Moving into a hotel isn’t that tough, what’s complicated is moving out, explains this reporter, whose life was changed, for better and for worse, after an extended period as a guest in Room 54. He also shares an insightful profile of the kinds of people who live in hotels.
TEXT: Juan Pablo Meneses | illustrations: Cristóbal Schmal
It’s been ten years since I was trapped in Hotel España, in Buenos Aires, on Calle Tacuarí (number 80), Room 54. One day, after I’d spent more than 30 months living there, I discovered – after several failed attempts – that I simply couldn’t leave.
“You live in a hotel? Seriously? Sounds like fun!” was the reaction of a number of people, in various situations. I would always try to put their enthusiasm into context. If a prison sentence is fun, then yes, living in a hotel was a brilliant plan.
“You really live in a hotel? I’m jealous!” was how other people would react, in other situations. If you’re into feeling locked up, frozen in time, repeating the same day over and over, then yes, by all means, be jealous.
Since then, my personal experience has made me feel a strange obligation to temper romantic views of life in a hotel. Especially once you discover that, even though you now live in an apartment with a view of the park, that past will stay with you forever. It’s like being an immigrant with papers: at any moment, something might happen to remind you of your condition. You may feel like you’ve left that life behind, right up until the moment you see those lights, that door and that lobby. They appear like an opportunity, like an exit.
Life at the España
In 2010, I published a book called Hotel España. Although I should perhaps have called it The Book I Wrote in Order to Stop Living in a Hotel.
I came to live at the España in Buenos Aires as a practical matter. I arranged a good price for long stays, and because I was always traveling to other places, they’d keep my bags in the storeroom if I were gone for a particularly long stretch. On my return, I’d always request Room 54, on the top floor, with a big balcony, a view of the domes and antennae along Avenida de Mayo, and a bathroom with a window and a tub. If 54 were taken, I’d ask for something on the same floor and wait for the guest to leave before moving back in.
I left Chile with the idea of traveling and writing stories around the world, and I was having some success. What I didn’t know was that I’d end up living in a hotel.
That’s another key part of the story: you don’t choose to live in a hotel – you end up living in one.
To give a sense of stability to my seasonal migrations, with each new trip I’d look for hotels with the same name. If I were heading back to Chile, for instance, I’d stay at the España on Calle Teatinos. I thought that, despite living the life of a traveling journalist, I’d achieved a degree of stability. I could wake up in different cities, but the key and towels would always read Hotel España.
I explored Latin America from Patagonia to Mexico, staying at hotels called España. I thought that this cocktail of hotels would put an end to this way of life… because they can be dangerous. And I’m not saying that only because you can choose one of these transitory spots as the place to end your life – Sid Vicious overdosed in a New York hotel and Cesare Pavece, the Italian writer, bid farewell to this world in a room in Turin – they’re dangerous because you can never truly leave.
The launch of my book ended up being the ultimate contradiction. I had to go on a tour of 27 cities in seven countries in just over three months. That overdose of hotels made me admit I was incapable of leaving that life behind.
When Time Stops
Did you know that time stops when you live in a hotel? Every blessed day, the towels are dry and neatly folded, the bed made, the mini-bar full, the shampoo bottles refilled and the soap new. There are never any vestiges of what you did the day before.
Living in Room 54, I discovered something about normal life: going through soap and shampoo is one way of keep track of the passage of time.
And because time doesn’t move forward in a hotel, there isn’t any way to look backwards either. You can’t hang paintings, posters, calendars, family photos or diplomas on the walls, all those things that speak to the past. It’s this space – without a future or a past – that can entrap you completely.
Who Lives in Hotels?
The Recently Separated Man. His wife just threw him out of the house. Going to live with his parents seems like a step backwards, and his friends don’t have room for him. What could be better than an extended stay at a hotel to wait out the emotional turmoil, a refuge as he tries to begin single life once again.
The Mercenary. He moves as fast as flight capital. He goes where there’s money, where there’s money to be made or where he’ll be hired to earn it. It doesn’t matter if he has to spend long stretches in a rental house (another type of hotel). Mercenaries are soccer coaches from another country, war correspondents, international musicians who live on tour, high-class escorts chasing the summer or smugglers moving product.
The Rootless. He’s a hopeless case. He tried having girlfriends who had their own apartments, he tried renting a room, he even planned to get a place of his own, but just when he was about to make a stab at stability, he had to leave town and start from scratch.
The Migrant. He moved to the big city to make his dreams come true, but he doesn’t know anyone and needs a base camp from which to start the climb.
The Artist. He came with a copy of Nathalie de Saint Phalle’s Hôtels littéraires in hand, convinced that the best way to move forward with a project is to lock himself within the four walls of a big city hotel.
The Employee. The company suddenly displaced him from one day to the next, convincing him that the move is, above all, “strategic.” Feeling so “strategic” can be seductive. He doesn’t know how to do anything himself when it comes to domestic life.
The Retiree. He’s alone and has money. He finds it invigorating to interact with happy, young people at breakfast and dinner, because most people passing through hotels are content. Despite the fact that he’s past the age of 70, living the hotel life keeps him vital. in