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Hostel has the word ‘host’ in it for a reason

Sarah Mervosh | Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Four cities. Four hostels.

As a girl who spent her childhood vacations in Hiltons thanks to her stepfather’s rewards from work, I was skeptical of staying in a hostel.

That may sound snobbish, I realize that now. But before this spring break, I had never stayed in a hostel and I had only heard horror stories.

You’ll get your computer stolen.

You’ll get bed bugs.

It’ll smell.

But during my 10-day, four-city spring break through Italy and France, none of those things happened, aside from the lingering smell of mildew in one bathroom.

In fact, staying in a hostel felt like a little like being a guest in a distant relative’s house.

There were not the luxuries of a hotel, like complimentary soaps, fresh towels every day or artistic decorations. But I can’t say that I missed these nuances. A place to sleep and bathe is the same no matter how fancy.

The beds were a little uncomfortable and the pillows were a little too flat, like they might be in your great aunt Mildred’s spare bedroom that hasn’t been used since her now-grown children moved out.

The single beds were bunked and a little small, but it was easy to imagine that Mildred’s sons lived there as boys, racing their toy cars on homemade racetracks, zooming underneath the mattress and around the bed post.

And as for the other people who stayed there, they were great. A lot like us and not at all the middle-aged creeps or computer-stealing, drug-addicted thugs in the stories I had heard.

In Venice, Italy, we met an Australian woman named Lauren who aspired to be a professional folk singer and spent the evening wandering the rainy streets of the city with us.

In Cinque Terre, we met a middle-aged guy named David who had been in the Peace Corps and now lived near the Grand Canyon. Originally from Pittsburgh, my hometown, he wore a Steelers sweatshirt the first night I met him and reminisced about the time his high school football team played mine in the playoffs.

What a small world.

In the end, my experience counteracted every horror story I had heard. I’m sure such experiences exist, and not every hostel is nice, but I learned that many are quite comfortable and homey.

So homey in fact, that I felt compelled to fold up my sheets and towel when my stay was over and leave them neatly piled on my bed.

Just like I would have done at Aunt Mildred’s house.