Previously in this series:
We arrived at the Grand Paradise Hotel, Bavaro; we risked our necks on El Tren; we discovered tributes to countless murdered dwarves; we pondered upon the relationship-building skills of French Canadians. Now read on, as, in this last instalment, we consider management communication, French Canadian invasions and name the best holiday barperson ever.
I have long been a collector of notices created for English-speaking tourists abroad. Some are quirkily worded but ultimately comprehensible; others are frankly mystifying. Here are a few examples, collected on just one holiday in Turkey:
On a passport booth at Marmaris seaport: “Whose countries which inquire for visa to enter the Turkey.”
On our hotel bedroom door: “Go hand in hand all over our house and we are convinced that an outbreak of fire can be ruled out.”
On lifts pretty much everywhere: “Do Not Use Elevators In Case Of Fire.” (And they say British Health and Safety rules are onerous.)
On a noticeboard outside a café in Turunc: “We are all much jolly good fellows here having funs. Your nights will be filled with pleasant jollities, come join our good times. Thank you.”
On a Marmaris restaurant menu: “Chicken Sprem” (I think I know what it meant, but I wasn’t willing to take the risk.)
Emblazoned in large letters on the side of a white van: “Stop…No…Collection of Women”
I have had many years to ponder that last one, but, in truth, I’m still as stumped as the day we first saw it.
At the Grand Paradise, Bavaro, perhaps mindful of the potential for confusion, the management has decided that important news is best expressed using methods other than writing. During one such publicity blitz, we are standing at one of the shelters scattered around the hotel complex, awaiting, with some concern, the arrival of our stalwart friend, El Tren.
The previous day, the ancient vehicle had, at last, fallen victim to the stresses placed upon it by a full complement of holidaymakers: attempting a sweeping U-turn at the end of its orbit there was a judder, an almighty grinding crunch and then its rear axle finally gave up the ghost and departed for the Great Metal Scrapheap in the Sky, leaving the wheels haplessly splayed on either side. And that, we assumed, was that. We were sure we wouldn’t see El Tren again for the rest of our stay, leaving it behind with bitter tears of regret. Imagine our amazement, then, when later that very afternoon it was back in service, faithfully hacking and coughing its way around the route, bloodied yet unbowed, like some unstoppable geriatric Terminator.
Now it seems the poor thing may have suffered a relapse. We have been waiting for thirty minutes with nary a distant chug to give us some hope. Of course, it only takes fifteen minutes to walk where we need to go; having invested in waiting, however, we are reluctant to leave: to do so will inevitably mean that, somewhere between stops, a full complement of smug French Canadians will grind past us, silently celebrating our misfortune.
Although it has not rained, a yellow warning sign (featuring a soon-to-be-dead dwarf in mid-slip) has been placed just outside the shelter. This was unremarkable at first sight; the things are ubiquitous in a complex where thunderstorms are commonplace and marble floors are rendered treacherous. After a while, however, a weird theory begins to bubble under in the pipeworks of my mind: perhaps the management expects us to infer from this juxtaposition of sign and shelter that El Tren is once again hors-de-combat. I put this hypothesis to my wife, who nods sagely; it is just about impenetrable enough to be considered likely. We resolve to walk to our destination, leaving others to decrypt the enigmatic signage as best they can.
(As it turned out, I was only half right. On Day Fifteen our holiday had slipped across an invisible boundary between High and Low Seasons. Accordingly, the management had decided to take one of the main accommodation blocks out of commission, so El Tren now finished its orbit about halfway along its normal route. The yellow signs had been put in place to allow us to have some fun guessing at this state of affairs. In the last week we were at the hotel, quite a few such changes became apparent only through guesswork or discovery. For example, without any consultation or warning, lunchtime wine suddenly became harder to obtain than plutonium-239. Luckily, the ever-helpful waitresses were in no way inclined to heed the explicit instructions of their bosses. Our wine supply was restored forthwith.)
One major repercussion of the closure of an entire accommodation block is that we venture out the next day to our favoured sun-lounging spot, only to find that our pool has been transformed overnight into the French Canadian entertainment centre. Their own pool has been closed, so without a by-your-leave, they have simply taken over ours. As petty and territorial as it may sound, I have to say this pisses me off mightily. Hitherto our pool has been a reasonably peaceful sanctuary, occasionally interrupted by the local entertainment team’s amusing set pieces; now it is a constant cacophany, comprising the idiot rantings of the Bastard-Love-Child-Of-George Melly, his tiresome array of DJ “stings”, his endless games, quizzes and dances, and, to cap it all, his bizzare choices of music (thirty minute drum solo, anyone? I kid you not. Twenty minutes in I was recanting my atheist ways and praying that a righteous God would smite me deaf, just to make it stop…and I’m a fan of prog rock. It didn’t help that it had followed hard on the heels of a sublimely irritating twenty-five minute cool jazz rendition of the Police’s “Roxanne” by a French Canadian chanteuse who I trust will never become famous outside Quebec. Truly a high-water mark in musical blandness; may you never be so unlucky as to have cause to listen to it yourself.)
