Nearly everyone hates hotels.’
– George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

 

There was a time in my life when I lived in hotels.

Around this time, the time I did not spend in hotels was time I did not live. During this other time I haunted a marriage I was soon to leave. There’s no place like home and, as home seemed hardly to qualify as a place any more, I began to look for something elsewhere.

I got myself a job as a hotel reviewer for a start-up website. There was lots of reviewing to be done. I reviewed grand hotels and boutique hotels, budget hotels and expensive hotels, city hotels (mostly) and country hotels (occasionally). In each hotel I stayed one night, two, three at most. If I planned carefully, I could live in hotels for weeks at a time without taking a break.

What did I look for in hotels? A home away from home? Perhaps.

Some of the hotels I visited were like the homes I had sometimes thought I might have wanted as a child: baronial backstories of hunting prints and tartan (carpets, walls, bedcovers, everything!). Some were Zen gardens of mushroom minimalism; others, boudoirs, where terrifyingly tall satin bedheads and velvet button-back chairs Alice’d me into submission. Some hotels wanted to be better than home: seamless, uplit concept spaces; entire rooms dipped in white rubber (a few scuff marks around the feet of the bed); corridors with no lights; walls that changed colour at the flick of a switch; black toilet paper.

A few hotels, wishing to be more homelike, installed nervous ‘lounges,’ and ‘libraries’ in their lobbies; these usually contained very few books, artfully arranged, their covers glaring from dark recesses. The books were art books mostly, and mainly photographic – landscapes, travel, architecture – books about places as far from the hotel as the hotel was from home. As inoffensive and impersonal as the artificially aged leather chairs into which I sank with a kind of pre-made comfort, they were nothing I could settle into. Some of these ‘lounges’ and ‘libraries’ had ‘honesty’ bars which, by their very name, provoked temptation. Several of them displayed cakes and biscuits as well as bottles, but could I take the last slice or be discovered in this very public privacy, covered in crumbs? Set too near to the hotels’ revolving doors, they were chilly places and largely unfrequented, as were the hotel restaurants, except at breakfast, which was sometimes included in the deal, and sometimes not.

My first hotel was both grand and boutique: a new hotel in a three-centuries-old townhouse in a walled garden in the middle of a city. Its Unique Selling Point was privacy, but the owners wanted a review all the same.

The French-born manager met me in the garden. She apologised, ‘The designer did not want flowers. Flowers are a little . . . vulgar. We wanted the garden to be like the hotel. There are lots of places where you can be private. That’s why we don’t have a name on the door. You have to find the hotel. It’s like a secret.’

It had taken me a little time to find the hotel, dragging my wheeled suitcase up a cobbled hill in the August heat. The price of rooms ensured that any paying guests would arrive by taxi.

We pushed through plate glass doors into the lobby. It was beautiful: each surface polished, reflective, dazzling. There was marble, there were mirrors and, inside vitrines around the shining walls, there were goods for sale: face creams, commemorative trinkets, cultured pearl earrings, all with discreet price tags; in one vitrine, the crumbling eighteenth-century bill of sale for the hotel building sandwiched between two pieces of glass. Sitting in the rear formation of the lobby’s three groups of tastefully mismatched retro-modern and antique gilt chairs, a fat man took phone calls. Pugnacious and balding with a small, square beard, he looked like he might have been the hotel’s catering supplier, or a visiting movie director. He wore a loud, striped shirt. His leather jacket may have been exquisitely distressed by design or bought from a local street market. He looked as though he could be very rich. Rich enough not to care.

The desk clerk handed me a key. I left my luggage and checked into hotel terminology, which is all tautology and bad puns (I once glimpsed the Terminal Hotel through a train window at Milan station). Hotel lingo is parallel to everyday speech, for on vacation, who acts exactly as they do at home? It moves on restlessly to the last resort, coupling ill-matched lexical strangers in ‘lounge-bars,’ ‘activity-holidays,’ ‘hospitality-suites,’ though some of its cocktails – ‘pillow-menu,’ ‘mini-bar’ – can be hard to swallow.

