Day at a Hostel
Because someday I’ll want to remember the rootless chapters of my life
There are many flavors of homelessness. I’ve experienced some variant of it in the U.S., China, and Germany (…also Spain and Portugal, if you count the weeks I spent on the Iberian Peninsula when a Berlin sublease ended and I discovered that hostel-hopping outside of Germany was more affordable than staying in it). In each of those cases, my reasons were economic: I didn’t have enough for a place I could call “my own,” so I couch-surfed with friends or rented bunks in dorms. I had “homes,” but they weren’t mine. Most of the time they weren’t even homes at all. These were minimal-privacy, minimal-personal-space, tenuous arrangements where something like a group booking could claim the bunk I rented, or a lovers spat could render a spare bed (or couch) abruptly unavailable to my hapless, homeless ass.
Then about two years ago, a dream came true: I secured a housing contract and a freelancer visa in Germany. With these documents and a stable income, I figured the rootless days were over. But I was wrong. Because last week, an emergency (read: attack) in my apartment left me homeless again.
Since then, I’ve been bouncing around between friends’ apartments and hostel dorms. To be honest, despite the circumstances, “living” in a hostel again is making me nostalgic. And I’ve realized I never took the time to write out a full “day in the experience” participant-observation report on the surroundings, the rhythms of life, and the characters you encounter when “home” is but a temporary bed.
So yesterday I did. I wrote this for me, but I also wrote this for anyone who’s wondered what hostel-based living is like. Just an honest look at a rare lifestyle that plenty of people all over the world over are familiar with (It’s common to live in a hostel while you search for apartments in a new place.) — but also a lifestyle many people can’t imagine.
Here’s to us vagabonds. Cheers.
I arrive at the hostel and pick up my key at the front desk. I’ll sleep in a women’s-only room. I organize my things in the private kitchenette outside the six-bed dorm so I don’t wake anyone (a courtesy that my extensive hosteling experience gives me the foresight to extend), and I exchange introductions with Teresa (*not her real name), from Argentina. Teresa is about to go clubbing, and a woman from Moscow tells Teresa that she dances tango. Teresa doesn’t seem interested in tango, says she never learned it, and talks instead to another Spanish-speaking woman about the Kit Kat Club, Berlin’s most famous sex club. A very different kind of dancing happens there.
After arranging my things, I go into the dorm and size up the locker for which I paid 5€ at the front desk for a padlock. Supposedly it’s more secure for the hostel to sell 5€ padlocks to everyone than to maintain lockers with reusable locks. Alas, my bag’s too large for this. Guess I’ll sleep with ALL my stuff — backpack, duffle bag, coat, shower supplies — piled on my bunk around me and hope it doesn’t collapse.
Next, I discover that the bunk I’ve been assigned is already taken. Tomorrow morning, I’ll learn that Teresa is the one who claimed it, but for now, it’s simply claimed by a dirty, blue towel. I guess Teresa didn’t want to have to climb a ladder after her night of drinking was done.
Here’s a confession: I’ve climbed hostel bunk beds before while drunk. I’ve also finagled a night in a guy’s bunk once in Shanghai on the excuse that I was too drunk to scale mine. This felt terribly valid as far as excuses go at the time. That said, bedding that guy was a good choice; 5 years (and counting) later, and we’ve both ended up in Berlin. In fact, he was one of the friends who ended his leisurely cafe time this past Saturday on zero notice to hop in another friend’s little two-door Opel and join us in emptying my things out of the apartment where I was attacked.
So on the one hand, maybe Teresa made a very wise choice in forgoing a top bunk. On the other, maybe she missed a golden opportunity for a hookup and a lifelong friend. We will never know.
We’re technically in Monday now when I return — my bags in tow — to the lobby, through its noisy bar, to inform the front desk that I’ll be sleeping in a non-assigned bed. You need to inform hostel staff of such things; damages inevitably happen , and they need to know in advance when you’re not responsible. The front desk obliges.
On the way back to my room, I try taking a seat in the upstairs lounge area to eat some pecans I’ve stashed in my backpack. I’m intercepted by a heavily pierced, very polite young man who tells me I may not eat there, please eat this in my room, they are cleaning. I’m dizzy from exhaustion and hypoglycemia, but I’m not even upset, because having spent a combined total of probably 14+ months of my life “living” in hostels, I’m a veteran to inconveniences like these. And frankly when you’re so reduced by life circumstances (such as whichever circumstances leave you “living” in a hostel), you’re just happy to have a roof over your head and some clean bedding.
