Of Cheap Hotels, Romanian Builders and Potatoes


I was working away from home last week, down in the fair city of Toulouse. Home from home was a cheap hotel in the edgelands, sandwiched between the motorway, and shopping mall.

There I was, sitting up in bed, trying to get to sleep and trying to get some sleep above the eternal din of fellow hotel guests coming and going in the wee small hours. That’s the problem with cheap hôtels. They seem to be peopled exclusively by the nation’s itinérant building workers, who in turn all seem to be swarthy romanian types with loud raucous voices and a penchant for late night drinking, arguing and noisy sex with local ladies. The regular, mechanical sounds of a little late night fling resonating through the thin, plastic walls.

Yes, plastic walls. You don’t get real walls for just over forty Euros a night . You don’t even get a real bedroom. The hotel is a set of pre-moulded plastic cells, bolted together one on top of the other. Apart from the bed, all the fixtures and fittings are pre-moulded into the plastic cell.

So, there I am, trying to sleep as the Boys from Bucharest are banging away in the next room. I bang back on the walls and ask them to make a little less noise. A very muffled « Pardon monsieur » comes through the wall and a few minutes later, the banging starts again. Around 2 am, a giggling gaggle of young ladies, heavily under the influence of alcohol, clank their way down the metal stairs, more than a little unbalanced in their high heels. There are several thuds and a flurry of curses as some ladies miss their step. One girl misses the stairs altogether and rolls to the bottom, provoking loud laughter from her companions which soon turns to grunting and burping. Ah, for the charms of drunken ladies, at least they don’t piss and vomit everywhere like their male counterparts – yes some of the Boys from Bucharest are indulging in the aforementioned activities from the third floor walkway.

I would stay somewhere decent, but my employers only give an allowance of 40 Euros per night, which condemns me to staying in cheap hôtels that look they have been built from Mega Blocks – Lego being far too expensive.

And come half past five, my raucous Romanians are off to work, climbing into their white transit vans. The banging of doors, the revivng-up of motors and the honking of horns. I hope they exercise their building skills with more finesse. I don’t know why, but I just wouldn’t want to live in anything built by these guys.

During the night’s noisy proceedings, I try to concentrate on something that might take my mind off the noise and even send me to sleep. At times like this, it is traditional to count sheep. I, on the other hand, am wondering, just how many ways there are to cook a potato.

Boiled, fried, mashed, sautéd, chipped, baked … surely I’ve missed one or two. I seem to have been living off a diet of potatoes all week – at least, potatoes are always on the menu.

That is the problem of working away from home, you have to find somewhere to eat of an evening.

I’ve got a KFC and a number of burger outlets next to the hotel. Across the road, in a large shopping mall, there are a number of cheap family restaurants offering real food – steaks, fish, chicken ans suchlike, all served with as much veg as you can eat – except I don’t eat green beans, cauliflower or anything cabbage-based, so, I am limited to potatoes in one of their many variants – except when their are carrots or rice on the menu.

This past potato week, has got me thinking of a few French, spud-inspired expressions.

This last week, had I slept decently, I might have woken up in the morning bursting with energy and full of beans, although the French are full of potatoes. « J’ai la patate » (literally, I have the potato). I suppose that first thing in the morning, it is préférable to be full of potato rather than beans, though the French would also say « je pete la forme » – meaning I’m tip top, top notch, bright, bushy-tailed and just raring to go. The litéral translation of this energetic expression … « I’m farting form » which is what happens when you’re full of beans. I wonder, could all this lead to a new trend of workers breaking wind in the morning in order to impress colleagues with their high energy levels ?

As opposed to being full of beans or potatoes, a lot of French people might say ; « J’ai la frite » – What might be misconstrued by some, as a side order of French fries for breakfast, quite simply means that – I’m full of beans, bubbling over with energy and … you’ve got the picture.

It is Tuesday night. I’m eating in one of these self service restaurants/canteens near the in the shopping mall. I’ve got to look twice, but the guy at a nearby table is eating a huge plate of French fries and mashed potatoes. He is meticulously dipping each French Fry in the mash and then slowly nibbling each mash-covered fry with visible relish. I don’t know if he is mad. He’s certainly sort of size that you might imagine for someone who lives of a diet of Fries and mash.

Now, you might be surpirsed to learn that the French don’t have French Fries, they just have « frites » which the Brits call chips. For the French, chips are actually potato chips, which the Brits call crisps. The French never manage to pronounce crisps as crisps, but rather as « cweesps ». When the French come to the UK and order Chips, they also have pronunciation problems. The CH of chips becomes SH and the short I sound becomes a long E sound. Hence, Chips become sheeps and so it is easier for a French tourist in Britiain to order fries, although they occasionaly pronounce fries as freeze – what the hell, all chips are frozen anyway.

Back at the mash. The French have a potato-inspired expression to mean that one is half asleep and just a little bleary – « Je suis dans la purée » – I am in the mashed potato, which is actually a good way to sum up how I felt after several sleepless nights listening to the Boys from Bucharest while I sat counting potatoes.