It’s Wanderlusty Wednesday, which means it’s time for another travel essay! (All past travel essays here). Today: the lessons learned from hosteling in Berlin.
In the winter of 2007, my three American teaching-assistant friends and I embarked upon our first ever backpacking trip. We lived in France at the time, where hostels are (or were, back then) a lot less prevalent than in other European countries. In France, we generally booked cheap hotel rooms and squeezed as many people into them as possible to keep costs down. But for this trip, we were going to stay in bonafide bunk-beds-and-strangers-and-cook-your-own-food hostels. We were very excited.
We arrived in snowy Berlin after a 5 AM flight out of Paris (inconvenient flight times=cheaper tickets) and, being cheap and poor, got to our hostel via a series of airport trains and metros and slogging through the snow. But when we arrived, it was all worth it: the hostel we had chosen was clean and well-decorated, filled with cool-looking youth doing cool-looking things like drinking espresso and typing on laptops. Success!
Until they informed us they had no record of our reservation.
Because it turned out, we had booked it through Lonely Planet, not the hostel itself.
Hostel lesson #1: Don’t book a hostel through any site except that hostel’s own site.
They directed us to another hostel about a ten-minute walk away, and so out we trudged into the inclement weather, decidedly less cheery than before. We arrived at the new hostel. Not everyone was young. Not everything was clean. Not everyone who worked there spoke English. But they did have empty bunks, plus they gave out free beers to people carrying backpacks, so there was that.
We installed ourselves in our room, filled with four bunk beds and two regular beds. Everyone squabbled over the available bottom bunks while I happily climbed onto one of the top bunks; I would take relative privacy over the convenience of not having to climb up and down ladders any day.
After locking up our stuff, we set out to enjoy Berlin (and enjoy it we did). We didn’t hit another snag until that evening, during our first hostel-cooking adventure. After waiting in line for the can opener, cutting board, pots, water, stovetop, and sink, some of the joy of cooking was lost. At least we had beer.
We ate most of our pasta, with only a small amount leftover. I got ready to toss it when I saw a girl staring at me.
“You are throwing this food away?”
I shrugged. “We’re not here very long and reheated spaghetti isn’t that great anyway.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Clearly you have never been to Africa to see the starving children.”
I had not. Abashed, I wrapped up the leftovers (which no one ever ate, to my knowledge) and put them in the fridge.
Hostel lesson #2: Don’t complain about leftovers around people who have been to Africa.
After African missionary girl was gone, we went out to a few local bars, drank more beer (“ein Bier, bitte” was the one German phrase we had mastered) and headed happily and tipsily back to our hostel around midnight. We fell into our beds and slept soundly.
Until about three AM.
I woke, groggily, to some commotion coming from the bunk under me.
“You’re in my bed.”
An angry New York-accented male voice was speaking to my friend, who had been sleeping there.
“This is my bed,” she said, in her equally loud Louisiana accent.
“No, it’s mine. I’ve been sleeping here for the past three nights.”
“Well, when I came in there was nothing here.”
“Just because I left nothing on it, doesn’t mean it isn’t mine. That’s my stuff, in the corresponding locker.”
“The lockers don’t go with any specific bed.”
“Yes, they do!”
An argument ensued, in which my friend refused to get out of bed and finally, the angry New Yorker stormed out.
Hostel lesson #3: If you’ve claimed a bed, leave some evidence that you are sleeping in it, or it could be taken from you.
By the time he left, obviously the entire room was awake. It took some time, but eventually we all went back to sleep, and all was well.
Whether inadvertently or on purpose, angry New Yorker had taken the only key to the room and locked the door when he stormed out–from the outside. And we had no way of opening it from the inside. Ah, Europe, where things like fire codes are so trivial.
We–us four Americans plus the four girls of assorted European nationality sharing our room–laughed. Then we banged on our door. Then we banged louder. Then we yelled. No one came. It was a good-sized hostel, and our room was a good ways away from the reception/lounge/kitchen area.
Some of us were hungry, some of us had to pee, and some of us had various modes of transport to catch. All of us were getting worried.
Finally, someone decided the only thing to do was to use their international data plan to look up the hostel’s phone number and call the front desk from our room. The girl who answered didn’t speak fluent English, and at first could not understand us when we tried to explain that we were currently trapped inside the hostel. Especially since no one could remember our room number, which was also written on the outside of the door. But eventually, the message was communicated, and one of the employees came to rescue us. It took her some time; she had to knock on every door up and down the hall before she finally got to us.
Hostel lesson #4: Always request an extra key to your room. (And remember your room number.)
When the friendly German employee finally unlocked our door and saw us all crowded around the doorway like prisoners awaiting the end of our time in solitary, she burst out laughing.
“This has never happened before!” she exclaimed. “Never!”
With that burst of laughter, our panic and annoyance faded, and we began to laugh too.
Hostel lesson #5: always, always find the humor in the situation.
Image taken by me, Berlin, Germany, February 2007