Life on the Other Side

I like to joke that Israeli customer service is an oxymoron. If you’re used to an American attitude that “The Customer is Always Right,” you’re going to have to do some major attitude adjustment while in the Holy Land. Don’t get me wrong – I do love living here. I just don’t like the service industry. Well, lo and behold, I found a place that’s worse!

I just got back from a vacation in Budapest. It was a last minute decision, and it was based on a cheap deal at a spa and the opportunity to see a friend who recently moved back there.
What could be bad at a spa? Oy. Can we talk?

I was picked up at the airport – so I thought my trip was off to a great start. And rather than share my taxi with a load of Israelis, I was alone. A private car took me directly to Margarit Island where the spa was located (situated between the cities of Buda and Pest). My enthusiasm lasted until I reached the reception desk. When I explained that I was a journalist and that a room with free WiFi, or on the Executive Floor would help, the response was a blunt “no.” OK, said I to myself, calm down. Not everyone believes you when you say you are a journalist.
Keep a positive attitude, don’t get all pissy, smile, you’re in Budapest!

It only got worse.

The dining room turned out to be a massive hall, reminiscent of a hotel in the Catskills, but the food choices were awful. It didn’t matter whether you considered the fish, meat or chicken options; they all looked the same and were swimming in indistinguishable sauces. And the logic of traffic flow doesn’t occur to these people – milk for the coffee was across the room near the fruit (watermelon and bananas), the butter for the rolls was to be found next to the desserts and the salad dressings were next to the main courses.

Spa treatments? The underwater massage turned out to be 15 minutes of a Brunhilde shooting water from a giant hose, while I lay in a bathtub trying to keep myself submerged (if not she screamed “body under the vater, body under the vater!”). The invigorating Body Scrub takes place in a cubicle, where another Brunhilde shmears some smelly lotion on you, and then leaves you to contemplate your navel for 20 minutes while you listen to the draining and the filling of the bathtubs in the adjoining cubicles (think toilet flushing for 15 minutes). Then there was the relaxing full body massage that was offered by a woman so weak, I realized a cat rubbing against me would have provided more sensation.

Did I mention the fact that nearly no one speaks English, and that lunch is served in another building, accessed through a series of underground tunnels with no signage to guide you? Or the fact that a 10-minute taxi ride from the island to the more interesting sites of Budapest cost me more than a cab ride in Manhattan? And synagogues charge for entrance! Picture a woman standing with her arms spread wide blocking me from peeking into the Art Nouveau synagogue, after I had already shelled out $20 to visit the main synagogue.

What in the world made me think I would enjoy this solo experience? “Communist worker’s retreat” was what I kept thinking. My friend, who is not happy at all living back in Budapest (and she’s Hungarian), explained: people are not happy, the political system is about as corrupt as you can get and there is no hope that the situation will improve. Even the famous Dobos cake I tasted was dry!

So… I won’t complain again about customer service in Israel. (On second thought I probably will, but I’ll do it with a smile). And if anyone ever offers me a special deal on a trip to Budapest – I’ll say “Nem, köszönöm!”

Anne Kleinberg, author of Menopause in Manhattan and several cookbooks, left a cushy life in Manhattan to begin a new one in Israel. Now she’s opened a boutique bed and breakfast in her home on the golf course in Caesarea. For details, visit and

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