On an international, meaning very, very long, flight sometime last year, I found myself in an awkward situation. Having patiently waited through the takeoff and ascent for the moment when I could marginally ease the ergonomic nightmare of my economy seat by leaning it back those precious few inches, I pressed the button, pushed back, and was tapped on the shoulder by the woman behind me. She wanted me to keep my seat upright.
This is a monstrous request. I’ve heard about the horrors of limited leg room from very tall people. I believe it when I’m told that a leaned back airplane seat presses into their knees and tortures them in ways that may very well miniaturize the discomfort I feel in my back with the seat bolt upright. Had the person I found when I turned around been 6’5”, I may have felt a little more charitable, and considered doing some relative suffering equations.
The woman, however, was short. Her knees were nowhere near the back of my seat. She only just preferred that I not lean back, wanted those few inches for herself, and thought that it was her right to ask that of me. I told her that that felt unreasonable to me and kept the seat where it was. I felt a bit guilty, it’s not easy to put your comfort over someone else’s, especially when they’re going to be two feet away from you for the next ten hours, but pretty soon I relaxed, put it out of my mind.
When the meal was served, though, she tapped again. This time I acquiesced. Some airlines even ask you to do that, or so I remember from a time when meal service was more normal. As soon as the trays were taken away, though, I pushed myself back, and again she tapped. Hadn’t I already answered this question? I looked at the traveling companion to her right, and at my own. His seat was back and her friend hadn’t said a word about it. Why did she think this was an appropriate thing to ask of someone? I stayed where I was, but the rest of the flight was haunted by a sense that I was torturing the woman behind me for the sake of my own pleasure.
In retrospect, this is not right. Those inches belonged to me. In a perfect world we’d all have another foot or two on all sides of us, but in the reality of increasingly stingy airlines who know you’ll use their services no matter how poorly they treat you, space is a scarcity and the priority is for my back muscles to relax, not for this woman to have more free space around her head. It was evil of her to not respect that.
Standing in a particularly slow moving airport security line yesterday afternoon, I had the leisure to watch a curious thing unfold. As you’ve probably noticed, where there used to be just the massive block of waiting travelers, there are now a couple of different sub-options for getting yourself through the security mess. For a long time now it’s been possible to cut to the front of the line. No matter who’s been waiting, or for how long, you show up and you’re the next one up for full TSA personal space violation. Newer is the option of going through a fully separate line, a line that allows you to keep your shoes on, your laptop in your bag, and to submit yourself to neither radiation nor molestation. I’m sure you all are familiar with these developments; some of you may even be in on them. I, personally, still belong to the group that watches with envy and resentment as the privileged few breeze through the place of my captivity.
What I saw yesterday was a couple of elderly ladies who may very well have been playing the system. The first I saw of them, they were being escorted by a burly police officer out of the line marked for employees’ only. They looked to be somewhere around 80 years old and they tottered out in front of him, not with the shame or humility I would imagine myself feeling, but chatting with each other, presumably about where they maybe needed to go instead. To get to their next choice, they had to walk around the giant line I stood watching them from. There’s no way they missed seeing it. But they headed straight for the other empty line, the one where you get to keep your shoes on. I watched. Maybe they were meant to be in that line and had just gotten a little confused. But when they got to him, the agent looked at their tickets and did not wave them through. They did not walk away. They stood there, saying who knows what to the agent, to one another, looking at the tickets again, looking confused and bewildered, and not budging. The whole thing lasted about one minute, the time it took me to advance maybe five feet in my line, and then the confused, bemused agent decided to wave them through.
Best advertisement I’ve seen for aging in a long time.
A couple of years ago I had to travel, for a job, with a large group of people. The day before our flight, we met to discuss logistics. One member of the group, who lived a little bit out of town, had arranged to stay the night with a friend, so as to be closer to the airport for the next day’s early departure. She showed up, then, to our meeting with all of her luggage. And all of her luggage turned out to mean two giant suitcases plus a carry-on. The rest of the group was incredulous. We teased her for extravagance, for her willingness to pay all that she was surely going to have to pay for the privilege of keeping access to what must have been every one of her belongings, for one tiny little week away. And we made it very clear that no one would be lifting a finger to help when that burden got overwhelming.
