Hello Toulouse

Hello Toulouse

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Part One – The Twilight Zone

This ain’t the Bates Motel. This ain’t Bagdhad café …..

« You unlock this door with the key of imagination.

Beyond it another dimension.

A dimension of sound

A dimension of sight

A dimension of mind.

You’re moving into a land both of shadow and substance, of things and ideas.

You’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone. »

You unlock this door with a swipe card but no matter how many different swiping configurations you try, the bloody door just won’t unlock to reveal the dimension beyond, and as you stand outside in the driving rain and storm force winds slowly working yourself up into a fit of door rage, wondering if you’ll ever make it into the dimension beyond, the door magically clicks open. What did I do?

I pick up my suitcase and slowly penetrate into the darkness of the dimension beyond, groping the walls on both sides of the door for the light switch. Knowing my luck it’s going to be on the other side of the room. Lower and lower my hands go until I fumble upon the switch – was this dimension designed for the dimensionally challenged? The light switch is set at dwarf height – and even then, you’d have to be quite a small dwarf.   Beyond the door is my home sweet home for the next few nights – a rabbit hutch room in a cheap hotel with all the exterior aspects of a Lego model house made by the blind.

One low double bed. Orange lino flooring. White artex walls and a pre-moulded modular shower unit stuck in the far corner, although the room is so small, that with a couple of steps, I am already in the far corner. Just enough room to swing an anorexic kitten as opposed to a full-sized cat. Welcome to the Twilight Zone – a cheap chain hotel stuck on the edge of town between the car wash and the local shopping mall. Oh to be back at home in my comfort zone. I sit on the bed and my heart breaks in this heartbreak hotel – the sort of place that is home to the recently divorced or drunken office workers who missed the last train. The convenient plasticity of the cheap hotel – home too for all those errant workers in the nation’s building trade. The migrant masses obliged to work far from home, so they can manage to pay for a home to go to at the end of the long week. Drifting from one building site to another across the country, never able to just « go home » at night and enjoy the fruits of their labour

The car park is a sea of white transit vans, and as we check in, the reception area is a miserable mass of cold labourers in damp and grubby work clothes – soaked to the skin after a day in the rain erecting edifices in the Edgelands with perhaps as much architectural charm as this heap of concrete junk.

A notice in the room warns me against stealing anything. But there’s nothing to steal. Everything is firmly glued, clamped and screwed down right down to the metal soap dish in the modular washing space. You might conceivably want to steal the towels, but a notice warns that any of the thin rough rags are stolen, then « guests » will be billed.

Despite the cell, cum cabin like appearance of the room, it is warm, it is clean and the riveted to the wall TV set actually works.

So, what are you going to do for the next eleven hours or so until breakfast is served? How are you going to spend this, your first night of those several nights that you are spending way from home?

There is the temptation to head out across the road, buy some strong alcohol from the local supermarket and drink yourself into a stupor. How many people are doing that right now in similar hotels across the land? How many lonely people are they’re sitting in similar plastic cells getting smashed? Lying on the bed in an alcoholic haze in this « land of shadow and substance », in this « dimension of sight… dimension of sound … » but out of their minds on booze to stem the pain of not being where they want to be with those they should be with – out of sight, out of sound.

So, I’ve just crossed into the Twilight Zone. It looks reassuringly familiar, but this is not my dimension. I slide back the stiff red PVC curtains and stare out the small rain spattered window. Through the drops I can see the bleary neon signs of the shopping mall across the highway – the familiar colours and lettering of those national retail chains, the same we have « at home » – There is however a moment of wide eyed wonderment – « Wow they’ve got the same shops here as we’ve got back home » – the tendency to think that what exists where I live doesn’t exist anywhere else, but there are differences – there’s a KFC, we don’t have that where I live and all the shops seem bigger and better. Maybe this place isn’t so bad. I can have a KFC, and when I finally venture out into the vast shopping mall, I discover it is open until well past my provincial bedtime. My cheap hotel homes from home blues are suddenly blown away by the gaudy neon of the cavernous shopping mall. I draw some comfort from astonishment. It’s not so bad. What the hell ! It actually feels almost like being on holiday, even if I am here to work.

Part Two – Of 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.

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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.

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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.

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