Category Archives: Business

Ce vrăji am mai făcut în ultima vreme…

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Mă bucur şi mă laud dublu astăzi.

1. Pentru că mi-a apărut pe LiterNet.ro jurnalul de călătorie din Malcesine, de pe malul lacului Garda din Italia (multumesc, Răzvan Penescu!) – iată-l aici: http://atelier.liternet.ro/articol/15902/Andreea-Sepi/Malcesine-Lago-di-Garda.html

şi

2. Pentru că îmi va apărea, în 3-5 zile şi pe Amazon Europe, micul ghid pe care l-am pregătit pentru proaspeţii imigranţi români în Germania (în speţă Bavaria, pe care o cunosc mai bine), cu informaţii utile legate de formalităţile de început, servicii şi instituţii, dar şi cu un capitol destul de important despre standardul cultural german si comunicarea interculturală cu germanii, una din pasiunile mele mai vechi. Iată şi cartea:                              

Este vorba de o primă tentativă, sub rezerva omisiunilor, scăpărilor sau modificărilor ulterioare, însă m-aş bucura dacă s-ar găsi dintre voi câţiva curioşi care s-o şi cumpere ;-).

Enjoy! O zi frumoasă!

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Deutschland – Servicewüste?

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Another glorious day for German sales services and German sales people.

So I’ve been sick for a week and I’m entering the pharmacy to get some vitamin gummy bears and maybe a nose spray.

The only shop assistant present is busy going through the entire cosmetics product range with a middle-aged woman.

Besides me, there is another lady with a 7-year-old kid, looking undecided. I start to sweat under my shawl waiting. Eventually, a second shop assistant (male) appears. I let the lady with the kid go first, even though I was already clutching my gummy bears and I was sweating through every pore.
And then I wait.

She had ordered a sucking cup for a baby bottle the other day and is here to pick it up. The guy brings her 4. She realizes she doesn’t know which cup will match the plastic ring for the bottles she has at home, if at all (ever occur to you to bring one along for size???). So then the shop assistant launches a thorough database search and comes up with 225 different types of plastic rings he could procure (yes, no kidding, actual number). He gets briefly interrupted by a dog, his pet, escaped from the back office (again, true!)

In the meantime, four more people, all of them old, have entered the pharmacy and are waiting in line looking tense. The first shop assistant is still describing facial treatments. She completely avoids eye contact. Nobody seems to notice the 5 drained customers standing like 5 white elephants in the middle of a very cramped store. The woman with the feeding bottles is still undecided, the shop assistant moves in fastidious slow motion, letting her spill all her irrelevant beans, catering to her drawling indecision. Now he’s giving his opinion on which supplier is more trustworthy and willing to accommodate different combinations.

Too much for me. After almost 10 minutes, I hang the gummy bears back on the peg they came from and rush out dropping a frustrated “this isn’t worth my while!”. My transaction would have taken exactly 50 seconds of their time…

And I wonder. Do they realize they are in the business of serving sick and old people? And what are these autistic customers thinking? Do they lack social interaction so much that when they finally grab hold of a shop assistant they can’t let go???

Or perhaps it is the other way around. Perhaps these sales people are trained in indifference, to boost a positive feeling of gratitude in customers when they do reach the blessed counter. To have them burst in teary sobs of joy and to exercise blissful humility.

After all, it’s like confession there.

By the time it’s your turn you will have had enough time to meditate. You remember what you had for lunch 30 years ago on a Thursday and what was the last big lie you told your mom in high school.

Pharmacy. By the time you reach the counter, you’re cured!

At any rate, the system is sicker than you. Reckon they’ll manage to sell themselves a cure? 😉

P.S.: Did I mention this is the pharmacy I always go to because it’s close to my home? I mean, it’s not like I am the freak occasional customer off the street looking to do 50-cents’ worth of business. My cupboard is full of medicines – all from this one pharmacy…

A few things that get on my nerves

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1. Excessive proliferation of technology.

Do you know that old engineer joke? 😉 What do engineers and dogs have in common? They both have intelligent eyes but can’t express themselves… And what’s more, they’re trying to change the whole world in their image. Applications, gadgets, the “Internet of things”, remotely operated toilet paper rolls…

They simply can’t rein themselves in. They simply won’t give up until they make every single human on the planet (including themselves) superfluous.

