Ladies and Gentleman, Hostelers and Travelers,
When I heard that Hostelling International was a hundred years old, I was amazed. And that amazement took me on a journey-this time a mental one. And I had some questions….. Where had my first hostel experience taken place? Where was the first hostel built? How many hostels were in the US? How many hostels had I visited? How have hostels changed us? What will they bring us in the next 100 years?
So, I put on my research hat, and set about finding out. Now, as we know, there are many wonderful hostels that are not affiliated with HI yet. My first hosteling experience was with one of these hostels. My Mother and I took a impromptu vacation to Victoria Canada when I was about 12. And as my Mother tells it, all of the 2 hotels with wheelchair access were either booked already, or out of our budget. Luckily, a friend mentioned that the University booked it’s dorm in summer as a hostel, with breakfast included. And the dorm was equipped with several wheelchair friendly rooms! This was an early lesson in the magic of hostels for me; it combined easy wheelchair access with a fascinating mix of friendly people from around the world, and great food.
And it seems that my first hosteling experience closely mirrored the genesis of hosteling, when German teacher, Richard Schirrmann took his class out for a trip on 26 August 1909. They were caught in a thunderstorm in the Bröl Valley, and for the first night of the storm, slept in a barn. However, the second day of the storm, the farmer asked them to move, ( I imagine a bored, rowdy group of boys was quite a handful in a barn) and so they took shelter in a local school house, where Mr. Shirrmann had an idea, “Why not use school buildings as shelter for young hikers during the holiday?” And so hosteling was born. The next year, he wrote an essay proposing his idea, which was published in a Cologne newspaper, and within 3 years the first permanent hostel was open, at the old castle of Altena, in North Rhine, Westphalia, Germany. This castle was in disuse, though it had previously served as courthouse, prison, home for invalids, poorhouse, hospital, historical society, museum, and even as a quarry. It, like this hostel, was a historic landmark renovated to serve as a hostel, and is still open, though a few things have changed.
One of the things to change is that there are now more than 4000 hostels in the world, roughly 190 of which are in the States. Hostels now offer wi-fi, wheelchair access, some have in-building bars, and others have senior discounts. There are hostels in schools, castles, forts, national parks, boats, entire islands, former prisons, lighthouses, tropical rain forests, in hillsides, and even in tree houses. There’s a word for “hostel” in nearly every language.
I sat down with a pen, a map, and a glass of sherry,
and calculated that I’ve stayed in 38 hostels in 14 countries. In the States, I’ve visited a hostel in Seattle, brought my own ramps to the hostel on Hawthorne, stayed in a hostel at the edge of a swamp in Orlando(which had warnings about making sure to keep the back door closed so gators wouldn’t wander in),
I’ve listened to the blues at the Lake Park Hostel in Austin with the resident cat on my lap, slept off a day of swimming and a night of dancing at a hostel South Beach,
and watched the seagulls from the old military fort in San Francisco.
For me, hostels offer a distinct advantage over staying in a hotel. I usually choose to travel alone. And as a disabled woman, that presents some challenges. I’m pretty self-sufficient, and very adventurous. But if I stay alone in a hotel, there is always a question of “What if?” hanging in my mind. What if I fall? What if I drop my hair brush behind the dresser? What if I have a sudden urge to go salsa dancing in Helsinki, but I don’t know where there’s good music?
Staying in a hostel puts my mind at ease, and serves as an introduction to people and cultures I simply don’t meet in any other way. And likewise, serves as introduction for others to what traveling with a wheelchair is like. I can’t tell you the number of times someone from my room has come up to me, and told me of a friend, or sister, who is disabled, and wants to travel. Usually the first thing they say, is “I didn’t even realize it was possible!”
And then they ask me questions like -”How are you treated?” “Is there a ramp on the train?” “Did you make your hostel reservation months in advance?”
We talk, and exchange emails, and sometimes, years later, I get an email from Mongolia, telling of a sister in a wheelchair who just completed a trip around Germany, her first time out of her country. Or other times I hear that there’s now a ramp at the hostel in Gotenburg where I stayed 5 years before.
In many cultures, and in many countries, disability is hidden. There are no ramps, curb cuts, or enforceable anti-discrimination laws. My mere existence as a solo disabled American woman traveler is a complete violation of every norm, every expectation that some of my fellow hostelers and maybe hostel staff have.
It’s sort of infectious, really. The more people I meet, and who see how I manage, the more people see disability in a new way. And the more disabled people travel, the more that spreads. So it’s pretty fun for me to hear that there is now a ramp in Gotenburg, because when I was there, there happened to be a Belarusian soccer team staying at the hostel, who offered to carry me up and down the 5 steep stairs every day.
I think I can safely say that hosteling has changed my life. I particularly love how my experiences have pushed my boundaries. A good example; when I was staying in a converted gymnasium in Copenhagen, there was a communal shower stall for girls. Now, I was pretty young, fiercely independent, and very American, so I decided to wear my bikini in the shower for modesty. I transfered out of my wheelchair onto one of those molded resin chairs, and was lathering up when these three Italian girls came over, and basically insisted on washing my hair for me. There was really no arguing with them.
A public school education from Eugene really hadn’t prepared me in the etiquette of such a situation, so I adopted a rule that has served me well ever since: When in doubt, go with it.
And if that happened to me again today, I wouldn’t even bat an eyelash.
