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Saturday, December 4, 2010

It's that time of the month...

I don’t believe it! An Emirati immigration officer smiling? No. I must be dreaming. But sure enough – not one, but TWO of them being nice to their ‘customers’ and going out of their way to be helpful.

There comes a time in everyone’s life when the values they have held dear for so long no longer seem to apply and they feel cast out onto a sea of uncertainty as they struggle to come to terms with the new reality. Today was one of those days for me.

Roll back a couple of hours and as the sun rose to proclaim another day, whilst the birds choked on the fumes of Dubai’s Sheikh Zayed Road, BS set out on his first visa run to make him legal for the next month. I had lost my residency visa, being now 'between jobs', and the rules state that visitors – which I had now officially become - can stay in this self-styled paradise on earth for a maximum of 30 days. To stay longer, you cannot. You have to leave the country and then come back in again. And so it is that the well practised visa-run is a part of daily life at the UAE’s borders.

It being a Friday, the roads were pretty empty, save for the last hangers-on from the previous night’s National Day celebrations. (I always wonder what it is these Emiratis think they have to celebrate - but enough of that. Just don’t get me started!)

I drove over to Al Nahda to pick up Alison, who had volunteered to come for the trip; and was mighty glad to have her there, she having performed this little celebration on a number of occasions. I, on the other hand, was a visa-run-virgin.

It being just over 100 clicks to the border with Oman, we took it nice and easy, stopping for a fill up of go-go juice and a coffee in a garage near Al Madam. It was Nescafe; but it was hot and wet – about all you could say for it really.

And so approaching 1030 we arrived at the border post just beyond Hatta. We parked the car and walked over to the somewhat permanent temporary building that made do as an immigration office.

Grab, snarl, plonk, throw back – yes, the immigration officer lived up to the reputation of his colleagues at Dubai Airport as he cancelled the visitors’ visa in my passport. Alison had queued in front of another window with ‘Fines’ scrawled across it. But she too got her passport plonked and we walked back to the car.

Now logic dictated that if we had officially now left the country, as witnessed by our passports, in theory we could simply cross to the other side of the road and reverse the process. No way, advised Alison. We actually have to go into Oman… don’t we? But who would know, quoth I. And being adventurous, we decided to try our luck.

We made a u-turn in the shingle that lay between the two carriageways and parked outside the Enter UAE office before entering to witness the smiling Emirati border guards. Two ladies, decked out in black abayas with henna on their hands.

No, no; one of them told me as she rummaged through my passport for an Omani stamp. You actually have to go into Oman before you can re-enter the UAE! She had obviously been through this routine many times before; but she was so good natured that we couldn’t protest. Being the type who acknowledges the superior wisdom of a fellow human being, I begrudgingly told Alison I should have listened to her in the first place!

We set off down the road. First to the Omani customs post. True to their reputation the Omanis wished us good day, smiled at us, told us not to worry about opening the boot of the car and wished us a pleasant trip. We were given the obligatory piece of paper we would have to get stamped and handed back when we left borderland.

We travelled on for a few kilometres until we got to the Omani immigration post. Not some old Nissan hut as found on the Emirati side. This is a sumptuous immigration palace with ample car parking, advertisements that told us ‘Beauty has an address… in Oman’ and smiling Omani guards who say good morning to us as we enter the building.

As I stood in line for the immigration officer, Alison went to try out the plumbing. But what was this? The price of an Omani visa has just recently increased by over 300 percent! For the privilege of spending about half an hour on Omani soil I was being asked to shell out 200 dirhams – or some US$55. But Mr Immigration officer kept on smiling and I manfully dived into my wallet and handed over the necessary bank notes. Kerching!

Alison came back from the plumbing and we decided that she could get in the coffee whilst I would drive round the block and get the car paperwork sorted out. So, off I drove – another kilometre to the exit sentry who could see a visa-run person a mile off. No need to go any further, he said; just do a u-turn here; which I did. And queued up to buy a car exit pass from another Omani post. 20 dirhams…kerching!

At the next border post I was advised that I needn’t have bought a new exit pass as I had not needed to give up my first pass; I could have used that instead. But have a nice day, he added as an afterthought.

I met up with Alison again, who was doing an excellent job of stopping my coffee from evaporating, and we supped on the precious liquid whilst looking around the immigration palace. Not just a coffee shop, but they even had a Pizza Hut Express outlet there as well.  Enterprising these Omanis!

All good things must come to an end; so with tears in our eyes we set off once again on the 9kms trek to the UAE border post and parked outside the Enter UAE office, there to be greeted once again by one of the smiling ladies. ‘Did you have a nice time in Oman’? I half expected her to ask me as she inspected my passport for what passed as an Omani entry stamp (difficult to find as the ink had nearly dried up on the Omani officer’s pad).

And off we set, handing over the slip of paper to yet another bored border guard as we drove back into the UAE, once again legal.