They should have stopped after the fridge and the washing machine.

2. What is the deal with this inflation of titles and positions?

Heck, everybody’s a CEO of some kind, everybody’s a specialist, an expert, a consultant. Every shitty job has a pompous title these days. The housewife selling insurance policies is a “Financial Consultant”, the student bringing coffee and operating the Xerox machine in an advertising agency is some kind of a “Junior Support Officer”, somebody writing content for the website is “Online Business Development Manager”.

How do simple shop assistants even get out of the house anymore without feeling embarrassed? Or cashiers? Or drivers? Don’t they want to be called “Chief Combustion Officer” or something? Or at least “Mechanical Motion Responsible”? What about plumbers and constructions workers? They sure got the short end of the stick.

I look forward to the days when the baker will be called “Senior Dough-Kneading Specialist”, the hairdresser will become “Chief Hair Officer” and the toddler will be “Junior Fart Dispenser and Dictator-in-Chief of the Stuffed Animals”… Gee!

What’s up with the German labor market?

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News and interesting statistics about Europe’s strongest economy.

Munich - voted Germany's best city and no. 4 worldwide

Munich – voted Germany’s best city and no. 4 worldwide
Foto: Armand Csordas

As most of Southern and Eastern Europe as well as Great Britain struggle with a double-dip recession and the German economy continues to flourish, many in the beleaguered EU states are packing their bags for the Bundesrepublik.

According to Spiegel Online, half a million people immigrated to Germany in the first 9 months of 2012 alone; roughly 90,000 of those were Romanians (second only to the Poles). Most of these people came here looking for work, and most of them are highly qualified – just one of the ways Germany has capitalized on the financial crisis. They have filled vacancies and driven up rents. Many more are preparing to come so let’s have a look at what the German labor market has to offer.

Probably the most useful resources for foreigners looking for jobs in Germany are the labor market and salary reports published by leading employment agencies and career websites, such as StepStone or Manpower. Here is some interesting data in brief.

Top 5 best paid university degrees (average gross yearly salary in 2012, not taking into account number of years of work experience):

  1. Medicine – € 68,903 
  2. Law – € 60,792
  3. Engineering – € 59,912
  4. Business information systems – € 57, 764
  5. Natural sciences (biology, chemistry, pharmacy, physics) – € 57,292 (source: StepStone Gehaltreport 2012)

The top industries in terms of pay are, in order, consulting, banking, chemistry and oil industry, aviation, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, consumption goods, automotive and machinery, medical technology.

Expect below average pay checks in hospitality (€ 32,228 gross p.a.), agriculture, marketing and advertising (€ 39,040 gross p.a.), small trade, public services, education, retail.

Another interesting fact is the difference in pay between man and women. Women will earn, on average, 14,000 euros less per year than their male counterparts. University graduates earn on average 36% more than people with vocational training or trade school. By far the highest salaries are paid by companies with over 1000 employees.

There are also dire differences across regions. The southern states (Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg) are much better off than north-eastern states (former East Germany). Bavaria leads the pack with an average gross income of around 53,000 euros p.a., closely followed by Baden-Württemberg, Hessen and Hamburg. Apparently, the best-paying  jobs in the nation are to be found in these states. Red lanterns are Sachsen, Sachsen-Anhalt, Thüringen and Brandenburg, with 34,000-38,000 euros p.a.

(Note: These are all gross pretax salaries, without bonuses. For high-demand professions, and especially for positions with management responsibilities, add about 11% in bonuses. To arrive at the actual after-tax amount, subtract approximately 1/3 of the total; subtract more if you are single.)

A recent report by Manpower sees the situation on the German labour market as stable; the vast majority of companies (86%) declare they will not hire additional people in the second quarter of 2013, 8 percent want to hire more people, and 4 percent think they will have to lay people off. Manpower’s prediction is that most jobs in the next quarter will be created in the Finance and Insurance industry. StepStone continues to focus on the IT industry, on engineering and on finance and controlling, where the deficit of skilled labor remains a problem. Large deficits have been noted for geriatric care and health professions as well, especially as a result of poor demographics. The prognosis is gloomy – over 200,000 vacancies in German hospitals and hospices by the year 2020.

