On Mykonos

Alexander Clapp

The hotel where I worked was called the Mykonos Grace. It was a whitewashed stucco building of 32 rooms. Most went for hundreds of euros a night – around what each of the staff made in a month. The cheapest rooms were at street level. An angry French couple once uploaded a video to TripAdvisor of every truck that rumbled past their room over the course of an afternoon. Rooms on the second floor had outdoor jacuzzis. ‘Not just the wine corks,’ our manager, Kostas, who moved in a cloud of cologne, told me on my first day. He solemnly handed me a small aquarium net. ‘You must also capture the foreign liquids.’ The third floor had a restaurant, a pool and a library stacked with crinkled paperbacks and copies of the Herald Tribune. From the bar we served the Grace Cocktail, a pink vodka martini which smelled of detergent. The honeymoon deluxe suite spanned the fourth floor. We were instructed never to take the lift. Grace management believed it was best for the bellboys to have tharros, ‘courage’ – to charge with the bags up the stairs, and arrive at the guests’ rooms panting.

We, the helots of the Grace, were a floating population. Basil, a Macedonian, drove the hotel van. Dejan, a Bulgarian, chopped vegetables and scooped ice in a pantry that doubled as the staff smoking lounge. They shared a room in our communal flats up the hill from the hotel. Half-eaten pastries taken from the kitchen combined with the drip of the air conditioner to form a yeasty threshold to their cement-block room. Dejan said he was using the Grace as an entrée to the corporate world. When he’d proven his abilities chopping vegetables and scooping ice, the Grace’s owners would see his potential, offer him a place on one of their ships, or perhaps even a desk job in London. Basil was more withdrawn and self-possessed. He seemed to have independent dealings on Mykonos.

Radu, the barista, was our resident artist. He had hitchhiked to Thessaloniki after deserting from the Romanian army when Ceaușescu fell. He got a tattoo of a black star on his throat after he landed a summer job at his first resort on Crete. He’d worked at half a dozen hotels in the Aegean. Radu could sniff coffee beans and tell you which continent they came from. He could trickle steamed milk into a cappuccino in the shape of a shining sun – the Grace’s logo. He couldn’t return to Bucharest. The rest of the year he spent in Corfu, where he had a Greek wife and poured his summer tips into accessories for his bright red lawnmower.

The ‘skilled’ employees of the Grace – anyone with a speaking role – were Greeks. Aris, the night concierge, had been there for six years. In the winter he worked the desk of the Evripides Hotel in Athens. His skin was lunar grey. ‘Dracula needs to be fired,’ a guest had written on a comments form I once saw on Kostas’s desk.

For the month of June I was assigned to the squadron of Albanian maids who changed beds and cleaned rooms. We entered the rooms with baskets of cleaning supplies. Two tore the sheets off the bed, another bolted to the bathroom with Klinex and a mop, another watered the plants and tidied up the dresses and sports coats in the closet. I restocked the mini-fridge, replaced any missing shampoos and then made for the jacuzzi with my net. The head housemaid, an old Greek woman we called Kuria (‘Madame’), then inspected our work. ‘Bed! Bathroom! Jacuzzi!’ Madame’s pen wiggled across her clipboard. ‘Next!’ We exited the door in a column of six. Each room took about ten minutes, and all 32 took four hours, by which time many of the guests had returned, burned out, from the beach.

Patrons of the Grace mostly came from the other Europe. After a while I could spot them by their luggage. Brits went for canvas or leather bags. The French and Germans favoured boxy fibreglass suitcases that are hard to move but stack well. Americans had big bags on wheels; one day a family of Arizonans showed up with golf clubs quivered in a star-spangled dolly. ‘What do you mean there’s no golf course on Mykonos?’ We were never to speak with the guests – just to exhibit philoxenia, ‘hospitality’. Of course we all talked to guests whenever we could. Periodically Radu would claim to have seduced a wife. ‘The star drives them wild!’ After taking up the bags of Walter Robb, the CEO of Whole Foods, I was offered a job bagging groceries in Oregon.

