It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nine years of expensive schooling at one of Britain’s leading boarding schools, a school which had spawned literary greats such as Arthur Conan Doyle and military heroes with seven Victoria Crosses between them, should have led to better results. And yet, here I was twelve months later, dressed in a white lab coat, cleaning seventeen toilets a day, the only male chambermaid in a four-star hotel in an exclusive part of Munich.
It had all started out with such high expectation, as always. The lure of high-paying manual jobs for English and Irish students had persuaded my best friend Adrian and I to head out in search of untold wealth; the rumour was they were paying £10 an hour, cash.
An Introduction to Chambermaiding
Not for the last time in my life, I was cut short in my prime on the verge of financial greatness, this time by a security guard, who informed us that we were ill-informed and there were no jobs. Brilliant. With enough beer money to last the week and no plan B, it was time to for the alternative plan, over a beer. We headed to the British Consul to see if they had any leads.
“The Hotel Sheraton told us they are looking for chambermaids,” an officious bespectacled bureaucrat told us curtly from behind the glass barrier. Thinking we had finally discovered some German humour, we smirked and waited for her to get real. She already had.
Chambermaids. Wow! We retreated for another beer, teasing each other about how gay they would look in a maid’s outfit before we sank our pints, swallowed our pride and took the U-Bahn to Arabellapark.
Five-Star Accommodation with Hairy Italians
We were taken on immediately, and it was not too bad; there were dozens of other English and Irish chambermaids of both sexes, and we settled in to the routine of sheet changing, toilet cleaning and looking under the pillows for non-existent tips. Our light brown uniform was smart, and we even had some accommodation thrown in, one of the hotel rooms on the fourth floor, which we had to share with two hairy Italian male chambermaids.
All was going well and, while I would not have chosen chambermaiding as a career when interviewed by the Careers Officer a year earlier, free accommodation in a five-star hotel was infinitely better than the illegal camping in a leaky tent that had been our home before starting our new career. There were some good laughs with fellow student chambermaids working for the summer, and all was going well.
Until they moved us.
We had been put in the guest room as a temporary measure as the staff accommodation was full. To be very fair to the hotel, they had told us that we might have to vacate at very short notice, but we were a little surprised to be told that our things had been moved to a conference room, where we would be sleeping until further notice. We went to check our stuff, which had been casually tossed in the far corner by whoever had been allocated to move our things. Adrian’s baseball boots had not made the short journey, and he headed to the housekeeping office to complain.
The Python in a Luxury Hotel
“Where are my baseball boots?” he demanded. “They are not with my things.” The two German housekeepers shrugged and continued with their paperwork – just another temporary worker and not worth the time.
“So you don’t care about my boots?” Indifference. “Perhaps you might care about the open box with my things?” Indifference with a hint of puzzled curiosity. “The one with my pet snake in it. But you probably don’t care about that either.” And with that, he exited the room, leaving me facing some decidedly terrified Teutonic faces.
“Did he say he has lost a snake?”
"Pete the Python? Very friendly chap, doesn't bite… I don't think. Tell you what, I will leave a note on the board in English and German asking anyone who sees a snake to come and find me on the fourteenth floor, or Ade on the fifteenth." I was doing battle with a particularly stubborn toilet stain several minutes later when three housekeepers entered the bathroom in sombre mood. They wanted to know if the snake had surfaced. Not sensing their genuine panic, I replied that, although he was quite intelligent, there was no way that Pete would know which floor we were on. Seeing then that they were in no mood for joking, I reminded them that it was not my snake and they should really talk to Ade. They marched off and the next thing I heard was the sound of footsteps pounding the corridor carpet. A flustered Ade appeared, out of breath, red, half-laughing, half-panicking:
A Friend in Need...
"They have closed the kitchen. They are just about to close reception and then call the zoo for help. What are we going to do? If we tell the truth, we will be fired, if we keep pretending, this could be real trouble, although, I grant you, highly entertaining." Always one to support a friend in crisis, the only possible reply was:
"What's all this ' we' business? It's your snake." He traipsed off, deciding to uphold his public school virtues of honesty and taking responsibility. Highly laudable, except that we found ourselves living on the street that night, two failed toilet cleaners with three deutschemarks between us.
We parted ways, he back to England and ultimately a highly successful career in consulting, I back to the campsite to try and make another plan. My illegal tent was soon discovered and I was thrown off the site, but not before someone had stolen my only pair of shoes the night before. Penniless, jobless, shoeless, I headed for the train station where I got a reasonable night’s sleep.
A fellow chambermaid agreed to lend me a small amount of cash until I could get back on my feet, and we agreed to meet for a beer. I sat on a bench outside the hotel waiting for Andy’s shift to finish, tanning my toes in the afternoon sun.
