Sleeping with strangers, the hostelling way…

Rumpole and I were supposed to spend this Victoria Day weekend with Prissy German Tourist and Obsessive-Compulsive Shopaholic up at their wonderful place on the Sunshine Coast. Rumpole in his wisdom refused to take me because he feared that PGT would keep me for hours on the computer looking at his LA, Santa Monica and Venice Beach photos (well, that is a predictable no-brainer!) which would exhaust my eyes and prolong the healing process. The thwarted travel opportunity may be why I am obsessing on the theme of travel in my current blogs.

One of the best preparations to help an inexperienced young traveller embarking on an extended hostelling vacation is to pose the questions, “Remember when your Mom and Dad sent you off to your first Camp Goodtimes experience when you were 8 years old? Remember how you felt, and what were your main worries in anticipating this experience?”

In hindsight, I wish I had expressed to my parents some of my nervousness about the awkwardness in sleeping with a group of complete strangers during my upcoming travels.  But of course any such expressions from me would probably indicate to them that I was not yet ready to embark on such a journey and thus should be convinced to defer such ambitious travel plans until a later date.  Myra, my travel companion, was even more timid than I, and it was not until the CN train bearing us to Montreal pulled out of the Vancouver station on the first leg of our journey that we casually broached this topic in conversation.

We had three sleeps to endure on the train before arriving in Montreal.  We wondered about the sleeping accommodations.  These were simply stated as information at the time of our booking, and not having any prior experience with overnight train travel, we were quite curious of how these sleeping arrangements were to shape up.

At bedtime, the lights in coach suddenly dimmed, and a conductor walked down the aisle telling passengers their berths had been readied for the night and we could proceed to the back of the train. The coach emptied of passengers as we all headed back to the sleeping car.  There an attendant checked our tickets and directed us to the correct berth, and pointed where the bathrooms were. Myra got a top berth and I was below her on the bottom one and had a good window to look out from.

What was the correct protocol? Did one line up at the bathroom door to prepare for ablutions and teeth-washing while still in street clothes? Or did one change into pajamas inside the berth and surface in night clothes to embarrassedly scurry down the aisle to the bathroom to do the necessities? I opted for the second choice, but put on my long rain-coat over my pajamas to look decent.  After all there were men, women and children of all ages mixed into the sleeping car, and one had to maintain modesty.

Once the bathroom hurdle had been dealt with, Myra clambered up to her sleeping pallet and zipped herself into privacy.  Her voice muffled by the enclosure, she complained about the poor headroom up there, and about the compartment reminding her of being inside a coffin. I crawled easily into my spot, and promptly banged my head on the bottom of Myra’s ledge. Then I played with the button operating the rather dim reading light, settled my bag near the foot of the pallet, and turning out the light settled into letting my eyes adjust to the darkness as I gazed out the window into the passing dark landscape. The sleeping car was remarkably noisy for a while as people struggled into their spots, said comments and goodnights to each other, as their zippers swished, they cleared their throats or they grumbled about their discomforts.  It took me a long time to fall asleep, but the rhythmic throbbing of the wheels on rails combined with the black on black landscape shifting in accompaniment in the window lulled me to a restless sleep.

The first night of sleeping on the train eased the way for the next two sleeps, and we arrived in Montreal rested and ready of phase two of our travel, embarkation onto the Olympia, a Greek passenger ship. The sleeping accommodations here were one step up from those on the train. Lots of head room, sleeping berths with grab bars and straps one could tie oneself in on a tossing ship, lockers for possessions, and glossy white enamel paint on all the plain metal walls and surfaces of the cabin.  Our cabin was in steerage, all we felt we could afford, and we had no port-hole through which to see the expanses of water we travelled upon.  Bathrooms were down the passageway, and we only had to share our cabin with two middle-aged ladies who were quite pleasant and didn’t bother with us. We were attended by a pleasant older porter who spoke awfully accented English; he was good preparation for upcoming linguistic confusions and deciphering. We had some wonderfully silly and convoluted communications, lots of laughter and misunderstanding with him.

Communal dining was the norm, and being in steerage, we were served on first call for meals – no sleeping in for the poor travellers.  This had a strangely uncanny resemblance to eating communally at Camp Goodtimes, the only difference being having waiters deliver the food, and passengers eating with a greater degree of decorous politeness ( no flicking peas across at other diners, no slurping drinks, or making gagging sounds at the sight of unfamiliar food!) Oh yes, and there was wine with dinner, not the watered down juice served at Camp Goodtimes.  This was a huge bonus, especially for 19 year old girls, who were at that time of not legal age to imbibe alcohol, and who wished to look worldly to their table mates.  We did drink rather a lot of wine, but we reasoned that it all made the rather oily Greek food easier to digest.

