Tuesday, 26 June 2012

All For One...

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be joined in Rhodes by Winnie-the-Pooh's wise old friend Owl. I had only been working on the Greek Island for around four days when he came and sat beside me during the evening entertainment. Just as the Abba tribute band launched into their rendition of Waterloo, he leaned over and gave me the best piece of advice that I have received to date.

He began explaining that years ago, before settling in Hundred Acre Wood, he himself lived and worked in Greece, and thought he probably knew how I would be feeling.

"Greeks will tell you to do one thing, watch you do it, then tell you that you're wrong and need to do it another way. They will change their minds about what they want from you, and expect you to accommodate their changing needs. You will never know where you stand, and there are no set rules for anything."

Since I had arrived I had attempted, unsuccessfully, to explain via emails, phone calls and endless Skype conversations with friends and family exactly what it was like to work here. Owl had managed to do it in three sentences.

I had no idea what to do to make my new employers happy because they had no idea what they wanted from me.

Having perfectly summed up the difficult situation I was in, Owl culminated the conversation with the following golden nugget of information; about to change my whole attitude towards work and towards my background.

"Never be afraid to be British. It doesn't matter where in the world you are, if you do it the British way,  nobody will object."

With that he smiled and patted me on the knee- something which I took as confirmation that he knew that my current homepage was 'Easyjet flights from Rhodes to Stansted', and that he thought I should stick at it a little longer.

This support from one of the only British guests in the hotel at this time meant a great deal more than I'm sure even Wise Old Owl will ever understand. Not only did it feel like a big cup of hot chocolate when the rest of the world had let me go cold and thirsty, it also changed my outlook on my heritage. In one passing comment Owl had transformed me. He had pushed me into the telephone box as a lost, confused, ridiculously-young-looking English girl, embarrassed at her lack of foreign language skills and ashamed at her poor darts-playing abilities; only for me to emerge a taller, prouder British woman wearing a union jack as a cape and a big, welcoming smile on her face.

His words echoed around my head for the rest of that night and when I woke in the morning I decided to test his theory. I would stop being worried about what these people wanted from me: they clearly didn't know so odds were that if I did things the British way they might just be satisfied. And if they weren't at least I would be.

I started by singing hello at everyone that I saw. This was something that, out of habit, I had naturally done in my first few days. The response that I received from those not from the UK usually consisted of a nod of the head, occasionally paired with a grunt. I would then continue on my way with the distinct feeling that everyone found me childish and annoying. This morning, though, I put those embarrassed feelings aside and remembered Owl's words. I would remain British. Could people really bemoan the fact that I greet guests with a cheery 'good morning!'? If anything surely they should be embarrassed at their rude and miserable attitudes in the face of my happiness.

That morning I was lucky enough to receive a few grunts and even a couple of smiles as I went on my way around the hotel. My team leader laughed at my happy statement and commented that it was a lovely welcome- even if he himself did only raise his eyebrows as a way of greeting. The few British guests- obviously- returned my 'good morning!' with an equally cheery 'hello!' or sometimes even an 'isn't it glorious?!'

Later that day, my manager was talking to the team about how to engage guests. He explained that engaging with English guests was easy. "They're always up for joining in, always say hello and always have a smile on their faces."

Is this really how we're seen abroad? I had always thought we were seen as hooligans. I asked my Tunisian boss as much.

"No! The English are always the best guests. They're happy, excitable, ready to join in and rarely complain."

What a revelation.

As I carried on through the week, I discovered that Owl had been right. When I stopped worrying about what everyone expected of me and did things the British way, suddenly everything that I did was right. Guests, staff and managers alike were happy with my work, leaving me free to notice little British quirks that make me proud of my background....

1. Putting at least shorts on to go to the supermarket on holiday. Sound obvious? We're the only nation that do it. Trust me. 

2. Meeting new people and being happy about it. Part of my job was to spend my evenings introducing myself to guests and getting to know them. Like greeting people in the morning, this is a far more acceptable ritual in UK culture. On more than one occasion (in fact almost every day), my team leader had to 'have a word' with me about my tendency to spend more than the allocated ten minutes with British customers. I could skip over to guests from any other background and they would happily ask me where I'm from, and inform me of their trip so far. I would then wish them a pleasant evening and leave them with a smile, moving on to the next table. As far as my manager was concerned- this was fantastic. It was straight out of the 'How To Be The Perfect Entertainer' textbook. With British guests it wasn't quite so straightforward. I would introduce myself and ask them about their trip exactly the same as I would with any other guests, and quicker than you can say 'enjoy your stay' I'd be sipping my third cocktail and looking at pictures of their grandchildren.

3. Our passion for football. The Greek hotel bar didn't even have a screen to show the football on (I know!), so when a whole gang of (mostly Liverpudlian) guests almost had a group panic attack on the night of the FA Cup Final, they had to compromise with a karaoke screen and a dodgy satellite.
Recently when I was in France one family had brought their own TV and dish and set it up outside their tent to ensure they didn't miss out on any of the Euro 2012.
 So far it doesn't sound like a trait to be too proud of does it? Getting over-excited about fully grown men kicking a ball around? 
What I am proud of is our ability to forget everything else, come together in our matching shirts and face-painted cheeks, and support our team as one.  

4. Joining in. Whilst less than 40% of the hotel guests were from the UK, approximately 90% of activity participants were British. As I stood each morning on the edge of the pool shouting 'Water Polo!', I felt confident and safe in the knowledge that there would be at least nine newly-tanned, enthusiastic, British faces beaming up at me before I finished the second word. The final participant would be pushed in as he walked back from the supermarket in only his speedos. 

