“Someone’s helping you? In Spain?” my roommate asked with incredulous chestnut eyes aglow. “Now that I’ll get outta bed for!” And Katrina was off, hunting the Great White Unicorn of any American’s extended stay in Spain: customer service.
Let’s get one thing straight here: I don’t mean to offend and I don’t mean to harshly judge without plenty of first-hand experience (and witnesses) to support my assertion. I also mean everything I’m about to type with a fair dose of humor, so understanding those circumstances, read on!
You see, whether you find yourself in a supermarket, a fruit stand, a restaurant, a bank or a hair salon (my darling Igor’s Corte y Cambio, exempted) you’ll quickly come to understand that you as the customer have almost zero importance and wield less than a solemn, humble miligram of power. In most of these situations, you can expect to be blatantly ignored so that the impeccably quaffed, darkly eyeliner-ed española behind the register might touch up her lipstick or carry on a giggly conversation with her coworker two staitons over, click a long sms out to her boyfriend utilizing her long, false talons or diligently finish cleaning her workspace with a rag and some disinfectant. You’ll then languidly be turned to and dealt a bored, “hola,” and then, more likely than not, told that you must stand in another line, two floors up, down, or metro stops to the East, explained to that helping you is entirely out of her control, and that because it’s a Festival Week with two Saint’s days intervening, you probably won’t be able to have your business even addressed until the following week.
What is to me a yet more shocking phenomenon is that being unable to help you (or even give you a good explanation as to how to get helped) usually doesn’t seem to impact the person who’s been appointed to to do so in the least. The complete personal disengagement of the average Spaniard bureaucrat or cash register boy from his or her professional role is astounding. I see Americans as attaching a high degree of importance to being effective at their jobs and fulfilling their duties, whether that means mucking a stable or purveying a table of nine their dinners. We do this because we need to make money and we need to do a decent job in order to continue making said cash; job performance is inextricably linked to job security, and because nobody really likes to get fired or castigated in his or her workplace, job performance is tangentially associated with sense of personal pride. By contrast, I’d hazard to put forth that Spaniards are at their jobs solely for the first reason. The degree of effectiveness to which they carry out said jobs and whether or not they’ve been able to actually service their customers (meaning anything from opening a new savings account to processing paperwork for a visa renewal to jockeying about a cup of coffee) has nothing to do with them as a person; they halfheartedly don a professional identity when they stamp their time cards (and even that’s doubtful–sometimes a single sleeve is all that manages to get slipped into) and easily shuck it the moment the clock strikes their shift’s end. The attitude of “Me? What do I know. I don’t have the power (which is true–power structures here (including with whom an average peon may consult for advice or with complaints) are infinitely more rigid than in the States, so I can’t blame them, really) to make a creative decision, so why should I bother?” is pervasive. This means, generally, that you don’t get helped. Or you’re told to go talk to someone else. Or you’re processed through an immense bureaucratic system whose rules differ at every eschelon and find you’re always missing at least one piece of paperwork. It’s a clusterfuck. A circle jerk. A follón.
So imagine my astonishment when, yesterday, I was helped–and quite a bit–in not one, but two Spanish establishments. They. helped? me. I was as shocked as the hibernating bear who shambles early out of his wintertime cave expecting to encounter vestiges of snow and nectarous buds on oaks being kissed by humming bumblebees, but is met instead by a world covered in lava, alive with alien kittens in artillery belts savagely devouring one another before disappearing in explosions of sparks and mews as cannons fire in the distance.
Read: I was surprised.
Yesterday’s first customer service experience was with Yolanda, a teller at Caja Madrid. Yolanda should have refused to deposit my paycheck in my bank account (cultural note: in Spain, you can do this only at your home branch, and mine is a 25 minute metro ride or an hour’s walk away from my current apartment) unless I changed my home account to this bank, only a block away from my pad. It was Yolanda who invented this option for me, and Yolanda who merrily set about to do it, only to inform me that because I’d made a 10.70 charge on my debit card earlier that morning that was still in process, I’d be unable to switch branches. She should have released me there with a solid injunction to go to my home bank and deposit if I wanted to be able to access my money in three days. Instead, she said, “Okay. Here’s what we’ll do. I’m going to deposit your check so you can use it by Friday and I’ll make you an appointment with me on Monday morning to transfer your account here–that’s going to be much easier for you. Now, you have a lovely holiday tomorrow and, if you don’t mind, just don’t mention this to my manager, okay?” She then winked at me, pressed an appointment card into my hand, and sent me on my merry and astounded way. Hey Yolanda? I love you more than Spanish almond nougat right now (turrón, if you want to try to find and consume some for yourself, which I highly recommend doing) and if you understood what that holiday treat means to me, you’d probably be copping a pretty bitchin’ blush.
