Travelling Hopefully

Karen Treanor 


© Copyright 2011  by Karen Treanor

Photo of a run down motel.

Everybody has some sort of weakness—some can’t dance, others are unlucky in love, few of us can pitch a no-hitter, and some of us—me, for instance—can’t pick out a good hotel.

My ability to select inferior hostelries approaches the stuff from which legends are woven, at least according to those unlucky enough to have traveled with me.

I never have any trouble getting where I’m going, having the sense to always book Qantas-British Airways combinations. The trouble starts when I get to the hotel or boarding house, which is inevitably quite unlike the promotional blurbs which led me to select the place.

Homely atmosphere” was one. Located in a run-down part of London at Hammersmith, it offered “full cooked breakfast” This meant a week of hardboiled eggs, cornflakes, weak tea and cold toast. Filling, but…

Our “family” room was at the top of the building, in a room with bits of attic protruding down from the ceiling. You had to get in and out of bed with care, lest you bang your head on a bulkhead. I was travelling with three children under age ten, all our worldly gear in 6 duffle bags, and no husband. He prudently had flown direct to Australia, letting me take the long route to visit relatives. I would not have the gall to attempt such a trip now, but 30 years ago I was much more trusting of the maxim “things will work out”.

The neighbourhood was rough as guts, although we never had any trouble there. The owner was down at the heels ex-colonial type, tweedy and self-important, but kind-hearted with it. His resident managers were a young couple of vaguely Latin origins and their daughter, Verushka, named for the then-famous model. She was as English as cold toast and made friends with my children easily. Several times she accompanied us on our expeditions to the zoo and elsewhere.

In due course we left London and settled in Australia. When my elder daughter graduated from high school she called in the carrot I’d been dangling before her for five years. “I finished high school as ordered, now where’s my trip?”

I joined us up in the Youth Hostel Association and made a sight-unseen booking at the King George the Sixth hostel in London. I was assured I couldn’t miss it; it was right near Holland Park. Which of course guaranteed that I’d get us off the Tube at the wrong side of the park and have to ring the hostel to find out where they were. A long walk up a dark, narrow alley eventually got us there.

What a surprise. We were in a bunk room with about 25 other people. No sheets: you rented a sleeping bag with removable liner. Any baggage could be locked up downstairs, but it was accessible only during certain hours. Beth thought it was all a hoot, but I was uneasy, especially when I discovered the unisex shower room, frequently inhabited by impressively equipped uninhibited Swedes.

The toilet rooms were gender-specific, at least. I took sponge baths at the basin along with several other older women who felt sharing showers was a bit more adventurous than they’d planned for.

I met a very nice Scottish woman at dinner. You could buy ready made meals or cook your own, and she had made an interesting stir-fry with vegetables and strips of brown bread. I was concerned about Beth who had gone out on the town with some new girl friends. Jean and I discussed the worries of motherhood. We became instant friends, and corresponded intermittently for several years after that.

After a few days in the hostel we moved to a hotel I will call Romeo’s, near Victoria station. We had booked a room for ourselves, and one for my godmother, who was taking a few days off from her duties in her convent in Chester to come to the Big Smoke. We were then to go with her back to Chester and stay at the convent guest house for a while.

Romeo's ranks as the dirtiest place I ever stayed. The crumbs and ashes on the carpet were an archaeologist’s dream--there were enough layers to detail the history of our room since the Korean War. Or maybe the Crimean war. The first night we were there I switched on the headboard reading light and it fell off on my head. The toilet lurked in a tiny room off the landing with a painted glass door . The paint had been selectively scratched away, but I used some of our bandaids to cover the more strategic lacunae. Next day they were gone, so I resorted to toilet paper and spit, bandaids being expensive.

When Sister Jean arrived at Euston I told her the hotel was something less than the Ritz. She laughingly said that nuns were used to humble lodgings. “Romeo’s gives a whole new meaning to humble,” I said. When we saw the room she’d been assigned at the top of the building I offered to give her my bed and move up there but she said she’d tough it out. Small, narrow, dark and grim, one is amazed the management had the cheek to charge rent to anyone for that room.

The next trip was with my son. With my unerring instinct I picked the worst small hotel in town. It was so awful I can’t recall the name. Our room was in a half-basement with barred windows. The private bathroom was a converted closet of dubious cleanliness. The beds were tiny twins, 30 inches wide and maybe five feet long. We found an all night shop and bought a big bottle of lemon disinfectant, sloshed it in the shower and over the toilet, and used the shopping bag for a bath mat.

Next morning as we wound our way up half flights and down dark corridors in search of the exit, Eamon said, “This is a bit of a fire trap.” I agreed, and suggested we spend the morning finding better digs. Around the next corner and down the street stood the Atlantic, big, white, clean-looking, and with a well-lit lobby. I pounced on the concierge and demanded to know if they had a room. Yes! I took it sight unseen. (Does she never learn?)

Back to the No-name place we almost ran, packed our gear, threw the key at the desk and got out before the rats found us and followed us to our new home. (I never saw them, but I’m sure I heard rats).

Happily we unpacked in our third floor room at the Atlantic. Eamon disappeared into the bathroom and then came right back out. “There’s a wasp in the bath,” he said. Sure enough, a moribund wasp was thrashing around in the tub. We disposed of it down the loo.

This is a peculiar bathroom” my son observed. “Why is the ceiling slanted?” It was a question to which we never discovered an answer, but the ceiling was very odd. You could barely sit upright in the bath; there was no shower; the wash basin was tiny, and the toilet was only suitable for women or very short men. This was a problem for Eamon, at six foot plus, but when I asked how he managed he only said “If I still believed you get things by praying, this would be the place to work on getting that pony.”

