Scribbles from a French Hotel

I am almost thirty years old.

In recent years a love of travel and a penchant for curiosity have lead me towards all kinds of adrenalin-induced danger;  I have taken nocturnal taxis in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, a city with one of the highest rates of homicide in the world, whilst drive-by shootings have actively been taking place.  I have been – unwittingly – near recruited into a Saudi harem off the coast of Egypt after making a naive decision with two friends, and I have traversed down Nicaraguan volcanoes on nothing but a sheet of second-hand formica.  I have been dining in West Sumatran cafes as minor earthquakes have taken place on the ground beneath my feet, and been hurled along the wild water rapids of the Ottawa river on a piece of foam…

… But when my mother requests that I go no further than the hotel bar as I enjoy a few Pelforths on the final night of our trip to Lille, France, I duly oblige.  As much as I’d love to be in the midst of the city, absorbing the Lille life for what it really is and scribbling observational notes about it accordingly, I am not about to disobey my mother.  To do so would present a guilt much more terrifying than any of the above, and so I remain enclosed in the sparse bar area of the Novotel hotel, on Rue de L’hopital Militaire, a few steps away from the Grand Place.

Initially, I am sceptical of the potential for this modern-looking space to provide me with the most encapsulating opportunities to do some observational writing, and my early experiences do little to suggest otherwise.  There is really not much going on.  A middle-aged trio are propped against the bar.  They speak in broken English and the only word I can really make out is, “money”.  Very little to go on, here…

The bar area is certainly nothing like the vibrant space that it was yesterday morning, when a group of teenage girls sporting navy tracksuit emblazoned with the word ‘France’, sat drinking coffee and taking selfies over bowls of Muesli, clearly on their way to a tournament of some sporting variety.  No, the bar is a very different place this evening, and I am not confident that I will be able to source much in the way of ‘writing material’, which is what I wanted to use the final night of my trip for.

“Well there are bound to be interesting people coming in and out of the hotel at all times,” Mum had earlier declared, in her valiant attempts to convince me that the creative writing spark of this particular trip could be ignited from within the security of a hotel, and not from behind the dusted doorway of a backstreet bar I had tiptoed into the day before in my search for cigarettes.  A gaunt man with a stubbled face had lead me back out onto the street to motion towards “le Tabac….. rouge……” – the only information required for me to spot the iconic red diamond-shaped logo of a tobacconist, several hundred yards along the road.  “This would be a great place to people watch, and write about it”, I had thought to myself as I’d entered the bar, but mum’s later plea was to pour cold water over that idea.

Completing a sentence in my notebook, I look at the table in front of me.  On top of it is a round, plastic device with four options on it – ‘Annuler’, symbolised by a cross, ‘Addition’, symbolised by a Euro sign, ‘Appel’, symbolised by a bell, and ‘Commander’ – symbolised by a human figure.  A line above the device helpfully translates that it’s purpose is to ‘Call us, we are coming’, and I realise that before me is installed another classic creation of the lazy 21st century.  “Look”, I point to mum, who is ensconced in her chick-lit novel.  She fails to see the value of the device.  “Why don’t you just go up and order?”.  She proffers a valid point, since the bar is a mere five metres away from us.  I agree with her sentiment, but also want to make the most of this magnificent machine.  Besides which, my feet are pained from the blisters caused by a much-betrodden pair of ill-fitting new boots, and right now, even just five metres seems like an ominous incline that I am loathed to trek at this moment in time.

I press the ‘Commander‘ button and within moments a tall lady with a perfectly-rounded bob approaches the table.  She genuinely appears delighted that she finally has something to do, and takes her time in preparing my fresh glass of Heineken, which comes back to me in the form of half-lager, half-froth.  Thankfully for this lady I am not one to judge.  I am instead mesmerised at the success of the plastic device, and hate myself for being so.

As I come across a pause in my flow of thought, mum is keen to point out that the author’s photo – as featured in the inset of the book she is reading – is similar in appearance to a family friend.  I have no idea to whom she is referring but hum along in agreement anyway.  Mum is clearly pleased with her observation.

It is at this point that I head outside for a cigarette.  Puffing on a representative of Pall Mall vertes, I muse on the disgusting nature of this habit and once again assert to myself that this is something I must quit.  “Once the holiday is over, no more cigarettes”, a voice within dictates.  However, I am a realist at heart, and concede that even should I dispose of an empty box at Ebbsfleet International upon our arrival home, it won’t be long before a pack of Sterling Fresh Taste finds its way into my bag.  Perhaps it’s time to try harder.

Back in my seat, mum is clearly still enthused in her book, scribed by the apparent double of family friend P.  She has but half a centimetre of pages left to pore through.

The hotel bar remains empty and this is proving not to be the source of creative inspiration I was planning it to be.  Oh, but maybe it is?  In sheer relaxation there is creativity to be found.  Just by being affixed to a piece of foreign furniture, in a foreign bar, in a foreign land, one can assert a sense of fresh interest and enthusiasm in the world.  And the truth is that this is probably the climate in which I feel most susceptible to allowing the rush of creativity to flood through my veins.

“I wish somebody would pay me to travel the world, and write about it”, I think to myself – and not for the first, second, third or even fiftieth time in my life.  But even then, in that most idyllic sounding of circumstances, I can envision that doing so would actually be quite a lonely job, with little scope to build a home.

I press the ‘Commander’ button on the small plastic device and feel a sense of guilt for the consequent pause in chatter between the two bar staff.

My index-finger has served as a reminder that there is work to be done.

Song of the Day: Locksley – The Way That We Go

Criminally under-rated Wisconsin band who describe their unique sound as “doo-wop punk” – what’s not to love?  This is the kind of song you can have on loop for days, and never get tired of.

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