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From the Hot Sands of Saudi to the Snows of Vail

Well, China postponed, so back to the US and one last project for 2008: after 120 degrees in the Saudi desert, snow in Vail is a welcome change. But first a pit stop in Denver with a family whom I have never met before and whom I had had the insensitivity to want to meet on Thanksgiving eve to discuss business. «No, come and stay the night.» With business colleagues like this, who needs friends? I did stay the night, we jam in a meeting over dinner, I tell Kelly her laying of the table was spot-on for the next day’s feast (she was nervous, you see, about a «Butler Emeritus» seeing her handiwork up close); Mike and I chat on the way back to the airport and agree to move forward. See It’s actually very exciting, as The Society coordinates and services the owners of over 5,000 holiday rental villas around the world, and we will be providing those clients who want it, with the invisible, anticipatory service characteristic of the butler.Here is the McFadden family a few days later, celebrating some special news.

The trip to Vail takes almost three hours, starting at about 5,000 ft in Denver and arriving at about 8,500 feet.

The Arrabelle at Vail Square sits right at the bottom of the ski lift and a short way from cross-country trails.

The butlers all dress in what I seem to recall as Swiss ski wear from the Sixties and the hotel is mocked up as a Swiss Ski lodge.

What I love is the fireplace in my suite, the heated bathroom floor, and limitless cups of complementary hot chocolate brought by the butlers. Second to that have been the ready smiles of the butlers, whom I had trained in the summer, and who are as glad to see me as I they. Apparently they have been doing very well over the last half-year since opening, offering superior service the likes of which visitors to Vail are not accustomed. These butlers are actually all ski-aholics, so they indulge in their passion for the slopes when not indulging in their passion for service.

I did crack out my Helle Hanson ski suit ($415 on sale fifteen years ago and worn just 5 times before I moved to Florida) and packed it ever hopeful of snow. Luckily, the cycle of fashion has just come full circle, and my style of suit is once again on the cutting edge. One hard day of skiing and I spend the rest of the week letting the knees recover, so the Helle Hanson adorns the back of the closet once again. It was very useful for the butlers to practice their packing skills, though.

The second round of butlers being trained prove themselves to be as sharp in class as on the slopes, so we have made good progress and, as always, I am reluctant to leave their company, doubly so as their boss, Kathleen, is leaving for California (family reasons). Still, in this hospitality industry, one seems to strike up friendships with wonderful people only to have them move on and…re-appear somewhere else where one can bump into them again! I count myself very fortunate to have met so many frankly capable, decent, upbeat, and earnest-but-fun-loving people. I suppose that’s what it takes to survive in this line of work. And guess where the GM, another gem, is from…Switzerland.

The economic blues are starting to set in, with other hotels in the area experiencing low occupancy (Arrabelle is still fine), but hopefully the snows that arrived the day I did, and the holiday season, will give people hope and cause to blow off the blues. Due to weather-related delays, Continental slips me onto a direct flight on an economy airline direct to Tampa. Wasn’t too comfortable, but it’s sure good to be back home for a few weeks, and arriving the same time as my original planned flight. A long hug for wifey when I stagger out of baggage claim, bags in tow.

And there was peace on earth....

Here’s to an upbeat 2009 for one and all.

Butler training

Behind the Scenes in Paradise

Not so many years ago, I trained butlers at a private villa in Anguilla. Where? It’s the island in the corner of the upside down «L» of the West Indies, and not to be confused with the more popular destination, Antigua, which lies further south on the «L.» When not training, I had plenty of time to write one of those irreverent travel pieces that are probably amusing to all but the locals and best left unsaid from their perspective. Here are my observations of life behind the scenes in Paradise.

Paradise, romance and other invitations to chill out from the rush of modern life are images ad agencies are paid multiple millions to seduce into our minds at the mere mention of «the Caribbean.» These images do not disappoint, it seems, judging by the hundreds of thousands, including the rich and famous, who keep coming back for more when myriad other destinations beckon. Pristine beaches, turquoise and azure waters, rum aplenty and the relaxed pace of life all conspire to make them ambassadors of the Caribbean.

