Have Card, Will Travel

Throughout my young adult life, a period typically marked by moving from apartment to apartment, I carried the memories of my first eight-month European adventure. No, I didn’t just carry the memories. I carried the cards.

If you search online now, you find three ways that small European hotels – the kind that were cheap, clean, safe and family-run – could advertise, from the 19th century into the 1970s. Sure, by the end of that run, there were newspapers and magazines, and also radio and television. But what owner of a six-room property near a train depot in small-town Italy, Spain or Greece could afford that? Wasn’t it enough to serve up the linguistic Holy Trinity: ROOM + CHAMBRE + ZIMMER? Wasn’t it enough to give a warm welcome in any one of several languages and keep the beds and bathrooms clean?

It made more sense to let your guests be your ad agency.

Today, this trio of methods appears only on ebay, etsy and similar sites. There are luggage stickers, of course, surely the most romanticized of all methods. When I started traveling, I had only the fantasy of a worn yet fashionable suitcase covered with stickers from the Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera, the Hotel Palestine in Alexandria, Egypt, the original Raffles in Singapore and, if at all possible, the Grand Hotel Oloffson in Port-au-Prince. I traveled with a backpack and a manual typewriter for writing stories, which made such stickers look silly.

If I never got around to decorating my suitcase, I never quite understood what would become the public’s fascination with old room keys. Yes, in most hotels, rooms did come with real keys to insert into the lock. And these often came attached to a stiff plastic card with the hotel’s name, maybe an image, and that always-exotic narrative: If this key is found, please drop it into any postbox and it will be returned to the property at this address. Any postbox… like, in the world? It was still, in those days, a very big world.

How often that actually took place, I will never know. But it implied an order in the universe and the existence of people we’d never know who actually took responsibility for such things.

My favorite of the advertising methods, however, was the printed hotel card. There was a time – before some dramatic downsizing or other – when I had a bunch of them, maybe a hundred or more. I wish, now that few of us are traveling beyond our own front doors, that I had them in the nearest cluttered drawer. I’d pull them all out and bask.

Hotel cards functioned as a property’s business cards, but they were much more interesting and exotic than that. They really were a visual aid to word-of mouth, which experts always tell us is the best advertisement anyway. If travelers met in some city and one was going onward to Barcelona, the one who’d just come from there could dig around and hand over the card. “Don’t forget Casa Jose right around the corner,” the experienced traveler might say. “Best menu del dia in town. Oh, and try to get a room away from the noisy street.”

Arthur Frommer himself, who created a travel publishing empire starting with “Europe on $5 a Day,” couldn’t have said it better. In fact, on that first adventure and a second two years later, the late-great Arthur traveled in my backpack.

That’s kind of how, I gather, the cards were supposed to work. Some hotel owner – the word “hotelier” is lovely, but much too stuffy for the widow in Santorini who welcomed me off the ferry on a dark wind-roaring night when it was about to rain – pressed them on departing guests. “You meet,” they’d instruct in broken English, since they were more fluent in seven languages than you were in any except possibly your own. “American say, ‘where stay Roma? You say, Hotel Tony, okay? Very nice, okay?”

The cards were simple, cheap and often attractive. They varied in size from business card to postcard. Some even had backs left blank for writing a note, scribbling a family member’s, friend’s or love interest’s address and slapping on a stamp – the latter a collector’s item that never interested me at all. How could I know that, in Europe at least, the Euro would replace all those crazy currencies, or the fact that it might take 3,015 lire or drachmae or pesetas or zlotes to mail a postcard.

The backs of cards, though, could also be practical, featuring a usually hand-drawn, wildly oversimplified map showing the hotel’s location and a dotted walking route from the train station. As many wrong turns as I’ve taken using these maps, I would have killed for one from the Hotel Victoria in Cairo. I was lost within an hour of my check-in there, the streets filled (they really were back then) with bedouins carrying birds in cages or leading around camels, all street signs in nothing but Arabic. I could have shown the card to the dozen people who seemed kind enough but didn’t understand my problem.  

In later years, many cards would bring a smile, especially the way somebody thought it was great for a hotel to feature WATER RUNNING or QUITE SOUND. WARMED CUISINE seemed an affectionate-enough promise, though no competition for my favorite restaurant name of all time, translated into English on a hand-lettered sign as EATING POTATOES.

When you look at any such card, you giggle over the grammar but mostly remember the lady who knocked on your door at five in the morning and gave you coffee sitting in the kitchen before rushing you off to a predawn train.

I actually did remember that chubby, smiling woman in the flowery house dress years later, when I had a plane ticket to Venice – only to discover online that the art-crazed Biennale had filled every room in town. I suddenly remembered the card I’d trashed years earlier: the Locanda Rossi, for which I’d paid $5 a night for a cramped but spotless, wood-paneled room above a luxuriant garden.

The Rossi didn’t exist on Expedia but I did find its own spartan website, presumably the modern version of that card.  Yes, the email came back, the Rossi did have a room for me. Yes, it was very similar to the one I remember, though it lacked that private stone balcony over the garden.

As it turned out, not surprisingly, the lady I remembered from 40 years earlier was gone. And none of the employees seemed to know anything about a previous owner. My room in the long-ago attic of the Locanda Rossi was $88 a night. And I was lucky to have it.   

Photo: A typical hotel card seen online.