It still being early in the day, we decided to go back via a circuitous route to Fujairah, stopping for lunch at the Hilton resort; and then on a special detour to show Alison one of my favourite roundabouts - just outside the ‘International Airport’: an eagle that looks like it is high on LSD doing an amazingly good impression of a bunny caught in the headlights of a passing Antonov.

On the way back to Dubai we continued to search for that all illusive cup of decent coffee – and thought we had succeeded when we discovered an outlet called the Mandarin Cafeteria situated right beside a garage.

Look closely at the photo above…. You see it. Yes! Segafredo coffee!

You have to be eagle eyed to notice such things (though not a Fujairah Airport eagle, of course) and we traipsed inside. But alas.  المشكلة مع آلة القهوة  Problem with the coffee machine. Sorry. We have Nescafe though, as if this was the answer to all life’s ills.

We steered clear of the Nescafe and drove on to Alison’s pad, there to sup real coffee from a plunger, accompanied by a Namibian beer as a chaser.

So now I am free to stay in this demi-paradise for another 30 days. Lucky me. But next time I will be flying out from Dubai Airport once again, there to experience – almost without doubt – some of the rudest and most condescending immigration officers I have ever had the misfortune to deal with. Of course, I might strike lucky, but if past experience is anything to go by, I think that is highly unlikely.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Caribou!

I’ve never really liked the Times Square Mall. I’ve always felt there is some kind of jinx on this place, ever since I got a parking ticket for leaving my car outside, after they had newly installed parking ticket machines, but had somehow forgotten to put up any signs telling the hapless motorists, of whom I was one, that things had changed since last time they were there.

So I should be the last one to be surprised by my latest experience in this apology for a shopping mall, which is perched on the edge of Sheikh Zayed Road. You half expect to see a large sign borrowed from Dante’s Divine Comedy positioned at the mall entrance:
Abandon hope all ye who enter here!

So I should have known better. But poor Sushmita was desperate for a break from work, and being the kind, generous and understanding sort that I am, I offered to collect her from the KT office and drive to the nearest coffee parlour which, of course, just happened to be in Times Square. Silly me!

We parked in the underground car park, even though it being Eid, the Road Transport Authority had announced that parking tickets had been suspended for the holiday. You just never know when someone might just change their mind…

And so it was up the escalator and into the Caribou Café for coffee and edibles.

Sushmita decided she was starving, so we plumped for a cappuccino, to be accompanied by a chicken fajita, to assuage her hunger, followed by a wedge of lemon cake to round it off, and for me a raspberry and almond muffin.

Had we taken leave of our senses? This was Times Square (I might already have mentioned this)! And it was the Eid holiday. But we blithely found a comfy sofa and mock-leather arm chair and sat back waiting for our mini-feast.

It was at this point in time that the corny old “joke” about coffee tasting like mud comes to mind as it has “just been ground” (he-he-he). Or better still that famous Blackadder sketch in which Baldrick offers to make coffee for Captain Edmund Blackadder…

Edmund: Baldrick, fix us some coffee, will you? And try to make it taste slightly less like mud this time.
Baldrick: Not easy, I'm afraid, Captain.
Edmund: Why is this?
Baldrick: 'cause it is mud. We ran out of coffee thirteen months ago.
Edmund: So every time I've drunk your coffee since, I have in fact been drinking hot mud...
Baldrick: With sugar.
Edmund: Which of course makes all the difference.
Baldrick: Well, it would do if we had any sugar, but, unfortunately, we ran out New Year's Eve 1915, since when I've been using sugar substitute.
Edmund: Which is...?
Baldrick: Dandruff.
Edmund: Brilliant.
Baldrick: Still, I could add some milk this time -- well, saliva...
Edmund: No, no, thank you, Baldrick. Call me Mr Picky, but I think I'll cancel the coffee.

OK, so the cappu wasn’t up to much, though 2 out of 10 for it being hot and wet. My eye was caught by a sign affixed to a notice board…”Your journey to great coffee begins here” it read. What I hadn’t realized up until that point was that the journey probably starts on the way out of the café rather than on the way in.

The Chicken Fajita was toasty-hot on the outside but was still frozen inside.

The lemon wedge was the right colour, but that is as far as it went. If there had ever been any lemon in it, it had obviously made a quick getaway while it had the chance. And the cake was so stale it would not even bounce on the floor - as any self-respecting lemon wedge would know instinctively how to do.

As for the raspberry and almond muffin…. Well what can I say? In our generosity we had even considered that Sushmita take it back to the office to fatten up the lovely Karen who had been left slaving over a hot computer whilst Sush went out to feed her face. But would TLK have thanked us for it? I doubt that very much. Indeed, it might even have signaled the end of a beautiful friendship.

Sush’s face said it all. “But it looked so nice in its plastic wrapping” she wailed, the thought of having to survive another few hours till dinner obviously preying on her mind.

Another sign read: “No short cuts – it’s freshness guaranteed”. What we felt they had left off, however, were those essential words: “…except during the Eid holiday”.

There was, of course, no point in complaining to the staff behind the counter. This is the UAE and café staff are not empowered to refund their customers’ money. “Learn your lesson and move on”, I thought; so we learned our lesson and moved on.

