It occurred to me recently that the microwave I have in my house has been functioning perfectly for almost 25 years. I know this because it was part of a big purchase I made when I moved into the house I’m in now. I went to the local chain white goods store and bought ‘all the white goods I need for a new house’. I also asked for — and received — a substantial discount from the manager.
The fridge/freezer, washing machine, dryer and microwave were all delivered and fitted about 3 days after I moved into my house. They’re all still there (well, almost all; I had to replace the washing machine after it stopped mid-cycle a few years back and the hinge on the fridge door literally gave up the ghost last week).
But before you think that this is a remarkable feat of engineering, that I bought four of the best products on the market that have lasted for well over the average lifetime of such goods, let me throw in a little ‘ah-ha’ moment.
They’ve only been used for less than half of that.
You see from virtually the day I moved into this house until about 12 years ago I barely lived here.
I was a hotel dweller. Someone who spent more time away from the house than they did in the house. I had a car which I bought and in the first ten years of owning it, I drove it fewer than 30,000 miles. Most of that was trips back to Yorkshire to see my mother.
The hotel thing was the result of two different aspects of my life colliding. The first one was a continuation of my ethos of spreading your wings and learning more about the world you live in. I’ve lived in Australia and Belgium and visited dozens of countries across the world. I loved travelling.
The other was the fact that I got a job which involved working with a set of affiliates for an American multi-national company.
Once you put these two together it was merely a foregone conclusion that I would be spending a lot of my time away from the house.
And I did.
In some years I was approaching 200 flights. Most years it was at least 100 flights. Each of these flights was a little ritual. Each of the journeys was an exploration. Each one was hell on earth; — at least that’s what it ended up being.
You see travel broadens the mind. But the mind can only get so broad before it stretches thin and starts to fall apart. Constant international travel starts to hit the law of diminishing returns once you’ve checked in to your fourth hotel in as many days (especially when the room you are in has a total floor space smaller than the bathroom of a colleague who checked in alongside you).
I hit that barrier. I got to the point where I became one of the travelling zombies. Everyone knows them. They’re the guys who know their way around all the airports in all the countries. I can walk around Frankfurt Airport blindfolded. I’ve been there well over 400 times. Brussels Airport — which was horrifically bombed a few years back — was a second home to me when I lived in Antwerp. I would visit at least twice per week every week. I knew which check-in desks moved quicker, which gates needed a head start to get there for the flight, which airlines had the best lounges and where they were located. In short, I travelled.
But I didn’t really enjoy it.
It occurred to me one afternoon when I was sitting on a plane outside Heathrow’s Terminal 1. The journey was scheduled to be a day trip from London to Frankfurt for a meeting about some long-forgotten piece of software I was working on. As we were being pushed out from the gate the tug made a rather sharp turn and actually ran into the nose of the plane it was pushing. Everything ground to a halt and several strange, but totally familiar things occurred. Everyone sat and said nothing to each other (This was a plane full of Brits, after all), the police were called to review the accident, photos were taken and, presumably, insurance details were exchanged. The airline opened the bar to everyone as they decided what to do.
Eventually, the flight was cancelled and everyone was moved onto the next departure for Frankfurt. The problem I had was that this would make me late for my meeting. It was decided — after a couple of phone calls — that the meeting would be cancelled and we would have a telephone conference instead.
That was the point when it hit me: I wasn’t engaging in international travel. I was commuting. I was doing exactly the same thing that hundreds and thousands of Londoners did every day: leaving their house and travelling to their place of work to attend meetings etc. At the end of the day, they repeat the journey. Sure, my commute was longer than theirs. But it was still a commute.
Things had to change.
They did. The nature of the work I was getting began to change. Now I was moved from the drab, urban commute between London and several major European cities (Madrid, Paris, Frankfurt, Zurich, Milan, Lisbon, Berlin) to the glamourous world of the transcontinental journey.
New vistas were opened to me. Shanghai, Manila, Cape Town, Cairo. Some of the places I had studied on the map in my youth now became reality. America opened its arms to me. I travelled across that vast country and visited cities on both coasts and in between.
And you know what? Nothing changed.
At the end of the day, I was a Brit who travelled from home to work in a plane. I took a cab from the airport to the office, from the office to the hotel and from the hotel to the airport. All the hotels started to fade into one another. Was it a left-hand room or a right-hand one? Did the breakfast include cooked food or was it a continental type affair? Each of these questions had a simple answer and each one made not the slightest difference to my life. The main difference now was that the people eating breakfast alongside me were usually western businessmen who were jet-lagged and red-eyed from travel rather than tired from an early morning departure from Heathrow.
The beauty of Shanghai paled when I realised that I was still operating on London time. I would find myself wide awake at some God-forsaken time in the morning then trying my hardest to stay awake in the middle of a meeting. Lost In Translation became a reality to me.
