Ah, the Good Old Days of
Bad Old Hotels
Illustration by Charles Giai-Gischia. Visit his blog, Traits-Drôles, for a larger version and more drawings
I was young. Inexperienced. Also clueless, foolhardy, resilient, tolerant of discomfort and blind to questions of personal safety. And stingy. You had to be all of those things to do what I did back in the early 1980s.
No, I didn’t hitchhike from Istanbul to Kuala Lumpur with a brick of hashish taped to my forehead, but the risks and inconveniences were comparable. I feel that the time has come for me to confess: I stayed in a cheap Parisian hotel. More than once!
It seems barely believable today, now that the average price of a double room in Paris tops €200 a night, but as late as the 1990s the city was full of remarkably inexpensive hotels. In particular, the Latin Quarter around Saint Michel offered many places where you could get a room for around 50 francs (under €10) a night. Yes, a room for the night — not a broom closet for the lunch hour, which is the most you could expect for €10 today — but a private room with a bed in it and everything.
Oh wait — minus the “everything.” The reason those places were so cheap is that they were, to put it diplomatically, plain. And to put it plainly, they were decrepit, insalubrious flophouses that weren’t worth a centime more than they charged.
To this day, some of the older Parisian hotels have signs like these:
Yes, “modern comfort” means having showers. And a (single, communal) telephone so you can call your friends and brag about how modern and comfortable your hotel is.
This place is so comfortably modern it has an elevator and bathrooms! Hot and cold water!
These signs might look like a distant throwback to the 19th century, but they are actually a short lob-back to the 20th. And I mean late 20th century.
The first time I set foot in Paris, in 1979, I stayed in a hotel near the Gare de Lyon that was literally a fleabag. I was traveling with a group of friends, and half of us (not including me, thankfully) had raised red welts around the ankles by the time we checked out.
We were lucky to get rooms at all — we had arrived late on a Saturday afternoon in July, which of course is peak tourist season, with no reservations. Like I said: young, clueless, foolhardy… (see above).
We had such trouble securing lodging that when we finally found a hotel that could take all of us, we didn’t care how many stars it had. Which was a good thing, because that number was zero. In fact, if I had been on the rating board, I would have invented a negative scale and given it three black holes.
Why? Well, for one thing, there were the beds. The pressure of a human body, even an underweight one, was too much for the ancient mattresses and springs, which would sink more than halfway to the floor, forming a deep sheet-lined canyon with the sleeper at the bottom, wrapped up like a mummy in a hammock.
This made me glad, despite the fact that I was in my mid-20s and my body weight was 78-percent testosterone, that I was single. It would have been impossible for two people to sleep, let alone “sleep,” in one of those beds without at least one dying of suffocation.
For another thing, there were the toilets. Or rather there weren’t the toilets — in the rooms, in any case. In compliance with the French standards for seediness then in force, the only plumbing in the rooms consisted of a tiny, single-spigot, cold-water sink. Fine for brushing teeth, but any biological necessities requiring a larger “splash radius,” shall we say, had to be dealt with in communal water closets, the old-fashioned kind with the ceiling tank and pull chain, which were located on the landings between floors.
Despite the dangers inherent in emerging, moth-like, from that cocoon of a bed in the morning and stumbling downstairs with a fuzzy mind and a full bladder, the toilet situation was not a severe hardship. There was almost always one of them free, they had toilet paper (not a given in those days) and, confort moderne oblige, at least they weren’t squatters.
And then, for one thing, there was the shower. I know that I already said “for one thing,” but in this case the shower was in fact one thing: for some reason, this hotel’s owners had decided that the 30 or so guests that they housed at peak capacity (like, say, in July 1979) could get by with one sole shower.
The second-floor-left WC had been converted to fulfill this function. When I wanted to bathe — which, in violation of Article I of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic, was every morning — I had to go all the way downstairs to the reception desk and get the key to the shower stall (there was a small supplemental charge, so they kept track of how many showers everyone took). That is, unless someone else was using it, which, for reasons that can only be guessed at, seemed to be a frequent occurrence.
When it finally came my turn, I would apply myself assiduously to taking the fastest, quickest, most labor-efficient shower possible. Not just out of consideration of the dozen other guests lined up at the reception, soap in hand and sebum in hair, but because the space was cramped, the water was barely warm, the pressure was low and, most compellingly, I was afraid to spend more than about two minutes alone with the shower mat.
