Waking up gently at the top of a sleep cycle, he noticed the sunlight filtering past the window shades. He checked the watch resting on the little shelf above his bunk bed: a good night’s sleep and time to get up. As he swung his feet out and into his sandals, he noticed that half of the bunks in the room still had sleeping occupants in them. Presumably the other half had gone to work, interviews, or other appointments already.
He grabbed his toilet kit from the shelf and the towel from the rod at the foot of his bunk bed, and headed for the men’s room in the hall. This was one of the newest hostels he had ever used, the Hostel International in Chicago. It had elevators as well as stairs, controlled access to the guest floors, bright paint and carpeting in the halls.
His morning ablutions completed, he stopped by the locker assigned to his bunk, and chose long pants and a sweater. Winter had arrived suddenly to the Windy City, and he planned to walk to the Art Institute of Chicago after breakfast.
He came out of the kitchen with his usual bowl of muesli, yoghurt, and berries. In most hostels in North America, he could keep his own food in a plastic container in the kitchen, marked with his name and checkout date.
He paused at the coffee urn, and looked over the dining room for a place to sit. With windows on two vast walls, it was a bright place, offering a view of the El and the other buildings no matter where one sat. He caught the attention of a couple sitting in the middle of the room. The woman motioned for him to join them.
“Thank you, I’m Jonathan.”
“Soila, pleased to meet you.” Tall, slender and blond, she had the healthy features of someone who spent serious time outdoors. The soft accent spoke of Northern Europe. The man was of average height, with dark hair, turning grey, and square features.
“Alek,” he said, offering a firm grip.
“What brings you to Chicago?”
“The NPR Conference,” said Soila. “We are from Finnish National Radio.”
“That’s an international conference, then,” he asked.
“Oh, yes, most of the public broadcasters in the world come. And you?”
“I am here for the Annual Conference of the American Translators Association. It starts tomorrow, and I have been staying here, because I arrived four days early.”
“A translator?” Soila offered her business card. He took it, and fished out his wallet to give them each one of his cards.
The Finnish radio executives explained that they needed to find someone to translate screenplays and books for their radio productions. The translator told them about the ATA website, and gave them the names of two Finnish colleagues who might be able to point them to the right people…
That afternoon, the translator found himself sharing a table with a Peace Corps officer, a surprisingly young man for the job he had: recruiting for the Peace Corps in a nine-state area. He had only recently arrived at the post, and no one had thought to include a professional conference in Chicago in the budget, so he was going at his own expense.
“This is the first time that I have ever met someone from a Federal agency having to pay their own way to a professional meeting. I’m impressed.”
“Well, it helps that hostels are so affordable, and that I am used to much worse.” The recruiter had a ready smile that conveyed sincerity.
“You know, I’m amazed at the different kinds of people I meet in hostels,” the translator said. “This morning I had breakfast with two executives from Finnish National Radio, and yesterday with an emergency room physician attending a conference on trauma care.”
I thought it would be all students and backpackers, but the average age in here is older than I am.” …
The next day, as he claimed his bicycle in the secure storage space, the translator regretted having to check out. He had enjoyed shopping for his own food, sharing the kitchen facilities, the cheerful company, and the odors of Thai, Indian, American, and other cuisines.
The hostel was the best deal in town financially, but more important was its mission to bring people together. He had met students, professionals, retirees, single mothers with their children, and world travellers of all sorts.
He was glad that he had joined Hostelling International the summer before. These people were all working on the road in their various ways, too, and hostelling made that possible for many of them.
Trip update: It feels great to be on the road again. Last weekend was spent dealing with the smoke and soot left over from a fire in our house in Charlottesville. No one hurt, and nothing serious was lost, but the smoke got into everything. I was still able to set out as planned on Wednesday. Camped near Culpeper that night and stayed with friends in Haymarket Thursday. I am at the Spring Meeting of the Language Chairs of the Certification Examination program of the American Translators Association, standing in for our chair (Italian>English). So in one week, I have slept with burned plastic, camped in my new Big Agnes tent, enjoyed the hospitality of close Navy friends, and slept in a hotel in Alexandria. Next week I hope to use hostels in at least two cities, as I write another sea story. Until then,
Smooth roads & tailwinds,
I’ve enjoyed hostels all over this country. They do tend to be interesting places. Go with the wind at your back.