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Living Amidst the Bunk Beds

July 11, 2019

Hostels have a rhythm and atmosphere of their own which (dare I say it?) I think I prefer to hotels.

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly there is nothing to rival the treat that is staying in a nice hotel, preferably one with a grand lobby where one can take a seat in a wingback chair, alternating between reading and people watching, and with an elegant, moody bar where visitors from around the world mix with local business folks meeting up for drinks after work. And after being on the road, a charming room, luxuriant bed, spa-like shower and plush hotel bathrobe are the stuff of nirvana.

But there is something about the communalism of hostels which has consistently proven to be a source of fascination and pleasure for me. In order to make my travels more financially feasible, I have spent a great deal of the last six months bedding down all over Europe in these funky domiciles for backpackers. And from Porto to Prague, Inverness to Istanbul, each hostel has its own individual personality and style, yet all of them offer the same engaging, relaxed atmosphere and homey vibe which engenders camaraderie and friendships among their guests.

When I was in my twenties and backpacking around Europe, there was always this one weird old woman staying in the youth hostel who was traveling on her own for six months or so. Now the torch has been passed, and I’m that weird old woman. Turns out, I’m very lucky and proud to be her.

It helps that, mercifully, they don’t seem to be called youth hostels anymore. These days, they’re just hostels, with folks of all ages staying in them now. Still, most of my roommates in the six- to twelve-person rooms I tend to land in seem to be in their twenties and sometimes early thirties. But you never know. Along the way, I’ve shared space with three generations of family traveling together, and backpackers ranging from barely drinking age to pushing seventy.

No matter what the age or story, we are all kindred spirits, sharing a mutual passion for traipsing about the world, exploring, taking in and immersing ourselves in whatever place we alight. What’s more, we share the identity of being strangers in town, which allows for fast friendships to be formed as we stumble around on unfamiliar streets, discovering a place’s history, hotspots and treasures.

Together in the hostel’s kitchen, we cook meals of varying complexity, oftentimes sharing our creations as we exchange stories of who we are and where we’ve been, offering up recommendations of “must-see” places. In the lounge, we make plans with our new friends for the next day’s adventures even as we’re texting loved ones around the world. And flopped down in our bunk beds, we swap ideas, secrets and dreams just as we did at childhood and adolescent sleepovers.

(I should probably mention, one change in this new era of hostel living is that mixed dorms are the norm, with males and females sharing a room. The only thing I found surprising about this is how relaxed and natural it feels. Well, that, and the fact that college-aged young men nowadays seem to have no qualms about walking around in mixed company in just their underwear. Even in the morning. You know what I’m getting at here?)

Yes, there are the irritations which are part and parcel of communal living – people coming and going at all hours, snorers, a complete lack of privacy, the rustling of others’ plastic bags when you’re trying to sleep (hostel-goers know exactly what I’m talking about) – but the enjoyment, the fun, the novelty of it all far outweighs any drawbacks. My time in the hostels has provided me with a number of my favorite memories of the last six months, along with the best of gifts: some of the closest friends I’ve made in my travels.

And, oh, the conversations I’ve had – from the cutie-patootie theoretical physicist from Cambridge who was so amazingly brilliant, he was able to explain the universe in terms my little brain could understand, to the scientist from Algiers (the first Berber I ever met) and his unshakable faith in the goodness of people, to the divorcee from Shanghai who was beginning a new chapter of her life not with timid baby steps but with a gusto and exuberance I found dazzling.

As this round of travels concludes for me, I know I will miss the noise and high spirits of the hostels – and probably even more than that, the way they make me feel young and carefree and quite the bohemian vagabond.

Even if, in reality, I’m just the token weird old woman. I’m cool with that.

 

Photos:

Above: My ten-person room in Edinburgh.

Below, top row: Abisko’s hostel on a winter wonderland day; the perks of staying in a mansion-turned-hostel — a grand piano and glorious antique heater in my room; packing for a journey in his anime underpants.

Below, bottom row: The utterly beguiling and oh-so-fun hostel in Instanbul; sometimes amenities are spartan — and strange, like the non-existent bathtub and shower; some kitchens are sleek and modern, others are cozy, but they are always a great place to hang out.