Hotel was once a word for house, but at some point the term took a turn. Now ‘Hotel’ stands for ‘difference,’ which is sometimes inversion (why say, ‘splendid hotel,’ when you can declare, ‘Hotel Splendid’?) and sometimes appropriation (say, ‘maître d,’ ‘patio,’ ‘tapas,’ not, ‘waiter,’ ‘yard,’ ‘snacks’). Restless as their vocabulary, hotels across the world are named for elsewhere, each displaced by a city or two: the Hotel Bristol in Paris, the Hotel London in New York and, in Berlin, the Hotel de Rome – not to mention the Orientals, the Swissotels, the InterContinentals that pinpoint the globe.

Is a hotel a language system? It’s a system of some kind: a series of set elements in different combinations. All hotels invite decoding and every hotel is a ‘concept hotel.’ I love to read about hotels I have never seen or stayed in, hotels that once stood for something to a reader at one remove in place or time. Joan Didion’s hotel writing induces the ecstatic vertigo of an entirely self-referential lexicon. Hotel Barbizon, fictionalised by Sylvia Plath in The Bell Jar as Hotel Amazon, is a double signifier for which I have no referent. Names to conjure with! Who cares if these hotels exist and, if they do, whether I will ever visit? The glamour of the entirely unknown is the ultimate in name-dropping.

Many of the hotels I reviewed had recently reinvented themselves but, reopening, seldom thought to change their names; perhaps there is a finite number. ‘There is a Grand Hotel in every city,’ says Lionel Barrymore in Edmund Goulding’s 1932 film that, as if to illustrate his point, is also called ‘Grand Hotel.’ In the days of Goulding’s movie, purpose-built hotels were the last word in chic and new structures required newly invented names: Starwood (founded 1930), Novotel (1965), Accor (1967). Nowadays, rather than neologise, hotels repurpose. There are hotels in caves, in trees, on rivers, in the ice, in anyplace that’s no place like home. I’ve stayed in hotels that were once palaces, car parks, brothels. They do not so much wish to leave their original occupations as revisit them in fantasy terms, as ghosts of their former selves. The old ‘new’ hotels used to pride themselves that every room was the same; the new ‘old’ hotels boast that every room is different. Chain hotels bind us to the expected (‘Recollection’s love,’ concluded Kierkegaard, checking into a Berlin guesthouse that disappointed on a second visit, ‘is the only happy love.’) but boutique hotels make a virtue of the local, each of them influenced by its particular place in the world. In these hotels, rooms are named, not numbered. It feels personal, but it’s not your personal. You adapt yourself to the room’s desires, and it promises to return you to the non-hotel world fitter, chic-er, hipper than on your arrival.

In Paris there is even a Hotel de l’Avenir (Hotel Future), which I have never visited.

‘I treat hotels, even sleazy specimens,’ says poet and cultural critic, Wayne Koestenbaum, in his book, Hotel Theory, ‘as utopias.’ How do hoteliers do it? I wonder. Or, rather, why? Who’d take up the profession without boundless optimism, boundless generosity, boundless cynicism about the nature of human desire? I’m here to try on someone else’s version, not of my life, but of an ideal life, cut to my budget. Like the towelling robe in the bathroom, it feels good but it doesn’t really fit. Nevertheless I’ll put it on. I insert my key card into the slot. The handle turns. I’m in.

They’re keen on black here. And white. The floor of my room is slate. A huge pale bed rises from it on a central platform. I stumble like a pilgrim as I approach, missing a step in the dark gulf of the floor. I pick myself up. My bed must be six feet square, seven. Goldilocks, I spread myself across it to check. It is wider than I am tall.

