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The Skinny on Flats

By Wendy Law-Yone
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 25, 1998; Page E01

   


There are places in the world I've always wanted to experience more as a resident than a tourist. Baffin Island is not one of those places. London is. But living in London was never in the cards for me, and I was resigned to my status as eternal tourist – until I found a compromise with my discovery of "flotels."

The flotel is my word (you saw it here first, remember) for a flat that serves as a hotel. Over the past two years I've made a half-dozen trips to London, lasting from a few days to a month, and not once have I had to stay in a hotel, or a B&B, or a Y, or even as the house guest of a put-upon friend. No, I've been lucky enough each time to find excellent lodgings--not always the same, but always in the neighborhood of my choice (between Bloomsbury and the West End theater district). For the cost of a moderately priced hotel room, I've usually ended up with a well-equipped, fully furnished one- or two-bedroom flat in central London. And with one exception when I was trying to do it on the cheap--a nice enough room in a smart enough section of South Kensington, somewhat blighted by a blanket with a big hole in the center, and a gas heater that had to be coin-fed--I have yet to be disappointed.

Unlike New York, where short-term apartment rentals are increasingly on a par with hotel rates, London is a city where a flat is still the better deal, especially for two or more sharers.

Apart from more space, more privacy and more coziness for less money, a flotel carries many untouted benefits (untouted by the hotel industry, anyway). First, the benefits of self-reliance. With none of the hotel's insulating amenities--no room service, minibar, pay TV or concierge to coddle you--the real world is your opportunity and obligation to explore. Off you go, then, in search of morning coffee, afternoon tabloid and cream tea, least phony pub, best cheap restaurant and so forth.

The unmediated contact with merchants, news agents, postal clerks, shopkeepers, bartenders and such not only puts you in touch with the city's rhythms and quirks, it allows you feel superior to your timid fellow tourists. Look at them: ducking in and out of their hotels, sipping pricey drinks in their hermetically sealed coffee shops, behind the glass. While they observe, you participate, acting like a tenant rather than a transient.

Aren't hotels just a little precious anyway? The freshly laundered linen and towels, replaced daily? The origami gnomes who keep the toilet paper rolls neatly folded at the edges? The chocolate fairy's present on your pillow each night? The Do Not Disturb sign you can place on your door and expect it will be taken seriously? Do you really want all that luxury-anxiety?

Or all that boredom? If ever proof were needed that hotels are dull, there it was in a recent issue of Time Out. "Hotels are dull," the article began, just like that. "When the Athanaeum Hotel & Apartments handed out a fun questionnaire to its guests about being stranded on a desert island, you'd assume most people would be too busy enjoying themselves to look at it, never mind bother with answers. Not so--in fact they seemed to relish the prospect of some amusement."

Flat dwellers, in my experience, come across far more lively questionnaires. "I am contacting residents," said the letter slipped under my temporary London flat's door one morning, "who live next door to working prostitutes." Signed by the producer of a television station, the note went on mildly, "You may already be aware that you fall into this category." (Which category? I had to think for a moment.) "I was wondering if you had any strong feelings about it."

I did. I was curious about how such a staid, well-secured apartment building, patronized mostly by stodgy middle-aged couples, might have even the faintest whiff of ill repute. In the course of snooping I never did meet any of my discreet stay-at-home neighbors, if they did exist--but I got to know the janitor, the newspaper vendor, the traffic warden and the coffee shop proprietor in a way made possible only by the pursuit of gossip. The coffee shop owner, a doleful Algerian, gave me a remedy for homesickness in the bargain. "Home, what is home?" he shrugged. "Home is where the food is." How true. I ordered another round of coffee and croissant.