But what lies beyond the hotel walls, the sunscreen-soaked beaches, the well-inspected reefs, and perhaps the occasional nightclub or cigar shop in town? What is life like on the islands for those who live there? We can only imagine as we walk or drive by the sometimes neat, sometimes ramshackled houses, nodding or smiling at their owners relaxing on the inevitable veranda.

A three-week stint teaching Anguillans to provide the same level of service as British butlers, did not result in the usual stay at a five-star hotel with several haut-cuisine restaurants to choose from. Instead, a nearby three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bathroom duplex was provided with a view of the lagoons, sea and mountains of St. Martin to the south. With temperatures in the 80’s and even nudging into the nineties on occasion, air conditioning would have been greatly appreciated. But white-painted block walls and open windows kept the sun at bay and the ocean breeze flowing through-except on the occasionally wind-still day. Then you just sweated it out, making the return of the breeze all the sweeter. An old jeep rounded out the package so I would be free to drive around the island on its bumpy, unmarked and narrow roads, and access a grocery store. It was off-season, and apparently the many fabulous restaurants on the island opened two days after I was scheduled to leave. Only a miserable old codger would complain about such an arrangement, and I was not yet in that category.

Living in Paradise

No Dirty Old Man

The first point to know about island life in Anguilla is that life really is laid back. People move slowly and they generally drive slowly. The roads do not encourage speeding, and anyway, if you do drive fast, the inescapable fact is that you would reach the other end of the typical Caribbean island in twenty minutes instead of thirty. Then what? Turn around and race back the other way? «When the world is only so big, you have time to take your time,» is the message small islands leave the scurrying denizens of larger land masses. When islanders drive or walk past each other, there’s always a nod (upwards, not downwards) a honk of the horn, or a raising of the hand in greeting.

Consider also the two skinny fillies who hitched a ride from a «dirty old man.» Of course I stopped-I used to hitch all over England and Europe in the Seventies. How refreshing to find trust alive and well in one small corner of this planet. In the United States, we seem to have entered such a level of fear in our interactions that a strange man just saying hello to a young girl makes him a dirty old man. If he were to offer her a ride, he would likely as not have his license number telephoned through to the police. Talking of which, in three weeks on Anguilla, I saw not a single policeman or police vehicle. The locals laughed at me for locking my car door when I left a laptop and camera inside to go shopping. They do not have any crime on this island, you catch (meaning «do you understand?»)? What’s the difference between 20th Century Anguilla and 21st Century USA? Could it be, as one local explained, everyone knows everyone else on the island and they talk, talk, talk to each other?

Whatever the reason for a crime-free society, those young girls bounced around in the back of the old jeep, and almost flew out of it when I hit a speed bump at an adventurous 35 mph. It had been installed across an open stretch of road without warning, marking or much reason, given that the road surface made speeds over thirty unrealistic. As soon as we all landed back in our seats, we laughed and laughed and laughed. The moment contrasted so mightily with the last time I had stopped to pick up a hitchhiker: a young lady in an unsavory neighborhood in Florida. After she had settled into the seat beside me, I enquired where she wanted to be dropped off; to which she replied with a question concerning a certain illegal but time-honored service she could provide me. Replying that I did not think so, as I was happily married, I enquired again as to her destination. A silence followed as I digested her question-not one I had even been asked before-and began to hope that she would not need to be driven too far. She surprised me again by asking to be dropped off at the next corner-a total of half a mile after she had climbed on board. I obliged, finally coming up to speed on her real purpose in asking for a lift. As the door slammed behind her, I suddenly wondered what a policeman might have said when I protested my innocence, «But I was just giving her a lift!» How refreshingly uncomplicated Anguilla is.

The Irish Connection

The second point of interest is that in Anguilla, every fourth person is called Richardson, pronounced «Risheson,» son of Rish evidently. The big question is not so much how come six out of twenty-two people in a random group were called Richeson, but that not one considered himself or herself related to any of the others. Which brings to mind a strange familial structure in the islands. Few men and women marry. Instead, the women are looked upon as «breeders,» and once they have bred, the man has to cough up a hefty amount of the green stuff in child support each month. This arrangement seems to satisfy all parties, for I heard no complaints from the several men who had children but no wives and the women who had children and no husbands. Different folks for different strokes, to be sure.