We discovered we were the only native English speakers in the hotel. It was staffed and tenanted exclusively by young expatriates—from every country you could name and a few you couldn’t. Getting anything done became an exercise in mime. There was no bed linen on my bed, and it took 20 minutes to get this across to the concierge. “Ah, you want your bed made up? But all beds are made up.”

No, my bed looks made up, but under the bed spread is nothing, nada, niente, nichevo,” I explained. “No sheets, no blankets.”

Ah, you want to take away sheets?”

No, I want you to bring sheets. There are no sheets. No blankets.”

Later on I found a pair of sheets at the foot of my bed, but still no blankets. In the event, it didn’t matter, because the heating was set in the full-on mode and couldn’t be adjusted. We propped our window open with a coat hanger, and I was more than warm with just the bedspread for cover. The never-off radiator turned out to be perfect for drying socks.

Two years later Eamon and I took another trip, this time making landfall in Los Angeles. The friends we had hoped to stay with were away visiting other friends, so we checked into a hotel near the airport which I selected from the coloured photos on the “Welcome Visitors” board at LAX.

The Leftfield (let’s call it) was in a roughish part of town. The rooms were fine, there was cable TV, and buses ran past the door. They didn't run to anyplace we wanted to go, but there were buses. There was no restaurant or even coffee shop, but we could see across the six lane highway a blinking sign "Opie’s”.

I hope it’s not one of those Frenchy places with things I don’t like” muttered Eamon, steering me across the traffic. He needn’t have worried. One look at the menu and he was in hog heaven. We’d lucked into a soul food restaurant. Buffalo Wings, bacon sandwiches, steaks, fries with everything, gravy as a side order, corn fritters—what’s not to like?

It was Eamon’s first experience with a restaurant that served side orders. He soon had a platter of deep-fried wings, fries, and side orders of gravy, creamed corn and mashed potatoes. I had battered pork chops and a side of candied yams and cole slaw. Eamon liked it so much we ate there every night.

Although we spent little time in it, the Leftfield probably ranks as one of the few decent hotels I ever managed to select in all the trips I’ve dragged my family on.

Not all of them were awful, but they were all peculiar in one way or another. There was the Franciscan guest house where people who were in London for outpatient treatment or waiting for a kidney transplant stayed. The breakfast there was unvarying fried egg and bacon, which struck me as great fodder for the walking tourist, but of questionable appropriateness for sick people. Perhaps they appreciated the jolt of cholesterol before a day spent being stuck and tapped and poked and X-rayed.

My younger daughter Erin and I stayed in that guesthouse for the better part of a week, but on the fourth day slipped out without the breakfast and had a muffin in the park instead. There is just so much bacon fat your system can take in daily doses.

In 1998 I left nothing to chance and had my travel agent select a hotel in London. That way nothing could go wrong. Arriving on the doorstep at 7 am with elder daughter and three grandchildren, I was informed that yes, they had our booking, but that we couldn't get into the room until 10.30. We were welcome to wait in the lounge.

The lounge was also the front hall, the TV room and the smoker’s corner.

My daughter, clutching her 7 week old son to her bosom rather in the pose of a pioneer mother from one of those Victorian tableaux, said “You don’t seriously expect us to sit here for 3 and ½ hours with three crabby tired children, do you?”

But the room isn’t made up” protested the concierge.

Give us the linen and we’ll do it ourselves.”

But it hasn’t been vacuumed.”

We don’t mind. Tomorrow will do. Take us to the room!”

So he showed us down a flight of stairs into the “family” room, which fronted on a (barred) light well from which you could see the feet of passers by.

There was no cot for the baby, but we decided we could wait for that. Taking the clean sheets, we shoehorned ourselves into the room.

That is no exaggeration. In a room which could possibly be classified as a standard twin bedroom there was a double bed, a pair of narrow single beds, two night tables, a bureau and a niche that might by squinting your eyes be identified as a closet. There was also a tiny bathroom, containing a tiny toilet, tiny sink, and shower which measured 8 inches at one end and 14 inches at the other, and was the width of the bathroom, something less than 4 feet. There was no exhaust fan.

We were too tired to care at this point. Hastily making up the beds, we crawled in for a sleep. No sooner had we dropped off than a young man arrived with a vacuum cleaner. After experiments in several languages we got rid of him. Later Beth found the supply closet and returned with disinfectant and rubber gloves and scrubbed out the bathroom to her satisfaction.

We set out for a day’s sightseeing, and when we returned, a baby’s cot had been set up in the already crowded room. “Can we all fit here for four days?” I wondered.

Beth was sure we could, since the children would be tired and we adults would be, as she put it, “absolutely knackered.” And she was right. Other than the inconvenience of having to take everything out of the closet to get something out of a bag at the bottom, the accommodation worked reasonably well. The baby’s cot proved very useful as a towel rail, as there were none in the tiny bathroom.

There was a TV on a wall bracket that showed Teletubbies at the crack of dawn, to the unending delight of the twins. As a bonus, there was a selection of affordable restaurants at the end of the street. Victoria Station was ten minutes' away. To expect on top of these conveniences a hotel whose family room would actually fit a family would probably be unreasonable.

Two years later I was planning a trip with my other daughter and son-in-law. The only caveat placed on the expedition was this: "We will select the hotel."

You'd think they didn't trust me.

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