by Steven Brenner
Travel is not a perfect science. The higher and more unrealistic your expectations, the easier it is to be disappointed. Sometimes disappointment arises because people expect things to work in the place they are visiting the same way things work back home. In regards to accommodation, the particular idiosyncrasies one has to face changes from country to country, so it’s important to understand which of these are actual problems and reflect a badly run place and which are just part of local life. If it’s the latter, the sooner you come to understand the nature of these quirks, the better you’ll be able to accept them and not really regard them as problems. Compiled from my 14 years of experience, the following is a list of the most common complaints we’ve received which I hope to explain and clarify here and put more into context.
1. Where’s the bacon? Disappointment with the Italian breakfast.
In Italy, breakfast is nothing special. It’s a culture that eats a large lunch, and until recently much of the work force would have a number of hours available in the middle of the day to go home, prepare a meal, eat it and then relax before returning to work. Those days are mostly a thing of the past unless you have someone at home doing the cooking, but you’ll find many of the local bars and trattorias packed full of people who are generally there for an hour or two. With so much focus put on a mid-day meal, much less is put on breakfast as opposed to British and North American culture where a long work day with little break has pushed a focus on eating a larger meal first thing in the morning.
Culturally, breakfast just isn’t part of the equation. A typical Italian breakfast is an espresso. Add to that an overly sugary pastry that will leave you starving in 20 minutes (Italian pastries are NOTHING compared to a flaky, buttery croissant or pain au chocolat in France). B&Bs and hotels, having to comply with food safety laws, unless they have their own cafe – aren’t supposed to serve anything but pre-packaged food items. That means you might get a little pastry, maybe some dry toasts (called fette biscottate), cereal, yoghurt and maybe fruit if you’re lucky. But if you’re a B&B owner, and have to go pre-packaged, in a market that doesn’t really eat breakfast anyway, your options are pretty limited! Basically, assume that your breakfast is not going to be anything to write home about and you might do better spending 2-3 euro on a cappuccino and pastry at a bar – of which there will always be one nearby. Or, go self-catering and do breakfast your own way.
2. Hot water / plumbing problems
There’s a number of things that can go wrong here:
First is the amount, or lack of, hot water. There are two kinds of water systems here – one that works on gas and produces hot water on demand, and others that use electric boilers. The latter will have a fixed amount of water that, once consumed, will need time to reheat. If you have an electric boiler and many people in your apartment or using the same bathroom, that means staggering out your showers a bit, and not standing there for 20 minutes taking an indulgent shower, no matter how good it feels. The other thing to know is that these electric boilers often have on/off switches in the bathroom that can easily be switched off accidentally. If you’ve turned it off, you’re sure to not have hot water until you’ve turned it back on and left it for about 30 minutes. I would say that most of the complaints for “no hot water” we receive were caused by people inadvertently turning it off! Normally, B&Bs will have a gas water heater which provides continuous hot water, but many self-catering apartments still have electric boilers. Keep this in mind if you’re a family of 8 staying in an apartment with 1 bathroom!
Second is the plumbing in general. Even a semi-historic building, built in the 1800′s (not that old for Italy!) were built before internal plumbing was the norm, and most B&Bs and some apartments will have had bathrooms added in a part of the apartment that is often far from the septic column. This means having pumps or raising the floor to add an incline so the waste can run “downstream”. Add a bit of distance to the column and a daily dose of hair in the drain and you’re bound to have some stoppage. The key thing to remember here is that buildings and apartments that weren’t “purpose built” will never be as perfect as those that are. If you want perfect plumbing, you need to stay in a big hotel, that was designed and constructed specifically to be a hotel. In the city center, those are generally 5 star hotels or they are chain hotels located outside the city center (where new construction is easier to do). Staying somewhere historic has its charm for sure, but often the price you pay is that plumbing will not be perfect.
The smell: in the bathrooms of old buildings, it can happen that when it rains, it smells. Not much can be done about this.
Mold: this is connected to the whole “bathroom-built-later” problem. Old pipes pass through concrete walls and with multiple daily showers and not enough ventilation, you get mold. This gets cleaned off with bleach and killed, and can leave stains that look like mildew, even though the actual live mold is gone. No matter how often it’s cleaned, it will come back and can only be covered with a fresh paint job, maybe once every year or so. The bright side is that it’s not that your owner doesn’t care, they’re just in a losing battle with nature and the elements.
3. Language barriers
In a perfect world, everyone would speak the same language, but back to reality! To me, travel has been an eye opener in learning to develop the skill of communicating in a language that is not your own, and finding a way to express kindness and flexibility and all those traits that make individuals get along, no matter how much or how little they can understand the words being said. Don’t expect people to speak your language and understand that what might seem to you like a “lack of interest” from an accommodation owner might be that they’re shy and embarrassed about speaking English and simply lack the vocabulary to express themselves well. It’s easy to misinterpret people who don’t speak your language. Maybe they aren’t rude – it could be a language barrier thing.