Surprise, surprise, though, the next morning this woman showed up at the airport with only the carry-on sized rolling bag. “I reorganized,” she said, and we all just nodded in appreciation.
Half an hour later we were trudging our way through security. Most of us had been cleared and were looking around for the gate when we realized that this woman was being held up for extra security screening. “Racial profiling,” sneered one of our number, and indeed this is a black woman we’re talking about, but a couple moments later we understood that it was a little more complicated than that. We watched as she pulled off a jacket, only to reveal another underneath. That came off and then she was asked to remove first one and then two sweaters. Next came the three dresses that she had put on over I can’t remember how many blouses. Once the dresses were out of the way, it was possible, too, to get to the first, second and third pairs of pants she had put on over her leggings. Needless to say, there was jewelry in there too. And a hairpiece. If you haven’t guessed it by now, let me tell you what was going on: The solution she found to having too much luggage was to take everything out of those giant suitcases and wear it to the airport!
The moral of this story is that when you travel with people you work with, you get to know them in ways maybe none of you would have expected.
When you travel a lot for work, as many of you know very well, you need have systems for economizing your stuff. You have to decide what’s really essential, what you can buy wherever you land, what’s maybe not entirely essential, but you’ve decided to prioritize anyway. Me, for example, I learned that using hotel shampoo, conditioner and soap don’t bother me at all, but my very own special lotion is non-negotiable.
Clothes are even trickier. It’s impossible, especially in winter, to pack, into one suitcase, a brand new outfit for every day in a week, and that’s not even taking into account that no one wants to wear the same clothes all night long that they’ve worn at work all day. So we try to figure out how to wear the same things in ways that fool people into thinking they’re different, creatively mixing and matching our way through the days.
What, though, if you’re deep into your mixing and matching routine and you spill something onto one of the key pieces, a t-shirt, say, that you were planning on wearing everyday for the rest of your trip? And, needless to say, there’s no time to find a laundromat. Well, my mother has a great little ploy that perhaps one or two of you might be able to get some use out of. If she spills something on an article of clothing that she was intending to wear for the next several days in a row, she’ll wear it with the stain, not doing anything to try to rinse it out or conceal it. Instead, every time she meets someone new, somewhere between 5 and 20 minutes into the meeting, she’ll look down and exclaim, “Oh, shoot, look what I just did!” She’ll spend a few moments fretting, just enough to seem genuinely surprised and dismayed, and then continue on comfortably in this situation she’s just created, where it’s ok to be wearing dirty clothes.
I once slept in a hostel type of place at the top of the highest mountain in Germany, the Zug Spitz. Sounds kind of impressive, I know, but the truth is that Germany is pretty flat and its highest mountain isn’t so very high at all. Still, it took 12 hours of not too easy work to get up it all. We started at 5am, in the dark, so as to be sure not to have to finish in the dark. The last 2 hours, meaning 10 hours into the climb, were a via ferrata. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, as I was before that day, it means iron way in Italian and refers to paths that have been built into especially treacherous stretches of mountains to make passage possible. Historically they were for military use, now us tourists do them for fun. You have to wear a harness with a bungee cord to clip into a series of wires laid out in places where falling would be simple and awful. Sometimes there’s an ancient, rusting ladder to help, or the odd metal rod in exactly the right place. It’s terrifying and highly recommended.
At the end of this day I was beat. Beat isn’t strong enough. I was in a stupor of exhaustion, knowing I needed to figure out how to eat and sleep and feeling like the logistics of those needs was almost more than I could bear.
The strange thing about the highest mountain in Germany, though, as I discovered that day, is that it’s also home to the highest beer garden in Germany. Which means that the peak that I had spent this epic day struggling my way to the top of, others had taken a little gondola ride up to. And now here we were, together, having a meal in the same restaurant, me afraid that a beer would lapse me into an unrecoverable stupor, them here mainly for the novelty of a high altitude beer, or two, or whatever the night might bring.
