By Bill Fink
This story appears in the new book, Italy From a Backpack.
I ran the two miles to the hostel outside Siena, my backpack bouncing painfully on my shoulders. The manager had told me they had only one space remaining. It was all I could afford in the area—I had to get that spot.
When I arrived, panting, at the three-story brick-and-steel building, I was dismayed to see a mob of backpackers crowded around the front desk. Two surly staff members were shouting at them in Italian, grabbing crumpled piles of money, and stuffing registration forms, one each, into the hundred cubby holes in the wall behind them. Each nook denoted one available bed. As I made my way to the counter, I heard one of the clerks answer the phone.
“No! No reservations! One space only. You come now. Immediately!” He slammed down the phone.
I looked at the wall behind him; at least two dozen cubby holes were empty.
As I exchanged my money for bed #42, the clerk pointed an accusing finger at me and spouted the rules in heavily accented English: “No drinking! No food! No noise at night! Lights out at midnight! Curfew eleven-thirty—absolutely no entry after then, doors locked! Doors locked ten in morning to three in afternoon. Everyone must go. Absolutely no entry! Doors locked until seven in morning. No entry, no exit!”
This rigid set of commands seemed better suited to the countries I’d just left, famously uptight Switzerland and Germany. Italy was supposed to be the home of the sun-drenched, relaxed attitude of the Mediterranean. Surely they wouldn’t mind if I needed the rules to be altered just a bit.
“Signore, per favore, I have to catch a bus at seven in the morning, so I need to leave a little earlier, maybe six-thirty. Hope it’s not a problem.”
I guessed he thought it would be impossible for me, if I left at 6:30, to walk the two miles back to town in time to make the Rome bus departure. It was nice of him to be concerned.
“No, no, six-thirty OK.” I made a running motion with my arms.
He looked at me with what appeared to be pure hatred.
“IMMM-POSSIBLE!” He waved his raised hands vigorously, as if he were trying to keep an airplane from landing on the counter between us.
“No, really.” I tried to explain myself slowly and simply. “I must catch bus. Only one morning bus. Seven in the morning. I must get to Rome tomorrow afternoon. So I must leave hostel by six-thirty.”
“No. Impossible. Im-possible.” He waved his hand to the side, dismissing me like a serf.
I stood there, stupefied, until anxious backpackers jostling for the hostel’s “one last space” bumped me away from the counter.
I hoped it was just a linguistic misunderstanding. He must have meant that the doors were locked to keep people from entering before the desk was open. They couldn’t possibly lock people inside the hostel, could they?
At 6 a.m., I crept down the stairs to the lobby, figuring that if I was quiet enough, I could unlock the front door and nobody would be the wiser.
But I couldn’t even get to the front door. A set of interior glass doors divided the stairwell from the entrance. Not only were these doors locked, but a couch had been moved across them as a barricade. And on the couch slept a guard dog. It raised its head, starting to snarl before its eyes were even open. I fled up the stairs, hoping the dog wouldn’t bark and wake up the manager—who, apparently, would throw me into some Medici-inspired torture chamber in a dungeon beneath the building.
I returned to my room, where 10 backpackers lay half-awake on rickety iron bunk beds.
“What, doors locked, really?” asked one German teen to whom I had told my problem. “It is like prison, ya?”
“Ya. And now I need to escape.” I opened our second-story window and looked down to the asphalt below.
“No jumping. This I think is bad,” said a pimply Danish high-schooler, sitting up in his bunk. I had teased him the night before about the high suicide rate in Denmark, and I think he still felt obligated to point out living solutions in our daily lives.
I started to strip the sheets off of my bed and knot them into a rope of sorts. The German and Dane jumped out of bed to do the same, waking their friends with their laughter.
We formed three sets of sheets into a 20-foot strand so I could lower my backpack, full of breakable souvenirs and my camera, to the pavement. I held the knotted end of another sheet and stepped out the window onto a small ledge. My backpacking escape team held the other end, anchoring against one of the bed frames.
I inched along the ledge until I could grasp a drain pipe bolted onto the side of the building. It was large enough that I was able to shimmy down the building without incident. I hopped onto the street.
The worried faces poking out my window burst into cheers until I quickly silenced them with a finger to my lips. I glanced toward the front doors, expecting them to burst open with the desk clerks and rabid dog leaping out to drag me back inside. I unknotted the sheets from my backpack and, after a couple of tries, tossed them back through the window.
It was already 6:40. I strapped on my backpack and started my jog into town, worried about missing the bus. As I hustled up the road, a few people working in the fields looked at me with alarm. I imagined their thoughts: The only people who ran in Italy were thieves and soccer players, and I wasn’t wearing a jersey.
I arrived at the bus terminal, drenched in sweat, at 7:05. There wasn’t a single person in the waiting area. The bus must have left! I gnashed my teeth and cursed the hostel loudly. A sleepy head poked out from behind the ticket window. “Che?”
“The bus, the seven o’clock Rome bus, is it gone? Can I still catch it at another station in town?”
The ticket clerk recoiled at my wide-eyed, sweaty countenance. Then he laughed.
“No, no, no, seven o’clock bus, she never come at seven.” He wagged his finger. “Seven o’clock bus always come after nine.” He slammed the shutter closed behind the window. I heard it click.
Reflexively, I looked for an exit, worried they had locked me inside again.
Bill Fink was a comparative-literature major at the University of Michigan. He spent the summer after graduation hitchhiking across Europe, getting rides with everyone from cheerful soccer hooligans to grumpy prison guards. Years later, the hostel in this story still gets crappy reviews from backpackers. Bring rope.
Read this story and 30 others in the new book, Italy From a Backpack.