Many literary discussions in these uncertain times offer reviews of a recent study by Kieron Pim of the alcoholic Central European writer Joseph Roth, a Viennese immigrant from furthest Galicia in the final days of the musty realm of Franz Joseph, the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor.
In his acclaimed biography Endless Flight, we are told “Roth called himself a Hotelpatriot“, feeling himself a stranger in every new establishment until its familiarity compelled him to relocate. An initial sense of agreeable otherness would wear off once the new milieu threatened to feel like a home, a place most of us otherwise might cherish.
Galicia disappeared after the first world war, followed by the Empire itself. A series of hotels provided shelter, but without promise of continuity, and for Roth, writing was liberating. The domesticity of a home he found suffocating, but hotels and their bars provided agreeable venues, and when he ceased feeling like a stranger in one, he always moved on to another.
Decades later after WWII, across the ocean in the southern hemisphere, Buenos Aires sported three members-only clubs in the 1950s with hotel-like accommodation for visitors: the stuffy Club Inglés for Brits, the raucous Club Americano for Yanquis, and the Club de Residentes Extranjeros or “Stranger’s Club” for everyone else. (There were also two similar German clubs, one for those exiles, mainly Jewish, that arrived before 1939, the other for Nazis who fled Europe after the war.)
On my periodic scientific business trips to Buenos Aires as member (and librarian) of the provincial English Club of Córdoba, I was entitled when visiting the Federal Capital to a temporary room in any of them. Being stateless, I always stayed in the comfortable Stranger’s Club, with its comfy lounge chairs, selection of international news magazines, a quiet bar, and low stakes bridge games in the late afternoons with fellow guests.
Years later and by then as a medical specialist, when in the UK I stayed in similar rooms for visiting members of the Royal Society of Medicine premises at #1 Wimpole Street in London. Along with healthy breakfasts, it boasted a well-stocked bar for fellow professors and clinicians to meet and rehash shared professional concerns, politics, and gossip about their colleagues after dinner.
In the USA, my Finnish grandfather, retired banker C.J. Tolonen, spent his final years as a permanent resident in a downtown hotel in Duluth, Minnesota. Like him, also aged and alone, I now reside in a similar private but non-commercial hotel-like establishment in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. It’s not a members-only club like those in old Buenos Aires or the London rooms for visiting docs — my residence here is a quasi-hotel-cum-boarding house for solitary elderly immigrants from a place that no longer exists, a “Stranger’s Club” for those of us who have lived too long, remnants from that temporal rather than geographic locale we call the past.
Like Joseph Roth, I find writing liberating, but am not a dipsomaniac like him. Anyway, unlike the Stranger’s Club in Buenos Aires, the Royal Society of Medicine in London, and the Spalding Hotel in Duluth, this Halfway House where I live has no bar, supplying only milk, fruit juices, water, tea, and coffee, as beverages.
In case of emergency however, an outlet of the Liquor Control Board of British Columbia lies enticingly across the street, displaying a wide variety of wines, beers & spirits, and a craft brewery and distillery is presently under construction next door.
October 29, 2022