Grappling with hotel technology – baffled in Brussels

Manneken-pis statue in central Brussels. At least he doesn't have to deal with hotel technology.

Hotel technology can leave you – um – like this little fella – in the wind

Have you ever found yourself in a new place, desperately trying to figure out how to accomplish the simplest of tasks – yet unable to work out exactly what you’re supposed to do? You feel silly, and reluctant to ask for help for fear of revealing your stupidity. Ultimately, you either have to sacrifice your pride, or go without whatever essential service you’re trying to access.

Hotel technology can be baffling. It never ceases to amaze me how many ways there are to open a door, turn on a shower, operate a toaster or pour hot water from an urn. It seems that not only every country, but every hotel, does these things differently. Sometimes I suspect that architects and designers of appliances play a secret game of challenge between themselves, thinking up ever more deviously difficult ways to flummox innocent hotel guests.

I remember standing in front of a huge communal toaster at breakfast in a Paris hotel, trying to work out how on earth to get it going. An American fellow-guest joined me in my distress. “Isn’t everything SO much easier at home”, she bemoaned. It’s true.

Woman planking in the Grand Place, Brussels. Self-care might be needed when trying to cope with hotel technology!
Self-care may be needed

After one work trip to Brussels, I was moved to write the following piece in my travel journal, which perfectly illustrates the predicament that the innocent traveller can run into.

Plus ça change, plus ce n’est pas la même chose

“Bonjour! Je suis Carole Edwards. J’ai une réservation.”
“Would you prefer to speak English, Madame?”
“Er – oh, OK. Thank you.”

So much for my attempt not to be the typical Brit abroad, expecting everyone to speak my language. Never mind, the truth is that her English is much better than my French. She’s also a great mind-reader.
“Don’t worry about it Madame, it’s because I speak English every day.”
Of course she does. This is Euro Land. French may be the official language, but English is the lingua franca.

European Commission, Brussels - plenty of hotel technology in this area

Suitably chastened, I at least manage to lose my way only once when finding the lifts, despite her directions – which are almost as impeccable as her English. After following the signs down a dark corridor with rose-pink swirly patterns on its walls, which reminds me strangely of walking down a graffiti-plastered alley in Soho at night, I manage to swipe open my door. So far, so good.

Let there be light

Things begin to go downhill when I try to turn on the bathroom light. Nothing happens.

Duh! – of course. I have to insert my key card in the slot, right? Save energy and all that. Except that there is no slot. I hunt with difficulty in the near darkness, all in vain. Where I would expect to find the slot, right next to the light switches, there is nothing but a plastic thingie with a sticking-out piece, purpose unknown. I try to put my card under the piece, but barely a corner of it will go in – and nothing happens to the lights.

I just know that I’m going to feel stupid when I find out how the electricity works. But I can’t bear the thought of revealing yet another of my failings to the multilingual receptionist, without trying a little harder first. So I consult the hotel welcome pack. “Use your room card to turn on the electricity”, it says helpfully. I decide to check the French version of the page to see if it’s any more explicit. It isn’t.

Increasingly in need of a loo visit and a cup of tea, I decide to try entering the bathroom without the benefit of light. I immediately trip over a raised marble step across the doorway, probably designed to stop a bathroom flood in its tracks as well as to punish idiotic guests who can’t figure out how to turn on the electricity. OK – stumbling in the dark is not a good idea.

Old style hotel technology - rotary dial phone and alarm clock!
It was so much easier in the old days

The key to problem-solving

At least I know that the room card holds the answer. I drag it over every light switch and everything in the room that looks vaguely as though it might contain a magic hidden receptor. Nothing. I flick on the TV in the hope that the information screen will expand on the hotel guide, but no, it only tells me how the TV works.

After further futile button-pressing, I return to the plastic thingie with the piece, ever more certain that it holds the solution. But still I can only fit one corner of my card under the piece. Losing patience, I shove the card forward roughly. A magic mechanism clicks, the card glides into an unknown place, and the room lights up like Oxford Street at Christmas. Hurrah!

Buoyed with success, I go to fill the kettle. It has a tiny spout, too tiny to fill from the tap. Evidently the lid is meant to open for the purpose of filling, for it has a hinge. But I can’t find out how to open it. There is a button on the handle, but that’s for turning the power on and off. No amount of persuasive prising results in success.  I revert to the spout fill method, ensuring that the trickle of water from the tap is slow enough to fit. Needless to say, filling time is rather long.

Double duvets at the Thon Hotel EU, Brussels
No duvet-hogging here

Never mind, at last I have my cup of tea. And I have at least managed to find the powdered milk, sealed inside in a long matchstick-like packet and cunningly concealed among the similarly-packaged sugar containers. Life is looking up. Hotel technology can be conquered.

The gorgeous comfy king-sized bed has 2 separate duvets, one on each side. Something I’ve never seen before. What’s the idea of this, I wonder? Prevention of duvet-hogging arguments with your partner? Or to save washing a whole duvet if the bed only has one occupant?

After all that mental effort, I sleep like a log. Must remember to ask my colleagues how Belgian kettle lids work.

Grand Place, Brussels
The stunning Grand Place, Brussels

In fairness to the Thon Hotel Brussels*, it’s a superb choice – especially if you’re visiting the city for any kind of business with the EU. It’s close to all the major institutions and is modern, friendly, colourful and efficient. It’s not their fault that some travellers are just – well, as dense as me. And they may well have upgraded everything since I was last there. Including their hotel technology – uh oh!

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If you enjoyed this post, you might like my similar post about airport technology.

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  1. Haha this is brilliant Carole. I also have difficulty in working the latest technology in hotels (although it doesn’t stop at hotels). It normally takes us at least one night of trying 100 different light switch combinations to get the reading lamp on. Baths and showers have also given my brain a workout in the past 🙂

  2. Interesting article! But did you actually figure out how they work. It would be good to know about how u found out the way they’re supposed to work.

  3. The episode with the kettle/coffee machine sounds familiar! I think this has happened to me a hundred times during holidays before and it’s so annoying (especially when you just woke up and you’re trying to make it on time to the narrow breakfast time at the hotel). But well, I think it’s all #firstworldprobelms, isn’t it? Thanks for writing about this.

    1. I know what you mean, I’m a monster until I have my wake-up coffee 🙂 and you’re right, it’s a first-world problem. Mind you, the lack of electricity felt like a third-world problem, which reminded me how much we take such things for granted. I now have huge gratitude for electricity. And coffee 🙂

  4. I remember having the exact same struggle at a hotel in Kyoto, and I would also rather struggle for hours or sit in the dark rather than embarrassingly ask for help. I’m also famous – at least with my wife – for complete idiocy in pumping gas in various countries around the world.

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