Friday, May 15, 2009

Home Sweet Hotel - European vs. American Lodging

Appreciating American convenience after eight nights in seven European hotels

The hours of ironing, the meticulous folding, the careful closure of the suitcase and the cautious slide of the zipper: None of it mattered. When I pulled my suits, shirts and slacks out of the giant red bag I'd brought to Europe, it was clear that I'd need drastic measures to smooth out these pesky wrinkles.

An iron! I thought. My boss was paying more than a hundred dollars for this cramped room in France; certainly they would offer the courtesy of such a mundane device.

I slid open the door to the room's makeshift closet, and they were all there - the whole array of hotel laundry tools - suit hangers with clips, a bar to hang ties on, a full-length mirror. Still, though, no iron.

But I did see something intriguing. It looked like some sort of black, vertically rectangular George Foreman grill mounted on the wall. Its brown cord was loosely attached to an electrical outlet that didn't have the third hole for the grounding prong. I looked at the device quizzically, opening and closing it like the jaws of a toothless, plastic alligator's mouth. The red button on top begged to be pushed. Next to it, I read the words, "Trouser press."

It turns out that the device was pretty intuitive. You slide a pant leg through, fold the press into place, lock it and press the red button. It begins to breathe heat to both sides until your pants become like the buns of a panini being toasted. At least in my hotels in France, Denmark and Sweden, the trouser press gave off enough heat to give that few blissful seconds of leg warmth after putting on the pants, but not enough to actually remove many wrinkles.

And then you have the more obvious problem of what to do now that you have semi-presentable pants and a shirt that looks like it's been through a war. The trouser press is a limited tool, and try as often and as awkwardly as I might, it just wasn't made for pressing shirts.

The trouser press wasn't my only issue with European hotels. In an eight-day trip across France, Denmark and Sweden, I stayed in seven different hotels. It became clear that those frequented by our European friends are not always endowed with the same inalienable conveniences that a lot of American hotels promise.

Take the bathrooms, for instance. Call me lazy, but after a shower I don't enjoy having to walk back down the hallway toward the entryway to go to the bathroom. That's right, my American readers. The toilet in some French hotels is kept in an entirely separate room from the shower, sink and tub. Imagine a coat closet to your left as you walk into your foyer. Now imagine there's a toilet in it. That's just how it is, without the coat rack, of course. And just like a coat closet, there inevitably is no fan in this little restroom. (After all my travels to China, you'd think I'd be grateful for any toilet you can actually rest your behind on, but I digress.)

There are in Europe, however, two separate settings for toilet flushing - a big button and a small one on the wall - which I did find very useful. As a lazy environmentalist, I'm a bit sad that somehow this effortless water-saving adaptation hasn't made its way to the States on a broader scale.

The inconveniences in the Euro hotels didn't end in the bathroom, though, and some nifty flushing gadget couldn't blind me to other shortcomings. After I finished showering, I'd want to chat with my wife. Without a cell phone, I'd use Skype to call home. Skype requires the Internet, so I generally had to either buy three hours of connection for a decent 10-euro price or get gouged for one hour at five euros. This would've been OK at five-star hotels, but everyone knows - well, at least the owners of Quality, Comfort and LaQuinta Inns do - that inexpensive hotels should have free Internet. That's just the way the world should work.

Because of my indignance, I'd refuse the one-hour trap and get suckered into spending three hours talking, twittering, reading and writing. Then I'd need to sleep, which brings me to my next beef with European hotels:

They have no alarm clocks.

People who know me know that alarm clocks are No. 4 on my version of Maslow's hierarchy of needs - food, clothing, shelter, and alarms to remind me to wake up and go after all of the above.

That said, I like to think I'm a relatively savvy traveler, so I realize that it's ultimately my fault if I don't have an alarm clock that will wake me up. I actually have two that I accidentally left at home. The blame is all mine, I admit.

That didn't change the fact that in Sweden and Denmark I had to stuff my Timex watch into my ear canal to make sure that its measly alarm took the edge off of the sleep before the automated wakeup call came from a muted phone came at the programmed time.

Contrast this with my experience in Savannah, Ga., during a business trip two weeks after returning from Sweden. Not only did I have an alarm clock with two separate alarms, noise settings and snooze buttons, but I also had a personalized wakeup call from the clerk at the front desk. When I didn't answer on the first try, she called back to make sure I was awake, and she even acted cheerful about it! I couldn't believe it.

This post isn't intended to rag on European hotels. I had a great time listening to the nightlife out my window at the aptly named Square hotel on Copenhagen's old city. I had an even better time getting to know the joys of the coffee offered as part of a "city breakfast" at the bar in a Parisian Novotel.

As Bill Bryson so humorously showed me in "I'm a Stranger Here Myself," a collection of essays on returning to the U.S. after 20 years in the U.K., America is a wonderful land, but our excessive quest for convenience doesn't always make the most sense if we look at it with fresh eyes.

Then again, as my wife would say, why would we be looking introspectively our habits when we could be watching the Hallmark Channel on our American hotel's wall-mounted flatscreen?

A serious tip: If you're traveling in Europe, especially Denmark, make sure you have at least one credit card that is PIN-activated. I've never used a PIN on my Visa in America, but they demanded one when I was buying train tickets and hotel rooms. Good thing I had my debit card too. Anyone have any thoughts on whether there's a way to get around the PIN requirement in these places?

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