Travel by ship allows for a gradual acclimatization to a different mode of having to operate.  For us this was a good thing.  The hostelling experience in France, our first destination, was rather easy to adjust to. However, what we were not prepared for was having a dorm full of young women talk till all hours of the night, or weep unconsolably for whatever reason, or having our shoes mysteriously disappear overnight.  Especially strange was the ubiquitous rule for lights out at 10 pm. This really meant lights out, the juice stopped flowing into the bare bulbs in the ceilings, and no amount of flickings of switches would restore light. Also, there was to be no lingering in bed in the morning; hostellers had to be out and about at what seemed the crack of dawn, bolt down their meager breakfast, hasten to perform given chores and leave the hostel – unceremoniously expelled back into the streets with their belongings in tow. Now this had some eerie similarities to prior experiences at Camp Goodtimes.  We wished someone had told us about how this hostelling business was to come down!

One memorable occurrence in hostelling comes to mind. I was travelling to Monaco, solo. Myra had gone to Le Mans with a couple of Mozambiquan  fellows.  At the hostel in Monaco, I had met a bunch of young people from Brooklyn in the lounge.  We were all in a rebellious mode and decided that Monaco had too much night life to offer for us to hie to our beds at 10 pm like good little children.  Thus we arranged with some boys to sneak out of the hostel after lights out, meet at the edge of the field surrounding the hostel, and head down to the casino as well as to the docks to see the beautiful private yachts there. 5 of us girls, dressed in our finest clothes in the dark dormitory, and one by one slipped through the window to crawl through tall grass in the field outside the hostel walls.  The only problem was, that the hostel-keeper had two Alsatian dogs that let out a huge barking when the first girl made the expected rustlings in the tall grassy field. So the rest of us determined to let 15 minutes elapse between each girl sneaking out the window.  It took us over an our to assemble at the edge of the field and road, from where we had a considerable hike to the casino downhill.  When we got to the casino we were really disappointed to find a band playing in a sleepy, desultory fashion, a man and woman drunkenly dancing, and two haggard gamblers half-heartedly engaged in a game.  Down to the waterfront we trooped, found things battened down there, and amused ourselves by sneaking aboard several yachts, hoping all the while not to be caught.

About3 o’clock in the night, we slowly made our way uphill to the hostel. Of course, we had to take a longish time individually sneaking through the tall grass so we wouldn’t alert the Alsatians to rouse their mistress and thus get us all into trouble. And naturally, when one is trying to be especially quiet and sneaky, grass rustlings take on ominous noisiness, and I mused about the Alsatians being dead to the world that they couldn’t hear the loud scurryings we were making, as we crept, every 15 minutes toward our bunks that by this time were beckoning so enticingly.  We did make it back into the dorms and fell into a deep sleep, which was too soon interrupted by the morning wake-up siren.  As we stumbled around in the bathroom getting ready, and languished over coffee in the dining hall and in excruciating sloth performed our given clean-up chores, we mutually bemoaned the “curse of Camp Goodtimes” that had followed us from our various places of origin to this ill-conceived adventure in Monaco. Yeck! The “playground of the Mediterranean”!

Obviously not for poor, hostelling students! I am sure, our parents would have been much reassurred  had they known how similar to going to Camp Goodtimes our European adventure was turning out to be, and some rather bemused chuckles would have greeted our later reports to them, had we ever told them of this similarity!

3 Responses to “Sleeping with strangers, the hostelling way…”

  1. Marsha J. O'Brien Says:

    Loved the post! My husband and I were watching antique roadshow last evening and they walked through a sleeper car of the 50’s. Your post took me right to that experience and it was just delightful!

    How are you doing with those precious eyes? Wonderfully, I hope and pray!

  2. lookingforbeauty Says:

    Very evocative! Brings up lots of memories.
    At my first hostel, I was in France. All went well the first evening, but in the morning at breakfast time, I was very puzzled that the only tableware available to us was dinner plates and cereal bowls and some doll size cups.
    Now, I’d been brought up with table manners that always made reference to “when the Queen comes, you must not do that”.
    I was terrified of making a faux pas in front of these mostly European (and therefore more sophisticated, I reasoned) fellow travellers. I waited to see what everyone else was doing.
    Much to my horror, according to the English Queen’s rules, I saw that these people were using their bowls to drink, Heidi like, the morning coffee or hot chocolate that was provided! And, equally un-Queenlike they were breaking their baguettes of bread with their hands, leaving their bread right on the clothless table, buttering it, and eating it from there!

    I tried to keep my face expressionless, and then followed suit. There were, after all, only these doll size cups, and my dinner sized plate would look very conspicuous on the table.

    It was my introduction to differeing manners and mores abroad. I soon discovered that the tiny cups were for expresso, and that the bowls were a delightful distinguishing feature of French home breakfast manners.

    I was the one who had to make adjustments. I was embarked upon a journey of learning and the overriding rule became “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I became a practiced watcher at each table circumstance I found myself in.

  3. suburbanlife Says:

    Marsha – i can well imagine how you and your husband must have watched the segment on 50s rail sleeper cars in fascination. it is too bad in our requirement to be transported rapidly from place to place we have largely lost this mode of travel, simple, unembellished, practical.
    My eye is steadily improving, though now i look like Quasimodo’s great aunt – oh well! 🙂 G

    Kay – i love how you embroidered your details on the cloth I have put out here. Yep eating habits of people in new places really put into interesting context the manners with which we have been raised. Vive la difference -n’est pas? Thanks for adding your story to mine. :-)G

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