'I still don't quite know if this is the life you imagined for yourself.'
My mum's words during our last coffee together in my parents' garden in Czech, before we left for our seasonal assignment on the Greek island of Mykonos. A completely understandable concern from my parents, but when my boyfriend David and I left our London corporate office lives in 2019 after a decade of milking our careers from behind a computer screen, with visions of a grand adventure in the world and growing beyond our carefully refined and unbreathable comfort zones, I was surprised by how many friends and peers suddenly sprang up with a clear vision of what my life should look like. As long as a regular salary landed in my bank account between the years of roughly 20-30, no matter how utterly uninspiring and stagnant, but abroad, where life must always be better, I enjoyed the status of a kind of local celebrity - a relic of the post-communist mentality, I suppose. The one who made it and broke out. Anything to the West good, anything to the East bad. Anywhere's good, as long as it's not at home. etc. David - although from France, is experiencing a similar phenomenon. Taking a step back (at least in our parents' eyes) is unforgivable. A step away from the heated chair in the office, social and health security, towards the uncertainties of life 'on the road' requires, at the very least, a mental capacity assessment.
We have stepped completely unprepared into a world turned upside down (Covid story line caught us in our first month of work on an ocean liner), from one global mess to another. I sometimes wonder, quite unselfishly, if by derailing our sane and safe London lives, we've also derailed the rest of the world...To which one friend remarked: 'The world has always worked off the rails', and another, 'That's exactly how narcissistic sociopaths think.'
We set out with the conviction that money is the source of all evil, and with the ambition to prove to the world that it is possible to live authentically, differently, and better than the way capitalism dictates - 35 hours a week, Monday to Friday, behind a computer to afford rent and food. It's a bargain with our time, which, unlike money, we only ever have less of. Of course, we have failed disastrously in terms of this ambition. Capitalism may be disgusting, but no other more stable global version of existence has yet been developed by humanity.
Our journey has taken us through a months-long work gig on the ocean liner Queen Mary 2, to volunteer restoration work at a chateau in the south of France, to a farm in the Bulgarian mountains where jackals howl at night and bears come down from the wooded hills in the morning to eat the apples and plums ripening in the orchard behind the barn. Last winter season we cooked Christmas dinner for a family of twelve from Cyprus in a mountain chalet in the Swiss Alps. A hundred or so guests and several days of deep cleaning later, we finally sit down at our laptops in a focused manner, hoping that somewhere between work advertisements, the next step of our journey will materialize. The first offer we responded to only vaguely mentioned 'managing a summer residence on the Greek island of Mykonos' that hosts the owners of the retreat, their family and friends including members of the British Royal Family. Even after ten years of living in London I certainly wouldn't describe myself as a fan of the monarchy, but after five months under the snow, a rather appealing vision nonetheless.
'Plastic is cancer! There will be no cancer in my closet!'
Summer 2022. The lady of the house, Pippa, that we privately call the Dragon Lady, Madam Bathory or simply Mistress P, is furiously throwing plastic clothes hangers out of her wardrobe and I am biting my lip just as furiously to stop myself from screwing up this summer work opportunity for us with a burst of laughter. Never in my life would I have believed that at the ripe age of thirty-seven I would be going through my own Mommie Dearest moment. (From the 1981 biopic about the brutal mannerisms of actress Joan Crawford). I imagine that at any moment, Mistress P will swing the plastic coat hangers down and break them on us.
Twenty minutes later, we're driving across the island to buy a new set of wooden coat hangers, a rare opportunity to breathe outside the three villas we've been tending to this summer - from repairs and maintenance to representing the company to clients, from chauffeurs between upscale boutiques and clubs to maids, from laundry experts to butlers: whatever this family needs to construct their own private Downton Abbey simulation. Incidentally, the term butler is now politically incorrect, replaced by 'ambassador' in our employment contract. The lady who lured us to the position via Zoom in March kept repeating that we would simply 'be on hand for the owners and their guests' and that she was looking for people who 'remembered to fluff the cushions on the sofas and chairs every time they walked past'. I'm not kidding. We didn't get any further description of the position from her, and so until we landed on the island at the end of May I was adamant that it was all a scam. (Also I binged 'Inventing Anna' at that time, so this might had something to do with it.) But no adventure can be undertaken without a step into the unknown, right?
When we finally got through a series of vague interviews to a video call with Pippa and Remi - our future bosses - the rules of our position were specified as follows:
'You are expected to smile, but we don't want to hear you laugh. Hear everything, but pretend like you're not listening. Speak only when asked. You'll be up and ready before the house wakes up and your day is over only after everyone else is in bed.'
I found it both shockingly shameful and hilarious, and in a self-punishing manner, they rendered me completely intrigued.
