A couple of years ago I landed in an East German youth hostel where I was actually dumb enough to think that people all over the world spoke English as a second language. Let me also add that in addition to not being a youth and someone more accustomed to hotels which offered fluffy robes and left chocolates on the pillow, I had never traveled outside of the United States before and had no idea what staying in a foreign hostel entailed.
I was there as chaperone of students of a music school with whom my kids would be performing at a Frank Zappa festival in the tiny town of Bad Doberan, Yeah, that’s right, a Frank Zappa festival -- five days of cover bands entirely devoted to playing his music and a pony-tailed, tie-dyed audience frozen in time. It was an annual event each August that was such a big deal they had a bust of Frank in their town square where most places would have a statue of, oh, a President or war hero. Totally surreal.
I tagged along because everything I did not know about hostels I did know about rock festivals, especially what went on backstage But yeah, it never occurred to me to check out exactly what a hostel was. God forbid I did a Google search – it’s not like I didn’t use Google for everything from a tiny white pimple on my arm that had me writing out my Last Will and Testament to the maniacal insomniatic 2:00 a.m. stalking of people I hardly knew in high school. Anyway, call me naïve but I thought staying at a hostel merely meant room sharing. There were three other mothers on the trip; the four of us would inhabit the same space and the kids would be assigned to another room or two.
So let’s visit the hostel, shall we?
When we first walked up the long, winding hill studded on either side with magnificent wildflowers, I gasped “Oh wow, this was only $60.00 for five days? It’s amazing!”
It was like being in the middle of an enchanted forest. There was even a groovy, primitive gazebo.
And then we went inside. The first assault on the senses: An overpowering mix of Lysol and ammonia.
“Badezimmer!” the owner exclaimed as he pointed to a long a row of sinks and toilets without doors.
“Men’s lavatory, right?” I whispered to my daughter.
She shook her head and pointed to a sign.
Before I had a chance to digest what that meant, we were shown another room.
Assault on senses number two: A look at where we would be taking our showers – a huge grey concrete amphitheater, no curtains or privacy partitions of any kind -- just a half a dozen or so sprinkler heads placed randomly in a semi-circle.
I looked in horror over at the other mothers who were, much to my surprise, nonplussed. Our good looking vegetarian teenaged kiddies simply giggled. Why was I the only one in a state of shock?
Oh well. Here was the plan. I simply would not get dirty while I was there. And if I didn’t eat or drink, maybe I could avoid the bathroom, too.
(I would later that evening, in a total fluke, find a secret sanctuary which looked like a closet but instead contained one precious toilet and sink with hot and cold running water and hurrah, a lock on the door! I shared that information with no one – not even my son and daughter -- for the entire five days we were residents. And I never thought I would ever use the word “precious” when describing a toilet but there you have it.)
Next we were taken to our room. Okay, two bunk beds, two dressers, a window overlooking the woods – not bad. I watched nervously as the other mothers took sheets and pillow cases out of their suitcases.
“They don’t provide linens?” I blurted.
“Robin, didn’t you read the letter that went home to all of the parents?”
Erm, no. I missed the letter. That’s because my kids never remembered to bring the letter home, or, my personal favorite, brought it home but forgot to actually hand it to me.
Luckily one of the moms was an obsessive compulsive who brought five sets of sheets so I lucked out. But because of her kindness, she got the bottom bunk as her reward.
As did another mother twice my size. Hey, that was a win/win situation for all of us.
That meant the remaining mom and I drew top bunks. No problem, right? Yeah, no problem if there were a ladder.
“How are we supposed to get…” I stopped in mid-sentence because buff other mother was already up in her bed, fluffing out her travel pillow.
Yeah, yeah, I had no pillow, either.
“C’mon Robin, just jump. It’s not that hard.”
“Jump? What am I, a puma? I couldn’t make it up there with a running start and a pole!”
“It’s easy,” she scoffed. “You’re acting like you’re being asked to scale Nancha Barawa!”
“What the hell is Nancha Barawa?”
“The biggest mountain in Tibet,” she smirked.
And that comparison was supposed to make me feel better?
Since it was a bunk bed, it had columns, so I pathetically took a shot at shimmying up one. It was a good thing I had never tried anything that vaginally challenging as a young girl.
If nothing else, I was a source of great amusement to the other mothers, who laughed merrily with each failed attempt.
“Maybe you can stack all of our suitcases and climb up that way,” said the chubby mom from her comfy spot on the lower bunk.
“That’s a terrible idea!” What, had buff mom determined my weight wasn’t much better than chubby mom’s? Though to be fair, I was pretty sure her luggage was real Vuitton. But she stared at me through narrowed eyes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but have you ever considered Pilates?”
“It’s on my to do list.,” I glared back. “Right after world peace.”
