Friday, August 10, 2001

Reflecting, a little sourly, on travel. Itís certainly nice to have a place with unlimited hot water and those complimentary sachets can have a certain interest, though going off to the local Lush (or, preferably, stocking up beforehand) is better. [Thinks: giggles, at the thought of my father, who was given a selection of Lush bath bombs, including one which covers everyone in glitter. Has he soaked and found himself covered in silver flecks? Has he left this as being unnecessarily luxurious for some unwitting female relative visiting? Would he admit to being glittered?]

Itís the little things which are so irritating: a different tv region with programmes subtly out of sync, the local accent, different newspapers (to The London Standard, the world could end tomorrow and the headline would still be about underground trains running late) and, worst of all, no bagpipes on the streets, no fireworks late at night , no country in the middle of the city, no Saltires flying proudly, no kilts passing by on the street, buses of a different colour, unfamiliar statues, differently shaped streetlights Ö the new cuisine can be a challenge, the shops can be a delight, but it only takes a couple of days to feel nostalgic. Thereís a frightening soullessness to London where people donít look at each other, where theyíre too frightened or stressed out to allow themselves to care. In Scotland, if you talk to someone on the street, they donít look down to see if youíre pointing a knife at them, and itís actually possible (though still not advised) to walk three paces away from your luggage. Walking along the Thames has a magical quality, visiting the galleries is an experience second to none, except maybe Paris, but...
From Monday
Institution food will never cease to amaze me. I would never, for example, have chosen to have broccoli sorbet, yet just because I casually select a vegetarian quiche as a default, here I am crunching ice crystals and realising that itís the new experience of today. The staff restaurant did make an effort for St Valentineís Day - there was Rumpy Pumpy Pie (=lemon meringue) and Casanovaís Balls (=salmon fish cakes) , and the food is always edible, I suppose. It would just be nice if there was less choice and better food - quick mental flash to a South African coffee bar I go to periodically. They have the same array of salad food, ready prepared, just waiting to leap up and dash into a sandwich, but instead of being in soulless plastic rectangles, these are in metal dishes - white with blue edges. And the combinations are excitingly different. Itís possible to get tuna, or tomato and lettuce, but itís more fun to have the tuna with plump olives and tahini or the house salad which starts with red cabbage and orange slices and proceeds to whatever the chef fancies - Iíve had bean sprouts, mango, rocket and dill (not that I open up the sandwich, you understand, and dissect every single thing). But then the staff are enthusiastic and cheerful there, possibly because itís a co-operative and they have more of a stake in the business than a weekly wage.

Being in a service industry is particularly difficult for staff, because there are so many variables, which may deter customers without being expressed. It's obvious that a customer will want a clean table, fast, efficient service, clean toilets (or have I just been unlucky in thinking that those are the exception rather than the rule?) I, personally, like the waiter to wear some sort of uniform which shows that work is considered something to take seriously, something professional, without being completely over the top - I still remember going to an Indian restaurant, too posh for its surrounding district, where the waiters were dressed up in pseudo-uniform, like little dolls. Everyone in the party I was in could overlook the very elaborate menu, the pretentious service, the new wallpaper and fresh paint with ornate decorations, but when it came to having no vegan food, that was too much and we left without ordering. Except, now, I can still remember the look of guilt and shock on the young waiterís face, the feeling that someone heíd done something wrong, the illogical feeling that by leaving he would be punished through no fault of his own Ö I still pass that restaurant, slinking by, feeling bad, but not bad enough to go in again.

Ö Though I sometimes wonder why vegetarians have to have such special treatment. Iím being a little hypocritical here, as I normally eat vegetarian food anyway, but itís very tiring, when in that particular group of people, to have all my favourite restaurants rejected because of this vegan Ö on that particular occason, we ended up in a tapas bar, and even then the potatoes, having been ordered, were rejected as they came with mayonnaise. Still, since they were delicious anyway, they were just gobbled up by everyone else. The endless interrogation of the waiter gets a bit tiring, though. I understand that no one wants to eat anything they're allergic to, because that might break the party up sooner than planned, and of course Iím all for people have strong principles about the unpolitically correctness of eating certain types of food - I donít eat veal, for that sort of reason. Itís just that when Iím out at a restaurant, I donít want to be reminded of unpleasantness, I just want to enjoy the taste of the food, perhaps swop a bit of food with other people, quietly get ideas of what to cook myself on other occasions and even, who knows, absorb a bit of foreign culture.

From earlier yet
Amazing what you can do with a lump of blu-tac. I have one which sits on my machine, together with the oval lump of marble from Iona which I hold when I feel down, knowing the superstition that people who happen to have this on them donít drown, yet a little unsure about whether a tidal wave will sweep into the chrome and glass building and sweep everyone away, bar me. Even if the coffee machine disappeared, Iíd be happy. Iím currently sipping whatís euphemistically described as cappuccino (the alternative is to fall asleep, face downwards, on my desk) and itís so hideous that itís having the desired effect of waking me up (by which I mean, being able to look awake and get some constructive work done for the next few hours).

That blu-tac: I pick it up and mould it in my hand. Sometimes, I roll it into abstract cylinders, sometimes I pull pieces to make them protrude like alien suckers, sometimes I use my pen as a sculptural tool to make a flower, a cat, an elephant or dinosaur or just some shape of interleaving strips. When the result has been sitting on my machine for a while, all I need to do is pick it up, destroy it, and start all over again.

Iím contemplating tidying up my internet favourites file. One which wonít go will be Defence Systems Daily, which I look at every day -- it acts as a useful counter-balance to Aviation Week. If you want to know whatís happening in Avionics (and I do), this is the place to go. Another one which wonít be going very far gives a Quality Question of the Week, and then thereís a free for all to answer them - the guests have priority, but anyone can - and does - contribute with their ideas and thoughts on the subject. As well as being entertaining, this is particularly useful. Working in quality, you sometimes tend to get away from the classic definition of ďfitness for useĒ and go for the more pragmatic definition of ďhindsight in advanceĒ. That doesnít make such a pretty image as juggling a million jigsaw pieces without dropping them, but does take account of the risks, the contingencies, and how to be ready to face the worst.

Improvement techniques can be particularly simple, though - 5S is a particularly impressive one to implement. The premise is that you take some of the housekeeping attitudes passed down through the generations, things like ďa place for everything and everything in its placeĒ and apply them to the office. Actually, Visual 5S puts it better Ö

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