As for the patois, it takes some brow-furrowing moments to fathom, but one element is unmistakable: it sounds as Irish as any conversation in Galloway or Glengarry-complete with «t» for «th», as in «Wotdya tink o’tat, Paddy O’Richeson?» and «ar» in place of «or», as in «Pass t’em farks.» The story goes that a boat carrying Irish emigrants on their way to the Americas a couple of centuries back, wrecked off what was thereafter named Irish Harbor. No doubt one or more of the survivors was called Richeson. As for the Richeson-relations-riddle, it turned out to have a simple explanation: the African slaves who worked the cane fields used to take their name from their master.

C’Mon, Wake Up!

The third point of note about Anguillans is their view of time, covered already in part. My first introduction came in the form of a cockerel strutting his stuff between five and six-thirty every morning, touring all the houses in the neighborhood on a messianic mission to raise the slothful and indigent who might have other ideas about how to engage themselves during the balance of the morning. Thankfully, his self-appointed schedule was more forgiving on the weekends, occurring variously between 7.00 and 7.30 a.m. After a couple of weeks, I noticed that the cockerel had a keen sense of efficiency, in that he only provided his service to houses in which someone was actually sleeping peacefully. He would skip those houses without occupants.

Occasionally, just as I would be nodding off again, the cockerel’s call notwithstanding, a madman would roar up and down the road in a backhoe at full throttle at 6.20 a.m., and while this cacophony could not be counted upon to occur each day, I could rely on a 6.35 a.m. «neeeeee,» «neeeee,» in my ear eliciting the required «slap,» «slap,» «Ow, damn,» and finally, «Oh the hell with it,» together with the adrenaline rush necessary to render any further attempt at sleep impractical (I had made the first order of business on discovering and doing battle with no less than two swirling clouds of mosquitoes in the house on my arrival, the repair of the ill-fitting or broken mosquito screens, but obviously the mosquitoes still found some way in). On the days the back hoe operator was sleeping in, a hearing-challenged gentleman next door entertained the neighborhood with his car stereo system, making sure to close his car door more than firmly before driving off with a clash of gears and spinning tires.

Fortunately, lest the morning symphony settle into a routine, another neighbor was in the habit of returning at 2 a.m. from time to time, radio and revs at their maximum, followed by an evidently well-rehearsed performance complete with streams of profanities directed at the unlocked front door that would not open, for some reason, and all the people he saw around him in the shrubbery. Then there was the morning, just when a mosquito had come to an abrupt end, that the telephone rang, resulting in a precipitous dash down the stairs. Phone to the ear by fourth ring and a bright, «Good morning» was met by a dial tone. Oh well, time to drape the body across the hammock on the balcony and welcome the rising sun to another day over Anguilla.

Hammocks invite idle musings. Hatching stratagems for dealing with cockerels with fanciful notions of their vocal skills, for instance. Finding a solution to short nights that does not involve missing the Rugby World Championships being broadcast at midnight from Australia-this particular concern being resolved by the hammock itself as I drift gently away, breeze and smile on face.

By way of postscript regarding the rooster, I decided finally on the inappropriateness of a pea-brained chicken running my life and gave him what I felt was a suitable acknowledgement for his communications: a fusillade of stones designed to annoy, not harm. He expressed some choice alarums and opinions, and while I did not understand them fully, I imaged their intent to be: «Just wait till tomorrow, bud!» In a way, I was correct, but the wake-up call did not come from the cockerel, who actually desisted for the remaining days of my stay. No, the next morning, it was the whirring and banging and «peep, peep, peep» of the garbage truck collecting at 3.20 a.m. outside my window. The following morning, the task of waking me up fell to a builder who came to the residence under construction next door at 6 a.m., banged his hammer a total of eight times, and then left. There really is something I have not fathomed about the Anguillan mind, but of one thing I am sure: it does not require rest.

