Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Fawlty in Sonoma

If, like me, you are a Fawlty Towers fan, then you treasure the meager 12 episodes than ran on the BBC starting in 1975.  Written by and starring Monty Python's John Cleese and his then wife Connie Booth, the show also featured famed English actor Andrew Sachs as a hapless Spanish waiter.  

In the farcical series, tense, rude Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) and his bossy wife Sybil run the fictional Fawlty Towers hotel on the sea at Torquay (South Devon in England).  Mr. Fawlty appears to despise most of his guests, without regard to whether they are normal or demanding.  The British Film Institute (all industry professionals) voted Fawlty Towers the best British TV series of all time in 2000.

I can understand the accolade.  Fawlty Towers is available as a complete DVD boxed set, and every episode is hilarious.  Basil Fawlty, exercising his deep loathing for hotel guests, rains down a torrent of misery upon himself and everyone.  

John Cleese said in interviews that he based his character on a real-life experience with just such a curmudgeon at a small hotel he visited similar to Fawlty Towers. I've often wondered what it would be like to run into a Mr. Fawlty, but I mostly stay at large chain hotels where the HR departments have been careful to screen out candidates fraught with misanthropic tendencies for customer-facing positions.

However, on a recent two-night stay at a small B&B in the vicinity of Healdsburg, California (Sonoma County), I finally came across Fawlty in the flesh, this time in female form.  I won't name names or call out the exact B&B, but the stories are true and accurate.

This is the same expensive B&B I mentioned in my post last week.  The normal rate is an eye-popping $350 per night (I mean, after all, it's just a B&B), but my San Francisco friends' wine club membership entitled us to half price.  It still seemed expensive to me at $175 a night. 

My three friends and I arrived at the B&B in question two days after Christmas.  It was late afternoon and very cold.  We were tired from the drive up from San Francisco and from the several Sonoma wineries we'd visited along the way.  Our hostess and her husband, the owners, at first greeted us warmly.  

Then one of my friends, a charming man loved by all, erred slightly in pronouncing the first name of our hostess.  "Thank you, Laura," he said, acknowledging receipt of his room key.

"No," she said sharply, staring intently at him with pursed lips, "It's Laura."  Her smile had vanished.

I could have sworn she said, "Laura," but it was obviously not right.

My friend asked her how to spell it.

"L-U-R-A," she said, still staring at him with a frown, as if he had broken wind.

"Oh, Lura," said my friend in a friendly tone.  "That's an unusual spelling."  He'd meant to break the curious tension.

But his effort failed.  Lura said nothing, just continued to stare at him, obviously unhappy with his offhand remark about her name.  Her frown deepened, and the room felt chillier.  I could see from the creases around her mouth that it was a well-practiced look.  We shrank from her presence to find our rooms.

We all remarked on the creepy incident, but didn't think more of it until the following morning.  

My nice-guy friend, whose name is Ken, went out for an early morning walk and fell flat on his face, breaking his nose.  He showed up at my door a few minutes later with a handful of bloody towels clutched to his face.  After collecting his wife, we were off to the ER.  Several x-rays and stitches later, we returned to the B&B.  It was just before 10:00 AM.

Our fourth companion, whose name is Susan, had explained to Lura and her husband about Ken's accident when she went to have breakfast.  Lura had explained the night before that breakfast would be served daily eight until ten only.  

Poor Ken, his face one big puffy black-and-blue bruise with bloody nose bandaged, walked in the kitchen door of the B&B at 9:58 AM. Rather than offer any words of consolation, Lura rushed furiously up to him, Ken's wife, and me, her face almost as red as his, looked accusingly at her watch and shouted, "Well, I guess you'll all expect to be having breakfast, huh!?"  A few guests were just finishing up and looked shocked.  I know we were.

Ken, though, brushed off her affront, and asked politely if there was anything to eat that wouldn't be too much trouble, like cold pastries.  Lura's husband, having heard his wife's confrontation and seeing Ken's injury, told us in a kind tone to sit down and feel welcome.  We did, and he proceeded to cook us a fabulous hot breakfast.  Lura disappeared out the back door in a huff, and we weren't sorry to see the back of her.

Ken's fall and ER visit got us off to a late start along the wine roads of Sonoma, but we made up for lost time and had a great day tasting many of the county's finest Pinots, Cabs, and Chards. We arrived back at the B&B right at 7:00 PM that evening.

As we debarked from the car, Susan said, uh oh, we'd missed the B&B's wine-and-cheese offering.  It ended, we'd learned from Lura's husband that morning, each evening at 7:00 PM.  We decided to go in anyway to see if any cheese might be left over.

Guarding the living room table like a pitbull, arms folded and with a scowl upon her face, stood Lura.  "Wine and cheese time is OVER!" she informed us loudly, in case we were hard of hearing.  Only thing missing was a rolling pin with which Lura could bash in our heads.

Susan, a state supreme court justice who isn't intimidated by anyone, and certainly not by someone to whom we are paying hundreds of dollars for accommodation, blithely ignored Lura's foghorn growl and began to help herself to the dregs of cheese and tidbits of food left on the table.  We remaining three followed her example of passive resistance and joined in to graze.  

Ignoring Lura ignited her ire: it was war!  Lura countered our ploy by nimbly grabbing a serving plate off the table while we were still collecting odd bits of food from it and stomped off to the kitchen.  We picked up our grazing pace and filled our small plates with this and that before she returned to get what remained.  

