A column from Arnon Grunberg – “Magic Show”

‘“As other men long for hearth and home, or wife and child, he would always return to neon light and reception, chambermaid and porter,” is how he puts it in his serial ‛Hotelwelt [Hotel World],’ Mark Schaevers notes of the writer Joseph Roth (1894-1939) in his excellent book ‘Ostend, the summer of 1936’ (Oostende, de zomer van 1936).

Although most hotels no longer have a porter, and it is a long time since neon light has been a feature of the hotel world, I share this idiosyncrasy with Joseph Roth: I long for hotels. A good hotel combines familiarity, a certain sense of security, with the temporary, the indefinite. A hotel is a halfway house.

Since I left Amsterdam in 1995, I have regularly returned to the city – work, mother, lover etcetera, there have always been reasons, too many reasons in fact.

Via a couple of detours, among them the ‘Flowering Radish’ (Bloeiende Ramenas) on Haarlemmerdijk and the Amstel Hotel, I ended up at the Ambassade Hotel, where I found what I was looking for.
It would be too much to recount my history at the Ambassade Hotel, and it would also be indiscreet – a hotel owes its existence in part to secret and clandestine meetings, although the clandestine nature of the meeting is often only a product of one’s own imagination – but in particular I would like to mention my godson’s eighth birthday, which he celebrated there in the summer of 2012, with entertainment by the magician Falicanto.

I had given birthday parties for him at the Ambassade before – after all, the hotel was where I lived when I was in Amsterdam – and after the first of them, Wim, who more than any other member of staff is to me the personification of the Ambassade Hotel, had confided that they had found confetti all over the hotel for days afterwards. So I had gone in search of other sources of amusement – he was a little old for confetti anyway – and with some help I had found Falicanto.

The magician agreed to come, some 15 boys and girls were invited for the show, and I eagerly played the role of host and surrogate father to my godson.

The children had installed themselves in the breakfast-cum-reception room with cake and soft drinks. A proportion of the cake had swiftly been rubbed into the carpet and some of the chairs, but that’s the advantage of a hotel: people expect stains. All guests make stains, only some less than others.

The children, who by this point had been informed that the magician was coming, had the air of spectators at the Colosseum, interested to see people being mauled by wild animals, the only difference being that a few of my godson’s friends were keen to play the role of the wild animal themselves.

One boy said to me, ‘I don’t like magicians, can I go and play at the back?’

‘No,’ I said. If one of the boys went to play ‘at the back’, they would all go and play at the back, and the magician would be left to perform his tricks for a couple of stray adults, I couldn’t do that to him.

The magician arrived, a thin, shy man who said he might have to cut the performance short because his girlfriend was ill. I became even more concerned that my godson’s sweet little friends would metaphorically tear him to pieces. The opposite happened, and diffidently he won their hearts, or at least their admiration.

A hotel, I realise, is also a conjuring trick. The staff do the magic, if all goes well the guests don’t see how the tricks are done, and they go home satisfied, wanting nothing more than to come back soon, because although there is a lot at home, there generally aren’t any real magicians.

Home is to a good hotel as sliding doors are to a wide stage.