I rounded the corner and stopped, astonished at the sight in front of me. Fluttering flags and hand-written placards blocked the street ahead. I wondered if I had stumbled upon a very local festival, Italians love their festivals, but already I suspected something more sinister. It had all the hallmarks of a protest.
I gathered up my belongings and carried on. The protesters blocked the entrance to my hotel. Sprawled on sun beds and plastic chairs they smirked at me that no one was working in the hotel as all the staff were outside. I skirted round them and went through the open glass door into the reception area. Inside there were two people in Hansel and Gretel outfits, one was mopping the floor and the other was behind the desk. Both seemed surprised to see me.
I introduced myself as the tour manager responsible for a group of twenty people arriving that evening and asked what was happening outside. I was assured that the events outside would not affect our stay in the hotel. I was not convinced and after checking in I called our local agent to ask if they were aware of the situation.
Listening to the phone ringing at the other end I thought about my day so far. It had started so well. I had breakfasted watching small white clouds scudding around the majestic peaks of the Dolomite Mountains where I had been hosting some ski groups. I caught the local bus to Desenzano on Lake Garda to host a group for Easter. The sun was shining and the water sparkling in the lake enhanced my excitement at the prospect of exploring this popular town. I loved my job as a holiday rep.
When my call was answered the response was brief and unsympathetic – it was Good Friday, the office was closing for the holiday and any problems would have to wait until Tuesday. I was stuttering that I did not think this particular problem could wait when the phone went dead. I called back but a disembodied voice informed me that the office was now closed. Sensing impending disaster I called my boss but it seemed England had also closed for Easter, including our emergency number. I left a message about the strike.
My mind was in turmoil as I wandered around the town envious of the carefree holidaymakers soaking up the sun and an Aperol spritz outside the lively bars lining the waterfront. What should I do if the pickets were still there when I returned to the hotel? Reluctantly I re-traced my steps and they were still there. Now I had to work out an explanation for my guests and then I had to decide when to tell them. I chatted animatedly to them throughout the short transfer to our hotel assuring them they were about to enjoy an Easter break to remember. My heart was thudding in my chest as we turned the corner. I was relieved to see an empty road ahead. There was no need to say anything.
As Gretel struggled with the checking system she whispered to me that dinner would have to be delayed as the waitresses had not yet arrived. The lack of cooking smells led me to suspect that our meal had not arrived either and a glimpse into the kitchen confirmed my worst fears – it was empty and no pans were bubbling on the stoves. I knew our hotel was one of a family-owned chain and suspected our meal was being cooked or scavenged in another kitchen.
We were all gathered in the bar when two young ladies tottered into reception on six inch heels sporting skirts that were not much longer. Their plunging necklines had all my male guests gawping at them. They headed for the bar but were turned back by the bar man and ushered into the restaurant. A few minutes later we too were summoned to the restaurant where plates of tepid tomato pasta were plonked in front of us with the aplomb of someone who considered waiting on tables was beneath them. Two small pieces of boiled chicken accompanied by a bowl of lettuce leaves did nothing to lighten the mood. It was time to take action and I asked for the manager. I was told he was not available – he had sacked all the staff and then disappeared. When I took photographs of our meal a stern, suited gentleman appeared and introduced himself as the director. I listed my concerns and he promised that it would be better the next day.
I hoped we would not be there the next day as I was expecting my company would move us to another hotel. My clients were of the same opinion. Fortunately they were happy with all other aspects of the hotel and in particular the service in the bar. Generous measures and a failure to charge for them were having a very mellowing effect. A concerned guest pointed this out to me and I felt obliged to inform Gretel. She shrugged and said that the ‘big boss’ would be there by the following morning and everything would be fine.
Fresh coffee and warm croissants cheered everyone up the next morning at breakfast including me and I allowed myself to think the crisis had been averted. Then a convoy drawing up outside – the pickets were back. My group watched curiously before turning to me for an explanation. Most of them were philosophical about the situation and some even saw the funny side of it. Meanwhile Hansel, now sporting a monogrammed white jacket, scurried around serving coffee and refilling the breakfast buffet while our two ‘waitresses’ lounged on the sun terrace drinking coffee.
Fortified by the promise of a good meal that evening with wine included (my suggestion) our thoughts turned to our excursion around the lake. As we waited for our bus the pickets appealed for our support. I was surprised my guests did not point out that their action was spoiling their holiday. Instead they were soon conversing like old friends.
As we headed for Bardolino it soon became clear the crisis at the hotel was not far from their minds and the first question for our guide was did she know what was on the menu for dinner evening. Confidently I promised to find out. It should have taken one call from my mobile but it took several. In response to my first call I was told the chef had not arrived. My second call resulted in the news that the chef had gone shopping. The third time I called I was told that the director had to okay the menu but he was in a meeting with the protestors. I began to smell a rat, or rather veal, as I had specifically requested that veal was not on the menu as it was not popular with British tourists.
