Booking the wrong hostel inspires a solitary journey

We arrived in Rome late at night. Though we were sad to leave Munich and the city’s gigantic (yet somehow perfectly sized) beers behind, the trip had to go on. We were always tired when we travelled to different cities, but as soon as we arrived we would instantly feel energized by our new surroundings. Rome had once seemed like a mythic place that we would only ever see on television – but there we were, travelling on the train from the airport and slowly making our way towards our rooms for the night.

“Dude, I think you booked the wrong hostel,” pointed out one of my friends as we checked over our booking information. Struck by a wave of disbelief, I looked for myself.

Sure enough, the hostel my friends had booked was a sister to mine, baring a slightly different name – that must have been what got me. It was a dumb mistake that I now had to pay the price for. The Alessandro Palace would house five of my travelling companions that night. The Alessandro Downtown had set aside a single bed for me, and me alone.

After having spent a few hours in comfortable solitude, I managed to locate my travelling companions. Pictured from left to right at the Colosseum: Matt Binotto, myself, Braden DeVries, and Max Nealon. The time for quiet contemplation was gone in an instant once we found each other again. Photo by Paul McAleer“Don’t worry, man,” the guys tried to reassure me. “I’m sure our hostel will have enough space for one extra person.” Suffice to say, it did not.

I was on my own.

A 15 minute walk separated our hostels, but in a foreign city, on foreign streets, without access to Google Maps, those 15 minutes felt more like 15 miles of uncharted territory. When I was seven or eight, my parents would hand me a map, a real one, and I would be in charge of directions. Now, at 20 years old, my brain cells are few and iPhones have sucked the practicality from my hollow noggin.

The first night came and went, and despite my circumstances, I managed to have a great deal of fun. My friends and I were out drinking at this bar next to their hostel until two or three in the morning. The next afternoon, I still hadn’t heard from them since going our separate ways the night before.

The day was dwindling away, second by second, minute by minute. My hostel room had more than 10 bunk beds, and perched like a stone gargoyle on the ledge of the top bunk I was assigned, I could see all of them were deserted. All the other travellers were out adventuring, and there I was, by myself, waiting for a message from my friends that may never come. So, I had a choice to make.

I looked beyond the hollow emptiness of my fortress, out past the room’s only window to the world outside. The Roman sky was overcast and dreary – sheer irony considering the events of our time here thus far. Yet it was compelling, in its own way, calling to me as I used the spotty hostel Wi-Fi to contact my friends.

Constructed in approximately 126 A.D., the Pantheon is one of Rome’s most popular attractions. Aside from containing magnificent artwork, statues, and architectural design, the Pantheon is also used as a church hosting multiple masses throughout the day. One had just ended when I first arrived, and so there were only a few stragglers wandering about. Photo by Paul McAleerWere they still sleeping in a foolish attempt to purge dense hangovers? Did they venture off into the ancient city, toward adventure, without me?

Either way, I was abandoned.

My bunk bed had a stunted ladder built into the frame, but I chose to jump off instead. An unnatural burst of energy pushed the stillness of my own hangover out of my body. I was no longer a statue. Shaking the stone from my skin and packing my backpack, I felt alive. It was time to experience Rome by myself, exposed to danger and wonder not felt when I was with my group.

I stepped out of the hostel and instinctively put my sunglasses on. The light felt harsh on my eyes even though clouds blocked the sun. I took out my phone and plugged in my headphones. My Wi-Fi signal had disappeared. I put my iTunes library on shuffle, creating a soundtrack for the day that belonged to me exclusively. My eyes took in the scene around me: tourists stopping and gaping at the Roman architecture while vendors, far too familiar with their surroundings to notice the beauty, tried in vain to seize their attention.

While some tourists sat on the benches for rest inside the Pantheon, I couldn’t keep still. I walked around the building scanning the sculptures, wondering about their history and the immense skill it took to craft them. Photo by Paul McAleerI took out my map and navigated the winding streets until I reached the Pantheon. The trek took nearly three hours when it should have taken half the time. I dodged several impatient Italian drivers along the way, but their vengeful honking was worth it when I could see the distinct colossal dome in front of me.

My first step inside almost resulted in a step back in the other direction – I had never seen anything like it. The paintings, the murals, and the decorated marble interior must have been stolen straight from heaven – not meant for mortal eyes. Standing in the middle of the Pantheon, I felt honored to be surrounded by the beauty of the building. It almost felt like I had become part of its rich history simply by being there to experience it.

I needed time to take it all in. The tourists around me all vanished. I felt alone and I was glad. No friends to prematurely push me out the entrance and onto the next landmark. In my solitude, I had all the time in the world.

Thumbnail by Paul McAleer.

pmcaleer@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca