Lured by the landscape and the inspiration that it offered, I envisaged a two-week visit when I arrived at the youth hostel in the mountains. I planned to work remotely, finish off the degree that I was working on part-time, and hike.
I didn’t think I’d stay six months. But since international borders were shut, shelving my plans to move back overseas, I’d ended up in limbo in my small hometown. As a long-term expat, I was now making up for time away from my family who I loved. But all my school friends had moved away years ago, and after several months, it became isolating. Where to go to that wasn’t locked down?
A former art nouveau ballroom in a mountain youth hostel became the unexpected answer, the setting for my life during a large chunk of the pandemic. In a year when so many people were alone, I accidentally moved into the biggest share house I’d ever lived in.
By the time I left last year, I’d struck up friendships with people from all walks of life, from around Australia and the world, who I never would have met in normal circumstances.
I had virtually nothing in common with my first and closest friend, a 50-something local government employee, who moved in because he did not want to be locked down alone. He was now working remotely. At night, I’d see him at his laptop in the building’s common area turned co-working space and joke: “These aren’t council hours!”
We quickly became mates. I would ramble to him incessantly as he was deep in work about things I knew he had no interest in. He always listened politely.
His tolerance of me was not the only lesson in peacekeeping. Another resident was a Canadian Trump supporter and handyman. In theory, we disagreed on absolutely everything, but it never ended up in an argument. When he spotted me, I’d be greeted with observations like, “Guess who’s going out of business – CNN!” He was harmless, more talk than anything. The day another guest called me a city latte type, telling me that he “despised everything about me”, the Canadian came over to me to see if I was all right.
The place possessed great secrets. One woman, in her 60s with beautiful olive skin, was always immaculately groomed but wore a slightly pained expression.
It was weeks until we got talking and I discovered that, despite her polish, she was receiving treatment for a debilitating brain injury. The hostel was a base for her to be closer to medical facilities. We began to bring each other pastries and coffees, and she invited me to her house “when things got back to normal”.
But when would that be? With life so unpredictable now, some people would book accommodation on a “week by week” basis. Each day you’d wonder who would show up, and many guests would leave only to return later.
There were “hostel hoppers”, there for the company, who spent most of their time sitting in the common area. I met women experiencing homelessness, who I knew could be me in another life. An ex-prisoner who had completely reformed their life joked that these digs were worse than jail. I became quite fond of them.
There was a city professional who, appearing to have sussed out everyone, got dubbed “the reality consultant” by another resident. He was waiting for his apartment to be renovated, but I knew that he secretly liked the social aspect of the hostel.
Young teachers and hospitality workers who were having a hard time finding suitable accommodation had also moved in. Meanwhile, the people you’d normally expect to meet – backpackers – were thin on the ground.
As I worked on my university studies, it occurred to me this time was like an unintended anthropology lesson or a huge social experiment. While some days were exciting, living with so many different people meant that other days were hard.
Sometimes, really late, I would go downstairs to what was once a ballroom and sit there alone, revelling in the space and stillness, but comforted in knowing there were people not far away.
Most afternoons after work I went for a long bushwalk, but the interactions in the kitchen were always a bigger adventure. This was particularly true over dinner, when everyone came together.
Some of the “long-termers” joked about what to call the place. One likened it to a spaceship. Others called it a nursing home. “A bit like a cruise liner with activities on each day – but going nowhere!” That one brought the house down.
Yes, it was like all of those things. But for all of us, during what could have been a time of grim isolation, it was also a lifeline. A home.