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Embarrass your children, and have a nice day

It is one of the rules of life that parents are embarrassing to their children. There are a few years where this is not so: no baby has sued its mother for the trauma of being breast-fed in a public place - yet. But by the age of five children can clock the fact that everyone else's mother does not drive around in her nightgown, and other fathers do not dance the watusi at the drop of a drumbeat. Soon any sign of originality from a parent is cause for much rolling of the eyes and shrugging of the shoulders.

Sometimes, however, merely embarrassing parental behaviour can mutate into something truly excruciating. It can be anything. In my father's case it was a dreadful bobble hat that he took to wearing in public so often that I finally had to take matters into my own hands.

In my own case the problem (as my children see it at least) is that I believe in customer service. Not only do I believe in it, but sometimes I actually request it. I do this for obvious reasons, but also so that the children can learn how to do it. After all, I announce - not for the first time - no one ever seemed to feel shy about demanding that I serve them with a smile when I was a waitress.

The topic of my career as a waitress at the Palm Cafe in a small town on America's West Coast is one that I particularly warm to as we sit in some corner of a restaurant waiting for someone - anyone! - to notice our existence. "I would have been fired for this," I note, perhaps a bit loudly. I paint a picture of the Palm: there was a swordfish on the wall, home-made lemon meringue pie in the cooler and a chef who was always just one order away from exploding. My job was to run around like a maniac trying to please customers who made Victor Meldrew look cuddly. (I skip over my phase of pouring coffee over the most irritating ones. Why wreck a good moral tale?)

My eyes get a little misty, and it's hard to tell when exactly the children's glaze over. I usually end with a rousing explanation of how the Eastern Bloc's inability to understand good service was a contributing factor in the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The children unglaze the moment I say it is time to talk to the manager. They are terrified of the very idea. After all, they have grown up in England and as such have adopted the custom of complaining privately about bad service, only to smother with "thank yous" the person who eventually arrives. I think this is very strange indeed, and refuse to adapt. Therefore the children have to watch me like a hawk. If I show any sign of wanting something embarrassing - such as adjoining seats on an airline, a refund for wonky curtains, or a menu by 2pm - they beg me not to not make a fuss. Sometimes they actually flee. I react in much the same way as my father did with his bobble hat - I carry on.

Not that it is easy. Recently I entered an estate agent's and found a man staring at his computer screen. I stood; he stared at his screen. He typed a few words and sat back to mull them. I stood. Finally, he looked up. "Can I help you?" he asked. "You already have," I announced, "because I am doing a survey of how long it takes for people like you to acknowledge that a human being may be in front of them." He stared at me and, for a moment, I felt as if I were the one who was crazy.

All of this comes to mind because it is the time of year to return to the US West Coast for a visit. The Palm Cafe is no more - engulfed by the Westward Ho! bar - and it is also clear that the standard of service in general has slipped of late. Down-sizing has taken its toll, and sometimes the cracks do not so much show, as gape.

This being so, it was no real surprise when Jessica at the Holiday Inn declared to me that she had no record of my booking a non-smoking room. "Only smoking ones left," she said. I explained that I had no desire to sleep in an ashtray. Much to my amazement, Jessica loved this comment and spent the next 20 minutes phoning round trying to find another room. "You seem very calm," I said as another phone call got stuck on a pre- recorded loop. "Well, I could get real upset if you wanted me to," she said. I laughed, and suddenly realised that the children were not with me and so there was no need to take it any further.

I merrily told Jessica that the ashtray would suit me just fine and then capped it off with a "Thank you so much!" The children would have been proud indeed.