Rome Without a Home

I know that it sounds slightly ridiculous, but one of the contributing factors to my little emotional breakdown at the end of my stay in Madrid was the anxiety I had about boarding my very first Ryanair flight. With the exception of one ferry, I had made the journey from Beijing to Madrid entirely by trains, and for the first time in a couple of months I was accosted with the issues of baggage dimensions and maximum weight limits. Ryanair are known for their absolute rigidness with these rules and, being a budget airline, their limits aren’t exactly generous. I had a 15kg weight limit for my checked bag – which was already an added cost on the price of the ticket – and I was allowed to take one piece of carry on luggage that was within the dimensions of 55cm x 40cm x 20cm. Which would have been fine it weren’t for the fact that I had another carry on item – my little blue ukulele – that I had simply been clipping onto the outside of my backpack. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I realised I wouldn’t be able to do that this time, but also that it seemed very unlikely that I would going to fit the ukulele into either of my bags.

I figured the little instrument would get tossed around and far too damaged if I put it in my checked luggage, so I went about attempting to fit it inside by small backpack. The top was sticking out between the zippers, and it also meant I’d had to shift some things from the smaller backpack to the bigger one, bringing its gross weight ever closer to the already quite low maximum. I sat on the floor of the dorm with my belongings scattered over my bed, playing Tetris with them as I tried to fit them around the awkwardly shaped ukulele I now had to cater for.
“Do you think that’s within the required dimensions?” I asked Rachel. She wasn’t much help there, being unfamiliar with the metric system, but she attempted to calm my anxieties.
“They’re a pain in the ass, those airlines, but the trick is to be confident, if you ask me. They may not even make you measure it if you walk in feeling confident enough that you don’t need to prove it.” It made a bit of sense, I guess, but the top of the ukulele sticking out through the backpack was keeping my fear in check. It would cost €60 to check it in separately as a musical instrument, and I’d only paid $35 for it in Australia. I mean, worst case scenario was that I made it to the gate but would have to leave the ukulele behind. But still, it had made it this far, and if it came to that then I’d be sad to see it go.


The other thing that was causing me a fair bit of stress was that I had no idea where I was going to stay once I got to Rome. Every single hostel I found through online searches were completely booked out, save one that had a sole night available on the evening I arrived. I booked it out of desperation, not sure how I was going to travel the 15km from Ciampino Airport to the city centre at around 11:00pm when I finally arrived. I had sent dozens of Couchsurfing requests, and even posted a message on a public group asking if there was anyone I could meet up with, even if they didn’t have a place for me to stay. None of my efforts proved fruitful. It was all getting a little desperate – it got to the point where I was calculating the hire charges for luggage lockers in the train terminal Stazione Termini, and just going homeless for a new days, turning tricks in some gay bars in order to find a bed for the night. Part of me thought that was kind of exciting, like a really crazy adventure, but most of me thought it was completely insane, and frantically returned to the search for somewhere to actually call home while in Rome.

Come the day of my departure, I wasn’t doing too good. When it grew late enough in the afternoon, I gathered my belongings and trekked it over the metro station. The closest station had been conveniently closed, so I had to walk a lot further in the hot Madrid afternoon sun to finally get to a working station. I hopped on the metro and rode it out to the airport, which would prove to be another confusing game of back and forth through the terminal, getting things stamped and finding the right gates and being told to go to the wrong place by person after person after person. By now I considered myself a pretty capable and experienced traveller, and I don’t normally have too many problems with airports, so maybe it was just the stress and exhaustion of the past few days, but this terminal of Madrid airport was a real kicker. Before checking in my bag, I literally stripped down in the middle of the terminal so that I could change and pull out my heavier items of clothing like my jeans, hoodie and thick leather belt, which I could wear on the plane and thus make my luggage a little bit lighter. It was almost 40°C that day, so I looked like a bit of a crazy person as I layered up, but I told myself it would only be for a few hours, and that it was probably going to be colder on the plane anyway. You can imagine my sheer relief when I put my bag down on the conveyor belt and the scale read “15.00”. Exactly 15kg. It felt like I’d just witnessed a miracle.

