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Thursday, 8 April 2010

Reminiscences of a Byegone Age

I sit in my apartment here in Hurghada in Egypt and suddenly I hear the noise of a spanner being banged against the side of a gas cylinder and a voice shouting. I look down from my balcony and there's the small pick up loaded with gas cylinders for domestic cookers. A man sits on the cylinders rattling his spanner and shouting to let us all know he's arrived so we can signal him if we need to exchange an empty cylinder for a full one. He'll even bring the new cylinder up 4 flights of stairs for us for a small consideration.

An hour later there's a more musical call and I look out to see another pick up. This one has half the back covered like a chest and a man standing in the back. Someone stops him and buys olives, pickles and other items from him.

Another visitor is the man with the pick up laden with houseplants. Then there's the man with all the carpets (as in large rugs), and the guy who sells the wrapped candy floss and balloons for the children.

Seeing these people coming regularly to my area started me thinking about years ago back in England when I was a child.

I wonder how many of us remember the weekly visit of the Corona man or, for that matter, remember what Corona was and the flavours it came it. I know our week was regulated by the mobile shops that visited the street where I lived in Bristol. One day we had the mobile fish monger, another the butcher, then there was the fruit and veg man, the mobile library, the paraffin man and, of course, Mr Corona. In addition, during the summer, there was the regular visit from the ice cream van and the milkman called every day early to leave us our milk and again around lunch time on Saturday for his money.

This was a time before supermarkets. About a 10 to 15 minute walk from where I lived was a row of shops (still there although the stops have changed). One of these was a grocer's shop (as in grocery and no green grocery – green grocery was across the road) and I became a school friend of the manager's daughter. They had a big flat roof over the shop storage area that we used to play on. Shops were small and offered personal service. There was none of this grab a bag and help yourself business back then. You asked for what you wanted and had a conversation with the shopkeeper who would become a friend.

I remember in those days going on holidays. We didn't have a car so my uncle would lend my dad his car for a couple of weeks so we could go to exotic locations like Margate or Bournemouth in B&Bs. We didn't need to lock our house while we were away because the neighbours on either side would be popping in often while we were gone to make sure everything was OK. When we got back they would have prepared a meal for us. Naturally we would do the same for them when they went on holiday.

This was a time when you knew all your neighbours. IF you had a car, and not many people did, it didn't matter if you forgot to lock it or you left the keys in – it would still be there when you next needed it just as you had left it. Now, of course, in an era where most people do have a car you'd find either a burnt out shell jacked up on bricks or no car at all if you left it with the keys in for more than 30 seconds.

There was a lot about life that was downright inconvenient compared to today. For example, it is just SO much easier and quicker to go to the local hypermarket now and get absolutely everything from knickers to motor oil along with the food and drink. But somehow it was more comforting back then. I wouldn't dare leave my house unlocked even for a few seconds now, I don't know any of my local shopkeepers, don't get to have a conversation with anyone in the hypermarket and most people don't know their neighbours at all (I'm lucky enough to have wonderful neighbours who have become firm friends. Perhaps it helps that in the UK I live at the end of a cul de sac).

We seem to have traded comfort and community for speed and convenience in our lives. Possibly because most people work now whereas before women tended to stay at home with the children and had time to visit several shops just to get a day's groceries. After all, not everyone had a fridge back then although most houses had a larder (a small cupboard lined with marble [if you were rich] or stone with marble shelves and a small window to keep food cool). This was a time when there were only 2 houses with television in the street where we lived. I was 10 before we had a television in our house and when I tell people this they act amazed and question me endlessly about what on earth we found to do with no TV. They seem to find it strange that families actually sat and talked to each other, played board games or cards together, and read books.

Egypt right now is still in the comfort and community mode but you can already see things moving along in the same direction. In Hurghada we now have a very large (by local standards) 'hypermarket' and shopping is certainly becoming a more European experience. Even in the 2 1/2 years I've been here it has changed. About 2 years ago a Metro opened in Hurghada (there are 3 branches of Metro now) bringing the European shopping concept, on a small scale, to Hurghada for the first time. Now at least 2 of the larger Egyptian supermarkets are following this model and Spinney recently opened their 'hypermarket' on the edge of the town.

