Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Down the hospitality rabbit hole

You never know what something is like until you do it. I think that's what part of the attraction of traveling is: the newness of experience. I enjoy traveling immensely, always to new places, often to familiar places. A week ago I went to my annual place of retreat, The Botrivier Hotel, which is probably a one an a half star, if it were ever to be star rated, yet I am really comfortable there.

Traveling for recreational purposes serves many facets of experience from novelty to excitement to rest and comfort. Whatever the soul needs, otherwise the soul wouldn't be traveling. I have been thinking about recognizing what the soul  needs, wondering about what our guests want to experience. When we started off in hospitality our kindly star grading assessor, Mark, said many practical and pithy things which have formed a basis for understanding what we do. "A comfortable bed and hot water," he said. "No-one expects to be without these." Well, from these basics to the bells and whistles of a five star hotel is quite a leap.

I have heard that some boutique hotels have a private swimming pool for each suite.The main thing, as I understand it, is that if people pay for what they want, they are entitled to get what they want. This seems fair enough, but I am surprised, sometimes, at what people want.

Special occasions, moments, relationships and experiences are to be sought after, but consistent opulence and extravagance? I didn't grow up in a wealthy home, and just flying, for the first time, seemed a grand event. The first time I flew business class I was uncomfortable and felt out of place for ten minutes, before settling into it and enjoying the experience.

When I went into the etymology of hospitality I found that hospitality, hotel, host, hostel and hospital come from the same idea of shelter while traveling or required for the purpose of healing. You needed to stay over, either because you were on the road, or because you had to receive medical assistance.

It certainly is a rabbit hole, and choice is the biggest part. No-one wants to go to hospital. The atmosphere is very different, and if the efficiency is excellent, it will be more clinical than indulgent.

But my musings took me further: choice, necessity, expectations and desires began to blur in my thinking as I thought of all the guests who have passed our way, pursuing the stories of their lives. The activiites as host follow fine divisions between seeing to real needs, pandering to whims, ignoring madness, feeding the soul, creating special spaces and offering support when guests arrive troubled.

We have found much meaning and satisfaction in setting ourselves the challenge that if guests arrive unhappy, they should leave happier. The bed and the breakfast are the practical basics: setting the tone for pleasantness, cordiality, recognition, respect and laughter of the right kind are the un-grade-able bits of the service -levels we strive to maintain. At the end of the day, relationships with guests is what makes it all worthwhile. What do such short relationships mean? Well, some friendships have developed and lasted over the years. But for the most part, when folk shake my hand as they leave, I become aware that I an unlikely to see them again, and frequently a pang of pain crosses my heart. When I first felt that, I thought it was ridiculous. Why on earth should a practical and financial exchange involve emotion of any kind? However, etymology is a worthwhile study, one of my favourites, in fact, and if we are to recognize our humanity fully, it's not so strange for carefulness, curing, traveling and shelter to mingle.

At Saint du Barrys, that's how we like it to be. We don't offer surgery, but there is a Clooney coffee machine in each room.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Saint du Barrys and poetry people

Before we moved to Clanwilliam and Saint du Barrys, I was professor of English at the NWU, on the beautiful green banks of the Vaal in Vanderbijlpark. It was a growing campus, and the tasks were many and varied. One of the teaching tasks I enjoyed was that of poetry and poetics. A bit of Chaucer, but that petered out: it wasn't even related to English, as far as the students were concerned. The Metaphysical poets, the Romantics: Wordsworth, Keats and more, and then towards and into the twentieth century, through the war poets, modernists and post-modernists. We included protest, rap, hip-hop and whatever could be relevant to students to establish a sense of verbalized awareness of their time and place. But for most, the sense of poetry had been damaged at school by boredom, irrelevance, tedium and testing. Wondering how poetry could link more directly with personal meaning, I discovered the National Association for Poetry Therapy, based in New York, and under the mentorship of Deborah Grayson and the supervisory umbrella of my faculty dean, I completed the course and became a registered poetry therapist.

