When my ex-wife Lauren and I got married, we had the great fortune and temerity to spend our honeymoon backpacking around the world for a year. Given that our largesse was only figurative, we spent almost all of our nights in hostels (usually in dorms), meeting some of the most indelible characters and sharing instantly poignant moments with people who had theretofore been strangers. Upon completion of this global tour, we resolved to one day recreate those experiences, still staying in hostels, but perhaps with a touch more comfort.
Although our marriage did not last to see such an eventuality, we will always share the bond of that magical time, a useful link as we co-parent our cherished Violet. And now, after I saw my precious girl off at Charles de Gaulle, I have embarked on a two-week tour of the Balkans. As I pondered my accommodations as a now solo adventurer, I recalled our prior desire to recapture the social dynamic of hostel living and booked my stay at a lovely, boisterous spot in Montenegro.
Upon my arrival, toting a comical amount of Paris-related baggage, I soaked in the unique atmosphere of the hostel, that great crossroads of international travelers. Imbued with the freedom and confidence that such a place engendered, I entered into a chance, offhand discussion with a kindred spirit who immediately became a partner in crime and exploration. To so quickly connect with someone from a different background and generation was a direct function of the hostel spirit, the common ground of choosing to travel in such a specific manner.
Setting out on our first excursion, we fell quickly into literal and conversational lockstep, stunned at having such a facile and instant rapport. Rejoining the lively crew back at the hostel’s common room, we were soon ensconced into that style of conversing and partying with people from all points of the compass that had once been so familiar and was so easily re-entered. As the night progressed, the music turned up, and the drinking games echoed in the background, the hostel posse decided to head together into town for a night of fun and mischief.
From a raging dance scene in a stone-walled back street to the denouement on the shore of the bay, we interacted with folks from myriad nations, sharing tales and tips and guttural laughter. The camaraderie pervasive and pulsing, we finally and reluctantly put ourselves to bed. Awaking in in our respective hives, my new buddy and I embarked on a massive bike mission in the beating sun, circumnavigating the bay ringed by karst. A day spent in the saddle imprinted memories that will last a lifetime, remarkable given the brevity of our acquaintance.
Not only is the hostel experience a chance to hear differing perspectives on the world and to reconnect with the larger core of curious souls, but it is also a chance to reflect upon all that has transpired since I last trod the hostel circuit. Unquestionably the oldest inhabitant of the hostel, I could take the liberty of dispensing a bit of wisdom to those still seeking to find themselves. It was affirming to realize my strong identity and values, to clock that I was a much more fully developed person that has accomplished much in the ensuing years. I could also take stock of those things that I now found more important (privacy in my own ensuite room) and about what I no longer cared (fitting in, crushing drinks, trying to do it all).
Being the rare American in a sea of other nationalities, I could at times defend and critique my birthplace, correct misapprehensions, and see my homeland in a new light. A listener by trade, I also had the honor of hearing deep details from the lives of complete strangers; a bit of empirical sociological research of the most organic kind. It is the intimate level of discourse that truly sets a hostel apart; there are few egos and no barriers to conversation. One rarely gets to the point of tears or rage in a hotel lobby, and certainly not so frequently or quickly.
The pace of a hostel being what it is and me being a not-young man in need of some rest and relaxation in this time of respite from a hectic life at home and in Paris, I will not stay exclusively in hostels. I will probably sleep more and better, but I doubt that I will be filled with joy rising to greet the day in my hotel or Airbnb. A social creature by nature, I will rarely be lonely, but will certainly miss the transcendence of a hostel’s special alchemy.