When I was in college I dreamed of grabbing my backpack and traveling through Europe for the summer, staying in hostels, sleeping on trains, exploring the world. Maybe some of the rich kids got to do that, but all I got were the stories. I went to school on scholarships and hard work. No job was too small, either. I sold shoes, was a magician’s assistant, posed for art classes (this was the Midwest. I was fully clothed, Mom), and sang at college dinners just for the leftovers.
But the college days are far behind me now. I no longer have to count out pennies and check under the sofa cushions just to go to the grocery. I am now older, wiser and, most importantly, able to afford international travel. I started by booking tours that included hotel, food and a guide. I learned a lot. I had a great time. But eventually, I wanted to go out on my own, like I would have done in college, if I had been able. I want to backpack Europe!
I knew there were going to be issues when I signed up for an on-line hostel booking service and couldn’t give my real age. Not because I was lying about my age, but because they didn’t have an option for anyone born before 1970. That’s younger than the age I lie about being! But despite this, I managed to book a hostel in Prague, The Golden Sickle, because it was located well and I thought the name was reminiscent of Russian occupation.
When I arrived, the hostel mistress asked to see my passport. This is completely normal and I thought nothing of handing it over. Her English was fair, certainly adequate for us to conduct a simple transaction like renting a bed. My Czech was nonexistent. She started writing down some information from the passport, then stopped abruptly and set up. First she looked at me. Then she looked at the passport, then back at me. And back at the passport. Then she got up and went into the back room, taking the document with her. I could hear her having a discussion in Czech. There was silence. The head of a young woman peered around the doorway at me wearing a weak smile, and then disappeared. More talking. Then a young man looked through the door at me and half-heartedly waved before disappearing. More talking. Finally the three of them came out of the back room as a group and stood before me.
Now I was worried.
“We wondering, yes?”
“Is there a problem?” I asked. I said it slowly and clearly while trying to look very innocent and open.
“No! No problem!” They were emphatic in a way that lets you know that there is indeed a problem.
‘It is, how you say, date?”
I’m a liberal person, but going on a date with three strangers was out of the question! I decided to go with the only safe response I could think of. “I don’t understand.”
They lay the passport in front of me and pointed at the birth date. I assured them this was correct. More talking ensued. I heard them use a word that sounded like “star-ray”. Perhaps they thought I was a famous actress, a movie star? I smiled confidently. Between them, they must have decided that everything was OK, because they processed my passport and showed me to my room. I quickly unpacked, grabbed my guidebook and figured out how to get to the Old Town section. My map was in English, but the street signs were all in Czech. A quick reference showed me that the Old Town was called, Staremeska, pronounced STAR ray MAY ska. Wait a minute! If “meska” means “town” then “stare”, must mean…..old. Ick.
I shook it off. After all, isn’t age and wisdom appreciated more in Europe? Probably they were just discussing how to properly accommodate someone of my stature and….ah… well, maturity level.
That night, I found that 8 “lovely lads of the UK”, as they described themselves, had moved into the bedroom next to mine. Since we shared a kitchen and bath, I made sure to introduce myself. They were polite, but it was quite clear that they had a big night of drinking and carousing ahead of them. In the states, not one of them would have been old enough to drink legally, but I didn’t question it, being unaware and unconcerned of the legal age in the Czech Republic.
I was sound asleep when they returned to their room at 3:30am. There was laughing. Something that sounded like bottles were knocked over. Someone stumbled. There was more laughing. And then I heard one of the boys clearly say, “Shhhhhh! That old woman is probably asleep next door.”
I didn’t realize anyone else had moved into the hostel. I rolled over in bed and made a mental note to meet the old woman and make sure she was comfortable.
As I drifted off to sleep, the last thing I remember thinking was, “Hey! You don’t think they meant me, do you?”
The next night, I officially changed their names to the “loud lads”. They turn up their music and start drinking early in the room. It was their taste in music that I hated most. Isn’t rap dead yet? Can’t it go the way of disco? I used earplugs, a pillow over my head and a sleeping pill, but I heard the pounding of the bass music until they finally went out around 2am. Just as I’d drift off, I hear a loud crash. It sounded like they were demolishing the room.
As it turned out, they were only demolishing the furniture. The next morning, their bunk beds were reduced to kindling. The boys draped around the room, presumably where they had passed out, in variously states of undress. Worse yet, their underwear and towels were spread over the kitchen counter. And they looked like they were very used. I wouldn’t have fixed cold cereal in that kitchen. I would be going out for breakfast. When I entered the bathroom for a shower, I found the shower walls were missing.
When I passed the 24/7, Non-Stop, “We Never Close” front desk, no one was there and it was locked up tight. In truth, no one had been there for at least 10 hours. I left a note saying that I would need to change rooms that evening and they just might want to assess the damage.
That night I was moved to another wing where 7 Italian men were staying on a temporary construction job. I had been assured all of them were “older”, but not one of them could have been over 27. I got a chance to look them over fairly closely because none of them wore shirts and they all shared in the cooking duties. When I correctly identified the pasta dish as gnocchi, they sat me down and filled a bowl for me. I was in heaven! Beautiful men who cook! Who cares that they didn’t speak a word of English? Mostly they smiled at me, winked at me. It was lovely.
It was only later that I remembered they were calling me “all’anziana”. Old Woman. They were gone before I realized that they were just being kind to their elders.
The day the Italians left was also the day the loud lads left. I could tell because two workmen arrived to rebuild the bunk beds and shower. It makes me wonder what it takes to be thrown out of a hostel.
The place was empty until the last night of my stay. I had gone to bed at 10:30p because I needed to be up early for my morning flight home. At 11pm, just as I was falling asleep, two girls will luggage that out weighted them came into the room. I have no idea why they had to share a room with me since there were so many empty rooms, but that was the key they were given. I greeted them explained that I had to be up early and asked them to keep it down. They responded in English, so I believed they had understood the situation and I rolled over to go back to sleep.
I expected them to need a few minutes to get situated—either to get ready for bed or more likely to go out for the evening. I had hoped that they would make some attempt to be quiet, but they talked non-stop, simultaneously, in Spanish. And they kept getting louder and giggling. After about 20 minutes, I asked them if they could keep it down, I really needed to sleep. One of them said, “No entiendo inglés” but then they both giggled in a way that led me to believe they understood perfectly.
I put my finger to my lips and said “Shhhhh” as the universal sign for silence. I also put in earplugs but they didn’t help much. The talking continued. They could not have been listening to each other, because they were both talking at the same time and all the while zipping and unzipping their suitcases. What could they possibly be doing? There was nowhere to hang clothing, no lockers, not benches. But the zipping, unzipping and rattling of plastic continued.
After midnight I again requested they be quiet. This time they acted like I didn’t exist. I was beginning to sleep from sheer exhaustion when I realized that I had heard them same this same phrase several times “mujer mayor.” It took me awhile but eventually I realized they were talking about me. I sat up in bed and loudly and clearly said, “NO the old woman is NOT asleep. And the Old Woman will be getting up at 4am which is just a couple hours from now. And I promise you that I will be as noisy then as you are from NOW ON.”
Since they shut up, I’m certain they understood perfectly well.
I was quiet when I got up the next morning, dressed. But just for good measure, I slammed the door on my way out.