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.

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    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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Working the Dream

I’ve been lucky to work in three of my dream jobs and the second of these was in my late twenties.

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A bookshop you could fall in love with.

The dream job in question was at least fifteen years out of date. It was: bookseller. Like any book nerd, I’d read, thought and fantasised a whole lot about bookshops; been lost in, got high on, felt horribly lonely in, been intimidated by bookshops. I’d even fallen in love inside them – with books, of course. And Joe from The Magic Faraway Tree, Jim from Trixie Belden (amiright, girls?), probably some lame-o guy from Sweet Valley High, Rochester, Darcy – and, more importantly, with heroines like Jo March, Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Bennet, and so on.

Then recently I’d read this quote (yup, in a book):

. . . I liked the idea of living in a big city – any city, especially a strange one – liked the thought of traffic and crowds, of working in a bookstore, waiting tables in a coffee shop, who knew what kind of odd, solitary life I might slip into? Meals alone, walking the dogs in the evenings, and nobody knowing who I was.

What a romantic idea. I wanted to move to the big smoke and become a painter and work in a bookshop. LIVING THE DREAM. What a newb I was, both at cities and at working in bookshops.

But I made the big move to the Outer-Inner West of Sydney and I painted – if, by painting, I mean set up a little studio at our new urban flat and then procrastinated and, instead of painting, spent great swathes of time watching Six Feet Under (I had a lot to catch up on and it was very important that I did) and getting slightly (understandably) depressed. I didn’t have a job at first. For only, like, a few weeks, but at the time it was long enough to feel like I was chronically unemployed and unemployable, only boasting skills such as daydreaming and dabbling, and mostly only good for plonking down for a few hours in front of HBO’s most favourite funeral parlour family ever to grace our TVs.

But in reality I landed my dream bookshop job pretty quickly. The interview consisted of me, wide-eyed, sitting with the very poised bookshop manager in the food court that butted up against the shop, answering a handful of very easy questions about my employment experience – me thinking Wow, this is amaazing!, her thinking Wow, this overqualified person would be great as basically a second manager who I only have to pay as a retail assistant!

And then, suddenly, I  had my dream job. Well, my new dream job. Discounted books! Witty repartee with colleagues and customers! Reading and reading and yet more reading. Reading at work. Amazing author events. Meeting some of my heroes. Those are things that mostly didn’t happen.

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An absolutely beautiful bookshop. At which I did not work.

This is what mostly happened:

  • I learnt how to use retail software, a book database, Eftpos and a pricing gun. Look out, world!
  • I vacuumed. (An unwelcome surprise, as I’d recently been an ‘accommodation assistant’ in an Irish hotel; when I left that job I’d thought if I ever saw another vacuum cleaner again I’d set it on fire and kick it out into the street.)
  • Balancing the books at the end of the day. (Me, doing accounts. How did that happen and how did anyone trust me with maths and, in turn, their business?)
  • Asking a hundred times a day, ‘Is that on credit?’
  • Telling many, many customers that we didn’t have that book they wanted but we could order it in. (Or they could go to nearby Kmart and get it 20% cheaper, is something I didn’t say. Unless my boss had annoyed me.) Like we were basically a hole in the wall where you could order books online. ‘Cos we kinda were.
  • Telling teenage girls that sorry, we’d run out of Twilight again but were ordering more copies in asap. ASAP. ASAP I promise, god!
  • Hearing ‘What do you feel like, what do you feel like, feel like a king, Donut Kiiiiing?!!’ piped into the shopping centre over and over to the point where hell yeah, I decided I was the Donut King.
  • ‘I’m looking for a book. Oh, what was it called? I don’t know who it was by. All I know is it was on Oprah.’
  • Watching events of Shakespearean proportions unfold in the foodcourt.
  • Starting to feel like I was going dyslexic or mad from poisons pumped through the terrible air con. Fearing Legionnaires’ disease like it was 1989.
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Sadly, we did not have a handsome book cat.
  • Unpacking endless boxes of books until I started hallucinating about diving into the styrofoam packaging and swimming through it to Narnia.
  • Being a captive audience for local colourful characters who had interesting ideas about the lack of sex in the Harry Potter books (!), or who ran laps of the bookshop while coming down off their drug of choice, or who hid from their wife behind the shelves as she roamed the food court, calling his name.
  • Staring down would-be shoplifters (yep, that’s a bit rich for me).
  • Needing to go to the toilet the minute my manager left for the day. And then having to look after the shop another two hours. On my own.
  • Having two four-year-old girls feel sorry for me and come and help me pack up the sales tables at the end of the day. (Okay, that was pretty cute.)

You might be thinking, so what you’re saying is dream jobs are a total waste of time and impossible to achieve and why bother? Okay, it turned out it wasn’t quite a dream but I don’t regret it at all. I’d say to you that if you want to pursue a dream job, you should do it as soon as possible. Only months after I left the bookshop, the GFC hit – the shop was sold and last I saw had become a bargain basement clothing shop of the worst kind. That whole suburb is now lacking a bookshop. There are currently around 200 less ‘bricks and mortar’ bookshops in Australia than when I was recommending The Time Traveller’s Wife to every second person to tread our worn but beautifully vacuumed carpet. If I hadn’t had that dream job then, I might never have at all.

I read the most books in those eighteen months that I think I’ve ever read (though sadly not at work). In amongst all the banal chitchat about Oprah books and undeserved bestsellers and . . . Twilight . . . there were numerous book recommendations made and received, and much appreciated. I met several local authors who were customers, I got to help out at author events; hell, I had my photo taken with the Cat in the Hat. And, in the end, that job led me semi-directly into a career in book publishing.

Also, I could visit the Donut King whenever I wanted. For my inner fifteen-year-old, it really was a dream job come true.