Welcome to the Happiness Hotel*

Once upon a time, a high school teacher left her job to travel and work overseas, in ‘any job but teaching’. To cut a long, not-fairy-story short, I found myself in Galway, working as an ‘accommodation assistant’ at . . . let’s call it the Grand Galway Hotel.

I had no idea what an accommodation assistant was, as will become obvious when I tell you that it means cleaner. Which I’m telling you now. The couple of lines in the Galway Advertiser’s Situations Vacant section hadn’t clued me in, otherwise I might have gone elsewhere – although I was broke, and it wasn’t a great time to find a job, heading into summer with most positions already taken by fellow travellers.

So yep, in my mid-twenties I was a cleaner in one of Galway’s most terrible hotels: terrible partly because they were possibly the last hotel in town still accepting sporting teams and hen and buck groups – eeeesh – and partly because the people running the hotel were a bunch of dicks.

Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that's the Shangri La.
Our hotel lobby. I spent a LOT of time dusting that fountain in the mornings. Oh wait, that’s the Shangri La.

What was good about it:

  • not much.
  • but seriously. The best thing about it was making several friends from different countries (mostly Eastern Europe), such good friends that I probably stayed on in the job for another month or two instead of telling the manager to stick it.
  • free biscuits. Okay, stolen biscuits.
  • free lunch. Which was not that great and which one of my colleagues refused to ever eat again, after she’d seen ‘something bad’ happen during the preparation of the lunch. She refused to tell us what it was because we wouldn’t have eaten it either. In hindsight, maybe I should have pressed her for details . . . In hindsight, maybe there really is no such thing as a free lunch.
  • picking up Irish lingo; eg. ‘I’m awful for the chocolate’ (I love chocolate), ‘Sound’ (cool).
  • laughing at the way Irish colleagues said ‘garage’ and ‘film’ (it’s got two syllables!); all of us, Irish colleagues as well, comparing pronunciation of ‘turkey’ and deciding (me included) that Australians say it the worst.
  • on days when there weren’t a lot of rooms to clean, we’d make hideous instant coffee and chat while we tidied. Or we’d watch TV, something universal like the world weather report or MTV, drink coffee and eat biscuits, and my friend Egle and I would joke around while Julia napped on one of the beds. The two of them together were a superfast cleaning machine, so they could afford the time. If they finished early, they’d come help me.

    Group_of_Edwardian_maids-_Herne_Bay,_1907_(7054650803)
    Us in our beautiful aprons and domestic servant up-dos. In Edwardian times.
  • There were days when we cleaned rooms after hen nights and found plastic penises and fairy wings, or leftover alcohol and hefty tips. One day Egle and Julia, both giggling, dragged Katka, our supervisor and good friend, and me into 107. In the bath was a clear plasticky, vaguely oval-shaped thing, about the size of a toddler, quivering like jelly. Egle and Julia laughed while poking it to make it wobble about, as Katka and I looked on, mystified. It turned out they had found a packet of condoms while making the bed, and had filled one up with water. Julia’s vigorous poking caused it to explode, spraying us and most of the bathroom with water. It was hilarious on an otherwise boring day.
  • There’s something vaguely comforting about making up rooms for strangers. Smoothing pristine white linen over the mattresses, making envelope corners and tucking the edges in tightly; folding fluffy towels and hanging them on the bathroom rails; placing pyjamas under pillows; wiping down enamel surfaces until they gleam. There was a strange, anonymous relationship between us and the guests, involving a certain care on our part . . . it was somehow reassuring.
  • I’ve found some nice, even heartwarming things in rooms: a note in 313 saying, God loves you. Thank you for taking care of us, signed by some group called Peace of Jesus and weighted with a two Euro coin; in another room a paper bag, taped up with To the girl who cleaned our room scrawled on it, a swirly-patterned nylon scarf inside. (It was hideous. I treasured it anyway. Though not enough to wear it.)

    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.
    There were always hijinks galore at the Grand Galway Hotel.

Slightly less pleasant experiences:

  • having to somehow fish socks out of a cigarette-and-urine-filled toilet bowl.
  • finding someone had wet the bed in a possible drunken stupor (‘Just turn over the mattress,’ I was told by management. If that was the policy for a 3-star hotel, I did NOT ever want to stay in a 1-star room).
  • suspecting a creepy porter of harassing younger female colleagues and not being able to do anything about it.
  • same creepy porter saying to Katka: “You shouldn’t be supervisor: you’re no good. It should have been given to someone smart. A man.” When we called him out on it, he called us all fucking bitches. We reported him and you know what happened? He was given a holiday. Management paid him a low wage in cash so they didn’t fire him. See above comment re: management being dicks.
  • discovering used condoms in various places. Katka had once found one in a kettle. In fact Katka had a few horror stories like that, such as finding shit not in but next to the toilet. The worst one I heard was when she found a businessman who’d had a heart attack during the night and fallen out of bed. Dead.

