Observation

In Search of a Free Lunch

I’m a sucker for free gifts. Always have been. Growing up with my gran in the late 70s, we spent hours cutting out coupons from magazines and newspapers. Sending them off and waiting three weeks for a (then) state-of-the-art Pyrex dish. By the time she died, her entire kitchen was a museum to 1970s mail-order ovenware.

My grandfather wasn’t much better. His vice was collecting cigar cards. He’d smoke like a trooper just to complete the set then send off for the free presentation pack into which you could stick the cards. I’ve still got them, and while many of the cards have become faded or unstuck, the twenty or so booklets on stamps, coins, countries, and trains (to name a few) are a poignant reminder of my grandparents’ obsession with the free gift.

Years later, even my father got in on the act.

If you lived in the UK in the 1980s, you might remember collecting tokens at petrol stations that you could exchange for a variety of household items. He always went for the glasses, and as he drove a lot in those days it didn’t take long for our house to become a shrine to Texaco tumblers, high-balls, schooners and champagne flutes.

Fast forward thirty years and I seem to have inherited my ancestors’ penchant for gimmicks and free gifts. Rarely do I return from the shops these days without a stash of tokens, vouchers and coupons that I trade in for products I don’t need.

I don’t know why I do this. I’m not really the consumerist type, and I know it’s all a marketing gimmick. But like people believe in Jesus or Santa Claus, I too believe somewhere there is such a thing as a Free Lunch. This holy grail my grandparents were seeking out all those years ago.

This obsession came to a head last week when I received a free gift from my bank. Yes, even I was cynical. Bank? Free gift? Really? I was right to be cynical as I had to take out a year’s magazine subscription from the enclosed catalogue in order to obtain my free gift

Oh great! I sighed, magazines are not really my bag. But hang on, I was only thinking the other day that I need to improve my French. I can meander my way through uncomplicated French novels but when it comes to football or politics the language can get quite tricky.

A well known British football commentator coined the word ‘Lollipop’ to describe when a player steps over the ball to deceive his opponent. ‘One lollipop. Two lollipops. Three lollipops!’ goes one of his famous commentaries. The French use a similar phrase, Café Crème, to describe a similar skill. Both terms aren’t covered in any dictionary.

I therefore recovered the magazine catalogue from the bin but the first few pages weren’t promising. Télé Poche, Windows Gamer, Closer, Auto Moto, and Investir magazine didn’t grab my attention. Neither did Femme Santé, Mickey Junior, or TéléRama. At least Google wasn’t spying on me. If they were they would know that TV, gaming, cars and finance are not top of my internet searches.

I eventually went for TIME magazine. At €3 once every two months it seemed like a good deal. €18 a year plus I still get my free gift. Great work!

Only I’d made a terrible mistake. I’d misread the small print and confused Bimensuel for Bimestriel. Every two weeks as opposed to every two months. Shit! Now I was going to be billed €72 a year rather than €18. Suddenly my free lunch didn’t feel too free anymore.

But maybe I can rescue this. Find something else. Change my order.

I grabbed the catalogue again and had a look. Charlie Hedbo and Le Point looked interesting but expensive. Cuisine et Vin  looked OK, but would still cost me €70 a year. And Le Pêcheur (the fisherman), despite being cheap, looked incredibly boring.

Then I saw it. AD magazine – Architecture and Design. Arches, porticos, columns, that sort of stuff. Not my usual reading material, but for €4.50 every two months, I’ll take it. At least my free gift will retain some of its ‘freeness’.

That was last week. I’ve got my magazine, which is OK-ish, a bit heavy on detail, but I haven’t got my free gift yet. I phoned up the hotline and they said it’s on its way. That was Monday. Today is Wednesday and it’s still not here.

It’s got me wondering why I bother. Why me, my gran, my grandfather, and my dad wasted our time clipping out coupons, smoking ourselves to death, or filling our shelves with poor quality glasses. A cynic might argue, it’s a symptom of Western Capitalism. An optimist might argue it’s just a bit of fun.

It’s probably both. Fifty-fifty. Yes, we’re fucking up the planet, but who doesn’t like a bargain. Tell me that? We know the Free Lunch doesn’t exist, but for some reason we keep on looking for it all the same.

Only today I had another offer through the mail: Subscribe to SFR Mobile and Watch Unlimited Football For a Year – For Free!

(tempting, isn’t it?)


My whacked-out rural satire is still available. (No free gifts)


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Copenhagen, Feature

Notes from Copenhagen: The Bicycle Courier Part II

I’ve been a bicycle courier in Copenhagen now for two weeks. I’ve delivered spring rolls, chicken wings, Korean noodles, calzone, spaghetti bolognese, coffee, smoothies, alcohol, fags, sausage rolls, Indian, Turkish and Chinese. Even aspirin.