In the USA, poetry therapy is often included in clinical medicine curricula as an elective, the purpose being to evoke awareness of the subjectivity of patients, so that they do not become merely defective tissue in the eyes of clinicism, to coin a word. When I'm asked what poetry therapy is my standard answer is that you must take the thickest book of poetry you can find and hit your enemy over the head with it. 

Poetry is as individual as the person who produces it, extremely versatile and probably the most direct path to that no-man's land between experience and language. 

Some people have just about no awareness of poetry and do not realize that humanity and poetics are indivisible, since poetics centres on the art of making meaning through uttered and unuttered verbalization. I wouldn't discuss this topic while bringing the bacon and egg. On the other hand, there are plenty of poetry people, and if they stay for more than twelve hours, we often find each other, especially over a glass of wine, and then discussion can flourish. For example, four ladies, all friends with each other for a long time, came to stay for three nights, and they were pleasant, sociable, literate and, moreover, they drank wine. I challenged them to write the poetry they wanted to write, and offered the first line: "The heart has three corners...:"
Two of these poems were put to writing and emerged at breakfast the next morning.

Emotions make odd friends and in these two short pieces, fun and deeply felt things rub shoulders, and that's how it often turns out, when you free up the language of your soul  in contrast to the langauge of your rationality. 

I enjoy this kind of encounter with poetry people, especially those who aren't gurus of grandiosity, but are simply willing to give one glimpses of their private words. 

Of course, if one wants to read works that are way out there in terms of achievement and beauty, here are two precious gifts that came my way:

Much of my development as a poet comes from Louis MacNiece, Rainer Maria Rilke and Rumi. And my life's teacher is Cathal Lagan, who taught me to write Irish poetry. To be Irish is to die laughing even though you're scared spitless. We'll see when the time comes. 

So if you're one of the poetry people, I'd be delighted to know. But please not when I'm bringing the bacon and egg, otherwise the others would never get served.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Preparing for Flower Season 2016

We were worried about the lack of rain since the beginning of the year, but certainly, enough has fallen in the past weeks, enough to fill our new one thousand litre tank twice, enough to water the ground and green the hills. We're expecting flowers, and maybe a longer season.

The temperature has gone cold this weekend, with snow expected on mountains all over the country, even on Table Mountain. Along with the usual heating, we've prepared extra heating, along with the electric blankets for those who feel cold more keenly than others. But the moment that the earth feels the season change, and waiting life senses the right time, the daisies will appear. In fact a few of the brave ones have already started, but I think their clock is a bit ahead.

In our fifteenth year at Saint du Barrys, we pay more and more attention to details, because love and paying attention are part of each other. Some details are obvious to guests, others aren't.

Our faithful  micro combi began to click rather than turn, and after a visit to the micro doctor, the light went out as well. So we looked for a replacement, and there it is. The other bits aren't new: the yoghurt maker, and the orange juicer, both of which have added to the home-made breakfast experience. What is new. though, is the cheese-maker, which still has to find its soul in tastes yet to come. My quest is for tongs to flip the bacon, tomato and hash-browns. The fifteen-year-old one was my favourite, but was literally losing its grip. I was delighted to find the exact replacement at Banks, as well as another kind to try out. Amazing what can excite one after fifteen years at Saint du Barrys.

Quite often we're asked where the name came from. The story is up in the dining room: Barry, the famous St Bernard from the Swiss Alps who helped travellers who were lost in the snow, especially with the barrel of brandy around his neck. The travellers make sense, but in the heat of summer, even the idea of snow melts.

What's new in Clanwilliam this year is the road, the N7. It has changed from being a precarious path to a smooth highway, shortening the drive to and from Cape Town considerably. We feel the difference, and hope it makes for safe travelling.

The season is quite full, with just a few gaps left. What's interesting this year is the number of bookings extending into 2017. It's good to see that people are looking forward to travelling, even though times are unpredictable. While we anticipate the coming season, we're looking at the new thatch, the garden circling back into itself, and appreciating the gift of living. We look forward to putting your name on our welcome board.

One more thing that's new: a guest miscalculated the height of the parking bay, and took down the beam. So that's new too...