I can sense them from a mile away. The new ones. The young ones. Every single time. As if an alarm goes off in my head the moment they walk through the door, two floors and a slippery marble staircase below the room that I share with five others. Well, possibly five others. As is the case with hostel-dorms, you never know how many roommates you’ll have during the night. Or whether or not they snore, are friendly, or lack basic hygiene.
As the door opens, the loud creak shattering the peaceful silence in the room, I look up from my book. Slowly, as not to scare the new creature that just entered the small space.
Filled with six supposedly stylish bunkbeds made from black metal and wooden finishing and six bright red American high school style lockers, the room is nothing special. A small window, which I opened earlier to get rid of some of the sweaty-sock-smell, and a light wooden floor with four white walls. Seated on the bottom bed of my bunk, I look at the clearly young woman walking in. A girl still, on the brink of discovering what it means to be an adult. She looks around nervously, clutching the straps of her backpack, as she scuffles into the room.
“Lockers are behind those beds,” I say, a slight smile on my face. The girl almost jumps out of her skin. She clearly hadn’t noticed me, didn’t expect anyone else in the room.
“Don’t just throw around your clothes,” I continue. “We share this space and I don’t mind stepping on your stuff if you don’t treat the room with respect.”
Her eyes widen at my words, the shock about my directness clearly showing in her dark brown eyes. Her long blond hair, still half tied together by a loose hair tie, needs a wash but what is to be expected? Looking at her clothes, all loose fitting and with earthy tones and prints, she has been travelling for a while. A backpacking adventure inspired by travel books. One of them is even peeking out the side pocket of her large backpack, that shows traces of airport-conveyer-belts and grimy busses.
“How old are you?” I ask her, as she tries to throw the backpack on the top bunk assigned to her. She can barely reach and lacks the upper-body strength to lift the heavy thing over her head. Her slim build adds to the girl-like appearance of her long hair and the unsure look in her eyes as she turns her head towards me. The backpack barely hanging in the balance on the edge of her bed. It’s going to tip over later, that’s clear.
“Eighteen,” she stutters.
“First time travelling on your own?” I ask, as if the answer isn’t clear.
She nods. I sigh and bent my head, hiding it partly behind my book only to mask the slight smile that creeps up around my lips. First-timers in the room are always a pain as well as a joy to watch as they crash and burn. They’re insecure, too eager to meet new people, and their focus is on collecting stories about first experiences. The first cocktail they ever had, the first night where they stayed at a party till the next morning. The first travel-fling and hook-up. Exhausting. On the other hand though, the eagerness to meet new people makes them easy to have tag along with you.
“Well, welcome,” I say as I raise my head back up, using a harsh tone that clearly shocks her. The fear in her eyes is amusing, but I keep my face frozen. Without saying another word, even though she keeps looking at me as if she expects me to say more, I return to my book. I don’t need to watch to register every movement she makes. To practically see how she climbs the ladder up to her own bed, and starts making it. How she is barely fast, or strong enough to keep the backpack from falling down. She almost gets pulled with it herself as it indeed tips over and almost crashes into the ground. I grin behind the cover of the paperback I hold in my hand as I hear her struggle to lift it back up. She continues the usual routine of the hostel-guest. Make the bed. Unpack the essentials you’ll need tonight if you can’t find that party. She unpacks some other things, changes her shoes from comfortable to a little more stylish. Packs a little daypack to go into town later. Meanwhile I wait behind the pages of the novel I don’t read, waiting for the signs that give away the girl’s mental age. I smile again as it shows itself in the form of a little pink teddy bear that gets a secret hug before she shoves it under her pillow. Still a child at heart, I think. Brave enough to travel alone, but scared of the world around her. I close my book and put it away, grab my laptop as I get off the bed and leave the room.
I know enough for now.
Working remotely from a hostel is an art which little people have perfected. I’ve done it in many different places, even frequented this hostel before in the past. I know how to spot the best place, and if someone else is sitting there already I know how to stare them down. My age, older than the regular youngsters travelling and discovering Europe, helps to speed up that process. The discomfort on their faces when they see the grey hairs and wrinkles always shows. I don’t have many, but it is all people under 40 see and I use it in my advantage. They picture their mothers when they see me, and don’t understand what ‘their mom’ is doing here. Which is good, it means they’ll leave me alone.
