A Stranger in a Strange Land


Recently I found myself planning a trip to the States. I don’t have a personal assistant to do this like some world-travellers do, and taking care of the details was not the easiest thing to do from my location, but thanks to the internet, the job was made somewhat do-able.

For those of you who don’t know, I currently live in France, and while my French is passable enough (barely) in ordinary circumstances, confirming things such as flight and hotel details on the phone is impossible for my limited skills, and sometimes the internet cannot answer all the questions one might have.

So, I opted to book my flight out of England, which was a decision made easier when I saw the prices to fly to the US from Paris – the UK has much better deals, even directly from the airlines. This simply meant that I would take a short flight across the channel and into a land where I am comfortable with the language (at least the written language – the Queen’s English still remains a mystery to me, even though most of the words are the same).

Unfortunately, I could get no decent connection from the UK to the US, so I had to spend the night somewhere around London, preferably close enough to the airport so I could get my first flight out the next morning without stress.

I must qualify that when I have travelled in the past, I have always been a Motel 6 – Travelodge – Ramada Inn kind of guy, but these don’t exist in England, so I did my best. I ended up booking a hotel at more than twice the price of one of these “ordinary” establishments, thinking that prices have gone up in the few years since I travelled, or just plain expensive around Heathrow Airport.

When arriving at the hotel, I thought that it was actually a pretty nice place, and I would probably be getting what I had reluctantly paid for. At reception, the night manager offered me a choice of rooms — I could have the room that was reserved for me, or I could benefit from what was a “quiet” night and take an upgrade to a club/suite at no extra charge. I said, with no question, “Okay.”

It was off to the west-wing and through a set of extra security doors to a land where the carpets are plush. I was to see how the other-half lived, and I wouldn’t be disappointed. Big screen TV in the living room, another TV in the bedroom, and one in the bathtub. Sofas, plush chairs, and even a safe! So… , call me naïve, but a TV in the tub? This place was nicer than any apartment I ever rented! There were a half-dozen fresh cookies by the coffee machine which I quickly went for, and a good-sized refrigerator that I knew was the “mini-bar” —  I avoided this like the plague.

It’s not that I don’t drink, but I was not about to pay double the price for the same thing I could have down at the bar, which was where I was headed anyway for a nice glass of wine (which turned into three). My first glass of wine was accompanied with a request for my room key, and an assurance that this wouldn’t be billed to my room, so I figured “good, I’ll pay cash,” which is how I like things, anyway. The bartender came back with a “Thank you, Sir,” and walked quickly away, so I left a 5 pound note on the bar.

A bit later, I felt like another glass of wine (my second, and usually my limit), so went back to the bar. I noticed my 5 was still on the bar where I left it, and offered it up with my second glass, where it was declined. The bartender told me there would be no charge for the drinks this evening, so I thanked him, and told him to keep it as a tip. This offering was flatly refused with a comment that “everything” was taken care of. I was told, “We don’t like our Club patrons bothered with details.” This is what led to my having a third glass “on the House.” I thought this whole thing was pretty good, and knew I would do it again if I ever got the chance.

It wasn’t until returning to France and telling this story to my wife, that she began to explain the ways of the world to me. Apparently, this is not unusual in the least bit, and she was somehow thoroughly familiar with it. She asked me if I raided the mini-bar, and I said “No, but I ate all the cookies! Why do you ask?” She told me that the mini-bar is ALWAYS free in these situations, stocked not with the usual garbage, but with chilled wine, champagne, and snacks a good step up from Beer-Nuts — all this without any additional room charges. I thought I had been around, but was starting to realize how naïve I really was.

What kind of world is this?

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