When parents tell their children not to have sex until they are married or in love, they shouldn’t yap on about morality and the body is a temple and staying “true” to yourself. They should show their kids one of those old science movies in which baby ducks get imprinted on a hapless person, who the ducks follow everywhere quacking. That’s what happens. The first person you sleep with gets stuck in your mind, a quack quack quack that never shuts up. See, you’re thinking of yours right now.
If you have been traveling your whole life, you have a certain kind of immunity but for those Americans who head to Europe, South America or Asia for the first time after they have reached the ‘age of reason’ – it’s duck time for you. The first European hotel I stayed in was an Italian monastery. Huge old grey stones, thick walls like battlements, tall narrow windows overlooking a walled garden, monks in long robes. The person I was traveling with and I had to crawl over the ancient stone garden wall the night we came in late because the front door was locked. Do you think I could possibly come up with something nice to say about a Hilton, Radisson, or Marriott again?
Staying in hotels is like collecting charms on a silver bracelet. Restaurants, guest rooms in other people houses, airports don’t have quite the same pull. On boring days when I lived in Boston, I would spin through the memories: The Gasthof in Heidelberg where I stayed on my way to see a friend in Freiberg. I got off the train, found a place and realized, right before I went to sleep that, for the first time in all my 19 years, not a person on Earth knew where I was. The Intercontinental in Al Ain where I discovered I had found a new best friend. The expensive, quaint B & B in Kittery, Maine where I decided that I didn’t want to live in Maine. The cramped, hot little room that the man with the policeman hat took me to from the Rome train station. I was sure I was being taken to an underworld den, never to be seen again but it was true: there were people who met trains in Rome and walked tourists to nearby hotels.
The hotel in the Emirates straight from a Graham Greene novel. The little place in Corsica with a bed spread that looked like Cookie Monster had been skinned. The Motel 6 in Minnesota where I found Star Wars on the television which seemed as good as a sign as any that I should move there; the Motel 6 in Freeport, Maine where I crashed after an afternoon of shopping (who knew Clinique had an outlet?!?).
The immense room in a house in Florence which was at least two hundred years old, tiled floor, all the massive furniture, including the four poster bed, in heavy dark wood but terribly cold. Early spring, no heating, the guy I was with and I simply could not get warm, the perfect metaphor for our relationship. The hotel room in Assisi with the fabulous view, but not even the sight of white doves wheeling in flocks above the dark green trees could bring a St. Francis-like peace. That guy and I were not going to make it as a couple either.
Those German Gasthofs with impossibly white, impossibly soft cotton comforter covers and fitted bottom sheets. English B & Bs with their tiny breakfast rooms and parsimonious breakfasts. That feeling of peace and contentment when you close the door to your room in a French hotel room, that you have succeeded in completing the room-renting transaction without mortally insulting the owner, being throw out, challenged to a duel or had your parentage abused.
You forget the name of the hotel, you would never be able to find it again, the details of the decor escape you – but there they are in your memory. The one in Portugal where I splashed so much water on the floor during my shower that my sister wanted to know where the dolphins were. The one in Rhodes where it was so cold, I had to go ask for extra blankets. I came back and announced to my friend, “I think we are in trouble, the landlord had a woolen hat on, inside.” The tiny room in Paris that had walls at eight different angles. The formal living room, almost as big as a ballroom, in Hungary that was turned into a guest room for me, my boyfriend and his brother who hated me, where we got into a fight and he wouldn’t come talk to me until his brother fell asleep. The room in Maine where my boyfreind and I stayed for a friend of his wedding, which he hoped would make me think of a wedding with him.
Hotels mean transitions – the relationships strengthened or torn apart in hotel rooms. The sleepless nights wishing you were someplace else or with someone else. Sitting on the bed writing postcards, resolutely not calling home, crying, eating a half pound of the best local sweet and reading trash, studiously ignoring all the things you are supposed to be out seeing. Looking out the window and day-dreaming. Sitting at the desk and studiously planning a complicated itinerary for the next day – only 48 hours allowed for this city and you are going to see all of it.
So off you go now, think about hotel rooms, maybe even head out to one. Just be careful about that first overseas hotel room. It has a fierce power, an unshakable quack.