Why We Hostel: Ann Hammond

05 October 2015

woman at dinner table

My first hostelling experience was 52 years ago. I loved it then, and I love it even more today! In the summer of 1963, at 14 years old, I was the youngest of 10 young women (the leader, the oldest, was 21) from the northeast that went on a 6-week AYH-sponsored cycling trip. We began in Philadelphia, cycled through Pennsylvania Dutch country to Washington, D.C., then down the Skyline Drive to Williamsburg, VA. We stayed in hostels wherever possible, otherwise with families or in low-cost hotels. It was a wonderful trip, filled with adventures that surely would have worried my parents if I had told them! My most memorable experience was walking into a restaurant on the Skyline Drive in search of a cold drink. Every customer there stopped talking and stared at me with a hostile expression. Unaware there was such a thing as a door “For Whites Only,” I had entered through the “wrong” door. Years later, I realized we had visited the nation’s Capital when it was still segregated; we had climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial just weeks before Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream for America from those same steps. My next hostelling experience was in the summer of 1970. My college roommate and I celebrated our graduation by visiting 10 European countries in 9 weeks. During this trip, my first outside of the U.S., I quickly came to appreciate why it was important to learn other languages and to study history, and I deeply regretted having done neither. We used our (then-unlimited) Euro-rail passes, stayed in crowded hostels in each city, and met fascinating young people from all over the world. One of my most memorable experiences was visiting then-divided Berlin. The train ride through East Germany was stressful, with fierce, intimidating military guards at the borders. One morning, after we had reached West Berlin, we walked out of the hostel with new friends—three young Israelis soldiers on R&R also staying there—and encountered three young Syrian soldiers also on R&R. They stopped, faced each other for a very long minute. Then, one slowly reached out his hand, and each of the three shook hands with each of the other three. Later, my roommate and I walked through Checkpoint Charlie to visit what I remember as a gray, barren, dusty East Berlin with rubble in the streets. A few hours later, I was so relieved to return to Checkpoint Charlie, see the American flag flying overhead, and know that I had the freedom and opportunity to leave that desolate East Berlin environment and pass back into the vibrant, brightly-colored West Berlin. That 1970 experience clarified my direction in life. With an undergraduate degree in psychology, I enrolled for a Master’s degree in international relations, and later worked for 25 years at one of the United Nations’ agencies. There, I worked with colleagues from more than 100 countries, traveled throughout the world, and became long-lasting friends with people of many nationalities. But, in all of my travels, whenever I could, I chose to continue my hostel experiences. Now retired, and still relatively young and healthy, I finally have the opportunity to realize a life-long dream of living for at least one year outside the US. I chose Europe for my destination, because I have always felt a strong connection there since my first visit 45 years ago. And, I focused on France, because of its central location and my belief that French might be easier to learn than German. I’ve been in Europe for 15 months so far. During 7 of those months, I’ve had the opportunity to live with four different host families (in Vichy, Nice, Saint Yrieix, and La Fleche), coming to appreciate day-to-day life in France. I’ve spent much of that time in language school, finding that learning French is a bit more challenging than I had expected! During the other 8 months, I have traveled by train to some 25 other cities in France and to cities in 12 other countries. I carry my backpack and small roller bag, and I stay in hostels at nearly every stop. Many American friends my age (now 67) tell me I’m too old to travel that way now. My answer to them is emphatic: NO, absolutely not! Hostels—in Europe, at any rate—have evolved to accommodate changing demographics. They are no longer limited to those under age 26, and most hostels now offer many of the amenities one would find in a hotel. During these 8 months of hostelling, I have met people whose ages range from teens to mid-80s, with a wide range of life situations, from countries throughout the world. I’ve made many new friends, with whom I continue to stay in touch, of all ages and nationalities. What brings us together is what I have always found with those who choose hostelling: curiosity about life, a sense of adventure, a desire to see and learn about new places, a thirst for experiences that vary from day-to-day life in our own countries, and a wish to learn about cultures different from our own. Hostelling helps to educate us, to build our understanding of ourselves and of others, and to change lives. I love it! I am so grateful for all my hostel experiences, and I’m headed back soon for at least another year of hostelling throughout Europe. But, now it’s time for me to run: I’m in LA, heading east next week, and I have to make my hostel reservations for Boston and New York City before they’re filled up!