To Catch a Roach
By AIDAN FOSTER-CARTER
It’s 1:30 a.m. I’m in Geneva at a major global conference on security issues. As I head bedward, bleary-eyed after too long online as usual, suddenly I’m jolted wide awake. For I am not alone in this room.
Some hotels put chocolate on your pillow. Well, it is small and brown, but it’s a cockroach.
From that instant, choices kick in — and I make all the wrong ones. Or maybe first reactions are purest instinct. Several people told me later they wouldn’t have slept a wink after that.
Whereas I laughed. Whatever else, this was funny. Also outrageous, of course. Not what you expect in one of Geneva’s ritziest hotels, whose posted rack-rate is a staggering 925 Swiss francs per night. That’s over a thousand dollars! You can fly to Australia for less. And back.
It helped that this was quite a pretty cockroach. Small, not like the three- inch monsters which came twitching out of the woodwork in Tanzania, or covered every surface of a paddle steamer on the Congo river in 1967. Closer to home, Oxford had its share. One such night visitor to Balliol junior common room in revolutionary 1968 met a cruel fate, crushed between the pages of the suggestions book, above the caption: "Do something!”
Nonviolence was more my bag, then and now. Call me sentimental, but I stayed my hand. Some guys — most people? — would have squashed the intruder on the spot. Sure, it had to go; but humanely. The Geneva convention, if you will.
Still, I hadn’t booked double occupancy. Nor was it 925 of my own hard-earned Swiss francs, or I might have felt more cross.
Probably as startled as I was, the little bug proved dead easy to catch. I simply cupped a glass over her — no, I can’t sex cockroaches, but somehow she seemed female to me; did that make me softer too? — then inverted the glass, covering it with the paper cap it came with. Bingo.
What next? I toyed with marching down to reception and plonking glass and contents on the desk. But it was nearly 2 a.m., I was tired, and I doubted I could work up the faux rage needed. (Fact is, I was still giggling.) And anyway, only the night staff would witness my histrionics.
It could wait till morning. So I left Ms. Cockroach running around in her glass (which maybe wasn’t so humane of me), used a different pillow, and slept soundly.
Come the dawn, cockroach gawn. I blinked, but no doubt about it. There was the glass, with the paper cap still on it. But no cockroach. I rubbed my eyes. Definitely no roach.
I kicked myself. In last night’s doziness, I never thought to invert the glass. Right way up, the paper cap must have been a pushover for Ms. Roach to push up. Neat on her part, and a lamentable lapse in operating response procedures on mine.
That ruined everything. My inner imp had fancied taking my new captive to breakfast in her glass cage, pour épater la bourgeoisie.
The fantasy ballooned, as fantasies will. I imagined a groveling manager soothing my hurt — and buying my silence. A free weekend stay with your family, m’sieur?
But now I had nothing. No cockroach, no evidence. I might have made up the entire story, out of spite, or just for laughs. Maybe I dreamed the whole thing? Memory does play tricks.
Yet I didn’t have nothing. This is a true story and stories are for telling. And tell it I did. I told people at breakfast, who were suitably shocked. I did tell the hotel, or at least two young ladies at reception. They were aghast, even contrite, but no free weekend was offered. (My fault entirely, for I still couldn’t keep from laughing.)
Last but far from least, I told the final conference plenary. For the frisson, but more because Ms. Roach had given me a precious metaphor for a conference on security.
Terror is real, yet fear of it can cloud judgment. A scorpion in the bed, or a cobra: that would have been a clear and present danger. A cockroach is not a threat. We should beware mistaking a cockroach for a scorpion, let alone turning one into the other by overreacting.
Roaches will always be with us. Risk and repulsion are not the same. I was never at risk. And I’m still laughing.
Meanwhile, if you happen to bump into my little brown friend or one of her kin in Room 804, say hi from me. Then trap her properly, and demand a refund.
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary senior research fellow in sociology and modern Korea at Leeds University.
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