Bedding Up With Strange Fellows

    Ihave a confession to make: This time last year I was a travel virgin.

    Excluding the two short and, ahem, completely non-substance-driven trips I’d taken to Mexico, I’d never been outside the United States. In fact, I had no pressing desire to. To me, eating sushi and watching my friends abroad travel-whore it up on Facebook were international experiences.

    I didn’t consider my travel virginity gasp-worthy until the first day of my program when I listened to my peers lay out the list of countries they’d already visited and a handful of other places they’d like to see. The less drinkable the water was, the more desirable the destination. I gathered that being well traveled was somewhat like owning really nice designer jeans — and if I wanted to survive in my hard-knock Education Abroad Program, I was going to have to invest in a pair quick. So, I made friends with some prolific travelers, was introduced to EasyJet.com and soon found myself with tickets totaling $375 to Italy, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland.

    When the first week of travel — 10 days in Italy and Poland — arrived, I packed my tiny North Face backpack, conscious that I would not have enough fresh socks for the trip. Proud of my free-spirited mindset and unaware that dirty laundry would soon be the least of my problems, I told myself this was a sacrifice I’d just have to make.

    My first phase of transportation involved a two-hour bus ride from Lyons to Geneva and a night train to Rome six hours later. After an aimless walk through the bank district and a successful search for the only 24-hour liquor store in the city (Geneva sucks), we headed to the station and casually boarded our train. When we found our assigned couchettes (small mattresses where one can attempt an anxious, sweaty night’s sleep in a compartment with five other strangers), they were occupied. Sure it was a mistake, we showed our tickets to the man in our space.

    “Oh,” he said as he looked at the date and laughed. “You are in this couchette … tomorrow night!”

    We stood there, stupefied, and then went into panic mode. The train was leaving in one minute and we were going to be stranded in horrible Geneva for the evening. I ran to the conductor and begged him to let us on the train.
    He glared at me with his sharp, pitiless eyes and said, “No.”

    With a pathetic puppy look, I asked again. As another conductor blew the whistle for the train doors to close he shot us a resentful glance and said, “OK, you go to second class and if I don’t have space in Briga you’re getting off.”

    We thanked him and booked it to the far end of the train. To protect our luggage, we agreed to take turns sleeping throughout the night. Around 1 a.m., another conductor found us and led us into a couchette. Even though it was the most claustrophobic sleeping nook I’d ever been offered, I scrunched my body gratefully into the space and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

    The next morning I woke up to a hot and sweaty Rome and headed to my new sleeping location — my friend of a friend’s (who happened to be in Greece for the weekend) couch. When my traveling buddies and I met his six other male roommates — the majority being college guys from California — I couldn’t help but feel like I was back in San Diego, camping out on a random acquaintance’s beer-stained futon. Never mind my sleeping space, after nearly two months of broken communication and formal dining with my French family, Rome’s English-friendly attitude combined with a couple rounds of flip-cup made me feel suspiciously comfortable.

    That ended quickly after our flight from Rome to Danzig, when we arrived in the ghetto airport at 1 a.m. without our hostel address (one might say this was due to blatant irresponsibility, but I’d like to say it was self-imposed discomfort). After a 40-minute fiasco with our taxi driver (we said Lucky Hostel, he took us to Lucky Hotel), we arrived to what was essentially an extra IKEA-furnished room in a Polish family’s house (not so lucky after all). So, it wasn’t until I got to Mama’s Hostel in Krakow that I finally discovered an underground community of world travelers composed of poor 20-somethings, creepy men and doting grandmothers.

    Our first night there was Halloween, and to participate like a good American, I tied two dirty socks to my hoodie, smeared some mascara on my face and claimed to be a puppy. After meeting some other international travelers over vodka, I drunkenly admitted to my new friends that the socks on my head were extremely filthy. When they formed a five-inch circle of distance around me, I realized that my free-spirited packing decision was nothing to brag about.

    At an undeterminable point in the night I got a kebab with an Australian girl. She told me she’d been traveling for eight months and I asked her if she was tired of it yet. “God yes!” she said. She told me she hated going from city to city to see monuments that meant nothing to her, she hated always being worried her stuff would get stolen and she hated living out of a small bag.

    “Then why travel?” I asked. Her expression suddenly changed to something reminiscent of the glazed look that I’d seen in the eyes of my voyage-addicted peers. “To see the world,” she said.

    The next night, I returned to my hostel bed to find a 60-year-old Polish woman in it. Then my 31-year-old Russian roommate came into the room and, after I refused to read him a personal passage from my journal, he snatched it from my hands. When I recovered it, he laughed and asked me mockingly, “What are you going to write now? ‘Dear diary, you would not believe what just happened. You were just stolen from me this very moment!’”

    I laughed back, half amused and half freaked out that I was going to have to sleep in the same room with this guy. Later in the night I silently entered the room, careful not wake my elderly roommate, and noticed my journal, which I had stuffed deep inside my backpack before leaving, under the Russian man’s pillow. This was when I learned rules one and two of hostel life: 1) when it comes to your property, no item, whether it be dirty socks or a book full of your personal thoughts, is safe and 2) you will inevitably have to sleep in a room with someone creepy.

    The next day I took a shower (rule three: always bring flip-flops) and had a quiet breakfast with the Polish woman before I flew back to France. When I finally made it to my apartment in Lyons, I dropped all of my valuable belongings in the center of my room, exchanged my filthy clothes for new ones and sat down for dinner with my French family.

    “How was Italy? How was Poland? What did you see?” they asked.

    As I took a moment to organize my thoughts in French, I realized, amid night trains, makeshift beds and creepy roommates — all aspects of my attempt to see the world on a budget — I didn’t pay much attention to the sights.

    “I’ll show you some pictures of buildings after dinner,” I said, plunging into my meal.

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