So we didn’t win a million dollars but we do feel like we completed all 11 legs of The Amazing Race. Having flown 18,736 air miles via three different airlines on seven flights over the course of 30 days, visiting two counties and four cities, we’ve had our fill of what both our homelands feel like now that it’s been three years since our experimental overseas early retirement began. Since the blog is about our expat life, I wrangled with how to cover all the great stuff we did in New York, Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton without rambling on like your average travel blog. But before we expatriated, I read extensively about the phenomenon known as “reverse culture shock” and ascertained it would take at least five years before it would hit us since modern technology keeps us in touch with what’s going on back there. I was wrong. Granted there was no way of knowing how a lunatic president would literally alter the course of North American culture but while we thoroughly enjoyed visiting family and friends, eating great food and experiencing a more pleasant climate, we’ve never been happier to be home (home for now, that is).
Having experienced so many differences between life in relatively peaceful Thailand and crazy, excitable and unpredictable North America, it’s hard to explain it all in one paragraph or even a single post. So instead of droning on about intolerance versus acceptance or complicated versus simplicity, I’ll stick to summarizing some highlights and gradually work into the details of each leg in upcoming posts. Understanding how different things are between developing nations and “over developed nations” doesn’t take too long after stepping out of the plane. Among the first things that jumped right out at us is the lack of retail employees in both the USA and Canada. Pioneered by tax cuts for billionaires that benefit nobody but big corporations and shareholders, the results of Trump’s trillion-dollar gift to the rich is highly visible. And despite the tax code differences in Canada, many major Canadian retailers sold out to American companies years ago which means they follow similar workflow models.
As expected, over half of all Fortune 500 companies in the USA used their tax gift to buy back their shares instead of creating jobs in America which is the stated purpose (albeit it a total lie). For those unfamiliar with financial jargon, this basically means their stock price drops which enriches wealthy investors and companies waste all potential savings on “the one percent”. Completely contrary to that, in Thailand, there’s so many employees in all areas of retail, it’s almost comical. Sometimes they’ll send over five or six staff members if they don’t understand what we want due to language barriers. Forgetting this, we visited a Starbucks in New York shortly after arrival thinking we’d have plenty of time before the Uber driver arrived at JFK. Almost taking longer to get two lattes than the 85 minute drive to Brooklyn, the pattern repeated in every Starbucks we patronized across three boroughs and two Canadian provinces. Often seeing stores using only two employees to do everything in the peak of commute hour, nobody complains because everyone’s been forced to accept a drastically short-staffed retail sector that affects everyone. Experiencing this everywhere from Old Navy in Midtown Manhattan to Sportchek in Calgary, finding someone to help went apparently the way of DVD’s and real presidents.
Then there’s the ongoing expensive dispute I’m now fighting with Enterprise Rental Car Company from 8,000 miles away. Easily the biggest blunder and enormous disappointment in all things North American, they made not one but two ridiculous attempts at cheating us on the same rental. Having reserved five months ahead knowing it was a holiday weekend, we picked a branch that the website said was open on the day we wanted to pick up. Sure enough, they phoned the day before and said we need to “make alternate arrangements” because that branch isn’t open on a holiday Monday and they tried to get us to pick up earlier (so they could charge more.) Explaining why I reserved far ahead, I told them that was unacceptable so they hesitatingly agreed to allow pick up a day earlier at another branch but said they’d begin charging 24 hours later. Picking up the car in South Edmonton, they kept us waiting for over 30 minutes after filling out the paperwork while they cleaned the car despite calling 90 minutes earlier to say it’s ready. Finally, an employee clearly annoyed by having to work a holiday looked at me and said “Habib?” Starting to lose patience, I asked her “Do I honestly look like Habib”?
