This is a path I’ve wandered down before both in poetry and prose but today’s example was so clear I figured I’d once again elaborate. For business travelers there are many ways to go about the business of food, laundry, phone and internet services, gyms and all the other things that are not a part of the work experience. It’s not a matter of being cheap or lazy; you can be totally insular while on the road which can cheat you out of life-widening experiences.

I know people who just check in and order room service, use the hotel phone and have services delivered to their room. I like to call these people broke. I also know people who load an extra suitcase with food they like or can tolerate eating, use calling cards on pay-phones and steal wi-fi. I like to think of these people as special. Is there a middle ground? Are we all just a little weird? After all, we are out here to earn a living, not to spend everything on a sandwich and a phone call.

And yet there is another layer to the spending situation. Tourist areas are always more expensive just as convenience stores make you pay for the convenience. Tours and other jobs have a way of putting you in places where your choices are extremely limited, They have you by the short hairs. I have also seen that in places where the culture and language are unknown that some folks would rather eat chain fast food than experience the embarrassment of mispronunciation or accidently ordering a workboot filled with catfood in a rich calf liver/cilantro gravy. I have ordered a plain version of a meal because I didn’t want to be corrected (or look stupid) in ordering the one that I really wanted.

Today was an excellent example of all of these layers in one morning. I didn’t sign on to check my e-mail or RSS feeds because here in Europe broadband service is really expensive. This hotel was actually cheap in that it was only 10 Euro for two hours… but you had to put it either on your cellphone bill or credit card as it was provided by a telecom that didn’t want the billing to go through the hotel (or the hotel didn’t, either way).

I decided to take a walk toward the little shopping area nearby. This outdoor mall had been done in the style of a little French village complete with archways, cobblestones and a tram track… even though a tram would never travel this path. Cafes and boutiques lined up on either side to conspire to perform a walletectomy on passing people. I immediately started getting this Euro Disney/Faux Paris feeling again, the developers of the world once again creating clean little versions of the quaint for profit.

But this time I was actually in Paris! Oh the irony…

(I was actually corrected later in that the area was once a authentic
old time wine selling area which was remodeled to be a high priced
glossy shopping lane next to a coupla hotels that cater to out of
towners… I stand corrected.)

I buzzed the cobble-sided menu stations, trying to decide where to get the day’s first cup of good old French coffee and a bite of breakfast. Nothing really appealed to me so I picked a place and ordered a double espresso. It was great, just what I needed; then the bill showed up. This one cup of Parisian gold was 5.50 Euros! Wow, it must have been good. I felt myself being the victim of The Trap. I quietly cursed myself for being so lazy and chose to walk beyond the the first ring of fiscal pillaging.

On the other side of the wall I was rewarded by a beautiful park, filled with flowers, birds and quiet people enjoying the sunny morning. I felt the weight of the contrived urban pickpocket zone flowing out of every pore. I still wanted something to eat so I continued through the park to the other side. A busy street bordered the park and I saw a real Parisian neighborhood bakery on the street corner!

I ordered a few baked goodies and another coffee to go. I did order something I was able to pronounce easily but I wanted it. The total was about the same as the cup of coffee in Monsieur Fakers Cafe less than 2 blocks away! In fact the coffee was nearly $5 less than the first one and just as good. I walked back to the park, found a quiet bench and ate my breakfast watching birds fly in and out of the flowers.

So, both victim and victor, I returned to the hotel to check out with no incidental charges. To be honest, after yesterday and how tired we all were the only two services I used last night were the elevator and the room key!

I understand that developers create concepts and areas for one primary reason: making money. You might have a perfectly good neighborhood with good services that people love and depend on. Builders make money when they build things; merchants make money when they sell goods. The modern buyer loves going to a new mall or store even if they can get the same thing at the old same place. In the case of Blockbuster and Starbucks, part of their business plan was to build near established video and coffee places where there was already a known clientele and take them away. Many of Mom and Pop places went under because of it. Now the public has a lousy selection of movies and expensive coffee everywhere.

You can clearly see the trend in the US with arenas and other buildings in that there is already a working venue and they seem to be building another one 5 years later. These kind of buildings are often political windfalls for crony developers and good old boy team owners; the cities inhabitants get to pay for them with tax money. Hotels and retail are now part of the package; not-so-little micro cities are built around the Bitterman EnormoDome (or whatever they are calling it this week). I’m thinking that it has always been like this but it’s a bit more amplified these days.

This made me think even more (don’t worry, I’m almost done…); what places have I been over the years that I thought were wonderful authentic places that were built for suckers like me and my hardly waited for per diem? Was the Colosseum in Rome a replacement for Jerry Jones’ ancestors? What happened to the venue it replaced? Was there a TGI Fridays and a pro shop attached?

There will always create layers of traps between your room and the real deal. The only thing between you and it is your willingness, you energy level and more than likely, some shoe leather. I’ll understand if you choose to stay in your room and order a club sandwich for $17 plus 18% service charge and a $3 stadium tax. But sometimes you should walk a little further from the lobby and get the chance to smell the flowers. You might find something that could make your day; CNN 24 hours a day won’t do that.

Oh yeah and you might meet some interesting people, get some culture, see some sights and learn a little more about your place in the big picture… but that’s another post altogether.