The Daily Commute

The only downside about hammocks is you have to rise from them eventually and there does not seem to be any easy way to do so, certainly not with any elegance. But the work day looming forces the issue and my attention onto running the gauntlet in the kitchen, which brings to mind the fourth truth about living in Anguilla: it is not the USA. First of all, there is the same old breakfast to prepare from the corner store up the road. Same old breakfast for the mosquitoes, too. Most people eating on their own tend to dive into the graphics and ideas presented on the back of the cereal box. For me, I look at items like the expiration dates. So it was with interest tinged with some consternation that I saw my breakfasts of champions was past due-date by two weeks and the soymilk by a week. Looking further established that everything from the cookies to the tortilla chips were looking at due dates like a stalled trucker looks at an oncoming freight train. Checking with locals revealed the due-date question to be commonplace, leading me to an inescapable conclusion regarding US suppliers and their perception of the Third World as a market.

This idea was reinforced when, over dinner with the retired president (called First Minister) of the island, a genial man who is not meant to be told he looks like Telly Savalas, even though he does, I discovered he had accomplished in two decades what had evaded the British government for three centuries: provide the citizens and guests of the country with a) running water, b) electricity, and c) paved roads.

Back to breakfast, though. After dispatching the cereal, it was time for fried eggs. Would today be the day the gas cut out just as I cracked the eggs into the pan? Or would the taps suddenly run dry again just after I had lathered up in the shower? While the existence of public utilities was most definitely appreciated, given the alternative, it seemed they could not always be counted upon to deliver as intended by the First Minister. It seemed to me that a downside of the laid-back lifestyle is that machines, utilities and events do not work in the way we have become accustomed in modern society. For instance, the gas stove leaks. Why? The pilot light goes out when a new gas supply is installed, and invariably, the serviceman does not have ‘relighting the pilot light’ on his list of things to do. But the ignition system is also inoperational, so no eggs for breakfast the first day. I buy matches and try lighting them the next morning. They do not ignite. When a man has his gnashers set upon some eggs for breakfast and he finds his every effort frustrated, life can begin to look below average. While contemplating the horrors of yet another day without said eggs, therefore, I devised a ruse. Holding the semi-combustible heads of the matches against the toaster filaments resulted in eggs for breakfast.

While it is challenging and fun to find solutions for Island issues, one assured by-reality seems to be «Island Time,» whereby islanders inevitably arrive half-to-one-hour late as a result of dealing with whatever events have occurred beyond their control. Just why the water and gas have to experience crises five mornings out of ten during the critical hour of preparation before work is the big question. Can’t be the luck of the Irish shining through over the centuries.

Take the Wednesday I tried without success to access the Internet via DSL at midday. A call to the techie at home resulted in a promise to come in and fix it. He called in from his home after an hour to ask if the problem still existed. As he had not left home and I had been twiddling my thumbs, it was not entirely clear how the problem was meant to have been resolved. He promised to come in and fix. A call to his home at 4 p.m. resulted in a testy proclamation that he could not possibly come in until the following morning. And this techie was an Englishman. Perhaps he had been living a tad bit too long on the island.

He did turn up the following morning, but whatever had been wrong with the DSL modem before was now a moot point as both the electricity and telephone lines were down. The night before, some trucker had felt his behemoth had more right-of-way than the utility lines. Being at a resort where the rich and famous stay, such occurrences are «contingencied,» so the power was back on thanks to a generator, cell phones enabled conversations to flow, and wireless connectivity linked my keyboard to the United States via the Internet. The day was looking up, especially as we had been provided finally with a conference room with an A/C. When the A/C cut out after an hour, it took another hour to locate someone who could explain that the fuse had probably tripped and the switch was on the (inaccessible) roof. Hmmm.

The islands are not a place where one loses one’s temper, it being neither necessary nor productive. Not, that is, unless one is a French chef, which most seem to be in the better restaurants on this island. As I jealously handled my backlog of e-mail traffic, he made a grand entrance and expostulated to the first willing pair of ears, «Ze bosse merst theenk wee arrrre a bernch ov mushreumse.» Enquiring how this vegetable metaphor had taken root resulted in an explanation that made up in humor what it lacked in respect: «Shee all ways keepse ers in ze dark and wee arrrre nee deepe in ze sheet.» Oh well, French chefs are meant to be easily offended and the last bastions of common sense and probity. This one was performing with just the right amount of exasperation and bombast at the egregious shortcomings of others and so earned himself some applause before I returned to my e-mail.

