If you don’t…

“I’m going to put my laundry in. If you don’t find a hotel by the time I get back, I’ll find you one and at any price. You can afford it. It’s about time you started staying in better hotels.”

It was Hugh, frustrated with Kay’s seeming inability to book a hotel through Expedia or Hotels.ca. If Hugh was frustrated with Kay’s lack of computer brilliance, Kay was more so with the computer.

First, she wasn’t used to the laptop cursor control and the little arrow was flying over the page sometimes and then refusing to move at other times. Then, she became boggled down trying to compare prices and places. There were so many hotels and she knew so little about where they were, in a city she knew nothing about.  She could end up in some obscure location and spend half her time traveling back and forth to the hotel, when there were other hotels that were perfect for her meandering through the old parts of the city. But how was she to know when she had never been there. She’d chosen a hotel in New York that way.

It was three hundred dollars a night that she shared with her friend Kathy on a long-weekend side trip they had done from Toronto to New York, tagged on to a work-related convention. The hotel had been central alright. But the promised two beds was a trundle bed that pulled out from underneath a cot-like contraption. The second mattress lay on the floor which looked none too clean. The blankets were surplus from the First World War – gray, heavy woolen ones with dark blue stripes at the top – and there was hardly any room to move or to put luggage.  The towels were thin raggedy looking ones. Pictures  of hotels, Kay knew, were deceptive on the Internet.

Kay went back and forth between this hotel and that but they all seemed far to expensive for just sleep and nothing else. Finally she found one at one hundred Swiss francs and that seemed fine to her. The blurb stated that it was close to the city centre and the train station. There was a pub-restaurant with live music on weekends. That was a dicey thing. Perhaps with loud music, she wouldn’t be able to sleep. On the other hand, maybe it would be interesting music and it would give her something to do, close to her hotel, in the evenings.

She proceed through the steps of booking on-line, but every time she did so, the system informed her that she was missing information and booted her out. It was on the fifth try that Hugh came back from the basement with his knapsack full of clean laundry.

“Well, have you got it yet?”

“No”, she replied defensively, “but it’s not for want of trying”. She explained her trials with the computer and the booking system and how she kept getting error messages when nothing seemed missing. She showed him her selection and he took back his computer and started to key into the site where she had been looking.

Kay lamented not being able to compare the hotels.

“It’s so easy,” he replied. “Look! Here are references from other travellers. “Near the heart of town. Close to the train station. Staff is very friendly. Rating 5 out of 6. Cleanliness 5 out of 6. Sounds good. Entertainment in the surrounding district. 5 out of 6.”

“See these ratings? ” he continued. “Travelers leave there impressions and you can do the same when you have finished your trip. The other one you’ve chosen has no ratings at all.  You can’t tell. So take this one with the decent reviews. ”

After a few minutes, Hugh, too, was being booted out of the reservation system. He looked at Kay with a baffled expression.

“Well, there’s a telephone number here. We could telephone, but you’ll have to give me your credit card number so I can book for you. Only don’t stay on the phone long. I pay for my minutes if I stay on too long.”

Kay said nothing and watched Hugh thumb the telephone number into his cellular phone. It rang on the other end. Kay could hear the unfamiliar European ring repeating itself.  Hugh asked if they spoke English and then turned to Kay.

“You are sure you want to stay two nights? It’s going on your credit card. You won’t pay anything when you get there. They’ll give the special price you would have had if you had booked through Hotels.ca.  Shall I go ahead? Are you sure it’s the fifth and the sixth?”

Kay nodded mutely as  he proceeded to provide her card number. When he was finished, he turned to her and said, “See. It’s not so difficult. The only thing is, you can’t do it on line less than 24 hours before you are going to be there. ” He printed her a Google map and with a highlighter, traced her path from the station to the hotel. “Here. Take this with you. You can’t get lost.”

Kay nodded again, then, thinking the process had gone miraculously more smoothly than she could have mustered, she said, “Let’s do the one for Paris for when I return home; and let’s get one for Strasbourg for the sixth.”

“Look,” he said with a chastising tone, “You have to stop choosing the least expensive hotels. You can afford better. Suck it up. I’m going to get you a good hotel and  I get to choose.”