To make matters worse, where there is a French Canadian Entertainment Centre there are, of course, French Canadians. They have descended on the pool en-masse. As I have expressed elsewhere, they are not inclined to socialise with any save their own, so we immediately feel alienated. There are no more announcements in English, and the French Canadian Entertainment Team studiously ignore all of us who were here before, while the local team, suddenly disenfranchised, hang around like lost souls. The effect is a bit like being chucked out one’s own cheese and wine party by a crowd of drunken gatecrashers. It seems a less than pleasant final week is in store if we hang around the pool, yet to leave is to admit defeat. All in all, the holiday risks being soured by what, at the end of the day, is very poor management on the hotel’s part. Their communication leaves an awful lot to be desired.
Onwards and upwards. There is, as they say, no point crying over spilt milk. We do what most holidaying Brits do in moments of crisis. We head for the bar.
I’d like to end this series with an appreciative look at bar staff; in my experience, many of the little foibles a hotel may have can be readily overlooked or forgiven if you can find a suitably good barperson. Over the years quite a few have been enlisted to my Captain’s Roll of Honour. Sadly none of those at the Grand Paradise quite make the grade; they’re not bad, for the most part, but they’re certainly not great. I have observed that most of the bars here have one person who serves for every three people whose function seems indeterminate. These other bar staff can sometimes be decorative; mostly they are just supernumerary. Occasionally they may be called into reluctant action when the main barperson disappears on some errand. This is usually a sign that your next drink will be more haphazard than usual. Tonic will turn out to be lemonade; vodka mysteriously mutates into gin. No amount of pointing or gesticulation seems able to prevent these problems, and it is always with a sigh of relief that you greet the return of the One Who Knows What He Or She Is Doing.
So what is it that makes a truly great barperson? I can only illustrate this by introducing you to some who have made it onto my Roll of Honour in the past.
One guy, in particular, had made an art form of bar work. We met him, in a bar, oddly enough, one day at our little hotel in Nea Makri on the Greek Marathon coast. George was a wiry-haired, short, bespectacled, pugnacious-looking bulldog of a Greek, with a T-shirt that said “Bollocks to the Poll Tax” on the front and “Don’t Worry ~ Be Happy!” on the back. His opening line to us was “Come, let us gossip…”, which was an irresistible invitation, although what we had in common to gossip about was open to debate. My knowledge of Greek current affairs was non-existent, and, as it turned out, George didn’t actually know what the Poll Tax was. So we bought him a drink, he bought us one back and after a few moments we were old friends, as tends to be the case with the Greeks. Later he said to us: “Dave, Tress…come to the bar where I work this evening. We will make more gossip, yes?” My wife’s name is Jess, but he had a problem with the “J” sound, so Tress she remained throughout our stay.
That evening we found George in sole charge of the Village House bar, where he had told us he worked. A few of his Greek pals were propping up the bar, cigarettes hanging in desultory fashion from their lips as they talked ferociously about politics, pausing only to welcome and make space for us at the bar. George greeted us like long lost cousins, “These are my friends Dave and Tress…they have come to gossip…welcome my friends…now we must drink…”
He gave us the first drink on the house, but the strange thing was that when you returned the compliment, he would always buy you a double back within seconds. Plus he never asked for any money, waving away any attempts to settle the bill with airy disdain, as if you had mortally insulted him. I worked out that if he did this with every visitor, he would lose his boss a whole heap of money during the course of the average season, but he seemed unconcerned by any such possibility, and the evening went swimmingly. I got drunk of course. As the night wore on I noticed that no one seemed to be paying any money at all. His friends would come and go, and all were welcomed with drinks on the house. I whispered to Jess that he was going to be in so much trouble when his boss came back, but still the ouzo, whisky and beer flowed freely.
Of course, George’s lack of concern was understandable since it turned out he was the boss. The Village House was all his own work. I still don’t know how he ever made any money, but I can remember having to creep past the bar on nights when we weren’t intending to go there, knowing that, if he spotted us, George would insist on us joining him for a gossip and I would end up drunk again in no time (witness the night of the “Oma” fiasco from Part Three).
