There’s a cool Portuguese expression called saudade that doesn’t have a direct translation into English. From what I understand it describes a feeling of longing for someone you miss, although it can also express nostalgia for an experience you’ve never actually had. Maybe saudade is what I’ve felt about the backpacking trip across Europe that I didn’t get around to taking after college, first because I didn’t have enough money, then because I didn’t have enough time. Like many of my generation (I went to college with Cheryl Strayed), I considered that kind of adventure to be the epitome of a well-spent youth, an opportunity to be rugged, worldly and independent.
During my bouts of saudade, I long for memories of finishing Sons and Lovers on an overnight ferry between the Greek Islands, going to a fire dance in Bulgaria, falling in love with a stranger on a train and “finding myself” while wandering through narrow, cobblestone-covered streets in battered Tevas. I wish I’d sunbathed on topless beaches before my body was blown out by pregnancy, and spent my nights at Bohemian sidewalk cafes having intense discussions about Kirkegaard back when those conversations would have been interesting and cool instead of pretentious and boring. Mostly, I’ve longed to stay in a youth hostel, because that seemed to be the quintessential element of every young, broke European adventure.
This past summer I had a chance to visit Lisbon for two weeks to attend a writing conference. One of my kids is eighteen now, and the other one goes to summer camp. For the first time since having children, two weeks away on my own on the other side of the ocean was a real possibility. The organizers presented us with an array of lodging options, from expensive hotels to airbnb rentals. When they told me I could share a room in a youth hostel, I jumped at the chance. A hostel sounded fun and social. More than that, it was an opportunity for me to live out a portion of my unfulfilled travel fantasy and replace imagined memories with real ones – or to exchange my saudade for nostalgia.
This hostel sounded a lot nicer than the stark, barracks-style rooms that I’d imagined. It was right in the heart of the city, and touted as one of the best in all of Europe, like the hostel version of the W Hotel, featuring housecleaners who changed your sheets every third day and theme rooms decorated by professional designers.
When I arrived, travel-weary, I rang the buzzer and lugged my big bag up two flights of marble steps into the lobby. It was even cooler than the photos on the web site and the descriptions on the five-star Trip Advisor reviews. There were two long tables where people who looked like baristas on vacation played cards and typed on their computers. Funky lounge music thumped out of the speakers. I poked around while waiting to get checked in. The reception area was decorated with a fainting couch and an old-fashioned barber’s chair. That morning’s breakfast was being cleaned up and put away in the kitchen. Another common room had some computers, a couch, a television, and a wall lined with videocassettes featuring movies in a dozen different languages. I discreetly looked for evidence of cockroaches and found none.
I checked in and was led to my room, up another two breathless floors. I passed a Nigerian man talking on the phone on the stairs, and saw a group of Dutch travelers reading books in the common areas. Someone on the third floor was listening to Reggae, and on the fourth floor I could hear a recording of chanting monks. People came and went. The place was alive, vibrant, and I felt young and hip just being there, no longer a mother in a suburb of Madison, Wisconsin driving my son to lacrosse practice or mowing the lawn. I was in Lisbon, and I was me, my most essential self, shaken loose from my life. I was in the world.
My roommate was already there, and I was relieved to see that she was about my age. She sat on a twin bed that was right next to another twin bed, so close that I worried I would wake the next morning to find her spooning me. We plunged into a manic discussion about who we were and where we were from and what we were going to work on at the conference, an experience that reminded me of meeting my college roommate for the first time. Here I was in Portugal, just an hour since I’d gotten off the plane, and I’d already I’d made a friend!
I wanted to unpack, but there weren’t any dressers, and I tried not to let that bug me, but it did. Couldn’t they at least provide us with hooks to hang our stuff? My roommate wore wigs and had no place to put them. They looked funny laid out on top of her bed, like housecats curled up for naps. So we’d be living out of our suitcases, but that was part of the experience, right? I reminded myself that I was a traveler, and travelers were supposed to be disheveled.
