El richos to el rags in 48 hours

October 27, 2006

Kevin Fong laps up a rare chance to spend Other People's Money but comes down to Earth with a bump.

Barcelona. June. Saturday. Local time 19:00 hours. I am rolling up to the lobby of a truly fabulous Spanish hotel paid for by the organisers of the massive meeting I am about to attend. I am singing for my supper, giving a lecture and helping out with a couple of workshops over the first weekend so I don't feel too guilty. I nod conspiratorially at the glitterati at the check-in desk and try to look as if I stay in places such as this all the time. There's a free gym and swimming pool and, most importantly, wi-fi access. Unfortunately, I blow my cool a little when the man behind the desk tells me that the mini-bar is complimentary. "Free mini-bar!" I find myself shouting loud enough to echo a little. He smiles patiently and explains that this applies only to the soft drinks. I look around sheepishly. The other guests in the lobby are looking at their shoes or shaking their heads, or both. Still, that's not going to spoil it for me. I've arrived in the lap of luxury funded by OPM (Other People's Money) and I'm going to make sure I enjoy every second. I take myself off to the 24-hour restaurant, and when the micro-portion of gazpacho soup arrives topped with garlic ice-cream I'm not sure if Chef, having spotted that I'm not the sort of bloke who frequents such lofty eateries, is having a laugh.

I scoff it anyway, eyes darting around for people in tall white hats sniggering in the background.

The next two days are great; after all, I am an honoured guest of the faculty living in the conference palace. I discover that you can get by perfectly well in Spain by prefixing any English word with "e" and suffixing it with " o "; at least, in this hotel you can.

I give my lecture and attend the workshops and it's all great. But by Monday my usefulness to the conference organisers is at an end. The supply of OPM promptly dries up and, unable to afford the extortionate personal costs of continuing my 6* existence for the rest of the meeting, I check out and join some friends who are renting an apartment in ultra-suburbia.

It's a 15-minute journey and about a million miles from Hotel Splendido. As I get off the tram I'm sure I see tumbleweed floating by. I don't have a key to the apartment, but that doesn't matter because my pals have explained that to let yourself in you just push your hand carefully through the hole in the glass that somebody kindly made earlier and turn the handle from the inside.

It's not all bad; the place has a sort of rustic charm about it. And yes, my sofa bed doesn't quite fold flat, adopting instead the shape of a large V, but this, I imagine, is a clever design feature to stop you rolling out when you're drunk.

But by morning, having woken up with what feels like irreversible musculoskeletal injury, I can no longer put a positive spin on this. I wave goodbye to my luggage, possibly for the last time, and head off to the conference, but this time as an ordinary delegate with an ordinary badge; no longer one of the anointed. As I pass my former luxury residence I feel the urge to stop by and express my outrage to the concierge. I want to tell him that I'm on the faculty, that I deserve better, that I could have been a contender. I want to tell him that I am " el disappointedo " - but I fear he just wouldn't understand.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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