MY job as a management consultant involves two or three days per week of traveling, and I am quick to point out the advantages to this schedule. There are cities I've come to know after years of business travel, frequent-flier mileage that facilitates frequent trips to Europe, and, yes, all those tiny shampoos and sewing kits. I haven't bought a bar of soap in years. But after years of exciting assignments to cities like San Francisco and New York, I got an assignment in a smallish town in New York State. To get there from my Washington, D.C., home involved at least four hours on at least two different prop planes. Once there, I searched in vain for any hotel remotely associated with Leona Helmsley's hotel in New York City. I was forced to stay in the one and only hotel in town; a dark, dusty 1960s- style building whose d'ecor centered on the color brown. Dark brown. A quick flip through the hotel guide confirmed my worst fears; instead of the standard Spectravision, the TV simply said ``Yes.'' Room service was a misnomer. And instead of the regular bubble bath and pile of shoehorns, there was a tiny bar of plain soap.
I was determined to make my six-month assignment bearable, despite the depressing accommodations. So the next time I was home I consulted my guide to bed-and-breakfasts. I called the only one in town and made arrangements for myself and a co-worker. Then I spent some time persuading her to go - she was worried about the lack of an in-room telephone (``So what if our boss can't call us late at night?''), absence of a private TV (``Don't worry, I'm sure the family will want to watch `L.A. Law,' too), and the prospect of sharing a bathroom with me (``Relax, I'm very tidy'').
But what won her over was my argument about the family atmosphere.
``Aren't you tired of bad room service, wolfed down while watching Jane and Bryant? Don't you sometimes hear the person in the next room go out on the balcony, making you wonder if you're being watched? Wouldn't you rather be part of a family, staying in someone's home?''
She finally acquiesced, and days later we found ourselves outside a beautiful old home. The host couple, Janet and Sam, were very attentive. They were proud as they showed me my huge bedroom and kind when I requested that we watch ``Dynasty'' on their family room TV. I was embarrassed to admit that I watched it, but it was even more humiliating when my co-worker, who drifted downstairs owing to the lack of a desk, quizzed me about the plot line. I knew it all. Years of travel and lonely hotel TV watching had turned me into a soap opera expert.
After the show, I went upstairs and thought about calling my husband. The only phone was downstairs in the living room; how could I whisper sweet nothings with an entire family listening in on our personal plot line? So I wrote him a letter, the first one I'd written in several years.
In the morning I woke up in a wicker bed staring up at Laura Ashley wallpaper. The four shades of country blue in the bedroom were a bit daunting, but it was a lot better than brown.
Breakfast was served in Janet's large kitchen. When did I last have homemade applesauce? I felt even more nostalgic as other people, including my well-rested colleague, drifted downstairs and began asking, ``Please pass...''
In short, staying at a bed-and-breakfast made me realize how alienated I am when I stay in a hotel. I speak to people only over the phone, I have food wheeled into my room and then I push the tray into an empty hall, and I watch way too much television. Although I was a little rusty while talking to people at the communal breakfast table, I thoroughly enjoyed it. My husband loved the letter. And while I missed seeing Bryant and Jane in the morning, I got all the news I needed from Janet and Sam.