4. Lack of useful information
A handful of superstar accommodation owners print out all sorts of information – about the surrounding area, the apartment, what to do in case of emergencies. I love all this stuff. But it’s a rarity. Why is it so hard for owners to do this? No idea – I even offer, every year or so, to help put one together in English, and they rarely take me up on the offer. I guess it’s hard for someone who isn’t looking in from an outsider’s perspective to know what information is necessary and what is (to them) totally obvious. TVs work differently from country to country, but only people who travel a lot realize this. Same goes for washing machines and lighting stoves and circuit breakers and the water heater switches I wrote about earlier. However, not all of the owners we work with are world travelers and it’s hard for them to anticipate what things will or won’t be easily understood. Keep in mind though that if something doesn’t work, it could also be that you don’t know how to work it – even something as basic as a television. If something doesn’t seem to work, ask the owner to show you – more often than not it just needs some explanation, and by asking them to show you it’ll open their eyes to the fact that it’s not universally understood.
5. It’s HOT
If you’re in southern Mediterranean Europe and it’s July or August, and you’re walking around under a blazing hot sun, you have to accept that it’s going to suck a bit and you’ll be a sweaty mess. It’s not worth getting in more of a huff about – just get over it. The US is kind of the gold standard in air conditioning, often to the point of absurdity. In Europe you’ll find that air conditioners are turned off when you’re not in the room (pay an energy bill here and you’ll see pretty fast why this is so!); and you’ll find that even when on full blast, it’s not going to get sub-arctic like you might want it to. We have less kilowatts of power in Europe, especially in old buildings, and due to high costs of electricity, we are forced to use A/C units that for efficiency produce less cold. It’ll cool things down a bit, but the reality is that we don’t control the climate – we have to live with it.
6. No international TV channels
I know for some it’s nice to come back “home” after a long day and turn on the television and go brain dead for a while. In some countries, like France, it’s cheap to get phone, internet and cable all in one go. In other countries, like Italy, it’s a separate cost for cable, and even then there are a limited amount of International channels (they wouldn’t be part of the standard package). As the saying goes, “when in Rome…” – in other words, you really shouldn’t expect to watch television in your language in another country. Maybe you’ll get a few hours of BBC international news or something – which is hardly going to help you relax! But remember, you’re on vacation – you’re away from home and ideally away from your home-habits too. Have a conversation instead. Drink a glass (or a bottle) of wine. Play cards. Read a book. Go back out again, get a gelato or a drink and sit somewhere and people watch. You aren’t missing anything.
8. Beds too soft / too hard
Sometimes we’ll get feedback from multiple people about the same place that reads like the Goldilocks story. For person A the bed was simply too hard. For person B, it was just too soft. For person C is was just right. I personally like very firm. Others like soft. It’s a personal thing, and I think when you travel you just have to go with the flow here.
9. Dodgy power
As I mentioned earlier, electricity costs are high in Europe and the available wattage is low. Turn on the washing machine, a few lights, and the hairdryer and you’ll blow a fuse. It’s just the way it is. Many apartments don’t have dryers simply because they consume too much. In the summer, with AC, this is something that can easily be a problem. Just realize that almost all European cities were built before the automobile and don’t have huge lines of infrastructure in place to bring the amount of power that only recently is requested/demanded to apartments. I love how the above picture shows the utility lines just under the street passing over ancient Roman ruins. Kind of puts things into perspective!
Rome wins the prize of being the loudest of the cities we work in, and it’s no doubt a cause for some very valid complaining. Personally, I’m used to it, and I think it’s part of the overall package – the loud, crazy Romans honking their horns and yelling at each other, or the sound of elderly Venetians banging around in their kitchens all afternoon. And if it’s not a quaint people-produced noise, it’s the trash collection at midnight or the recycling truck dumping glass bottles at 5am. Or the construction/renovation that starts next door (or the next building over that has a shared wall) at 7 or 8am. Or someone in the apartment above your bedroom who leaves early for work and walks around in high heels on their tiled-floors. Really, the list is never-ending. Good windows can help (but are very costly) and being somewhere that’s not either on a highly trafficked street or bus line or popular with drunk, reveling foreign students can also help. But I would be doubtful of anyone in Rome with a guarantee that their place is absolutely quiet. It’s the equivalent of selling the Brooklyn Bridge.
If you’re prepared to handle these top complaints with some understanding and patience, your bound to have a much better trip!