While Lura was busy lugging the last load of leftover victuals to the kitchen, Susan helped herself to a healthy pour of insipid red wine from the sole open bottle on the table before that, too, was whisked away.  Lura's glower of disapproval and her body language spoke volumes.  It was clear from her non-verbals that she despised us.

Not wanting to press our luck, the four of us returned to our rooms.  There we found we couldn't turn on the electric fireplaces for heat with the remote control as we had been able to do the previous evening.  The rooms were freezing with no heat.  This forced me to return to find Lura and ask her for help.

Instead of coming to our rooms to offer assistance, Lura let out an exaggerated sigh of impatience, shook her head as if speaking to an idiot, and informed me in a high-pitched, irritated voice that the controls were inside the front panels of the electric fireplaces.  "We turn the main switches off each morning," she said, sounding as if she suspected her guests of stealing electricity.  "The remotes don't work unless you turn the main switches back on!" As if we were supposed to know.

OK, I thought.  Any normal hostess would have apologized and come to our rooms to demonstrate.

The second morning Susan and I went to breakfast just before eight to make amends for my tardiness at breakfast the previous day when I'd been at the ER with Ken.  Since we were checking out that morning, we thought Lura would approve.

But we were wrong.  I entered the kitchen through the back door at 7:59 AM and walked through to the dining area just beyond.  There I encountered Lura, standing with arms folded as she had the previous evening, with a now-familiar pinched look on her face.

"I suppose you expect to have breakfast EARLY, then?" she burst out.  I noticed about eight other guests sitting quietly in the living room where Susan and I assumed she had sequestered them.  At the sound of Lura's screeching, they all craned their necks timidly to see what was the matter.  They looked cowed.

Susan and I, however, were not cowed.  By now we expected Lura to be in a perpetual foul mood, and so we politely answered, "Yes, we would like breakfast, thanks," to her question and seated ourselves.

Turning to the eight folks in the parlor, Lura blurted out, "Well, you might as well join them!" before stomping off again to the kitchen.  The other guests did come and sit down with us.  Lura soon brought out the first course her gourmet-cook husband had prepared.

It was a beautifully-rendered martini glass full of what I thought must be layered fruit, but I wasn't sure.  There was a drizzle of something red on top, and so, without thinking, I asked Lura if it was all fruit.

"No, it's HAMBURGER," she shouted, again turning heads among the guests.  She stomped back to the kitchen without saying if it was fruit or not.  I tasted it; it was indeed fruit, but I never did identify the red drizzle on top. 

Susan was fuming, and I thought she was going to say something to Lura, but she thought better of it.  By then I had become inured to Lura's bad behavior and expected the worst.

I wasn't disappointed, either.  When Lura came to collect the martini glasses from the table, she curtly instructed several guests to move the martini glasses to the exact center of the serving plates on which they sat and to replace the spoons and forks they'd used to eat the fruit in precise positions on either side of the plate at the base of each martini glass.  Lura gave me the same instructions, too, gritting her teeth as she hissed at me not to lift the plate.  Susan looked at her like she was crazy.  I assumed it was an extreme case of OCD.  On top of Lura's consistently bad attitude, it wasn't pretty to watch or pleasant to experience.

We were glad to have to deal only with her nice hubby on check-out.  He seemed to have a sunny disposition all the time, a welcome contrast to Lura.  I couldn't help wondering how he could possibly tolerate Mrs. Fawlty day in and day out.  Maybe he drinks a lot when nobody's looking.

Would I go back there?  Yes, definitely.  How often do you get sincerely insulted by your hostess morning, noon, and night?  At least she didn't poison me, and her husband was a delight, not to mention being a damn fine chef.  My Mrs. Fawlty experience was more fascinating in its way than the dreary sameness of the Hilton Union Square on O'Farrell Street in San Francisco, my next stop.


Anonymous terry cummings said...

loved your tale!! don't know if i would have had the guts to take that guff from the woman. as you said. thank heaven for the chef husband.

1/24/2013 6:48 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Thanks, Terry. The husband was the ying to her yang. As a friend wrote me this morning after reading the story, "Presumably hubby's lifetime ambition was to run a B&B, and Mrs. Fawlty's was to be the matron in a Nazi concentration camp."

1/25/2013 8:47 AM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Good grief, where did that "g" come from tacked on the end of "yin" (just above)? Could it have been my ignorance that I should have written that the husband was the YIN to her yang? Oh, the shame!

1/25/2013 11:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How polite and gracious of you Will, to refrain from blowing the insufferably nasty Lura's cover, and I agree that her husband's welcoming, mitigating demeanor was just the right offset. Although I have to believe that somewhere in Trip Advisor is a similar account of another guest's experience, identifying this Sonoma B&B by name.

Separately, this afternoon in the supermarket, I saw a woman wheeling around a cart carrying just two bottles of wine--from Gundlach Bundschu--and it sent me to the internet to check fares to SFO for a return visit. After all, this IS the 40th anniversary year for the release of "American Graffiti," and they've done it up big in Petaluma, where most of the movie was filmed,
every decade since! We were there in 2003 for
the 30th (I ambushed my wife into going there so we could stop on Frates Road where they shot the movie's drag race scene, after a glorious afternoon touring Sonoma wineries!).

1/25/2013 9:28 PM  
Anonymous Jeremy said...

Great post! Now I think I really need to check out Fawlty Towers... looks like there is quite a bit on YouTube.

1/27/2013 8:17 PM  

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