Combating narrow store opening hours and closing minds

“It’s a cultural thing.”

That’s what our program director told us, weeks before we even embarked on our 10-month Malta adventure.  She told us not to expect things to be the way they are here in the States.  She told us that if something frustrated us, was offensive to us, whatever it may be, to take into consideration the underlying cultural differences.

It’s easy for me to recall the reasons that I should hate the way Maltese businesses operate.

I hired a maid to clean the apartment before my move out day when my landlord was to come to inspect.  Not only was she an hour late and brought some random dude friend (she begged me to not tell the offices that she’d brought him), but she showed up empty-handed, asking where my mop and cleaning supplies were.  WHAT kind of cleaning service shows up with no equipment?!  When I didn’t have anything, she asked me to go buy them.  She finally got started two hours after she was supposed to.  Then an hour before she was supposed to be done, I find her and her friend sitting on their asses, shooting the shit at my kitchen table.  Then she had the audacity to demand the pay for the full four-hour cleaning job that she clearly did not even come close to having fulfilled.  I was seriously appalled at the whole ordeal.  Complete and utter lack of professionalism.

Soon after closing my Internet account, I asked the man who came to pick up the modem how I could collect my €75 deposit.  To make a long story short, each person I talked to from the company directed me to somewhere that I would later find to be wrong once I arrived.  Complete lack of communication.  Finally, all sources led me to the main offices (“Make sure you get there before 5 p.m.,” I was told).  After the two-hour ordeal to get there — a combination of bus-hopping plus walking in circles in the 90 degree, humid summer heat — I finally arrive at 2 p.m.  “I’m sorry, we don’t handle deposits after 1 p.m.”  Inhale, exhale.  So I requested the funds to be transferred into my bank account via direct deposit, to be told there will be fees.  When I asked the amount of those fees, “I’m sorry, we can’t tell you what those fees will be.”  Um, I’m sorry, HOW THE HELL CAN YOU NOT TELL ME WHAT YOU WILL BE CHARGING ME.  So, to cap off this story, they basically came up with every excuse imaginable NOT to give me my money back.  Complete lack of communication, professionalism, customer service, COMMON SENSE, ANY SENSE, LEGALITY (if this were in the U.S. anyway).

I walked away from these two experiences, among many others dealing with Maltese businesses (among them my experience with a douche bag landlord/the real estate agency in the beginning of the year — peace out, $500) wondering how the hell they survive.

It was sort of a joke between my classmates and I.  Here they were, with these ridiculously short, inconvenient store hours, plus a very strong emphasis on that mid-day siesta, all of which could lead you to the conclusion that either they were lazy, or just not so big on business or money (all equally unacceptable to a work-til-you-die American, right?).  THEN, you actually do business with them, and they’re sharks.  They don’t care about the long term customer service aspect, they just want your damn money.

Whoa, whoa, kind of harsh right?  Yeah, I thought so, too.  So when most people had this mindset, especially when I’d first arrived, I tried really hard to remain positive.  Even my mother was among these naysayers.  She had come to Malta to move me in, and thus, had to experience the whole douche bag landlord/real estate agency thing aforementioned along with me.  She was convinced it was because we were women that we were taken advantage of.  And maybe there’s some truth to that, I don’t know.  But I tried really hard to remain positive.  If I was going to live here for a year, I wasn’t about to let a couple derogatory comments taint my entire perception prematurely.

Are there just assholes when dealing with businesses in any country?  Is there any truth to any of it being specific to the country?  I was told that everywhere outside the U.S., there is a significantly lower emphasis on customer service, if not nonexistent altogether.  Ok, ok, I can deal with not getting greeted at the door, but come on.  How can there be such a blatant lack of concern for the CUSTOMER, the reason the business breathes?

But when I really think about it, my unwillingness to revert to stereotyping comes to the forefront.  Yeah I got screwed out of a couple hundred euro being gone for not even a year by some serious douche bags.  But really, to say that I don’t like the way Maltese people do business just isn’t fair.

