“Hostels are an endangered species” was the alternative title considered by E&M author Ruairidh Barlow to summarize how precious their post-pandemic disappearance would be. Find out why below.

The hostel bar, quite honestly, is an odd place. This one has a disco ball, a series of questionable choices in literature, burgeoning plant life, two sofas partnering the windows at the far end and is dominated by four dark wooden tables. They look old, if not old enough to have come from a master carpenter. These are details specific to this hostel living space but regardless of the décor, it’s a place for the temporary. It might have a look, yet it can’t be too niché or consciously personal, that would be too homely. The hostel bar is often welcoming, occasionally intimidating and defined by the people in it – in summary, always an odd mix.

Recently I spent time there quite unintentionally: sending emails, using it as a meeting point and later meeting the minimum card spend with a few drinks. On that occasion, the evening was swapping shifts with the night in Berlin. Dimly lit and with an indiscernible soundtrack, I sipped and observed.

Two groups towards those windows began the process of a merger. Clichés dominated the conversation and if viewed through the prism of a television screen, would have made the audience grimace. Where are you from? Are you here for long? Oh, I love Spain, France, Italy, Mexico and more. It was an exchange of customs and languages, a crunch of people. Each group shared looks between themselves, as they egged on their conversational leaders. In its own way, it was electric. A buzz.

That sensation feels almost unique to the hostel. Of course the cost is the key attraction of shared accommodation, but the space itself has developed its own pull. There’s nothing quite as sociable, because those situations are increasingly an endangered species.

The price is in fact, the raison d’etre for hostels. In 1909, teacher Richard Schirrman went on a camping trip and a thunderstorm turned it into a bad idea. Looking for somewhere to place weary heads for a reasonable fee, he later founded the first makeshift hostel in his school and three years after that, the first hostel proper was born in North Rhine-Westphalia. Within two decades, there were over 2000 of them in Germany and in 1946, Schirrman became the first German civilian to travel to the United Kingdom after World War 2, to Scotland, with the purpose of adding to that total.

Now they’re all over the world and a staple experience for the youth of today. After the pandemic though, it seems their popularity has waned a little. Across industries, borders and communities, the global pandemic accelerated trends that were meant to envelop the world slowly and by stealth. In terms of travel, the hostel has been swatting away competition from Airbnb for a decade now. While the travel bans obviously hit the entire business hard, Airbnb have it far easier to bounce back than hostels.

It’s logical. Airbnb satisfies an increased desire for privacy. The cost of living crisis has perversely made city centre homes more valuable to tourists than residents and it’s also understandable that communal lodgings have become less appealing, having been required to keep a metric distance to others for more than a year.

The Western world was never better equipped to deal with the divisive effects of the pandemic, but is nevertheless struggling to deal with the consequences. People locked doors and cut themselves off. They were constantly linked by communication tools, but never together. For the first time in history, socialising needed a public relations campaign from national authorities as the solid footing below Europe’s mental health disappeared, leaving it in cartoonish free fall.

Hostels could do with the same now. Some cities have tried to curb the rise of Airbnb but it remains similar in price and often more comfortable than other accommodation. The only thing missing from an Airbnb is the people. For as much as people travel to see things, admire buildings and take pictures of and sometimes even eat food, they do so to meet people too. Even if that’s become a little lost in translation in recent times.

Western life was already headed in the opposite direction. How often do you meet a stranger these days? Whatever you estimate that frequency at, it’s probably less than it was in 2019. The pandemic virtually negated the very concept. Many bemoaned the idea of isolating, but just as many sectioned themselves and their bubbles by choice.

Once chambers of public debate and latterly playgrounds for adults, even a cafe or a bar is a private experience. Mixing is not only less common but frowned upon. Meeting people is hard work. There are apps for it too, but the mechanisms are still clunky. But not in the hostel.

The hostel is understood as an open space where interaction is not only a possibility, given room to bloom in bars and common areas, but actively expected. Few would choose to be uncomfortably warm in a room with 11 others just before dawn, but it’s worth it for the benefits either side of sleeping. Being around people in such close quarters is crucial for social skills, tolerance and spontaneity. It opens the door to a future that hasn’t already been planned weeks in advance. Through that door, new places and interesting faces come rushing in.

You may be imprisoned in a discussion about the weather for 20 minutes, spending 15 of them walking a line between courtesy and a strong desire to leave, but those conversations become the brushstrokes in your experience of a place. Alternatively, it might lead to the best food not on a list or the quirkiest characters in a comedic story, souvenirs that never leave you. There’s a slim chance you forge a bond with some like-minded sapiens.

Granted, the chances are that you will have more ‘experiences’ with people in hostels than evenings of unblemished frivolity. That’s all part of it. In fact, it’s absolutely essential to socialising itself. The unknown and new massage the mind, making it richer. The problem is that there aren’t enough places with people willing to engage in such apparently risky behaviour. In some parts of Europe it has become taboo. Which is why hostels, an institution of the 20th century and a pot for the melting of humanity, must be protected at all costs.

 

Picture by Markus Loke, Unsplash

  • retro

    Ruairidh is from Scotland. A Europhile currently back on the island but a graduate in Spanish and German. Currently a Spanish football writer, but there are other aspects to my personality, coffee being one of them.

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