As I walk up to the table I’ve claimed several days ago, a girl is sitting in my spot. The perfect spot. The spot that allows me an overview of the entire main area and bar with one glance, and a wall on my side and back so no one can look on my laptop while I work. With a heavy sigh I sit down at the end of the table and open my laptop. While it powers up I look at her. She also has long, blond hair tied loosely together in her neck. Blue eyes. A slim figure, loose clothes. Many similarities with the girl from my room. She’s talking into her phone in a language foreign to my ears. She seems just slightly older than the girl in my room but is still clearly young too, travelling alone as well, vulnerable. As she ends her phone call our eyes meet. One second.
I count as my gaze makes it fairly clear that she has to move. She’s in my spot. The girl doesn’t budge, instead of backing away from my slightly-aged face she arches an eyebrow as if to challenge me.
She hangs up the phone. My muscles tighten. Ready to pounce. But instead of getting up, she grabs a book from her backpack. It’s clearly a daypack and clearly not a light travel novel to inspire her. She opens it. A bookmark, no dogears. Slowly I realise I misinterpreted her age. Her long hair and small stature make her seem younger, but she has travelled before. This isn’t a girl. This woman, albeit young, has passed the rites of adulthood. I grit my teeth and focus on my work. Annoyance rushes through my veins as I have to admit my misjudgement, admit my error. But it’s not the end yet. The young woman takes her sweet time, lengthening my simmering anger. It takes almost 30 minutes before she packs up her book and leaves. As she passes me, she gives me that look one more time. The slightly arched eyebrow, her gaze seemingly sizing me up, before she decides that I do not interest her in the same way she does not interest me. She’s too old, would be a challenge and it would be best and wise if she stays out of my way. As she slings her daypack over one shoulder and walks out of the common room, I move in to the space she left only one second later. My back and side to the wall, I have a clear view of everybody who moves in and out. On anyone who sitse down and relaxes, who walk up to the bar and order a cold beer, who meet others and chat. Blurry faces I’ll never remember and that I don’t care about.
Foreign languages I do not intend to understand.
Returning to the room is like returning to a disaster-site after a tornado. Or a small explosion. Where I had the room all to myself for the last several days, until the lost little duckling found her way into it this morning, all beds seem filled by the time I return. The small space is filled with bags and once again smells like old shoes. Someone closed the window, trapping all the funkiness of travel inside. The noises of different voices pour out of the door as soon as I open it, making it hard to think. As I slam the door shut behind me, asserting my dominance and presence into the walled off area, I see some faces turn towards me. The young duckling, two others sharing another bunk bed. A brunette I don’t recognise. As I scan their faces I see the face of the girl I saw downstairs earlier. Her back leaning against one of the bunkbeds, her arms crossed with her bag still hanging over her shoulder, her blue eyes look straight at me. Now that we’re both standing I notice we are of a similar build, but age hasn’t gotten to her face yet. We stare at each other for a second before she turns her head and continues talking to the brunette I don’t recognise in rapid English. The brunette seems to understand her, but I have trouble keeping up with the speed. The fact that she doesn’t seem to be intimidated annoys me. Her presence takes up more space than it should. With a shove of my shoulder I move past the both of them, to my locker. It feels as if a brick hits another brick, the second our bodies meet. Both the girls refuse to back down to me, a notion that for half a second entertains me. And because of that feeling I can’t help myself, during that fraction of a second a slight smile flashes across my face. It’s something the blonde doesn’t see, but the brunette registers. Perfect. The blonde would do well if her ego were to be taken down a peg, the brunette needs to know not to challenge me. Both could be people I get along with, although I think it’s the blonde I could take under my wing. Teach her the ways I know of the world. But not yet. She’s on her way, her attitude is right but the world hasn’t gotten to her enough just yet. Too much fight, not enough slyness. The brunette could be the perfect accomplice to that combination, in the future. Friendlier, approachable, seemingly kind with warm eyes but with a clearly rapid mind if she can keep up with the blonde’s tongue. I don’t need to look her over to realise she is both not my type in hair colour and in age. Simply said; both young women are clearly older than the other girls in the room, and yet they are also not old enough. Too old to peak my interest, and therefore old enough to peak my annoyance. I open my locker and put my laptop in it, the light on it flashes as it remains on standby.
“You don’t belong in this room.”
With a clear and sharp tone in my voice I point out this simple fact as I turn around, slamming my locker shut and meeting the eyes of the two girls. I focus on the blonde, my words meant for her. Instantly the other girls go quiet. The brunette stares at me, shocked. As if she’s appalled by my blatantly rude observation. Her blond companion seems to be taken aback as well for a second but recovers quickly. She smirks and pushes herself off the bed she was leaning against without ever uncrossing her arms.