I'd love to share a whole bunch of shocking details with you, but we were unfortunately forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement straight up during job interviews. So, only in passing. Our bosses - husband and wife Pippa and Remi (names changed of course) - have set up a timeshare company for super-rich clients. Depending on how much clients invest in their company each year, they earn a certain amount of points and then, depending on the number of points, they are free to use their luxury accommodations around the world, from resorts in Goa or Bali, to private villas in Ibiza, Bavaria or Mykonos.
Investors include friends - a term I use here with a very loose definition because, as we have seen, apart from money, status and power, these people have absolutely nothing in common and the whole concept of 'friendship' in their case is defined by mutual intrigue, envy, sabotage and duplicity and, as we have heard countless times (while we have, of course, pretended not to listen as instructed), they hate each other.
Pippa and her so-called 'girl friends' were first to arrive- all over fifty years old and with over fifty plastic surgery procedures. The result, of course, as it tends to be, is not a fifteen years younger appearance, but a quite obvious fifty-something who also obviously had copious amount of chemicals and silicone injected under her skin. Normally I am against any sort of shaming and I myself find myself gripping fiercely on the fading signs of youth, but after the way these furies treated us, there’s no sugar coating anything. If the purpose of this investment is to keep the interest of their husbands, I have to conclude that it is just another case of wasted money. Instead of plastic surgery, their husbands, who look like swollen, red-faced toads, are spending their money on ordering coke and escort services the minute the private jet with their wives leaves the island. I'm sorry to report that rather than a satire, programmes like Dynasty and The Devil Wears Prada represent a fairly accurate documentary probes into the lives of the extremely rich.
Pippa and Remi - no doubt because of the tax relief - turn over a portion of their earnings to support charities and non-profit organizations in the areas of the impact of global warming, ocean pollution and the environment. Mistress P strictly insists on using eco-friendly dish-washing detergents, but arrives to the island several times a year by private jet. The fabric softener must be exclusively organic, but P requires laundry to be done 4-6 times a day. The bed linen is changed in all three villas, regardless of whether they have been slept in or not, every three days, but nightgowns and pajamas must be washed daily.
Dragon Lady insisted on hiring a professional chef who spends most of the day either picking his nose or his cell phone, as the women consume half an almond a day and the men function entirely on liquid calories from waking up to evening delirium followed by a severe form of coma. Even on days when she’s here just with her husband and children, Mistress P has insisted on a ten-star buffet-style breakfast, regardless of the fact she never eats breakfast and her children always reach exclusively for Nutella toast. The uneaten food, meaning everything we have been cutting, grating, frying, cooking and arranging since seven in the morning, must be immediately scraped into the garbage, which P personally supervises. (The feral cats that congregate around Mykonian garbage cans are the best-fed beasts on the planet.)
Every morning, her 13-year-old twins, with a gloating cruelty that perfectly mirrors their mother's mannerisms, wait for the moment when I scurry around the breakfast table to collect the used dishes before demonstratively depositing the Nutella knife outside the enclosed plate directly onto the white tablecloth made of 100% Egyptian Mako cotton.
Regardless of age, elitists seem to enjoy indulging in psychological terrorism.
Pillows really do have to be fluffed in a very specific manner and never otherwise, products displayed in the bathroom must be facing a certain direction, face towels folded like sushi, every room has to be deep cleaned three times a day, except for cocaine and sex toys - which we are thankfully forbidden to touch. A certificate of successful completion of a marathon should definitely be a condition of being accepted to an "ambassador" position - a slow walk arouses suspicion, so one must literally run around the guests from dawn to dusk.
We learn to smile despite the open festering blisters on our feet. We learn not to laugh, even though this macabre circus of clichés and decadence deserves only laughter or tears, nothing in between. If we are not asked, we speak to each other only in whispers, hidden behind the open doors of colossal refrigerators that store magnum bottles of Veuve Clicquot and Dom Perignon champagne instead of food.
It is no coincidence that our bosses have found the perfect platform for this elitist circus here.
Mykonos has a mere 10,000 permanent residents, but during the summer months, another zero must be added to that number. Thousands of tourists living in an illusion of luxury for a few days are looked after by thousands of Greeks who flock from the other islands and the mainland to earn their keep during the bitter winter season when the flow of jobs dries up completely. The vast majority of them live in absolutely appalling conditions for months at a time, working officially 12, unofficially up to 18 hours a day - the backstage reality of this play on oppulence and never-ending party. The entire tourist infrastructure of the island is like a Potemkin village carefully constructed around the illusion of money and excess (the cheapest clothing store here is probably Gucci), but look a little sideways and shit starts bubbling up (literally) beneath the gilded surface. Recycling is non-existent here and the mountains of rubbish around the bins are not disposed of by anyone except the cats, so the extremely strong island winds called Meltemi cheerfully spread the rubbish out to sea.
