Friday, March 14, 2008

Hotels, life and everything else

I have not had a good rant for ages. The sad thing about this is that, when I had this realisation, I was sitting in one of those places where complaining seems just about inane. I was in a hotel.

I have a love-hate relationship with hotels. This is caused by the fact that I have stayed in too many. I feel uncomfortable about this because it is a privilege to stay in a hotel. I feel compelled to say that the reason for my excessive frequenting of hotels is almost exclusively due to work, and paid for by other people’s money. That said, I do embarrassingly consider myself something of an expert on hotels.

Hotels can be charming places. It is wonderful to have someone to make your bed, clean your bathroom, let you borrow a bathrobe and give you free pens and stationery at will. However, there is also something deeply disturbing about them.

The hotel myth rests on buying into the pretence that you are an important person. You must convince yourself that you are the first person to sleep in the crisp clean bed, not the thousandth, and that when you are called ‘Sir’, people mean it. In turn, one pays an inflated amount of money for participalting in this illusion.

To make the delusion real, the hotel staff engage in mind games that trick you into an alternative reality. They fold the end of your toilet roll into a triangle. They fold down your bedcovers just before you go to bed, and leave you a wafer-thin little mint for your delectation. These activities are pointless, but serve to confirm that something special is, indeed, going on. In any other context, an obsession with triangles and folding of this kind, not to mention stalking a stranger with sweeties just before bedtime, would be considered a committable offence.

But it does not end there. The first time you turn on your TV, it welcomes you personally with a message. The TV ‘remote’ has too many buttons and works sporadically. The plugs in the bathroom are never – well, how can I put this? – plugs. Rather, they are those odd modern metal things that take days to master. The shower is too hot or too cold, and the shower curtain has a life of its own and a fervent desire to cling to one’s body.

Put another way, if you landed in a hotel from outer space, you would think civilisation is downright weird. Alternatively, aliens might feel at home. If you have watched Star Trek, the entire spaceship is like a hotel – nothing is out of place and everything works perfectly.

But enough of this frivolity. What I mean to say is this: a realisation which came to me the other night in a hotel after my third bag of overpriced bar fridge peanuts is that, despite my tetchiness about hotels, they have something to teach us. Hotels are like life (and, perhaps, politics). You spend all the time you can over the course of your life trying to make it just right, struggling each day for an ideal existence in a box that you call your home with a climate-controlled atmosphere. Everything should be painstakingly tidied away.

However, when it all comes to an end, you realise that all the time spent on getting the conditions right was time wasted. After all, when you stay in a hotel, it is not the room that matters, or the politeness of the service staff, or how amorous that shower curtain is, but the reason why you are there in the first place.

Remember, it is what you do with your time that counts, not the variety of snacks in your bar fridge, the warmth of your complementary slippers or if people speak to you courteously. So stop fiddling with the TV remote control and get on it with it.

This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 14 March 2008 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.