Getting there

Getting there

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On English Butlers and Irish Chauffeurs

When my husband and I started to plan our recent holiday in London and Ireland there were decisions to be made, of course. Where to stay in London was easy - years ago I had read about the Savoy Hotel and been so entranced by it's glamorous history that I knew I had to stay there on my first visit to the city. This meant a delay in our holiday plans as the Savoy has recently undergone a massive renovation, and was closed for some time. When it re-opened for bookings, though, my husband immediately started the process of finding a room. We settled on a small suite, and he informed me that all the suites came with butler service. Butler service? What the hell was I going to do with a butler? Have them hang out and open the door for room service and housekeeping? I was bemused by the idea of a butler, but figured everything in life should be tried at least once. A butler it would be.

When we looked into booking our trip in Ireland we knew we didn't want a tour group. Neither of us has the patience for a "be here at this time, look at this, now move on" atmosphere on holiday. We do things at our pace, things that interest us, and any tour group would frustrate this desire. We also knew, though, that we didn't want to rent a car and spend our holiday studying maps, getting lost, and contending with unknown roads. So, my husband found a chauffeur company online that not only provides drivers but would book hotels and suggest activities. Chauffeur? At first glance this didn't sound any better than the whole butler thing. What if we got stuck in a car for several days with someone we couldn't stand? What if they were a bore? What if they were annoying? But, it seemed the only solution, and the chauffeur company impressed us with the assistance they provided in booking our holiday, so we were optimistic about the chauffeur, if a little cautiously so.

When we arrived at the Savoy we met the butlers. Nice young people, men and women both, but I never did quite figure out their role. They appeared at our door at least twice daily to offer their services and I began to wonder if they worked on commission. When one admonished us for not using the butlers enough I began to really wonder about the commission idea. Now, they did do many things - they provided the room service, and found me scissors when I needed to wrap gifts (scissors presented on a small silver tray, of course). When I left our laundry on the floor with the laundry bags and order forms on top (meaning to get to it when I returned later) they helpfully packed it off and had it done. And they discovered we enjoyed tea so teas and the means to make it appeared daily in our room. This was all quite lovely but still seemed, well, unnecessary. When we were leaving they offered to pack our luggage, and while some might jump at that chance I declined. My husband of many years has never packed my lingerie, and a 22-year old man in a morning coat and top hat wasn't going to do it, either. I was really never comfortable with the butlers - in Canadian culture having "servants" just isn't common. My first instinct was to try to befriend them, take them out for a drink, or sit down with them for tea - but that's not the role of the butler, and the institution is far too stuffy and starchy for that.

So, we left the Savoy, and overall we had a glorious stay. We flew off to Shannon, Ireland, where we would meet our chauffeur. After the butler experience I had some trepidations - what if the chauffeur turned out to be like the butlers? It would be a very long few days in a van indeed.

We arrived on Aer Lingus in Shannon, and there to meet us was Kevin from Ireland Chauffeur Travel. Kevin immediately seemed like a fatherly sort - kind, soft-spoken, and gentle. My trepidations began to melt away, but this was early still and who knew if perhaps this first impression was incorrect?

By the end of day one when Kevin dropped us at our hotel in Limerick I knew it would be fine. He was a gregarious man, but not obnoxious. He had spent time in Canada as a young man, so he knew a bit about Canada, enough to make us feel more at ease. What was really clear was that he knew Ireland - the history, the roads, the people. Kevin was like a walking Irish guidebook with audio in that lovely lilting accent.

By the end of day two we had begun to solve world problems. We had lots of time to discuss issues as, while Ireland is a small country, there is no such thing as a straight road, and they have a mind-boggling fondness for round-a-bouts. All this driving meant we could dissect many world issues, such as what was wrong with North America (a sense of invincibility that after 9/11 and financial crises had turned into a sense of utter vulnerability), and why Canada survived the financial crisis better than the USA (Canadian bankers made "just say no" their motto). By day three we had pretty much solved world problems and the conversation was heading into stories of our families and personal anecdotes.

One of our stops on our holiday was at the B&B Kevin and his wife own in Cashel. By that time we had begun to feel less and less like guests and more like friends. This was confirmed when we met Rory, the family Irish Setter that my daughter adored, and Kevin's lovely wife (my husband and daughter keep asking me when I will become as nice a woman as Beatrice - the answer is likely never). We even spent an evening at their local pub in Cashel, joined by Kevin and his son Shane, the charming managing director of the chauffeur company (I know the word charming keeps coming up when I describe Irish men - if I could find an adjective that better described them I would use it, but there isn't one, trust me!). By the time we left Cashel we knew we were onto something very special in Ireland.

The rest of our time in the van was spent discussing the merits of Irish hurling versus Canadian ice hockey (if you don't know what hurling is, look it up - you'll be amazed), singing more songs, discussing why men (mostly Irish, apparently) lose all common sense when they fall in love, family vendettas and fights, Irish race horses, why dogs are better than cats, and every topic of which you can possibly conceive. Any trepidation I had ever felt about using a chauffeur was gone. Chauffeur? What chauffeur? Kevin was our friend, and pretty damn close to family. My daughter in fact began to refer to him as Uncle Kevin and, already having begun planning a post-graduation backpacking trip in Europe, was joking with him about her future "Uncle Kevin, I'm stuck in a pub in Donegall with no money" rescue phone call.

So, there you go. I never did, and never will, embrace the whole butler thing. It's foreign to my existence, awkward, and uncomfortable. If you really are dying to try having servants then I recommend a stay at the Savoy and giving the butlers a whirl. If you want to really have a bloody marvelous time, though, go to Ireland and hire a chauffeur. You might start with a "chauffeur" but by the end you have a new friend, and really isn't that part of what travelling is all about?

1 comment:

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