Another reason to worry comes from the weak demand for German industrial goods in Europe. Aktiv, a business magazine with a print run of over 1,000,000 copies available via subscription only, warns that not all is rosy in Germany. In its latest issue (16 March 2013) it claims rough waters may be ahead for the metal processing and electronics industry. BMW, for instance, anticipates a very difficult European climate for the next 5 years, with low sales and little recovery in sight.

How long the German miracle can last, and to what extent orders from the BRICS (particularly China) can compensate the sluggish markets in Europe, remains to be seen.

Life in plastic, it’s fantastic…

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Is all this packaging really necessary?

I ask myself that every time I go shopping. It gets on my nerves. I buy groceries and then spend half a day separating waste. Waste that I neither asked for nor need. Plastic, paper, aluminum foil, the works. Dozens of euros’ worth of useless packaging which most of the time has more to do with bundling strategies for profit maximization than with any concern for hygiene or consumer protection. Think of all the water that goes to waste when I have to rinse every little recipient in order to be able to store it in my house for two weeks until the sanitation company picks them up. Pollution and waste.

Today, for instance, I bought exactly five slices of pork for our Sunday meal.  I made a point of buying them from the counter and not from the shelf, in order to avoid the huge plastic boxes that come with them (and because I lie to myself that the ones from the counter are fresh). But, what do you know?! The lady first wrapped them in special paper with plastic film on the inside, then placed them inside a plastic bag, and then put the whole contraption in another paper bag, slapping the price label on top of that. When I asked if all that packaging is really necessary, and wouldn’t a simple plastic bag have sufficed, she retorted something in Oberpfälzisch which I couldn’t understand, but she seemed upset by my remark. I am confused. Is this part of the German public obsession with hygiene? I beg to differ, because she manipulated the meat with her bare hands anyway (no gloves)…  (Besides, nobody seems to care when children run around with snot down to their chins or when the kindergartens are full of scarlet fever and streps.)

I couldn’t help thinking of the Boqueria, the central market in Barcelona. Meats, fresh fish, fruit and vegetables of all sorts lay spread out on tables in the open air and you could have your pick and you didn’t have to dig through 5 inches of plastic to finally get to your food at home.  I can’t stand what we stuff ourselves with most of the time.  A bunch of chemicals wrapped in all sorts of artificial materials, transported thousands of miles and tossed like refuse from one warehouse into the next, dropped on floors, stepped on. Tomatoes that have never seen real soil nor the light of day,  last year’s apples repackaged and sold as fresh from the orchard (real story!), expired meat products…

If you want to test your impact on the environment, fast for one week. You’d be surprised how much energy and how little non-degradable garbage you’ll have.  Give your liver a break and your spirit wings. We should all learn to go a little hungry once in a while. Humility and self-restraint free up the soul for what truly matters.

Discrimination, my love

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We’re in the process of moving to the Bavarian capital, and the rent is crushingly high, so I started to look for a second job.

I was pretty happy when I actually got a few replies, but then it all ended the way it often does: the person on the other end looks at my name on the CV, clears her throat and asks the one question that equals total demolition, “ahm, and… what’s your nationality?” That just makes my day every time.  Not to mention people reaching protectively for their pockets when I give the answer. Because there is no way around that answer, no matter how nicely I attempt to package it.

What can I say? Sure,  I have German citizenship, but they can hear my accent. And my name has too many vowels, apparently. It’s so lovely to be rejected for a job for which you were overqualified to begin with, simply because you were born in a country that everybody wants to avoid like the plague.

It caresses my soul to be told they’ve already found someone and then to find the ad still in the window two weeks later… I applied for an evening job as an English tutor, and the lady on the phone told me “one can hear you’re not German”.

