Five minutes in France

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Fellow Marquette study abroad student Tyler Zacharias once told me about an experience he had checking into a youth hostel while traveling through Eastern Europe.

"You can leave your bags in the rooms; they're pretty safe," the concierge said. "We also have a safe if you want to put any valuables in it, like your jewelry or your guns."

As I prepared to make my first-ever hostel visit during a spring break trip, however, I wasn't terribly worried. I'd been told before I left that I might end up staying in places where it would be wise to hold onto my backpack in my sleep, and Tyler's story did little enough to change that impression. But Madrid and London were a far cry from the hazards of the former Soviet Bloc. I'd picked hostels that looked reputable and we didn't need room service, just beds and showers.

After four nights and two sets of sheets that I had to return at checkout (the Ritz, these were not), I'm inclined to give hostels a nod of approval. On one hand, I could certainly see where some people might consider them shady. Whether such a description was warranted or not was not always entirely clear.

Was it shady when an elderly Spanish gentleman burst into our room at 9 a.m. on Friday morning crying, "Black! Which is the bed of Black?" No, that was simply our hostel's version of a wake-up call. Was it shady when, while waiting to use the shower, I watched a middle-aged man walk without hesitation into the lady's section to ask his traveling companion a question? Perhaps.

Was it shady when a girl in London reported that the guy sleeping across from her had stolen her camera for the day because he thought she'd stolen his soap? Probably.

Was it shady when Black's friend, clad only in boxers, started an early-morning wrestling match and tickle fight? I think that was something else altogether.

But if you were willing to roll with the punches, exercise common sense and not run afoul of anyone who appeared to be a former Ukrainian Special Forces officer or a Portuguese fugitive on the lam, these were all harmless details. By the end of the month, I'll be sleeping in my own bed in the United States again, where the odds of meeting friendly backpacking Canadians or being invited to birthday parties in Sweden aren't quite as promising. Four-star hotels and pillow mints make for dull stories and leave one yearning for the sense of accomplishment that comes with waking up without having been robbed in the night. So bring on the hostels, I say. Besides, if anything goes wrong, my gun's right over in the safe.

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