 

Places

The Welcome Quiet of Oxford

June 10, 2019

After an eventful week aboard the QM2 and the literal launch of my next book’s journey, I was glad of my choice to begin my time in Europe in my old stomping grounds of Oxford.

The weeks and months leading up to my travels had been focused on finishing my first book, finding the right publishing venue (an ongoing process) and clearing the last vestiges of my homestead out of storage in Marina del Rey, California and into a POD (not knowing where I will land when this journey is over, the only thing I know to do is make my belongings portable, with hopes that answer to the question of where I should put down roots will become clear in a year’s time).

All of this left me no real time to plan these next six months of travels and dancing until I was actually underway. I figured my week in Oxford would give me a chance to “find my feet,” and formulate at least a rough plan for what my European journey would look like.

It has been a good week, a productive one. Happily settled into a studio flat in North Oxford, I have savored the simple comforts of popping over to the Summertown shops or walking into town, stopping in for lunch at the covered market, then weaving through a few quiet, narrow lanes to the banks of the River Cherwell to enjoy the punters and sunshine. Just as I’ve done countless times before. I never tire of it.

Upon completing their exams, students jump in the river to wash off the cake and champagne they’ve been doused with.

It was an added bonus to my week that my writer friend Betty from Hawaii was over in the UK visiting her family. She, along with her daughter-in-law Galya and grandkids David and Katie, came up from Basingstoke for a day of exploring the city. It was a delight to show them a bit of the Oxford I know, as well as join them for a tour of the botanical gardens and a tasty pub lunch.

And I took the morning of June 6 to visit the war memorial at St. Giles, and say a prayer of gratitude and peace for the soldiers who took to the beaches of Normandy seventy-five years ago, including some amazing men I’m proud to call my friends.

The rest of my week has been spent mostly with people I’ve known for decades, whom I’ve written about before. These are folks with whom I share a sort of shorthand — so much is already known and understood between us. There is that easiness in being with them which is vouchsafed only to close friends and loved ones, and it’s always a comfort to come across it, especially when one is moving around the world.

Oh, I needed this week here. I needed to be quiet for a bit. And I needed the terra firma of Oxford before I continued into the uncharted territory and shifting sands of my travels.

But this afternoon, as I strolled along the Woodstock Road to the familiarity of my flat, I felt myself settling in. My senses were telling me I belonged here, that I was home.

The pull to stay is strong, which means it’s time to pack up and go, before I give into temptation. But, as my lovely friend and poet Miranda Warner writes,

“…I can return

And not return

Because I never really left.”

 

Below: 

Left: my hat at home in the flat.

Middle: a lettuce, guacamole, bacon and tomato sandwich, my new favorite — wish it was available all year round and not just for Pride.

Right: my first car — haven’t seen one of these in years, let alone a convertible, let alone in perfect condition, let alone with right-hand drive…

People Places

Where You Hang Your Hat

May 27, 2019

“Home is wherever you hang your hat.”

These are the words I used on the map which chronicled my journey two years ago, when I followed in the footsteps of my favorite book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  You can read all about those travels under the Enchanted Summer heading.

And now here I am again, about to put to the test that adage I find so reassuring.  I’m getting ready to take off and see as much of the world as I can manage, now that the nomad spirit has a firm grip on my senses.  Two years of living on the road, out of suitcases, in various locales around the US and Europe, I’ve found that it has become my normal.  And the idea of settling down in one place is becoming a more remote and less appealing option.

In the past twenty-four months, I have lived in and put down roots in a number of places which now feel like home whenever I return to them.  It is a blessing, but it comes at a price:  the goodbyes.

When I first started my travels, I read articles and blogs by other nomads, and one word of warning stayed with me, which was that there would be a lot of goodbyes.  I’ve found it to be acutely so on a number of occasions, particularly these last few weeks.  In the past month, I’ve had to say goodbyes to friends and loved ones in Florida, California, Missouri and New York, all with a vague promise of seeing them again at some unknown point.  The partings have come hard and in rapid succession, and truth be told, I’m still reeling a bit from them as I take the first steps of my new journey.

But I know, waiting on the other side of the Atlantic are more friends and loved ones, with hellos and welcome homes.  Having that fills me with the greatest excitement and joy.