Sushmita would have to go hungry. TLK would have to go hungry. My wallet would feel a little bit lighter; but at least I could look on the bright side: I hadn’t got a parking ticket (this time)!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Callserve – No calls and No serve!

Regular readers will know that nothing infuriates me more than companies that feel they can take their customers for a ride. Forget about customer service and actually keeping the guys who pay their bills sweet; instead rape their accounts and smile all the way to the bank.

So Callserve – which makes its money from offering Voice Over Internet phone calls – gets my vote this month for shoddiest customer treatment – way out in front of similar grab-the-money-and-run organisations.

What gets my ire this time around? I live and work in the United Arab Emirates. For quite some time I was a happy and, dare I say it, loyal customer of Callserve. I paid a fee up front which allowed me to make pretty cheap phone calls around the world and in general the software did what it said on the box and everyone was happy. The fact that two years ago there were over 1400 international VoIP services for the residential and SOHO (small business) market didn’t sway me one bit. I saw no reason to change.

But circumstances dictated otherwise. The telecoms regulator in the UAE saw fit to ban the use of VoIP. Try to get onto any of the regular VoIP websites and you were greeted with the screen of death:

خطر!  Surf Safely! This website is not accessible in the UAE.
The page goes on to explain that “the site you are trying to access contains content that is prohibited under the Internet Access Management Regulatory Policy of the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of the United Arab Emirates.

Or to put it another way, the impoverished telecoms companies, Du and Etisalat can’t fleece their customers if they resort to trying to save money using VoIP.

And so it was that trying to use Callserve became an impossibility. The general public couldn’t save money by making cheap internet calls; Callserve couldn’t make money by selling cheap internet calls. Only Du and Etisalat were able to carry on making their piles of money.

But wait a minute! What was this? Despite the so-called ban, Skype continued to work after a fashion; and then Yahoo and MSN Messenger’s voice and video conferencing suddenly started working again too for some reason. But the likes of Callserve were still officially banned. And that must have really choked off Callserve who surprise, surprise, suddenly worked out a way of circumventing the regulations.

“Having trouble calling from the UAE? We have a solution,” they trumpeted on 26th September. “We’ve had feedback from a few customers stating that they are having trouble accessing our PC dialler. If you too are having issues using the regular Callserve PC dialler, then we have a solution. You can download a new version here. We apologise for any inconvenience caused with our PC dialler, and hope to see you calling again soon.” And a specially set up web site at http://uaecaller.com/callserve (UAE Telecoms Regulator, please note!) had this new software which the killjoys at the UAE Regulatory office had not yet discovered and blocked. 

Sure enough, I was once more able to download Callserve software and managed to log on with my old password. But what was this? My balance, which had stood at over £16 when last I had used it, now recorded zero. I started to read the small print. “Your Callserve account was not used for over 6 consecutive months and was therefore closed.  However, our records show that you have recently logged in [to download the new software] so we have reactivated your account.  ...You will need to make a payment as your account balance is now automatically set to zero.”


“It’s worth reminding you that we are giving away 10% extra free credit on all top ups made until the end of September 2010. All you need to do is enter the promotion code SEP10 when you next top up your account,” it added, as if to rub salt in the wound.

Hang on though. This was Callserve’s software that didn’t work here; a problem that they knew about and were able to solve by writing better software. I wrote to their customer support asking for a reinstatement of my money. And I got a reply… a couple of days later from someone called Vishal Tirthani.

“Dear customer, Thank you for contacting Callserve Support. We are really sorry that you were not able to use the callserve service to save on calls since one year.  Unfortunately we cannot do anything about the returning of the credit, as that is a system policy. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you need further assistance.”

In other words, Dear Customer; we have your money. Now get lost!

I wrote back again. “I am sorry that your system policy seems to penalise the end user for the fact that YOUR software doesn't work in the UAE and that when you finally sorted the problem out you expect the CUSTOMER to be happy to wave goodbye to money he paid upfront on the basis that YOUR software would work when in fact it didn't.  Are you guys really serious that this is what customer service is all about? Might I respectfully suggest that you re-examine your ‘system policy’ and make an exception in this case?”

Not surprisingly, Callserve ‘Customer Service’ has chosen not to reply. Now, in my book, this is nothing short of stealing. They promised a service which didn’t work; and when they finally DID get it working, they then zeroed the balance and then had the temerity to ask their customers to pay again, because their system policy was…. to steal from their customers!

So in awarding my shoddiest customer treatment of the month accolade to Callserve, this is just to let them know that I will be telling as many people as possible about their policy of ripping off customers. This blog will also go on my web site. And it will be posted on Facebook. And it will be sent to a number of other bloggers I know in the hope that they too will spread the word that if anyone would like to use VoIP, the LAST company they should ever consider using is Callserve which I understand is also part of Vyke.com. On the basis of viral networking, I would like in my own small way to put a BIG spanner in the works of this rip off company.

Oh, and if Callserve ever do respond to this particular ex-customer, you can rest assured that I will be sure to tell you what they have to say for themselves.

