I have a new favorite patisserie. Cannoli. Good cannoli, I must specify, cannoli assembled in front of you: tangy ricotta spooned into a crispy, fried shell and dipped in tiny chocolate chips or chopped pistachios.
Cannoli tastes even better accompanied by a view of the Duomo, a cup of espresso, and a light rain. To fully appreciate the warmth of the moment, I would recommend trying the cannoli after the worst sleep of your life. It worked for me.
It was early January and my friend and I had been in Florence for a week. Our simple breakfast was picture-perfect, while behind the camera we sat bleary-eyed and bewildered, numbly chewing. We looked like we’d gotten dressed in the dark–and we had.
Let me explain. We had slept in a hostel: booked last-minute and chosen because of money constraints. It would allow Travis and I to stay a few more days in Florence and celebrate the New Year in a city I’d come to love in just a week.
I didn’t have much experience with hostels. Once I’d stayed in a Parisian hostel. I’d had a bright, white room, a big bed I’d shared with no one, clean crisp sheets.
This time around, I wasn’t expecting glamour, but, I also wasn’t expecting this.
In the rain (only rain, that week), Travis and I located the hostel after a lot of searching. It was on a seedy street near Mercato Centrale. We lugged the bags up three flights and saw a handwritten sign with the name of the hostel. The manager, a tall man with dark hair who didn’t seem to speak much English or Italian, met us at the door after a lot of knocking. He looked uneasy, reluctantly beckoning us inside.
He led us to the room. “One sleep there…” he waved vaguely. “One there.” This was no chocolate-on-the-pillow establishment. No, this smelled like feet. Our sheets, nubby from prior use, lay in bundles on the beds.
A single bare lightbulb, the sole light-source, burned from one corner of the room, lending a distinctive basement vibe. The windows, shuttered in the middle of the day, did little to impede the streetnoise: even four stories up, it sounded as if we were standing in il mercato centrale.
We followed our host to the kitchen: a long, skinny room with some cabinets and a fridge to which several passive-aggressive messages were affixed. On the table stood an open box of cornflakes. Was this the “free breakfast” we’d been promised?
The man interrupted my thoughts with a brusque: “You pay tomorrow?” We wouldn’t be leaving until the day after. “Uh, sure,” I said.
“What time? Cash only. Cash only!” He wrote the total down on a napkin and handed it to me.
I walked back to the room and looked around, sufficiently disillusioned. So this was it, the space we’d be sharing with six strangers for the next several days.
The other guests’ portable lives were stashed next to their beds or hanging out of the wall of lockers. There were phone cords, sweaters, bookmarked novels, and pajama pants. I saw a half-eaten bag of cookies on a nightstand and briefly considered what would happen if I ate one.
What would stop any of us from doing anything? How strange, this concept of forced intimacy and trust.
After a look in the bathroom (better erased from memory), Travis and I got out of there in a hurry.
That night I lay on my thin mattress and tried to will myself to sleep. It wouldn’t be easy: a bedspring cut into my spine. If I just concentrated, breathed deeply– just when sleep was on the periphery, someone crashed into the room, flicking on the reddish lightbulb mere feet away from my top bunk.
The night passed in a cacophony of street noise, snoring, buzzing cell phones and squeaking bedsprings. Every time one of us moved, an ugly eeeech erupted from the respective bunkbed, rendering the particularly restless among us Public Enemy Number 1.
Individual halos of cellphone light shone out from some of the beds. Others took phone calls or rustled around in the lockers: a sound like the antics of a large, particularly irksome rat.
By morning, I had identified a few enemies. Of course, they were none the wiser– I hadn’t even seen these people by daylight.
I stumbled to the bathroom where I discovered all the lights had burned out. Travis shone a penlight while I brushed my teeth. We grabbed some clothes at random and stumbled like drunks to the cafe.
At breakfast, we grumbled and talked a big game.
I would have been better not sleeping at all.
I refuse to pay for this.
We are not staying another night.
Of course we did, though. It was New Year’s Eve and there were no other remotely affordable options.
Quickly exhausted because we hadn’t slept, we returned to the hostel in the afternoon. There I talked with some of the other travelers. There was Mohammed from Togo, whom I spoke to in French. We listened to some Stromae songs and had an impromptu dance party. We had the teaching thing in common: except he was in Italy teaching French, spending his vacation traveling around the country.
Damien, from England, was an experienced hostel-goer. He was taking some time off from “uni” to travel around and work on a novel, he told me. He picked Florence at random: thinking all the art might inspire him.
There were a few Spanish students who were living in Paris and studying French. Altogether we formed quite the blend of cultures, origins, and reasons for starting out the new year in this pit of a hostel.
Sitting on my bed, I hummed Darth Vader’s theme–”The Imperial March”–annoyed because it had been stuck in my head for days (I don’t even like Star Wars). Damien, clearly the entertainer of the group, rummaged around in his things and pulled out a recorder: the instrument everyone “learns” to play in elementary school. He started playing the somber Star Wars song, the reedy notes wheezing and whistling in the air. It was shockingly atonal, pathetically bad, and absolutely the perfect fit for our surroundings. The room erupted in laughter.
I had tears in my eyes. Why does he even have that?! Sitting on the squeaking bed, my legs swinging over the bunk, I surprised myself by thinking: this really isn’t so bad.
There was something special about my first taste of real hostel culture: not so much the revolting bathroom and the torturous nights of sleep, but the summer-camp-camaraderie of it all. The way we were united by thrift, desperation, and dreams.
True travel, by my definition, makes you a little bit uncomfortable. This was true travel ten times over. I have learned to check hostel reviews before I book. I have also learned I am craving more travel like this: gritty instead of carefully-edited. Just, maybe, with a decent bed and a working light in the bathroom.