Travel Diaries: England Part 3
In which a perfectly nice hotel desk clerk thinks I don't know what water or lights are
THIS IS A FREE POST FROM THE REAL SARAH MILLER. If you read this newsletter a lot and want to/can pay for it, please subscribe. All readers are appreciated, subscribers are revered. This is the 3rd Travel Diary from England. In #2, I went swimming. In #1, I drank a small glass of bitter.
Back at the hotel, at 3:15, fifteen minutes after “official room ready hour,” my room still wasn’t ready. That was a bit sad but I was hoping it would be quick. The front desk clerk, who had an eastern European accent, looked like a catalog model, and was as relentlessly cheerful as she was generally not all that helpful, sent me around the corner to their sister hotel, where I had a cup of tea in a cozy, library-themed pub/cafe. While drinking it I eavesdropped on two women in their 30s, one English with brushed-out barrel curls, one American with barrel curls so stiff you could easily pop a hot dog into one and leave it there indefinitely. They were talking earnestly, almost wet-eyed, about branding, and seemed as if they were both paid well to do so. Or maybe they had very rich parents that were making it possible for them to open a cookie store together. We will never know.
At 3:30 I went back and the clerk who wouldn’t give me a towel gave me a key. My room was huge and had enormous windows and wall-to-wall carpet, clean, but sad and dingy. This made me laugh: Why? Who made decisions like this?
The long-awaited blessed hour of the nap had arrived. But as I stretched myself into the bleach-fragrant megaclean megavastness of the bed, I felt, bizarrely, as if I were still swimming. The sheets were – wet. They weren’t dripping, but they were damp, on a scale of 1-10 a solid five for damp. And the duvet cover! The duvet was maybe a seven.
I called down to the front desk, conscious of the fact that she’d be suspicious of my complaints, as I had already stood out — digging through my suitcase, asking for a towel, being unwilling to agree the swimming place would have a towel, experiencing the lateness of the room with mostly graciousness but perhaps a hint of a tired sigh. I said, “Hi, so sorry to bother you, but my sheets are wet. I tried to convince myself it wasn’t really that bad, and yet, I cannot, they are wet.” I felt bad. Why did I feel bad?
“We put a spray on the top of the sheets to keep them from wrinkling,” she said.
My feeling is if you work at a hotel and someone tells you their bed sheets are wet and is sorry to bother you, but they just are, your next response should be, “I will get you some dry sheets,” not an attempt to gaslight someone about the extent to which spray starch, used as directed, will moisten a sheet. I explained to her that I understood and had experienced the properties of this particular laundry product before but did not feel I was experiencing them at this time. “I think it just was not in the dryer long enough,” I said, “Or it was in the dryer a very long time but just got wrapped up with itself or something else.” I kept my tone cheerful and understanding: I also washed clothes! I knew what kind of things could go awry! It was not some hideous crime that my sheets were wet, I was not mad, I wasn’t going to leave a bad review or have a fit, but all things being equal, I would like dry bedding.
“Just a moment,” she said.
A man’s voice now. “Yes, hello. Our housekeeping staff puts a spray on the top of the sheets to keep them from wrinkling,” he said.
“Unbelievable,” I said, somewhere in between kind of having a fun time with this because it was insane, and wanting to leap into traffic. “My sheets are wet! I know what a wet sheet is! It’s not a big deal. I’m not mad. But my sheets are wet, and I want dry ones. Drop them outside the door! I’ll make the bed myself. It’s not a big deal. I just want some dry sheets so I can lie down.”
I don’t know if I said all this. Five minutes later, the manager and a woman I think was the head housekeeper or something like that appeared at my door, armed with dry items. The housekeeper was maybe forty, blonde, very pretty and athletic looking, with what seemed like an eastern European accent. The manager was young and wearing a tailored bright blue suit and highly polished tan shoes. I had stripped the bed, and each of them took in hand the less-than-ideal portions of my sheet and duvet cover and agreed with my assertion, previously seen as bold, that they were damp. I felt like Marg Helgenburger at the end of Erin Brockovich, when she finds out PG&E is going to pay her family millions of dollars in damages for living near a superfund site that has given them all terminal diseases.