Many of the guests were on an ersatzlatter-day Grand Tour. They came in on giant car ferries, with names like Ithaki and Prometheus. When they arrived they would find us standing in starchy loose linen shirts meant to resemble ancient togas, as we mopped stairs and scrubbed water stains out of champagne flutes. Christina at the desk chartered sailboats to Delos, ‘the birthplace of Apollo’, or arranged snorkelling trips over old shipwrecks. Welcome cards included bits of bogus trivia: the ancient Greeks worshipped the sun. Our breakfast buffet was a catalogue of exoticised basics: ‘Honey from the hills of Thrace’, ‘Nuts from Aegina’. Most of these had been picked up by Basil at the Carrefour in Mykonos harbour.

We all gathered together as a staff only once. It was a day in late June, when our CEO flew in from London to address us. We were instructed to wear our togas and file into an empty suite. Even Aris of the night desk showed up. The CEO spoke in English, which was translated into Greek, then into the other languages spoken among the ranks. ‘Grace will crush Cavo Tagoo,’ the CEO said, screwing his fist into his palm. The Cavo Tagoo was the rival hotel across the bay from the Grace; every room at the Tagoo had a private jacuzzi. ‘And our strength? You, the Grace staff. The finest hoteliers on Mykonos.’ It had never felt this way, though. At an abandoned hotel down the street we met with the workers from the Tagoo and its rivals. ‘They make us wear togas,’ I said. ‘Try serving brunch in gladiator sandals,’ one of the Tagoo waiters shot back.

In August Condoleezza Rice stayed a night at the Grace. Weeks beforehand I was summoned to Kostas’s office and asked about her visit. ‘She may want Dr Pepper,’ I said. A six-pack was despatched from Athens. We agreed against having the Herald Tribune delivered to her room in the morning; Isis was making major gains. The staff looked forward to her visit though few knew exactly what she did. The Albanian maids wanted to know which wars she’d started. The morning of her arrival we perfected our greeting ceremony. Local bouncers were hired for security; a Saudi family was moved from her floor. Late in the afternoon Condi stepped out of a black SUV. I handed her a glass of complimentary champagne and took her bags to the third floor. Pandemonium among the staff continued at breakfast the next morning. The cooks whipped up an array of sausages and pies and eggs. They put on their aprons and chef’s hats and paraded the buffet out to her poolside table. She ate a few pieces of unbuttered toast, then left.

It has been said that coal mines made good schools for social upheaval. Eight hundred feet underground, with no supervision or surveillance, miners could say what they thought, make collective decisions, and had long hours – sometimes days – to plot. You might think that hotels would be even better. In a hotel all the vulnerabilities of your economic betters are laid out before you in full view. The made-up couch of the spouse who left the bed; the drugs lined up next to the toothbrush; the weeping behind the door; the human mess around the room. And there’s tinder everywhere to fire resentments. Wasn’t Ho Chi Minh working on the staff of the Paris Ritz when his petition for independence was ignored at Versailles by Woodrow Wilson?

The institution already existing in parallel to the state to be seized on Mykonos was not the church, or the military: it was the hotels. Radu calculated that there were seven thousand service employees on the island. The island radio station, Venus 99.3, could easily be seized by a few cooks with frying pans. Once the call to arms had been transmitted, the mobilisation of the hoteliers could begin. Concierges, who knew the territory, could rapidly dismantle the apparatuses of state power: the naval lifeboats tethered to the docks, the shacks that housed the island’s police, the first-aid stands on the beaches. Ransoms of guests taken hostage by maids in their rooms would finance the movement. Our brothers and sisters at the Tagoo could join us in mounting Profitis Ilias, where we’d hoist up the flag of the People’s Republic of Hoteliers. It was not the sort of thing Syriza had in mind, but they would pause before crushing us. Such fantasies were easier to sustain before the rest of Europe set about crushing the whole of Greece. It all seemed less a problem of means than of will. Most of us didn’t despise our guests enough, and so many of them were nice people. Such nice people. Their superiority, and the niceness that issued from it, was the natural order of things. I took it as a worrying sign when I noticed myself taking small pleasures in our cockroach view of the world.