Cairo was a fascinating place to visit, but I was staying in a Meridian hotel which could, for all intents and purposes, have been the Meridian London for all the local flavour it gave me. Sure, I was picked up every morning by a local Egyptian driver who would drive me out past the pyramids and into the desert to visit the local manufacturing plant. But with lousy traffic, pollution, and the heat it became unbearable at times. The occasional camel running across the street served only to highlight the absurdity of the situation.
America was the same but different. The same because I was staying in a hotel and working in an office. Different because my visits there would usually last 6 weeks at a time and be punctuated by a one week return home between them. I stayed in the same hotel when I visited the company headquarters in the midwest. You know you’ve stayed too long in the same place when you check-in and are met by the manager who greets you with a “Welcome home, Mr Comerford”. I was standing at check-out one day when the guy next to me leaned across and said “I’ll sure be glad to see the back of this place”. “Why?” I asked. “Been here three weeks and I’m climbing the walls.” I smiled and looked across at Kristen the receptionist. She passed the guest his bill and said: “Mr Comerford has been here almost 6 months this year”. It was mid-July.
The chain of hotels I used in America were suite hotels. By that I mean they were part of a hotel chain but each room was a mini-suite. It had a living area, kitchen and bedroom. Nothing fancy. In fact, the floor space was smaller than the hotel I had for three weeks in Manila. But the amenities meant it almost became a home away from home. Until you realised that the only personal things there were my suitcase, toothbrush and pyjamas. It took on the air of being familiarly impersonal.
There’s something about walking into a hotel room for the first time. The sense of familiarity yet surprise. All hotel rooms smell the same. It’s a mixture of air-conditioning ozone, cleaning materials and air freshener. If the person before you was a smoker there will also be that lingering smell of old tobacco seeping into the woodwork. Some hotels pitch themselves at the luxury end of the market. They’re the ones with the towels folded into neat little sculptures, the end of the toiler paper turned back on itself and the name brand toiletries in a small dish next to the sink. Other chains are decidedly down market. They have the slot next to the door where you insert the key card to provide electricity for the room, the toiletries consist of a single tube of ‘hair and body shampoo’ (!) which is fixed to the wall of the shower, and the towels are just two sizes of the same, thin, napless material in which cheap hotels seem to have cornered the market.
Occasionally you get a surprise which makes it memorable. I arrived late at a hotel in Vienna one evening to find that they had let my room go. Instead, they upgraded me to the presidential suite for the night. It had a bedroom built into an octagonal turret at the corner of the building, an internal telephone system and a minibar which was an actual fridge rather than one of these monstrosities where you lift a latch to eject the contents and automatically charge it to your bill. All this to be enjoyed for the 7 hours I would be occupying the room, for 95% of which I would be asleep.
And there’s the rub when it comes to hotels. You can spend fortunes on them. Suites, flash toiletries, butlers, antique furniture, great views. But at the end of the day, the main function of a hotel room for a business traveller is to sleep in. As long as the bed is comfortable and the room quiet enough I can sleep just as well in a £35 a night Premier Inn as I did in the junior suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York which cost over ten times that much (more when you include the dreaded ‘plus tax’).
But the penalty for spending all this time in hotels comes at a price. I didn’t wash my own clothes for well over ten years. I used hotel laundry. That’s one of the reasons my washing machine lasted so long — it was never used. I barely cooked any of my own food — I ate in restaurants or (the hell of all cuisine) on the plane. In fact, I was eating so many airline meals my stomach started to contract in size to accommodate the smaller portions. It was a great weight loss regime.
Coming home was a little bit of a letdown. It was all so unfamiliar to me. It looked like the place I had bought off-plan several years earlier. It had things in there that I recognised: my TV, my guitars, my games console. But it had none of the personality of ‘a home’. It could have been another hotel for all I cared. Except, of course, this time there was no laundry, no restaurant and — worse — no expertly folded towels sitting next to expensive toiletries in the bathroom. Just my suitcase, my toothbrush and my pyjamas.
It was all so unfamiliarly personal.
I gave it all up about 13 years ago. Stopped travelling. Stopped commutting to work. I now work from home and get to pick and chose where and when I work. It’s a nice position to be in but the financial situation is dramatically different. I can’t afford foreign travel any more. In fact, since I stopped travelling for work the only trip I have taken abroad was a week with my parents to their house in Spain. That was 10 years ago. Never, really, felt the need to do that anymore. Having recently reviewed my carbon footprint I am horrified at the damage I have done to the environment with the travel I used to do. But that’s in the past. All I can do is hope to keep it at the level it was and not add to it.
Don’t get me wrong, I still encourage everybody to go abroad. Travel broadens the mind. It opens you up to new experiences. It gives you perspective. I fully recommend that everyone go abroad for a few months. Go and live in a foreign country. It will change your life forever.
But don’t spend it in a hotel.