12th November 2010 update:

Oh guess what....The Callserve team really do think they are the bee's knees.... I have just been written to:
Hi brian, Did you know about our great referral scheme? If you refer a friend to Callserve you get $5 free credit when they make their first top up. And they get $5 too! It's that simple. Visit our site for more details.
If you need any help or support please contact our Customer Support Team. Talk soon, The Callserve Team

Being the mean spirited S-O-A-B that I am, I wrote back to them....short and sweet:
Your lack of customer service really astounds me! and then linked them to this page...

A lady called Kiran Shetty (no, I did say Shetty!) wrote back:

Thank you for writing us, Can you be a bit more specific in your query, So that we can serve you in a better manner, {her grammar, not mine!}

I wrote back...

To be dismissed offhand by your customer service and then to be spammed by your marketing department suggesting I recommend Callserve to my friends beggars belief. I will NEVER recommend Callserve to anyone again after such treatment. Instead I will refer everyone to my blog.

I am a journalist and also give training on internet use to businesses. One of the points I always stress is that companies such as yours that treat its customers in such a cavalier fashion will ultimately fail because the customer now has real choice. I now have another example to quote in my seminars...

Total silence again for two more days. And then surprise surprise, not one, but three eMails pop into my inbox from Callserve's customer support. The first is a computer generated eMail (I think):

Dear brian Your account has been adjusted to reflect your recent request. Please see below for transaction details.   16.3405 GBP  Balance correction

(Thinks: how many minutes of online phone time can you get for .05 of a penny?)

A minute later, a Jonathan Featherstone sends me anothe eMail:

Thank you for your enquiry. To fix the problem please go to the follwoing website to download and then install a new version of our software. www.uaecaller.com/callserve

Err.. thanks guys, but by going to the "follwoing" site is what started this all off in the first place.

10 more nail-biting minutes pass... Jonathan Featherstone writes again (just in case I am too thick to have comprehended the earlier eMail generated by their computer?)

 have also reactivated your account with a balance of £16.34 Kind regards

Ah, so they have thought better of crediting me with an extra .05 pence as compensation? Well, never mind. At least they have seen the error of their ways; and I take this as an apology from the mighty Callserve.

I mean, I still won't be recommending them to my friends (so they can keep their $5 reward) but perhaps their service might come in useful one day - if I can think of anyone I want to ring overseas who is not yet on skype / yahoo / MSN / etc - just as long as I do so within 6 months

24th November 2010 further update:

Oh dear - they still don't get it do they???

Further update on 8th April 2011

I tried using callserve again this week only to find that yet again my credit of over sixteen pounds has been reduced to zero by those thieving good for nothings at Callserve. I wrote once again to thier customer "service" department referring to my previous conversations with them.

Why am I not surprised that I have - after five days - received no answer from them.

Let me reiterate my earlier comments - that Callserve deserve to fail in today's internet world. Any organisation which treats its customers in such a disgusting, dishonest and downright shoddy fashion should be given the cold shoulder. I, for one, will be an evangelist for telling as many people as I possibly can to steer well away from these shysters!

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Giving Away The Bride - No Refunds Permitted!

Save the date! the fridge magnet in my Dubai apartment screamed at me every time I went on a snack raid at around in the morning. 25th September 2010. Lee & Genevieve’s Wedding Day. Formal Invitations to Follow.
My daughter Genevieve had wanted to make sure that I, and a cast of thousands likewise, didn’t double book the date, so she gave plenty of time to get it into everyone’s diaries. Well, I thought it would be churlish to refuse such an invitation, so jumped on a plane to Gatwick the weekend before to give myself plenty of time to prepare for the “big day”.

The duties of a Father-of-the-Bride are not really that onerous I discovered. Or maybe it was because Genevieve had got everything sorted out so well. A case of Been there; Seen the Video; Got the T-shirt perhaps? Except that to press the point home, I was given a pair of socks reminding me of my special role. So scrap the T-shirt and insert the word Socks!
Being FOTB automatically gives one VIP status I discovered. OK, it means dressing up in a suit, and wearing a tie for the first time in ages; but that’s a small price to pay for being chauffeured from the hotel to the castle (Tamworth Castle, where the wedding was taking place) and having total strangers coming up to me and being everso nice.
The other goodie thing is that you don’t have to get to the venue early in order to grab a good seat. There is one already reserved right at the front, and everybody turns round when you enter the room and appears genuinely happy to see you…. Oh OK, perhaps they were more interested in Genevieve walking up the aisle than me – though I was still able to bask in reflected glory.

The Castle theme was a continuation of the overall theme for the wedding. Gen and Lee are into these historic battle re-enactments big time, which explains why Lee had decided to dress up in chain mail and Gen was dressed up as a dead ringer for Lady Guinevere. Luckily the FOTB did not have to dress to fit in – just had to try to appear a little smarter than normal, wearing a grey suit; that’s all!