The opening reception was fun, but in the back of my mind I kept thinking about the proximity of the beds. What if I snored? What if she snored? What if she was a swinger, or a lesbian? What if she thought I was a swinger or a lesbian? I wondered if she’d change in front of me, or if I should just change in the tiny area outside the shower. My thoughts were totally prudish and uncool, and I chastised myself for having them. The whole point of my lodging choice was to show myself that I could roll with it, and I was already rolling on square wheels.
Much to my relief, my roommate was having the same uncool thoughts. When we returned, we agreed to deal with the “bed situation.” She moved her bed closer to the windows, and I pushed mine to the wall next to the door to our room, which was right across from both of the bathrooms, and between two rooms that slept six people. That night I’d learn that I would hear every footstep, hallway conversation, door closing, fart and flush of the toilet. To make matters worse, giant trucks and motorcycles rumbled outside, and the noise echoed off the concrete streets and merciless stone walls. It felt like everything was hard in Lisbon: my rock of a bed, the wood floors and the marble bathroom. Nothing muffled the sound.
It turned out that my age-appropriate roommate would suffer from a terrible combination of jetlag and night sweats. She might have only gotten up a few times, but it felt like she was up every five minutes, and every time she rose, I’d stir, and because I stirred, she thought that meant I was awake, and she’d start talking to me about her sinuses, perimenopause, the story she was working on, and hegemony.
I couldn’t function the next day, or any day after that. I went to my workshops with puffy eyes, unable to focus on the conversation. Instead of exploring Lisbon during our free afternoons, I went back to the hostel to try to nap, praying every time I opened the door that my roommate wouldn’t be in the room, not because I didn’t want to see her, but because I needed rest. Even if she was gone, sleep was elusive. My biorhythm was so messed up and I was so focused on sleep that I’d lie in bed and nothing would happen. Or I’d start to drift off and a worker would run the vacuum or a plumber would bang away at the broken showers and toilets. It seemed something was always broken. Motorcycles and garbage trucks grumbled through the canyon of buildings outside. They must pick up garbage ten times a day in Lisbon.
At night, my roommate would stay up late typing on her computer, and I’d notice that she rocked back and forth in the bed while she typed, and she chewed gum. I am a person with a lot of pet peeves, most of them centered around breathing and mouth noises, and I should have factored this into my decision to share a room with a stranger. I tried to work against my own nature. I told myself that we were at a writing conference after all, and there was nothing wrong with her getting work done in the comfort of our room. She was perfectly entitled to her gum, which she chewed quietly, and I probably make a lot of my own noises, so who am I to judge… it didn’t work. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like she typed like she was playing a Bach fugue on her keyboard. Every squeak of her bedspring and every chomp of her gum shredded my nerves.
I could have asked her to work in the lounge or put her computer away. It was one in the morning and that was a perfectly reasonable request. My roommate was nice and I’m sure she would have obliged, but I said nothing, which led me to wonder: why, at my age, was I still so meek? World travelers, the kind who stay in hostels, are supposed to be confident and assertive. Instead, I rolled around on my hard bed, wincing at my hip pointer and jammed up shoulder. I put on my too-tight headphones and tried to listen to waves crash on the white noise application I’d downloaded on my phone, and finally sleep came… until the group of six people sharing a room next door stumbled back from the bars, one at a time, every twenty minutes like they were rolling off a rotisserie. Their conversations were loud, hilarious, and tearful, and I could hear every single word they said to the soundtrack of the crashing waves. I finally fell asleep again, only to wake to someone barfing.
I hated everyone at breakfast. They all looked rested. They were actually enjoying their vacations. Even the sixty-ish woman smiled and held court with the hipsters, as happy and fresh as a summer day. What was wrong with me? Why was I seemingly the only person who was miserable in the hostel? People talked about plans to visit the castles in Sintra or meet up at a bar later that night. Me? I only wanted to do one thing on my fabulous conference/vacation adventure I’d been planning for months: sleep. I hadn’t been this tired and cranky since my children were infants, an experience that made me covet my sleep, and one I never thought I’d ever voluntarily repeat.