Well, wtf? You don’t need me to teach German, do you? You need me to teach English – and English has been my job for the past 7 years. I started learning English in elementary school, later on studied with American visiting lecturers, then lived in the US myself for a while. But do you think that makes any difference? Not a word in English was exchanged between us. She decided I wasn’t native enough. Heck, even my son’s kindergarten would only employ purebred Americans or Britons ’cause nobody else can teach “this is a frog / this is a pen” to 5-year-olds.

I don’t mind being rejected after a thorough interview, if I am not up to the task. But at least give me a chance to introduce myself and show what I am capable of. Why should my Romanian origins immediately wipe 30 points off my IQ??? See, this is the reason I became self-employed. It irks me so bad that people (in my case, Germans), even those in multicultural settings, will judge a person strictly on the basis of nationalistic stereotypes. This day in age. People with University degrees, mind you.

(For some freaking reason, engineers are exempt from this “humane” treatment even if they don’t speak a word of German, which only irks me more.)

Honest Romanians abroad fight every day to keep their dignity. It’s an uphill battle. It’s essential for us to have a better image. So, how do we go about achieving that? Most of us are perfect, law-abiding citizens in our countries of adoption. And yet, it seems we cannot please people. We cannot completely dispel their prejudice.

We totally depend on the Romanians at home for that. And as any good PR specialist will tell you, advertising without content no longer works. We have to generate credibility, we have to put our house in order for real, and the image will follow. The system has to be fixed from within and then it has to remain stable, clean, and consistent long enough to generate trust. Only when we’ve accomplished that will a better image emerge. On its own.

Hopefully, during my lifetime. I would hate to see my kids go through the same thing.

A fine and healthy debate

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Adam and Eve were living in a world of plenty. They were in the Garden of Eden and everything was taken care of.

They could have:

  • had long, revealing conversations with God
  • deepened their love and understanding of each other
  • lived in harmony with their environment while exercising a minimal self-restraint
  • contemplated, cultivated and created beauty
  • enjoyed the good life.

Instead, they became obsessed with the idea of more, and what did they get?

More work, more pain, more disease and two sons who were so desperate to re-ingratiate themselves with God, that they ended up hating and killing one another…

This was one of those fleeting thoughts regarding the origins of our current economic, spiritual and moral crisis that probably would not have made it out of my personal diary, if it hadn’t been for Fareed Zakaria’s show GPS on CNN this past weekend. Coincidentally, he had invited Britain’s Robert and Edward Skidelsky – University professors and authors of a deeply provocative and intellectually stimulating book – to talk about just that.

The Skidelskys’ new book, “How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” takes an unusually fresh and honest stab at the “deathly orthodoxy” of economics as the mathematics of greed and at the obsessive pursuit of GDP growth as the sole measure of  a good life, while pleading for economics as a moral discipline which has to recognize that there is more to a rich, gratifying life than the mere material, monetized pre-requisites of wealth.

This is not one of those excentric, edulcorated, vaguely philosophical books written by misguided idealists. The authors know what they are talking about.  Robert Skidelsky is Emeritus Professor of Political Economy at the University of Warwick and an acclaimed expert on Keynes, while Edward is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter.  Their research and their line of argumentation are as complex and serious as they are accessible. In the authors’ own words this book – full of exciting cultural references from the classics – is “an argument against insatiability”, focused on offering (against all odds) an objective and morally sustainable view of “the constituents of a good life”: health, security, respect, personality, friendship, harmony with nature, leisure.

How Much is Enough – Money and the Good Life” makes a wildly compelling argument, full of aha moments, well worth reading at this stage of our development in the Western (i.e. rich) world – and not only!  I can only recommend it. Together with Richard Heinberg’s “The End of Growth – Adapting to Our New Economic Reality” and Chrystia Freeland’s “Plutocrats – The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else“, I consider it part of a new school of thought that is gaining momentum. It is a troika of books that should not be missing from the bookshelves of those concerned with policy-making for future generations, as well as those simply concerned with making sense of their lives and escaping  the futility of the “rat race”.

Automotive darwinism

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I am naturally wary of any car that is either:

a) big enough to flatten my house

or

b) fast enough to break the sound barrier. 😛

Which is why I try to stay out of their way if I can help it. I (almost) always give Porsches, Hummers, and even some BMWs the right of way. That is my way of showing respect to those who are at the top of the cubic capacity chain. (Plus I like it safe). It appears to be a fact of life fact that the ability to read road signs and abide by rules is inversely proportional to the horsepower or the size of the bank account.

