If you’re reading this, traveling on a budget is probably your preferred way of life, or at least something you’re aspiring to. One of the ways to save money while traveling is to not pay for accommodation. I’m not talking about sleeping on a bench à la Damon and Jo, but rather working in a hostel. After noncommittal chatter with my friends about putting together a trip, I shut up and went to Italy on my own, working in a hostel to afford the trip. Do I speak Italian, you ask? Non parlo italiano is about the extent of it. As I was planning the trip I settled on Milan because it had the cheapest flights, and because it’s a good departure point for day trips to beautiful areas like Lake Como. From Milan’s charming old town neighborhood with cobblestone streets to the numerous art museums, and the Wes Anderson-style café, I quickly became satisfied with my choice.
After walking from the metro in the summer heat, I arrived sweaty, nervous, and excited at the front desk of the hostel. I was immediately impressed. It was colorful, sleek, and spacious. Nothing like the horror movies, and more modern than any hostel I had stayed at before. The receptionist and the bartender greeted me and I explained that I was the new girl who would be joining the staff for the next two weeks.
Fast forward to my first day on the job, I was working breakfast in the morning and the bar at night. My initial strategy was to follow the lead of those who knew what they were doing. After repeatedly asking what I could help with, if I should wash this or that and being told no, I decided I’d better stay out of the way and avoid being annoying. To my surprise, the very next day I was called down to speak to the manager. He probably only wanted to check in with me right? Wrong. He gave me a stern talking-to and said that I was not working hard enough, and that he expected more from me. He complained that the room I was supposed to clean was left a mess. Surprised and embarrassed, I found this very odd considering a coworker and I had scrubbed and tidied for over an hour, extending beyond my agreed upon schedule.
Nevertheless, I was determined not to let anyone think I had a poor work ethic and resolved to do better going forward.
Clearly I hadn’t won over all the employees, but there were still a few people I had yet to meet. Another day at breakfast after furiously refilling the croissants and coffee from the kitchen, I was sent to the storage closet to restock everything that was running low. In my hurry I didn’t realize until I was halfway across the room that I had trampled over freshly washed floors. I froze and met the eyes of a distraught older man, one hand holding a mop, the other on his head. As I did a cost-benefit analysis of retracing the brown footprints my sneakers had left on the white tiles versus continuing forward and further ruining his floors, he shouted in Italian, saying something I took to mean “Just go! Go!” With that, I disappeared down the stairs and into the storage room. (Would you believe me if I told you I did this a second time days later?)
You know how cartoons always have an arch nemesis, someone who constantly foils their plans? I quickly became his.
He did have a slight change of heart when he learned that my name comes from Arabic, his native language.
Just when I was beginning to befriend some of the staff, I got in trouble again. A coworker and I decided to make pasta at 3AM one night along with a few travelers we met. When in Rome amirite? But apparently the hostel’s kitchen is right next to the most expensive rooms and we had been too loud. As we stuffed our faces with spaghetti, the manager walked in and alerted us to a noise complaint. Cue stern talking-to numero due. Oops.
After having spent most of my time in Milan thinking that Italian mosquitos were out to get me, I came to the realization that my room had *whispers*…bedbugs. A hostel-goer’s nightmare. After online research and close examination of my bites, I brought it to the attention of the staff. I expected them to tell me I was crazy, but they were not surprised. Why? Because they had had the same problem in that room weeks before.
They temporarily changed my room, but then asked me to move back after they investigated and hadn’t seen any critters. I told them that I could not go back to being bitten each night and needed to stay in the new room. They wanted me to change back because, surprise surprise, the room with the infestation had the cheapest beds, and I wasn’t paying for my stay. After a tense discussion, I was able to stay in the new room, and the tiny unwelcome guests did not seem to follow.
My last offense occurred during the end of my stay and was admittedly my fault. One night as I was chatting with coworkers behind the front desk, I leaned (you might call it sitting) on an air conditioning unit that appeared to be secured to the ground. It was something I had seen others do before, and it wasn’t the first time I had put what I knew was a bit too much weight on something that wasn’t a chair. But this fateful evening, all of a sudden I felt it crash below me. Mouth agape, eyes wide, did I really just do that? The other staff members helped me with damage control as the unit began to spill water all over the floor and had become almost fully detached from the wall.
Let me tell you it looked bad. After our scrambling, I decided it would be best for the manager to hear from me what had happened. I texted him explaining the accident, apologizing profusely, and offered to pay to have it repaired.
I genuinely thought I would be out on the streets.
I’d racked up at least three strikes. In a few hours he responded “Ok.” Yikes. Thankfully it was fixed within 24 hours, and they only asked for 30€ from me, which I gladly paid. And who was the person assigned to clean up my mess? The same older Arab-Italian man whose job I unwittingly continued to make harder.
Shortly thereafter I returned to the United States on an early morning flight that allowed me to steal away around 2AM, avoiding any awkward goodbyes with certain people who were probably not too sad to see me go. Do I have a future in hostel service or management? Probably not. But did I dutifully run down to work breakfast one day after being abruptly woken up on my morning off? Did I help them out while they were short-staffed, all the while enjoying northern Italy? Hell yeah I did.
Have you ever had a job abroad that didn’t go quite as planned?