They argued a bit, but in the end Kay was defeated when Hugh announced, “If you want a cheaper hotel, you can do it.” Kay, feeling rather beaten, nodded her head, still wordless, with a grim feeling of panic.

The next day she left early with Hugh, down the hill to the bus stop, then down to the train station where she was on her own now, fending for herself with a continuing feeling of vulnerability. I’m getting on, she thought to herself. Now I need a magnifying glass to read a map and everyone will know I am a tourist. Now I need help to get my luggage up into a train. I no longer have the stamina to walk miles, and I’m about to go to a city where I don’t know sixteen words of the language. I’ll have to find a different way to travel.

The train ride was a long, with one transfer to Bern, then another to Zurich.

Industrial sprawl petered out around Lausanne. The steep hills above Lac Leman were green and corduroyed with ownerships of vines,  and accented with red-tiled roofs of the farm houses. Small cities were linked together by the railway, Nyon, Lausanne,  Vevey, Montreux, and then the train began to climb away from the lake towards Bern.

In the mountains, bright green pastures climbed high onto the slopes that were covered with deep green stands of pine and fir. The farm-style houses of the lower levels gave way to small chalets of the traditional sort – dark -wooded, two storied, steep-roofed to let the snow slide away.

At Bern, she had to ask a fellow voyager if it were the right place to get off the train. The signs were now all in German. With only six minutes to get her corresponding train, she followed the stream of other travelers. Then when they dispersed, she found herself in a long hall with no clear indication of which of many stairwells she must take to get there.

People streamed by in hasty determination to catch their trains, while disembarking passengers wove by in the opposite  direction – a dance that never ended in collision.

“Zurich, please!” she cried out in mounting panic. “Where’s the track for Zurich?”  and an adolescent in school uniform plucked her sleeve. “Follow me, ” she said, pulling Kay in the right direction. “It’s the train after mine. Watch there,” she directed, pointing to a automated board that clicked over numbers as the trains came and went away again.

“Next one!” the girl waved as she  and her classmates disappeared into a train.

And so Kay got on the next train and sure enough, it deposited her in Zurich.

Once again there was a baffling configuration of halls giving on to train tracks. It was the main hall that she wanted, and an exit to the city. When she looked out she hoped was  the front of the station, there was construction going on. She couldn’t tell because everything was shrouded in scaffolding and swaths of plastic. No street names were in view. When she looked back into the station, there were three other exit possibilities. What to do?

She walked down the long hall with shops on either side looking for the Tourist Information Center.  It was not obvious despite the large sign that hung up  above along with a huge surreal sculpture of a woman floating just below the rafters.  She returned back to the central point, close to the wall, passing a florist, a bakery, coffee shop, the ticket counters and other businesses. She returned to the ticket counter, stood in line and waited five minutes.

“It’s not here,” replied the bored clerk in a dull, flat voice. He pointed to the opposite side of the hall at the far end.  Back she went, now annoyed.

“Please, do you speak English,” she asked, and the Tourist Information clerk nodded.

“How can I help you?”

“I already have a hotel. I reserved it on the Internet.I just don’t know where I am on this map, which exit to take, which direction to go.”

He pulled out a city map in an automatic gesture from under the counter, without swerving his  kind eyes from Kay.  “And your hotel?”

“The Rothaus.”

His expression did not change, nor did he say a thing, but there was a slight movement backwards of his whole upper body. It was the first indication that something might be wrong.

Smoothly, he continued on, “The Rothaus.There is a bus at the end of this street. Just turn right out this door, he pointed,  and walk down to the street at the end. There’s a bus stop. Take the number 3.”

“Bus?” replied Kay. She had no change and felt more vulnerable on the bus. What if she went far past her stop and got lost. It was different if one was traveling with a friend. They could sort things out and there was company if things didn’t work out. But now it was  all up to her. “Couldn’t I walk?”

“You could but it’s better to take the bus. You go out this door, turn right, walk the full length of the station, There’s a bus stop just right there. But if you really want to walk, cross the street, again to the right until you come to the corner, then walk two blocks to the river, cross over the bridge,  one block left, then about five blocks down Militarstrasse.”

It was too much to remember, but it was now highlighted on the new map and she thanked him and headed out the door.

The front of the station was shrouded, Christo-like, in scaffolding and plastic wrap. There were detours around construction hoarding covered with graffiti and posters apologizing for the inconvenience. At the end of the station street, there was one block of uninviting shops and then the commercial aspect of the streets petered out.

