Friday, 8 May 2015

The underlying misery of the airport hotel...

Downtown Cleveland at Lakeside
I've never been a fan of airport hotels. The thing is, they're always a last resort or a necessity and both mean the same thing: that you wouldn't stay in an airport hotel for the hell of it. Who would? No, the airport hotel is there for people like me who, for some reason, aren't going to make their destination, normally home, as originally planned. It happened to me last year and it's happened again and on both occasions it's involved the same airport: Chicago O'Hare. It's also because of the weather – storms basically.

I reached Cleveland Airport with plenty of time to spare and there was nothing to suggest bad weather. The temperature in Cleveland most of the week has been in the mid-80s, there's been blue skies and bright sunshine. It's been tee-shirt weather, far too hot to wear a suit jacket, just shirt sleeves will do. So I was expecting the pilot to say something along the lines of 'excellent flying weather', although that's something that only British Airways pilots say and my BA flight was going out of O'Hare to London. Leg one was with American Airlines and the American pilots are generally pretty matter-of-fact and fast talking. They say as little as need be whereas the British pilots talk about the weather back home and very often use that consoling phrase, 'excellent flying weather'.

But clearly 'excellent flying weather' is not what we have today. There are heavy rain storms over Chicago and they're delaying flights in and out of O'Hare. My flight was due to board at 1800hrs and take off at 1830hrs but oh no, not only is my flight nowhere to be seen (it's not left O'Hare yet) but the flight before mine is just sitting at the gate and going nowhere. It soon becomes clear that my flight won't be getting there in time for me to make my connection to London so, along with many other passengers, I have to weigh up the alternatives. Do I spend most of the night sitting at the gate in Cleveland only to reach Chicago late at night and then search for a hotel, OR do I simply stay put in Cleveland and start again in the morning? I opt for the latter, re-book my flight (I'm now due to depart for London at 1810hrs tomorrow evening) and then I need to work out where to stay for the night.

My immediate thought is to head back to the Doubletree, but that will mean a $35.00 taxi fare there and then another one back ($70 in total ignoring the tip) and that's not far off what it will cost to stay in a hotel near the airport (Sheraton, $119.00) so I take the free hotel shuttle, check in and here I am, along with a few other familiar faces, people who live in Chicago but have been advised to book into a hotel in Cleveland and try again in the morning.

View from room 418 of Cleveland's Hilton Doubletree hotel
The Sheraton is nice, there's no getting away from that; it's corporate and while it's pleasant enough, people like me – there's a few of us here – are not in any way 'enjoying' it. Airport hotels are not to be enjoyed, they're to be endured and, to be fair to them, they do their level best to make what is generally a fretful and very depressing state of affairs endurable. But while it's nice to know that the restaurant is open until midnight and that a hot dinner with a glass of wine is only a short stroll away, it's not as if I'm going to enjoy it. All I could think of was that the long flight I'd psyched myself up for earlier – which, at the time of writing would be around five hours from touch down at Heathrow's Terminal Five – hadn't even started yet and I had the prospect of a long wait at O'Hare which, I can assure you, is not pleasant. After lunch at Romano's Macaroni Grill there's nothing to do but wander around aimlessly, but while I could have taken a later flight to O'Hare, I didn't want to tempt fate and find that I missed my second attempt to reach London. So I'm out of here early (ish) in order to catch the 1025hrs flight to Chicago and then I've got to hang around until 1810hrs before heading across the Atlantic towards the UK where David Cameron has just found himself back in Downing Street after a surprise election result. All in all, then, pretty damn depressing.

I've emailed home to let them know the score but it's still early in the morning in the UK as I write this so they won't be aware yet that I won't be there at 1000hrs on Saturday morning and that, instead, it'll be Sunday morning. All very depressing.