Come the BIG MORNING, the sun shone beautifully. But that was no surprise. Genevieve had had the presence of mind to order a dozen golfing umbrellas, whilst the rest of the family between us must have easily doubled that number. So in the event, we could practically guarantee good weather. Not a cloud in the sky. Brilliant!

After breakfast we had fun decorating Drystan’s car. As brother of the bride (BOTB for short) he had valiantly offered his shiny red pride and joy to be the Bridemobile; and we set to with a vengeance covering it with tie-bows and white ribbons for the four minute journey to the castle.

Though I might well be accused of bias, Genevieve looked an absolute picture in her wedding dress; whilst FOTB looked equally dapper in a Chinese red and black waistcoat, and BOTB wore a Fraser tartan dress kilt. Bridesmaid and Pageboy wore maroon in a close match to the wedding dress.

Time waits for no man, not even a Bride on her wedding day. I did the normal honourable father-to-daughter thing of reminding Genevieve that it was not too late to back out of the wedding if she wanted to. No way, she riposted…. Only then to revert to bargaining mode, suggesting that if I were to pay off their mortgage she might consider it. But a quick calculation showed that it would be cheaper to get a quickie divorce after the ceremony, quite irrespective of my investment in the wedding day itself, so she valiantly agreed to go ahead with it all, and we ploughed on to the castle.
Tamworth castle is one of those edifices that are ideal for small-ish weddings. With a baronial hall decked in flags and pieces of armour stuck haphazardly onto the walls, it makes for a perfect setting. And afterwards while the official photographs are being taken, guests can wander at will around the castle, killing time until either the photographer’s memory stick runs out of space, or he can find no one else to shoot (figuratively speaking!).
The killjoys at the Castle didn’t want confetti littering up their cobbled courtyard, so we were all shepherded down to the bottom of the drive, there to chuck dried rose petals - which had been pre-wrapped in little gauze bags - at the happy couple.

Next on the agenda was the Wedding Breakfast. No matter that this didn’t start until after 3 in the afternoon. It is still called a breakfast. Eight tables were laid out with flowers and candles and disposable cameras for guests to capture any embarrassing moments that came their way. The order of ceremony specified that after the first course of melon topped with red-goo, it was time for FOTB to deliver his speech. Finally months of feverish preparation (well, a couple of hours at least!)  were to be put to the test. And so … I began…. 

Ladies and gentlemen and … friends of my daughter

This speech is the moment where, as Rowan Atkinson said in his famous sketch, 'the man who paid for the damn thing is allowed to speak a word or two of his own.'

Speech-making is a bit like prospecting for black gold. If you don't strike oil in 10 minutes, stop boring. So, as Henry V111 said to each of his wives in turn – I’ll try not to keep you very long

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is ….Genevieve’s dad. In the past I’ve been called lots of other names, but today, for one-Fine-Proud-day, I have a new name: Today, I, am Father of the Bride. I even have the socks to prove it!  And on behalf of Simone and the family, I would like to welcome you all here today – to celebrate the marriage of Genevieve to Lee.

Well, not being one of those who does this too regularly, I thought I might look up some ideas of what goes into a father-of-the-bride speech on the internet. And to be honest I really wondered why I had bothered…

A good tip, I read repeatedly, is to suggest that the groom or best man will soon be 'entertaining us' or 'treating us to their words of wisdom' or something similar. This creates an air of expectation and anticipation amongst the guests, and to some extent takes the pressure off the bride's father with the implication that 'the best is yet to come'. Yeh that’s what it said!

Confirm what everyone already knows by saying what a lovely day it is, And that way, You get everyone to agree with you.

And a piece of advice that kept cropping up again and again was Get the groom's name right. Apparently this is one of the most common mistakes made by the father of the bride. Well, I’m one of those people who uses triggers to remember names. And what better trigger for Lee’s name than The Dukes of Hazard? You all remember that orange car in the TV series? Yes of course you do. The only trouble is that I now have to keep telling myself that Genevieve is not marrying someone called Daisy!

But you know, I thought I would ask Genevieve what she wanted me to put in the speech – after all it is her big day. Whatever you do, she told me, just don’t embarrass me. And as she has as much dirt on me as I do on her, and in the interests of self preservation I reckon I’d better not tell you - - - - that… or that… or even that…

You know, one of the things that really gobsmacked me about Lee was that he actually asked permission to marry Genevieve. Not once, but twice! I normally live and work in the Middle East and one day Lee waited until he could be alone with Simone and asked her if it would be acceptable for him to marry Genevieve. I’m led to believe that taken aback as Simone was, she could only blurt out that as I wasn’t in the UK she couldn’t possibly give her permission without my knowledge. Now in my book, any red-hot-blooded male at that point would have said…. to hell with it.  If Genevieve’s dad can’t be bothered to be around when he had steeled himself to ask the question, then why should he bother to do the right thing?

But no. Not Lee. He actually waited until I was next back in the UK, made some lame excuse to Genevieve that he was going out and instead headed 200 miles up north.  No doubt Genevieve thought he had just popped round to the pub for a quick one. Anyway, Lee DID ask my permission for Genevieve’s hand in marriage …which I found very touching – and of course I wanted to know if he would be able to support a family? The answer was no! –  He was only planning  to support my daughter – The rest of us would have to look after ourselves.

