20 Jan

Catalysing love at the end of the world: Bottom Bunk Beds

E&M’s one and only Friederike Sandow reached the other end of our dear planet to investigate hostel romances. Read and delight in these testimonies of love, sex, proximity and intimacy.

“I am so sick of wearing this T-shirt, but I mean, right now, it’s all I own,” he chuckles.

“Did you travel here with one single T-shirt?” I ask, incredulous.

“Oh, no, I had plenty. But look at that guy there: wearing my T-shirt. This guy over there? Wearing my T-shirt. I am telling you: hang anything to dry on the clothes lines in the backyard and it’s never yours to wear again”, he says as we both take a sip of beer and glance around the colourful backyard in the hostel. He doesn’t mind.

The Old Fire Station’s backyard | Photo courtesy of Friederike Sandow

The backyard is full of people in their mid-twenties, early thirties. You hear a mix of languages: Portuguese in one corner, Italians shouting at each other by the ping pong table; you hear Germans bickering over who pays the next round of drinks, an American using the jukebox, and you hear cussing and laughter as only the English can, from the big wooden table across from the swing chair we sit on.

We are in the backyard of the Old Fire Station, a Backpackers hostel in Fremantle, a town located at the outskirts of Perth, Western Australia, which is one of the most isolated cities in the world. The hostel has a capacity of around 130 people and during summer it’s often fully booked. That means that everyone basically lives outside in the backyard. It means no privacy. It means almost never being alone. It means sharing everything with strangers – food, embarrassments, parties, joints, tobacco, clothes – and intimacy. And yet, for people who come here, the hostel life is a means of experiencing freedom, of trying to figure out who they are, who they want to be, what they want to do with their life and what it feels like to be away from home.

In its 13 years as a refuge for backpackers, the hostel has seen over 21 marriages, some offsprings, and a fair amount of romance, heartbreaks, and love stories.

Almost no one ever says that they are going travelling to fall in love. Taking a break from real life to find a spouse. And yet, there’s a substantial amount of people I know who met when they were travelling – and there are some who just never came back from their gap year. Like my brother, for example. He packed his bags to travel after his best friend for “only a few months, just until Christmas, Mum,” he said to our doubtful mother in August 2010. I mean, he did come back – to pack up his room for good and settle at the end of the world. Working at the hostel, he sees people coming and going and, mostly, staying. In its over 13 years as a refuge for backpackers from all over the world, the hostel has seen over 21 marriages, some offsprings, and a fair amount of romance, heartbreaks, and love stories.

For Europe & Me, I interviewed some of its former and current residents to spill the beans on the hostel romance.

Buying the essentials | Photo courtesy of Friederike Sandow

The answers to “How did you meet?“ ranged from “In the hostel, duh…” to “He was in my wider group of friends. Honestly, I thought he was a little cold. And apparently he thought I was not someone he wanted to get to know better. And yet, here we are. I now think he is quite warm and I am someone he wanted to get to know better after all,” to this little gem: “So it was just another normal night in the hostel, sitting around drinking, listing to music, having fun. In this social environment, there are always people coming and going, new faces from different places. I saw a girl sitting on the floor opposite me. She was someone whom I had never seen before. I mean, she was hot and had beautiful eyes. We were all sitting on chairs and – being the English gentleman that I am – I offered her my seat which she first refused, but after a little while she was sitting next to me and that’s how we met. If I’m honest, I didn’t even think I would get a kiss, let alone any of the other stuff. We used to stay up chatting for hours getting to know each other, it wasn’t until about two weeks after we met that we had sex.”

Others were thrown right into falling in love a couple of inches away from each other: “We met in the 14-bed dorm. We had the beds next to each other.”

Falling in love at the hostel felt “unexpected and so, so easy”

The courtyard at night | Photo courtesy of Friederike Sandow

Talk about romance, amIrightguys? The answers make you wonder: would they have fallen in love with each other outside of the hostel? They all travelled over extensive distances only to stumble into a house where they met someone that ticks the respective chemical boxes – and it’s suddenly meant to be? Yes, maybe. Or it was a state of mind. Being in an environment that forces you and invites you to be social, leaves you more prone to look left and right again and again without overthinking it. When asked how falling in love at the hostel felt, one girl said: “Unexpected and so, so easy.” I guess that’s what they all have in common. They travelled without expectations and high hopes for meeting someone else, they only had expectations for themselves and their time away from home.

But once the love hit ‘em, the game was on.