Once, when I arrived in Budapest, I hadn’t made a reservation ahead, so I was wandering around, looking for the address I had of a supposedly wheelchair friendly hostel. I was quite lost, and didn’t speak a word of Magyar, and for some reason, the people I approached all ignored me, or hurried away. Finally I heard this gruff voice say “Are you American?” and I turned around. There was the most odd, disheveled man there, and a scruffy little dog. The man was wearing clothes pieced together, sort of like a gypsy, or a pirate, and was probably about 50. He had piercings, and and a hat, and a very, very blue glass eye. His little dog was a mutt, and white and beige and about two feet long. The man, it turned out, spoke perfect English. He had worked as a cab driver in Chicago, before as he put it, he became a drunk, and as we walked to my hostel he told me his life story. He had been a rebel, and a musician, and had gone off to live in America. He met a girl, got his papers, lived, as he said “As normal a life as Norman Rockefeller”.
He lost the girl, then the job, then everything. We arrived at my hostel, and I asked about the bags he was carrying. One looked like it had a bunch of carrots, potatoes and meat in it. The other had a large can. “I’m cooking dinner for my little dog” he said, lifting the bag with the carrots sticking out. I asked what the can was. “Oh, that’s my dinner” he said. The manager of the hostel greeted him as an old friend, and then we said our goodbyes.
I soon realized that my attempts to communicate with Hungarians on the street, to ask directions, or where the subway was, were not going well. Every time I approached someone, they would either loudly ignore me, or make the kind of shooing motion reserved for moving chickens away. I was confused.
My hostel was run by a nice Tunisian Man who cheerfully told me that all Hungarians were crazy.
I tried speaking English. WHERE IS THE MUSEUM? More Shooing. I tried yelling. I AM AN AMERICAN. WHERE IS THE MUSEUM?? No luck.
Meanwhile, I was having a blast. There were spas, mud baths and turkish style baths, and caves, and ancient ruins to explore. Everything was perfect, except for the weird behavior of the locals, particularly women in market places. I found a friendly bookstore clerk who spoke English. “They think you’re a beggar” he told me with a shrug. You’re kidding, I said, looking down at my perfectly exfoliated, mud bathed, manicured hands, and new camera.
Yikes. So, with his help, I learned some Magyar. I translated “I’m from the States”, and “I’m a tourist”. No luck. Finally, after about 5 days of living as an unusually contented social pariah, we broke the cultural code. “I don’t need your help” translated into Magyar was the magic phrase. All of a sudden, I discovered that a lot of Hungarians spoke a little English, and they were exceedingly nice. People invited me to dinner, and gave me flowers, and introduced me to their favorite restaurants.
I met other people with disabilities, and even managed to charm the gigantic, Cloris Leechman like masseuse at the local spa.
Hosteling teaches us. In many countries, like Poland for example, hostels are even integrated into the educational system. Hosteling teaches us about new languages, and cultures, and it taught me how to pack light, how to keep my wheelchair and all my clothes and makeup from getting in other people’s way, how to ask if a hostel is wheelchair friendly-(don’t ask if it’s accessible, ask how many stairs there are) how to make life long friends in less than two days.
Hosteling promotes peace. Not the kind of world peace that every beauty contestant adamantly wishes for, but the kind of peace built on small kindnesses. Because when we stop, and share a meal with someone, or share a room, or even adventure with them, we can’t help but see them. Not their nationality, or their language, or their disability, just them. Another traveler.
Richard Shirrmann entered World War One as a reservist after creating the hosteling movement. And In December 1915 he was in a regiment holding a position on the Bernhardstein, one of the mountains of the Vosges, and separated from the French troops by a narrow no-man’s-land, which his account says was “strewn with shattered trees, the ground ploughed up by shellfire, a wilderness of earth, tree-roots and tattered uniforms.”
“When the Christmas bells sounded in the villages of the Vosges behind the lines .. something fantastically unmilitary occurred. German and French troops spontaneously made peace and ceased hostilities; they visited each other through disused trench tunnels, and exchanged wine, cognac and cigarettes for Westphalian black bread, biscuits and ham. This suited them so well that many remained good friends even after Christmas was over.
Military discipline was soon restored, but Schirrmann pondered over the incident, and whether “thoughtful young people of all countries could be provided with suitable meeting places where they could get to know each other.”
Several years later he retired from teaching to focus entirely on the youth hostel movement, which he stayed with until eventually he ran afoul of the Nazi government. After World War II, he worked on the rebuilding of the German association, for which he received the Federal Cross of Merit in 1952.
I’m pretty sure that all of us who here who have stayed in a hostel can think of some small kindness that we gave or received that let us see our fellow hostelers differently. In doing my research, I discovered a story in Oliver Coburn’s book Youth Hostel Story, that for me, answers Shirmann’s question.
In 1944, British parachutists shelled a particularly lovely hostel in the Netherlands, which stood on a high sand dune overlooking the town and was being used by the Germans as an observation post; it was grievously damaged. But after the war was over, one of the parachute lads came back with the International Working Party, so that he could say to his friends in the Dutch Youth Hostel Movement: “In 1944, we destroyed your hostel, we could do no other. Now we have come to restore it.”
So, we’ve made it to my last Question, What will hostels bring us in the next 100 years? Honestly, I have no idea. But I’m hoping for more of the same.
In 1944, British parachutists had shelled this lovely hostel, which stood on a
high sand dune overlooking the town and was being used by the Germans as
an observation post; it was grievously damaged. But after the war was over,
one of the parachute lads came back with the International Working Party, so
that he could say to his friends of the Dutch Youth Hostel Movement:
“In 1944, we destroyed your hostel, we could do no other. Now we have
come to restore it.”
Oliver Coburn, Youth Hostel