Now I am in, what do I do? I had envisaged my hotel-self working all afternoon, my bed strewn with books and papers but, somehow, I can’t get started. However much they try to shake it up, provide ‘experiences,’ hotel terminology exists to soothe and relax. Staff pillow conversations with long, formal sentences. Not ‘No problem,’ advises Doug Kennedy, provider of training programs for ‘guest service excellence’ and ‘front desk profit optimization,’ but ‘It was my pleasure.’ Or ‘You are most welcome.’ Hotels – hushed – have a problem with the active voice. The passive evades clock time and diffuses responsibility (not ‘We’re serving your dinner at eight,’ but ‘Dinner is served.’). To stay in a hotel is never like living at home. Hotel is a nothing-doing, but hardly through what I would call choice. Like Miss Golightly, I am ‘travelling.’ Nevertheless I have – simultaneously – arrived.

What should I do in a hotel room? I look around for clues. Some of the things in my hotel room, pretty as they are, are merely for use and, as such, uninspiring. Others, being purely decorative, are puzzles without solutions. The eternal hotel-room question is what am I allowed? Should I pull the curtains – is there a cord? How do I control the air-conditioning? What is the Wi-Fi password? Can I open this window? I put out a hand to stroke the gilt serpent, hand-stencilled by a well-known graphic artist, that snakes across the wall. It is scaly with crackled lacquer. Electric buttons are hidden in the wallpaper. I push one and, leaning toward the head of the snake, I hear a faint hiss. As I turn away a useless vase of purple liquid, poised on a small tray-table, overbalances and crinkles, almost mutely, into cartoon diamonds on the carpet. Did I do something wrong? Hotel bedrooms are invitations to failure. In my time I have accepted many of these, eventually concluding that I am unlikely to survive a hotel visit without breaking something. Then there are the personal tripwires: How much should I tip? When should I call room service? As someone trained to ask for little, to make as little fuss as possible, I am in truth badly suited to my job. In order to become a guest I must learn to adjust the horizons of my desires.

A knock at the door. It’s the manager with something complimentary.

‘You like the room?’

‘It’s . . . fantastic.’

‘You would like me to show the bathroom? It is very Philippe Starck influence. Influence – is that a good word?’

‘Yes.’

In a city where most apartments have space for no more than a shower cubicle, my en-suite has a bath. As white, almost as big, as my bed, any bather is no more than a specimen on a marble slab. I notice the egg-shaped toilet, wall-mounted slightly too high, like the bed. There is the black toilet paper waiting beside its white alternative and, on the shelf, a ‘babapapa nostress’: a squeezy toy you can press to relax, around it a band of cellophane that tells me it’s not included in the deal.

‘We are a boutique hotel,’ the manager explains, ‘so we have various items available.’

I’d been under the impression that ‘boutique’ referred to the size of the place and its independent style, not to the fact it sold things.

She indicates a menu by the bed. The hotel offers other overpriced toys: ‘erotic’ chocolates, jelly-flavoured condoms. As well as the ‘nostress,’ you can buy incense and ‘calming’ bubble bath. The hotel sells you misbehaviour, then something to deal with the fallout, both in candy colours. There’s a pointed notice in the bathroom: ‘If you would like to take away a souvenir, our robes are for sale at reception.’ The hotel mistrusts me. I’m not surprised. There’s no right or wrong here. Despite the bedside drawer’s insistent Bible, the usual moral standards do not apply. This is my holiday, my treat. I’ve come for what I’m owed, and more. The disappointments of my life may revenge themselves in petty larceny, but, even then, will I get what I’ve paid for?

How am I in a hotel? Although enraged, I whisper. But I will enthuse when required. I will delight in what is put in front of me, unsure I would delight in such a thing at home. A tour of the hotel? For my review? I’d love to. I follow the manager. Shame works its way under our skins as she unlocks door after door, as we cross thresholds to find guests’ clothing unpacked, underwear straddling the chair backs, surprised electricians balancing on sinks to repair light fittings, cleaners removing bin-loads of empty bottles. More shameful yet (in a world where the guest must appreciate the value of everything and the price of nothing) are the workings of the hotel’s mind laid bare. ‘This is our most expensive room,’ my guide is forced to admit. ‘This room is designed to appeal to ladies, this to economically-inclined families . . . This room is ‘specially equipped for romance.’ ’

‘We didn’t want to be like the big hotels,’ the French-accented hotel manager tells me. ‘We have only seven suites. In this space, we could have had fifteen. Big hotels are sometimes a bit . . . impersonal. We wanted to do something more personal. We want the ghosts (she modulates the vowel in ‘guests’) to feel at home . . . not like in a ghosthouse. But the hotel is also not somebody’s home. We want ghosts to be left alone – or to have conversations with other ghosts if they want to.’

