Dappled Things

2 February 11

I took away three things from my brief tenure as a 19 year-old Walt Disney World food service employee. The first was John Stamos’ plastic fork (it’s held up surprisingly well over the years). The second was 15 pounds of cheek fat. The third was the belief that the customer is always right.

If I served someone a personal pizza in the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head, and she came back much later and complained that in fact no, the crust was more Donald in profile, I’d agree and refund her money (without offering a snarky “that’s because you’ve already eaten the ears”). If a gaggle of Brazilian boys decided to fence with breadsticks, and one of them got epee-d in the eye with parmesan, I’d ask if they needed more napkins. There appeared to be no limitations to my complaisance. Once, while working the register, a baby spit up on my cash drawer. The mother — very sweetly — stated her preference not to receive the change that had been slobbered on.

Here, take this dry dollar.

Is the customer always right? I think about this question a lot as an industry professional — especially as one who owns not one, but two pairs of graduation mouse ears.

I’ve noticed an internet trend towards fixating on the negative. Take two travel writing contests I stumbled upon last week. One is to promote a device that enables women to pee standing up and asks for responses to the prompt “Tell us about your worst experience trying to find a toilet while traveling!” The other is an ongoing “World’s Unluckiest Traveler” insurance incentive that invites submitters to reflect on their most nightmarish vacation. I believe last month’s winner fell while canopy ziplining. It seems like we live in a culture that encourages complaint. It also seems like one might win both contests with the same entry.

We’re all a complex amalgamation of travel experience and emotional damage. And almost anyone can operate a computer (including Dan’s 90 year-old grandfather — we affectionately call him “Spam-pa”). You can imagine my frustration when clients reference Trip Adviser as solid evidence against the merits of a particular destination. While the internet has done wonders for both the travel industry and self-sufficiency, it’s also given a voice to basement nutjobs and schooner whack-a-dos (this is my own term I coined for crazy people who live on houseboats). Here’s an example:

Perhaps I’m approaching this from the perspective of a light-weight, or a non-alcoholic, but writing off the Drury because of its free three drink minimum seems a tad unreasonable. Sip Adviser, anyone?

Here’s a comment left by an irate honeymooner about an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica:

Due to the storm, we had to deal with power outages. One extensive in nature. In addition, our television went out for an extended period. Sitting in the dark, tired and hungry….Not what we had in mind for our vacation. There was flooding everywhere making it difficult to even leave your room. One entire day, our room wasn’t even serviced.

With any degree of perspective, one realizes that cleaning staff aren’t impervious to the destructive force of a hurricane, either. Sometimes, what we have in mind for our vacation doesn’t pan out. Sometimes, we have to lie in the bed that no one made.

Dan and I most recently returned from a trip to Las Vegas. We stayed at the Venetian, a lovely decadent hotel on The Strip featuring an indoor mall and canal. Gondoliers serenade you as they paddle you past Banana Republic and Bebe. “This is just like Epcot’s Italy!” I said to Dan, who in turn responded, slouched against a fresco, “You just compared one fake Italy to another fake Italy.” Ah that Dan, always bringing me back down to Earth.

The Eiffel Tower also caused Dan considerable consternation.

Our first night there — we had just checked in around 11PM after a long family car ride from San Diego — our key card mysteriously stopped working. Our luggage had already been deposited in the room. We went down to the front desk. We went back up to our floor to wait for maintenance. It turns out the do-hickey door lock mechanism had malfunctioned, which necessitated the complete removal of the handle by drill. You can only imagine how my travel agent fingers were itching to log onto Trip Adviser.

But here’s the thing — I waited. Because I believe in giving the hospitality industry a fair shake. I didn’t want to fly off the handle over, well, a handle. I was tired and hungry and craved nothing more than a hot soak in my luxurious marble tub while watching infomercials and eating a club sandwich, but I recognized my extreme grumpiness was a product of not having other needs met.

There are certain unforgivable grievances, lines we each have that can’t be crossed. I once found a dirty gauze under my pillow at a popular chain motel. Not even I could laugh that one off with an off-color tooth fairy joke. When I meet with clients, whether they’re planning a weekend retreat with girlfriends or a destination wedding, I always advise them to take online reviews with a grain of salt. You have to determine in advance what your line is, and on top of that, you need to seek out a reliable source. Trip Adviser is not always a clear indicator. I have a dear friend who’s been known to send back a salad three times. Three times. She also enjoys spray cheese straight from the can. Love her to pieces, but not my go-to person for restaurant recommendations.

I took a photo of our bathroom mirror at The Venetian. It was missing a gold accent, and in its place was a ring of glue. It looked like one of those suction cups you stick on a window to hang a bird feeder.

Not pictured: TV and club sandwich.

There are words in Japanese with no English equivalents. Wabi refers to the flaw that makes a piece of art more unique, and Sabi, the added beauty an old piece of art acquires by virtue of its age, its wear. I know that some travelers would be off-put by this decorative oversight. This is their line. But at a certain point, fixating on inevitable imperfections can be counter-productive. Over 37.5 million people visit Vegas each year — and not just for the relatively tame Mrs. Fields cookie convention. The Venetian is a hotel with 4,027 rooms. That’s a lot of wear and tear. I worry that fretting over missing mirror bling could keep me from appreciating (and recommending) what is in fact an enjoyable locale. I harken back to Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty“:

Glory be to God for dappled things--
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
       For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced--fold, fallow, and plough;
       And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                     Praise Him.


Of course the poem doesn’t start out “Glory be to God for dirty towels,” but I like to imagine Hopkins urging us to contemplate the wabi and sabi of leisure travel.

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