This all actually happened a couple of weeks ago, but I didn't get around to posting it until now..
I'm sitting in the food court of Sawgrass Mills - Florida's largest outlet mall. When you have a day off, and the dollar is being reamed by the pound this comprehensively, it's only good sense to go shopping.
The shops themselves haven't quite opened as I arrive, so I wander around a bit, take in the satisfyingly American enormity, and navigate in the general direction of the food court, while grinning at the Segway-riding security guards. Long ago my wife instilled in me the rule that before a big shopping day, one must eat, or one will get grumpy and not like anything enough to buy it, which in a mall of such gargantuan proportions as this one, would be a sin.
So I currently wait for the shops to open, while eating the best breakfast I could find, which consists of has browns (small circles of deep fried potato), cheesy tots (small circles of deep fried cheese) and french toast sticks (which look exactly like fish fingers but are in fact, sweet. And deep fried). I feel no remorse for sucking down such suicidally unhealthy food - I've been shopping with me before, so I know I'll work it off patrolling these marble-floored boulevards of impulse purchase.
All the "food" I'm enjoying came from Burger King - the only place open thus far - but I am very excited to see a Taco Bell next door to it, gearing up for the day. Although I've been to this fine and bizarre country many times, I have never visited a Taco Bell. They never, to my knowledge, opened in the UK, so it's as close to fast food forbidden fruit as you can get, which is, in turn about as close to real fruit as you'll find in the Sawgrass Mills food court. So I have a plan - load up on fried carbs now, go shopping and wreck the US economy, then have Taco Bell.
Well, the good news is that I'm back at the food court now awaiting delivery of my taco bell extravaganza. The bad news is that in between this paragraph and the previous one, it all kinda went to shit.
I was in such a fine, happy-go-lucky mood. Strolling around window shopping with a nice little mental list of things I needed that I knew I could get cheaper here. delightful. It all started once I'd found my first purchase, a pair of shorts. Card declined. And again. Weird, says the clerk, your pin is ok, but it's saying that the card isn't authorised to be used here. Luckily there's a cashpoint just outside, so out I go to the cashpoint. Card declined. To another cashpoint. Same again.This could be a problem. I call Lesley and get her to email me my bank's phone number and wait on hold for 10 minutes. From Florida. On a UK cellphone. Finally I get through and explain the situation. "Let me just see check that out for you", says the Alliance & Leicester drone, "No, there's no problem with the card". "That's all very well for you to say", I reply, "But you're not stuck in the middle of Florida without enough money for a taxi back". He says he understands and will try to find out what's going on, puts me on hold, and then hangs up. My temper isn't getting calmer. I call back, wait another 10 minutes on hold and get through to another Alliance & Leicester goon. I explain the situation, explain that I was just hung up on, explain that I'm calling from fucking Florida and am very very annoyed. No apology, that'd be asking too much. She checks things out and eventually has an answer for me. "Sometimes a card will be blocked, for security reasons". I splutter incredulously. "What does that mean", I ask. "Security reasons", she repeats. "Yes", I say, "I heard you, but what does that mean?", "Well", she says, "imagine if someone had stolen your card details..", "But that's not the case", I'm trying to see the funny side of this, "Because you're talking to me, and I'm here, in Florida, with the card you gave me so I could access my funds, and you're not letting me do that, and it's screwing with me."
I have two options, she advises me. I can try to get a much smaller amount out of the cashpoint, or I can find a bank. If I find a bank, any bank, and show them my visa card and passport, I'll be able to get as much money as I like. A few minutes of being told there's no way I can talk to a superior and I realise that I've got all I'm going to get out of her, so I say, sweetly, "I'm going to say thank you and hang up now, I obviously don't mean it, but only a foul git would just hang up, so thank you", and I hang up.
