The Half-Star €50 a Night Very Basic Single
On the Perils and Pitfalls of Going Solo - ✈️ TRAVEL
It’s just my kind of place. A dim little room with a narrow quilt-covered cot on one side and an ancient wash-basin in the corner. A window that opens. A tiny bar of green pine soap on a glass shelf, a starched white towel, cold and almost warm running water. It is on the second floor in back, just over the kitchen where I awaken at 5:30 each morning to the smell of onions frying. It is the pocket-sized attic room adjacent to the clank and rattle of the ancient machinery that drives the elevator up and down all night. You know this room.
Minimal funds lead me to accommodations just a few grateful steps above the mènage a cinquante of the local hostel, but certainly well below the realms of concierge, sauna, fois gras and in-room mini bar. Sparsely furnished, almost comfortable, the guest room in which I invariably find myself has flowery chintz wallpaper peeling at the baseboard, creaking wooden floors that announce my every trip to the bathroom, and la pièce de résistance, a faded print of a speckled trout hanging above the bedstead. You’ve probably stayed here.
Aways traveling alone and on a laughably low budget, I experience curious situations never described (or even imagined) by Baedeker. And, truly, Mr. Fodor, knows little of how we single seniors of genteel poverty travel and what we encounter in our never ending quest to avoid that most vile and unjust of commercial ruses – the single supplement.
Travelers like myself need a different guide book – a book of essential information and handy tips sorely missing from the bigger travel guides of Frommer or Let’s Go Belgium. Where is the sage advice for the lone mature woman in well-scuffed orthopedic oxfords who operates primarily on daydreams and a pathetically low teacher’s pension?
I sit here now, in flannel pajamas, in a back alley room in Basel, gazing out into the early morning murk that fills the narrow cobbled lane below. I begin jotting down some interesting issues that come to mind, crucial questions that I would like to see addressed by those in the know. For example:
• How to exit a loft bed on a bamboo ladder at three in the morning, without stepping into the bidet.
• Where to stash your suitcase in a 5’ X 6’ room and still be able to open the door in case of fire.
• How to manage a 30-pound suitcase, a parka and a back-pack on a forty-step spiral staircase and why down seems quicker.
• Getting your money’s worth from a €12 shower.
• How to advise the non-English-speaking desk clerk that the sheets are missing from your bed without having him interpret your hand-signals as an invitation to party.
• Exactly how many varieties of liverwurst can you reasonably expect to be served at breakfast on a two-week holiday in Bavaria?
• Cardboard walls: Getting revenge in the morning on the Italian newlyweds in the next room. I mean – seriously? Come on, people! You have your whole lives ahead of you – pace yourselves.
• Shortening the distance between a second-floor bed and a first floor toilet in an emergency.
• Developing one’s sense of humor and reflexes through the “Euro Variable Water Pressure Treatment.” Or coping with what happens when you have shampoo in your eyes in the third-floor shower when the man on the second floor flushes the toilet.
• Mosquitos at midnight.
• Little known facts about the early-model K-Mart voltage converter and how to yell “FIRE!” in seven different languages.
• Successfully coping with felons, winos, Italian soccer teams and other unruly neighbors in the hallway.
• Adventures in entomology. Keeping an inquiring mind when opening the dresser.
• How to determine the exact cost of bed and breakfast before moving in, including the extras: the €9 boiled egg, the €10 glass of jus de pamplemousse, towel rent, early breakfast surcharge, electricity tax, radiator use fee, etc.
• Tissue-paper walls: Is it homicide or passion in the next room and how to know when to call the police.
• Putting on your make-up under a 40-watt lightbulb without emerging onto the street looking like a throwback from the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Or how not to care.
• Getting acquainted with the shower head on a flexible metal hose and how to beat and twist it into submission
I could add many more entries to this idle inquiry, but never mind. My attention has contentedly wandered. Here in Basel late last night, the noise of Weinfest revelers and one rude saxophone flowed into my third story window for hours. Deep into a paperback adventure of Captain Aubrey, I paid them no mind.
This morning, one pale shaft of sunlight now falls into the shadow of the Rheingasse as I sip my peppermint tea. One solitary spider hangs himself out to dry in the window. At sunset, steam will rise from off of the Rhine and wrap the silhouette of Munster’s spires in a frayed shawl of gray. I will most likely be bent over a thrifty bowl of Zwiebelsuppe, optimistically counting a small handful of coins. I have to leave Switzerland tonight, before it devours my last cent, and head south for the delightful Italian combination of low-cost, high-calorie meals.
Reading my notes again, I have to confess that I don’t really care about guidebooks or answers. If, in fact, I wanted ease and predictability when traveling, I would join the carefree package-tour folks, where there are few surprises, and where distasteful or unpleasant events are not likely to occur. But I have always found that although I may read and plan my journeys weeks ahead of time, the fondest memories are always made up of what happens outside the itinerary -- the lost key, the overly friendly waiter, the foiled pickpocket, the missed bus, the desperate graffiti – “BABA! I want you!”, the cafe in the train station that specializes in “Honkey-Burgers”. Or the delightful museum sign warning “This door is exceptionally closed.”
The best moments are always the serendipitous, the unexpected – the half-star €50 a night hotel in Cologne at midnight after an 11-hour train ride where I find there is no shower, only a sink. And as I sit on the end of the bed in despair, I spot a very small refrigerator in the corner. It is loaded with icy Löwenbräu and a sparkling Sekt. A little sign says “For your plaesure of the guest.” And who needs a shower anyway?
The best remembered moment is the apologetic, “I am sorry, madam, we are fully booked … but … we do have one very very small room available for two nights.” This bijou room was, in fact, a re-furbished janitors’ closet, but it just happened to have a miracle view directly onto the Pont-St-Louis and Notre-Dame.
William Butler Yeats observed:
We that have done and thought,
That have thought and done,
Must ramble and thin out,
Like milk spilt upon a stone.
To thin out, I believe, is to be a stranger in an unknown land, where I always dress inappropriately, order coffee before dinner ( or worse, with dinner), and wait over an hour in the wrong line. A land where even the alphabet appears inside out. To thin out is to fall asleep soundly on a lumpy mattress to the strains of a frenzied accordion from the bistro across the way with a smile on my lips. It is to accept each encounter with a dimly lit, precipitous flight of stairs, a surly desk clerk, or an indecipherable street sign as an opportunity for enlightenment and personal growth. I think it is the best we can hope for, to ramble and thin out, and then share the adventure with other lovers of the road.