Life at Home

And what of life at my new home? It had its pluses. It was a short run from a long, crescent-shaped and little-frequented beach that greeted the sun each morning. This morning run should have been idyllic, a runner’s dream, but there was something about the plastic bottles strategically placed at each pace taken that turned the experience from an aesthetic moment into a philosophical exercise. I could not help thinking how each bottle had begun its journey to this beach, by the hand of a fellow human being who was evidently unable to connect the dots between enjoying a pristine environment and the simple act of throwing a bottle overboard.

The locally grown avocadoes, however, did not disappoint in any way. They were huge, succulent and of such a sweet taste and creamy disposition as to prompt immediate consumption. The grocery store also stocked German non-alcoholic beer and Häagen Dazs, and the crayfish were much larger and more succulent than any I had come across…Nawlins notwithstanding. What more can a man, thrust suddenly into a bachelor’s sparse life style after twenty-two years of matrimony, require?

Well, one much-appreciated facility was the herd of small goats kept the front lawn and hedge trimmed, freeing up the weekend rather handily. The constant battle with mosquitoes, which multiplied mysteriously into swirling and bobbing clouds every time the resort housekeepers come to clean the house, was being won as I learned techniques to catch the nippy little blighters. They were not large, like the appropriately named Alaskan mules with proboscises the length of well-endowed horses, but they were the devil to swat as they ducked and dove away from what I felt should have been compelling arguments in the form of my two meaty paws colliding with thunderous but premature applause. Perhaps the most promising remedy was gin, which a local recommended for warding off the pesky blighters. I am sure he meant imbibing the stuff, but I dutifully bought a bottle and was pleased to note that a liberal splashing over exposed skin resulted in fewer bites. The idea that those who did bite might entertain an inexplicable hangover the following morning was ample solace for the blood I did lose.

Anguillan Attitude

People tend to wonder, when battling mozzies in a tourist destination, what prompted them to consider the place better than a backyard BBQ in Hoboken, New Jersey. I had come to Anguilla to work (or so I told the IRS), so I had an excuse. But celebrities come to Anguilla to play because the locals treat them with the same nod and wave as anyone else, unimpressed by their boob jobs (well, in theory) and expensive jewelry. Without pestilential paparazzi and camera-clicking-finger-pointing tourists at every turn, celebrities find a rare opportunity to climb down from their pedestal, put aside the mask and breathe a heartfelt sigh of relief. This is the fifth element of Anguilan life that I noticed. The Anguillan pace takes about two days to break through any frenetic urgency foreigners may have brought with them. As the Anguillans say, «I don’t need your attitude, I have my own.»

And what is this attitude? They vacillate between boredom and mild interest in life. That’s why celebrities do not excite much interest and hooplah. Nothing much does. Like its citizens, the Anguillan government is not awed by wealth and title, either. The island belongs to the people; tourists and ex-pats are welcome to share it if they ante up. And to make their stand quite clear, the government foregoes collecting income tax in preference to a rather hefty sales tax on items consumed by tourists. Anguillans pay tax only for social security, at 5% of their income.

Of course, if you want something like a hospital, make sure you have the airfare for a trip to Puerto Rico. I based this conclusion based on three conversations. My neighbor, an American chef, who came knocking one night at 9.30 p.m. uninvited with the requisite beer bottle in hand (because he did not want to be rude and not make his acquaintance known), explained to me that he had parted company with his scooter at 70 m.p.h. a couple of years before (he was reminded of the subject by the three scooters stored in my living room, a holdover from the last hurricane threat). He had been taken to the hospital by a friend and had been offered an ice cube to suck on when they had run out of IV solution. When he needed to jettison the contents of his stomach, he was disconnected from his various tubes in an uncharacteristic burst of action and hustled outside to do his business. As he doubled up, retching, the orderly yelled out to him to close the back of his gown, because, well, you can picture the problem, I am sure.

Another islander had volunteered the information to me that his wife had been sent home from the hospital after a fall in which she had broken several bones in her foot, with instructions to come back for an X-ray in a couple of days if it still hurt. The third, the English techie, wore a hard hat on a job site where no others were in evidence because, «Well, have you seen the hospital?»

