Halley Knigge (Griffin)

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Hotel in Seattle’s French sister city lets you live life of hamster

KOMO News, CNN.com, April 19, 2012]

We’d had the reservation for nine months when April 2 finally rolled around.

Terrified of repeating my mistakes in late, lackadaisical booking of summer 2010 and missing my chance to live like a hamster two Europe trips in a row, I’d frantically emailed the proprietor of La Villa Hamster the same day we booked this year’s tickets to France.

A rodenty night for two in April 2012? Booked in July 2011? No problem. My bimonthly email confirmations were overkill, perhaps, but set my mind at ease.

I’d been dreaming of a trip to the famed hamster hotel for years. And by years, I mean ever since this November 2009 Guardian article first caught my eye.

The vision was realized by Un Coin Chez Soi, a company that hosts a variety of offbeat guest rooms, with themes like school, Captain Nemo’s voyage, and, of course, hamster, throughout the city of Nantes. (An otherwise average Bretagne city, Nantes is known mainly for being the birthplace of Lu cookies. It’s also one of Seattle’s 21 sister cities and regular host to a University of Washington study abroad program.)

The arrival

It wasn’t particularly simple to make a one-night detour to Nantes as we made our way from Italy back to Paris, but I was bound and determined to finally have my night in the hamster hotel – and my patient fiancé Chuck knew better than to argue.

We arrived in Nantes on a Monday afternoon, busing our way to the city center and dragging wheeled suitcases through winding cobblestone streets (even better than the Shake Weight, I tell you). All we had was an address and a printed email with cryptic French instructions.

On your left when you enter the courtyard, you will find a small crevice in the wall, containing a small lockbox. Enter the following code to find the key to the Villa Hamster. When you depart, simply leave the 109 euro on the counter, and return the key to the lockbox.

We knew we were on the right track when the lockbox popped open to reveal a key simply labeled “Hamster.” A few steps into the courtyard, and we found ourselves facing a nondescript door with a small red sticker of a hamster over the handle. Bingo.

La vie hamster

From the moment we stepped through the door, the villa was more hamstery than we had ever imagined – right down to the musty hamster smell. We immediately donned the furry hamster headdresses, opting not to touch the hamster tail belts that were also provided for us.

A human-sized exercise wheel fills most of the room, strategically locking and becoming a bench to maximize space.

Next to the wheel is a ladder extending up a bed that hangs suspended over the room. A plastic headboard filled with sawdust and a pile of blankets with the instructions “faites votre lit comme un hamster,” or “make your bed like a hamster.”

Sawdust, cages and hamster toys decorate the rest of the tiny studio, which also features a corner water trough so you can drink like a hamster.

A sprinkle of sawdust splays out from the sawdust wall behind the toilet, dusting the plunger, toilet brush and scrubber with delicate shavings.

A frightening piece of hamster art in the corner features a giant, metal rodent face with two LED as eyes.

The villa is centrally located and fully equipped with a kitchenette, so hamster-loving guests could conceivably live there for weeks.

We spent a good portion of the evening mulling over the perfect farewell message to add to the chalkboard wall, already covered with chalk illustrations of hamsters and scrawled messages from visitors all over the world.

“Vive la vie hamster!” declared one.

“I don’t know whether to use the sawdust or the toilet,” wondered another guest, giving Chuck and I pause while we considered the potential sources of the villa’s musty scent.

In the end, we opted for simplicity – and then promptly forgot what we’d chosen. Surely it was poignant, whatever it was.

One night was more than enough hamster for us, but now we’re haunted by the question: “what next?” A night in the Jules Undersea Lodge? Zip-lining through the tree tops at the Treehouse Tresort?

For now, we’ll just keep dreaming in hamster.


On my way to the 11ème this morning, I had the wild idea in my head that I might just walk away from my visite médicale with my carte de séjour in hand. Had I not spent the past two weeks in the United States, I might have remembered that France isn’t exactly a country in which it’s easy to get things done. Assertiveness, sharp negotiation skills and even outright pushiness will get you nowhere here. Efficiency is not a trait I would attribute to any institution in France – be it Sciences Po, the government or the RATP (the organization of the metro, buses and trains within Île de France).

The carte de séjour is a residency permit you are obligated to apply for if you will be living in France for longer than three months. You can be eligible for residency for a number of reasons – marrying a citizen, being recruited for work by a French country, going to work as an au pair for a pre-arranged family, or studying at a school in France. You can’t just up and move to France to find a job or whatnot – you have to have a plan and designated entry and exit dates.

The difficulty in getting a carte de séjour is that you have to apply for it once you’re actually in France. You can apply for a long-term visa (three months, maximum) from the U.S., but it’s supposedly only good for one entry into the country (although I never had a problem returning from trips), and you have to apply for your carte de séjour immediately upon arrival.

The problem with France is that to get anything important done, you usually need to deal with about three different people in three different locations – and they don’t usually have any idea what their counterparts are doing or saying. For example, the Préfecture de police provided Sciences Po with a list of required documents for the carte de séjour, which they then mailed out to us. An officially translated birth certificate, for example, which was not only expensive, but also turned out to be quite an adventure to obtain.

When R and I went to the Préfecture de Police, they informed us that the site had moved and sent us to an address in the 15ème arondissement. When we arrived there, however, we found that we could not apply until we had permanent addresses and bill receipts – our letters and receipts from our hotel were not valid (although we had been told that they would be). When we returned a second time, we found out that Sciences Po has a special office for processing the cartes de séjour, and we were supposed to turn everything in there.

The woman at Sciences Po was incredibly helpful and got everything sent off for us – at which point there was nothing to deal with until we received our dates for our visites médicales.

January 10th at 10h30 was both Rachael and my appointed time, so we arrived early at the Délégation with shot records, medical histories, our birth certificates and stamps (yes, like postage stamps) that served as proof that we’d paid our 55 euro residency taxes.

After checking in, we were ushered to a full waiting room, where we were called one at a time to go wait in another waiting room. From there, we were called one by one into a third room, where we were weighed, measured and had to read eye charts. We were then asked if we were pregnant, and if not, formed a line into a hallway with four doors. One led back out to the waiting room and the remaining three were dressing rooms. We entered the dressing rooms individually, stripped to the waist and were called into an x-ray room that connected to the other end of the changing rooms.

We were then x-rayed (chests only) by a male and female doctor and sent back out to the waiting room. There we waited again, this time to be called on by individual doctors. Mine was more interested in my iPod and practicing his English on me than in doing any kind of actual exam – he ended up just taking my blood pressure, asking about any medications I’m on, giving me my lung x-ray (“It’s a present, for Christmas!”) and sending me on my way.

R and I were then sent to an office of the Préfecture de Police housed in the same building, where we found out that we should be able to get our cartes, but surprise surprise, the machine is broken. We have to return on February 16th to finally obtain our residency permits (just six months after arriving in France), which is a good thing because my visa expired in mid-November – I guess I’m an illegal resident.

I’m not going to get my hopes up though – if you expect to be able to accomplish things, you’ll only be disappointed.