed by me telling her that she needed to give me the ‘shiny, round, coppery things’ as well as the ‘little papery thing’ when she gives a refund. Not impressed at all.
• The tube (underground) system is a shambles, signal failures and line closures a daily bane. It’s quite acceptable to be late for work or a business meeting, uttering the magical cure-all mantra: ‘tube’.
• When I walk into a store, I don’t actually expect service anymore. I expect to hunt down a surly little wench and gently pry her away from her inane conversation with another surly little wench. This can take a good 30 seconds of ‘excuse me’s. I have since found that that’s not effective, it’s like background noise. Walking up and saying ‘You!’ rather loudly tends to rattle them enough to get one or two questions answered. I really don’t like doing this but I just don’t care anymore, they’re paid to do the job, I suppose I have to shock them into actually doing it.
• When M first came to his office, he was amazed at the fact that it was culturally expected to make up fictitious reasons for systems failures to give to the IT Manager. The first few months were simply awful for him – thankfully he has been able to do what he was hired to do, change the culture of the email team. His company, by the way, is one of the best in the city to work for.
• My last contract was one of the worst experiences of my life. After a couple of weeks, I was pulled into my managers office and outright chastised for not lying enough. I kid you not. Their idea of HR was to keep as much information hidden as possible and give people red herrings to chase whilst we got on with…an average of 4 hours smoking and lunch breaks per day. Again, I kid you not.
• C is looking for work. She has now been told three times to prepare for an interview the next day, the details of which will be given to her in the morning. None of the interviews have materialized. When she does make it to an interview, the feedback she gets is that a decision is being made. In reality, someone has already started the job and she is not told for weeks. This has happened on several occasions.
• A couple of weeks ago, a friend had (stupidly) had a ridiculous amount of ecstasy, alcohol and (most likely, knowing her lately) cocaine over the weekend and had stayed with us over Sunday night. Monday found her bent over double, shaking and fainting. I got her to the hospital by 10am. We were finally seen to by a doctor at 6pm. 8 hours in a waiting room – it’s frightening to think of what could have happened if she were any worse.
• Stores are often and mysteriously out of stock of the most basic items. No-one can tell you when that item will be in or if it will ever be in again. I’m talking about the large chains such as Tesco (like WalMart) here, not the tiny little delis that sell meat canned during the second world war.
• I chose this new apartment 3 weeks before we were scheduled to move in. I needed the letting agency to get rid of two of the beds that came with it – M and I sleep on our own futon and the third bedroom is my office. The day of signing contracts and handing out exorbitant amounts of rent and bond, I asked my spiky haired real estate agent offhand:

‘Tell me that the beds are gone.’

*blank look*

‘The beds, the ones I told you to remove before we moved in – tell me that they’re gone.’

‘Umm’ (trying to be funny now, in a deadpan monotone) ‘The beds are gone.’

‘So when we drive off now to the new place, there will only be one bed and that bed will be in the end room, right?’

‘Well, actually, it hasn’t been done.’

‘So do it now.’


‘What?’

‘I have furniture coming. I bought new furniture for the house. It won’t fit if those beds are there.’

‘I can get rid of them next week.’

‘What can you do for me NOW, Bradley?’

‘Umm, we can probably get rid of the mattress tops in a couple of days and then the bases in a week or so.’

‘No Bradley, I don’t think you understand.’ *putting away the pen that was poised to sign the lease* ‘What will you do about the beds TODAY?’

‘Well, I don’t have a car for it right now and we’re busy today.’


‘Bradley…’ (You know, it’s funny. I don’t speak in a particularly feminine, soothing manner most of the time. It’s only when I’m extremely angry that my voice takes on a silky quality. At this point in time, it was molasses and melted chocolate.) ‘You had three weeks. Three weeks to get rid of those beds.’

Bradley starts flicking through his diary randomly, muttering things about ‘Not hearing’ me when I asked for the beds to be moved. He even deigns to blame the maintenance department.

Sadly for him, the maintenance department chose that moment to walk through the door and, upon enquiry from me, to state that he had never been instructed to move anything at all.

I start positively purring. The office gradually ceases work to watch Bradley fidget under my stare.

‘Three weeks is enough time to shred those beds and eat them. You just forgot or you thought I wouldn’t notice. You’re going to get rid of them for me today, I really don’t care how.’

Suddenly, it was possible to do the job. Amazing - the boy was embarrassed into doing what he was paid to do. I was solemnly promised that action would be taken that day, I was even privy to the logistics.

Would it surprise you if I told you that now, two weeks after that meeting and five weeks after my original request, the mattress bases are residing under the arch by the front door? No, sadly nowadays neither am I.

Those are the big things. The little things just peck away at your soul until you start to become tired, angry and churlish. I could write an entire post just on the poor quality of goods sold here.

It seems to me that this entire country has shrugged* and no-one sent me the memo. The level of incompetence, mismanagement, poor product/service quality and general idiocy is something I have never seen – and I lived and worked in Poland about 7 years ago when it wasn’t too westernised. That’s saying a lot, non?

The thing about humans is that we’re supremely adaptable – we can deal with just about anything by shifting our baseline of normality to encompass our new environment. When I first noticed that things were bad here I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t lower my own standards so that this quagmire ever seemed normal. Back hone, I used to complain about Australian companies – now it almost seems like nitpicking, although I know that it’s not – I’m just surrounded by something exceptionally bad.

This is why it’s great to have other Aussies and Western expats around me. Once in a while, we get together to quite simply bitch about things here. An hour or two in, we emerge from the bloodletting and feel so much better. Not just because we vocalized our frustrations, but because others were genuinely horrified by our experiences. When you think you’re going nuts, it does help to have someone trustworthy tell you that it aint necessarily so.

Two people that I regularly share my disbelief over events with are my parents who aren’t just expats from Australia over here, they were also first generation immigrants to Australia from Russia and Poland. These people grew up in communist countries and escaped (now THAT’s a tale in and of itself). When they tell me that the attitude of people, shopkeepers, managers and professionals here is very similar to what they were used to under communism, I become very, very concerned. When they draw direct parallels in behavior, in systems, in practices, in culture – I realize that what I’m experiencing isn’t just the death of the centre of an empire, but the birth of a hideous monstrosity. This wannabe-kibbutz is also crawling on it’s belly towards Brussels and the EU – as if beaurocratic incompetence with a French accent is somehow going to help things along.

Brits themselves seem to be split into two groups – those that realize something’s very, very wrong and those that just don’t want to hear it. It’s also dangerous (as always) to categorize people into groups and ascribe generalized behavior to that group – it smacks of lazy-brain thinking. I have had the pleasure of meeting many wonderful, hard working English people, it just seems that they’re outnumbered by the incompetent and sluggish at an alarming rate.

My experience here is invaluable – it makes me appreciate Australia all the more and shows me what kind of a society Australia is headed for if it follows down the leftist, Politically Correct, don't-recognize-greatness route with the rest of the west. Had someone told me that this kind of mess existed, I would have thought they were exaggerating. I think I had to see it for myself to believe it could be true. Then again, I don’t see why I thought it wasn’t possible to degenerate to this level – humans created communism too.





* This is a reference to a favorite book – Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand. It deals with the hypothetical scenario of what happens when the productive people in society – the best and the brightest – go on strike or ‘shrug’.

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