But my luck turnaround didn’t stop there. As I sat down to some hideously overpriced airport food and checked into the limited airport wifi, I was shocked to see a message from a Couchsurfing host in Rome. He had replied to the public message I had sent out, to anyone in Rome who would listen. “Hey Robert, do you still need a place to stay in Rome? Maybe I can help? Valerio”. I quickly messaged him back with my phone number, as well as the brief overview of the logistical disaster that I had found myself in. His response was more than I could have hoped for – he lived right near the airport I was landing in and offered to pick me up when my plane arrived. I thanked him profusely until I used up all my free wifi.

The last obstacle to overcome was the carry on bag. “Be cool, be cool,” I repeated to myself under my breath. “Confidence. Confidence.” I had my backpack on, stuffed with all my worldly possessions that exceeded 15kg, including the little ukulele peeking out past the zippers. However, there had been no restrictions on extra articles of clothing you were allowed to bring on the plane, so I had my hoodie draped over my shoulders and over my backpack, attempting to cover any irregularities that may have otherwise stuck out like a sore thumb – and it worked! After having my boarding pass checked I was waved through onto the plane without so much as a second glance. For all the things that had gone wrong and caused me so much anxiety before this flight, everything was turning out remarkably well.


The flight was smooth sailing, and we touched down in Rome at about 11:00pm, with Ryanair sounding their little victory ditty over the PA system to signify they’d had another on-time arrival. Valerio was waiting for me in the terminal when I emerged from baggage claim. He was a tiny man, probably just shy of five feet tall, but he was very sweet and very generous. He offered to drive me into the city where I had the hostel booked for one night. “If you had gotten a taxi, they would have charged you way more than they should have, because you’re a tourist. They assume you don’t know any better.” Which would have been right. “Watch out for things like that.” But when his home was literally a five minute drive from the airport, I said “Screw the hostel!” and decided to stay at Valerio’s that night. 12 hours ago I had been a panicking mess, with no idea where I was going, what I was doing, or how I was going to survive the next three days in Rome. Now, I had a shower to freshen up in (though Valerio apologies that the hot water wasn’t working, a cold shower was particularly refreshing in the Mediterranean heat), a spare bed to sleep in, and a new friend who was essentially my pint-sized saviour. I still smile to myself every now and then when I think about it, filled with equal parts of gratitude and wonder that things always just seem to sort themselves out in the end.

A Little Luxury

One thing I’ve learnt about travelling is that, try as you might, there is no possible way to prepare for every single situation. You can spend weeks or months planning a trip, but odds are that life is going to throw you a curve ball and you’re going to have to deal with some unexpected and potentially unpleasant, or at the very least frustrating, situations. I experienced one particular drawback during my Air BnB stay in Barcelona, when I was told halfway through my third day staying in the apartment that there was a plumbing problem with the shower and they would set to work installing a new shower right away. Great for the people who live there – not so great for the people who are paying per night to stay there, with the expectation they would have access to basic facilities such as a bathroom. I’d already paid upfront with no chance for a refund which was a little frustrating, because if I had known I wasn’t going to have a place to shower for half my time staying there then I probably would have left to find a place where I could.

I don’t think that’s necessarily being ungrateful either – this wasn’t Couchsurfing: it wasn’t a free place to stay. I was technically a paying customer, and unfortunately I didn’t get what I thought I was paying for. I went so far as to meet up with someone on one of the various gay social networking phone applications so that I might be able to borrow their shower to get ready for my final night out at the clubs in Barcelona. He was another tourist, a British guy named Mike, and after my shower we hung out for the afternoon and actually got on pretty well. He was even considering coming out to Metro with me that evening, but he had to cancel after receiving an emergency phone call from home about someone trying to break into his apartment back in London. So once again I set out to the club by myself, and that was the night that I met Fausto, Holger and Malte.