5. Our sense of loyalty to one another. As a holiday maker you may not have noticed this- but it's always there. Many of you have probably been in a situation involving staring round at empty sun loungers, unable to take one as they have already been reserved by a towel belonging to someone from outside of the UK. Remember? I would bet my right foot that you discussed this with another British holidaymaker and complained about it together.
 I once went on holiday to a campsite that provided fantastic evening entertainment but not enough chairs for all the guests. That holiday involved observing a lot of arguments but not one of them involved two British families against each other. Like siblings who are not always best friends but remain fiercely protective, British people tend to stick together.
My most memorable and moving experience of this loyalty happened on the day that I left Rhodes. 

That's right. I left Rhodes.

I tried Owl's advice and it did work, but it sadly didn't change the fact that I was deeply unhappy there for too many reasons to list here, so I handed in my resignation and worked my twenty-one days notice before leaving just over a month ago. 

Due to the nature of my departure, I was asked by my manager to keep it a secret that I was leaving. A secret from everyone. Which meant that when my pre-booked and pre-paid taxi arrived and I asked the bell boy whether it was for me, he insisted that it wasn't. As did the driver. It was only after he had left that reception realised their mistake (having sent him away assuring him that there is no Rebecca staying here- a little clue as to why I may have left) and told me that I would have to pay seventy Euro for another taxi. 

Having already paid for my flights to and from Rhodes, as well as my overweight luggage, my living expenses and the taxi that they had sent away, all to work for free for a month, I wasn't exactly in a position to find another seventy Euro for somebody else's mistake. 

I'll let your imagination decide how I might have responded to the receptionist's suggestion.

When she then told me to 'calm down, it's only seventy euro, it's not a big deal', I was promptly surrounded by four English people. 

The first gave me a hug, told me that it was a big deal and that I had every right to be angry and upset. The second two told me that they would go and speak to their taxi driver and organise for me to go in their taxi for free. The final one helped me carry my luggage out to the taxi and put it in for me. 

Those four people who had never met me before and had no obligation toward me whatsoever, stayed by my side for the rest of my journey, ensuring that everything else went smoothly until the moment that I put on my sunglasses and pretended to be a celebrity for the walk out into the arrivals lounge. 

Those four people made me more thankful and more proud to be British than ever. 

I returned from Greece to the most British Britain in history. 

Supermarket ceilings were dripping with Union Jacks showing Queen Elizabeth's dignified face, shelves were stacked with Royal Family themed...well...everything. From plates, cups and tea towels to masks, champagne and bowler hats, almost every product in every store was covered with the Union Jack and Her Majesty's face. Similarly I found that I couldn't drive anywhere without seeing beautifully decorated red, white and blue houses, as well as flag-adorned cars and vans. 

On the Royal Jubilee weekend itself I found myself working on a campsite in France. Wearing red, white and blue, faces painted and Britain-themed cups in hand, the guests made the weekend fantastically British and once again I felt proud of my heritage.

In the following weeks I found myself feeling increasingly patriotic as I visited Greenwich, Stratford and Chelmsford.

As I spent days out with my friends Timone and Mary Poppins, spotting the Equestrian Competitions being set up in Greenwich Park, the viewing platform in Westfield Shopping Centre, and various tracksuited Olympians running into Starbucks for their caffeine fix, I felt a rush of excitement for the summer, and pangs of regret that I wouldn't be here to witness it.

I then spent an evening in Chelmsford watching the England-Sweden match with Woody, closely followed by equally-nail-biting matches in the Isle of Wight and Bicknacre. On each of these occasions as I stood with a group of people that I (mainly) didn't know, I felt that warm sense of community and togetherness that can only really be brought about by football or a natural disaster.

So despite the fact that I will be in France for the Olympics I will be keeping up with the success of it all- particularly the opening ceremony which my beautiful friend Gabriella Montez will be taking part in- and look forward to returning in September.

In the mean time, these are the things I will miss most while I'm away....

1. Robinson's Orange and Pineapple Squash. This amazing concoction comes second only to my brothers on my Best Things About Being Home list.

2. Cadbury's Dairy Milk. That would be on your list too, wouldn't it?

3. Miranda. The best television programme to come out of Britain. EVER.

4. Driving on the left. I only drove once in France last year but I don't think all the practice in the world would stop me from reaching for the door handle to change gear.

5. Saying 'thank you' loudly and clearly and knowing I'm pronouncing it correctly. I try, with 'merci', I really do. But saying it properly makes me gag.

6. Buying fruit and vegetables the same way you buy everything else, i.e. not wasting twenty minutes working out how to use that weighing/sticker machine.

7. Seeing Beckham's gorgeous face every time I turn on the television/open a magazine/read a paper.

8. Radio One. Especially Greg James. I know it's international but I won't have a radio in my tent....

I was asked in the third year of my degree whether I was happy that I was British. I answered that I was. I explained that I had always thought myself lucky to have been born here. When I said that I had meant because we live in a modern, first world society. The past few months have brought my attention to the fact that I am lucky to be British for more reasons than a nice, brick house and sky TV. For more reasons even than Richard Curtis and J.K. Rowling.

After my experiences in Greece, France, and the UK I have found that Owl was right. We should always be proud to be British.

So this summer as you complain about inevitable train delays, traffic nightmares and a lack of Mediterranean weather- just remember how lucky you are to be from somewhere as wonderful as the UK. 

I know I will :)

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