“See you downstairs for drinks?” she asks the brunette, and then looks up to the two girls sharing the bunk bed. “Enjoy the clubs tonight.”
The language in which the girls thank her seems to be German, and for a second I wonder if that’s the language I heard her speak downstairs. But I don’t care enough to ask. Making my way back to my own bed is hard enough with all the backpacks, shoes and clothes strewn across the surface. I yank the window open. The brunette looks at me, a frown on her face, as wind blows through the room. The blond ducklin peeks down from her bed.
“If you go out tonight, don’t wake me up when you come back in,” I say as I prepare my bed and climb into it, a non-specific warning to all of the people present in the room. No one becomes nicer when they’re cranky from lack of sleep, and I am not of an age that I can pull an all-nighter anymore. Without turning around I know all of the girls in the room give each other looks.
“We won’t,” I hear a voice. Sturdy, unafraid. The brunette, I know without glancing over. From the corner of my eye I see the duckling nod to emphasise the words. She’s made friends for the night, so it seems. That’s good, I think before grabbing my book and pulling the curtain around my bed shut.
Of course they do wake me up. First it’s the brunette. She didn’t stay out late. Couple of drinks at the downstairs bar I assume, not much more. The second is the duckling, several hours later. The way she stumbles shows she’s had too much, and the fact that she’s coming in alone worries me a bit. Where are the German girls she left with? They let her go back alone? This clearly inexperienced girl? She would have been an easy target to any predator on the streets this time of night. As she struggles to climb up the stairs I sigh and climb out of my own bed, grabbing her just as she’s about to tumble over. She looks at me in shock, her eyes slightly glazed over. Drunk, but not blacked out. Yet.
“You’re noisy,” I tell her. A grunt sounds from the bed below her, which I ignore. “Let me help you.” Otherwise this would take even longer.
I help her get her toilet bag, and out the room. I don’t know if she makes it to the bathroom, but I do wait until she gets back and help her up to her bed. She mumbles something I vaguely understand to be a “thank you”, in a language of which I know just a few words, as she clutches the little teddy bear tight to her chest. It takes only seconds before I hear light snoring. I smile as I climb back into my own bed and lay down my head. Girls like her, she’ll remember who was nice and helpful tomorrow morning.
“Where is the nearest supermarket?”
She got up early. Or at least earlier than I expected. She’d still be able to order a cappuccino without being judged too harshly by the Italian staff. I’m already in my usual spot, sifting through some work-related emails. Her small daypack is slung over one shoulder, in the same style as the other blond girl the day before. Sorry, young woman. There is a fine line that creates the difference between girl and young woman. A very fine, but very important line.
“You’re going to the market?” I ask, nodding towards her little backpack. It’s the same daypack she packed when she arrived. But unlike yesterday, I noticed she put two empty reusable bags in it last night before going out. Reusable bags in the style of the grocery bags of a traveller aware of the planet. It fits her style of clothes, and that I heard her talk about train travel. Not a tree-hugger yet, but it is a path she could wander off on depending on the crowd she hangs out with in the coming years. University being the deciding factor on that track.
She looks around, startled by my voice. I nod towards her bag once more.
“You’re going to the market?” I repeat my question, slightly annoyed that I have to but keeping my voice in check.
“Eh…” she mumbles, searching for a proper response. She remembers me being nice last night, helping her. It confuses her. “Yeah,” she recovers. “Yeah I need some groceries.” She doesn’t know how to act, the switch in my behaviour threw her off. As all others that I encounter in hostels, she established that I’m old and unkind. She might have used the word ‘bitter’ to describe me to others in the hostel. Suddenly being friendly, or at least friendly-ish, towards her makes her uneasy. It makes her responses slow and that’s the opening I was waiting for. It works every time.
“Wait up, I’ll go with you,” I say, quickly getting up and grabbing my laptop to stash it away. Rushing into the room, I open the device again and open a couple of programs. Timing several emails to be send in a bit so they will arrive with the clients on time, I leave it open in the locker. The battery will last several more hours, I’ve done this before. I grab my purse, lock the red metal container, and walk downstairs again. I know she’ll be waiting for me, too startled to leave.