Blissful Isolation

As much as vacationers come to Anguilla to disconnect, perhaps reading a faxed version of the New York Times to assuage their skittish consciences, I wanted to stay connected with business, family and friends back home in the U.S. of A. How absolutely wonderful to receive a call and find my wife at the other end (being a bachelor can become old). It occurred to me after an hour of chatting with her that the deceptively American dialing code-1-area code-seven digit number-didn’t necessarily mean the call would cost five cents a minute. Responding to my concern, my wife e-mailed the next day to say that our blissfully innocent telephone call had cost the equivalent of three months of our normal telephone bill, the rate being a healthy $2.65 a minute. I hope someone at the big telephone company in the US that changed its name inexplicably not so long ago is enjoying the golf club membership we just made possible. And maybe someone can explain why this same company charges me five cents to call my mother in England from America, and a third of the distance costs fifty-three times as much? On second thoughts, don’t bother. I am sure there is a good reason for it.

My musing on telephonic demonology was interrupted by the telephone’s shrill cry. It was my wife again. Her calling card for Europe also worked for Anguilla. Ours was not to figure why, but to rejoice at being able to communicate again-and at a rock-bottom thirty cents a minute. Although I do wonder why a calling card costs a ninth of the rate Verizon charges. Must be something to do with the rising cost of golf club fees or something.

However, my wife and I saved a lot of money on the second weekend when our telephone conversation kept running into crossed lines with Irish brogue and then disconnecting after fifteen seconds. After the fourth try, we agreed to rely on e-mail for the balance of the trip.

A good plan in principle, except that our cable-based ISP decided the next day that all e-mails originating from Anguilla were junk mail and therefore not to be accepted. Plan B: E-mail a friend in Los Angeles to reach my wife with a jerry-rigged solution using our Web-based mail (which itself had inexplicably gone off line for four days, denying access to all e-mail as well as our Web site, the month prior while we were in Europe). Luckily, this provider was in working mode and so was promoted hastily out of the dog house. My wife never received the message from my friend, however, because our cable-based ISP had taken it into its head to assign all e-mails from Earthlink in LA as junk mail as well. Need it be said that when questioned, this cable-based ISP used its fingers to do the explaining-as in pointing in every direction except home base. And so the sixth characteristic of life in Anguilla is blissful disconnection from the rest of the world, which, generally speaking, is a positive.

And so here I sit with a piña colada and Spicey Anguillan Lobster soup under the proverbial thatched roof of a restaurant, looking out over those drinkable waters of the Caribbean, putting the finishing touches to this article. I finally did the touristic thing this morning and blubbered around the deserted beach by the restaurant like a two-ton seal, before venturing knee deep-a habit born of being raised on the English coastline-into the azure water, which really is as clean and refreshing as it looks.

More drinkable still is the piña colada, though. Some crooner with a French accent smootches out of the speakers in the palm-frond roof…»Your zipper is stuck half way down, your dress falls apart in a terrible tear….» A peculiar idea of romance, really, these French.

«This gentleman is driving me crazy, do you mind changing the music?» I ask the waitress. All I see is teeth as she grins and says, «Me, too.» She heads off to put the Frenchman out of his misery and to make my day with another piña colada. «Put on what you like!» I yell after her. The restaurant is deserted, as it is still not the season.

Soon a choral version of «Ave Maria» plays and the crooner comes back on as soloist. The music is turned off abruptly. Ah, silence and the rhythmic lapping of the waves below work just fine. And so does the funky Caribbean music that the waitress finds eventually.

«Is that better?» she asks, as she places the piña colada within reach.

How could it not be?

But it was not better than dinner on the last night-one of the best restaurants on the island had opened early. I sat by the sandy beach looking at the line of moonlight stretching over the calm waters from my table to the horizon. The classical music, the empty-nesters holding hands and staring into each others’ eyes, the foie gras, the lobster and filet mignon, the wine…these French chefs earn their right to be prima donnas.

So there it is, a snapshot of life in Anguilla seen through the bespectacled eyes of a portly, balding, baby boomer. You may have noticed that I said nothing of celebrities, the training, the client, or the butlers. A book could be written about each, but there are some things a butler does not divulge, even if some of the very best butlers forget this written and unwritten rule. Besides, that’s not what Anguilla is about. For that, you just have to spend some time here. You’ll be glad you did.