Clippitty Cops – mounted policeman in Cleveland
And while the room is very swish and there's a flatscreen television, tea and coffee making facilities, a decent-sized bed and so on, none of it in anyway appeals to me because, in all honesty, I don't want to be here, I'd rather be on the flight home getting more and more uncomfortable but safe in the knowledge that within a few more hours, I'd be home and sitting in a taxi weaving my way back to my house, tired and exhausted. As it happens I've still got to endure the horror of a transatlantic night flight and I don't even know what seat I'll be sitting in – here's hoping it'll be an aisle seat as I need to stretch at least one of my legs and I can't stand having to wake up sleeping passengers every time I want to stretch my legs or visit the restrooms (alright, the bog).

In fact, the word 'depressing' comes nowhere near describing how I feel about being here writing this when I should be halfway home.

At the heart of Cleveland's downtown area
Even dinner – soup followed by roast chicken breast, mashed potato and kale accompanied by a glass of Cabernet and a cup of tea to finish – was tainted by the fretful nature of my predicament, although, thanks to the waitress, Juliette, things were a lot pleasanter than they might have been. She hails from England and is in fact, English, although you wouldn't guess judging by her American accent. She lived in Bishops Stortford for the first 13 years of her life and then moved with her mum and step dad to Cleveland where she funds college by working three jobs. Some people work ridiculously hard, I found myself thinking, not meaning that I don't, but some people really put themselves through it. Juliette lives with her boyfriend in the Cleveland suburbs. She works in a Doggy Daycare centre from early in the morning till around 2pm, then she goes home, freshens up, goes to work at the Sheraton, gets home around midnight and simply repeats the process day in and day out. And when she's not working she's studying. I'm tired anyway, but listening to her schedule I feel weary and slightly more depressed than I was already feeling.

We chatted about American cities and I said that I find them almost unreal as if they're masquerading as cities and are little more than facades, like those old cowboy town movie sets, which are propped up by pieces of splintered timber. Cleveland, Indianapolis, San Antonio, I always get that strange feeling that they're play acting at being big cities, creating, perhaps, a false illusion, a facade, just for me, by pretending that they're cities when, in reality, I'm miles from civilisation and alone in the middle of the desert because all the people aren't real either. Spooky. Alright, I know that there are places like Chicago and New York and Los Angeles, that are 'proper' cities because they have that suburban 'sprawl' you get in the UK – miles and miles of boring suburbs – but for some reason I feel mildly cheated when I look up at the vast skyscrapers of Cleveland and I can't quite figure out why I feel this way.

The last time Juliette was in the UK it was one year after the London bombings of 7/7 and Leona Lewis had won the X Factor. Oddly, I said, Simon Cowell has followed her around as there's America's Got Talent and, of course, an American X Factor. We talked briefly about Sharon Osbourne, Piers Morgan and the Hoff and then got round to discussing how Cleveland was going all out to establish itself as a tourist destination with some decent restaurants, theatreland and, of course, the downtown. And that word 'downtown' kind of sums up what I was saying earlier; those skyscrapers that somehow don't ring true are not so much characteristic of a city centre but a 'downtown' area. I get the feeling that somebody, somewhere, must have said 'we need to have a 'downtown' and if we're going to have a 'downtown' then we'll need some high buildings.

Cleveland's Doubletree – fantastic hotel
But, when all is said and done, I like the USA. I like the huge distances the Americans drive and seem to take in their stride, I like their attitude and the fact that while it might be 'no country for old men' the old men in question wear denim and putter around on Harley Davidsons and look a little bit more 'out there' than their UK counterparts who are much more staid and, dare I say it, boring. And again, I can't quite put my finger on it, but I think that countries offering their inhabitants vast distances to travel from one state to another somehow instil a kind of transient restlessness that influences fashion and attitude. I find it fascinating wandering around an American airport as I see such a wide and varied group of people all flying to strange places with romantic names like Sioux Falls or Grand Rapids.

I'm in my room and it's time to hit the sack, but before I do I need to inform the UK taxi driver that I won't be there tomorrow morning as planned.

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