Joseph Roth

Arrival in the Hotel

joseph-rothThe hotel I love like a fatherland is in a large European port city, and the heavy gold antiqua letters in which its banal name shines out over the roofs of the houses clustered beneath it, looks to my eye like a lot of little metal flags, flags that don’t flutter, but stand at attention and shine to greet me. Just as other men return to hearth and home, to wife and child, so I return to chandelier and lobby, chambermaid and porter – and each time I have such a consummate experience of the ceremonial of coming home, that the alternative version, of the rigmarole of arriving in a hotel, seems never to get a look in. The look with which the porter welcomes me is more than a father’s embrace. And as if he really were my father, he pays my cab out of his own waistcoat pocket, so that I don’t even have to think about it. The majordomo in his tails steps out of his glazed box, and smiles more than he bows. It appears my arrival causes him such delight, that his back imparts friendliness to his lips, and the professional and the human are both present in his welcome. He wouldn’t dream of asking me to register; that’s how well he understands that I view this legal requirement as a personal insult. He will fill in my registration form afterwards, when I’m in my room, in his own hand, even though he has no idea where I come from. According to his mood, he will write down some name or other, and one of the cities he esteems worthy of having entertained me. My details are more familiar to him than they are to me. I expect various other men with the same name occasionally come and stay at the hotel. But he doesn’t know their details, and they always strike him as a little suspicious, as though they were illegal usurpers of my name. The lift-boy takes my suitcase under his arm. I imagine an angel would furl his wings in like manner. No one asks me how long I intend to stay, whether for an hour or a year: the fatherland is content either way. The porter whispers to me: “627! Is that all right with you?” as if I knew as well as he did what sort of room that was…

Well – and I do know! I love the “impersonal” quality of this room, as a monk may love his cell. And just as others may be happy to see their pictures again, and their plates and spoons, and children and bookshelves, so I greet the cheap wallpaper, the gleaming, innocent china of the ewer and basin, the shiny, spotless, metal taps, and the wisest of all books: the phone directory. Of course, my room never faces out the back. It’s the room of a regular guest, there is nothing opposite it, and still it faces out on to the street. Opposite me are: a chimney, the sky, and a cloud… But still, it isn’t so remote either, but that the noise of the large, nearby square might not reach my walls as an echo of the sweet world; in such a way that I am isolated, but not solitary, alone and not abandoned, apart but not remote. When I open the window, the world comes in. From afar I hear the hoarse sirens of ships. Very near are the foolish jinglings of trams. Car horns seem to call me by my name – they call up to me as to a popular president. The policeman stands at the centre, and controls everything. The newspaper boys toss up the names of their papers like tennis balls. And little street scenes enact themselves like dramolets. A push on the button of imitation ivory, and at the back of the corridor, a green light flashes on, a signal for the waiter. And here he is already! His professional diligence is confined to his tailcoat – in his heart underneath, under the starched shirt front, lives human warmth. Specially kept for me, tended during the whole time of my absence. When he calls the kitchen way down in the depths with my order, he won’t forget to say who it’s for, and just as my pressing the button has caused a green light to flash up in the corridor, so the sound of my name will evoke in the chef’s memory a particular recollection of my preferences regarding this or that. The waiter smiles. He has no need to speak, with me. He doesn’t need to ask any question. There is no possibility of any error. He is already so familiar with me, he would be perfectly prepared to be tipped on tick, as it were – with a little interest payable. His faith in the inexhaustibleness of the sources of my income is itself inexhaustible. And if I turned up in rags as a beggar, that to him would be a droll disguise. He knows I’m only a writer. But even so he gives me credit…

I pick up the phone. Not to make a call – only to say hello to the operator downstairs at the hotel switchboard. He connects me swiftly and frequently. He says I’m out. He warns me. In the morning, he tells me of important news items in the paper. And when the postman is on his way to me with a money order, he announces him to me with a discreet jubilation. He is an Italian. The waiter is an Austrian. The porter is a Frenchman from Provence. The maitre d’ is from Normandy. The headwaiter is a Bavarian. The chambermaid is a Swiss. The handyman is a Dutchman. The manager is a Levantine; and for years I’ve suspected the chef of being a Czech. The hotel guests come from the remaining parts of the world. Continents and seas, islands and peninsulas, ships, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Mohammedans and even dissidents – all are represented in the hotel. The cashier adds, subtracts, counts out, cheats in all languages, converts any currency. Relieved of the constraints of patriotism, of the crassness of national feeling, on holiday somewhat from their local pride, people come together here, and at least give the appearance of being what they should always be: children of the world. In a moment, I will go downstairs – and that will be my proper arrival. The maitre d’ will come up to tell me his news, and to listen to mine. His interest is entirely in me, just as the astronomer’s is fixed on the moment the comet breaks the horizon. Have I changed? Or am I in fact the same in any way? His eye, as delicate and precise as a telescope, takes in the cut of my suit, the condition of my boots – and his assurance: “Delighted to see you looking so well!” refers less to my health than to the appearance of my liquidity. Yes, you’re still the same man, is what that compliment really means. – Thank the Lord you’ve not yet sunk so far that you have to go to a different hotel. You are our guest and our child! Kindly remain so!

My interest, in turn, is in everything to do with the hotel, as though I stood to inherit shares in it. How is business just now? Which ships are expected this month? Is the old waiter still alive? Has the manager been unwell? Have no international hotel thieves been through? – All these matters preoccupy me now! I would like to be shown the books, and tot up the earnings and outgoings. Am I in any way different from the man who out of patriotism reads up on the budget of his country, the political orientation of its ministers, the health of the head of state, the organisation of the police, the equipment of the armed forces, the number of new battleships ordered for the navy? I am a citizen of the hotel, a hotel patriot.

Soon, soon will come the moment when the porter will reach into a little pigeon hole somewhere, and pull out a bundle of letters, telegrams and periodicals for me. A swift look flies from the porter’s desk to me, the herald of the news. The letters are old, but still new to me. They have been waiting for me a long time. In some cases, I already know their content, I have learned it from other sources. But who knows?! Among the letters I can guess at, there may be others that surprise me, that perhaps upset me, cause me to alter my course. How can the porter smile at me with such equanimity as he passes me the letters? His calm is the product of long experience, a bittersweet, parental wisdom. He knows that there won’t be anything surprising, he knows of the monotony of an ambient life, and no one knows so well as he does the ridiculousness of my vague, romantic notions. He knows the travellers by their luggage, and the letters by their envelopes. “Here is your post!” he says with indifference. And yet, as he passes me the bundle, his hand makes a courteous movement at the wrist, it seems to bow, in accordance with ancient custom, a rite of porters’ hands…

I stop in the lobby, and sit down. It is home and world, exotic and familiar, a picture gallery sans ancestors! Here I begin to write about my friends, the hotel staff. They are such characters, every one! Cosmopolites! Adepts in human nature! Linguists and depth-psychologists! No internationalism can touch theirs! They are the true internationalists! (It’s only with the shareholders of the hotel that patriotism begins.)

I begin by describing my friend, the porter.