Monday, August 20, 2007

Opposites attract?

Being temporarily back in Sweden for holidays since end of June, some striking differences between my native country and my new temporary permanent home country Cape Verde immediately became apparent. I will dwell on two of them.

First: the weather. After eight months without rain in CV, we were greeted in Sweden by the wettest and coldest summer in decades. It started already on the train from Kastrup to Falkenberg, when the rain suddenly started pouring down. And then it continued. And continued. Heavy rainfalls, light rains, showers, drizzles, mists, downpours, sprinkles and thunderstorms – water came down in all forms and shapes. The first new word my two year old toddler learnt in Sweden after the arrival was “blöt” (wet). The word turned out to be more useful he probably could imagine.

Initially, I kind of appreciated the new climate. I guess that most people value some degree of variation in their lives, also when it comes to weather. However, as the rain continued to come down, day by day and week by week, I started to miss the ever shining Cape Verdean sun. In particular, I missed the outdoor living I had became so used to in Praia – to play tennis whenever you want, to go for bike rides or hikes at any time, to take a nice swim at will, to invite friends for brunch under a blue sky without any rain checks… This is a real advantage in Cape Verde, and a constant source of discontent in my native country.

It might be hard for a foreigner to understand, but summertime for a Swede is really serious stuff. It is the only time of the year when there is an actual chance of some descent long-lasting sun and in Sweden, so many Swedes tend to spend most of the rest of the year building up a lot hope for a nice and warm summer. The anticipation is so high, that the disappointment deriving from a cold and wet summer – like this one – is a serious problem and a real cause for depression, leading to desperate ticket purchases for flights to the south for those who can afford it.

Someone said that without its wet, dark and cold climate, Sweden would be heaven on earth. One could possibly say the same about CV, without its droughts. But then, no place is perfect.

The second difference that I imminently noticed when coming back to Sweden is of a quite different kind: It has to do with the level of service that you get when approaching various institutions and functions in society. There are no doubt many exceptions in both countries on this point, but the general impression is still very salient to me.

Let me explain further. In Sweden, the general shopkeeper, civil servant or waitress that you meet in everyday life will most likely be helpful, well trained, kind and service-minded. Wherever you go – to Ikea, a pharmacy, a local grocery store, a specialist bike shop or, say, a ticket booth, you will generally be happy with the service and feel well informed and content when you leave. If you call and leave a message on an answering machine, someone will call you back, mostly within a day or two. If you send an email, be it to a company or to a government institution, you will get a response.

There is a mutual advantage here; happy customers will undoubtedly be inclined to buy more, which in turn will make the shopkeeper happier.

Unfortunately, my experience is that good, or even descent, service is very rare in Cape Verde. When going shopping in Praia, the staff that you meet will normally not only be uniformed about the products they offer, but often act uninterested, or even bothered, when you approach them with a specific question or a request. I almost get the impression that they would prefer not selling anything to you rather than having to talk to you.

Just before leaving for holidays, I went to buy a gas stove in Praia. One small but very crucial part was missing in the package, namely the piece to connect the stove to a gas hose. I made it clear to the employee that I would buy the whole package if only he could help me find this little thingy – probably easily and cheaply found in one of the nearby hardware stores. But he made no effort what so ever to help me out. Rather, he tried to convince me to buy the stove without this crucial part. So I left, frustrated, and went to look for a stove somewhere else.

On a different occasion I wanted to buy a parasol (a very useful item in CV). Contrary to what you could expect, it proved hard to find one, and when I finally did, the shop wanted to sell only the umbrella thing, without the stand. Naturally, I explained to them that a parasol without a stand would not be of much use to me. No sign of sympathy. No help. No deal.

Another day I was looking for a washing machine. The shopkeeper seemed strangely unfamiliar with his products and gave us very poor advice. When we nevertheless decided to buy the product he recommended it turned out he actually didn’t have it, nor could he have it ordered. I haven’t returned to that shop since.

The story is the same on many restaurants – some waiters seem almost disturbed when you give your order, ask for the check or wonder why the food doesn’t arrive. On many occasions, I have literally been forced to wait for hours for my food or the check, becoming more and more frustrated as the time passes. The result: I rarely go out to eat in Praia anymore, especially if I have any kind of time constraints.

Moreover, companies don’t usually call back when you leave messages and they don’t respond to email messages. And if there is some kind of disagreement between the buyer and the seller, things might turn quite sour. The term “the customer is always right” seems to be unheard of in Cape Verde. The major CV airline is notorious in rescheduling or cancelling flights without even informing the customers. My previous blog “My relationship with Toyota” is another case in point (even if that little adventure actually finally turned out to have a happy ending).

OK. At this point I realize that I might sound like a spoiled foreigner, or perhaps like an ignorant neo-colonialist. So don’t get me wrong. I really like Cape Verde and its people. And in fact, I can’t be totally of the mark, since the CV government itself has identified this issue as one of the main obstacles to tourism development. The main culprit seems to be a general lack of schooled and skilled labour, limited language skills, and possibly lack of serious competition due to the country’s limited size. Maybe there are other explanations as well (anyone?).

In any case, I am not requesting all Cape Verdean shopkeepers to have a master’s degree in customer relations, only that they treat their customers with a little more respect, decency and effectiveness. Just common sense, really. Customers don’t want to feel uniformed, neglected or even insulted when they go to a shop or a restaurant. If so, they will leave empty-handed, or choose not to come back, to the disadvantage of all involved. Customers want to feel welcome and special. If not, they will choose another shop – or, in the case of a tourist, another country.

Sweden and Cape Verde are, in many ways, quite different, with their respective pros and cons. Maybe that‘s why I can appreciate – and sometimes be frustrated – with them both. Maybe there is some truth to the old saying that opposites attract.

Of course, there are many other differences between the two countries. And also similarities, perhaps. But that will have to be a theme for another blog.

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