In a year’s time, I suspect I will start behaving like a grown-up, settle down somewhere and get a proper job.  I had been wrestling with this idea for a few months, struggling to decide where my heart will live.  But I’ve come to understand that there is no knowing this right now, because I have no idea what the next twelve months will bring into my life. And that’s absolutely, perfectly fine.

These last few years have taught me that “I don’t know” are magical words, because they mean anything is possible.

So now it’s time to go see what’s out there, and probably put down a few more roots here and there along the way.  Because home is wherever you hang your hat.

People Places

Home Can Be More Than One Place

July 29, 2017

Dinner al fresco with Bruce, Francis and Sylvia Corrie (not pictured), some of my favorite people.

This one is a cheat.

And I’m glad of it.

My blog.  It was always supposed to be about the summer of 2017 and my journey with Cornelia and Emily.  As the days of that enchanted summer passed, I fell more and more behind with my blog posts, promising myself that I would do them once my travels were over.

It’s taken me almost a year to finish what I started, telling the tale of my enchanted summer, but as my “follow-up trip” a year later comes to an end, I’m finally in sight of the last post from that journey, just as I’m nearing completion of the book as well.

My first book.  It feels a bit crazy to be typing those words.  Rather a shock to the system.

Anyway…

In theory, this post is supposed to be about a couple of trips I made to the city of dreaming spires last summer.  But as I write this, I find myself reflecting on the two happy weeks I spent in Oxford this time around – my “follow-up visit” in the summer of 2018 – which deserve more than just a mention in a postscript.

When I travel to England, I visit London.  I visit Cambridge and Brighton and wherever my journey leads me.  But when I travel to Oxford, I am not visiting.  I am returning home.

Last summer…

My first trip to Oxford was an overnight stay with Bruce and Sylvia, the parents of a former boyfriend of mine – Alistair – who is still a close friend.  In the book, I write about arriving in town and walking familiar streets, passing old haunts and ghosts from the two years I lived in Oxford in my twenties.  I spent that afternoon catching up with Sylvia and Bruce, with Alistair’s brother Francis joining us for dinner al fresco that evening.  The next morning I would meet up with Francis’ wife, Susie, for coffee and a chat before heading back to London.  Reflecting on that trip in the book, I write about feeling the ease and affection of family, as if it had been just a week or two since we’d last seen each other, and not the fourteen years that had actually passed since my last visit.  And how it meant so much that they still called me, “Girlie”, the nickname Alistair had given me almost thirty years ago.

The other visit came during the last few days before I sailed for the States, when I popped down to have lunch with Francis and Penelope Warner.  It was through them – or, rather, their study abroad program – that I came to England that first time around.  I explain in the book what an opportunity – what a gift – these two wonderful people had given me, along with their friendship.  I also recall three distinct memories of that day.

The first was, when I knocked on their front door, it struck me that the last time I had stood in front of number 27, I had been a young woman.  Where had the time gone?

The second was when I learned that the Warners’ daughter, Miranda, was in the UK, visiting from New Zealand, but that I had missed her by just a day or two – that she had been in Oxford, but was now up in Scotland seeing her brother, Benedict, and his girlfriend.  I have known Miranda since she was four years old, and though I refuse to accept that she could possibly be older than, say, sixteen, I had been very much hoping to see her.  Well, it would just have to wait for another time, possibly in another part of the world.

But my most vivid memory of that visit was, upon seeing me for the first time in twenty years, Francis Warner’s first words to me were, “Welcome home.”  It was one of the best moments of my summer.

I knew from those two brief sojourns to a city I had, indeed, once called home, that I needed to really be in Oxford for a time.  So for my follow-up trip this summer, I AirBnB-ed myself a charming basement flat on the Woodstock Road near Summertown in North Oxford.  Here I was right in the thick of my old stomping grounds, and I would spend two weeks reconnecting with both people and a place I love.

And Oxford delivered.  So many happy moments.