So I go back to the kitchenette and save my snack for a moment when nobody’s around; I haven’t brought enough to share, and after the quick getaway from my apartment several days ago, I’m still feeling a bit burnt out and physically drained. I need every last gram of these pecans. Pecans are life.
I finish eating and go to bed.
I wake up substantially before my alarm, because dorms = noise. It’s amazing how much noise there is when half of my roommates are still sleeping. Then again, this is not amazing, because the first rule of hostel dorms is that they’re loud. The woman from Moscow leaves to shower at some point this morning and then returns to bed. I’m not sure why she’s done things in that order, but in hostels, you see lots of things you don’t understand — and you do lots of things that other people can’t understand.
I leave my dorm around 8:30 and wait 20 minutes to use a shower. As far as hostels go, this is not a terrible lag time. At least it’s pretty clean.
I check out as soon as I’m finished showering and getting dressed. No makeup today at all. Who wants to paint their face in a rainforest-humidity bathroom, or a darkened dorm? I’m thankful to be at a stage in my life where I have the comfort with self — and the hormonally placid skin — to skip a makeup routine.
I spring for the hostel’s 5€ breakfast buffet. I eat two slices of cheese wrapped around a slather of imitation Nutella, one slice of salami, a few thick slices of cucumber, two slices of tomato, a bowl of cereal (a mix of granola and some sort of honey-glazed popped oats) drowned in soymilk, and one hardboiled egg that is suspiciously highlighter-yellow once I peel the shell off. There are absolutely zero plant-based protein options, which might make some people livid, but I — having spent so many years in the economic margins myself (and established a mineral deficiency to show for it) — understand that it’s a fallacy that vegan diets are accessible to (or even nutritionally sustainable for) everyone. Choice is privilege. Salami and cheese aren’t my first choices either, but I’ll take what I can.
Note: I also take a pat of butter and a jam package from the breakfast spread, only later questioning why I’ve grabbed butter. I leave the butter on the table, because it can melt. However, I stash the jam in my backpack, intending — because this is how my lifestyle goes — to turn it into something appetizing, perhaps saving it for a moment when I might stumble upon a complementary bread roll or croissant anytime within the next 8 months or so. More likely than not, the jam will come dangerously close to busting in my backpack before that golden moment arrives, and as I pull the jam out of my bag in disgust (having already forgotten where it came from), I will chide myself for low-key hoarding stuff like edibles and plastic cutlery, and wondering why I do that.
But this — being homeless (again) — is precisely why I do that.
The nice thing, I guess, is that by the time I chide myself for these habits, the homelessness that prompts them will again be a distant memory.
I hope. Now I guess I don’t even take that for granted.
10:30am or so
Breakfast accomplished, I decide I’ll hang out in the common lounge/bar for the earlier part of the day. After all, I became homeless again this morning immediately upon checkout. At least here I can charge my electronics without any obligation to purchase additional food, like I would if I went anywhere else in town. I send emails (some of which are related to my homelessness; this is why the poor need smartphones) and entertain myself by reading tarot cards, Insta-blogging about them, and sharing some how-to-choose-a-grad-school advice with a friend I haven’t seen since 2014.
Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Lana del Ray, and Foster the People set the ambience in the bar this morning, and I smile when I glance up and see that the woman at the table in front of me immediately starts snapping her fingers and bobbing her shoulders to “Thrift Shop” right there in front of her laptop. I like when people let themselves be moved by their spontaneous joy. In hostels, these people tend to be fairly common: hostel patrons are the low-frills, low-maintenance souls who travel lightly through the world. Stuffy types do not stick around; they stick to the hotels and the boutique Airbnbs.
We, here, the dorm-dwellers, are the anytime-dancers.