In a hostel with only a couple of private rooms and a guarantee that SOMEONE is always awake wandering around, sex becomes a challenge that has to be solved in creative ways and, if possible, with avoiding being caught by the CCTV. Most of their answers not only tell a tale of two young lovers in despair, they also tell a tale of friendship. Rooms being vacated for a certain amount of time by the roomies, some minutes in heaven through the discovery of suddenly empty dorms during the day.

“Oh boy, sex in hostels…”

Everyone admitted though, that sneaking around definitely made things a little more exciting – but also a little less of a big deal. “Of course once you start getting romantically involved with another backpacker, you immediately know a lot more that you would in normal life. You see a lot more and others have seen more of you than you would feel ok with back home. If that makes sense. You are falling in love with basically a housemate plus with a lot of people and friends around. Everything is very visible and public.” The English gentleman from above reminisced that they didn’t really have to sneak around in terms of going to have sex in the showers, toilets or the cinema room. “At the time I was in a single room with my mate, there was a bunk bed and the bottom was a double bed which I won with a fair game of rock, paper, scissors. So at first, when we did share intimate moments, it would be when we had the room for ourselves… or, occasionally, after a drunken night, we would do it even if my mate was in the room. I mean, he was asleep…we hoped.” Eventually they managed to snatch a double room. Not everyone was that lucky though: “Oh boy, sex in hostels…. I mean, it’s not bad in your own private room if you have one, but we didn‘t always have one. So, yeah, we were regulars in the toilet (which is not the most romantic), plus we took advantage of the RARE moments no one was in the room! I am telling you, having a bottom bunk and a sheet up was the way forward! That’s the reason you NEED a bottom bunk!“

“Having a bottom bunk and a sheet up was the way forward! That’s the reason you NEED a bottom bunk”

The bottom bunk was mentioned by quite a lot of people I interviewed. I always wondered at what age the bottom bunk becomes cool. One year we are all screaming our lungs out because we all want the top bunk to feel like kings and queens and before you know it, all the cool kids want the bottom bunk.

But now, really. What is so special about love in a hostel, or during your travels? Why does it seem so intense, why should I not roll my eyes when my friends come back telling me they will move in with a guy or girl they have only known for three months whilst travelling?

“Sometimes when you travel, you tend to get to know people much more intimately in a short amount of time. You connect more about life stories and adventures and goals and hopes, not about jobs and where to get your coffee in the morning and if your weekend was ‘nice.’ You know, when I first got to the hostel, I planned to stay for one night. One night! It was just a roof that I needed. I ended up staying for on and off 13 months. Now we just came back from another round of travelling –  and we decided to simply be back again, for at least another 6 months. What can I say. I came for a bed and stayed for the conversations.”

“Everything is very visible and public” | Photo courtesy of Friederike Sandow

The bottom-bunk pro tip girl says that “currently we are planning and looking for a house to live in at home, having lived together practically for the past 11 months we might as well.”

And our English gentleman? “I would say that having a relationship with someone you meet in a hostel does speed up the ‘normal relationship’ process. You do things in a far shorter amount of time than if you lived in separate homes or areas. Sadly after nearly a year, it wasn’t meant to be and we went our separate ways. I’m back on the market again but not planning on rushing into anything serious for now, but you never know what is around the corner and love can strike at any time, whether it be in a hostel or in a supermarket.”

They have lived through love in its ups and downs and insecurities in a microcosmos that has accelerated feelings and decisions.

Admittedly, the results are less juicy than expected and more heartwarming than bearable. It’s what we all have experienced to some extent, but they have lived through love in its ups and downs and insecurities in a microcosmos that has accelerated feelings and decisions.

“Imagine a kindergarten 2.0,” my brother tries to explain, “only for adults. Children in kindergarten are daring, they want to have fun. Their main aim is to laugh, have adventures and make friends, they don’t doubt everything they hear and see, they marvel at others and they speak the truth because they haven‘t experienced lies yet. I think that’s why people have a hard time leaving or going back to reality. A hostel lets you be a reckless teenager again.”

Let’s all try to live a little more like kindergarten children, shall we.

The last words I want to leave to the guy from the beginning, who even shares his T-shirts: “The thing is – most couples normally don’t live together for a long time. Being in a hostel environment is just different. You’re in a situation where you share so much time and space with people, that you form relationships very quickly. And because this situation is so unique, you form a bond like no other, you find friends for life and sometimes lovers. It’s quite amazing.”