As she made the bed, and he just stood there, they talked about how they had no idea how this could happen. It seemed to me that it had happened because sometimes stuff just isn’t dry when you remove it from the dryer, but I just said, it’s fine, thank you, it’s fine, thank you! The manager asked what I did and I said I was in London writing about watches. He said he knew nothing about watches, I said I didn’t really either. They left, everyone smiling and friendly and me, somehow, still apologizing, and them, somehow, still trying to figure out how something that happens to everyone, all the time, had just happened.
By now it was dusk. I knew the rules of jet lag meant that you weren’t supposed to take an afternoon or evening nap but it just felt so good, and I was tired from my swim as well, and I had almost fallen asleep when, all of a sudden, my room became suddenly bright, as if several floodlights had been turned on at once outside each window. There were window shades, and though I’d enjoyed having the windows open, I closed them, but they wouldn’t close all the way. Light exploded through the small opening in the shade. Several times I tried to seal the shade shut, but it always wanted to be an inch open.
With a heavy heart I called the front desk again, imagining the clerk seeing my room number and looking at a colleague like, Jesus Christ, the American lady who doesn’t know what spray starch is again, what the fuck is up with her? “May I help you?” she said, no impatience in her voice.
“My room suddenly became bright,” I said. “I don’t know what’s going on.”
She told me to hang on a second. When she came back on the line, she said, “I think maybe - it’s lightning?”
Was I in The Twilight Zone? Were they rebooting Candid Camera? It was one thing to compare actual dampness to acute spray starch overuse, it was quite another to compare sustained artificial light to a nature-driven flash of light, particularly when the sky was, and had been, perfectly clear and dry for days. “It’s not lightning,” I said wearily. “I know what lightning looks like. It generally comes and goes. This is persistent.”
She actually laughed at this. She suggested that I close the window shades. I said that I did not want to close the window shades, and they wouldn’t close anyway, I just wanted my room to have not suddenly and inexplicably become bright. She told me to hang on a second. As I did, I remembered, with mounting horror, having seen photos of the hotel at night with pink decorative lighting around it. I opened the window and craned my neck to see the windows on the fourth floor. Every window was lit up. Along the frame of each of my windows, outside, was a fluorescent tube casting into the falling darkness (but also into my room) a harsh, rose-toned light. I sank to my knees as the clerk came back on the line.
“Do you see a switch next to your bed?” she asked.
I stood up. Was it possible I might survive this?
Increasingly, it seems one needs a degree in electrical engineering to regulate the lights in a hotel room. Among the maybe eight light switches next to my bed was a switch all on its own which gave off the air of controlling a whole separate universe. She directed my attention to this switch and I pressed it. The darkness returned, the semi-darkness, anyway, with the pleasant faint light of the city.
The clerk told me that some guests really love these lights coming on in their room at night. I said that even if these people existed, it might be useful to direct people staying in rooms that randomly became light as it was getting dark to the opt-out switch next to their bed and to also be aware that in the future other guests might find this turn of events alarming and it would be best not to tell them that what they were experiencing was not light but actually lightning.
But that’s not the point. The point is that now I was wide awake, awake enough to eat dinner and then, as one was supposed to, fall asleep after dinner and sleep at the normal hours of the place where you’d just arrived. Thank you to the management of this hotel for helping me out. The rest of my stay was great. I was given free breakfast for my pains, and after getting a full English the first morning, I had one every day afterward. I love full English breakfast more than anything in this world, and I didn’t know this, and I wouldn’t have if my sheets hadn’t been wet and I hadn’t been woken up by a bunch of pink lights as if I had suddenly been thrown into the middle of the Victoria Secret fashion show. It was all worth it.
This post reminded me of how aggressively unhelpful Londoners are. Bless their hearts.