February 22, 2016 | by Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco’s essay “How to Travel with a Salmon” first appeared in our Summer 1994 issue; it was later the title piece in a collection of Eco’s essays. Eco died last Friday at his home in Milan. He was eighty-four. In an interview with The Paris Review in 2008, he said, “I like the notion of stubborn incuriosity. To cultivate a stubborn incuriosity, you have to limit yourself to certain areas of knowledge. You cannot be totally greedy. You have to oblige yourself not to learn everything. Or else you will learn nothing.”
According to the newspapers, there are two chief problems that beset the modern world: the invasion of the computer, and the alarming extension of the Third World. The newspapers are right, and I know it.
My recent journey was brief: one day in Stockholm and three in London. In Stockholm, taking advantage of a free hour, I bought a smoked salmon, an enormous one, dirt cheap. It was carefully packaged in plastic, but I was told that, if I was traveling, I would be well-advised to keep it refrigerated. Just try.
Happily, in London, my publisher made me a reservation in a deluxe hotel, a room provided with minibar. But on arriving at the hotel, I have the impression of entering a foreign legation in Peking during the Boxer rebellion.
Whole families are camping out in the lobby; travelers wrapped in blankets are sleeping amid their luggage. I question the staff, all of them Indians, except for a few Malayans, and I am told that just yesterday, in this grand hotel, a computerized system was installed and, before all the kinks could be eliminated, it broke down for two hours. There was no way of telling which rooms were occupied or which were free. I would have to wait.
Towards evening the computer was debugged, and I managed to get into my room. Worried about my salmon, I removed it from the suitcase and looked for the minibar.
As a rule, in normal hotels, the minibar is a small refrigerator containing two beers, some miniature bottles of hard liquor, a few tins of fruit juice and two packets of peanuts. In my hotel, the refrigerator was family size and contained fifty bottles of whisky, gin, Drambuie, Courvoisier, eight large Perriers, two Vitelloises and two Evians, three half-bottles of champagne, various cans of Guinness, Pale Ale, Dutch beer, German beer, bottles of white wine both French and Italian and, besides peanuts, also cocktail crackers, almonds, chocolates and Alka-Seltzer. There was no room for the salmon. I pulled out two roomy drawers of the dresser and emptied the contents of the bar into them, then refrigerated the salmon, and thought no more about it. The next day, when I came back into the room at four in the afternoon, the salmon was on the desk, and the bar was again crammed almost solid with gourmet products. I opened the drawers, only to discover that everything I had hidden there the day before was still in place. I called the desk and told them to inform the chambermaids that if they found the bar empty it wasn’t because I had consumed all its contents, but because of the salmon. They replied that the information had to be given to the central computer, but because most of the staff spoke no English, verbal instructions were not accepted. All orders had to be given in BASIC.
I pulled out another two drawers and transferred the new contents of the bar, where I then replaced my salmon. The next day at four P.M., the salmon was back on the desk, and it was already emanating a suspect odor.
The bar was crammed with bottles large and small, and the four drawers of the dresser suggested the back room of a speakeasy at the height of Prohibition. I called the desk again and they told me they were having more trouble with the computer. I rang the bell for room service and tried to explain my situation to a youth with his hair in a bun; he spoke only a dialect that, as an anthropologist colleague explained later, was heard only in Kefiristan at about the time Alexander the Great was wooing Roxana.
The next morning I went down to sign the bill. It was astronomical. It indicated that in two and a half days I had consumed several hectoliters of Veuve Clicquot, ten liters of various whiskies, including some very rare single malts, eight liters of gin, twenty-five liters of mineral water (both Perrier and Evian, plus some bottles of San Pellegrino), enough fruit juice to protect from scurvy all the children in UNICEF’s care, enough almonds, walnuts and peanuts to induce vomiting in the attendant on the autopsy of the characters in La grande bouffe. I tried to explain, but the clerk, with a betel-blackened smile, assured me that this was what the computer said. I asked for a lawyer, and they brought me an avocado.
Now my publisher is furious and thinks I’m a chronic freeloader. The salmon is inedible. My children insist I cut down on my drinking.