I’m beginning to grow tired of “saving money” in the bar/lounge. Planning to leave, I dig out a berry-colored lipstick and apply it clumsily in the only “mirror” I carry: the black screen of my phone. Un-polished as I may appear, I do still care about trying to look presentable. Just a swipe of lipstick and some moisturizer is all I’ll wear on my face today, but it will surprisingly be enough to get me a free Turkish tea, an offer for a free sandwich the next time I visit the shop where I have dinner, and — maybe unrelated and entirely not about me — a request from an Uncommonly Beautiful Man to sit across from me at a cafe. As always, during the homeless periods in my life, I’m amused when men notice me and find me worthy of their attentions. People are worthy regardless of their circumstances, but these prejudices are so ingrained that being even temporarily homeless (and not even for economic reasons this time) instantly makes me feel like a less appealing person to try getting to know.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. As I alluded to, there comes a time at any hostel, no matter how comfortable, when you can’t take it anymore and must go out into the streets. I rent an external locker, because the hostel apparently believes in reusable locks after all. I’m tickled by the fact that my locker number, randomly assigned, is 42: the answer to life, the universe, and everything. And what do I fill it with? Laundry, period products, chargers, spare cosmetics samples, shower supplies, an insurance policy, and notes for a book I’m writing. Pretty much, these are what I considered “essentials” when pressed to flee my apartment last week. I still don’t regret my choices, but I do wish I’d thought more of clean clothes and warm-weather shoes. Ah well…
I go around the corner. What with all the recent stress and poor sleep, I’m trying to take care of my health in the only way available to me right now: eating reasonably healthy. I select a Vietnamese place I’ve never tried before. They’ll only take cards after a 12€ minimum. I have 1€ in cash. I commence an endless search for a respectable ATM, since the nearest “official” bank ATM, in a subway station, is off-limits due to today’s public transit strike. After a long detour to the far reaches of this neighborhood and back again, I arrive at the Vietnamese place where I started, cash in hand, to eat the budget lunch special. Sesame-crusted tofu over ginger-garlic veggies. It’s fucking awesome. I file my nails in the ladies’ room in the basement before I leave; normally I’d do this in my own home, but I don’t have one of those anymore.
I wander Berlin’s district of Mitte, heading north. I notice that the streets are beautifully calm due to the transit strike and muse that it would be lovely if the strike continued even longer. Alas, I recognize that this would be bad for the workers involved, the people who rely on them, and the businesses all over town who rely on the people. Regardless, it’s lovely that the streets are emptier than usual, even empty of the high-pitched electric hum from the trams. People are either walking or riding their bikes… or staying put right where they are, in other parts of town. (I chose my hostel in this area because I knew the strike was coming; I put myself where I most wanted to be.) On my wanderings, I find brilliant yellow flowers blooming everywhere, pink blossoms on potted Japanese maples, and random whiffs of garden fragrances I can’t identify. I smile, thinking what a beautiful time it is to be in Berlin. Yes, even homeless and far from family, I’m glad for today exactly how it is.
As I walk, I do keep struggling to wrap my head around “I am homeless again. I am homeless again.” I feel some of the weight of that, literally, because I carry extra belongings now on my back, and I wear improper clothes for the weather. The weight feels even greater for the fact that I don’t know yet where I’ll put these things down and sleep tonight. But I’m still glad to be walking around like this today. The spring makes it all feel like a privilege.
I settle in next at a cafe with my laptop, a cheap herbal tea, and my ineptitude as a writer. This is when Uncommonly Beautiful man comes to sit across from me — rather than anywhere else at any of these three long tables — while I have a printout of a first-person account of a one-night stand on the table in front of me. I wonder if he reads it. I don’t ask. I’m busy and don’t take my earbuds out to talk to Uncommonly Beautiful Man, but I wonder if I’m supposed to. Especially when I cross paths with him again later. Twice. But for now, Uncommonly Beautiful Man just reads his book, some English-language fantasy epic, and doesn’t press for conversation. He eventually finishes his coffee and goes, and I trade voice messages with a friend and gaze out at the park across the street. The park has begun thinning out as the sun sinks. I wish I had a book or something on me so I could have spent today reading in the park, but all my books are in storage now, and I can’t really be bothered to get a new one because I don’t feel like carrying any extra weight. I’m thankful, particularly in life chapters like these, that writing is my hobby. Entertainment anywhere I go.
Nearly dusk. I decide to go kill some time now just “being” at the grocery store. I buy a bottle of fresh juice to legitimize my stay, but my main purpose in being here is actually just to charge my phone and book another night in a hostel, since the supermarket has free wifi. “Real” travelers who stay at hostels don’t know these sorts of logistical hacks all over town, but since I reside in town, I do know them and can take advantage. While I sit here, I post to Instagram, call an uncle for his birthday… and book another room at the hostel where I started the day. I also observe that the carvings on the wooden table — which triggered me the other day in the immediate aftermath of the attack at my apartment (since the attacker first carved slurs into our door) — don’t startle me quite as much as they did last week. I make a mental note that I should probably still find a counselor to nip any nascent PTSD in the bud but am thankful for the indication that, on some level, I might already be starting to heal.