The next day, after catching up on a bit of sleep, I got in contact with Fausto. He had invited me to come swimming with Holger, Malte and himself at their hotel pool, and considering the shower in my apartment wouldn’t be fixed any time soon, I figured a relocation wouldn’t be such a bad idea – even if it was just for an afternoon. I gathered my things, said my goodbyes to Rich, and then jumped on the metro over to the seaside hotel where Fausto and the German guys were staying. I dropped my things in their hotel room, changed into my swim shorts, and headed down to the pool.

I chatted with the three of them as we sat around the pool and soaked up the bright sunshine that was beating down out of the clear sky. Fausto, despite having a distinct American accent and speaking perfect English, was actually from Brazil. He’d lived and grown up in New York City before eventually moving back to Brazil, where he now resided. The three of them were part of a group of friends who lived internationally, taking trips around the world during certain events and special occasions to catch up with one another. Holger lived in Munich and Malte in Berlin, and the three of them had caught up in Spain after Fausto had been travelling in Greece wi some of his family. I told them about my travels while they told tales about some of their trips and some of their own crazy stories with this global group of friends. I think more than anything they were fascinated about the idea of my backpacking journey, but after seeing the place they were staying at, it wasn’t difficult to see why. There were hotel staff wandering around the pool area who were catering to each and every whim of all of the pool-goers in order to make their experiences as comfortable as possible. Ironically, I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of people waiting on me so incessantly. It was a level of luxury I hadn’t really experienced in quite a long time, and I’d grown quite used to depending on nobody but myself for most things, especially in the last couple of months.

Eventually I slipped into the water, partly to avoid being asked “Is everything alright here?” another countless time, and partly because the Mediterranean sun shining down on us made the sparkling blue tiles that lined the pool irresistibly inviting. Afterwards, we had lunch in the restaurant at the hotel, and the guys also let me use the shower in their room to clean myself up and get ready for my next train. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was heading west to the Spanish capital of Madrid, in hopes of finding a more engaging party scene than I had in Barcelona. But I thanked the three men profusely before heading off to the train station. They had given me a glimpse into another world of travel from which I was currently so very far removed. After the nuisance that had been the broken shower in my Air BnB apartment, I definitely had to acknowledge the benefits that come with paying for your own place in an institution that specialises in services for travellers. Not that I would have experienced this level of luxury at a hostel – and there’s no way I would have been able to afford the kind of place Fausto, Holger and Malte were staying at on my budget. I’ve heard plenty of people tell me that they could never do what I was doing, and that they always had to stay in hotels when they were travelling. Though in most cases those holidays only last a few weeks, or a couple of months at best, since most people had regular jobs to go back to – which probably helped them in affording to stay in such places. The length of my trip on the budget I was working with didn’t exactly allow me to be too fussy when it came to accommodation, but I was okay with that. For now, I was more than content with my life hopping through hostels and couches as a thrifty backpacker.

Humbug, Hamburg

The next destination on my European tour was the German city of Hamburg, a port town on the Elbe River that was known for, among other things, having particularly wild red light district that has even been compared to the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was actually heading towards the Dutch town of Groningen, where I would be meeting my old high school friend Gemma, but I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to party in Hamburg during the weekend that I passed through, and discover the reputation for myself. After having a quiet night in with Esben on my last night in Copenhagen, I was definitely ready to make up for it on the Saturday night.


The journey itself to Hamburg was a little strange. I took a seat on the train and put my headphones in, listening to my music as I watched the countryside roll by. After a few hours, there were announcements throughout the train, either in Danish or German, and a lot of confused looking tourists. I paused my music to listen in on some conversations – there was a lot of talk about a ferry, and having to get off the train. Eventually there was an English announcement, asking passengers to disembark from the train because we weren’t allowed to travel in the cargo hold… wait, wait? That definitely hadn’t been in the guidebook. It all became clear pretty quickly though – rather than a bridge or tunnel, the train was transported from Denmark to Germany via ferry, along with a bunch of private cars and other passengers. I have to admit, it was a little nice to break up the journey with a 45 minute ferry ride – a smaller adventure within a journey within a bigger journey. I followed the crowds and listened to the announcements, and it all went up without a hitch. Soon enough we were back on the tracks and on our way to Hamburg.