Kay crossed the canal by bridge, turned left a block and found her street.

There was nothing of note for a block, then a huge open space fenced by a stone wall with forged iron fencing ran for about three blocks. Three large, striped tents were situated about a block away in the center of it and there were circus animals in pens outside.

As Kay was taking in the details of the circus, two swarthy men passed her clicking their tongues as they brushed passed her in, raising their brows and leering.

“Oh Lord, ” thought Kay. ”  All this long trip, she had not been pestered by the migrant North Africans as she had been thirty some years before. Was she just entering a poorer district? Was she marked as a tourist and therefore was prey? She tightened her hold on her black carry-all and took mental note. She would not bring her camera out in this district. It was dicey.

In the next block, there were young people, about fifty, she guessed,  waiting for the bus. It appeared to be beside the entrance to a technical school. They payed her no attention, forcing Kay out into the street to pass them. She sped her steps, leery of European drivers who stopped for no one.

Once she was beyond them she once again took stock of her surroundings. Across the street was Milano Pizzeria. At worst, I could eat a pizza tonight, she thought. There was a grimy-looking corner store, but possibly there was an inexpensive dinner in there as well – maybe yogurt, cheese, some bread, a banana or an apple. Kitty-corner there was a cafe which she was fast approaching, and on fourth corner, a clothing shop with racks and racks of cheap, gaudy merchandise.

Kay noted that there were only men sitting outside the sidewalk cafes, and that there were a few women hanging around aimlessly, drably dressed, not going anywhere.  With relief, she saw her hotel, a red brick structure on the corner of a side street less than twenty meters ahead.

“Rothaus. Red House. Of course!” thought Kay, translating from the Swiss German to English with an educated guess. Here it was!

The main door led to an empty cafe where she supposed the music was in the evening.  To left and right, she could not see a hotel entrance, but saw an arrow pointing to one side. There was a locked gate made of unpainted tubular steel and a buzzer with a sign which she hoped was for the hotel, and an intercom.  Just past the gate was another buzzer which, she supposed, was to let oneself out.  The intercom answered, “Rothaus!” ,  a female voice.

“Rothaus Hotel?” asked Kay.  The buzzer sounded and Kay pushed the gate. It opened and she entered. A narrow grey door in an unfinished concrete stucco wall was marked Hotel in white paste on letters. It didn’t look promising.

Inside, a young woman at the desk asked Kay’s business.

“I reserved over the phone last night. Kerrer is the last name, ” Kay said. “Do you speak English? It’s already paid for,” she added, making sure she would not be asked for more money.

“Oh yes.  Your room is number 64. I’ll show you.” She handed Kay the key and preceded her back to the courtyard. At the door, she pointed to a small new building within the compound, built like a blockhouse, square, three storied, uninteresting.

“There’s a door just under the stairwell. Your room is at the end of the hall.” she said and ushered Kay out past her.

The corridor inside the blockhouse was narrow, plain and dark. At the end she found three doors. It didn’t compute. The building was so small. Was there room for three hotel rooms in here?

Inside the room, it became evident. There was a double bed with crisp white linens and a bright red bed cover. At the end of the bed, there was no room at all. A twelve inch shelf ran from one side of the room to the other. An modern style stool fit underneath it, the only other piece of furniture.  A guest was not expected to sit here in the evening, nor write, nor relax in a chair.

Along the bedside, was a narrow space from the door to the shelf, not thirty inches wide. Four colourful plastic hangers swung from a bracket, above, in this space. It was the nearest thing to a closet that there was.
In the bathroom, the toilet was so close to the wall that the paper fixture stuck out into the room making it necessary to sit sideways first before settling in.  A concrete lip on the floor provided the base for the shower in one corner and the curtain, gathered close to the wall, provided the two other sides for it.  The pedestal wash stand was cracked.

“It’s only for two nights” thought Kay. She couldn’t bear the thought of returning to the station to find a different hotel. She couldn’t imagine trying to get her money back from this one. “At least it’s clean, ” she added, talking out her concerns to herself.

Time was wasting. She only had two days, so she sorted out what she would need for a walk and then, leaving the remainder in the room, she consulted her map, then went out to explore the city.

To be continued.

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