Sunday, November 14, 2021

Mid-Tour Home Leave: Remembering How to be American

I learned about providing good customer service working at the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation for a few winters not long after college.  Before the mountain opened around Thanksgiving, sometime in about October, all employees new and veteran were summoned to the Sheraton conference center auditorium and given customer service training in no uncertain terms.  This set the tone for what was expected of our behavior and our treatment of the tens of thousands of customers we'd collectively be serving, be it a hot lunch, a brushed-off ski lift, or an expert-level moguls class. I had been hired to work in the ski school office selling lift tickets and arranging ski school lessons for all levels, all ages.  And I mean all ages, as we inquired if the little one was potty trained yet and could bend their arms and legs in their winter bunny suit. 

This was back in the day when we smoked in restaurants and wearing a helmet to ski was laughable unless you planned to be crashing the gates on the slalom course; back before downloading apps and booking online, before the internet, and even before the invention of the instant credit card machine to verify a purchase.  No, this was waaay back when we had a telephone-book to cross-check for reported stolen credit cards and a 1-800 number to call to get (from a live operator) a confirmation code for the purchase which we then hand wrote on the carbon-copy charge slip. 

There were about a dozen of us manning the counter at the ski school ticket office. We were the first stop for the great majority of our visitors who, after flying in from Dallas or New York to our relatively remote Rocky Mountain destination, would shove all their kids into ski suits and boots, their skis into rental cars, then make their way from the distant parking lots on shuttle buses to the base of the resort in order to stand in line in our crowded (but heated) waiting room while my coworkers and I booked a week's worth of expensive fun for the whole family. By the time they appeared at the counter in front of me, two kids already had to go to the bathroom, the mother had pulled off that cute pink pom-pom topped hat she'd matched to her lip gloss and shoved it into a jacket pocket, and the father was starting to swear and already sweating profusely.  It was then my job to determine their needs, describe our package deals and quiz each one about their skiing abilities to place them into appropriate classes so the parents could ditch the kids and finally fergodsake - have some fun. And vice-versa. This is where I learned about customer service.  Because even after I'd booked Mom's private lessons for each morning at 10 with the bronzed Kiwi instructor she liked from last year, the kids into all-day with lunch included teen classes, and Dad into the bumps clinic after lunch where on the last run on Thursday he'd blow out his knee and have to be brought down the mountain by ski patrol - I still had to leave my customers to stand in line for one of our three wall-mounted phones, like in a 1950s boarding house hallway, to make the call to verify their credit card purchase.  

Yes, THIS is where I learned about customer service.  

How both Mom and Dad pictured their ski holiday.

This is also where I learned that to effectively sell something - one had to really know it and be honestly enthusiastic about it.  To accomplish this goal, in their wisdom, the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation gave all employees a free season's pass, and just for ski school employees, all the free lessons we could take.  Yup, if I wanted - I could pop into a lesson every lunch hour and all day on my days off. We got to know the instructors' personalities and teaching styles to match with our customers; we knew which level was best for those capable of stem christie turns versus those comfortable staying parrallel and ready for more advanced terrain. We learned this by taking the lessons ourselves so we could speak from experience to properly match each skier with the appropriate level of instruction so they (and their instructors) could get the most of their time.  Beyond the day spent in the Sheraton auditorium, this was the best customer service training they could've offered us. 

Here is where I draw the connection between working in ski school in the late 1980s to being a Foreign Service Officer in 2021. In order to properly represent the product: America and service to its people, we need to go back home and remember who and what that is exactly. We need to keep taking the ski classes.  Which is precisely why I spent the entire month of October back in the U.S. in four different states on two coasts for my mid-tour home leave.   

Usually home leave comes between overseas tours and requires spending 20 working days - federal holidays not included - inside the U.S. or its territories, meaning this can be taken in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico or Guam, too.  (Please don't make me look up the difference between territories, protectorates or possessions; I'm sure you get the idea.) We can visit Canada or Mexico for the day, but not overnight. After all, the whole idea is to come back from the brink of going native and remember what it means to be American.  Given our tour extension to four years, I was directed to take this leave at the mid-tour mark of two years into our time in El Salvador.  I mentioned in an earlier post that this requirement is just mine, as the employee, and does not apply to family members.  They can go as rogue as they want, apparently.  Beyond a requirement, it is also an "allowance," meaning Uncle Sam will sport the round-trip plane ticket for the employee and all family members and throw in an extra checked bag for those who might need enough clothes for say... one month of living out of a suitcase, but that's it.  Sure, I also get my salary but embassy-employed family members do not and have to use vacation leave or leave without pay to join along.  Given that, my husband chose to join me for just one week, after which he returned to the peace and quiet of his routines in our house and garden, to bond with the cats, and to slip back on the yoke at his job while I spent the remaining three weeks visiting family.  

So did it do the trick? In brief, yes, I think it did. 

First of all, I got to see my old friend Autumn again and be reminded what it's like to go through a change in seasons with all the traditions and routines that entails. (P.S. apparently it's okay to capitalize seasons if you're personifying them. So there.)  I'm not talking just "Ooh, there's a chill in the air, let's get a pumpkin spice latte!" kind of autumn experience, although yes, I both said and did that, no - I mean we spent a week during peak leaf-peeping season in New York's Adirondacks along the glassy shore of Long Lake to be astounded by natural beauty. Although it was just the first week of October, staff the handful of stores and just about every restaurant or cafe warned use they'd be closing down today, tomorrow or next Sunday.  We chatted with the cashier at Hoss's General Store, home to every Adirondack souvenir you could imagine and some great local white cheddar cheese, about her plans for the day-after-tomorrow, her last day on this seasonal job.  

