Responding to the question “how is business?” is a delicate affair. If you sound too cheerful, people assume that you are more successful and richer than they are, which makes them hate you instantly. Sound too downbeat and they think that you are pathetic.
It is easy when I am asked this question in Austria because there are rules. When I say rules I mean one rule: You moan, and soon your opposite will join in. When you walk your separate ways minutes later, everybody feels good because they have established that life is even worse for the other person. Apart from the niggling suspicion, that is, that the other person could have been lying.
In Britain there are no standing rules. When Christina, the owner of a local health food shop, asked this most difficult of questions I was non-committal.
“Good”, I said and dampened my cheerfulness by adding “of course, we are in the middle of a recession”.
I was going to garnish my response with a comment about the tide changing all across Europe and anti-austerity taking hold in many countries whilst here, in Britain, the government was still convinced that strangulation was a better approach than the kiss of life.
Alas, I was in no mood for a political discussion. I had errands to run that day. I count myself lucky when I get a moment to hold a camera. I also have the administrative side of my business to run and four cats, one wife and a home to look after, not to mention the garden and its wildlife. Some days I wish that I could pack a few things and turn into a hermit.
My approach worked. Christina put on her sombre face and nodded. I could tell that she was unsure at which end of the spectrum I was dwelling.
“Where is the aniseed?” I asked Christina, who was now busy stacking a shelf in her delightful, little shop.
“Aniseed? We don’t do that anymore”.
The situation is evidently worsening. First the spaghetti crisis – for years I have been unable to source long spaghetti from any of my local shops and supermarkets – and now the aniseed shortage.
I was sure that a common herb such as Marjoram would not have such an awkward attitude, only I could not find it in the alphabetically organised miniature chest of drawers that is hung on a wall.
“Oh no. No, no.”, said Christina and explained that she found substituting marjoram with basil a very satisfying tactic.
I did not want a substitute and made my way, all eight steps of it, to the cash till. A lady in her sixties was telling Christina’s colleague, whose eyes were already crying out for help, tales from her life. From what I could hear, she was starting at the beginning of her life. Then she discovered that she had forgotten an item. Unfortunately for me, there were two options for said item.
“Show me both”, the elderly lady demanded as if time and other people did not exist within the walls of Christina’s shop.
I put my shopping basket on the counter and announced that I would be back later to collect my bounty.
“Entschuldigen Sie bitte”, said the elderly lady. In German! German? She was not German or any such nationality. Her false teeth bounced with pleasure as she grinned at me.
I shuddered and glared at her. I am good at glaring. I learned it from our cats. A better person would have replied “saublöde Kuh” with the most charming of smiles.
The telephone call that I had been waiting for came whilst I was in the supermarket minutes later.
“You enquired about the DG-200”, said the man from a company called Expansys. He was talking about the GPS data logger (never mind) that I crave.
The rest of the conversation went from “can you hear me?” to “loud and clear” and “I cannot hear you”.
I called back as soon as I had escaped the confines of Sainsbury’s nuclear bunker and got lumbered with one of these annoying people with cheerful voices, who are utterly incompetent, always sound keen, have no regard for their customers and cannot get on with anything. Beats me why people with her personality profile always get the telephone jobs.
Had I spoken to someone from corporate sales, Ms Telephone wanted to know. She was dark-haired, about 5 ft 3 and slim. I can always tell what people look like from their voices.
“How should I know?”, I replied and added, to be helpful, “it was a man and he sounded as if I had woken him from a deep sleep. Perfectly alright because it was early when I first called. Dark-brown, short hair, a little overweight and I am sure that he was unshaven.”
“I’ll put you through to corporate sales”, Ms Telephone promised after a few moments of silence but stopped herself and asked my name for the third time.
‘How sweet’, I thought. She is trying to delay letting me go.
“What’s yours?”, I asked.
Ms Telephone did not tell me her name but was eager to consume more information from me: My company name, telephone number, the seventh digit of the first line of my address and whether I kept pet sheep, which I thought was a rather personal question.
“Please don’t be offended but I really do not want to marry you”, I clarified. If I was honest at this stage then perhaps her fall from the heights of an imaginary love would not result in too harsh a landing.
“I only want to know whether the DG-200 works under Windows 7”, I pleaded but Ms Telephone showed no mercy.
We were halfway through my medical history when something told me that we were not making any headway.
“Oh, please”, I said, “just get on with it!”
“Sir”, shouted Ms Telephone in a voice that betrayed her little body, “have a little patience”, and put down the phone on me. I hate it when people call me Sir.
Later, back at base, I was in one of my benevolent moods and decided to give Expansys one last chance. I e-mailed my question. The answer came promptly: “Unfortunately, we’re not technical and wouldn’t want to induce you in error”.
My quest continues for aniseed, long spaghetti and a data logger.