More or less three years ago I gave up my search for a rented apartment in Madrid and I went to live in hotels. I still haven’t decided if it was a good idea or not, but at least I think I have a better idea of what is so special about this vicarious kind of life that some of my favorite writers, finding themselves fallen on hard times, also sought refuge in. Oscar Wilde, for example, who after three years of exile in hotels in France and Italy, died fighting a “duel to the death” with the wallpaper of his Paris boarding house, which is now a luxury hotel. Or Agatha Christie, who after discovering her husband’s extra-marital affair hid away for 11 days in the Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate, during which Scotland Yard, 15,000 volunteers, Colonel Christie, several aircraft and a clairvoyant to whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had presented one of her gloves searched high and low for the author.
In my case, the trigger for my years of hotel living was an explosive mix between a break-up, the difficulty of finding another apartment in the capital and the license I have by being able to earn a living from anywhere on the planet with a decent internet connection.
Why on earth was I going to hand over all my money to a Madrid landlord who would scrimp on every cent if my refrigerator breaks instead of the concierge of a Palermo hotel who will wish me good morning and call me “sir” when he sees me? Convinced by the prospect of such occurrences, in 2018 I touched down in Syracuse, Sicily to hang my hat in one of those hotels with angels painted on the ceiling of the breakfast room. It was the first stop on my grand tour, that journey that the young students of the Enlightenment undertook over months or even years to complete their education and that, rather than learning how to form a considered opinion on a Tintoretto, I sometimes think I conducted purely to have some kind of ordered way of linking together all of my hotel stays. Recently I did the numbers: over the last three years, I have slept in 96 hotel beds in 41 cities.
I am fully aware that making a list of hotel reservations given the problems my generation face in trying to get on the property ladder or even find a half-decent rental sounds like a fairly crazy idea. It is, and several of my friends who know I am no millionaire said as much when I floated the idea of my grand tour, comparing it to an escapist stunt. However, I am now convinced that in many ways hotel life is more authentic than domesticity. For anyone who has suffered a relationship disappointment as severe as Agatha Christie’s and who no longer believes in the word “home,” I would go so far as to say it is recommendable.
I’m thinking about the house I shared with my ex: we lied to each other by allowing ourselves to believe it would last forever and duly filled it with things. Hotels have never misled me, and they will never mislead anyone else.
As comfortable as I felt in that first hotel in Sicily, nothing about my room gave me the urge to fill it with plants and little vases, and I found in it no more empty space than what was necessary to store my clothes, my toiletry bag and the book I was reading, all of which are easily transported from one place to another and that do not tie one down with sentimental value to one place or another. On the last day, I picked up my bag and left. The concierge did not make a scene when I said goodbye and handed him the key, and I did not get upset when I saw him hand it over to an Italian who was better-looking than me.
Hotel rooms know all of this and they also do not allow themselves to be misled by guests who end up leaving them sooner rather than later. All of them possess a feline quality that refuses to be domesticated.
If, for example, I move a night stand that is bothering me, the following day when I return from visiting a museum or whatever, I find that it has obstinately returned to its rightful place. The room does not tolerate my disorder, nor does it allow my tastes or obsessions to have an influence on it. I hide the awful painting above my bed in the closet and the room thumbs its nose at this artistic critique, putting it back in exactly the same place as soon as the chance arises. Finally, the time for parting comes and I leave the room. The swan-shaped towels that charmed me on arrival will be there to greet the next guest and the glass in the bathroom will be freshly enveloped in its sanitary plastic cover to be presentable for receipt of the next toothbrush. Is there any better course of action for someone whose heart has just been broken to place their faith in?
Naturally, hotels prefer to sell themselves as places of escape rather than as a kind of spa for tortured souls. Maybe they are when you only stay in them for a bank holiday weekend. However, living from hotel to hotel does not offer a ticket to escape from reality. In fact, I believe that there is no other way to more intensely appreciate the melting pot of mankind than by moving from hotel to hotel, and I am not just talking about the notion that hotels are some kind of miniature Tower of Babel where one is woken up by the shouts of a Danish couple one night and the snoring of a Swiss the next.
Who was it that made that beautiful remark, for example, that history is nothing more than silk slippers going down the stairs as muddy, nailed boots stomp up them? This truth, which Louis XVI only became aware of when it was already too late, is one I learned in fewer than 12 hours on the only occasion I managed to get a room in a decent hotel in Venice. It was in October 2018, when three-quarters of the city was underwater during the worst floods in 50 years. Seeing that the water was lapping around people’s ankles, I left the café where I was writing and returned to my hotel, soaked to the same part of my leg, then up to my knees, then to the thighs. My little hotel with views of the Grand Canal was also flooded. From the other side of one of the metal shutters Venetian businesses use to protect themselves from the acqua alta, I shouted for my bag and canceled the rest of my reservation. Then I walked with 20 kilos of luggage on my head and my iPhone gripped between my teeth to Santa Lucía station. There I got on the first available train. It was destined for Milan.
During the journey, I looked for a hotel to spend the night in. I remember they were all extremely expensive (I think the following day was All Saints’ Day) and that it took so long to find one that I liked and that wouldn’t blow my budget that my cell phone battery died. When I arrived in Milan, I had no choice but to present myself at the first hotel that didn’t look too pricy. Perhaps I went a little too far in ensuring that outcome, and that is where I learned Louis XVI’s truth: I had woken up that day in a room with silk curtains and went to sleep on a bed with cigarette burns on the mattress, in a dump that stank of Venice’s canals courtesy of my sodden pants.
