The Ecphorizer

Assignment in Croydon
Tod Wicks

Issue 07 (July 2006)

relates some humorous and everyday experiences while working in the UK

For many years I worked in positions that required travel to a fair number of destinations around the world.  One such assignment was with a colleague named Bernie Satterfield to Croydon where we worked with local IBM and British Telecom engineers for several months.  Our office and lab was

[Patrick the waiter] grabbed our dish of lemon slices and started to pull it away.

in an IBM building not ten minutes walk from our hotel in Croydon, Surrey.

One of the nice things about working in the IBM facility was the full-service cafeteria.  We usually eschewed the breakfast buffet in the hotel for much less expensive fare in the cafeteria.  The walk was refreshing and gave us a chance to chat about our daily plans.  The fresh air also whetted out appetites and we were ready for a decent breakfast.  Among the goodies best left alone at breakfast (fried tomatoes, kippers,fried bread, black or blood pudding, baked beans, Marmite) we found eggs prepared any style, lean rashers of bacon, hash brown potatoes and decent coffee.

In this cafeteria, you could see the lunch menu as you walked in, being prepared by one of the staff.  On one particular day Bernie spotted it before I did and he fell to his knees laughing hysterically.  A couple of the ladies rushed over to see what was wrong with poor Bernie (they knew him well by this time).  I'd had a chance to size things up and told the staff that we Americans would have a hard time explaining to our friends back home about how delicious a Spotted Dick for dessert would be.  At this, the staff all realized our problem and had a good laugh themselves.  Poor Bernie - it was all he could do to get through that day without having the giggles.

We had a similar experience one lunchtime when Bernie and I hosted the two inspectors from British Telecom.  One of the Inspectors, Peter Munday, was in line ahead of me and he casually remarked that he was going to have the "faggots in gravy."  It was a good thing that Bernie was in another line and didn't hear that.  nonplussed I asked Peter what "faggots in gravy" was.  He replied that it was awful.  I was curious.  I asked why he was going to order it if it was awful.  He said that it was really good but it was made from "offal," which he clarified as being the "variety parts of the animal."  Great.  Tails.  Lips.  Noses.  Ears.  And worse.

While breakfast and lunch was usually taken at the cafeteria, we explored around a bit at night (but not too far as we hadn't rented a car) or ate in the hotel.  There was a rather officious character who was the host in the evening.  I don't dare refer to him as a maitre d' as that would cast aspersions on all other maitres d' throughout the civilized world.

This martinet's name was Patrick according to his name tag, and he let everyone know that he was French.  Perhaps in France he spelled it "Patrique."

One night Bernie and I decided on a steak and baked potato meal, and I boldly asked for sour cream for the baked potato.  Some time later our meals arrived and mine came with a little finger bowl filled with some ivory-colored slurry that bore no resemblance to the sour cream that I ordered.

I gingerly tasted it.  Ptui!  It tasted like flavored mayonnaise.  I caught Patrick's eye and asked him where he had found this sour cream.  He blinked a couple of times and asked what it was that I wanted.  I spoke very slowly and distinctly:  sour cream.

You could almost see the lightbulb go on over his head!  He exclaimed that he had understood "salad cream," which is a British variant of mayonnaise and is used as a salad dressing.

At the end, Patrick declared that the kitchen didn't have any sour cream, so I had to get by with a bit of butter.  Poor Bernie!  He was breaking out in giggle fits again!

Another evening we had been working late and arrived in the hotel dining room at about 8:00.  There was one or two other tables occupied at that late hour and as we wanted to spread our work on the table, I asked Patrick for a table for four.  He put up the most astounding fuss, claiming that since we were only two, we should seat ourselves at a table for two.  We insisted that we would like one of the many tables for four as we wanted to do work while we ate.  Then he claimed that he was expecting a rather large party later and he just couldn't put us at a table for four.  I offered a compromise:  Let us sit at a table for four for now and if the restaurant started to fill up, we would happily move ourselves elsewhere.

Patrick was trapped!  He had run out of excuses!  With a practiced glare, he showed us to a table for four.