But home is also where the right bedding is, and while others abroad might miss their hair dryers and microwaves, in London it's the top sheet I miss. For those unfamiliar with standard English bedding, it's worth mentioning that what we in the United States call the flat sheet simply doesn't exist. Fitted sheet, yes; pillowcases, yes; down duvets, absolutely. But no top sheet. This means you're either roasting under the feather quilt, or freezing when you throw it off. Of course, you can always rifle the closet and find a spare fitted sheet, but the danger there is developing a swaddling fetish. Once you get used to sticking your hands and feet into the elasticized edges, you could well find yourself needing bound extremities in order to fall asleep.

Complaint No. 2: Large parrots should not be allowed as pets in private courtyards. I have nothing against parrots, no matter how large, and the one in the cage hanging over the garden courtyard of the Bloomsbury flat I was renting was mercifully laconic, as parrots go. But it did trick me into thinking that the pellets scattered across the floor were harmless parrot droppings. Thus I was unprepared for the real culprit, a large rat doing push-ups on the patio one morning.

Okay, I saw a rat. But I've seen troupes of them in nearby parks, practically joining hands and dancing after sundown. And that particular flat was not one of my favorites, anyway. My favorite, the one I've rented several times in the past year, is on a quiet side street across from the British Museum, overlooking a courtyard (no rats or parrots in sight) shared by a camera store, an art gallery, a hair salon, a pub with the best steaks and a coffee shop with the worst food in central London.

It's an easy climb up three short flights of carpeted stairs to my snug flotel. Open the door and immediately to the left is a sparkling little kitchen with bottle-green counter tops, faux cork floors, an electric oven and cooking range, a microwave, a large dishwasher, an under-the-counter washing machine and a refrigerator I've come to think of as ample, although it made my 14-year-old daughter, a Sub-Zero child, burst out laughing.

From the windows of the kitchen and the living room, you look down onto the courtyard where traders and office workers come and go, and the neighborhood spy, under cover as resident janitor, keeps sweeping the flagstone needlessly. Next to the kitchen is the living-dining room, furnished comfortably but without flair, in a style best described as postgraduate Scandinavian. But there is a TV and a VCR, and once you have set up your travel vase (mine is white paper coated with plastic that folds flat for neat packing, from New York's Museum of Modern Art) and filled it with tulips from the corner flower shop, you feel right at home.

Next down the hall is the bathroom, nice and clean, with a good shower head and a long tiled shelf for the array of bath products and Dopp-kit paraphernalia accompanying any late-20th century traveler. The larger bathroom, attached to the bedroom next door, has an even longer shelf, almost large enough for an extra house guest to sleep on, one built like a praying mantis at any rate.

The two bedrooms are last down the hall: a double and a single. The double bed has a closet on either side, a dresser with a vanity, a free-standing mirror and a window overlooking a pair of pretty urban gardens. In one of those tiny plots, a mad saxophonist decided to practice around 2 a.m. one summer but, on being yelled at, retreated inside with a meek apology. In the smaller room with the trundle bed, the visiting relative or guest has just enough space to sleep, and to drape clothes over the one director's chair (no room for a dresser--a Spartan touch that serves to discourage long stays).

To rent a flat on a short let is to combine the best of hotel and home living. The bed is made, the sheets are clean, the fridge is stocked upon arrival (with complimentary staples: milk, juice, coffee, tea, bread, butter, eggs), maintenance and repairs are not your problem; yet it feels like home--someone else's, admittedly, but home (as in lived-in). And only home life, or the semblance of it, makes you aware, for example, that what separates Americans from their transatlantic cousins isn't the class system. It's the telephone.

"You'll freeze to death," an Anglophile friend told me cheerfully some 30 years ago, before my first trip to England. "The Brits are against central heating. They think it erodes moral fiber." Not true. It's the telephone that the English are against, not temperature control.

Anyone who's tried to use a London phone booth (with its plethora of pornographic ads) knows what it's like to feel a fool, being parted from your money in short order as the coins disappear by the second. The meter keeps on ticking with home phones as well--and noisily, too, in some of the flats I've rented, where a little black box linked to the handset kept track of the BT units piling up.

