Thursday, 22 May 2008

Poland 4: Hostel Headspace

Here's a curious thing. A few days ago I arrived in Wrocław (pronounced vrots-wahf), an attractive city in southwest Poland. I'd been here once before in 2006, when it was covered by winter snow but blessed with sunshine.

This time was different. It was cold and drizzly for most of the two days I spent there, and I learned that it's not at all easy to handle an umbrella, a clipboard and a camera all at once. One of them inevitably ends up on the quaint cobblestone street. The city, however, was as beautiful as I remembered it, even through the rain.

I'd booked a private room in a backpackers' hostel, one of a small chain I'd used before. I sometimes choose these places deliberately, especially at the end of a research trip when I desperately need to speak English at length to someone, anyone. You can always count on finding people willing to chat at a hostel.

There was a problem though, on the second night: the people in the room next to me were shouting, slamming doors and generally giving the impression of suffering from hyperactivity disorders. There was a reason for that, I discovered, when I ventured out to suggest a lowering of the volume: the next-door dorm was full of Polish schoolkids.

What the? After issuing two increasingly cranky requests to tone it down, I headed down to reception to enlist aid. The chaos subsided (eventually... boys will be boys), but I realised I was still feeling irrationally pissed off at the incident.

Then, thinking it over, I realised why I was so annoyed. Travelling in a foreign country is stimulating and fascinating, but also tiring. Hostels full of international backpackers aren't exactly peaceful, but they are a refuge from the mentally exhausting world outside - a curious international English-speaking zone where we're all on an equal footing.

A day earlier, I'd had a good conversation in the hostel lounge with a group of Dutch backpackers, talked over tea with a Brazilian, and shared breakfast and English language teaching experiences with a British woman working in a nearby Polish town.

Strangely though, having an onsite party of Polish students on a school excursion had shattered my mental refuge, turning an international backpackers' hostel into just another Polish one-star hotel with its peculiar challenges.

It was disturbing to realise I felt this way. Was I being racist in wanting a break each day from Poland, so to speak? I hoped not. It certainly wasn't a conscious aversion - I love the country and its people, and enjoy getting out there each day to encounter both.

I suspect, on further reflection, that I'd feel the same anywhere. When you're a stranger in a strange land, it's essential to have the occasional breather from the demanding task of engaging with the local language and customs.

Would Polish backpackers visiting Australia feel the same, I wonder, and enjoy the mental break of an international hostel after a day of grappling with Sydney or Melbourne? You know, I think they would.