Michael Karam: Elevator diplomacy in a faded Bulgarian five-star

Michael Karam writes about the mundane challenges of attending an international convention.

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PLOVDIV, BULGARIA // The tall, portly, middle-aged man waiting at the lift on the eighth floor of the Sankt Peterburg Hotel, a communist era, concrete monolith, was clearly an American. He wore a navy blazer, white button-down shirt, a bright red tie, grey flannels and sensible black lace-ups. Our freebie messenger bags (we were part of the same business convention) dangled at our sides, but his bulged with the sense of purpose with which many Americans are imbued. The day was his for the taking. He just needed to get down to the lobby.

When waiting for a lift with a stranger, especially just after breakfast, it is sufficient to give a half-nod. Americans tend to favour the full on “good morning” and this was how I was greeted. I replied with an overly perky “hello there” and immediately regretted it in case he felt this was an invitation to begin a conversation.

The two elevators were both on the ground floor and we stood in silence as the first passed us all the way to the 21st floor. It headed down, stopping at each floor and by the time it eventually made it to the eighth floor it was full. We sportingly acknowledged this and cheerfully wished them on their way.

Another American, and a Belgian woman joined us. The Americans began chatting; the woman stood, arms crossed, rocking on her heels, looking at her feet. The lift, which had been on the ground floor, was now heading up. The second American pointed out that we were on the worst possible floor. “Too high to walk and too low to find space on the way down. Always happens.”

And when indeed the second lift arrived even more full than the first, it occurred to us that we might be in for a long wait as the upper floors cleared. “Why don’t we stop it on the way up and get on from now,” asked the Belgian woman in French. I translated. American No 2 correctly pointed out that there was only a down button. “Why would you want to go up?” he asked.

I pointed out, rather uselessly thinking about it now, that one might want to visit a colleague on another floor. The two Americans gave me an odd look.

The silence of the next few seconds was broken by exaggerated sigh from the Belgian. I decided to have a good old moan about the Bulgarian interpretation of five-star luxury: laughable Wi-Fi, no shower curtain, no iron and a kettle but no tea or coffee. “It took me half an hour to send one email,” I moaned. I wasn’t exaggerating.

American No1 patted his trusty messenger bag. “I’ve got my own hot spot,” he said as if telling me he was carrying a small machine gun. “I go to these conventions in Europe all the time. When you have 300- plus guests firing their laptops at the same time, forget it. Best to bring your own.” American No 2 nodded sagely.

“But if you go to the front desk and stand near the sofa just to the left of it you can sometimes get a half decent signal. I discovered that last night.”

A lift arrived. “Room for one,” someone shouted in French from the back of the crowded car. Everyone laughed. Team spirit was already kicking in. The Belgian got on and when the doors shut we all agreed that in future one had to give oneself at least 10 minutes to get down stairs.

The second lift arrived and there was just enough room for the three of us. When we disgorged at the reception, a very earnest organiser motioned to us to hurry as the last coach was leaving for the conference hall. I jumped on to find there were no seats.

It was going to be a long day.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.


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