Another George, the owner of a bar in Protaras, Cyprus, was similarly disinclined to charge anyone he considered a friend for the pleasure of drinking their way through his stock. He was a prodigious drinker himself, and never happier than when he had worked his customers into such a state of drink-fuelled lunacy that dancing on the bar would begin to seem like a bloody good idea. He would then help them up on to the bar top and beam beatifically as grannies from Grantham, or brassy blondes from Berlin, made total plonkers of themselves, flashing their knickers and all-the-while risking unpleasant side-effects, like falling off. No one ever did, but one day they will, and when that happens I can only hope George has good liability insurance or an excellent lawyer.
Another barman worthy of note, though for different reasons, was the guy working the bar at the Punta Arena Hotel in Varadero, Cuba. Whatever benefits Fidel Castro may have brought the Cubans (and their health service is reckoned to be second-to-none) a tourist infrastructure was not one of them at the time of our visit. Basic concepts like edible food, even available food, seemed low on the priority list, and the drink was fine provided you liked rum and weren’t too fussy about mixers. Tourism is, I guess, a mixed blessing for the Cubans, relying, as it does, on a healthy dose of capitalism to make it work. In short, they seemed unable to make their minds up whether they really wanted to offer a holiday to the tourists or whether we should be forced to rough it like the locals. One by-product of this dichotomy was that their most developed resort, Varadero, had an oil field slap bang in the middle of the sea, about half a mile out. The noxious gases produced by its nodding donkeys can still bring tears to my eyes, even sixteen years later. On our first morning there my wife blamed me for the thick sulphurous smell in our hotel room…a vile calumny for which I have never truly forgiven her.
Another strange thing about Cuba (and there were many) was that the powers-that-be did not like their barmen to talk with people for any length of time (a bit of a downer for customer relations, you might reasonably think). If a conversation went on for too long, a shadowy apparatchik would suddenly materialise from some hidden observation post and haul the offending worker off, no doubt for a quick lecture on the moral failings of the West and five minutes on the brainwashing machine. On his return from similar castigation our guy apologised and said he did not like it, but he would have to stop talking to us. On our last day, he shook our hands, smiled shyly and gave us the heavy brown ashtray we had been admiring. “Hide it,” he said. “If they find I have given it to you…” He left the consequences unspoken, but I had dreadful visions of him ending up in a Cuban labour camp, a sad and broken barperson. We dutifully smuggled the ashtray back to England without once being stopped by the Cuban Secret Service, so unless they end up reading this I guess our brave friend will be safe enough. (If you are a member of the Cuban Secret Service reading this, he told us his name was Piers Morgan. I hope you find the bastard, lock him up and throw away the key.)
Finally, on this whistle stop tour of barmen, I could not fail to mention Ron, the rudest, most cynical and most entertaining barman in Florida. He was head barman at the Floridian Hotel on International Drive, Orlando, where we were staying over Christmas and New Year.
Ron was from New Yoik; well, New Joisey, to be precise. You could take the man out of New Joisey, but there was no way in hell you would ever take New Joisey out of the man. As far as Ron was concerned the niceties of customer service and political correctness were a far distant world, one he eyed with considerable distaste. He was a breath of fresh air in the plastic-smiled, “have a nice day, y’all”, world of theme parks.
“I tell ya Dave, if I have to spend anudder day in this crummy joint, servin’ fuckin’ morons, no disrespect, I swear I’m gonna top myself. You wannanother beer?”
He grumbled his way through every evening, with a colourful and blasphemous commentary on everyone in the bar.
“Ya see, Dave, I like you, okay? First thing ya thought ta do was offer me a drink…ya left a tip…ya talk polite ta me, treat me wid respect, but ya see this guy here, the one wid the stoopid hair, he’s bin here a week, got me runnin’ round like a fuckin’ mad dog, and not one fuckin’ cent. Fuckin’ Brazilians. Who needs ’em? They never fuckin’ tip. Jeez, Dave, I’m tellin’ ya, they think ya got nothin’ better ta do than run around servin’ fuckin’ drinks, then they fuckin’ moan if the fuckin’ cocktail umbrella ain’t the right fuckin’ colour. Those bastards had me up ’til three in the fuckin’ morning playing their fuckin’ guitars. Fuckin’ samba music. Fuckin’ Brazilians.”
He would give a sly sideways glance, wink, then sidle along the bar to the object of his scorn and say, in butter-wouldn’t-melt tones, “What can I get you, sir?” The “sir” would last just that bit too long and be just a tad too emphatic to be truly sincere.
As he would pass, he’d stage whisper to us: “Fuckin’ special cocktail. I’m tellin’ ya…fuckin’ Brazilians.”
Ron was another who could get me rat-arsed with no effort whatsoever: “Ya wanna pitcher of Bud? Ya get a free pizza…g’wan…ya might as well…I’ll bring it right over…’scuse me but I gotta go be nice to the fuckin’ French Canadians now…jeez…this crummy joint…I swear, Dave.”
He certainly did, but he’d be my choice of barman every time.