I mean, rich people do pay more road tax and generally contribute more to every public service because, when you apply even a reduced tax rate to their astronomical incomes, the absolute monetary value of their contribution still outweighs mine or yours by a ratio of at least one to… let’s say 100 (but feel free to add as many zeros as you think are appropriate).

But do they have to rub our noses in it? (When they do pay, that is. When they’re not in some offshore fiscal paradise.) Take this young lady at REAL this morning, for instance, with her precious Hummer. Did she have to occupy one of the parking spots reserved for mothers with children even though she was alone and she only stopped to drop off a summer shirt for ironing? Normal people kill for those spots, you know. Those spots are the only ones where there is enough space for you to be able to open both car doors sufficiently to extract your kids. It used to be that rich people in Germany had this very nice, redeeming quality of not flaunting their wealth – acting normally, following the rules just like everybody else. It’s great that you’re rich, it’s not like you have apologize for it or anything, but do you have to be arrogant, too? Modesty never hurt anybody. It’s not all about the money. There are other ways of contributing to society and to the public good.

Why do so many rich people begin to think they’re smarter than the rest? They immediately feel “self-made”. Rich people tend to think they got where they are exclusively thanks to their own efforts, and poor people tend to think they got where they are by some ugly conspiracy of the universe. I think they’re both wrong. There is such a thing as Providence, luck, being in the right place at the right time, having the right environment and resources – but there is also such a thing as being pro-active, determined, tenacious, knowing how to use the resources, the environment and the chances presented to you. All of us get some endowment at birth, from somewhere up above, and have to make the best of it. It’s not like you can take all the credit if it turns out well, but none of the blame if it turns out bad.

That being said, it is kinda worrying when our society starts not only chasing and brandishing status symbols, but also using them to humiliate others. It used to be that people bought status symbols to make themselves feel better. (Feeling empty? Add a brand.)  Now it’s like they’re buying them to make the others feel bad. (Hey, I invented driving.)

It is also worrying that, according to sociologists, a new type of feudalism is on the rise: people in certain professions (financiers and the like) make about 300 times more money than the average wage in our society. Their lives are spent increasingly in exclusive, elite circles, private clubs and private islands, that no longer have any connection with how the rest of us live. They mingle almost exclusively among their own kind and marry within the group more often than they used to, according to one study. These people are rulers of private empires parallel to our world, can influence policies more than we like to imagine, and exercise power over our lives without even being brain surgeons. The effect of such unevenly distributed wealth is a society driven by envy and a desire for quick profits and lax morals. Some degree of inequality is normal and even healthy. Some are, after all, more industrious than others. But too much inequality leads to frustration, tension and societal malfunctions.

Hummers of the world, please keep us little people happy and park where you’re supposed to.

Penny-pincher extraordinaire

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Advertising has got to be the easiest profession on Earth in Germany. You start out with a comprehensive technical description of your product, and then you just add “BILLIG” ( CHEAP) in large, bold capitals on top of it. Or the “creative” version “SCHNÄPPCHEN” (BARGAIN).  Heck, you can sell any rotten fruit, any withered vegetable and any drooping flower in Germany as long as it’s cheap. That’s our daily menu. Look at any mansion and, beyond the impressive and always freshly painted exterior, inside you are bound to find austere rooms furnished with the simplest genuine timber that gives them such a “last century” look. German meals normally have 1-2 courses (compare that to the 5-6 courses of an Italian meal, or the 20-something of a really byzantine East European feast) and those are usually brought by the guests. (I’m just being mean).

No, but seriously, some people would infer from this that the Germans are cheap. I mean, look at how they’re handling the Euro crisis… I wouldn’t say they’re cheap. They’re just, well… frugal. And you can’t really blame them either. Money-making is difficult here, what with all the regulations and stuff, and the only thing that still costs nothing is breathing. Any “offense” (such as parking on the correct side of the road but in the wrong direction) is immediately and severely punished, and a liter of gas is more expensive than a bottle of beer (going on €1,8/liter, actually, right now) so it’s really hard to hang on to money. The workplace is a combination between cubicle-induced psychosis, muted isolation and the most earnest productivity-obsessed torture chamber, and smiles are really rare. The only good thing is, they get served beer at lunch (gotta protect the industry, I guess).