My companions were becoming suspicious and constantly asking if I had any news. They were so persistent that I went into hiding while the group strolled along the wide promenade at Bardolino. I was a sitting target in the bus when we moved on to Sirmione. I made a big show of calling the hotel again and this time I got an answer – the main course would be veal. There was uproar as several people refused to entertain the notion of eating teenage cows and demanded a second choice. Three more calls and two hours lurking in shady alleys in the delightful town of Sirmione and I was informed that the main course would be scaloppini. From my experience of Italian cuisine I knew that scaloppini was a style of cooking and generally related to veal. I suspected someone thought they were being very clever. Determined to keep that knowledge to myself I gave everyone the slip in Lazise and strolled around the outskirts of this pretty walled town.
That evening the meal was so badly cooked the meat defied identification but the wine went down well. The loudest protestors went out for dinner muttering that they would expect to be reimbursed for their meal. It was a reasonable request but I could make no promises and said so. I redistributed their wine amongst the group before the hotel could reclaim it. I felt I was getting off lightly as the group were clearly more interested in having a good holiday than making my life miserable – I was doing a good job of that myself. There had been no contact from my office and I felt very alone.
Easter day dawned without recognition in our hotel and no fresh coffee for breakfast as the machine had broken down. This was not the only casualty. The lack of staff was becoming increasingly apparent in my growing list of locked safety deposit boxes, doors falling off showers, dirty rooms and telephones not working. I reported all these problems to Gretel who shrugged and said it was Easter and nothing could be done. We lined up at the bar for some coffee and when it became clear we were expected to pay for this coffee I demanded to see the boss. He had arrived in the early hours the previous day but had been unavailable as he was catching up on his sleep. It had been difficult to identify him and his two brothers as they looked, and behaved like guests in the hotel. He agreed to waive the charge for coffee at breakfast but this generosity was limited to one hot drink per person.
That day we all went to Verona. I was grateful that my companions were able to put aside the problems at the hotel and concentrate on enjoying this beautiful city. We had a guided tour of the main sites and after that I organised lunch in a nice restaurant for lunch and took them round the castle before showing them the best shops. Normally I would have sent them off to enjoy some free time and then treated myself to a coffee but this trip was far from normal.
It had been such a lovely day out most people decided not to spoil it by risking another bad meal at our hotel and to eat in Desenzano instead. I was hoping to join them but two people protested that they had paid to eat in the hotel and they were not going to pay again. Company policy dictated that I should join them. I hoped the food would be edible. My wish was granted and it was surprisingly good but I was not left in peace to enjoy it. I was summoned to speak to the boss and ordered to explain the absence of eighteen guests. I patiently went through the many reasons why eating in his restaurant did not appeal to them. After dinner the group was re-united and we sat outside on the patio. The barman and the two waitresses were also there and I had keep asking them to come inside to serve guests waiting at the bar.
Some people had an early start the next morning so I requested an early breakfast. My request was refused. After another battle with the boss he offered them a cup coffee from the bar. It was an empty gesture as the breakfast waiter overslept and they were still trying to rouse him an hour after my guests had departed for Venice. The stalwart Hansel had returned to his own hotel and the barman was in charge of breakfast. I had been up early to make sure my guests got away on time. When I went back downstairs at seven thirty Gretel was polishing the glass doors but breakfast was not ready. When I pointed this out to Gretel she said had I ordered it. I said no and indicated the sign that said breakfast was served from seven thirty to ten. I sat down at our empty table and listened to Gretel frantically dialing numbers and getting no response. The rest of the group had decided to have a late start and by the time they arrived a very grumpy barman had dragged himself into the restaurant and everything was set out. One crisis averted but another one loomed.
To tempt the group to eat in the hotel that evening I had been told that menus would be provided at breakfast so choices could be made. Just after the last person had left I was given the menus. When I said it was too late and that I had been promised the menus early the response was that it was early. The boss himself stormed into the restaurant and began shouting at me. He felt he was doing more than enough to please my guests and did not appreciate my comment that it was too little too late. My relationship with him, which had started reasonably well, had deteriorated alarmingly and I had noticed that whenever I was in the hotel I had a shadow – the gentleman who had said he was the director the first evening.
Tuesday arrived and so did our local agent – five days too late, but I had survived. We met in the bar. My group was aware that I was negotiating on their behalf and kept their distance. The boss had agreed to join us but there was no sign of him. An hour later he summoned my colleague to his office but told me to stay in the bar leaving me free to watch another drama unfolding. My guests were paying their bills and every bill was exactly six Euros. Some protested that they had not bought anything and others demanded receipts. It was uproar as Gretel was unable to deal with either request and became very flustered and eventually appealed to the boss for help. He stormed into reception and cancelled some bills and roared that the receipts would be posted to everyone else.
Our agent seized the opportunity to escape from his office and re-join me in the bar. I sensed I had her sympathy and took the opportunity to ask her if she could find me another hotel for the night. I had been due to stay an extra night after the group left that afternoon but the idea no longer appealed. I was surprised when she agreed immediately and I raced upstairs and packed my bags just in time to load them on to our transfer bus. After checking the group in at the airport the driver took me to my hotel.
As I settled into my room already my experience seemed like a bad dream. Indeed my boss later confessed that my message had never been taken seriously. Such things never happened to their holiday reps. However, the feedback forms provided the proof and everyone was refunded the cost of four dinners. Except me, for me it was all in a day’s work.
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