The worst thing that happened while I was there was when a cleaner called Jess opened 310, thinking it had been vacated. The guest had hanged himself in the bathroom. He was a 30-year-old Albanian who’d overstayed his visa and was being deported the next day. Whatever was waiting for him in his home country had been worse than death. I went with Katka to air out the room after the body had been taken away and the room had been blessed; everything else had been left mostly untouched. (The Irish: their first priority will be to bless a room, not clear away implements the deceased used to harm themselves.) It was not pretty.

Jess couldn’t face working in the hotel anymore, coming back only to give our manager (Mary C – the C is for Classy) notice. Mary C was seemingly all understanding, but quietly relieved as she’d accidentally hired too many accommodation assistants and had been planning to fire Jess anyway. After Jess left, Mary C laughed and said, “What an eejit. The stupid girl can’t even come into the hotel!” (Oh sorry! The C was for Cowface.)

Last I knew, 310 was being used to store furniture during renovations and everyone gave it a wide berth. I wouldn’t be surprised if all these years later, it was still out of circulation. People were pretty spooked (not Mary C, though, but I’m not sure she’s a person).

Any lessons to be learned from my experience? Read all job ads carefully, kids! And then at the interview (meeting, whatever), if you still don’t know what the job is exactly, ask. And then (and even after the first day, or anytime), you can still say no. Or leave. Or hey, stick it out and make friends and eat aalll the free biscuits. Then one day when you’ve had enough, and you know you’re about to quit and management isn’t watching, grab a colleague, run down the fire escape, jump over the wall and leg it to the nearest bar serving happy hour cocktails. You will not regret it. Those cocktails will be the sweetest you ever tasted.

Out of curiosity, I just googled the Grand Galway Hotel – it’s now allegedly 4 and a half stars, yet sitting pretty in the bottom half of Galway’s hotels on Trip Advisor. From the look of the reviews, nothing’s changed – except in the social media age, everyone now knows what it’s really like. Neat.

One more lesson: when visiting Galway, make sure you do your research first. Splash out on a really good hotel.

*’If that’s the Happiness Hotel, I’d hate to see what the sad one looks like’ –– Fozzie Bear, The Great Muppet Caper.

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Summer (lions) reading: Amy Poehler’s ‘Yes Please’ and Nick Offerman’s ‘Paddle Your Own Canoe’

I’ve been getting my comedy reading on. A few months ago, I got hooked on Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen this show (now in its final season) because you live under a rock like me, it’s great; in the vein of the UK series The Office, it was initially meant to be a spinoff of the US version.

Set in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, it centres on super-positive public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler), dedicated to kicking arse in the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Parks and Recreation office – slowed right down by her deadpan boss, Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman). They’re ably supported by a talented ensemble cast and the writing is brilliant – that great mix of crazy-funny and heartbreakingly poignant.

'"Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.'
‘”Yes please” sounds powerful and concise. It’s a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman.’

Anyhoo: reading. I’d heard great things about Amy Poehler’s recently released book, Yes Please, and managed to get my hands on a copy before Christmas (bless you, Alex). I hesitate to call it a memoir, though it largely is. It’s also a bit of an advice column by the funniest agony aunt around, and part photo album/part scrapbook, which is lovely and adds a personal, candid touch.

The main narrative tracks Amy’s start in the world of improvisation through to performing in Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade and various other groups; she also covers her time on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Rec. This thread is intercut with chapters about other aspects of her life, such as childbirth (‘Is it too late to flood the hospital room? Or turn it into a really fun foam party?’), being a parent, and her experience of the entertainment industry (‘Hollywood is a crazy biz and I know the biz cuz the biz iz in my blood’). There are special-guest chapters written by others, such as her mum who writes about the day she gave birth to Amy; Amy then urges readers to seek out their own birth stories from their mothers (and even provides lined pages where these stories can be written – too cute).

