Have you ever overheard a snatch of conversation, only to realise its significance later? It happened to me just yesterday, as my friend and I were booking into a hotel in a charming town on Lake Como. It’s not far from George Clooney’s summer villa, but that’s the subject of another story altogether.
As we walked through the bustling lobby, a woman said to her husband in a deep English country burr, “…Faulty Towers…” I thought they were talking about the TV series, starring the inimitable John Cleese. Turns out they were, but not quite in the way I imagined.
Five star hotels usually have porters to take your luggage. But maybe the hotel was so busy they were elsewhere engaged? Quite possibly as a large tour bus of English tourists had arrived. But no, there was no porter to help the many elderly folk lug their suitcases up the steep stairs leading to reception. One, a beautifully groomed lady of at least seventy, valiantly heaved her portmanteau up the stairs in front of her. I hoped it wouldn’t topple, as its weight would flatten her to a stylishly garbed cardboard cutout.
Being independent girls, we decided to take our cases up ourselves, to our luxury lake view room complete with twin beds. Only one problem – the room was so tiny the beds were pushed together as tight as Fiat Bambinas parked in the Duomo Piazza in Milan – and they couldn’t be uncoupled because the room wasn’t big enough. It was so tiny there wasn’t room to lay down our two suitcases, and the wardrobe wasn’t big enough to stow them in. The only place they’d fit? On the bed. But that left a slight problem. Where would we sleep?
Showering might be a problem too. The bathroom wasn’t big enough to shake a rat in, and I’m thinking of entering it into the Guiness Book of Records for the smallest convenience in the world. The shower was on the back wall of the bathroom, and you could turn the tap on from the door by leaning across the toilet which was in front of it. I wasn’t sure how you would wash your hair, as the shower cubicle was so snug it would be hard to lift your elbows to do so. Or dry yourself after showering, if that’s something you like to do.
The one upside of the room was it would be easy to visit friends on the level below, as the floor boards were falling though. You could tie sheets together, tie them to the end of the bed, and abseil straight down into their room, saving half an hour from using the creaky old elevator. The wonky floor also provided a navigable path for the army of ants swarming to their nest between floors.
That first evening my friend and I took a stroll down the narrow winding road that hugs the lake, taking in the proud weather-battered facades of apartments that stand by side with grand villas. Their formal, manicured lawns beckon you to rip off your shoes and run across them, feeling the twenty million Euro lush lawns between your toes. The desire to look through these villas and gardens is so strong I can almost taste it, but then all the senses are deliciously flooded here in this Italian paradise.
As we take in the sunset across the mountains, the colours remind me of the sweets I loved as a child – Parma violets, raspberry jellies, lemon sours and soft black liquorice. The last warming rays of the sun burnish the skin, and then, as light fades into dark, a light breeze offers respite from the heat of the afternoon. The lake thwacks against the moss-washed stone walls protecting its shore and the yachtspars dance in the breeze and accompany this rhythm, their glass-like sound reminding me of the percussion section of an orchestra, drunk on Chianta and the joy of living in bella Como.
Back to our room and the logistics of how to shower. There is no shower gel or shampoo, and even if there were, there are no towels to dry yourself. No problemo – I ring room service and after a halting conversation with the receptionist (my Italian is no better than his English), he comes up to our room, proferring the essentials, his shaggy eyebrows drawn together in a taciturn frown. It’s too late to bother him, he tells me, and I wonder if he would have offered that advice had I been a man. Only after he left did I realise there were no cases for the spare pillows, nor a cover for the only duvet, but I am too uncomfortable about facing Eyebrows to phone him back again.
At this point I ruminate on what a total five star girl I am.
But wait – didn’t I book a five star hotel?
Is the hotel rating system different here in Italy? Had I had one too many vinos when I booked the hotel? Or perhaps they’re having a bad day, the male receptionist is in training, and things will get better? I’m an optimistist, and the most important thing is I’m here in stupendous Italia. And as Scarlett O’Hara would say: tomorrow is another day.
I shower, wishing the towels were thick, soft and large. And what are the linen tea towels he has given me? There is no bottled water in the room, which is a shame, because at check-in the receptionist advised the minerals in the tap water have a laxative effect on those not used to it. There are no glasses, so the linen tea towels aren’t for drying them. Perhaps they are up-market bum wipes, for use after availing yourself of the bidet? I fervently hope the hotel’s laundry is more efficient than the rest of its service offering. I throw them on the floor – I don’t want to take any chances.
Within five minutes of showering, sweat is rolling off me, and I tackle the failing air conditioning. It doesn’t work (well) but the hotel Gods are smiling on me and there is a fan. I turn it on, and its blades hum and rotate for all of a minute before falling to silence, oppressive and hot. Maybe I can phone Eyebrows for help? Maybe not.
I go back to the aircon and fiddle some more. I’m sure the symbols are universal, but they don’t make sense. Finally, there is a trickle of cool air and I go to bed, craving sleep and excited for the day ahead.
I wake to the sound of rain. I fumble for my phone (no clock in the room) and switch it on. Hopefully it’s still night, and the weather will clear by morning. I get out of bed for a quick bathroom break, my brain befuddled from sleep and Prosecco. I don’t want to turn on the light and wake my friend, so I stand still, trying to get my bearings, which should be uncessessay in a room of this size. A step to the left, and then–
It’s raining on me.
And my feet are wet. As wet as if I was paddling in the waters of Como.
I turn on the light, and discover a torrent of water cascading from ceiling. Is it a flood from the bathroom above? No, we’re on the top floor. Rain leaking through the roof? Not unlikely as a close examination of the ceiling reveals previous water stains. But further examination concludes the culprit is the air conditioning discharge in the ceiling panel. I think about phoning Eyebrows but the inclement rain is preferable to his admonishments. As I put the wastebasket under the discharge to catch the rain, I pray this water doesn’t have a laxative effect.
I return to bed, thinking again about my penchant for five star establishments. And I come to one conclusion.
If this hotel is five star, I’m Paris Hilton.