Doing Business Around The World

“Aye, You’re From America, Love!”

When we moved from the U.S. to Ireland years ago, we shipped an entire household full of stuff. Into a container went sofas and chairs, china and crystal, heirlooms and photographs.

Because we decided to rent for some time, while we looked for a house to buy, that container, upon arrival six weeks later on the shores of the Emerald Isle, was taken to a storage site in Dublin for safe-keeping. We’d arranged to take delivery at some time in the future, as yet undetermined.

Also not pinned down was the cost of this long-term storage. After several phone calls, to the shipping company and the dock master, finally, I got the number direct to the guy who owned the storage area where our goods had taken up residence.

I called him, explained who I was, and asked if he could detail his fees for me.

“Aye, you’re from America, Love?”

“Yes, sir, we’ve moved here from Baltimore. But we haven’t found a house yet, so I’m not sure how long we’ll need you to keep our container for us. I’m wondering about your fees. Could you please give me an idea of the cost of monthly storage with you?”

“My cousin lives in America. In New York. I’ve never been, but my wife was in Florida years ago. Do you know Florida?”

“Yes, sir, I do. Sunny. Hot.”

“Yes, my wife enjoyed it. She’s not well right now, my wife. She’s been to the doctor three times.”

“Oh, well, I’m sorry to hear that. I hope she’s better soon. I’m wondering, though, about my container of household goods. As it may be with you for some months, I’m a little concerned about the cost. Could you give me an idea of the monthly storage fees?”

“I’ve got to run now to take my wife to the doctor again. But don’t you worry, Love, we’ll sort this out. I’ll be back in touch soon as I can.”

Three days later, I hadn’t heard from my friend in Dublin, so I called him again.

“Hello, it’s me again, calling to ask about the cost of storage for my container.”

“Ah, Love, nice to hear from you. My wife is no better. She’s got this cold in her chest, and the doctors can’t cure it.”

“I really am sorry to hear that. I hope she’ll be feeling better soon. I’m a little concerned, though, about my container. You do have it there, don’t you?”

“Yes, yes, Love, don’t worry. We’ve got it. Safe and sound. I’ve got to run now, though, my wife is calling.”

“Yes, of course, but I’d really like to have some idea of the cost of storing my container with you. I’m worried it may be more than we’ve anticipated.”

“Not to worry, Love, not to worry. We’ll sort this out.”

These conversations continued for three weeks. Finally, I had to admit to Lief that, though I was fairly certain our container had arrived at the docks in Dublin and was in storage, I had no idea of the cost of keeping it there.

For me, this situation was mildly disconcerting but also charming. Clearly, my new friend with the ailing wife in Dublin was in the driver’s seat. When we were ready, finally, to take delivery of our stuff, he could present us with a bill for any amount. Thousands of pounds. We’d have no choice, really, but to pay.

Still, he was such a sweet, friendly fellow. Surely, it would all work out in the end.

For Lief, on the other hand, the situation was maddening…intolerable. You don’t engage a service without knowing the cost up front. People don’t do business like this.

I had to agree with him that, right, people we knew, back home, in Baltimore…they didn’t do business like this.

But the longer my association with the gentleman in Dublin continued, the more I came to suspect that, here in the Auld Sod, well, maybe business was done a bit differently.

It was nearly a year until we were ready for our goods to be delivered to our new home in Waterford. In all that time, I never did succeed in getting the kindly Dubliner to quote the cost of storage. Finally, I took a leap of faith and told him when and where to deliver our things. Lief had washed his hands of the situation long ago, and, even I, after 12 months, was nervous to see the bill.

Everything was sorted in the end, though, just as I’d been assured all along that it would be. The invoice, when it eventually arrived, weeks after our belongings were unpacked in our new home, was modest. Less than either Lief or I ever would have guessed.

I’m telling you this story for two reasons. First, we’re planning our summer travels and trying to include a quick stop in Ireland to visit with old friends there. Thinking of these old friends, I can’t help but remember our first weeks and months as new residents in this country years ago.

I was reminded of this story in particular, though, the other day when a friend in Paris remarked how much easier it is to live in the States than it is to live most anywhere else in the world. Easier, simpler, more convenient, more figured out. In business dealings Stateside, you know what to expect. You ask a question, you get a direct answer.

You make an appointment, you expect the other parties to show up…on time.

You need a plumber, you pull out the Yellow Pages. You want to open a bank account, you walk into a bank.

In France, you need an introduction to open a bank account. And, even with a letter of reference, you’ll still be required to produce a dossier of paperwork. To rent an apartment in this country (legally), you’ll likewise have to prepare a thick dossier documenting your financial situation and history, all notarized, sealed, stamped, witnessed…

Outside the city centers in Ireland, the roads aren’t marked or even known by name. An Irishman I once asked about this told me the road signs were taken down during British rule–“to keep the British guessing,” he explained with a twinkle.

The strategy may or may not have confused the British, but it sure did have me traveling in circles some days.

Friend David Stubbs, living in San Jose, Costa Rica, for the past several years, reports that the Ticos, like the Irish, are unconcerned with things like street signs.

“In Costa Rica,” David reports, “all directions start with a well-known landmark and proceed so many blocks in one direction and so many in another. Start at the cemetery and go three blocks north and one block east…

“This is even more fun when the landmark no longer exists–for example, the large tree in the center of town that fell down 50 years ago or the house where President Arias used to live the last time he was president (25 years ago)…

“This is true even in the capital. San Jose is laid out on a grid system of calles and avenidas, such that any intersection could be defined precisely–the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 4. If not for the one-way streets, pedestrian-only streets (none of which are marked on any map I’ve ever seen),” David explains, “and the fact that most intersections are devoid of any legible signs, it could be easy, therefore, to get around in this city.

“But no one pays attention to the grid, and I’ve never heard a single person give directions anything like ‘the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 4.’ So whenever I’m going someplace for the first time, I work out roughly where I want to go and follow the compass in my car until I get close. Then I stop and ask for landmarks.”

Kathleen Peddicord

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