Late in May, I expected my trip to Europe to flirt with summer weather, allowing me to travel light. Coming from chilly mornings and warm afternoons – the norm of spring on the west coast of Canada – I was prepared to warm a body tired from a chilling winter. Instead, I was greeted with a frigid rain that immediately drenched my thin windbreaker and the extremely absorbent clothes underneath. Not a great start to a backpacking trip.
The entire time I was in Copenhagen, the temperature struggled to stay on the north side of zero. Snow would have been more welcoming, at least that would have left me just a little less soggy. The metro station closest to my first night’s stay was a quick 10 minute walk through a downpour, which was enough to appreciate the warmth flowing into my face as I opened the streaky glass door.
My first pit stop also happened to be my first experience in a hostel. With little expectations and thirty sleepless hours behind me, the brusque manner of the lady at the counter didn’t faze my tired body.
“We’re full up for the day. Try along Vesterborgade. Many not full,” she motioned back at the door as she picked up four beers and rushed off to the nearest picnic bench masqueraded as a mess hall table. Every surface had a body attached to it – sitting, leaning, standing, even sleeping.
Still early in the evening, groups of people still lounged around the open common space. Along each wall were industrial-crafted benches topped with pillows of mismatching colors. People congregated every few feet to make the most out of the plugs, seeking to recharge their laptops or phones. Words from a number of languages fought for your ear among the simultaneous conversations in Dutch, German, French, English and a number of languages unknown to me. A few small tables were strewn in the middle of the path in a failing attempt to provide an eating surface. Each table overflowed with empty takeout trays or plates, discarded as soon as the food has disappeared – and in several cases even before.
As soon as she returned to the counter, I tried again. “No, I have a reservation. I booked a room here,” I insisted as I handed her a dampened paper with the reservation information.
She grunted with acknowledgement and proceeded to scribble something down on an overcrowded scratchpad. With hardly a sound, she motioned for me to follow her.
“Bathrooms are at the end of the hall in B wing. Bathrooms are shared by everyone. Clean up after yourself. Upper levels are private rooms, you can’t go in there. No drinking or drugs in the dorms.” She sped through the list of house rules and headed to the door at the back of the common area.
The squeak of an old industrial hinge echoed down the corridor, revealing a dimly lit hallway. Grey concrete floor competed for drabness with the grey concrete walls. Each room housed metal-framed bunk beds bolted to the wall and stacked three high. On each bed lay a thin mat and a thin fleece blanket folded to military precision. Floor-length lockers were stacked against one wall, the width barely wide enough to contain my backpack.
The lone empty bed was a middle bunk just behind the door. Caused from what I assumed was the lack of locker space, the room was a mess. Spare clothes and cables were strewn upon each bed, haphazardly unpacked from weathered bags, a testament to the carefree nature of the others living in this room. Hardly past 9pm local time, the hours of meager sleep dragged me into a dreamless slumber.
7:23 pm. The other occupants had stumbled into the room sometime in the middle of the night, clumsily slipping over the invisible mess and clanging lockers open and shut. My phone was still stuck on Vancouver time. Even with the way jet lag plays with the concept of time, I still realized how early it was.
The vibrant colors of the common room were dimmed by the lack of light from the early morning. Just hours ago, the room was still filled with relaxing travelers, now wandered back to their rooms. Slouching into one of red beanbags in an elevated corner of the room right behind the door, I had a bird’s eye view of the room as the aches from my meager sleep tried to drag my body to rest. The door to the dorms squeaked open again, revealing a man of medium build, clothes layered like he was braving an arctic winter, complete with a bursting bag on his back. With a huge sigh, he dropped his bag and coat on the cushions
“Can’t sleep either?” I spoke in a volume too loud for the early morning. I just realized it was barely past 4am, an hour when some travelers would be just returning to the hostel.
“Just getting an early start. I’ve got to move to a different hostel today.”
“Had enough of this one?” I joked, motioning to the chaotic mess left by last night’s activities.
“No, actually I quite like this place. My brother and I joined a group of people from this hostel yesterday to explore the city. You’re jet lagged aren’t you?”
“Very much. How was it yesterday?”
“Not bad. There’s a few interesting castles like the Christiansborg one with quite a nice view of the city from the tower. But, I’m really here for the food. I’m training to be a chef in New York.”
He had just been acceped into a culinary institute in New York with big dreams to own his own restaurant. The name of the school escaped me, but by the passion of his description of the program, I could tell he felt fortunate and relieved to have finally achieved his dream. He had spent almost a week in Copenhagen and was just about to leave for a side trip into Sweeden. The whole purpose of his trip was to eat at the three-star Michelin restaurant, Noma.
“It’s ranked as the number one restaurant in the world. The reservations open three months in advance and book up instantly”
“Like a concert?” I chuckled at the absurdity.
“I was on at 2am and it sold out before my page loaded. I had already booked a flight and everything. I got a reservation off of Craigslist. You see, they will only seat tables of four and somebody dropped out of their group. I would’ve paid a few hundred just for the reservation spot, but they gave it away for free.”
“That’s pretty lucky!”
“I actually had this trip booked months before the reservations opened up. Amsterdam has great food and I would have came regardless if I could get into Noma.”
“I actually have plans to eat at one in Paris. Since they have so many, I guess it’s a little cheaper.”
We continued to talk about a shared passion for food and experiencing cuisine as a way to experience culture. Amsterdam is known for Smorgasbord, a small open-faced sandwich with a variety of toppings, typically including meat and pickled vegetables.
After the brief conversation, I headed into the cold morning with a slightly warmer heart, noting my first stop at a highly recommended espresso shop.
I may have painted a picture of chaos, mess, and solitude, but all it takes is meeting one person to make an experience worthwhile. I had decided on using hostels as a budget-friendly option, not knowing that the people could be friendly. Despite spending the rest of my day trudging in the dreary cold and grey Amsterdam, which reminded me a little of home, I left the city with a positive feeling.