Mykonos has only one mission - to get you into a state of altered consciousness as quickly as possible, most often horny and drunk: two states that guarantee uncontrollable spending. It's quite common for a quiet beach restaurant to be slammed with over-the-top and tasteless dance music during lunch, with half-naked go-go dancers leaping onto the tables, violently pulling American tourists towards them and pouring free shots into their gaping mouths. Thus trapped and loaded, the tourists soon begin to spend uncontrollably from their own savings to feed this party for as long as they can or until someone comes along with whom they can stumble into the hotel room and move the party under the duvet. The locals work non-stop every day all season (May-October) and in many cases have to share a room with at least five colleagues at all times. You only have to look a little sideways to see that while a violently provoked party is raging on the tables and at the bar, a few feet away, hidden behind overflowing bins, two of the dancers - one squatting to split a line of cocaine and the other complaining to someone on the phone - are both crying.
Mistress P hates the British royal family, but needs their money to fund her over-inflated lifestyle. After our experience with Pippa and Remi - and if total body exhaustion allowed - we'd probably be nervous about their arrival in Mykonos - and it would be completely unnecessary. In fairness, I have had to completely rethink my opinion of the British monarchy. Our royal family guests proved to be the most relaxed, sober, polite people with their feet firmly on the same ground we walk on. When our dishwasher broke, one of these modern royals herded her two daughters (literally princesses!) to the sink to help us wash the dishes. Members of the monarchy are born into privilege and money. Pippa, as we discovered quite by accident, began her climb up the elitist ladder in the most trivial way - she seduced her married boss. Yes, Pippa is Remi's former secretary.
Although this trivial secret gives us fuel in the form of somewhat mischievous glee, the rules of our employment contract remain. And so we continue to smile through the day, but not laugh. We speak only when asked. Today David is practicing yoga on one of the terraces for the granddaughter of the British Queen and her friends, in a meantime I wipe a dusting of pollen from the gigantic lilies from designer furniture and keep an eye on the octopus bubbling in the pot on the stove. This is also what summer of 2022 might look like in the bubble of Mykonos, a place totally out of context with Europe, burning both environmentally and geo-politically, metaphorically and quite literally.
At night, before we fall into a sleepless coma, we remind each other that we are more than the sum of our daily chores, and that all of this is definitely and definitively leading to something and somewhere. That this job works for our benefit more than we work for it.
Far from our biological and chosen family, a necessary part of survival is to regularly affirm our own identities to each other. That life once existed outside of serving the super-rich and that it will continue after this bizarre summer is over. What drives us is a shared vision (albeit as yet utterly unsupportable and unimaginable) of a place where we will one day drop anchor and start working so-called 'on our own' - the exact opposite of the ambition that shot us onto the road and out into the world. It seems to me that the human soul, in order to grow, sometimes requires rebellion against the ego, whose main goal is to keep us safe, within the confines of the familiar scenery and tried and tested life. To detonate the scaffolding that holds our 'home' together, to face and come to terms with the unknown, only to begin again to yearn for stability and start weaving a new safety net.
As you can see, in the pursuit of an authentic life, one can end up with a gig that requires a total suppression of any authenticity in job descriptions. If anyone feels that three years of nomadic living and dodging capitalist propaganda will radically open one's eyes and flip one's values, I can assure you that although I am still aimlessly treading the world with a backpack made of recycled plastic fished out of the sea, I continue to devote my free time to Netflix and utterly pointless purchases via AliExpress and Amazon. But perhaps part of authenticity is also being transparent about my own conflicted attitudes, unhealthy habits, and hypocrisy.
In terms of big life lessons from this horror stint, I don't hold out much hope. I'm relying on memory optimism - one of our most useful psychological processes. From our chapter of working on an ocean liner, I recall dolphins on the beach in Fremantle, Australia, more often than I recall the eighty-hour work week. I recall shots of local moonshine in a harbor bar on the Caribbean island of Dominica, spilling straight from a jar full of severed snake heads. I remember clearing out the attic and all the treasures we found there, including inscriptions on the walls dating back to the 18th century, from a working stay at a chateau in the south of France. I remember the sense of satisfaction with each completed renovation and the smell of blackberry brambles and old wallpaper we burned in the garden. Less so the fact that for three months I never felt not cold, I didn't even take my sweater off in bed, and the first time I felt truly clean in 2021 was in early April after the first warm shower of the year back at my parents' house. More than the moment I was kicked out of a restaurant in Sozopol, Bulgaria, because my boyfriend gave me a birthday kiss, I remember the cake I baked from fallen plums on a farm in the mountains, the shooting stars and the toad that lived in the drain under the garden tap.