Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Mind your manners: Jeremy Clarke takes a cruise up the Nile and finds the spirit of service to be almost unnerving

Good morning, sir! How are you today?' 'I'm well.' 'Thank you so much, sir. Welcome.' This is a typical exchange of greetings between a passenger and a member of staff on the Nile cruiser the Oberoi Zahra. That final expression of gratitude by the member of staff is sometimes accompanied by a step backwards, a bow and a submissive fluttering of the eyelids.

There is no escaping the politeness of the staff. As you shuffle about the Zahra in your Egyptian cotton robe and complimentary hand-woven slippers--from the early morning gym workout, to the snow-white linen of the breakfast table, to the swimming pool, to the blue-striped sun-lounger, to the massage table and back to the dining table again--you find that as a passenger you are in a minority. On the Zahra there are three times as many staff as paying passengers. And the staff are so friendly, so polite, so imbued with an un-PC spirit of service, that it is impossible to go around lazily or arrogantly pretending to yourself they are invisible or less highly evolved than you are.

They spot you. They move in and formally greet you. (They've even remembered your Christian name.) You greet them back. They retreat. By noon you've exchanged polite greetings with everyone on board, except maybe the other passengers, mainly Brits when I was aboard, plus a few French. I don't think servility entered into it. It was more to do with personal honour and displaying easy good manners. I put my best foot forward and tried to rise to it.

'Good day to you, sir! I trust you are well?'

'I mustn't grumble, Mahmoud. And your good self?'

'Sir, it is a blessing and an honour. Thank you so much, sir.'

Some people thought that level of politeness from the staff was excessive. I admired it. I think meticulous, so-called oriental politeness of this order can have a lot of style about it, and more to the point, it demands style in response. It's a two-way intelligence test, I think, that leaves everyone concerned feeling at worst noticed, and at best elevated.

The Oberoi staff training must be unbelievably rigorous. When I heard on CNN one morning during the cruise that a member of staff at the Oberoi Bombay had seen a terrorist aiming his weapon at one of the guests and, putting the needs of the guest before his own, had thrown himself between them to take the bullets on the guest's behalf, it did not surprise me in the least. Oberoi employees are like that, believe me.


Of course, that level of service and politeness is wasted on some. Some passengers privately joked or complained about what a damn nuisance it was having to go around responding to the greetings of servants and to be continually fending off waiters wanting to pour your beer for you from the bottle to the glass. Two chaps in our party had a fetish about pouring their own beer from the bottle to the glass, for example. They got quite shirty about it. Whether pouring their own beer was a thing about maintaining the proportions of the head, or an irreducible kernel of political idealism, or a masculine thing, or they needed the exercise, I didn't like to ask in case they thought I was being naive.

The level of respect and politeness was the same with the Egyptologist who showed us round the temples we called at. He called us his Royal Family ('This way, Royals!'), and he served us intellectually to the very utmost of his ability, and constantly showered us with small gifts.

And it was the same with the Thai women operating the spa. From the menu I chose the yoga massage and told Yoyo to take no prisoners. Before she began, she knelt gracefully before me and washed my feet. She held my old, gnarled plates of meat in her childlike hands as gently and lovingly as if they had been day-old puppies. I was shocked. Then she sat on me and pushed and pulled me into all sorts of outlandish positions in a kind of kama sutra for one person only. In case I was suffering in silence, she said, at one point, while advancing my left ankle firmly and inexorably towards my right ear: 'Is everything OK, Mr Jeremy? Not too hard for you?' 'Nope,' I said bravely. 'It's OK, thank you, Yoyo.' Exerting a little more pressure, she said, with the most exquisite sweetness, 'Thank you, sir, for saying thank you.'

More than 200 cruise boats ply the Nile, from the first cataract at Aswan in Upper Egypt, down to Luxor, gateway to the ancient city of Thebes, in Middle Egypt. The Zahra is by common consent the most luxurious. It wouldn't surprise me if it wasn't also the politest. But dealing with politeness of that high order does take a bit of effort.

Clarke, Jeremy

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