Anyway, many aborted attempts later, I managed to make it by standing on the edge of the bottom bed, grabbing the rail of the top bunk, and having my ass pushed by the three huffing and puffing other mothers. Make that two. Buff mom didn’t huff or puff. She just laughed and oh alright, she’s the one who finally lifted me up over her head like I weighed five pounds and tossed me onto the mattress.
So there we were, four moms in a room, three of whom could sleep as soon as their heads hit their respective pillows. Not having a pillow, I wouldn’t know, but I refer you to the crazed 2:00 a.m. insomniatic Googler mentioned above. I doubt a pillow or even a snuggly down comforter would have made a shred of difference.
To add to the festivities, all of the other mothers snored, and buff mom even had a high pitched nasal whistle going on, too.
But still, how could I possibly be awake? It took a grueling ten hours by plane and two hours by bus to get there. I did not sleep on either vehicle because I was a lunatic convinced that the minute I fell asleep while someone else was at the wheel would be the minute we all died in a horrific crash. It was only through my vigilance that everyone on board stayed alive. At least for that day, my unsung hero’s job was done and all was well. So I had to be exhausted, right? Then why couldn’t I sleep?
Because I was obsessing about the damn showers, that’s why. Trust me, I was no prude but the thought of communal bathing with my daughter, her friends and the other mothers…oy…that was just some weird place I did not want my brain let alone my cellulite ridden body to go.
I tossed and I turned and kept checking the time, which of course does not move at all when one is awake in the middle of the night. I may have inadvertently discovered the secret of everlasting life. Anyway, by 3:00 a.m., I was in a major state of agitation until hit by a flash of brilliance.
I could beat the system by taking my shower then!
Which was quickly followed by the realization of Oh hell, if there were no sheets, that meant there were no towels. Wait…I brought a terry cloth beach blanket with me because I heard there was a waterfront luxury spot in a village a train ride away. Oh sure, that information I managed to gather. But whew. At least I was covered.
Shampoo and conditioner I also had because I was picky about brands. I had my little travel bottles all neatly arranged in their little plastic travel bag right on top of the dresser.
Right. Ready, steady, go.
Only one problem. Dear God, how was I going to get down?
It was dark in our room except for weak beams of moonlight barely visible through the slatted blinds. I squinted at the floor below, trying to estimate the size of the jump. Three feet? More? Wait. I was five feet four inches. The top bunk was taller than I was. Shit. It must have been a six feet drop at least. I would break my freaking legs.
Defeated, I sunk back onto my imaginary pillow and stared at the ceiling in misery. Total suckage and unbearable.
I turned back over and eyeballed the distance to the ground again.
Could I pull it off and live to talk about it?
I agonized over that for several minutes until a new problem surfaced, and it was one I could not ignore.
I had to pee.
And suddenly my bladder was bursting to the point of Oh my God, as if I have not embarrassed myself enough already, I was going to wet the bed.
The decision made for me, I leapt to the floor, crashed into the wall, squeezed my thighs together to avoid leakage from both shock and kidney distress, grabbed my beach blanket and toiletries and fled before anyone woke up. Which, oddly enough, despite the loud bang and scream when I landed, did not happen. The other mothers snored/whistled on serenely in unison.
Once out in the hallway, a new problem arose. Where the hell was I? It was pitch black. I needed a bathroom fast, and if I remembered correctly, that chamber of horrors was down a few steps and somewhere to the left, only a door or two down from the Nazi gas chamber, a/k/a the festival of showerheads. But not being able to see, I gingerly opened the first closed door I came to because I was frantic. It looked like a closet -- I just prayed it wasn’t someone’s bedroom but desperation caused me to turn the knob and check anyway and lo and behold, that’s when I found the secret toilet and sink.
Feeling decidedly better (and lighter), my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I headed down the small staircase I remembered from our earlier tour and easily found the showers. I locked the door behind me after giddily confirming I was in fact the only crazy in there, and picked what looked to be the best place to stand. But no sooner did the lovely hot water stream down my weary, grimy body that I realized the saddest truth of all: I had no soap.
Remember, I never got the memo.
So there I was, totally dripping wet nude and forced to improvise. Hello, Herbal Essence Coconut/Papaya Shampoo for dry and damaged hair.
I ended up covered in a glaze of fruity slime which would not wash off, especially in the nether regions. It was kind of like being an actress in the aftermath of filming a porno flick but with essence of the tropics instead of, um, Clorox.
Seventy-five rinses later I was clean and happy.
I limped back to the room -- yes, I did injure my ankle in my leap of about-to-piss-herself courage -- where the other mothers continued to snore. Realizing there was no way in hell I was going to be able to get back up into my bunk, I dropped off my wet beach towel and headed for the communal dining room to wait for breakfast since, oh joy, our $60.00 fee was all inclusive and included meals.
