Just a Wee Blether…

About ‘good evening, I’m your server’

‘Hi there, my name is Susan and I’m your waitress for the evening.’ That was the extremely pleasant greeting awaiting us last night when we went out for a meal with another couple.

Susan was friendly and attentive, she chatted with us, laughed at our lame jokes, and was every inch the typical American waitress. She checked that we were enjoying our meal and were generally having a good experience in her restaurant. And she was never ‘in our face’ – which some of her colleagues tend to be.

This type of what you might call super-attentive service has been an American tradition for decades. If you haven’t experienced it in real life, you’ve seen it in movies and TV sitcoms. Some people find it annoying, too over the top. I like it, just as long as the waiter or waitress comes across as genuine. For me it beats lack of attention any day.

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Put it this way, it’s a world removed from some of the awful service we had to tolerate for many years in Scotland. Things have improved immensely in recent years thanks, I suspect, to tremendous competition and the emergence of social media review sites such as Yelp.com.

I sometimes cringe at the thought of some of the ‘welcomes’ we used to receive in hotels and restaurants back in Scotland. Instead of ‘hi my name is Susan’ clients were often greeted with no more than a grunt. And dishes thrust in front of customers by an uncommunicative and often surly waiter or waitress used to drive me crazy.

It seemed to be worse the further north you went. The ‘Highland hospitality’ boast most definitely applied to the welcome you received in people’s homes where you were always guaranteed a couple of drams and, if you were lucky, a plate of mince and tatties. It very often didn’t extend to the local pub or hotel – where you were actually paying for the privilege.

I well remember going for an early evening meal to a restaurant in Oban which had been recommended to us. I have never had the misfortune to encounter such dreadful service. The waiter never once acknowledged us, cracked a smile, or engaged in conversation in any way. He was clearly unhappy to be there, dumped our food in front of us and presented us with the bill.

Perhaps licensed premises in remote places thought they didn’t have to try, that they had a monopoly on the locals? Or perhaps Scots in general are traditionally a little reticent – but that should never have excused poor service.

Thankfully the Scottish dining out experience is now far better – certainly in the city. There are still areas in the more remote parts of the country where the welcome and the service leave a lot to be desired. I don’t know about you but I like having a waiter who engages, makes polite conversation, and is genuinely interested in me as a diner and a person. We are, after all, paying a fair price for restaurant food nowadays.

In America the uber-friendly service tradition has been part of the eating out experience for many decades – and, even if the wait staff don’t fancy being friendly and polite, they have a very good incentive for being that way.

Because waiters and waitresses in America use their charm and personalities to earn tips, their employers do not pay them the minimum wage. It is assumed that they will always make up the difference by pocketing the gratuities they earn. So the whole ‘I’m your waitress for the evening’ thing was born out of financial necessity and has become partly a tradition and partly an excuse for restaurant bosses to pay their workers peanuts.

The payment varies by state. In Arizona waiters get just over six dollars an hour. In other places, including Arkansas, it is a shade more than two dollars – which qualifies as slave labour. In some cases, if an employee can prove they didn’t make up the difference between their wage and the minimum wage in tips, their boss will make up that difference. Other establishments are paying the full wage and have put a ban on tipping.

Over here, most of the waiters and waitresses are extremely pleasant and deserve to be tipped. In Scotland they are getting there but still have a long way to go. At least Scots pay a half-decent wage. All that’s required now is to persuade a few more of them to ‘keep the customers satisfied’.

 

Just a Wee Blether…

About the rise and fall of the sun

Social media has been positively aglow this summer with incredible photographs of spectacular Scottish sunsets. There is something quite special about watching the clouds turn bright red as the sun dips down beyond the Western Isles or the Highland mountains.

It seems that every day I open Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, one of my social media buddies has posted a glorious photo of the sun setting over Mull or Skye or the Forth of Clyde. Sunrises are equally stunning, especially on the east coast – Aberdeen, Edinburgh or the Moray Firth.

It’s enough to make an expat like me homesick. I used to love watching the sun slowly sinking over the horizon and the clouds changing shape and colour for what seemed an age. The Glasgow flat I stayed in before Leaving for America was on the second floor and was an incredible sunset vantage point.

And if I started work at 6am, which I frequently did, there was always the chance of a bright orange sunrise from the east. Scotland is lucky in that respect, the further north you are, the longer you have to witness these phenomena.

Scotland is also blessed with the Northern Lights. I only saw them once, when I was out at night helping produce a radio show with two guys who were monitoring the nocturnal activities of seabirds. We were sitting on grassy cliff slopes at Collieston, north of Aberdeen, when the Aurora Borealis appeared in the sky. Pretty amazing.

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In Arizona this week I was lucky enough to catch the most incredible sunrise. I’ve already posted it on social media but make no excuses for doing it again. It was taken at 6am from my office window, on the 17th floor of a high-rise office building in central Phoenix. The window looks east towards a range of mountains called the Supersititons and I reckon there are few buildings in the city that can boast a better view.

There is, however, one key difference between Scotland and Arizona when it comes to sunrise and sunset watching. Over here it’s all over and done with in a short space of time. This week’s photo-op from my office had a ‘window’ of less than 10 minutes.

I’m no scientist, but I think this might have something to do with the tilting of the earth’s axis. For a similar reason, flights from London to Phoenix travel past Greenland and through northern Canada instead of what seems like a straight line. Please don’t ask me to explain this stuff.

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Sunsets in the Arizona desert are one of the state’s biggest attractions. Real estate agents include details of sunrise and sunset times along with images of mountains and cactus plants with bright red or orange skies in the background for potential homeowners to peruse. The natural world is big business out here and why not?

It’s tempting to think of Arizona as nothing but a barren desert. That is true in some parts of the state but there is some incredible scenery – red rocks, rivers and lakes, waterfalls, lush valleys, and of course the Grand Canyon.

As you can see from these pictures, the sun can rise in spectacular fashion in the desert. But given the choice, I’d rather watch the skies at sundown over the west coast of Scotland.