I sigh and remove my headsets, leaving the amazing world of Kliment’s dark techno to meet the gaze of my roommate. She’s staring at something over my shoulder, her lips pursued in a hard line : instantly, I know. Over the course of four months I’ve learnt to recognize that particular expression and what it entails, how deep her soul is sinking in hatred at this very moment. And sure enough, I hear them behind me : voices. Fresh meat. The weight of heavy suitcases on the hardwood floor.
We’re getting new roommates.
Xiao Ya and I are both seated at the main table in the living room, me over the computer, she among a mess of books, exam sheets and traditional Chinese characters. We have been pretend-working for a while. Our plan was, same as every night, to keep this up until late, go for a stroll at the nearby temple (while praying for her to pass her exams) and then go to sleep in our eight-bed dorm room, which had been vacant for the past few days. A few wonderful days of privacy, Lean on and keeping the AC shut down.
It’s two people discussing the usual stuff with the tenant. Maps, recycling, check-out time, please don’t use the hairdryer after 11pm (oh but they will). The suitcases look big. But what attracts my attention – and makes my hands harden on the headset – are the plastic bags they are holding.
I turn around, look at Xiao Ya. She stares at me with a glaring smile and mouths something I can’t quite make up – but it’s probably along the lines of, They wake me up with those things and I will burn this place to the ground. Or maybe that’s just me projecting.
I sigh again, put the headset back on and shoot her an appeasing grin.
“No worries, babe. I’ll tell them.”
It’s my turn anyways…
* * *
Four months in a Taiwanese hostel.
Four months in a eight-bed dorm room with a forty-dollar laundry machine and plant-filled meditation balcony.
Four months isn’t so long – not long enough that you want to start running around naked screaming and throwing oranges at people because the lack of privacy is starting to make you feel slightly irritable. I’ve lived in a university dorm before. For a year. Lack of privacy and a constant flux of people, my hardened soul can handle. Especially in a place that happens to be much cleaner than the aforementioned dorm. And that holds the most beautiful and necessary thing in the world : a kitchen.
I have a kitchen in Taipei, I thought.
I have the power.
No money to spend on toilet paper, soap, and dishwasher liquid. As for cleaning ? Well, this is the land of freedom, Marie : all is clean, all is nice. Without me having to raise my pinky toe to take care of it.
(Where brooms are concerned, my pinky toe’s a bit lazy.)
Not a party hostel, Khao San Road, go away. Drunkards are rare if non-existent : after all, this is Taipei. The crowd is rather lovely. Young travellers, charming old couples, seasoned businessmen frowing at the screen of their MacBooks. It’s nice, pretty calm. Sometimes the living room gets busy on weekends, some weird Taiwanese drama is showing on TV and everyone laughs trying to figure out what the shit is going on. Some nights we learn how to play mahjong, or re-learn because we forgot. The tenant’s small daughters come in and run around us in circles while we try to maintain our dignity and not die of cute.
Our efforts, needless to say, are mostly vain.
Being in a hostel can be a good deal. You talk to people or you don’t. They come to you with no effort on your part. There is always someone around. Loneliness is still present : this is by definition a place of transition. And you are, along with the tenant, the one static element.
Unless there are others. And real, comfy, sunny friendship arises. It can happen.
Xiao Ya has become a sister – the one I come home to when I’m done with the radio. It’s nice, knowing there is someone waiting for you, ready to greet you with a warm smile and a strong hug. Amore, you are back. Yes, I am. The corn boils in the rice cooker and the American is complaining about his day at work teaching bored kids English. The usual.
But my days were made of writing, wandering and flexible deadlines. Discovering new parks and attempting to find decent art exhibits. Interrogating dumbfounded people in the street What do you think of rock music ? to prepare five-minute radio segments. A relaxed internship. When this is your routine, hostels are fine. Hostels are good.
Studying is another matter.
And Xiao Ya was here to study.
To study Chinese, of course. German would have been strange on this corner of the world. She had classes three hours a day five days a week – along with an obscene amount of homework. Dear God, the homework. I watched her – so dynamic, light, a true sportswoman, and there she was stuck at the desk, mouthing jiugui and budeliao while her hand flew over her notebook, new characters meticulously flourishing on the paper like delicate black fungi. I watched her and my soul bled. I admire you, my lovely. You should always know.
Her experience was quite different. The common room was terrible because there were people moving and talking. Sleeping sucked for the same reason. Except there was something else, something evil, something… screechy.
People fumbling in the dark with plastic bags.
The root of all horror. One can not understand how truly despicable plastic is until attempting to live long-term in a hostel dorm room. It’s dark, past midnight, and someone is trying to get something inside their suitcase and it’s in a plastic bag and it makes a wooshy wooshy sound and both your ears and the Earth bleed every single time. We have developped quite a visceral response to that sound. It embodies everything that is wrong with the world : it disfigures our Earth and prevents us from sleeping. So many vices for such a tiny piece of material. Die, plastic. Die and never come back.
Of course, plastic won’t die before hundreds of years. That’s sort of the problem.
We have developed an elaborate system to counter its vicious effects. It consists, quite simply, in kindly asking the guests if they will be kind enough as to kindly remove all plastic items from their suitcases at an early hour before the sleeping starts. Would you be so kind ? We smile and our teeth show. Of course you will, won’t you.
Sometimes they won’t. Not out of malice – but because the concept seems very strange to them. Oh, we will remove it later. Our smiles widen. No no, that’s the thing. We want you to remove them now. Later means waking us up. Do you understand ?
They nod but they are still frowning. They do not understand. And sure enough, when the night comes, woosh wooshy vileness and mockery grind our teeth turn our hands to claws. Oh, the humanity.
Living in a hostel. Would you ? Should you ?
If it’s clean. If you can stand earplugs. If you’re not studying or working a 9-5. If you make good friends onsite. If you can scoff at the idea of privacy for a few months. If it’s just a few months.
How should I know ? I am not you. Maybe you love people sneezing on the sponge or fumbling with plastic in the dark. Humans are strange creatures, and hostels the strangest places they have devised. Coming into contact with the Other in such a raw form. Passing in front of them in your bath towel, exchanging mismatched socks, talking about places you’ve been and life discoveries you’ve made. We are usually young, so there aren’t many. But we’re truly starting to figure out just how much it is we don’t know. Socrates would be proud.
If you’re a homesick French woman, the rent money you save will also come in handy on those nights you’re missing wine.
And Wellcome‘s South Australian Muscato isn’t bad at all.