Prolific Dutch novelist and journalist Arnon Grunberg (Amsterdam, 1971) has done many things: win the same first-novel prize for a second time (pseudonymously as Marek van der Jagt), publish in 23 languages, tour Afghanistan, visit Guantánamo Bay, but he had never cleaned hotel rooms professionally…
At Hotel G. they have three kinds of garbage: paper, plastic and Schweinefutter.
Used coffee filters disappear into the can with pig feed as well. The pigs will eat anything.
The boss lady fishes a bun out of the pig feed.
A guest had left it on his plate. I figured it was garbage.
“What’s this?” the boss lady asks, holding up the bun.
“Schweinefutter,” I murmur.
“We don’t thrown these away around here.”
She plucks the coffee grounds off the bun and puts it back in the basket on the breakfast buffet. She isn’t angry, just a little bent out of shape.
As a chamberboy, I am a disaster. Pulling sheets off the beds goes all right, removing pillowcases from pillows is within my range as well. But stuffing a featherbed back into its quilt cover is more than I can handle. I am a disappointment. I don’t want to be a disappointment.
Head of all chambermaids in Hotel G. is the Turkish Esmeralda. At least officially. As a matter of fact, she’s almost the only chambermaid. No one answers to her. Not until I got here. She’s been in Germany since 1971, but her German is still fractured. “You,” she says, “must empty trashcan.”
I move from room to room, taking out the guests’ trash. I don’t find much of anything special. Newspapers, brochures, empty bottles, medicine boxes, a few dirty diapers – even in rooms where no children have been.
The trash is sorted in the hotel laundry. Down on my knees, I remove the paper and plastic from the trash. I do this without gloves as well. The proprietors don’t like making unnecessary expenditures. But, in some strange way, I find it exciting to handle the refuse of strangers.
Existential dilemmas present themselves. A little jar of pills; the jar is plastic, but what about the pills?
I ask Esmeralda. She experiences a moment of doubt. She holds one of the pills up the light. “Schweinefutter,” she says.
Esmeralda is the chambermaid, I am her assistant. That division of roles suits me to a tee.
“You still going to school?” Esmeralda asks.
“No,” I say.
That’s all Esmeralda needs to know.
I trail along behind her with the trolley, using my faithful dishrag to symbolically dust off cupboards and doorknobs.
In Room Two, I find Esmeralda sniffing at the sheets.
Officially, the sheet has to be changed. The guest has left. Another guest will be arriving.
“These sheet is not dirty,” Esmeralda says. She plucks some hair off the sheet, then tucks it in at the sides.
I help Esmeralda remove human hairs from the sheet. The guest who lay here left quite a few of them behind. Pubic hair or hair-hair, it’s hard to say. “Lots of hairs,” Esmeralda says, “but not dirty.”
When we’re done, we’re both holding about a teaspoonful of hair.
Now the old problem rears its head again. Does this go in with the paper, the plastic, or does it belong in the can marked “Schweinefutter”?
Pigs, as it turns out, eat human hair as well.
“Don’t tell anyone,” Esmeralda says. “Guests who stay one night don’t make sheet dirty.”
I swear to remain silent.
“Get big towel, little towel, and vacuum hall but not so slowly.”
Articles, definite and indefinite, Esmeralda has no use for them.
I vacuum the hallway, but not so slowly.
The young woman from Austria still has Room Eleven. She shows up at breakfast every morning at seven. When she’s done she puts her cup on the plate, crumples up her napkin and stuffs it in the cup. Then she lights a cigarette.
This morning I nosed about in her things – in order to vacuum the hallway, I need to use the outlet in Room Eleven. She is, as I suspected, a sales representative, and she sells something to dry cleaners. But what?
On her nightstand, once again, is a can of nuts. She’s no longer reading a book about the secrets of the unconscious mind, now she’s reading a biography of Ulrike Meinhof entitled: Better Angry than Sad.
This morning she had on the cardigan I folded for her earlier in the week.
The Turkish chambermaid Esmeralda is starting to appreciate me more.
In Room Three she says: “Take little break.”
We take a little break.
She looks out the window and sees children. “Nice, those children,” she says.
I agree with everything she says.
“Later on I retire,” Esmeralda says, “and then I get eight hundred euros. The rent alone is four hundred. That’s why I’m going back to Turkey, but I don’t know anyone in Turkey. My husband went back in 1982 with another woman. From then on I haven’t had a husband, not a boyfriend either, no man at all. All I do is work. I have four sons. On weekdays I worked in textile plant, and Saturday and Sunday I worked in kitchen of managing director.”
Esmeralda looks at me.
“Nothing but work,” I say. “That’s…”
But I have no idea what it was I was going to say.
In the restaurant, before lunch, I help the woman with white socks and sandals. Her name, it turns out, is Meryem, but everyone calls her Maria.
“You make the drinks, I do the tables,” she pronounces.
I pour orange-flavored soda and tap beer as though I’ve never dreamed of doing anything else.
At one-thirty, Meryem hands me a ten-euro note.
“What’s this for?” I ask.
“Because you’re always such a big help, Anton.”
“No, no,” I say.
“Take it,” she hisses.
Embarrassed, I tuck the note away in my pocket.
There is no going back. I must remain Anton Morsink from here on out. I must never again step out of my role.