Of all the elements of inter-continental journeying – chugging in the train/bus/taxi to the airport; crossing the plane walkway like the tracking of an umbilical cord leading to a new world; rolling up against a receptionist desk to check into a hotel – it is the hotel that represents most what it is like to return to this country, which I have called home for 12 years, yet always still a strange land.
A hotel embodies the cunning convergence between the familiar and the unfamiliar – the travelling cross-hairs of being a tourist and a local. In a strange room, at a strange sink, on a strange bed… one nevertheless continues to carry out habitual, intimate activities – showering, sleeping, lounging in pants. Known and unknown fall over each other like the umbra and penumbra of a shadow: a used toothbrush dipped into a glass emblazoned with mysterious names and unfamiliar logos; saliva drooled on sheets that smell of strange detergents and starches; a body soaped in the sequence as taken every day, but now with a different showerhead roaring above.
A hotel is transient: unless you own (and live in) one, or are Coco Chanel, who, so the columns go, has permanent lodging in the best suite of the Four Seasons, a hotel will merely be where you stay one (or a few) night(s) in your life. It might be the most memorable night on the most fabulous of vacations, but nonetheless the matter is largely an issue of flitting in and out again, with some wheeling of luggage and a couple of taxis in between. This is the underlying truth of the check-in counters synonymous with the hotel: it is the secret of becoming suddenly incorporeal, existing only as a name, four lines of an address detail, and seven digits of a passport number on a generic form handed over to a generic receptionist (not forgetting, of course, the credit card imprint to guarantee one’s mini-bar purchases). It is how one can leave things behind, if only suspended for a while. That is why hotels are capable of promising wild, romantic weekend breaks – their stuff is of impulse and time-out, the quintessence of impermanence. They do not deal with the mundanities of the weekday – or if they do, such as a business hotel, it is with the slickness of the purposeful and the efficient rather than the real weekday, with its ponderous shuffling towards bleak and futile ends.
The essence of leaving is the transience of the hotel: in particular, the kind of hotel whose poster features a lazily inclined deckchair set against an azure sky, where one can forget for a while the greyness of the five-day week, the ritualistic monthly emptying of bank accounts as money pours out into bills and expenses, the stresses of inefficient public transport systems, sitting on trains grinding in their sullen pain. Travellers are always Janus-faced, looking back but also facing forward; they are always in that contradictory space of life-changing transition: I am here, and at the same time I will be. That magic sweet spot of unexpected, spontaneous, infinite potential.