Similarly, one learns only from the corner coffee shop and convenience store the true meaning of concepts like the famous tolerance of the English. The tolerance applies to bad food as well, judging from these local cafes and 7-Elevens, all stocked with the same nondescript pastries, prepackaged lunches and unsatisfactory junk food. The domestic economy of the Brits is likewise best understood by shopping in supermarkets, operating household appliances and buying fruit from Dickensian vendors too mean to allow you a single cherry to taste. Or by reading the classifieds in LOOT, the free-ad daily. ("Braun Multi-pratik food proc., frightens me to use, #40.")

Yes, living as the natives live, even for a few days, is hands-on learning that no Fodors can impart. So if you're ready to stop acting like a tourist for a change, might as well start with your next trip to London, where at least there's no need for a phrase book before booking a flotel. What you should include in your flotel survival kit, however, are the following items:

  • A half-pound of your favorite coffee, a small coffee cone and filters.

  • A three-prong English converter plug for your computer or hair dryer.

  • Earplugs (in case your bedroom is above a noisy street or the back yard of a saxophonist).

  • A loud alarm clock (in case the earplugs really work).

    One last word about settling in: Go down to the news agent as soon as you've unpacked and buy a Time Out guide and a phone card. The former will give an instant finger-on-the-pulse feel for the goings-on in the city, and inspire you to be out and about, jet lag or no. The latter will save you money and prevent acts of phone booth violence.

    Back in your hideaway, your private flotel, put up your feet, get out the Time Out, circle your choices and start calling. Who needs a concierge?

    And remember: Whenever you feel the slightest bit homesick, just look in the fridge.

    Home, after all, is where the food is.

    Wendy Law-Yone, a novelist, is the author of "The Coffin Tree" and "Irrawaddy Tango."


    Details: London 'Flotels'

    A rule of thumb for "flotel" economy: The longer the stay and the larger the body count, the better the deal. While many short-term rental agents will accommodate stays for as brief as two days, daily prorated tariffs tend to be higher. As Guy Nixon, a spokesman for London's Go Native rental agency, puts it, "We have a one-week minimum stay because most flat owners [we represent] feel anything less is simply not worth it, so I usually recommend a hotel if you're looking for a few days' accommodation."

    The savings begin with rentals of a week and more, especially since two--or even four--can stay as cheaply as one in well-equipped flats, which include standard amenities like private ("en suite") baths, telephones, TVs, microwaves, dishwashers and weekly maid service, as well as optional services like answering machine/fax facilities, VCRs, laundry, theater tickets and airport transportation.

    A survey of hotels small and large in the Bloomsbury area of central London showed a price range of between $200 and $300 a night for a double room, $340 to $425 for a small suite and $500 to $675 for a large suite (a one-bedroom equivalent). By comparison, Central London Apartments, the friendly, efficiently run family business from whom I've rented most of my flotels, charge a weekly rate of $355 to $565 for a studio that sleeps two persons, $845 to $1,350 for one-bedroom flats sleeping up to four, and anywhere from $1,270 to $2,030 for three- to four-bedroom flats for up to eight persons. This general price range applies to the agents listed below, all of whom cater to the central London area:

  • Central London Apartments, 39 Bedford Square, London WC1B 3EG, England, telephone 011-44171-323-1192, fax 011-44171-631-3866, U.S. contact 972-491-6904, http://www.cenlonap.co.uk.

  • Go Native, 26 Westbourne Grove, London W2 5RH, England, 011-44171-221-2028, fax 011-44171-221-2088, http://www.gonative.co.uk.

  • Euracom, 52-53 Margaret St., London W1N 7FF, England, 011-44171-436 3201, fax 011-44171-436 3203, http://www.euracom.co.uk.

  • John D. Wood & Co., 39 Foley St., London W1P 8JL, England, 011-44171-436-6666, fax 011-44171-436-1333.

    For more information, contact the British Tourist Authority, 1-800-462-2748, http://www.visitbritain.com.

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    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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