Dealing with my petulance

I’ve long since resigned myself to the fact that in Budapest, just as in anywhere else in the world, some people working in the service industry would be better suited to life in a hermitage where interaction with people is minimal – particularly people like me – with a craving that isn’t being satisfied.

If I’m hungry and fixated on having, say, goose and red cabbage, then I don’t want Kobi steak or pasta or roast lamb – I want goose and red cabbage. And my favourite place to eat that goose and red cabbage is in Huszár, a little Hungarian place up on János Pál Pappa tér. I love the place. I’d gone there the last time this particular mate was visiting from Ireland and we had to make do with something else as they’d no goose. Fair enough. It was around St Martin’s day so goose was in short supply. So we went back, again, on Saturday. I had said that perhaps we should call ahead as sometimes they get group bookings on the weekend and close to the general public – but no, he said, let’s live on the edge a little.

We got there, and they were closed. And he soon saw an edge he hadn’t expected. I was like a mad cow. We had somewhere to be at 9. It was now 7.30. I thought quickly and decided on my second favourite Hungarian place over on Hunyadi tér – Hunyadi Kisvendeglo, so we trotted (and I mean trotted) over. It was closed. Not impressed. We went from there to a slightly more upmarket place over on Dob utca – Zeller Bistro – where the maitre’d was booking the couple ahead of us into the next available slot … the following Tuesday. Not a hope of a table.

My mood had gone from bad to worse. I was tired, hot, hungry, and not at all impressed that I hadn’t made that exploratory phone call and, of course, it was all his fault 🙂
A68We ended up at 68 Andrássy Bistro. I’d been for coffee before and nothing on the menu grabbed me. I was sulking. And Annamaria was unflappable. She approached us as we read the menu  – me with distaste, him with hunger. There was no goose leg – just goose liver. With time against us, we went inside. Annamaria ignored my pouts and sulks with something approaching the nonchalance of a professional nanny. She took our order, served our drinks, brought me a hook for my handbag and left us to it. Of course, I had plate envy and should have had his mangalica and mushroom pasta – even if it wasn’t goose. But I shut up and ate my spinach. And it was good. The lovely Annamaria displayed just the right amount of attention and never once did she let me know what she thought of my petulance. Fair play to her. Had our roles been reversed, I wouldn’t have been able to resist. She was amazing. The food wasn’t bad either. I’d go again, if she’d have me back.

Service with a … hiccup

Sit any number of expats in a room in Budapest and get them talking. Ask them what they least like about living here. The phrase ‘customer service’ will undoubtedly pop out of more than a few mouths. I can’t find any figures to support this claim but a ten-minute reflection on various conversations I’ve had in the past number of weeks leaves me with little doubt.

cust serve 4We all have a view on customer service that is coloured by our experience, where we have lived, and what our levels of tolerance are. When I swing from the semi-robotic, seemingly pre-programmed, smiling service that appears to be the norm in, say, North America, to the dour, hate-my-job, want-to-be-anywhere-but-here servitude that I run in to here on a regular basis, I’m not sure which is worse: happy, clappy Wendy with her ‘have a nice day’ smile or the frozen features of Fuzia.

Bad service

cust serv 3I was at the post office recently – one of a crowd of 17 (I had time to count). Two employees chatted away ignoring the queue. A third called her mother/aunt/neighbour out of the queue and served her, completely disregarding the dagger looks I was sending her way. No one else seemed all that bothered. The ticket machine ran out of paper – it was Someone Else’s job to replace it and Someone Else was missing. The first stirs of agitation became visible though when the numberless-but-vocal new arrivals were all taken care of while the numbered-but-silent stood fast and watched in something approaching stunned disbelief.

Good service

At the polar opposite end of the customer service scale I’ve had the good fortune to eat out at a couple of very upmarket restaurants recently (Costes and Knrdy, if you’re curious) where customer service is regarded with an almost religious-like fervour. I like attention. I like watchful attention, where interruptions are not disruptive, where needs are anticipated, and where I don’t have to play ‘dodge eye contact’ with the wait staff. But it seems as if this costs extra.

No service at all

cust ser 2I tried to buy a washing machine some years ago. I knew the make and model I wanted so I went straight to a white goods shop that specialised in that brand. I had cash. And yet try as I might do you think I could get someone to take my money? We don’t have that model. Can you get it? No. Can I order it? No. Is it a current model? Yes. So why can’t I order it? You just can’t. Do you have anything like it? No. I kid you not.

At Ypsilon Café one night last weekend, a waiter took our order. We were well ahead of the post-Concert posse and the place was nearly deserted. It filled up quickly. Other tables who had come in after us were merrily sipping away while we sat… and sat. Eventually when we asked, again, we were told we hadn’t a hope of being served. They were just too busy.

Service with a smile

But my favourite interaction with customer service in Budapest has to be with the BKV. I’m in the market for a BKV employee selling monthly passes who is approaching pleasant and even slightly tolerant of my abysmal Hungarian. I shop around. My patience was finally rewarded. My chap this month was hilarious. Those of us at the back of the slow-moving queue were treated to all sorts of facially expressive comedy from those up ahead. Whatever they were doing, was creating quite a stir. When I took my turn at the top of the queue, I laughed out loud. The chap seemed either stoned or stocious. By the looks of him, he’d not yet made it home from the night before. He was in great form, full of chat as he watched the hairs on the back of his hand stand to attention. He was actually enjoying his job. Now that sort of hiccup in my service I can tolerate.

First published in the Budapest Times 2 May 2014