Something similar has happened on many occasions when I have tried to extend my stay in a particular hotel only to find that day coincides with a soccer match or a medical conference and the prices have gone through the roof, forcing me to seek more modest accommodation as though my shares have suddenly plummeted. On other occasions the opposite has happened: I have arrived out of season in a city like Biarritz and become The Great Gatsby. Living from hotel to hotel accustomed me to twists of fate. To saying goodbye to everywhere. That the old wooden elevator I have become fond of will maybe never guide me to bed again.
Moving from hotel to hotel also brings about a very beneficial phenomenon for those who have suffered a cruel blow.
Before I embarked on this wandering existence, like most people I thought that entertainment and novelty made the hours fly past, while monotony and boredom slowed the clock. It’s a notion that, thinking about it now, is planted in one’s head when returning from a vacation with the sensation that you’ve been gone for five minutes and that while away time was somehow accelerated. Now, though, I know that when these sensations of new experience are constant and not interrupted by a return home, exactly the opposite is true: time thickens and a year with many changes seems to last twice as long as a monotonous one. As such, every time you wake up in a different place that period of time experts recommend we place between ourselves and something that has hurt us widens. I believe that if Agatha Christie boarded the Orient Express shortly after signing divorce papers it was not only because Baghdad was a long way from Colonel Christie, but also because with every week of travel she gained two of forgetfulness.
In February 2020, I was following in the footsteps of Lord Byron and other travelers in Spain and Portugal when the worst bout of flu I have ever experienced laid me low in a Lisbon hotel bed for almost a week. I admit that during those fevered days I missed having a kitchen to hand because it was hard work crawling up the steep streets in search of bananas and sugarless yogurt. A few weeks later, the coronavirus lockdowns began. My grand tour around Europe became several months in my parents’ house, a sobering destination for anyone who has been on an adventure. “I’m an idiot. As soon as I can I’m going back to Madrid to look for an apartment,” I thought many times as I lay on the narrow single bed that had survived my adolescence. That said, now that I’m about to get vaccinated, I think I’ll spend a bit more time in hotels. After so many months of suspecting everyone and fearing every loose sneeze, it will be worthwhile to be back among these families of strangers.
The Government should buy a number of privately-owned direct provision centres as a “priority” as it would be more “cost effective” for the State to run the facilities for asylum seekers, international protection officials have said.
The savings arising from owning the accommodation centres rather than paying private contractors to do so “could be considerable”, departmental briefing documents provided to Minister for Children and Integration Roderic O’Gorman last year state.
The vast majority of direct provision centres are currently owned and run by private companies, with accommodation providers having received some €1.6 billion since 1999, including €183 million last year.
The latest figures show some 7,150 people are in the system of seven State-owned sites and 39 private centres. A further 24 commercially-owned premises are being used to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers.
The briefing document, released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act, says that housing people seeking asylum in State-owned centres would provide the “best protection from the vulnerability of present market reliance”.
“They are also much more cost efficient to run, and the State owns the asset,” it notes.
The document suggested that State centres should aim to accommodate 5,000 people, and “allowing the private sector to supply the rest is regarded as an achievable and reasonable target”.
The purchase of existing centres from private providers “to immediately boost the State’s footprint in this area should be considered as a priority,” the internal document said.
“Some service providers may be open to this and the market appears to be favourable at present,” it said.
The internal briefing suggested the department could then seek private companies or NGOs to run the centres, which would be a “competitive cost option”.
Ongoing maintenance for centres owned by the State was also “badly needed,” as current pressures on the Office of Public Works (OPW) meant it was not possible “for immediate repairs to be done if required”.
“In exploring the model of more State centres, we need to agree and acquire a capital budget,” the briefing stated.
“State land does not require planning permission for new centres as the Minister has a power under the Acts, whereby the OPW can grant the planning permission and this is usually a three-month process. It is not subject to appeal.”
The document says that State centres “can also have a bigger footprint as it will be a permanent fixture in the locality”. In recent years a number of plans for private providers to open direct provision centres in regional towns have been met with protests from locals and anti-immigration activists.
Mr O’Gorman’s department has sought to reform the direct provision system and is seeking to replace the network of centres with a new system of accommodation and supports by the end of 2024.
A department spokesman confirmed the State has not bought any new centres since the briefing note was written. The spokesman said under the planned overhaul of direct provision, asylum-seekers who arrived into the country would initially be housed in a number of reception and integration centres.
Asylum-seekers will spend a maximum of four months in the reception centres before moving into housing secured through Approved Housing Bodies.
“These centres will be State-owned and purpose built to provide suitable accommodation for approximately 2,000 people at any one time, to cater for the flow-through of the 3,500 applicants over a 12-month period,” he said.
Attached by a strap to a safety lanyard, 27-year-old Nathan Paulin slowly progressed barefoot on a line stretched across the river between the Eiffel Tower and the Chaillot Theatre.
He stopped for a few breaks, sitting or lying on the rope.
Paulin holds an umbrella as he performs, for the second time, on a 70-metre-high slackline spanning 670 metres between the Eiffel Tower and the Theatre National de Chaillot. (Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP)
“It wasn’t easy walking 600 metres, concentrating, with everything around, the pressure … but it was still beautiful,” he said after the performance on Saturday.
He said obtaining the necessary authorisations had been a difficulty for him, plus “the stress linked to the audience, the fact that there are a lot of people”.
Photo: (Photo by THOMAS COEX / AFP)
Paulin, holder of several world records, performed the feat to celebrate France’s annual Heritage Day – when people are invited to visit historic buildings and monuments that are usually closed to the public.
He said his motivation was “mainly to do something beautiful and to share it and also to bring a new perspective on heritage, it is to make heritage come alive”.
He had already crossed the River Seine on a tightrope, on Heritage Day in 2017.