Bernie and I ate rather leisurely, spread our work out and made plans, enjoyed our drinks, and realized that since sitting down, not one other patron, let along a large party, had entered the dining room!

Now we made it almost a sport to eat in the hotel restaurant to see what mischief we could pull on poor Patrick.  We had one last opportunity.  One this particular evening, Bernie ordered fish and I had something else, but I had also ordered an iced tea.

When the waitress delivered our plates and drinks, I casually asked for some lemon for my iced tea.  She obliged and brought several slices.  I had barely taken a slice and was about to squeeze it into my team when Patrick unctuously glides over to our table and declares that we can't have that lemon, that it was brought from the buffet and was meant for use by buffet patrons.  He grabbed our dish of lemon slices and started to pull it away.  Quick thinking Bernie reached out and managed to rescue the slices and dropped them on his fish, saying that his fish needed the lemon juice.  Patrick looked totally aghast!  Looking first at the empty plate, then at his precious lemon slices on Bernie's fish, back at the empty plate... he was devastated.  He was crushed.  He probably had never thought that his young career could be tarnished so badly by two crusty old Americans.

He left, shaking his head, almost in tears.  All during this fray our young waitress was hovering nearby behind one of the large columns.  Once Patrick had retreated, she approached us and admitted that she had enjoyed him "getting his" over such a small detail as some slices of lemon.  She quickly brought us a new plate filled with lemon slices.

We discovered later that word of this encounter had spread rapidly through the restaurant staff, and that the manager had put Patrick on the breakfast shift.

While Bernie and i mostly worked with the two BT inspectors, occasionally Mike Purdy of the IBM office in Chiswick joined us. The BT inspectors were testing our device to certify it as being safe to install and connect to the BT telephone network, a process called homoolgation (or type approval). Each day they tested different components and software.  On this particular day they brought out a rather strange-looking piece of test equipment:  A long copper tip attached to several articulated linkages and a lamp at the other end.  Peter Munday explained that it was the device for performing the "British Finger Test."  In practice it was simple:  They moved the copper tip (the finger) in among exposed electronics.  If the light ever lit, then it was up to us to build a shield at that location that would prevent inadvertent exposure to live voltages.

One of those days we were working late and the local guys decided to stay the night at our hotel.  It was then suggested that we go refresh ourselves with a pint or two of Dogbolter at the local Firkin Pub.  Four of us actually went, having called a mini-cab for transportation.

A British brewmaster named David Bruce bought several down and out brew-pubs in the early 80s.  A brew pub is one that brews its beer on the premises.  Bruce's specialty was an ale called Dogbolter.  He created a common theme for his small group of pubs:  the Firkin.  Now a firkin is a liquid measure in the UK, usually the size of a beer barrel.  Bruce was a keen punner and named his pubs "The Ferret & Firkin," "The Goose & Firkin," and "The Fox & Firkin," where we were headed this fine evening.  The motto of each pub is a play on the the words of the pub name, usually involving a double entendre play on the word "firkin."  At the Fox, the motto was, "For Fox Sake Buy Me A Firkin Pint."

We spent several hours at the Fox and had a decent pub dinner and many pints of Dogbolter.  As usually happens when lots of beer is consumed, we all tripped to the men's room from time to time.  To get to the men's room, you pass by the glassed-in brewing area.  You can view the two large vats, labeled "Vat 1" and "Vat 2."  Some wag with a magic marker scrawled "Vat 3" next to the urinal.

It was time to close up the pub and get ourselves off to the hotel.  We called a mini-cab and headed home.  The trip wasn't as pleasant as we remembered - lots of corners and curves, lots of potholes, lots of bumps.  Poor Bernie, who was sitting in the back, was moaning and groaning.  At one point he let loose that he hoped we'd get there before he tossed his cookies.  At this comment the cabbie started driving both a little faster and a bit more carefully, keeping one eye on Bernie in the back.  We made it with perhaps a couple of minutes to spare as Bernie just made it into the lobby men's room while we paid off the driver. 

He's been very fortunate during his career, having had numerous opportunities to travel the world on business.  In 1984 and 1985 he spent a good deal of time in London and Croydon (Surrey) in the UK.

More Articles by Tod Wicks

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