At the moment we still have a very friendly and open community where everyone knows everyone else and people look after each other. I do hope it stays that way and the society here doesn't move the same way it has in Europe where people only look out for themselves.

So for now I enjoy the noise from the mobile sellers and the colour they bring to our daily lives. I reminisce remembering a quieter and more trusting age.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Do you worry about the company you work for? I do!!

Have you ever had doubts about your job?

Lately I've been having serious misgivings about mine.

It started with a feeling of simply not feeling comfortable. I work for a very difficult man for whom nothing is ever good enough. One day he will notice something you've done and get angry, asking why you've done that and telling you what a big mistake it was. OK, you get the idea and you make sure you don't do the same thing again. Then, a week or two later in different circumstances he's asking you why you didn't do this exact same thing and telling you what a big mistake it was NOT to do it! There is simply no pleasing him and he never ever says thank you for anything.

So you get the idea you should ask him before you do anything. You call and are spoken to like a naughty child. He goes on to say you don't need to call him to ask him these silly things and in future if you feel something should be done you should just do it. You follow these instructions and the next thing you know is you are again being spoken to like a naughty child and are chastised for not phoning and asking before making such a big mistake. Everything you do is wrong and no matter how big or small an error you have made it is ALWAYS a BIG MISTAKE. Also, whenever anything goes wrong it is never his fault because he is, of course, perfect – it is, by definition, your fault for making another BIG MISTAKE.

This is a man who wants you to be flexible in your approach to work but, when push comes to shove, is keeping a careful track of every extra minute of time that you owe him while failing to recognise the times you come early or stay late. This is simply expected and doesn't count.

Personally, I think he's a control freak and it's all about control. If you get your staff frightened enough they then have to ask you about everything so you control completely what they do.

He even tries to control precisely when you have free time. In January he went to Germany to BOOT 2010. I wanted some time off and asked if I could have 2 days together the first 2 days he was away. He said, "no", in case he wanted something in that time. So, I didn't take any time except a day I was owed. Then when he returned he was angry because I'd gone to work every day and had hardly anything to do so had wasted his (and my) time. He wanted to know why I hadn't taken the time off as my vacation???

Not long after this, he went to Cairo for a few days and told us all we should not come to work while he was away but would be paid. Now it turns out that this was our vacation. Notice we had to take our vacation at his convenience, not when we were ready or when we wanted and we were not given any notice. I was told as I was leaving the office after a day's work that I shouldn't come in for the next 5 days because he would be away. Well, really.

But this I can cope with. I even cope with his nosy intrusions into my private life. If he hears me saying anything about meeting friends he asks who they are, what they do, where they live, how long I've known them, why I'm friends with them, what sort of friendship it is and a thousand other questions. He's terrified it might be someone he knows and I might approach them for alternative work. He got particularly angry one time when I made a VERY BIG MISTAKE. I wanted an update on an article for a magazine and I actually emailed someone outside the company. He has all computers set up so all outside communications are automatically copied to him. He went absolutely ballistic when he saw this email because this organisation produces a magazine and he thought I would build a relationship with them and then leave him to go and work for them so I think he has a lot of personal security issues.

However, lately I have been having doubts about ethics in the business. It is a small business. This man owns 4 windsurf centres. He also does website design, printing and publishing. Altogether there are about 14 staff throughout the 4 windsurf centres, 2 graphic designers and me in the office.

I was originally employed to work on a diving magazine because it should be published every couple of months in English and he needed someone English to proof read and edit articles. He also employed me to answer emails in English. I'm beginning to think I shouldn't have bothered although I really needed a job (any job) at the time (that's another story).