Desire, being not so easy to fool, however, feels a disjunction between itself and what arrives to answer it. In that gap, disgust grows like mould between tiles. Intimacy was something I’d come to escape; didn’t she understand? But I cannot avoid the ghosts.

Like Greta Garbo in Edmund Goulding’s 1932 movie, Grand Hotel, I wanted to be alone, but in truth I was never left alone. It was not my fellow guests who, like me, seemed to have come here to get away. Other ghosts with passkeys stole into my room unannounced, if I did not bar them by hanging a totem of cardboard on silk rope around my door handle. They left small tokens of their presence: a newspaper; the corner of a sheet turned down; a single melting chocolate on my pillow; toilet paper folded into a v – sometimes no more than that. In the corridors they hardly disguised themselves. It was strange how – once outside my door – they were willing to be seen in the flesh, their tiny treasures spilling from tall steel shelf-stacker trollies. Inside my room they dissolved into a mist of might-have-been, but I always met one pushing through the lobby in the morning, in the way of breakfast.

A ghost erases the present by repeating the actions of the past. That’s what haunting is. Was this what I wanted from hotels – to be haunted? Was it the gleaming tiled bathrooms I hadn’t cleaned, was it the beds I hadn’t made, that magically remade themselves every time I left the room, my own presence constantly smoothed over? Was it the clean sheets that had nevertheless been slept in by so many others: old and young, sick and well, couples and singles? Was it the clinical paper that put itself between me and the room’s objects: the ‘police – do not cross’ strip across the toilet, the miniature soaps wrapped with no more than one end-user in mind?

But hotels are never successfully haunted. Hotel ghosts might go through the motions but it’s homes (usually stately) that are haunted, by ghosts that are in the family, or at least familiar. A ghost is an exegesis – it comes to point the finger, tell the true story – but hotels like to make up their own histories in keeping with the fashion, remake them each time they make up your room.

A hotel, restless, cannot be a home, not even a home away from home; far from it. It puts the mockers on home and all that is homely. A ghost must be seen by the living in order to exist (if we are all dead, a ghost is nothing but a neighbour); a hotel sets itself apart from home and, in doing so, proves rather than denies home’s existence.

Sigmund Freud in his 1919 essay, ‘The Uncanny,’ tells how the word heimlich ranges in meaning from ‘homely’ to ‘private’ and from ‘private’ to ‘secret,’ and thence to ‘dishonest’ and on to ‘uncanny,’ and that unheimlich, home’s apparent opposite, stands for no more than the uncanny inner workings of the homely, uncovered.

A hotel’s secret is that it’s only a seeming mini-break from the rights and wrongs of home. A hotel is an occasion for unheimlich longing. That so few hotels are satisfactory may be part of the trick. We expect our desires to be addressed and dispensed with. Instead, they are put on ice. We’re numbed. So what: What-isn’t can be richer, more ornamental, than what-is. But, in constructing a hotel, you can’t keep out the human element. A hotel’s glamour is its guests. We must live up to our hotels. We’re on display; we’re what’s being sold. No need to ask us in like vampires: we invite ourselves. We are paying ghosts.

I return, with the hotel manager, to my room, to find the broken vase spirited away without mention, end of story. My mistakes do not come back to haunt me. Instead, I must learn how not to fear the consequences.

 

‘Hotel Haunting’ is an excerpt from Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, published by Bloomsbury as part of their Object Lessons series

Photograph courtesy of the author

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