With two children under the age of two, service is at the front of my mind when checking into a hotel.
What constitutes good service when travelling with kids?
Surprise turns to horror, with incredulity following hot on its heels. If I hadn't been holding a baby, I would have taken a step backwards when a woman in billowing turquoise chiffon starts mopping up my daughter's drool as I wait to check into a local five-star hotel. "So beautiful," she croons. So pointless, I think unkindly, but then I'm tired. With a baby aged four months and another daughter under two, I'm always tired at the moment. Perhaps that's why service, whether it's five-star or non-existent, is often at the front of my mind.
Something that would once have registered as merely annoyance quickly turns into a personal affront when you're juggling a circus of kids and an unencumbered other, posing as someone who is actually paid to help, casually wafts by. But then, an overly solicitous member of staff can be equally irritating.
Downstairs at the same hotel, a waitress offers to hold baby while I eat my breakfast. This kind gesture quickly sours when my toddler becomes upset that a stranger is holding her sister. Her tears soon dry up but the waitress keeps hovering, trying to engage the children when all their parents want is to inhale their food and leave. I'm also not very interested in giving the wandering chef a forensic analysis of his omelette-making skills. Something he fails to grasp quickly enough.
Something else he fails to grasp? A crabby parent is not a nice person.
So what is good service when you are travelling with kids? In my experience, it stems from thoughtfulness, empathy and - this last part is much harder - telepathy. I have no doubt that staff in the leisure industry are directed to be "helpful" to all guests, families included, but some are at a loss when it comes to dealing with mercurial, fraught mothers.
Others display an uncanny knack for getting on with children, probably because they have their own families or younger siblings and know exactly what's needed to soothe fraying parental nerves.
Last December we went on an exhaustive tour of Kent in southern England, and took refuge from the icy temperatures at a cheap and cheerful cafe. I ordered sausage and chips for my toddler; a choice straight out of the good parenting handbook. The waitress reappeared with a few chips within moments, saying breezily: "I've brought her a little something out first as they always want to eat right now, don't they?"
"Yes, they do. Thank you ..." Thank you, thank you, I thought, so grateful for the small gesture.
Back in five-star land and I'm trying to wrestle a marker pen off my almost two-year old, who has bright yellow ink all over her dress. Instead of paper and crayons, she's been given a wipe-clean placemat to colour. It must have seemed like a really good idea to someone in guest services - someone who is without kids.