To the customer service desk, then, to find out where the nearest bank is. My enquiry is met with a vacant puzzled stare. There's no bank in the mall. Biggest mall in Florida and no banks. Peachy. I get directions to the nearest bank, which I am assured is within walking distance, and I set out, following the directions given to me carefully. This leads me through a car park, along a freeway and finally to a home furnishings warehouse, where I seek further instruction. The rotund, shiny sofa salesmen gives me simple directions - right out of the shop, right at the lazy boy shop, then right at the freeway and keep going until the crossroads and there it is. I set off again. It's getting hot, but I'm wearing sunblock and keep myself happy by singing Stevie Wonder songs to myself. I feel positive about this - clear directions to the bank, use my Hugh Grant-eque English charm to explain my predicament, then I'll get my money, then shopping, then Taco Bell. I turn right at the Lazy Boy shop. Feeling good about this. Ten minutes down the road and turn right at the freeway. Just like he said. There's the crossroads. Then, with a mental thud I realise that I'm right at the back entrance to the same home furnishings warehouse I started from. I stand there for a good twenty seconds unsure if I should laugh or just close my eyes and walk into the traffic.
Fine, I think. I'll just got back to the mall and try my luck getting smaller amounts of money from the cashpoint. As I walk back I realise that I've been swearing, quietly and - it has to be said - creatively, under my breath. Also occasionally muttering things like "I want to kill you all. WITH MY HANDS". Sensing that this might not be a good mental state to be in, I go back to singing Stevie. nobody can be psychotic while singing Stevie Wonder, it's just not possible.
I get back to the mall and approach a cashpoint. Let's be conservative. please can I have $100. No deal. Card rejected. Ok, let's try again. $80? Nope, get along now, limey. Last chance, $60. There it is, the satisfying mechanical churn of the cash-counting machinery and I have $60. Pushing my luck, I try to do the same again and get another $60. No dice. Well, at least I have enough for a taxi back now.
I walk back to the food court. If I use all the change in my pocket, I can get some Taco Bell, and dammit, that's what I came here for. So here I sit, in the food court, chewing on a bean burrito, which, it has to be said, is delicious, and was brought to my table by a very cool female security guard who is apparently friends with the taco Bell lady. It may not have been the best of days, but it's ending wasn't bad at all.
It was such a tease being in such a huge mall, but without the means with which to use it as it should be used. but the fact is that I'll be back here in a couple of weeks, so I'll make sure I come prepared. This isn't over. I'm coming back, and I'm going to go shopping.
When I got back to England, I called my bank to see what the problem was. Apparently, they told me, there are some places that have a particularly high instance of credit card fraud, so rather than attempt to tackle that problem, my bank just bans all it's customers from using cards there. At all. For ever. I argued that this is the biggest mall in Florida, so statistically, there is going to be a higher instance of credit card fraud there, as there is a higher instance of credit card use there, but they didn't quite follow my logic. I asked if I could tell them when I'd be there so they could lift the ban for my card. They said no. I asked if I could be told in advance where in Florida I can go shopping and where I can't, and they said no. So if I want to go shopping in Florida, it's a complete gamble. Not really what I pay a bank for. This is, obviously, completely ridiculous - banning all credit cards just because some people steal them is as mad as banning all money because some people steal it, or as banning all liquids going onto a plane because once we thought someone might have made a liquid bomb, even though they actually never did and we were completely wrong. The dumbest and most shoot-yourself-in-the-foot reaction to a bad yet completely predictable situation.
I mentioned this while on the phone to someone who happens to work for another, larger bank, who told me that basically the Alliance & Leicester say they're a bank, but technically, aren't. How is that even allowed? Can I say I'm a bank then? I'll give you a card you can't use anywhere because once, at school, Steven Evans stole my rubber, but I'll keep hold of your cash for you. And spend it in Florida.
The moral of this story is that I am closing my account with Alliance and Leicester and going with a real bank. Partly because of all of the previously noted mullarkey, partly because of other previous problems I've had with them, but honestly - mainly because they have never apologised once, and with staff training that bad, no wonder they can't handle the complexities of finance, they can't even handle manners.
I am looking forward to doing this. I'm not a real financial adviser, in the same way that they're not a real bank, but I advise you to do the same.