"See that light blue rig across the street?" and she pointed to a small RV parked in shady lakeside lot tucked behind the BBQ joint. 

"I'm hitting the road again!" she proclaimed jubilantly. "I'll make my way south of course, but then head west to Arizona; I'm chasing 70!"  I commented that she looked nowhere near 70 and she laughed, "No, 70 degrees!  That's the goal - always keep it at about 70 degrees. I like it up here, they let me park right there and offer me this job all summer, so I'll be back. But when the season ends, I move on to the next gig."  Seeing our interest, she went on to detail the best places to be and when, recommended the most informative "rubber tramp" YouTube channels we'd have to check out, and described how affordably she can live without having to pay rent or maintain a house, emphasizing that she has never felt freer. A truly American option for retirement-aged folks who don't want to be tied to another truly American tradition - the huge mortgage. 

Beyond this conversation, I also took great pleasure in eavesdropping on people at nearby tables in a language I could fully understand to hear what Americans talk about. My husband and I noticed who masked up and who scoffed at mask-wearers. We felt uncertain on what to do where, and my husband swears he got dirty looks when we continued to wear our masks in stores when the signs on the door directed "Must wear a mask if you're not vaccinated."  Did they look askance at us because they thought we weren't vaccinated? Or at the other end, were the looks because we were still wearing masks when we really didn't HAVE to?  It was just awkward. 

Continuing our education, we watched local news and weather reports, paid attention to (i.e. were shocked by) the price of meals, gas and real estate. We visited the Adirondack Experience museum and hiked out to old iron smelter sites and learned about the great era of American industrialism. We visited family in NJ and drove through Norman Rockwell-flavored towns with brick architecture and steepled churches built centuries before some western states were even admitted to the union. And before my husband flew back home, we spent a day in NYC.  It was just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything. 

Cabin along Long Lake, NY

Sitting along the Hudson River got me wanting to listen to Billy Joel. 

More glassy reflective lakes than you could shake a birch branch at. 

Home of Adirondack white cheddar cheese and smell-goody balsam fir gifts. 

Typical Adirondack cabin style. 

View from the top of Mt. Coney

Are the orange and red receptive rods and cones in your eyes burned out yet?

I'll name the chair style for $100, please Alex. 

Flag in foreground lest you had any doubts. 

To me, classic NY architecture as viewed from the Highline. 

I then flew to northern Washington state, a stone's throw from the Canadian border, to see my mother and step-father for a week.  The beauty of the Pacific Northwest, even having known it since the early-1990s, still astounds me. This was followed by two weeks visiting an old friend and 80 percent of my siblings in California. I drove from the central coast at Morro Bay, to Monterey, to Silicon Valley and up to Calistoga in the wine country. I marinated in the differences between the two coasts and even between Washington and California. I'm not referring to political divisions, as those were evident even within each of the states I visited. I mean the subtler differences, like portion sizes in restaurants, regional terms, how friendly people are/aren't, and the most common cars they drove. (Summary, in case you're curious: upstate NY = full-sized trucks; Washington = Subarus; California Bay Area = Teslas). Finally, before my own return to Central America and my life already in progress - I drove myself off the grid to Wilbur Hot Springs for two days of no internet, bring and cook your own food in the communal kitchen, clothing optional soaking in thermal baths. It's a place my father had taken us as kids in the 1970s and I've always wanted to re-visit to see how much had changed.  The answer? Not much. Sure, it's been yuppified, as he'd have said, but it was still as crunchy as ever.  After a meditative walk through a labyrinth marked in stones under the spread of an enormous live oak, I sat for a spell in the windchime garden, not another soul in sight, taking in the smell of the dried grasses and bushes of my childhood, and reflected on all I'd learned and re-learned over the month.  

Given this description of this place - and even if I didn't already mention the state - it's likely you pictured this spot to be in northern California.  You knew that because as a native, you know your country: the stereotypes and idiosyncracies, the flavors, the landscapes, the accents, the houses, the lifestyles and whether one gets their groceries at Publix, Haggen or Safeway. You just know. 

Silver Lake, Whatcom County.  I can see Canada from here. 

It's a subtly different kind of forest reflected in the glassy lake. 

The San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound fill the window view from the little prop plane.

Mt Ranier as I take off from SeaTac Airport. 

San Francisco Bay and one of its bridges with the queue of cargo ships waiting to be unloaded. 

If you've ever been in the U.S. in October, this needs no caption. 

Rugged landscape in south-central coastal California. 

Morro Bay harbor and iconic rock. 

Sea otters being exceptionally cute. 

Hugging the coast up Pacific Coast Highway 1

Calistoga vineyards in their fall foliage.

A horizontal "fog-bow" gives hope and color over Alexander Valley vineyards. 

Wilbur Hot Springs main lodge. Thermal baths behind privacy screens in background.

Dawn off the grid.  This line doesn't go to Wilbur. 

Labyrinth under the live oak. 


After a month, what did I conclude? It's a really, really big country with room for every type of person they make. While I may grumble about what American culture means or what society is coming to these days - and I do - and even though I live abroad and will continue to do so for another decade, it is still the country I was imprinted with and recognize as "home."  Like the Steamboat Ski and Resort Corporation, Uncle Sam also knows how to keep me enthusiastically representing the product. 

No comments:

Post a Comment