It was 4:30 a.m. There was a sign on the wall, written in German, that had a plate, fork and knife drawn on it along with a little sketch of a clock. The hands pointed to 6:00 a.m. That meant an hour and a half to wait there by myself in the middle of nowhere, my soaked hair dripping down my very damp t-shirt. The only thing that saved me from a full fledged pity party was my sick sense of humor. Only I could be in such a predicament. Oh well. At least my life was never boring.
To kill time, I walked over to the window and peered outside. Wow. It was so magical that I went into fantasy mode and became a character in Heidi. Okay, so Heidi took place in the Swiss Alps, but crazed and wired from lack of sleep, it made perfect sense and I went with it. Would grandfather serve us thick sliced bread with golden toasted cheese and fresh-from-a-cow milk for breakfast? I salivated at the thought.
That warm, fuzzy feeling lasted for about ten big minutes and finally, bored to tears, I sat on a hard metal folding chair, put my head down on the table and eventually drifted off into something resembling sleep because next thing I knew I was startled awake by the clanging of bells and the intrusion of several eight year olds filing in like tiny toy soldiers – the hostel also did dual duty as a holiday camp.
I rubbed my hands together in greedy anticipation of breakfast.
But what’s that? Oh no. Sausages, grandfather? Oh God. Not sausages, but just as bad. A huge tray of…lunch meat? Do they actually still even make head cheese, olive loaf, and bologna? Do people still really eat it? And what else did we have there? A big bowl of hard boiled eggs?
For my next move as sophisticated world traveler, I would now be starving to death.
So I asked myself: WWVD?
(What would vegetarians do?)
Actually, the rest of the vegetarians were still asleep, and would not be awake until noon. Sound check for the show that evening wasn’t until late afternoon.
I decided to come down from the mountain in search of food, where I again would be reminded that no one in Bad Doberan spoke English. I would also realize that I had absolutely no clue of the German/European monetary system – only that I had a pocketful of extremely heavy and weird coinage.
But of course I didn’t know that yet. Breathing in the sweet morning air, I strolled down a tiny cobblestone street, utterly enchanted, only to come within inches of losing my life because apparently I was walking in the middle of the street in a town where there was no speed limit. Did I actually think that just because it seemed so rustic, the townspeople were transported by goat drawn carts? All I know is, I almost got taken out by a Mercedes going ninety miles per hour. I leaned against a wall to catch my breath and for the second time in less than a few hours nearly lost control of my bladder.
My good mood was restored considerably, though, when I eventually made it down to the bottom of the hill and discovered not only a bakery but one from which the distinct aroma of freshly brewed coffee was filling the air. Oh yes! That was more like it. European pastries and a cappuccino, please.
But the smiling clerk behind the counter didn’t understand a word I said. I queried as to various confections of terror and delight and she answered me in German, speaking slowly and loudly as if that would help. I did a pantomime of drinking a cup of coffee. She took down a glass and pitcher of orange juice. I hopped on one foot making “Hot! Hot!” gestures while jerking my head toward a stack of cups. Ah…okay, she understood. One coffee, coming up. I pointed to the stickiest, most decadent Danish I had ever seen and felt like Pavlov’s dog watching the girl put it on a plate with a pretty frilly napkin. And then she rang up my purchases on a cash register from 1910 and said “Der ist vier Euro!”
“Der ist vier Euro!”
Uh-oh. I started emptying out my pockets of change and she looked over my stash, shaking her head no. What? Out of all these coins, I didn’t have enough…erm…what was that? Ist viers?
Oh wait, I had those folded up things that looked like dollars…d’oh…those were what she wanted.
I held out the stack to her, she extracted a bunch, I probably paid $200.00 for a cup of coffee and one damn fine piece of cake, but who cared, it was my fault for being such a muppet. With my spirit restored, I set out to buy a translation book, some towels, soap, and other essential items that any normal traveler would have had if they were in fact normal but what the hell, normal is not anything I had ever aspired to be.
In any event, to make a long story at least a little bit shorter, I ended up having the best five days of my life.
But by way of an epilogue:
A metal folding chair filched from the dining area turned out to be an excellent means of getting up and down from the top bunk.
I continued to take 3:00 a.m. showers the entire time. But I totally enjoyed myself because afterwards I sat in the gazebo with a book and a flashlight until the bakery opened. Except for the night I was positive I saw a bear.
“Der ist vier Euro” means “That will be four Euro”, or about $5.32.
I am now a seasoned world traveler who does her research beforehand because only a fool trips over the same stone twice but I’m sure I will always manage to find new ways to embarrass myself both nationally and internationally.
And lastly, and I write this because I love the word “lastly”, I will tell you how I know all about backstage at rock festivals in a future post.