Now when I wrote the first draft of this speech, I wrote some glowing words of praise about Lee. I described him as kind, courteous, caring, witty and courageous. The problem was, living three thousand miles away, I hadn’t actually had the chance to spend a lot of time with him, so I had no idea if I were telling the truth. I guess I’ll just have to rely on Genevieve’s say-so…though she might be a little biased?

I might have mentioned that I live in the Middle East –  in the United Arab Emirates to be precise. Anyone been there? Anyone know where it is? It’s actually one of those places where the locals have far more money than sense. Those of you who aspire to keep abreast of this rapidly changing world might well have read in the papers recently that the son of one of our Sheikhs went to Birmingham University to study. A month later, he sends a letter to his dad saying: “Birmingham is wonderful, the people are nice and I really like it here, but I’m a bit ashamed to arrive at college every day in  my gold-plated Mercedes when all my teachers travel in  by train.” Sometime later he gets a letter from his dad with a ten million dollar cheque saying: “Stop embarrassing us, go and get yourself a train too.”

Actually, Arabs love giving out advice to others, even if they never follow it themselves. So here’s a little story for Lee…. A sheikh employed a sprinter to run from the palace to his harem, which was about three miles away, to fetch one of his wives whenever he was in the mood. The sheikh would nod and the sprinter would take off. This event usually took place about three times a day until the runner died at the age of 36. The sheikh lived to be 96. And the moral of the story is, "Sex doesn't kill you...it's the running after it that does."

You know it’s quite hard for a father to objectively judge the beauty of his daughter. Over the years, I have been forced to rely on the opinions of several of my friends. The usual accolade ran along the lines of “Ooh err she’s a lot better looking than you mate!” from which I was able to deduce, by a simple process of logic, that she must be extremely beautiful indeed. Seriously though, I think you will all agree that today she really does look a picture…And Lee…also…looks…a…picture…

So back to the happy couple – I now need you both to participate in my speech – Genevieve please put your hand on the table – Lee place you hand on top of Genevieve’s. Any photographers to capture this historic moment? - You enjoying that Lee? – you should be – it’s probably the last time that you will ever have the upper hand in this relationship!

Now, according to the internet sites I looked up it’s customary on these occasions for me to offer the happy couple some worldly advice on marriage…. So… Let’s start with Lee "The best way for a peaceful marriage is simple - lie. If Gen asks you if you've done whatever you've forgotten, say that you have - and then do it.

Genevieve - If he catches you doing something you shouldn't, say it was a surprise for him. Men are stupid, they'll believe anything if they want a peaceful life or at least they’ll pretend to!

Genevieve again: If you want something from Lee, ask for it. Remember, Lee is a man, and hints just do not work.

And a further thing: You will find in your marriage that you make ALL the MINOR decisions whilst Lee makes all the MAJOR decisions. Lee, you will find out that all future decisions turn out to be of a minor nature.

Now that you are married, Genevieve will always have the last word in any argument – any word that you come out with afterwards is by default, the start of the next argument!

And remember, when you buy her flowers . . . it proves you are guilty (but of course, beware the far more serious consequences of not buying her flowers!).

And finally to Genevieve, the definition of a perfect wife is one who helps her husband with the washing up ....

To be serious for a moment, I have to tell you Ladies & Gentlemen we really wondered if the time would ever come when these two would get married.  Let me tell you about the time Genevieve put an advert in the Lichfield Gazette that read “Husband Wanted” and she had 97 replies all saying the same thing . . . “You can have mine!”

Lee also tried hard before he found my daughter. I understand that he sent a photo to the lonely hearts club but they sent it back saying “we’re not that lonely!”

I think it was Dr. Johnson who said that Marriage has many pains, but Celibacy has no pleasure - Which reminds me of a story that they always tell in Saudi Arabia: Mohammed is talking to his friend. …."Did you know, Abdullah, that during sex, an average man loses about 250 calories whereas the average Saudi loses 1,250 calories?"  "How do you explain that?" asks Abdullah. "Well," replies Mohammed, "the Saudi  uses up 250 calories during sex and a further 1,000 calories whilst he’s running around telling all his friends about it afterwards."

Well, a good speech, they say, should be like a mini-skirt: short enough to be interesting, and long enough to cover the bare essentials.. And as Lee’s just looked at his watch I presume that means he is in need of a drink so, ladies and gentlemen, without further ado please be upstanding and raise your glasses …..

I give you Genevieve and Daisy … errr, sorry Genevieve and Lee. . . the bride and groom!

Cue rapturous applause at this point, FOTB takes a bow and everyone can get stuck in to the next course, their hunger having been heightened by having to sit through this FOTB drivel.