I suppose some version of this happens everyday at our little hotel. Maybe you fly in for a meeting, with the stressors and struggles of work on your shoulders, only to find yourself sharing the breakfast room with a gleeful family reunion, for example. The contrast, that night, for me, was jarring. Maybe sometimes it is for you too. In retrospect, though, I guess it’s nice that there’re different paths to the same place.
The eeriest hotel experience I’ve had was in Seattle. I was with a large group and we were staying for a week and we found a place that offered apartment style living. Not unlike the bungalows at our very own Grand Hotel, we thought, and how nice to have the option of cooking, especially when you’ve been on the road for a while, as we had. The photos on the internet looked cozy and inviting and we expected the week’s accommodations to be a kind of oasis.
When we arrived, unfamiliar with Seattle, we found our little hotel to be right on the border of something called Pill Hill, which, turns out to be the neighborhood where all the hospitals are. And this nice establishment that offered short to long term fully furnished apartment stays at reasonable prices turned out to almost exclusively serve patients on transplant waitlists and their families. We learned this on our first day, on meeting a woman from Iowa, or maybe Idaho, who sat smoking out front as her father waited upstairs for a new lung. She was turned out to be a constant fixture, sometimes sitting, sometimes pacing, always wanting to talk. Others we met more slowly, as the week wore on, in the elevator or the parking lot. All these people biding their time, trudging the burden of illness around to the sights of Seattle.
Perhaps all of this would have felt different if the apartments hadn’t been so severely miserable. I will remember that lumpy, springy bed as the worst I’ve ever slept on in my life. The blankets were shamefully thin and even torn, which I have never seen in any other hotel in my life. The rugs were stained. The hot water was scant. The living room furniture was ravaged and, in some cases, broken outright. Thinking of being ill in one of those beds is nearly unbearable to me, and yet those apartments were full of people stuck in exactly that position.
I guess these are the weeks of praising, again and again, our delicious beds. Really, though, the most important thing a hotel can do is to give a traveler a comfortable place to sleep. It seems so simple.
I stayed one night, one time at an exquisite bed and breakfast in the French Alps. It wasn’t grand, this place, more like minutely elegant. Everything was in a kind of ancient order of simple perfection. There were only a very few rooms and so just a few other guests, all either French or British, and all very carefully and expensively dressed. The night we arrived, we were just in time for dinner and were served six courses of the kind of food I had previously only seen in magazines. I was careful not to touch a piece of silverware, a glass or even a napkin until my companion touched his, having absolutely no idea what to do with that much cutlery.
The room, when I finally got to explore it, was like a bedroom from one of the Victorian novels I love so much. Cloth wallpaper, antique furniture. And just in front of the bed, where you normally find a television, was a window that opened out to the Alps. It was a dream, an excursion into a whole other stratosphere of wealth and comfort. Until I went to bed. Turns out the queen size bed was a fake, it was actually just two double beds shoved together, meaning there was a gap in the center. To make matters worse, the fitted sheet trying to breach the gap couldn’t handle the job and so I ended up sleeping on a bare mattress. And, on top of all of that, the beautiful lace comforter was nowhere near warm enough. My one night, then, in the most precious place I’ll likely ever stay in my life was mostly spent awake, cold and not so very comfortable.
Here at this little hotel we do not offer views of the Alps out of our bedroom windows. Our food is laid out buffet style in the morning, and then again in the evening. Your fellow guests will just as likely be wandering around in sweatpants and flip-flops. But our beds are insanely comfortable with plush pillow top mattresses, too many pillows and luxurious down comforters. There’s really no comparison.
The best hotel bathroom experience that I ever had was in Bankok. Pure bliss, I tell you, in its cool whiteness. It’s tiles were so perfect and clean, its water so plentifully hot. This, as you can maybe tell, is a story about relativity. The previous three weeks had been spent in a tiny hut on the beach of a tiny island. Super idyllic, almost tritely romantic. I was very young and it was my first chance to experience the extreme simplicity of actual human necessity. The bathroom, however, was the biggest test of my dependence on suburban luxury. It consisted of a concrete floor, a squat toilet and a hose that ran only cold and served the double function of shower and toilet flusher. I had to give myself a pep talk every single time I went in there.