I arrived in Hamburg in the afternoon, and immediately set out on the U-Bahn (German underground metro system) towards some of the hostels I had looked up in advance, which were within a reasonable walking distance to Reeperbahn, the street in Hamburg that was famous for being the hub of all things sexual and kinky. I should probably take a moment to explain why I have such a fascination with places of such a nature: my old work – the one that sold Tom of Finland t-shirts – was a fetish store. In my year of working there I learnt and saw a lot of strange and crazy things, and discovered that the world and community of sexual fetish is a broad, complicated and intriguing thing. I had learnt so much about that world in a theoretical sense, since I needed to know how to explain products to customers, but so far I was yet to see what any of it looked like when put into practice. In a trip that was all about discovering new things, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek into the world that I supposedly knew so much about.

However, when I arrived at the hostel, I was a little taken aback when I was told they were completely full.
“Sorry – you can use the Internet on the computer there if you need to look for somewhere else.” The receptionist sounded sympathetic, but there was nothing else she could do. I dumped my bags onto the floor and logged onto the computer, cursing myself for not bothering to book ahead. It had never been a problem in South-East Asia – it hadn’t really occurred to me that walking into a hostel and asking for a bed on the spot might not be so simple in Europe. But hey, no big deal, right? There’s plenty of other hostels around, surely there’ll be room in one of them?

Wrong. I trawled all the search websites, and every single one told me that there was no accommodation that fit my criteria – that being “one bed in budget accommodation” and “tonight”. First I started searching for areas around Reeperbahn, but even searches for hostels in the city at large proved unsuccessful. I jumped onto Couchsurfing and found the group for “Emergency Couch Requests in Hamburg” and sent out a few messages, but I didn’t know how long I could wait for a reply. Things were looking pretty desperate. I logged onto Facebook and sent a message to Gemma in Groningen, who also joined me in the online accommodation search, but to no avail. The only available places we could find were well out of my price range.
“Maybe I could just hire a locker at the station and leave my stuff there while I party all night?” At the rate this was going, even if I did find a place to stay, I wouldn’t be staying there so much as I would be dumping my bags and going out to enjoy the nightlife.
“That could be cool! You’ve done crazier things,” was Gemma’s reply, and I was already thinking how maybe that would make an interesting blog post. Though I was already a sweaty mess from walking around with my bags in the afternoon sun, and quite frankly the stress of not already having a place to stay was making me kind of exhausted. In my mind I weighed everything up, including the fact that I hadn’t even been feeling so well the night before, and suddenly this night out in Hamburg sounded like a huge effort that might not be worth the way I would feel when it was all over. I consulted the Eurail App for some train times before messaging Gemma.
“You know what? Screw it. Is it okay if I arrive a day early?”


And so I found myself back on a train, heading to Bremen, where I could changeover at Leer, which would then take me the rest of the way to Groningen. I had an hour to get from the hostel back to the station via the U-Bahn, but because of the way my Eurail pass worked, I was able to take as many trains as I wanted on my recorded travel days. So essentially it didn’t cost me any extra to jump on a few regional trains, even if it did mean arriving in Groningen at 11:30pm. It was a stressful and exhausting afternoon that eventually worked out well in the end – I would miss out on having a wild night in Hamburg, but I was definitely excited to be on my way to see Gemma. Though above all, it was a lesson in planning. For so long I’d had the spontaneous and unplanned approach to my travels, making things up as I went along and choosing destinations on the day before I decided to travel, sometimes even on the day of travel itself. Tourism in South-East Asia and tourism in Europe were producing a vast number of differences with every passing day – the price was the most obvious, but this was the beginning of my learning the importance of booking ahead, even for the most budget accommodation, or risk being left out in the streets. In retrospect it seems so obvious – who in their right mind would travel to a foreign city where they knew absolutely no one with no place to stay? But I had managed to scrape through in Stockholm, so I thought I might have similar luck in Hamburg. Instead, I learnt this lesson the hard way.

The night out in Hamburg was the price I had to pay, in this scenario. However, I would be passing back through Germany on my way to Berlin – who knows, maybe an overnight stopover in Hamburg wasn’t completely off the table yet?