A Chance Encounter
A middle-aged man in expensive suit sat down next to me and said hello in English. I nodded.
“May I ask why you are not wearing shoes?”
“Because it is Wednesday,” I replied. I really didn’t feel like getting hit on by some rich old German.
“That’s funny. Please, tell me, I am very curious.” I looked at him, clean-shaven, obviously successful and speaking perfect English in an almost flawless American accent. Ah what the hell, Andy wasn’t due for another 20 minutes, and we were in a very public place. I told him the snake story and he laughed hysterically. And laughed. And laughed.
“It was not that funny.”
“Oh but it was. You don’t know who I am do you?” and he reached for his business card. Managing Director of the four-star hotel across the road.
This was getting interesting, perhaps a job, something. He asked me where I was sleeping and looked genuinely horrified when I told him about the station, more so about the lack of shoes, money and general direction in life. He had to go, but said that he would be back in 30 minutes and then would take me for a meal and a beer, and I was welcome to stay at his apartment until I got myself on my feet. There was even a job if I wanted it; all his chambermaids were female, but if the Sheraton could employ males, so could he. And he laughed again.
“I am not gay, if that is what this is all about.” More laughter.
“I am not either, I just want to help you. You have really made me laugh today and you seem like a nice guy.”
“Well I have your card if you try anything. Ok, see you in 30.” True to his word, he appeared on cue (I had seen Andy briefly in the interim) and we headed off to a pleasant Italian for my first decent meal in days. We must have looked quite a pair, he the well-known managing director, I the barefoot backpacker. I had a bath and he even gave me pyjamas and I fell into deep sleep.
In the morning he woke me, again sharply dressed, and gave me a key, as well as money to buy some shoes and the name of the head housekeeper.
A Toilet Cleaner Once More
“Tell her I sent you, and you will start tomorrow. But please, buy the shoes before you meet her!”
Life was looking up once more. My uniform, a white lab coat, black trousers and shoes (both paid for by the boss) made me look more like a doctor than a cleaner, but I went about my job efficiently, engaging a little with my older female colleagues from Poland, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Morocco. I even found a place to live, renting a small room in an apartment of a dotty 77 year-old lady. With a rent of 210 marks a month and a salary of 1800, life was good once more.
My morning routine would invariably involve waking up late with a hangover and then rushing to the U-Bahn and arriving just in time. I rarely put my contact lenses in before departure as, although I am almost blind without them, it was a gentler introduction to the day. I would bend down over the housekeeping counter to find my list of rooms and keys, then retire to my ‘office’ and rehydrate with sparkling water and a ton of the complimentary chocolates. Only then would I insert my lenses and let the working day begin. It was a system which worked well, as long as I had remembered to put the lenses in the neutralising solution the night before.
Advice for the Partially Sighted
“Ow,” I screamed to nobody in particular as the acid on the lens made contact with my eye. Lots of water, the stinging sensation subsided eventually, leaving me with a very red eye.
And very blind.
My glasses were at home as usual and, as the pain subsided, the realisation that I would have to clean seventeen rooms blind set in. Time for more chocolate. On reflection, however, how difficult could it be? I would change the sheets, vacuum everywhere and clean the bathroom and toilets – I didn’t really need to see if I was doing a thorough job. I relaxed and opened another chocolate.
The protocol for entering rooms in the morning was simple: look first for rooms with the green ‘Please Clean Now’ sign – there were none; then peer through the keyholes and see if any curtains were drawn back (there were none, my eyes able to detect light); and if all else failed, choose a victim, knock once, knock twice, open the door with the master key and announce one’s arrival with a cheery “Housekeeping.”
Dispelling the Hot Chambermaid Fantasy
In my defence, I followed hotel protocol to the letter. There was no life in the room, no luggage that I could see (I had forgotten that I couldn’t see) and I crouched towards the bed, squinting to make sure there was nobody in the bed. It was empty, the large duvet a discarded heap in the middle. As I was wont to do on occasion to inject some energy into my shift, I elaborately pulled the duvet into the air.
I am not sure who was the more surprised.
The duvet removed, I did not need 20/20 vision to realise there was a naked man shrieking in front of me, having been rudely awakened by a fat Englishman in a lab coat. From his side, any lingering fantasy of being jumped on by a hot chambermaid had surely been dispelled, as he looked up to see a mad foreigner resembling a doctor holding his duvet.
I panicked. He panicked. I panicked more, fleeing the room without uttering a word, duvet still in hand. Retreating to the safety of the office, I sat there for a full hour, fully expecting the sack. It never came, but then there was no 2 DM tip under the pillow in room 2106 either.
I have never been to work without glasses since.