Beginning with my first trip to Eastern Europe and continuing on for several more visits I decided to stay in youth hostels. It is a misnomer to call these “youth” hostels since many of the clientele, including myself, were well past the youth stage of their lives. I noticed at one hostel in Bulgaria that the “youth” included a couple of 70’sish looking Germans fraus wearing large backpacks and enjoying a complimentary spaghetti dinner. I was in my late 30’s and early 40’s at the time of my hostel stays. At this point in my life I had stopped drinking, thus there was little for me to do at hostels other than converse with fellow travelers. I had to do this in the day rooms or reception area since I very rarely shared a room with anyone. For me, sleeping with strangers was something I have up after completing university, I found myself passing the evening hours meeting a cast of characters that I remember now much more vividly than many of the places I visited.
Visitors From Near & Far – The Spaces Between Us
It was in Belgrade that I found myself staying at an accommodation that was more luxury apartment than hostel. Though it was advertised as a hostel, the common area was a giant living room with large sofas and chairs to relax in. All the bedrooms opened onto this room. Thus I had the opportunity to meet the other guests numerous times, but once would turn out to be enough. First there was a Swiss guy who looked to be no older than twenty. We first exchanged pleasantries, than he nervously asked me what I had paid to stay at the place per night. When I told him and added how affordable it was to stay in such a nice place especially compared with other hostels, he grew exasperated. He was dismissive of my opinion. I asked him if he paid the same, he just nodded and walked off while grumbling. Pardon me, but I thought everyone in Switzerland was pretty well off. Maybe this was how the Swiss stayed wealthy, always looking for a bargain.
This interaction was followed by the arrival of an unforgettable couple. Both looked to be in their late 20’s. The man was Norwegian and his girlfriend was an ethnic Hungarian from Slovakia. They were traveling around Eastern Europe on holiday though they lived far apart. The man was from an extremely remote part of Norway far above the Arctic Circle By the way he explained it his hometown was much closer to towns in Russia than those in Norway. His description of the weather sounded truly awful. It was frigid and icy most of the time, summer sounded like it lasted one afternoon in July. He had been to Russia many times and the Soviet Union when he was in high school for wrestling matches. What he vividly remembered about the Soviet Union was how everyone wanted to purchase his Levi’s and an ocean of vodka was always on offer. The man was super cheerful, perpetually smiling, guffawing with delight and was certainly one of the friendliest people I had ever met. Perhaps that was because he was visiting civilization for a change.
Endless & Eerie Conversations – Foreign Affairs
The Norwegian’s ethnic Hungarian girlfriend was even more emotive. It turned out that she was a filmmaker. She went on and on and on about the movies she had made and future projects. She was so effusive while talking that I stopped paying attention to what she said and became fascinated by just watching her. After a few minutes I felt exhausted. I soon came to the conclusion that she should be in front of the camera rather than behind it. How anyone ever got a word in with her was beyond me. This woman was truly overwhelming. It was not long before I dragged myself off to bed. The Norwegian who had piqued my interest a few minutes before had become all but invisible to me. Maybe he went back to the frozen north to recover.
For a long time, staying in hostels was the extent of my socializing on trips to Eastern Europe. Since most people I met while touring attractions in the cities did not speak good English and I do not speak a foreign language my social exposure came while hanging out in commons areas. This was how I struck up a conversation late one night at a hostel with a child psychologist. She worked in social services with youth who committed violent crimes. Perhaps it was the low lit kitchen area we stood in or the fact that the psychologist had a pale complexion and dark hair, but there was something eerily foreboding about our chat. She told me how these young delinquent Poles showed little remorse for the crimes they had committed or their victims. Many of them were devoid of empathy. After talking with her for an hour I was just as freaked out by her as the tales she told. What kind of person would want to spend their career investigating the sick behavior of juvenile offenders?
Point Of Departure – Traveling In Opposite Directions
Most of my conversations were more innocuous, but at the time quite revealing. At a hostel in Lviv, Ukraine I met a couple of college age Belarussian women. When I asked them how they got to Lviv, I got a lesson in the sad state of the Belarusian economy. For them to afford a trip from Minsk to Lviv they were forced to purchase the cheapest train tickets possible. This meant a twelve hour plus trip with multiple transfers in provincial backwaters. Some of their waits were hours long. If they missed a connecting train it might be a half day or longer before the next available train. They wanted to travel more in Europe, but Ukraine was one of the few affordable destinations for their limited budgets. They were young, open to the world and looking for adventure, but economics kept them from going further west.
It was not economics, but time that kept me from traveling and meeting more people at hostels across Eastern Europe. I only had a couple of weeks at a time during those trips. It is a cliché to say that there was so much to see. The reality was that there were plenty of sights to see, but even more people to meet. I cannot recall most of the things I saw in Lviv, Belgrade, Krakow or Sofia though I can still see the faces and hear the voices of that eclectic cast of characters I met in hostels all across Eastern Europe.