Saturday 16 December 2017

What Katie Did Next: In which I'm one sandwich short of a panic

Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Every man has his price, just as every man has his price limit. Mine is €27 for a club sandwich.

 "No, I just wouldn't give it to them," I declared perhaps a little too loudly in a hotel in Marrakech last week.

The hotel was La Mamounia, a palatial five-star where security guards can turn you away if you're not dressed appropriately and men wearing rich velvet capes open the door for you once you've been deemed suitable to enter the inner sanctum.

Inside it's all marble columns and chandeliers while the scent of cedarwood (a blend exclusively created for the hotel by 'nose' Olivia Giacobetti) swirls around the lobby. Winston Churchill was a regular and Vladimir Putin's daughter had her wedding here in 2013.

It's billed as a must-see on every Marrakech itinerary, and indeed it is - the gardens especially. But no, I will absolutely not give them €27 for a club sandwich. Not now, not ever.

I like five-star hotels. I like how one minute seems to stretch extravagantly into the next and the way everyone seems to abide by a tacit rule to walk at a gentler pace and speak in a softer tone. Will that be all, madam? Yes, that will be all.

I like the ceremony, the way tea - real tea - is served with a dozen accoutrements. I like the dinky little trays filled with olives and nuts. I like how receipts are served on sterling silver trays.

Only then I open up the leather-bound menu and see they are charging almost €30 for a club sandwich and I feel like the entire white waistcoat-wearing serving staff are in cahoots against me and my River Island jacket.

Top-tier hotels are known for charging exorbitant prices for club sandwiches. Hotels.com even has a Club Sandwich Index, which lists the cities that charge the most for what is one of the most common items on the lunch menu. Geneva was top of the list in 2014, closely followed by Paris and Helsinki.

I didn't see Marrakech on the list, though. Then again, the prices at La Mamounia don't at all reflect the prices elsewhere in the Moroccan city.

There's still value to be had in Marrakech, even if frequent visitors warn that taxi drivers and stall holders are known to inflate their prices. Be careful not to get ripped off, they counsel.

Oh, the irony. These same people, who would shamelessly spend 10 minutes of their life haggling over €2 with a market vendor wouldn't dare question the price of the club sandwich in La Mamounia.

In the souks they're terrified of looking like they have money, but back in the hotel they're terrified of looking like they don't have money. There's something very wrong with that.

Yes, I like five-star hotels, but sometimes I don't like the person I become when I visit them. Psychologists talk about "flow state", a phenomenon whereby we become so absorbed in an activity that we completely forget ourselves.

Sometimes when I visit five-star hotels I go into what can only be described as anti-flow state, particularly if there's a ladder in my stockings or a chip in my nail polish.

I become excruciatingly aware of myself and any clue in my demeanor that might suggest that I only have €120 in my bank account until pay day and am not in fact to the La Mamounia born.

Other times my anxiety gives way to anger - namely when I see the price of a club sandwich. I've delivered what is now a well-rehearsed rant about it in Moscow, Cannes and New York, and each time it's evinced a now familiar tight-jawed grimace from my travelling companions, whose imposter syndrome is so acute at this point that they've even adopted a more refined accent.

Please don't, they seem to be saying, they'll know we're not one of them.

I was about to deliver my rant in La Mamounia after we ordered mint tea for two at a cost of €14, only then I saw a tray leaving the kitchen on which a burger had been cut down the middle into two portions.

And then I followed the direction of the tray and looked around the lounge. We weren't the only ones with tight jaws. I was expecting to see people luxuriating in their surroundings while checking the FTSE 100 on their phones.


What I saw was people-watchers watching people-watchers and what I felt was an all-pervading sense of status anxiety.

It suddenly occurred to me that we were among other day-trippers and what luxury marketers call "the aspirational market". Perhaps some of us were what are known as HENRY's (High Earners Not Yet Rich).

Establishments like this depend on people like us, just as Chanel needs the people who line up for their new-season nail polishes and Hermes relies on the customers who buy their wallets even though they really want the bags.

Aspirationals provide the critical mass that allows haute couture collections to be created and velvet ropes to be secured. Interestingly, it's the Aspirationals that are more likely to spend €30 on a club sandwich because it's an entry-level price to a covetable lifestyle, a luxury tourism tax if you will.

I hasten to add that the Aspirationals - the people who don't have the hextuple zero bank accounts - are more inclined to spend above their means, while the rich are more inclined to spend below their means. Hence the rich get richer while those who desperately want to be rich unwittingly pay the ground fees on their playground.

As for those who visit these places to rub shoulders with the rich and famous, just remember that the celebrities are ensconced in their suites (which are paid for by the studio) and the hedge funder probably wouldn't be drinking Glenfiddich whisky if he didn't have an enormous expense account.

We left after our mint tea. Strictly speaking, we were €54 richer, but for some reason I felt a great deal wealthier than that.


'I like five-star hotels, but sometimes I don't like the person I become when I visit them'


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