Before you get all worked up about how I preach tolerance, there’s another reverse culture shock story involving Calgary, Edmonton and a strangely overly liberal far left immigration policy that’s changed the face of Western Canada. While Albertans seem to be embracing a large new wave of Muslims from the Middle East and Africans much differently (and more tolerantly) than their fellow Canadians in Ontario who act more like racist Trumpians, the degree of change caught us both by surprise. But that’s a different story for an upcoming post. The point is, if your next two customers were Robert and Habib and you looked at me, chances are you wouldn’t select the latter and cover up the mistake by saying “Oh, we get lots of customers every day; I can’t know all their names”. But that’s only the beginning of the story. Having placed the standard “temporary hold” on our credit card for the amount of the rental plus $200, the next day I noticed the entire amount including the extra $200 posted as a charge. In 30 years of renting cars, nobody’s been either ballsy or stupid enough to charge the entire rental cost and the deposit on the pickup date. But when we went back to complain, the clerk said his boss (the branch manager) made a “rookie mistake” and gave us a company printout showing a “credit” with no time frame or reference number.
Thankfully, we’ve never paid a finance charge in 20 years because we pay all our bills in full and never exceed our credit limit but most debt ridden North Americans couldn’t swing the extra cash if their billing period happened to end when a false charge hit. Clearly the manager’s action appeared shady at best and since every office struggles and competes to meet targets, perhaps he thought he’d make up for the free day they gave us by double charging us and then some. (You’d be amazed how many people don’t carefully scrutinize their bills after traveling). Patiently waiting six days, we never got the credit back so I called MasterCard to place the charge in dispute and like magic, it showed up the next day and even came out two bucks in our favor due to currency fluctuations. Willing to forget the event as another reverse culture shock episode, we drove the car from Edmonton to Calgary the following week to visit Diane’s sister, attend The Calgary Stampede and hook up withe some old friends. During the eight-day rental period, the sun shined brilliantly and it only rained lightly for about 20 minutes one day while we visited West Edmonton Mall.
So try to imagine my surprise (outrage, actually) when we returned the car to a Calgary branch and that manager did a walk through himself and claimed there was “extensive hail damage” all over the top of the vehicle. Unwilling to show me or produce pictures (per company policy), he condescendingly explained how “he does this every day and hail damage is the worst condition”. Then he said “only me and the damage department can see it because it’s hard to notice”. Having lived in Alberta for six years, I assure you this is a crock of shit. Damage from hail is easily visible as large pock marks and chips and besides, there was no hail the entire eight days (reports from Environment Canada back this up but this asshole didn’t want to hear it and basically said I’m lying). Arguing was fruitless and when I demanded to talk to the Edmonton manager, he called and the guy then hung up on me before I could even make my case. I suspect if they pulled this shit in red state Trumpland America, we’d probably be reading about another violent racially motivated incident since the most Enterprise managers in Alberta are non white.
No longer as short-tempered and unaccustomed to being blatantly cheated since this would never happen in Thailand, I simply told him do what he needs to do and that I’d take it up with my credit card company. Insisting he’ll be paid the entire amount by me, he printed out a false incident report that says “customer acknowledges damages” and he told me I need to report the incident to whatever insurance company we use (in our case it’s the protection offered by our MasterCard) within 72 hours or we’d be forfeiting our chances and be responsible for everything which he said can run $2,500 or more. Then he tacked on a $500 charge listed as “damage deductible” which is illegal when a customer declines the collision damage waiver (CDW). Ironically, when I called the next day to report the incident to Enterprise customer service, the friendly Canadian agent agreed with us and said company policy states that customers never get charged upfront for any damage. Since we were leaving for home, the agent promised us an area manager would investigate the incident and report back by email or phone us in Thailand within 48 hours. To protect us, I did report the incident to the MasterCard insurance company used by our bank.
Of course, it’s now a week later and each time we call to ask, we somehow get switched to obnoxious unhelpful representatives clearly working out of the USA who pass the buck and promise that an area manager in St. Louis will contact us. Since credit card companies don’t let you dispute part of a charge, it seems our only recourse by the time our current billing statement ends will be to put another charge in dispute from the same company or shell out $500 extra and hope to be reimbursed later. Since the MasterCard insurance guy implied that they pay out almost all claims anyway, this entire incident appears on the surface to be one big scam between rental companies and insurance companies designed to ramp up shareholder profits and make improvements to vehicles that don’t need it. And the consumer always winds up paying. So now you understand why we’re delightfully glad to be back in the developing world for now. While I’m not saying this company colluded to commit fraud, I’d recommend against ever using Enterprise Rental Car, especially if you’ve lived as an overseas expat for some time.