But that was not the end of my day of shockingly exceptional customer service. The second round came in a most unexpected place: the hospital.
If you’ve been reading up on the past few entries or know me even a bit in the face-to-face, then you’re probably aware that I’ve been battling an rather incapacitating and mysterious back ailment for a while now. It’s been misery, in short, and after going to the emergency room last week and spending the balance of it laid up at home, off of work and covered in heating packs whilst heavily drugged, I was ready for my scheduled MRI so that I and my doctors might finally, finally see what in the world is going on in that crazy mass of musculature and tell me how to fix it so I can run again. I’d been looking forward to that moment for days–I know it sounds dramatic, but it was one of the only things keeping me cheerful and giving me hope. Given that, you might imagine how quickly my fragile tether to composure unraveled and shrank when I arrived at the imaging center and was informed that my health care had denied me the MRI. As the patient, kind woman behind the desk explained that I’d need to go back to the traumatologist, have him or her write a full report on me and a justification for said MRI, then send it to my health plan for assessment and processing (another 5-10 business days), I erupted into noisy, desperate, bereft sobs, mumbling something about pain, about being an athlete, dammit, about being tough, but unable to do this anymore, along with many mumbled apologies and hot licks of shame running up my cheeks. The woman was sympathetic and genuinely sorry, but there was really nothing she could do. That, I understood, and spilled out into the street, still sobbing and mopping at my face with a fistful of paper towels I’d palmed from the scan center’s bathroom.
As I stood shivering against a bitter autumn wind that pummeled through the narrow alley between the emergency room and its adjoining scan center, I don’t know what happened in my crazed mind that eventually drove me back up the hill to urgencias where I’d had some luck the week before. When I showed up there, saw the kind face of the secretary who’d helped me the week before and her evident alarm at my crazy eyes and swollen face, I started to cry again, explaining the situation and begging them to give me something that would at least let me sleep at night.
They did me one better.
Still sobbing, I was seen right away by a female traumatologist with great earrings and blonde hair (I registered really nothing else about her; shame, pain and desperation had seemingly taken over all of my cognitive faculties), who listened to my predicament, heard me out about insurance, and at the end disapprovingly clucked, “No. This has gone on long enough. You need an MRI. It is very simple.”
She then clomped noisily out into the hallway, had a heated conversation with her secretary, both of them made some phone calls, and when she returned five minutes later it was to say, “You have an MRI in half an hour, is that all right? As soon as they do that, come back and we’ll give you a treatment for the pain.”
“Yes, that’s all right, but I’m getting a treatment?” I asked warily, expecting a long, drawn out affair involving palpating, pressure applied by physiotherapists with elbows and knees and another 2 hours in the emergency room.
“Yes,” answered the traumatologist airirly, as she rose up to leave. “I’ll see you in 45 minutes for your two shots in the behind.”
…O_O. In the behind. Two shots. In the…
I had no time to really think this through as I was whisked off to the imaging center, thoroughly radiated and then accompanied back to see my traumatologist who was waiting with a prescription for night-time pain meds, a sympathetic eye and, yes, a (gentle) hug. She hugged me, and said, “You’ll feel better soon. Hang in there.” I then noticed for the first time as she shuffled out of the room that both of her feet were turned out at painful right angles, probably due to a birth defect of some sort. That, somehow, made me like her even better.
Also present was her assistant who unceremoniously lifted my shirt, pulled down my leggings, and told me to prepare myself because the shots in the booty aren’t generally comfortable. While those weren’t, I have to say that the time since I’ve had them has been much more pleasant. I’ve got some more mobility, I slept well last night, and I’ve got the promise of an appointment with my first traumatologist tomorrow morning at 10 to get the images read and a full treatment recommendation. I also have the promise of six more derriere doubleshots, one for every morning this week.
Long story short, Yolanda, the imaging center secretary, the pretty-earringed traumatologist and the battery of secretaries who work at the Virgen del Mar emergency room have greatly redeemed my opinion of customer service in Spain. While it may never be easy to get paperwork filed in this country and I may never be able to expect a cash-register clerk to be much bothered by my needs, when it counts (with money and with health), there are people who care, who will go beyond the call of duty, and will care for you when you can’t care for your own hysterical, overly-bundled-up, red and sweaty and pain-y self. I am deeply grateful for their efforts and eagerly awaiting tomorrow’s two shots in the ass.