The girl who wrote paranormal erotica tried to strike up a conversation with me but I could hardly string a sentence together. Another girl who made me feel like a dorm mother when she cried on my shoulder because her boyfriend broke up with her told me she thought that this time, it really was over, and I tried to seem sympathetic.
I wanted to do laundry almost as much as I wanted to sleep. Like the showers and toilets, the hostel washing machine had been broken all week, and I was on my last pair of underwear. Tinkerbell at the front desk with the pixi haircut and Roman sandals looked at me flatly when I checked the status. She said they couldn’t decide if they should order the new part or buy a new machine. I wanted to say: decide already! You’re running a business! You have forty or so people here every night, and when the washing machine breaks, you take care of it. I wanted to lecture them about how I ran my own household, but I didn’t, because I didn’t want to sound like the entitled prima donna I didn’t realize I’d become after all my years staying in actual hotels. What happened to me? I’d grown soft. Spoiled. I was old and boring, even though one of the young girls in the hostel told me I didn’t “throw off an old vibe.”
So I walked across the city with my clothes in a plastic bag to find the Laundromat, my pocket heavy with jingling Euros, feeling resentful of the hostel, myself, and life. I may as well have stayed home if I wanted to spend a day doing laundry. That’s when I decided I would leave. I couldn’t get my money back, and I didn’t care. I found a hotel with twin beds that was even less expensive than what my roommate and I were paying for the hostel, and I booked it without hesitation. When I checked out, the guy at the desk asked if there was something wrong with my stay, not knowing that I’d be the only person on the planet to give them less than a five-star review on Trip Advisor.
“I can’t sleep,” I said, and it felt like a giant confession. I almost started to cry.
He shrugged. “This is hostel. It happens.”
My new hotel was perfect, quiet and full of charm, tucked away in the old Moorish part of the city. It had a purple chandelier and thick curtains and a window with a beautiful view of the river. I felt like a character straight out of an EM Forester novel. I had a dresser! And hooks! I set my luggage on the empty twin bed nobody else would sleep in. I unpacked, and then I did something amazing: I slept.
One of my neighbors once told me a story about a garage sale he’d had when he decided to sell his rollerblades, racing bike and cross-country skis. He said it was a bigger deal than just letting go of his possessions; it made him acknowledge that he’d never be able to use his sports equipment again. Then he said, “That was when it hit me: I wasn’t just old. I was elderly.” Our lives are made up of these unexpected moments of clarity when we realize we’ve stumbled across a threshold from one stage of life to the next, and we are forced to acknowledge the new set of limits. That’s how I felt when I walked across Lisbon with my laundry in my arms and realized that my hostel days had gone the way of the miniskirt, dance clubs and Lollapalooza.
But saudade is a complicated emotion, and there was more to it – something about timing, and doing things (or not doing things) when they matter most to you. And then there was that nagging feeling that it wasn’t just a lack of money and time that had kept me from traveling across Europe with a backpack when I was younger. I was terrified I’d be robbed or raped, and I’ve never been good with strong personalities and cramped quarters and the slightest chance of bedbugs. I have a magnet on my refrigerator that says: “Thank God I’m not camping.” Would I ever really have gone backpacking when I could have? I doubt it.
So how come I wanted to stay at the hostel? Why am I so out of touch with who I am? I blame it on my bad case of saudade. I didn’t just long for an experience I’d never had, but I also desired to live life as the carefree, easy, adventuresome and fearless person I’ve never been. I thought these longings were negative, but when I replaced my saudade with nostalgia, I recognized saudade as the kind of emotional balm Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo described as: “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.” Saudade made me feel like I did those things I never did, or could have done them, and that I also could have been the person I never was. Saudade made me feel like my past and my personality were expansive – that is, until I tried to cure myself of it.
Christi Clancy's work has appeared in The New York Times, Glimmer Train Stories, Hobart, Pleiades, BrainChild, themid.com, Wisconsin Public Radio, The Milwaukee Journal and elsewhere. She teaches English at Beloit College.