The next speech was for the Groom himself. Before thoughts could wander on to the profiteroles in waiting, Lee delivered a moving speech, saying exactly what needed to be said;
And for FOTB there was an unexpected bonus. As a special thank you (thank you for what, I wondered?), Lee produced Niles – a baby camel that was looking for adoption. (I knew he was called Niles, as the name was printed on a label protruding from his bottom which told me he had been born in China, that he was surface washable and that he had a coat of polyester fibre. Niles and I developed an instant rapport and he is sitting beside me even now as I write this blog.
The Best Man’s speech didn’t disappoint either. It is the BM alone, I understand, who can tell smutty jokes and get away with it. (Sample: I understand that Lee & Gen are going to North Wales for their honeymoon …. At least I am sure I overheard Lee saying he was going to Bangor for the next week!  Cue sounds of unbridled mirth and ribled applause!)

Fast forward a few hours now to the wedding disco. Suddenly the 50-strong crowd of wedding guests was augmented to double that number. As is normal, the first dance was reserved for the Bride & Groom. B&G performed their slushy roles to perfection; after which it was time for the Bride to dance with FOTB. Now, I had been warned some weeks back that I needed to choose the music for this (yes, yet another onerous task for FOTB) but as luck would have it, one of my favourite artistes is a country singer called Suzy Bogguss. And one of her really nice songs is ideal for a B/FOTB dance – It’s called When She Smiled At Him. Not only is it slow (essential when one of the couple is wearing a long dress that flows onto the floor) but it is also a beautiful song and as an added bonus it reinforced Genevieve’s mistaken belief that she is able to twist her dad round her little finger. And on her wedding day, who am I to be a killjoy? I am told that there was hardly a dry eye in the place by the time we had strutted our stuff.
I could go on (yes – really I could!) but I think the point is made by now. A lovely day was had by all; and as an added bonus, I have ended up with a new life-long companion. One who is happy to share my bed and gaze adoringly at me as if to say we were meant for one another. So as Genevieve and Daisy enjoy a sun soaked holiday in Turkey (or should that be Wales?) Niles and I are about to settle down in front of the TV before hitting the sack. Life can be good; life can be very good indeed.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Now this is what I call service!

I guess I have to face it. The time has come when it’s getting more and more difficult to bullshit people into believing I’m still only 29. It’s probably those white hairs that insist on making such an unwelcome appearance when I’m viewed in profile mode; and claim as I might that in fact I only painted them in to make myself look more distinguished, I’m finding that there are actually one or two people who tell me the equivalent of ‘pull the other one’.
Perhaps another dead give away is the fact that my eyesight isn’t what it used to be. And though my vari-focal glasses allow me to see all distances in focus by the simple expedient of raising or lowering my head, my reading glasses are something else.
I used to use them for working on the computer but lately they really haven’t helped at all – either that or the computer monitor deliberately detects when the reading glasses come out and then acts all funny so I can’t read the words dancing in front of me.
I have always got my glasses in the past from a highly respected chain or two in the UK. You have to make an appointment two weeks in advance to see the ophthalmologist; you turn up at your appointed time and normally only have to wait for a maximum of 20 minutes. But the glasses take up to 10 days to arrive and this causes a problem if I am only back in blighty for just over a week.
So today I decided it was high time I got an eye check up. I jumped into the car and pottered off to the Mall of the Emirates and found loads of opticians. After inspecting some of them and crossing them off my mental list (I can’t stand shop staff standing at the entrance with arms folded, waiting for some hapless individual to dare cross their threshold) I plumped for one called Pearl Opticians, right next to Carrefour, and loped inside.

There I am met by a smiling young Filipina.
How much is it to have one's eyes tested, I ask.
It's free sir.
Oh, well can I make an appointment for an eye test please?
Yes sir. Just one minute....
Filipina backs off to the rear of the shop keeping her eyes fixed on two Arab guys who are trying on kool shades from a rack at the front of the store. It is clear she is not going to remove her eyes from them for one second. She calls over her shoulder to another Filipina to take over on ‘Arab watch duty’ and then goes into the back to ask a third Filipina to come out.
Yes sir. Please fill in your personal details on this form, she says, circling name, Date of Birth and phone number. Do I detect a slight tweak of that smile when I decide to play honest and give my real DoB?
The rest doesn’t need filling in, she tells me
I give back the form, asking when I might be able to get an appointment for my eye test.
Oh sir. So sorry to keep you waiting. Please come now to the eye test room!
I am ushered to a high chair and sit through the various tests: which has darker black circles? - red or green?
Which leg of the criss-cross pattern is stronger?
Can you read the bottom line (errr… actually I can’t read the top line!)
Eventually the tests are all over and I am escorted outside once again. I am told about the different lens options, but they being reading glasses only I go for the cheapest.
How long will it take to make up the order, I ask handing over my old frames.
I'm sorry sir. Because of Ramadhan we cannot be as quick as we would normally like.
Sure, I understand, I answer. So they will be ready...??
Around 2.30 sir (it is now 12.20).
You mean 2.30 today?
Yes sir. Sorry sir. We cannot do any faster!
Then that will be fine, I say magnanimously, wondering what a normal turn around time would be.
So I have two hours to kill. Well, I need some new trousers so let’s take a look in some of the clothing stores. But it being Ramadhan, all the good stuff has already been snapped up. Never mind; let’s go see what is on offer at the Outlet Mall – an out-of-town shopping centre which sells itself on having the biggest discounts in Dubai.