Yes Please really appealed to me, for a number of reasons. Amy Poehler’s kiiind of my contemporary, though a bit older; she covers a lot about growing up that I can identify with (eg. Judy Blume, sleepovers, terrible 80s fashion). I really appreciate and am trying to apply her creative advice (about writing but could be applied to any art form): ‘You do it because the doing of it is the thing. The doing is the thing. The talking and worrying and thinking is not the thing.’ (That’s a shame because I’m a goddamn expert in the latter.)

I love Amy’s straight-talking style – she sticks up for aging, and takes well-aimed shots at plastic surgery (in haiku form, of course): ‘Hey, shooting poison/in your face does not keep you/from turning fifty’. (Now that I think about it, poetry is a wonderfully employed device throughout; the development of her friendship and comedy partnership with Tina Fey, her ‘comedy wife’, reaches its climax with an acrostic poem no less.) In a very classy move, she outright refuses to speak directly about her clearly painful divorce from Will Arnett, instead focusing on the lighter side by pitching a bunch of self-help divorce books, such as ‘The holidays are ruined! This book is one page long and just contains that one sentence’.

She writes warmly about how she came to be Leslie Knope in Parks and Rec AND THEN I CAN’T READ ANYMORE BECAUSE I’M ONLY UP TO SEASON 4 SO SPOILERS GAH. But she does have a list at the end of the chapter where she praises each cast member in turn and, like the rest of the book, it’s written in a down-to-earth, heartfelt, grateful way that’s just really lovely. The gushing is tempered with gems like: ‘Nick Offerman is someone I would run to when zombies attack because he can build a boat and is great company.’

'I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.'
‘I am your average meat, potatoes and corn-fed human male, with a propensity for smart-assery, who has managed to make a rewarding vocation out of, essentially, making funny faces and falling down.’

Speaking of whom, Nick Offerman brought out his own book in 2013 and I was lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas from my partner, who searched all of Sydney’s bookshops during Hell’s shopping period. (Bless you, Shane.) Paddle Your Own Canoe: One man’s fundamentals for delicious living is a great companion read for Yes Please, for obvious reasons but also because both Nick and Amy place emphasis on their acting/comedy careers as art. They take themselves and their work as artists seriously. Not in a pretentious way or at the cost of having fun, but they work very hard at it and have a healthy respect for themselves and their peers. These books are also two parts of the larger story about the little show that could – Parks and Recreation was often on the chopping block but managed to survive and thrive, which is great news for anyone who needs laughter in their lives (ie. ALL OF US).

Along with drinking your fill of manly-man advice from the guy who plays arguably TV’s manliest moustachioed man, Ron Swanson, readers gain insight into Nick’s life from his birth in the middle of a cornfield in Illinois; growing up, working hard but also finding time to get up to no good; moving out to Chicago in a used Subaru to pursue acting; eking out a living building theatre sets during lean times; and working his way up oh-so-gradually from bit parts, to appearing full-frontally in HBO’s incredible series Deadwood, then *cough* Miss Congeniality 2 and roles in Sundance contenders, to eventually becoming the Ron Swanson you know and love.

While you’re being amused by Nick’s humorous anecdotes, you also reap the rewards of his varied life experience. He places emphasis on finding a hobby – nay, a discipline – and working away at it, whether it’s your dream to act or fashion a canoe you can paddle off in. (He runs the Offerman Woodshop alongside his acting career.) As a bonus, there is rich advice for wooing the ladies, and he pays tribute throughout to his talented actress wife, Megan Mullally – perhaps sometimes too eloquently (do I need to know exactly what they get up to in the woods?), but on the whole it’s adorable.

The main themes underlying Nick’s uniquely deadpan and wickedly humorous book are living life while holding true to good old-fashioned values, minding your manners and, like Amy, having gratitude for all that life has given you. ‘Paddle your own canoe’ is his variation on beat your own drum, and, if you have the opportunity, do literally make and play your own drum as well (or canoe – anything, really: ‘Cook, play music, sew, carve. Shit, BeDazzle. Maybe not BeDazzle’).

Both books are refreshing, positive, often laugh-out-loud antidotes to a lot of the . . . well, crap of modern life, celebrity, and traditional and social media at the moment (with the exception of Parks and Rec castmate Aziz Ansari getting all up in Rupert Murdoch’s racist grill on Twitter this past week – taking the Parks and Rec on-set ‘No Assholes’ policy and applying it like a blueprint for the world: beautiful stuff).

They are in some ways like a soothing balm. The message is to trust yourself. Create what you want to create. And, like Amy Poehler says, be whoever you are.