In the afternoons waiting for my shift to start I watch the Tour de France on TV. Imagining myself climbing up the Tourmalet, or Mont Ventoux, or Alpe D’Huez on the way to the maillot jaune. Then it gets to four o’clock and I put on my grey T-shirt, strap my pink styrofoam box on my back and away I go into the mists of Copenhagen.

Most people rarely do this for long. A summer at most. If that. Not only is it phenomenally dangerous. It’s also incredibly knackering. 40 km in four hours isn’t a lot by cycling standards. Last winter in Auty I cycled 100kms most Sundays in three and a half hours. But I didn’t have a square box on my back full of pizza, booze and energy drinks. Neither were there any traffic lights, people, cars, crossroads, flights of stairs, customers, glass strewn roads, wrong addresses and cancelled orders.

On Friday for example I arrived at an address in Amager to deliver a vegan burger and quinoa salad (Copenhagen for you), only to discover not only were the flats not built yet but neither was the street. In fact, they hadn’t even started building anything. Just a few isolated portacabins on a waste ground where the groundwork contractors ate their lunch.

One came out to see what I wanted (A man on a gold Peugeot bike wearing a pink box on his back would attract attention in any city even Copenhagen), so I asked him if he knew where Luftmarinegade IV was.

He laughed a great booming Danish laugh, his mouth still full of egg and cold ham from lunchtime. He told me it hadn’t been built yet, pointing across to the mirror-flat waste ground stretching out to infinity ahead of us.

I thanked him and called the guy who runs the courier company. There had been a glitch in the system he told me. There was no order.

This has happened twice before. The software they use sometimes generates orders on its own accord and sends them randomly to one of the 30 restaurants we use without any payment being made by anybody.

The previous two times this glitch has happened the addresses have actually existed. This time though the software had sent me to an address that didn’t. Not yet anyhow. Maybe the developers had already let Google know of the impending new street even though it hadn’t been built. (The star marks where Luftmarinegade IV will be one day.)

I’ve now been told that the glitch has been fixed – not that I care that much (I get a free dinner each time it happens). But it made me think how intelligent software is getting when it can make a human being run around the city delivering burgers at will. (Memo to G. Orwell for possible sequel idea to 1984.)

Another amusing incident occurred last Wednesday when I took an order (real this time) for one bottle of Jagermeister, 2 litres of Coke, 3 packs of fags, and eight Pølsehorn (Danish sausage rolls).

This would be a fairly normal order for the time of day which was about 6 o’clock. Pre-going out Jagerbombs for a group of fresh faced blond Danes waiting for their ignition fuel.

Instead when I arrived there were three fresh faced guys called Ahmed, Abbas and Yousef eagerly waiting for me at the top of their stairs. We had a joke about how bad the Danish weather is – I was soaking wet – gave them their grog and grub and away I went.

So why was it amusing? Am I inferring that three guys called Ahmed, Abbas, and Yousef can’t order alcohol? Not in the slightest, I know plenty of Muslims who drink. It wasn’t the alcohol I think they were looking forward to. From the grin they gave me when I handed over the Pølsehorn it seemed that the forbidden pleasure of a pork sausage roll was more of a thrill than the bottle of high strength spirit I’d just given them.

The next day I got another order from the same guys, two packets of aspirin and four milkshakes.

It’s been an interesting few weeks I have to say. But perhaps the funniest event was last Monday in McDonald’s – Yep, I have no soul: I’ll deliver anything from vegan burgers to dirty frankfurters to Maccy D’s any day.

The order was for a Big Mac Meal and two Chicken McNugget Meals. I ordered from a girl who looked barely out of primary school and while waiting witnessed a middle aged Japanese man freak out because they didn’t sell beer. (Memo to Ronald McDonald, USA: sell beer in stores.)

Then the girl gave me three cups telling me to choose my drink pointing to the soft drink taps at the back of the store.

Two things went through my mind. ‘Free Coke for the bike courier!’ Followed by paralysing horror. ‘Oh my God! I don’t know what drinks they want. It’s not on the order!’

In panic I asked the girl what do people normally have with these meals. I didn’t expect her to reel off a selection of fine Burgundies, but I did expect more than a shrug of the shoulders followed by a noncommittal. ‘Coke?’

Luckily I had the customer’s number, so I phoned him.

‘Coke, for me,’ he replied when I asked him. ‘And milk for the kids.’

‘MILK?’ I replied loudly.

The restaurant had been very noisy, so I had been shouting to make myself heard. Only at that precise moment in time the restaurant went silence. All that was to be heard was a loud Englishman wearing a stupid pink box on his back shouting the words: ‘MILK! YOU WANT MILK?’

In end the man was very happy with his Happy Meal. And milk. And that was another day finished.

At the moment I work every day, but I don’t mind in the slightest. I cycle every day, earn a few coins, I see the city and get to learn more about this very strange species called Homo sapiens. Who might one day be overtaken by their own machines. Or Google.

 

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