I drive the half hour to the Mall, and wander inside. OK. It is certainly stuffed full of fashion shops, and every single sign on every single window shouts at you what a bargain you are going to find inside (50%? 60%? 75%? even 90% off!) but the place is virtually deserted.

I find a couple of shops that I have just inspected in the Mall of the Emirates. The same trousers on sale, but both cost 20 dirhams more than I saw at MoE. And a much smaller choice as well. No wonder the place is deserted.
I head back into town and get to the MoE at 2.30. I go to Pearl Optics, but no Filipinas are in sight. There has been a shift change and I am greeted by an Arab lady – she looks Jordanian.
Errr, I was here two hours ago, I begin waving my till receipt.
Oh yes, she cuts in, lifting the receipt out of my hot and stickies, and goes over to a shelf on the wall. Here you are Mr Brian. Please try them on. They are good? Yes?
They are good, yes, I assure her, thanking her very much as she stamps my receipt, and I back out of the shop.
I am impressed.
Excellent service; excellent price; excellent job done. What a lovely change!
Could the opticians in the UK learn a thing or two from these guys!
I pass by a full length mirror.
I like what I see.
All I need do now is to top up on the hair maintenance; and perhaps for the time being at least, I’ll try passing myself off for 35.
Who was it who said that old age is not for wimps?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Should we pass around the begging bowl for Géant?

Readers of these pages will know that I get fed up with the perpetual ethos in the Gulf region of ripping people off at every conceivable opportunity. Not that it is just in this region, of course. My most lasting impression of Delhi will always be the way the entire population appears to target foreigners as rip off victims and inflate their prices accordingly, sometimes by many hundreds of percent.
But whereas in Delhi it is done quite openly – you know that if you are a foreigner the prices are actually posted up showing how much you are ripped off (!) – here in the UAE, stealth rip off is more the norm.
Now, maybe it’s because it is the holy month of Ramadhan, which – we are led to believe - is especially a month of generosity and giving – that the continuing antics at hypermarket giant Géant are rubbing me up the wrong way. The religious web sites would have us believe that during Ramadhan, charity and generosity toward fellow humans are akin to prayer.
 رمضان كريم – Ramadhan Kareem, scream the posters from all over the store, as if somehow to get us into the mood and improve our joie de vivre.

Many of the products have special Ramadhan labels affixed – such as a special offer pack of three litres of Nada juice for a mere 10 dirhams. Oh what a bargain. They know how to tempt the cheapos like me into parting with our cash.

I check again. Yes. Sure enough. On the shelf itself is a pricing ticket confirming this bargain of the century.
How can I resist? Answer: I can’t. I grab a three-pack… fighting back the urge to take two or three to tide me over… and head off for the tills.
The Filipina checkout girl, well trained in the art of tempting cash from the hapless customers, asks if I would like a plastic bag. She doesn’t tell you that it will automatically add 25 fils to the overall price of your checkout trolley; but we’re all wise to that one by now. But wait – what is this? A large sign below the counter telling us to Say No to Plastic Bags.

I tell her that it would be churlish to accept a plastic bag when the store begs us not to. Filipina is not amused. Perhaps she has heard it too many times before.
She swipes my precious pack of Nada juice… Dhs10.50 please.
Errr, no. I think you mean 10.00.
No, it has come up as 10.50.
But it even says 10.00 on the pack.
Sorry. It’s 10.50
I start to explain to her that such a practice is actually illegal in Europe, but she doesn’t want to know.
Eventually a store manager comes over to see why the checkout queue is growing at such an alarming rate. This just isn’t right I explain to him patiently.
I agree with you, he replies. I will get a merchandiser to check it out straight away. (He has obviously been trained in the art of keeping the customer happy) and instructs the Filipina to charge me 10.00.
Two days later, having savoured the delicate taste of Nada Raspberry and Orange juices, I decide that I can hold back my desires no longer and hurry back to Géant for another pandering to my inbuilt gluttony. Yes, sure enough the offer is still there. I check the bottles. I check the pricing ticket.
I grab a 3-pack and head for the checkout once more.
Would you like a plastic bag sir?
Not today thank you.
Ok sir. That is 10.50 dirhams.
Oh no it’s not! It is 10.00
No sir. 10.50.
I point out once again that this is a mark up of five per cent on the published price, but again to no avail.
I tell her she can keep her Nada juice and storm out of the shop.
Well, storm is maybe not the right word; for this little game I play is a regular occurrence at the Géant store. This charade probably happens to me at least once a month – you get to the check out and find that the price posted bears no resemblance to the price they charge you.
I wonder how many other people check their till receipts at Géant?
But wait…. generosity and giving are the hallmarks of Ramadhan. Perhaps Géant is going through lean times itself? Maybe it is our charity and generosity that is missing?
Hmmm… I hadn’t thought of that.