A grin forms around my lips as I see her standing there. Clutching with both hands the one band of her backpack she slung over her shoulder. Looking up as she hears my feet, showing once again her true age. Puppy dog eyes, a slightly open mouth as she doesn’t know what to do with the situation. She wants to leave, she’s scared of me, but she doesn’t dare too. I might be nice after all, and she doesn’t want to be rude. A child at heart still. I step past her and look over my shoulder.
“Well? Come on,” I say, heading out onto the street. She’ll follow me. “I just need to go by some place real quick.”
She looks shocked as I say the words out loud.
“We’re not going to…?” she starts, I cut her off.
“We are, but I need to run by my apartment real quick.”
The puzzled look on her face tells all. Why would anyone, especially someone of ‘my age’, stay in a hostel if I have an apartment in the city? I don’t answer the unspoken question, as it would be a long story and I have no intention on wasting my time. Instead I keep a steady, slightly too quickly pace. She really has to keep up and the cobblestones aren’t going to make it easy. Especially after a rainy night they get not only uneven, but also fairly slippery from the now watered up dust and grime of the city. You can practically ice skate on them with just your shoes on.
“So where are we going?” She sometimes has to run a few steps to pick up the speed. My speed. Which makes her stumble even more through the small streets we’re walking through. Turn left. Turn right. Cross. And left again. We turn into what is more of a small alleyway than a real street. A bigger sized car would have trouble fitting between the sidewalks. We are going in the general direction of the daily market that the more adventurous travellers usually go to, although rarely for their daily groceries. Most turn to the supermarkets they know from home, instead of haggling over fresh fish and tasting and feeling vegetables to get the best one for the best price. It’s a pity that these young people refuse to get into an ancient and local practice to get your food here, instead of the flown in and frozen products that have only a quarter of the taste. I take my phone out of my pocket, unlocking the screen.
“We’re almost there,” I say as I turn another corner, without looking as I type something into my phone while moving into yet another small street. I switch the device to flight mode.
Right again. Keep going straight now.
I don’t need to look up from the little screen, I know these streets like the back of my hand. But I do put the little machine back into my pocket, the app I needed opened already, as my other hand moves up automatically. Knowing I reached my destination. I press a button on a brass panel that has seen better days. Ringing the doorbell over and over, I look up at the windows of the upper floor. My hand in my other pocket is still holding my phone, presses the screen where I know I need to press it.
The buzzer creaks, a voice mumbles something barely audible. The age of the building and the intercom system don’t help.
“Apri la porta, bastardo!” I yell into the intercom. Click. The connection being cut off. I growl and press the button again. I release the grip on my phone-screen.
“What’s going on?” The girl is staring at the whole interaction. I realise I don’t even know her name. Not that it matters. I look over my shoulder.
“It’s my tenant, just a second okay?”
This time my thumb just hangs on the doorbell, not letting the button go for even a second. By now the noise must’ve been heard by the entire complex, but even so it takes minutes for the door to make a slight sound. Quickly I push it open, to prevent the lock from closing again. I give the girl another look.
“Well? Come on up with me.”
She hesitates, looking up at the windows, looking through the street. By now she’s clutching each of the straps off her backpack with one hand. Her hands held high, almost at her armpits. Like a little girl on a school playground waiting for her mother to pick her up.
“Wait, up with you?” she stammers. I nod.
“Clearly. This will be over quickly. Come on.” I don’t wait any longer as I push the door completely open to enter. She follows just before the door slams shut.
Climbing up on the narrow stairs, almost every step creaks below our feet. The dark wooden boards are the exact opposite of the sleek marble ones at the hostel. Those sturdy stairs, that see hundreds of feet every day, versus these old and rickety ones that see maybe three people pass by on a busy week. I don’t hold on to the railing, I know she will as she is unfamiliar with the place. Anyone who is unfamiliar with a set of stairs holds the banister. Tries to find their footing with every step. Only after going up and down hundreds of times can you dream the movement and you don’t need to be afraid to trip anymore. It’s the moment you can look at your phone while going up and down, or when you can run up taking two steps at a time. I’ve been at that stage for years, she will never be.
As we reach the necessary floor and door, most daylight has left us. The small hall has no windows, the air is stale and stuffy. Dust flies up as I bang on the door. Pressing another button on my phone while I do it. The door opens immediately. Again, I look over my shoulder and hold the door open for her.
“This will be real quick. Just make yourself comfortable.”
I follow her on her heels, closing the door behind her. Shielding us from the dark hall, into the empty apartment. Turning the lock on the empty space with its closed windows.
The only thing in the living room is a series of stuffed animals sitting on the windowsill.