The following scene takes place in Kiev; a change of flights has necessitated spending a night at an airport hotel.
The very topic of Ukrainian hotels would be sufficient for a sizeable feuilleton. It’s worth adding that no major hotel chains operate in this country. The standard of this hotel was therefore, as was to be expected, typically Ukrainian – complete with no running water, water-taps falling off, peeling wallpaper, cockroaches and mice in the lift.
Two kinds of room were on offer: normal , without a bathroom and lux. The lux room was dirty and miserable as if it had survived a fire, except that it came with an en-suite bathroom. Oh God, I thought, things are bad but walking two metres down the hall to the bathroom with my towel won’t make it much worse. And provided I don’t touch anything, it might even be fun. I phoned up in advance and booked a normal room, which was one-third the price.
So now I’ve arrived. As I enter I’m enveloped by the unique smell of digested alcohol and something like shit. An old hag is standing behind the counter, another one is splashing water from a bucket onto the floor and carefully spreading the sludge around. I approach saying there’s a reservation in my name.
– Oh yes, a lux room.
– No, no; a standard one.
– All the normal ones are occupied, all that’s left is a lux.
Eventually I come up with my knockout argument:
– What do I need a lux room for? All I need is somewhere to crash for a few hours between flights! My next flight is at six a.m.! What’s the point of a lux room? – this was the fundamental question of our times and of this essay, which I directed at the old hag in reception. Confused, she glared at me as someone who couldn’t even afford a lux. What’s the point of a lux?, I asked again, in Russian.
The response came from the cleaner who was spreading the dirty sludge on the floor with her mop. The old collective farm worker bundled up in a scarf obviously knew the answer. Squeezing out her mop, she raised her head from the bucket and looked at me with an astonished expression that immediately made me realize she was in the know! Indignantly she snapped: What do you mean? How do you mean what’s the point of a lux? You’ve got to love yourself!
At that moment, in this Ukrainian airport, I had no idea how much the cleaner’s reply was going to cost me (for I knew straight away it would become a cult reply). I thought the expenditure would be limited by the fact that the room cost triple (for after hearing this reply, would you have taken a standard room, thereby admitting you did not love yourself? Because, if you don’t love yourself, God does not love you and nobody else will love you either! I know my Polityka readers and I know how much they love themselves. I meet you regularly, my dear readers, on what has become a cult train, the InterCity Panorama, first class, notebooks and lattes, the Poznań business class fitted out in expensive suits; you get on in Poznań on your way to do business in Warsaw and the first thing you do is open Polityka, then you order your coffee, all the while sporting the expression of people who love themselves). That’s why I thought the cost of listening to her response would be limited to a few hryvnas extra for what turned out to be an exceptionally foul lux room. The en-suite bathroom wasn’t much use anyway since there was no water. I passed a night in this room with an heightened awareness of loving myself.
Oh and how I loved myself there, chasing away the cockroaches! But when I got home I discovered that having said A you must go on to say B, and having started to love yourself you can’t just stop loving yourself. Having once fallen in love with myself in that airport and having spoiled myself with a lux room, why should I choose an inferior wine now? I’m standing in the Arcadia shopping mall trying to decide between an inferior (i.e. cheaper) and a superior (i.e. more expensive) bottle. The price of wine is usually proportionate to its quality. And suddenly the image of the specialist in all things luxurious, the old collective farm PR expert – to hell with her – pops into my head, echoing softly:
– Oy, my son, you don’t love yourself anymore… But you’ve got to! You’ve really got to….
The whole middle class has fallen into this trap. Whereas in the West and in the US (though I can’t vouch for the latter) the middle classes have developed a social model based on the need to love oneself, the chief product of this model (and of the middle classes) being the shopping mall or more recently, a shopping city, in our part of the world it’s been exactly the other way around. First came the shopping malls which produced the middle class or, at the very least, provided it with a crash course in loving itself, in self-indulgence, scented candles, fish-shaped picture frames, scarves by Norma Something-Or-Other and bits and pieces from Sephora.
Love yourself! As you’re walking about out there, Reader (I know you know what I’m talking about, we’ve known each other for a day or two) everything you see appeals to your being in love with yourself. Not with someone else. This kind of stuff one doesn’t buy for other people. This kind of stuff one doesn’t buy for the wife. For a mistress, perhaps, but really, this is stuff one buys for oneself, provided one really loves oneself. Or if one suffers from serious inferiority complexes and insists on sleeping on designer bedsheets. And what is an inferiority complex if not a sign of not loving oneself, of being small in one’s own eyes.
The value of these objects, 80 percent of which comprises prestige (the cheaper versions, without the added value, can be picked up in a basket at Tesco’s next door) is the Ukrainian dilemma, as old as the world itself, transposed to an infinitely higher level. Lux or not lux? Should I go for a simple comfortable apartment or should I get one that’s in a classy locality to boot? Because these days aristocracy is bought with money, it’s a sausage we buy bite by bite: the wine, the apartment, the first class train. Every day as we go shopping we are faced with hundreds of choices, defining ourselves and our class as we go along. But is it really class we’re talking about ? Now that any riff-raff can pretend to be higher class – provided they choose the lux version?
Translation: Julia Sherwood
This article was originally published in Polish in the Polityka on 27, January 2010.