Trapped by the twin demons of habit and finance, I've often entertained the fantasy of opening a bed-and-breakfast. It's a heady thought, quitting my job and devoting my life to cloth-covered jars of huckleberry jam. Instead of enduring the drudgery of nine-to-five, I would live a quaint, pastoral existence surrounded by freshly baked scones and feathery duvets. But I must admit that this vision of a better life was fueled mainly by frilly BBC costume dramas—I had no idea where to actually start. So it was with a mix of excitement and trepidation that I signed on for "Run Your Own B&B," a trip to Ireland during which I would work for a week at the very inn where I'd be staying. What would I encounter?Maybe I'd become extremely interested in antique lace or be asked to translate a lengthy "Do Not Use" Post-it into Gaelic. Maybe I'd need to wrangle Riverdancers in nightshirts or juggle volumes of moody verse. Perhaps the behind-the-scenes tumult of broken toast tongs and confused foreigners would make me conclude that Fawlty Towers was a documentary. I was hoping for my own version of Upstairs, Downstairs, a tweedy romantic comedy featuring hurricane lamps and a nosy matron played by any number of brittle graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. I wanted Gosford Park without the murder. In short, I craved doilies.
Sceptre Ireland, a New York-based tour company, offers weeklong "working vacations" in Dublin, Lahinch in County Clare, or Killarney in County Kerry. I chose Killarney, as it sits on the edge of a dazzling 37-square-mile national park. B&B's require a lot of fresh air; guests should be in constant suspense regarding the sudden appearance of local cheeses and livestock. I flew to Shannon, where I picked up a car for the two-hour drive to Killarney. Once I arrived, I easily found my place of employ and residence, the four-star Abbey Lodge, an unpretentious stone house near the town's center. The Abbey was built in the 1960's, but its façade was enhanced three years ago with four arched Romanesque windows from a nearby church.
I was greeted by Muireann King, tomboyish but gracious beyond her 27 years (favorite expression: "Grand"), who runs the B&B with her father, John. Ushering me to the Abbey's living room, Muireann explained that I was to be the only Assistant Innkeeper (their cheery term for my servitude) in residence. I blanched as I envisioned myself carrying huge loads of firewood and drowning in a tidal basin of dust-covered Victoriana, not to mention missing out on a possible Downstairs, Downstairs romance. She then outlined my responsibilities: serving breakfast, cleaning rooms, making brown bread, taking reservations, and learning how to pull a pint of Guinness at a local pub. During our subsequent tour of the Abbey, the doorbell rang. "Oops, I have to get that!" Muireann trilled, suddenly disappearing. Chief among the occupational hazards of the hospitality industry is the tendency to flit.
The next morning at 11, I began my first task: helping a cherubic young Estonian employee named Kairi clean six rooms. Our ministrations were thorough, so it took us a good four hours. At first blush, the idea of cleaning rooms in the very establishment where I was billeted felt somewhat odd, akin to flossing my dentist. Gradually, though, I realized that this would be my opportunity to avenge every unclean hotel room I'd ever stayed in. This mandate before me, I scrubbed and dusted with a startling enthusiasm; my removal of a hair from room No. 22's tub was nothing short of triumphant.
Equally memorable was cleaning the room directly across from mine. The evening before, I had said hello to the gentleman staying in it; quite certain he didn't know I was an Assistant Innkeeper, I wondered what would happen if he returned to his room and discovered me neatening his socks. "I'm part of a guest outreach program," I imagined nervously blurting. "Love your travel tote!"
Kairi asked me if I was thinking of opening my own B&B. I told her that my hometown of New York City could certainly use some Irish hospitality and warmth. "I could call it, 'Give Us a Hug, Then,' " I said. Kairi blinked somewhat uncomprehendingly, producing an expression exactly midway on the smile-to-grimace continuum.
After cleaning rooms, I had the rest of the afternoon and evening off, as I would most days of my stay. I decided this was my time to investigate activities that guests might ask about: a bus tour of the Ring of Kerry, the circuit of jagged coastline and charming villages on the Iveragh Peninsula, or an exploration of the Gap of Dunloe, a glacial mountain valley. These trips under my belt, I could now sprinkle my conversation with the words stunning, craggy, and sheep-flecked. I also watched some very competent Irish dancing in the B&B's backyard (Muireann's mother teaches dance in an adjacent studio); my phrases here would be bracing, percussive, bring cotton balls. Knowing that one of an innkeeper's duties is chatting with guests, I tried to speak with as many Irish people as I could to see what they talk about. Apparently, most of the folk I met talk mainly about two things: 1) Young people aren't going into the priesthood anymore and 2) There's too much traffic in Dublin.
In the B&B of my imagination, characters in mobcaps and buckle shoes pester you awake at dawn, hurrying you off to a local battleground for the firing of cannons; breakfast is a furtive handful of pemmican and hardtack served amid the sulfur (more Last of the Mohicans than Are You Being Served?, I realize). Alas, the King family is far more relaxed and generous; breakfast runs from 8:15 to 9:30 in the sunny dining room. During two mornings of my stay, I helped set up, serve, and clean after breakfast.
I particularly enjoyed serving. "Tell them, 'The plate is hot. Mind,' " Muireann instructed, handing me a "full Irish"—two substantial rashers of bacon, three sausages, and a fried egg, all warmed under a broiler. Although I am American, I decided that her distinctively Irish directive—"Mind"—was important to the Abbey Lodge experience, so I quoted her verbatim to several diners. By my ninth guest, a woman in her twenties, I found myself counseling, perhaps too familiarly, "Mind the plate, love." When one diner opined that the Abbey's strawberry jam was good and thick, I took the opportunity to liken it to the traffic in Dublin.