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Hostels, then and a later then

On my first trip to England in 1971, I stayed at a hostel in central London where all the guests were college students, college dropouts, recent college graduates, or draft dodgers like my boyfriend. They were from several different countries, and we called each other by our places of origin. I was “California.”

Some of us banded together for tourist excursions, and we enjoyed sharing information about cheap food, interesting sites to visit, train and bus schedules, and our thoughts about Vietnam and President Nixon. Breakfasts were cheap and simple, and tea or coffee were about the only things I remember being offered by the hostel itself. My “cooking” was noodle- and rice-based dishes with the occasional bag of digestives or ginger crisps shared with everyone.

I took trips with fellow hostelers, including to Oxford with a Swedish student, a day at Buckingham Palace and various parks with some other Americans, and a day at the British Museum with some Germans. The whole hostel experience had been stimulating, collegial, and fun.  It was a unique period of my life. I’d saved some money from my preschool job and now had no job, no family around, and no responsibilities of classes, papers to write, and deadlines.  But, oh boy, the education I was getting was phenomenal.

A year after returning from that trip, I got a phone call from one of the men from that hostel. He invited me to go to Nepal with him. Who knows where I’d be today if I’d said yes.

Forty years later, I booked myself into another down-at-the-heel hostel in west London near the Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre. The guests were a mix of different ages, mostly English, and, except for me, didn’t seem to be tourist travelers at all. The ladies around me in the women’s dorm room all seemed to have jobs. After breakfast, once the hostel had closed for the day, my roommates had already left for work. When the hostel opened again at 5 o’clock, they arrived back as I had, them from work, me from idle wanderings. There was no tittering about tourist things they’d done that day. These workers didn’t seem to want to share much about anything with me, although one roommate told me all about her laptop being stolen while she was taking a shower.

Breakfasts were serve-yourself affairs with eggs, bacon, pastries, and cold cereal offerings. My breakfasts were one of the two meals a day I allowed myself, so I usually loaded up on everything. The Breakfast Manager, a young English fellow with multiple piercings, was playing heavy metal on the radio when I’d arrived early to prepare my meal. He’d moved to turn off the music, but I insisted he leave it on. My own son had a metal band, I told him. He relaxed and told me he played drums in his own band. I’m guessing his mother was happy he at least had some kind of day job.

I loved the walks in the area, where I could take in the Imperial War Museum, the Florence Nightingale Museum, river traffic along the Thames, and Thomas Thornycroft’s imposing chariot bronze grouping of Queen Budica and her daughters. Budica was a Celtic warrior queen of the Iceni of northeastern England and led a revolt in 60 AD against the Romans, killing a reported 70,000 soldiers of the Ninth Legion at the Battle of Camulodunum. After Budica’s forces were defeated in a subsequent battle, the queen died, perhaps from taking poison. Her much-debated gravesite is said to be under platforms 8, 9, or maybe 10 at King’s Cross railway station.

On one morning at breakfast, I shared a table with a German banker, who told me he was staying at the hostel to study British housing options. I shared my opinions, noting that the showers were co-ed and that my roommate’s laptop had been stolen, so safety was a concern. He listened, told me about his Cambodian wife, and said he was moving that morning to another hostel on his list. The day I checked out, all the hostel tenants were told to find housing elsewhere, as the entire building was being fumigated.

Had I changed, or had London changed? Did my hostel in 2012 happen to be in a rather rough working-class area, and my hostel in 1971 had been in a busy tourist area? Was affordable housing a crushing issue in London, just like it has become in so many cities? Were Airbnb offerings and nightly rentals driving Londoners into shared housing, making hostels no longer a sensible traveler’s option? Were modern-day “Romans” occupying the city and driving out the locals? What would Queen Budica advise me to do on my next trip?

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