I just got back from a happy few days in Paris. I met Friend Landis who was over from Chicago for a book tour, swanned around at the AsiaNow art fair, listened to live jazz (and got hit on) at Harry’s Bar, and visited the Louvre for the first time.
What I mean to talk about today however is the hostel. I stayed in a proper hostel dorm for the first time in perhaps 20 years. I loved it and I’m going to do it again in Holland and Luxembourg next month.
Seemingly, Paris hostels have privacy curtains on their bunks, which really changes everything. The bad thing about hostels as everyone either knows or can imagine is the feeling of overexposure; that strangers might be looming over you as you sleep. But the simple addition of a curtain makes a hostel every bit as good as a Japanese capsule hotel. You can still hear people moving around in the room at night, but I found it oddly comforting; you can tell from their soft movements, careful not to cause a fuss, that they’re just sleepy travellers the same as you.
For about £30 (instead of the £100+ you’d need for a hotel room in a city like Paris) you get the privacy of your bunk (in which there’s a reading lamp, a socket for charging your phone, and some little shelves for anything else you like to have nearby in the night), a locker in which you can stash your bag for the duration of your stay (actually a cube-shaped chest with a padded lid, good for sitting on to remove or put on your shoes), and access to the communal kitchens and toilet/showers.
Sorry to rattle on excitedly, but I am excited. I really enjoyed all this.
The toilet/shower rooms are much like the ones you’d find at a modern gym: by which I mean private shower cubicles, not the horror of shared showers like the ones in which footballers practice their heterosexuality. The kitchens, I was surprised to see, were spotlessly clean but well used: as well as being a casual social space for strangers to chat, I saw travellers preparing decent meals in there like fresh soup and spaghetti. (I just used it to fill my water bottle before vanishing off into Paris for pastries and cocktails).
There was also a cafe-bar in this particular hostel. I assumed it would be a basic affair for weary travellers so I dropped in on my first night with a plan to read my book over a quiet pint. But there was a jumping party going on! Glamorous drag queens were spinning records while the well-dressed Parisian youth gyrated and laughed and mingled. The place felt like the colonial bar in Lawrence of Arabia where he demands lemonade after crossing the desert; it was decorated with strings of muted lights and lazy palm fronds.
I was wearing my smelly Montreal Bagel t-shirt and some old jeans, so I was hardly presentable for it. I thirsted for that beer though, so I courageously ensconced myself at the bar and chatted with a bar worker who wasn’t bothered about my grotesque appearance and texted with my partner at home who assured me I was beautiful. I felt too self-conscious to read though, so I quaffed my refreshing blanche and made a dash for my bunk.
Sleeping with that curtain closed was a bit like being on an overnight ferry or a sleeper train without, obviously, the sensation of motion. For three nights in my coffin-like quarters, I slept like a brute.
The hostel struck me as quite the model for living. It was my socialist motto of “private sufficiency, public luxury” taken to the extreme and placed under one roof. I was happy to be far from material responsibilities and domestic maintenance. I think I could have worked on my books there if I’d wanted to.
If my partner ever throws me out, I’ll look into a long-stay hostel arrangement. The existenzminimum of a bunk, a locker, and access to those shared cooking and showering facilities was extremely liberating. And when you’re not sleeping or padding around in the communal spaces, you’re out there in your new town, living.