Friday, 18 July 2014

Identity, belonging & cheap hotels

I was a film extra for fifteen years and did a lot of costume drama, period and sci-fi. What was fascinating was how the costumes - and to a lesser degree the settings - changed our personality. We identified with the clothes, we became our characters. To the point, even, that all the guards, all the uniformed characters, would sit together at the same table for lunch. We all have our rituals, and these rituals give some roots and solidity to our sense of identity. We make tea or coffee in a certain way, drink it from our favourite cup. We have our breakfast in a certain way, in a certain place in the house, we even dress in a certain order. And, obviously, we also surround ourselves with things that are of our choice, that are familiar and make us know, without a doubt, that we are who we are, and are where we are at. But when we stay in a hotel room, or are guests in someone's house, all of that goes out the window. I am choosing here to talk about cheap or average accommodations and not luxury hotels, because I am interested in the quirks and in how we adapt or react. For instance, last week I was in a hotel room. It wasn't too bad, quite decent and clean. But the sheets felt damp. Why? Were they really damp? I touched the walls and they were dry. And it was cold. I am always cold, but at home I have all my blankets and central heating. Here, I found a heater and after a mighty struggle I managed to turn it on. Then I proceeded to make myself a cup of tea. I had brought my own tea, just in case. The kettle didn't fit under the tap, so I filled it with tiny glasses of water, one at a time. The cups were tiny too. I felt really clumsy in my attempts to create a routine that fitted all this stuff that wasn't mine with my personality. But my personality was already changing. The irrational part of me was trying to figure out, "Who am I? How did I end up in a room with damp sheets, silver wallpaper, and very small cups? Am I this room? Is this room a result of me? And what sad me would end up living here?" As a foreigner in a foreign land for nearly 30 years, I have always been very interested in the feeling of belonging. What makes you feel that you belong? Familiarity? Purpose? Acceptance? In that hotel room, I started feeling that belonging is when your rituals feel right. I was learning my environment already, adapting to it, and transforming it, so that my rituals felt more real and familiar. I quickly adapted to the kettle and the small cups. I put my ipod with guitar jazz radio in an empty drawer to amplify it, and wrote. Writing always feels comfortable, and profoundly me. "This hotel room," I started to think, "is not my story, but it will become my history, part of my past, yet it's not an interaction on equal grounds. My input, the music, the tea, cannot quite overcome the old blue carpet, the damp sheets, the small cups." I wondered if in order to feel that we belong we need to be on equal grounds in the giving and taking. Because my irrational me could not make sense of how I ended up there, I lost part of my history, and started fresh, like an explorer. I tried to find more ways to personalise my space, I bought a vintage dolly and a small red penguin that I put on her lap, almost like a Mexican apparition, and then started making some very rough collages (I had no scissors) of the stuff I had come across during the day, gluing everything on paper shopping bags. I would then hang the handle on the bathroom door or the closet's. Soon, a bizarre sense of belonging formed, not the me who is writing in my flat now, but another me, with less history, who had blended into an affinity with the place, and struck a decent compromise between mild squalor and creativity. Perhaps creativity is the number one ingredient that makes you belong.

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