Firstly, the magazine was going to be in German – this was to be a special edition for BOOT 2010 with subsequent editions in English. So, I edited and passed everything to a German lady for translation. However, he never liked my edits. I answered his emails and he argued endlessly with me about my own language. So, I was already feeling fed up. He speaks excellent German and good English but insists on using German grammar and punctuation when writing in English. He simply won't believe me when I tell him that's now how we write.

After his visit to BOOT in Germany we should have started work on the English edition of the magazine. So far, this has gone nowhere and we should have published 2 weeks ago.

Instead, he has me working now for the windsurfing side of the business. At first this was OK. I had to cold call on the larger local travel companies looking after guests on holiday here and trying to persuade them to add our watersports to their excursions lists. This was easier than it sounds. There are more and more repeat guests but everyone has the same excursions on offer year in, year out. They are desperate for something new and saw this as a real opportunity. However, they started asking about things like proof of public liability insurance. At first my boss tried to persuade me that all our guests are covered by the hotel insurance because all our centres are on hotel premises. Having worked as a tour leader/holiday rep and needing to be involved in setting up or checking excursions I knew that was not the case. So did the people I spoke to in these travel companies. In the end he told me to stop calling and found something else for me to do. I started to be concerned that maybe we don't have proper liability insurance.

Now he finds me one job one day and a different job the next so I never really know what I'm doing or where I stand. The latest is going round the windsurf centres checking up on what the other staff are doing and checking if they are looking after the equipment properly. This is when something else has come to light that worries me. When a guest completes a windsurf course and earns a certification (for which they have to pay) the centre staff have to get the certification from my boss with my boss's signature and stamp on. This seems odd. I am a qualified diving instructor and I have my own unique instructor identification number. When someone learns to dive with me I (yes, me – I) get the BLANK certification paperwork from the dive centre (as long as the guest has paid for it, that is) and I complete it and sign it with my own unique number. When I have asked around, it seems that our staff are not actually qualified instructors and the only qualified instructor who can actually sign these papers is my boss. So now I am having serious doubts about how the business is managed.

Then there's the little issue of pay. I started working for him in December. I worked 8 days in December. Just before he went to Germany towards the end of January he asked me if I needed to be paid then or could wait a week until he returned. This was on the date in January corresponding to the date I started in December so I thought this would be my regular pay day. When he returned from Germany I did get a full month's pay. However, it turns out pay day should be the 3rd of the month after the month worked so I was not being paid for December at all but for January. Sadly, since that first month, pay has been sporadic and drip-fed throughout the month. Now, at the end of the first week in April, I am still owed for the 8 days I worked in December, a small amount of money for work in February and the whole month of March.

Staff at the centres have the same issues with pay but their response is when guests pay to take the money owed for salary before handing it over. Sadly I don't have that option.

Thinking that money was perhaps an issue I recently asked if I could have 2 days a week off instead of just 1 and explained to him that a single day is not restful as I have to shop, clean, wash, iron etc etc etc and a 2nd day would be just for having a lie in, meeting friends, having a coffee somewhere and relaxing. I also said I would not expect as much pay for working only 5 days a week. His first reaction was to be very angry and accuse me of having a 2nd part-time job somewhere. He then said he'd think about it and, predictably, 10 minutes later told me it was an unacceptable proposition.

So, he is away at the moment and I really have nothing useful to do. He has me going round the centres trying to find something to do and I'm sure it's just to make sure I don't have time to myself. He rings whichever centre I'm in at least 3 times during the day to make sure I'm there and asks them what I'm doing. It has reached the point where I really don't want to get up for work in the morning.

Thankfully, when I started in December I agreed to give it 3 or 4 months to see how it goes and that time is now coming to an end. I am using my free time at the moment to search for an alternative employment. I am hopeful that I will shortly be able to give him my notice and do something where at least I am treated with respect and have something useful to do.

I'm sure no-one who reads this will be at all surprised that I will be leaving this man's organisation as soon as I possibly can.

Well, I feel much better for getting that off my chest. On with the job search now. Tomorrow is another day and the sun always rises. Must try to have a positive attitude. After all, there's a good side to every single day while we're alive – the trick is to appreciate it.