I stop for a grilled vegetable sandwich at a shop I love: cheap, filling, and good. There aren’t many such places. I don’t leave immediately after eating, and so a free tea arrives from the manager. I appreciate the opportunity to sit alone and write somewhere that isn’t blasting music (like the hostel bar does). In fact, tonight, the sandwich shop is piping ambient piano sounds, not unlike the sort of upscale spa/salon hybrid where you can get your eyebrows waxed and your face patted with organic ointments. Usually, this shop blasts Arabic music from indeterminate eras and rap / hip hop from circa 2004, but with tonight’s soundtrack, I both start growing sleepy and questioning whether I should groom my eyebrows soon… including wondering where I put my facial wax when I threw all my stuff into bags this weekend.
On my way out, an employee tries to ask my life story. I mention that I’m from the U.S., and this probably conjures up notions of wealth and prosperity, which is ironic for reasons I don’t need to clarify. Meanwhile, the man chatting me up is, himself, a literal refugee. An educator now grilling sandwiches for a paycheck. Whatever he’s gone through in his life is undoubtedly tougher than anything in mine. We don’t talk about our pasts: I’m familiar with these conversations and don’t want things to get too personal. I do welcome the opportunity to practice my German, but then I get self-conscious the moment he offers to treat me to a free meal next time I visit. (“Ich lade dich ein.”) This sometimes happens when you become a regular at a place in Berlin and you’re a woman — usually the affordable places, unfortunately. Will I have to avoid this one going forward? I walk back to my hostel wondering if this was why I had a mild, unexplainable sense that eating there tonight wasn’t going to be the greatest idea.
I check in again, go to my new room. A mixed-gender dorm. It smells like “floral dust” (no better description for it) mixed with stale sweat.
A quick glance directly ahead as I enter: a man in front of a mirror seems to be wrapping himself — arms and upper torso — in silvery duct tape and grunting/exhaling conspicuously, either at the effort, or at his sense of satisfaction for the quality of the job he’s doing. It’s hard to tell. It’s harder to ask.
I don’t look at him long enough to figure out what he’s really doing — SURELY this can’t be what it looks like (then again… this is Berlin, where duct tape makes for a viable clubbing outfit) — because it’s better not to look too long. Looking invites conversation, and I’m not in the frame of mind, or time of night, to converse with Duct Tape.
Mental note: this is why I choose all-female dorms when I can. Too many moving variables otherwise.
I’ve also come here expecting to pile all my belongings on my bunk again — a top bunk — but I see that all the beds in tonight’s room are (in)conveniently low enough for anyone to stand over you while you’re sleeping. I decide my bag is safer back out in Locker #42. I leave the dorm pretty much immediately and take care of that. Then, after returning the locker room key, I proceed to immediately to wash my hands, because surely someone has fucked this keyring.
Here comes more of that special hostel charm: The bathroom I happen to choose is spotless save for the single, wayward pube that has come to its inexplicable resting place on the back of the sink. I wonder how it got there. Then I frown at myself for wondering such a thing... or is it that I frown at myself because I’m once again in a position where that question arises at all?
Moving on from the pube, I open one, then another toilet stall. Each of them reeks of B.O. on such a level that the only possible reaction is:
But the stench solves the mystery of why this bathroom is so clean; everyone since the pube has apparently been too feeble-lung’ed to brave it. So am I.
I snake through at least three more corridors to find another female toilet and don my pajamas. While I’m in my own stall, a man walks in and out, nearly colliding with a woman. He apparently didn’t get the gender memo, but now I understand why I just heard someone pissing with the deafening force of 27 waterfalls. Women generally can’t accomplish that: they don’t tend to have so much distance from the toilet.
I anoint myself all over with rosemary oil as a preventative, just like last night, in case my bed is shared by tiny creatures. Basically, I turn in smelling like a 15th century apothecary, and I’m sure my roommates always appreciate that. As I close my eyes, I give one last moment of thanks for the chance to start tomorrow in one of my favorite parts of town. Hostels are good for this; they’re so central. Much more central than any apartment you can generally hope to find.
And I decide to write this all down. Because someday I might be financially secure enough that I don’t have to sleep in hostels anymore, but they’ve been such a big part of my life that I’m sure I’ll look back with nostalgia, and I’ll wish I could look remember the details of these rootless days. Scary bathrooms, mysterious roommates, and all.