This beautiful memory of the Bankok bathroom, then, is actually the memory of a Motel 6 kind of a bathroom. All the basics were represented, period. The lights were harsh fluorescents and there wasn’t even soap. But there was toilet paper! And there was the comfort and security of warm water. Most wonderful of all, though, was the gentle ease of taking a seat again.
Imagine what I would have done if that Bankok bathroom had been like one of ours here at this hotel. I may have fallen into a state of shock. A bathtub with jets after three weeks of cold hose-water? That seems like too much for the nervous system to process. I may have just stayed, on accident, unable to get past the pleasure.
You, though, we trust to appreciate the work we’ve put into making our bathrooms a kind of luxurious respite from the world, and then move on. A nice bathroom is a great place to be, and ours are very nice indeed, but please remember to leave each morning and go to your job.
The last time I was in Germany, I stayed at a hotel with a sauna, steam room and pool on its basement floor. Amazing, right? I was with a large group and we took full advantage of it, some of us preferring to go first thing in the morning, others of us liking it better just before bed, and a few of us thinking twice a day was the obvious choice. There was one complication, though. No one could quite decide if we should be wearing bathing suits or not. Germans don’t wear them, or, at least, the German men who were in there on our first trip down were not. We, then, were the prudish, clothed Americans. Next time, in an attempt to fit in, we eschewed them, only to find soaking herself an elderly German woman in a full-coverage one-piece. Yikes!
This is, of course, a story about Americans in Germany and not a story about Germans and their opinions about our spa choices. The Germans, ultimately, do not care whether we wear bathing suits or not. For us Americans, though, nudity is not a neutral subject. Mine was not a shy group, and yet we couldn’t get a grasp on the social convention around nakedness in a co-ed hotel spa and so nothing we did felt totally comfortable. Ambiguity is one of the exciting parts of travel, but relaxing it is not, which is too bad when you’re hanging out in a sauna.
Thank goodness for the simplicity of this hotel of ours. Our pool and hot tub are outdoors. You must wear a bathing suit. And in that bathing suit it’s possible to relax completely, knowing for sure that the facilities are there for your enjoyment and you are enjoying them in exactly the way you are meant to.
This year, rather than making resolutions, I’ve decided to take a couple of actions. That is, I’ve made a couple of changes to bring with me into the new year. Doing this feels better than making the standard long-term promise to myself that’s inevitably based on some kind of guilty comfort that I wish I were big enough to give up. Every January becomes some kind of exercise in self-torture, impatiently waiting until enough time has passed for me to believe that whatever this uncomfortable new behavior, I could keep it if I wanted to. This time around I decided that I was not going in for all that. Still, it’s a new year and it does feel like an opportunity, so I decided to add a couple of fun new things into my life. It feels like I’m enriching rather than starving myself and I feel excited, actually.
I’m telling you all about this because, I’m sorry to say, I’m assuming that a lot of you are following the old model. I’m guessing that you’re now just about two weeks into some unpleasant diet. Maybe you haven’t had a drink since your New Year’s toast. I don’t even want to keep imagining into all the iterations of self-deprivation you’re going through, and I apologize again for this pessimism, but I suppose that some of you will be falling off the wagon kind of soon-ish. Maybe you’ll feel some disappointment, with the comfy old habits waiting there to suck you just a little bit deeper. If this is happening to you, I have a solution! Chinese New Year is just around the corner, which means you can have a do-over. Take my advice and bring some new thing, or things, into the new new year. I think it’s really the way to go.
And, just in case anyone’s curious, the two new objects in my life are a landline and an alarm clock that’s not attached to my iPhone. Unbundling my technology, a friend said. I’m looking forward to a return to long, soul searching phone calls and not checking my email the moment I open my eyes in 2014.