At the reception desk I filled in all the necessary details and got the key. Before I headed off to my room the receptionist asked:
“Would you like to open a hotel account?”
“It means that you don’t have to pay for everything you have or use in the hotel immediately, you just give your account number.”
I declined. What do I want with a hotel account? I’m only here for three days. Breakfast is included, and most of the time I’ll be out and about.
The room was large, luxurious, and had that fresh new smell. The furniture was certainly brand-new, the bathroom enormous, and the heavy windows opened gracefully with the touch of a button.
I hadn’t even gotten around to unpacking my things when I heard a knock at the door.
“Can I help you?” I asked the young porter.
“Sorry, but I have to lock the minibar.”
“Because you didn’t open a hotel account,” he said, before heading for the minibar, locking it, and leaving.
All of a sudden I felt the blade of the invisible sword of injustice pressing on the back of my neck. I don’t even use minibars. Alcohol doesn’t agree with me; I don’t like greasy, stale crisps; I hate any kind of peanuts; candy bars of uncertain origin aren’t my thing; random bottled liquids inevitably give me heartburn; and carbonated, nonalcoholic drinks are just plain bad for your health. The bottom line is that a minibar doesn’t have anything I’d ever want. So why did I feel so humiliated? Just because the bellboy locked the minibar? Did he put a padlock on the shower, the bathroom tap, the TV remote, the toilet seat? He didn’t. Rationalizing it, comforting myself with thoughts of the palatial bed or a hot shower, nothing helped. I was inconsolable. It was just the hopeless sense of deprivation.
They say that a German company called Siegas first manufactured the minibar. But apparently we’ve got the visionary mind of hotel executive Robert Arnold to thank for its ubiquity. As Wikipedia reliably informs us, Arnold was on a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Hong Kong in 1974 when he spotted miniature bottles of alcohol for the first time. Arnold ordered a supply of the bottles, and his employer, the local Hilton, took a gamble on the honesty of its guests. Honesty minibars are what they called them. A few months later, word spread in the hotel world that the minibars in the Hong Kong Hilton had increased turnover on alcoholic drinks by about five hundred percent, and from then on minibars were part of the furniture in every hotel in the world. All thanks to Robert Arnold and an epiphany inspired by a quick glance at a tiny bottle. It might seem by the by, but similar miniature bottles were sold in the watering holes of my former homeland. Their devotees lovingly called them “kiddies.”
And this is actually the point: love. Minibars are all about love. Let’s think about it: What is, in actual fact, a minibar? A minibar is designed as a dollhouse for grown men. Men love their “kiddies.” A hip flask, the teenage dream of today’s seventy-year-old, was known as a “buddy.” Kiddie, buddy, minibar—they’re all diminutives for a guilty something. Guilt in the diminutive is not guilt; it’s the simulation of guilt. And therein lies the unique effect of the minibar.
For many a lonely businessman, the minibar is a symbolic substitute for home. Getting back to your room, opening the little fridge door, popping open a bottle of beer, flopping down into an armchair and putting one’s feet up on the table—it’s a ritual deeply ingrained in the imaginary, even of those who don’t come home, open the fridge, and take a beer.
The minibar is also designed as a first-aid kit. Even if you’ve never used it, the thought of your home first-aid kit makes you feel safe and protected. That’s why some minibars also have condoms. “Buddies” to protect you from “kiddies.”
The minibar is also a kind of temple, a place where we come face-to-face with the metaphysical. In a hotel room you wake from a nightmare. Surrounded by the indifferent darkness, there’s no one to hug and comfort you. The minibar gives off a dull (transcendent) light, bottles and bags stand contritely upright, as if in a chapel. The minibar radiates serenity. In the terrifying darkness of the hotel room this lit-up display acts like apaurin. Everything is okay, I’m back in reality—the nightmare is over.
This psychodramatic riddle—home, guilt, first aid, temple—is solved at the reception desk when you check out. The answer is the final and finale-like question that every receptionist asks every guest in every hotel of the world: “Did you have anything from the minibar?” At that moment the guest senses the painful prick of metaphysical guilt. An honesty minibar? In some hotels the maids audit the contents of the minibar every morning, restocking it as they go, making the question superfluous. Nonetheless, all receptionists ask it—and they all ask it with that same snippy interrogative tone. The guest’s rage begins to swell. Not only did you prepay for the room, not only did you pay for overpriced coffee in the hotel bar, not only did you pay for this, that, or the other thing, but you then have put up with a lowly receptionist humiliating you with an honesty test. Nothing’s free in life. No argument there. But why oh why is the cost so high?!
The minibar is an expensive escapade, just like a psychoanalytic séance. The minibar perpetuates the same model. Hence the receptionist’s authoritarian tone, hence the sniffing around your room and inspection (of your minibar!) in your absence, hence your righteous rage at this mind-numbing display of power. In this psychoanalytic séance the receptionist turns into an authoritarian mother or father, into your boss at work, the police, an institution of power with which there can be no negotiation. For God’s sake, you could pinch the towels, the bathrobes, the table lamp, remove the hand basin and shower taps, and make off with the lot scot-free, but the thought doesn’t help. They pin you to the wall over a piddly bottle of bad vermouth and a rancid bag of crisps.
I don’t know whether hotel staff read Internet forums. It’s enough to type in “minibar,” and private armies of the aggrieved assemble, many waging personal guerrilla wars. Did you know that there are people who pee into empty beer bottles, jam the lids back on, and put them back in the minibar? Did you know that some people plaster the base of bottles with hairspray, stick them back down in the fridge, and leave the next person to desperately try to pry them loose? Did you know that if you don’t check the minibar as soon as you get into the room, they’re likely to sting you for a half-empty bottle of beer someone snuck into your fridge? Or how’s this: There are even minibars with built-in sensors that clock every movement and change in weight, so that if you don’t put the bottle or the chips back within ten seconds you have to pay for them, no matter what. I mean, who wouldn’t get in a huff? They’re busy trying to pull a quickie on you, while, at the same time, demanding your honesty. They’ve got it in for you in advance—you’re a thief, a grifter, and a boozehound. The minibar is a symbol of the totalitarian world. And by the way—can you be sure that at the pearly gates St. Peter isn’t going to welcome you with the question: “Did you take something from a minibar and not pay for it?” and then, depending on your answer, send you to a heavenly hotel with one, three, or seven stars?
In my native language the word “minibar” contains a number of other words. Two of them are critical here: rab or rob, which means “slave,” and mina, which means “mine”—as in “land mine.” The minibar is a minefield, for as soon as you cross its path you’ve immediately become a slave. Today, when almost every totalitarian system has exploded (okay, fine, it’s more that they imploded), the minibar is totalitarian shrapnel snugly nestled into a cozy space that’s devoid of all ideology—the hotel room. The minibar is the last bastion of totalitarianism, its invisible nest. Struggle against the minibar is possible, but only as a personal guerrilla action.
So, getting back to the hotel I mentioned at the start, this is my confession: I launched the assault on the minibar in room 513. I wrestled it into the bathroom. I defaced it with the hotel key, scratching Death to the Minibar! into its smooth surface. I threw it in the bath tub, and I turned on the tap. And finally, when the receptionist asked, “Did you have anything from the minibar?” I replied: “I wouldn’t be caught dead!” We need to put our heads together. If hotels know how to put sensors in their minibars, they’ll soon figure out a way of charging us for the mere thought that we might fancy a little something.
Dubravka Ugresic is an essayist and novelist. Born in Croatia, she currently lives in Amsterdam.