There was the evening when Francis Corrie’s band was playing in the neighboring village of Kidlington, where I got to be with half the family as we listened to Francis and his son Johnny rocking the night.  Sylvia and Bruce introduced me to their myriad friends who had come to enjoy the music.  I caught up with Debbie and her husband, James, both of whom I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  I showed off a few of my newly-learned dance moves from those lessons I’d had in Florida in the spring, as I grooved to Jonny and the Jive Tones.  And I chatted with Johnny, along with Rebecca (Bex) and Alexandra (Zana), members of the next generation in the Corrie clan, who had all been small children the last time I’d been around.

And then there was the afternoon I went to the Warners for tea, where Penelope had outdone herself, serving homemade scones and three kinds of cake to me and the other guests to the party, Francis Warner’s daughter Lucy Warner Stopford and her husband, John.  Being the same age, Lucy and I had become friends during my study abroad year, but we’d lost touch once I went back to the States.  A quarter of a century and a lot of living later, Lucy and I didn’t miss a beat as we filled each other in on our lives.  It was especially wonderful to discover that Lucy is still very much Lucy – always the brightest light in the room.  Over tea, she asked me to sit for her painting class.  Lucy is an award-winning artist, as both a painter and a sculptor, and I considered it a great honor and privilege to be invited to sit for her and her fellow artists.

I spent one wonderful morning “touring” around town with Bruce, starting with tea in Blackwell’s Bookshop, then on to visiting important places in the colleges which make up Oxford University.  There was a quick hello with James’ and Debbie’s son, Tim, as he was studying for his exams, then a visit to the astounding Museum of Natural History where Bruce had worked in his youth, before we headed up for lunch at home with Sylvia.

On another day, Susie and I managed to get squeeze in some time for a good chat over beverages at the coffee house on South Parade.  Her beautiful, ethereal spirit made me wish I lived in Oxford full-time, so that we could have “girlfriend natters” on a regular basis.  That evening, I would find myself a block over at the Dew Drop Inn, having a pint with her husband Francis, and – poor Francis – a girlfriend natter with him as well (that dry cider is stronger than you think).

I even had the good fortune of being in town at the same time as Tom Fremantle, who had returned to Oxford a few months prior, after living for a few years in China.  Think Indiana Jones, only with an English accent.  Tom is a fearless adventurer and brilliant writer, and it is his books which had first inspired me to take my journey with the girls. Over drinks one evening at the Rose and Crown, Tom was able to not only give me some good advice about my book, but his words would also end up pointing me in the right direction for my next project.

There was also an unexpected turn in Oxford – my discovery of Forro, a lively, rather up-close-and-personal Brazilian dance.  While Oxford seems like an odd place to learn Brazilian street dancing, I figured “Why not?”, and went along to the Monday night classes and social dancing at St. Giles Church.  I have warm affection for that lovely little 12th century church, partly because I was once kissed amongst the headstones in the churchyard by a gorgeous Australian (she writes with fatuous modesty).  Later in London, I would continue with Forro, even giving it a go when I visited Birmingham.

And wouldn’t you know, happening upon that Forro poster outside the St. Giles Church, and giving the dance a try, would lead me into my next book project?  It’s a wondrous thing, how the pieces sometimes line up.

Those two weeks in Oxford were also filled with the delicious minutiae of everyday living – shopping errands to the drugstore and grocery store, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbors, walking into town on the same pavement I’d traversed all those years ago.  All of the little everyday, unexciting things that let a person know they are home.  It is those moments which penetrate the most, and last the longest.

If you have managed to read all the way to here, I can only thank you for your patience, and for indulging me as I prattled on with my highly-personal reminiscences.  Not only is this post a cheat, but I suspect it’s of interest only to me.  But I’m okay with that.  I’m giving myself this one.

Still, at least I can leave you with some of the wisest words I’ve ever read, which have resonated with me for almost thirty years.

“Home can be more places than one.  The pity is having to choose.” – C.W. Gusewelle

Photos:

Above, Middle:  Sitting for Lucy’s portrait class, with varying results — from generously young-looking, to Mary Tudor-ish, to still a work in progress.  I dig them all.

Below, Top Row:  Cows in the foreground, dreaming spires in the background of Christ Church Meadow; a game-changing poster; the St. Giles Churchyard.

Below, Bottom Row:  The old Dew Drop Inn has been glammed up; the reassuring blue door of number 27; Tuesday night Forro dancing in London.