But I digress. Despite this unfortunate and frustrating incident, we had a fabulous time and now that the worst of the reverse culture shock venting is out of my system, here’s some pictures and quick summaries of some enjoyable things we did on our homeland trip which I’ll describe in detail over the coming weeks. I’ll try to keep to storytelling so the angle leans towards the theme of our expat life and how bittersweet memories collide with the financial reality that makes early retirement in North America impossible if you want to keep up a middle class lifestyle unless you sold an internet start-up for fifty million or so.
When you’re flying over 18,000 air miles, it’s worth it to splurge a bit for a 16 hour flight. With one of the industry’s best premium products, we chose Cathay Pacific and splurged on real tenderloin steak, (Australian beef on the trip from Hong Kong and Canadian beef on the way back from Vancouver) actual silverware, red wine, and seats that recline enough to sleep almost comfortably.
Ahhh, Canadian Beef
With due respect to our best friends in Thailand, there’s no comparison between the Australian beef we enjoy in Thailand and supreme Canadian beef. Possibly the only protectionism Canadians display as a nation, it’s rarely imported and you can’t describe the taste to anyone that’s never had it. We ate steak, burgers, fast food and anything else resembling those giant Alberta steers we remember from our days as Canadian homeowners.
Taking Care of Business
After a somber but thoroughly educational visit to the professionally curated 9/11 Museum, we strolled around the Financial District and wouldn’t ya know it? This picture in front of a horrible building drew lots of likes on our Facebook page. They’ve got the street safeguarded super strongly to prevent vehicles from careening into it with large bombs which is what should happen if all was well in my homeland.
The Calgary Stampede is one of North America’s oldest and most famous outdoor festivals and features a midway, professional rodeo shows daily, name brand concerts and enough food to make a Thai person fat. Although most residents ignore the hoopla and leave it for the tourists and teens (as we always did), a free pancake breakfast is a must do when you’re in Calgary in early July. Serving up free hotcakes, sausage, juice and of course, non-British baked beans made with Canadian maple syrup, various organizations hold these hoedowns daily during its 10 day run.
Using the warm summer weather as an excuse, we connected with lots of old friends as well as family. These are my grade school classmates and believe it or not, the last time I saw any of them was 1979. Jimmy Carter was president, The Warriors was the best movie about New York City and disco was battling with rock.
These are my favorite female friends from childhood and we saw them the last time we came to New York in 2011. Amazingly, they’re both my age and get better looking each time we see them.
It’s hard to fathom but our niece is going off to university in Ontario and our nephew finally grew enough so as not get away with kids’ menu prices.
Among the most ironic stories of our marriage is how Diane is from Edmonton, Alberta but has relatives in Queens. She also had a grandfather in Brooklyn that lived 15 minutes from my neighborhood that lived until age 94.
Not to be left out of the party, Diane arranged to spend time with a bunch of her old schoolmates from Edmonton. She’s also not seen most of them in about 25 years. Determining we’re all the perfect age now with most kids grown or off to school and everyone relatively healthy and happy, we invited everyone to Thailand for the next reunion and some of them will probably take us up on the offer.
Finally, I’m offering apologies for the long two month lag between posts. Having expressed concern that I might go on hiatus for a while due to most readers caring only about the Malaysian era of our expat blog, the trip gave me new life and now that it’s been one full year and we’ve seen all the weather patterns, festivals, burning season and peak cool wintertime, it’s made me realize how lucky we are to return to a beautiful place that costs tens of thousands less than both America and Canada. While we may not have any upcoming travels to write about given the astronomical price tag of four months living expenses in Chiang Mai to spend one month back home, Thailand always keeps us amused and there’s now a world of comparisons to write about. Many of you contact us and tell me you’re one step away from considering a similar move and if I can help a bit, I’m happy to do so. Thanks for all your continued support and the Experiment continues here in our comfy little $600 a month three bedroom rental house in a gated community and pool. But no Katz’s pastrami. Yes, the cover picture was the gastronomical highlight.
Comments always welcome as usual.