Maybe it has something to do with Malta’s history.  It’s a country whose people have had to endure centuries of threats of conquest, from the Romans to the Arabs to the Turks, and to say that this is a sad excuse for a historical recap is an severe understatement.  Google it, that sh*t is nuts.  Because of their ideal strategic location smack in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, joining the eastern and western basins of the Mediterranean, the link between Southern Europe and North Africa, between Western Europe and the Middle East…it’s no wonder it landed them right in the middle of some of the most historic events, and by events I mean wars.  (Read the brief history here and you’ll see what I mean.)

I guess it would make sense for the people to be scrappy and allow no room for the opportunity to get taken advantage of after coming from generations of history like that.

Or maybe I’m completely off with the whole thing.  Maybe I’m over generalizing.

There is a little cafe around the corner of our campus that students from all the programs frequented at lunch hour.  They had delicious food, always fresh, at ridiculously amazing prices (my favorite being the spaghetti vongole that Lara and I were obsessed with – huge portion for just €5!).  One of the main reasons we went there was for the food, of course, but the two guys that ran the place, Steve and Gianni, were awesome.  We didn’t even know the name of the place, we just always called it Steve’s.  Throughout the year, if ever one of us didn’t have enough cash, they’d tell us to just pay them back tomorrow.  A bunch of the guys were friends with them even outside the restaurant.  At the end of the year they even threw us a little Thank You/Congratulations shin dig, food and drinks on the house.

Our daily mode of transportation was the water taxis and ferries.  In the very beginning of the year, when the whole thing was very new to us, Jen, Les and I just went to any water taxi that would happen to be leaving when we needed it.  The general admission across the bay to school was €1.50.  One day I was really late to class.  The girls had already left, and it was one of the first weeks of class so I had to be on time.  I was desperate to get across, so I went up to an empty water taxi and asked when it was leaving.  The guy said thirty minutes.  I told him my situation, but he really didn’t seem to care.  Then he offered to take me right away, but for double the regular price.  I was so flustered that I didn’t care, so I gave it to him and off we went.  That was not the first time that the jerks from that company tried to rip us off, but as the year went on we actually knew better.

There were two different companies, we later came to find.  And we quickly came to find which we liked and which we didn’t.  The assholes from the company that ripped me off when I was late to class didn’t offer any form of student discount, though we went every day.  The other one, however, not only offered it, but recognized that we went every day, and didn’t require us to show them a student ID every time.  Needless to say we only went to the one company.

Going every day, it wasn’t a surprise that we got to know the staff of the company pretty well.  Everyone is just so nice.  All the guys know us and recognize us.  But my favorite person to chat with was Mary.  Being away from home, it was nice to talk to another mother to fill the void.  I’ll never forget the time I walked by the stand on my way home from seeing Tash off when her visit to see me in Malta had come to an end.  It was at my peak level of homesickness, so I found myself to be very emotional at the thought of returning home to an empty apartment.  The sunglasses I wore were not doing a very good job of concealing the fact that I was crying and distraught.  Walking by Mary, I couldn’t hide it, and I told her that I had just said good bye to my sister.  She instinctually gave me a big hug and had some comforting words to offer.  And every day I would pass the booth it was comforting to be greeted by someone familiar.  And this wasn’t for the sake of delivering exceptional customer service, it was genuine.  At the end of the year, when I told she and her sons that I was leaving, I made sure to exchange information and I know we will keep in touch for awhile.

In my frustration over the maid, the Internet company, the real estate agent… I lost sight of the people I’ve met who easily offset the negatives. This topic reminds me that I need to continue to challenge myself to not settle on a single perception of a person or persons just based on one or two experiences.  I mean, after one experience, as humans it’s typical for us to go into the next with the mindset and expectation that it will turn out the same way as the first.  I challenge myself to always actively bring in another perspective, attempt to see all sides, give it another chance.  Some may call me naïve, but I call it striving for open-mindedness.

A man receives only what he is ready to receive… The phenomenon or fact that cannot in any wise be linked with the rest of what he has observed, he does not observe.

— Henry David Thoreau

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