“But where in central London?”
“I don’t know, anywhere I can find good food at a restaurant at this time.”
“It’s going to be very difficult; it’s 45 minutes away.”
“Oh. And how much would that cost?”
“Could be up to £80.”
“What?! Nevermind then.”
Incredulous, I stood in line for the shuttle hoppa, for bus H54, that would take me to Renaissance Heathrow Hotel. I’m stranded here for the night because my incoming flight to London Heathrow was delayed, making me (and several other people) miss my onward connection. A couple of hours ago I was reading the chapter on British happiness in Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss and the stereotype of the British grump. I was determined to make the best of my situation and not fit in, and thus my enquiry into venturing into town.
I always wondered who stayed in those cheaply built hotels around airports, and now I can claim to have been on the inside. Next time I see an airport hotel I will know what it’s like inside: I will have a sense of what might be going on in there, I will imagine half-awake people waiting in line for a shuttle hoppa desperate to get out of there, I might even get a whiff of the air dense with ephemeral gloom.
Why would anyone choose to stay in one of these? Turns out not everyone stays here of their own volition. This is where the collective sadness of missed flight connections end up, by way of airline vouchers. H54 picks us up, and starts making the rounds, one soulless hotel after another. I see signs for Slough on the road. In his book, Weiner talks about Slough and Making Slough Happy, a happiness project that attempted to turn around that supposedly miserable town. Thoughts of going to a pub there cross my mind but I never end up going because it would be a long ride from the hotel as I would find out. While still on the bus, I wondered which might be worse, Slough or my imminent misery at the hotel.
The transit hotel is a cosmopolitan village, with staff names like John, Cassandra, and Amandeep flitting about. Almost none of them seem ethnically British, though (whatever that means), which seems apropos; like everyone else here, they too are stuck in transit. The entire airline transit hotel seems like a well-orchestrated enterprise, a business built on transience. It makes me feel like part of some intricate scheme. You’re in the middle of nowhere, stuck, forced to eat overpriced hotel food, captive. You’re not in control anymore.
I eat a burger (medium-well, because there’s apparently some law here that requires they be cooked medium-well or well), while nursing a pint of Fuller’s Pride. The guy next to me, who I instinctively take to be a middle-aged pedophile, starts talking to me upon hearing about the available burger doneness options. He turns out to be a pleasant Norwegian who lives in a Bavarian village outside Munich. He also turns out to be a barbecue enthusiast, not the kind of barbecue Memorial Day weekenders think they are doing when they are really just grilling meat, but real southern slow-smoked barbecue. In fact, Norwegian BBQ man is hoping to be one of the judges for the World Championships in Memphis (I didn’t know there was such a thing, but there really is). It’s closing time. We say our goodnights and wish each other luck, appropriately.
The elevator smells new. I make my way to the third floor. A printed sign stuck on the wall tells me I should make a right for room 3309. Halfway through the hallway another sign tells me to now make a left. This building is a maze, hallways jutting out in every direction. The disposable signs make sense now: easy to reconfigure the hotel, in case they decide to add a whole new block. Eventually I make it to my room. What’s on the inside is very different from what’s outside — it’s surprisingly nice, cozy even.
Next morning I wake up early and make my way down for breakfast. Almost every hotel outside America does hot breakfast, and that I can very much get behind. At this hotel, lending some sense of place to the breakfast spread, are haggis and blood pudding (straight up from packages, as I found out). The scrambled eggs taste like mushy cardboard, so I get some made-to-order poached eggs, which I find taste like runny cardboard, but I much prefer them, enriching my haggis with the runny yolks. I’m ready to be out of here.
Everything about the transit hotel experience feels fleeting: buses shuttling from one airport hotel to another, dropping off sadness; entire hotels built Soviet-style that could collapse any moment; branding that’s easily transferred; hotel workers going about their business, an air of melancholy hovering over them. I’ll admit, though, it’s not as depressing in here as I had expected — it’s very likely much less depressing than Moldova, reportedly the world’s most unhappy country you have never heard of — maybe because everyone is intimately aware of the evanescent quality of their short-term existence here. Hope is a wonderful thing.