The stall itself had probably been cleaned a couple of times since it had been installed shortly after the war, but the mat, apparently, had never been granted such pampering. I suppose that it had once consisted of fabric, but the object that occupied the floor just inside the door during my stay had evolved into a grayish amorphous lump of spore-based life forms that should have been entered in a science fair months earlier. Avoiding foot, and even eye, contact with that thing occupied most of my mental energy during my short personal hygiene sessions.
Still, despite all the discomforts and biohazards, I wasn’t complaining at all. That hotel was by no means an exception and, most importantly, by no means overpriced. I recall paying the equivalent of $12 a night, and only because the dollar was at an all-time low.
That was the great thing about those old hotels: it was possible, and in fact easy (except in July and August) to stay in the middle of Paris for so little money that even a cheapskate like me could enjoy the city with minimum strain on the purse strings.
Which I did multiple times after that first trip before I moved here for good. I was living in the Netherlands and traveled to Paris as often as I could, which was several times a year, always found a room and never paid more than 60 francs a night, often less. My accommodations were always Spartan (or do I mean Parisian?), but I figured whatever didn’t kill me just made my wine budget stronger. Which in turn made me personally weaker, but better able to face the privations of my hovel-away-from-home.
The most favorable great-location-to-low-outlay ratio I ever achieved was at a hotel in the very heart of town, just off Boulevard Saint Michel, three blocks from the Seine, where I once got a room for 30 francs a night. Actually, the word “room” is something of an exaggeration — that time I was literally staying in a closet.
The hotel was full but, because I had friends already staying there, they let me have the storage space where they kept the extra bed. It had a small window and an even smaller sink, so I was happy. And, once again, happy to be single. Not because the bed sank but because it was so narrow that two people would have had to sleep in shifts — and “sleep” in shifts as well, which of course nullifies the whole point.
Interestingly, that place cost 10 francs per night less than I paid at the only youth hostel I have ever seen from the inside, which was on Rue Faidherbe. I hated it — not only did I have to share shower stalls and toilet seats with total strangers (well, okay, not simultaneously), but all of us youths had to be out of the building from 10am to 6pm, there was no security whatsoever for our possessions (so anything of value — cameras, Walkmans, drum sets, etc. — had to be toted around all day) and the eight-bed rooms not only had no locks, they had no doors.
That meant that one obnoxious jerk coming in late drunk or snoring down the hall could wake the entire floor. It galled me to think that for exactly the same amount of money I could have had my own room in a real hotel in a more central location with only about half the indignities. That’s why I came in late every night. On the positive side, that was also when I learned that I tend to snore when I’m drunk.
Compared to that hostel, I would even have been better off at the Hôtel du Midi at Place des Abbesses. Sadly, I have never stayed there — by the time I noticed this particular establishment, it had already been closed for years (and now it’s gone for good, replaced by the theater at the corner of Rue des Abbesses and Rue Germain Pilon). The building had long been converted into shops, but the old sign was still there on the second floor: “L’Hôtel du Midi — Electricité.”
Electricity! If that’s not confort moderne, I don’t know what is.
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is now available on Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors. At $6.78 (less than €5) it packs a lot of punchlines per penny.
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Reader Ronald Hurwitz writes: “Thanks for the walk down memory lane. My first trip to Paris was in 1972 and as a cheapskate, was forced to stay in a hotel similar to those of your experience. The hotel was on the rue St. Séverin just off the boul. Mich and a stone’s throw from the Place St. Michel (I had a stronger arm back then).
“Seven flights up by shank’s pony (no elevator, of course), I found a rather nice, large room with a sink that had cold and cold running water. The bed was large with only a small curvature when occupied. The toilet was, as I recall, down two flights. I was in Paris for three night and don’t recall having taken a shower there. Perhaps the facilities were beyond my ability to stomach the indignity. Or, maybe my memory is failing. The best part of this experience was the breakfast that came delivered to my room by a beautiful french girl (what else?) – hot chocolate, warm croissants, and a baguette with jam and butter. All of this for 17 french francs per day. (girl not included). I didn’t know any better; I thought it was heaven but without a shower.
“About a year ago I found myself standing in front of this very same hotel. Rates are now 250 euros per night. I guess they must have put in some showers. Oh yes, and the daughter of the girl who brought my breakfast is probably working there. (not included!)”
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An album of David Jaggard’s comic compositions is now available for streaming on Spotify and Apple Music, for purchase (whole or track by track) on iTunes and Amazon, and on every other music downloading service in the known universe, under the title “Totally Unrelated.”
Note to readers: David Jaggard’s e-book Quorum of One: Satire 1998-2011 is available from Amazon as well as iTunes, iBookstore, Nook, Reader Store, Kobo, Copia and many other distributors.