So you can see why money is serious business to the Germans and why they have such a hard time parting with it. What’s more worrying is the effect on the immigrant psyche. I can still remember the days when my husband used to be this careless, wasteful and “irresponsible” youth, that would always buy me gifts and flowers and pretty cards for no reason. Now it’s like: “I see you’ve ordered some books, shall I take them out of your budget?” or “Honey, from now on please keep all the receipts, I want to analyze them and figure out a way to cut back on our expenses…”

At this point, let me just note that I do work, too, as a freelance translator and interpreter, while also being a full-time mom to my two kids and sparing our family budget the strain of hiring babysitters too often (which, as I said previously, are worth their weight in gold in this country). But I make nowhere near as much as he brings in. So that kind of gives him the upper hand in these matters, you see. Or so he thinks. His face turns all tense and worried when I want a piece of cake or an icecream, but not a week goes by that he doesn’t dish out money on very useful stuff such as a new smartphone screen protection film, some new cable for who knows what (maybe he is planning his escape…) or spark plugs for his 30-year-old motorbike. He bought it old on purpose – more things to fix.  Anyway, I usually don’t say anything, because he is this technical and computer guru that can fix anything around the house (and I mean ANYTHING), sometimes by breaking it first, but that’s another story…

Today, however, as I was wrapping up my work on another translation project, I was foolish enough to say to him:

“Phew, so at least I have made back some of the money I spent yesterday” (on that haircut he loved so much)

“What do you mean, SOME of the money?”, he said, visibly panicking.

“What do you expect? Haircut, pictures, a treat for the kids, filling up the car… ” said I.

He looked as if he’d just swallowed a broom. I think he actually started feeling nauseous and would have puked, if only he had been able to bend down. But he was immobilized by the computations in his brain. Noticing my atomizing glare, he tried to play it down and turn the whole thing into a joke, but I’m not laughing.

As a matter of fact, I promised I would get my revenge. I’m sooooo looking forward to the day when I will be out there, pulling all the ropes, making three times as much money as he makes now, and not giving him any. Perhaps, IF he’s good, does the laundry and spends each day with the screaming kids, and IF I feel very very generous, I will take him out to döner*!

Most definitely one of those makeshift places that have an oblique “CHEAP” sign across their menu…

*Döner = cheap corner-of-the-street kebab, full of onion and yoghurt sauce and sometimes wrapped in pita bread.

Latest ownership craze

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I remember my mother raising me with that Central European sense of politeness, where she would constantly nag: “What does it cost you to say hello? What does it cost you to say thank you?” It used to cost nothing, and so we grew up always politely saying hello and thank you.

But what do you know? Apparently, it has cost a German firm only 900€ to PATENT the Tyrolese greeting “Grüß di” and to assume ownership of these words.  So now, if you are an Austrian, it CAN cost you a lot of money to say hello in your own language. 🙂 I guess pretty soon you won’t be able to greet your customers with “Grüß di” anymore, because you will be obtaining “commercial gain” from its use.

Come on, people. Can you even own WORDS?! Everyday words everybody uses??? Can someone own something he has not helped create???

How far will this ownership madness go? Will we own swaths of dictionaries, just like we own land?!… Oh, and let me guess: Will the poor only be allowed to use these two words: “Yes, sir!” ????

When will we understand that we can’t really own anything at all, that it’s all an illusion?  I vote for the freedom of words. Free “bread”, free “water”, free “love”!

I don’t know. Is it just me or are we turning everything into just another object, just another product?  Everywhere we look, just another dollar sign. We buy dead roses from the food store as if they were nothing but staples. Groceries. Stems and artificial-looking petals in unnatural colors, that come with their own embalming solutions and money-back guarantees:

“Delicate blossom-spirit once lived here. Currently vacated. Add this substance to the water. Guaranteed to last 5 days in a vase and impersonate a flower”…