Over breakfast, I watched raw cane sugar form a sinkhole in latte foam. The spectacle at an end, I turned back to one of Roland Barthes’ classes, as recorded while at the Collège de France, to learn more of the impossibility of group living. Upon my return to the hostel where I was staying, the following reflection pressed itself upon me.
Youth hostels have always seemed to me an odd sort of in-between place. Somewhere between hotel and roommate situation, they take on an unreal quality, even a sheen, for all plays on appearances, the play of the haphazard in decorations, guests and layouts. Consider their habit of cutting up older structures in novel arrangements – old apartments wrapped around whatever structural normalities made a room unfit for living, these becoming the height of fashion and taste. Wander a basement or common room and the various functions bleed into one another: kitchen, game room, bar, showers, laundry, administration. In the youth hostel, the indoors take on again something of that total communal feel, which is wholly opposed to the monk’s cell. Yet it remains an idiorhythmic space (in Barthes’ sense) in that its inhabitants, transient though they might be, follow movements all their own and designate their own timetables. Occasionally, displays of power and influences make themselves felt in the common room wherein a leader asserts authority over a group or a charming someone convinces strangers to come with. Yet these meetings have something of the surreal about them, a passing encounter in which slight images of the self are provided: as with L., making it known to any and all near her table that modern, sedentary working life was not for her, having sold her goods and set off to travel the world; or R., the conference-goer keen to impress upon neighbors the importance of his research or R., the maître de cérémonie and resident funmaker. At the level of decoration, this haphazard quality takes shape not in the encounter of people in some way impenetrable to each other (for what is there to penetrate in mere surface) but in a piling up: of dust, half-clean dishes, books cast off and of varied subjects, a well-worn Nintendo 64 and cartridges, bits and bobs of furniture gathered from donations, vide-greniers and even street corners, even down to the collection of breakfast spreads proposed each morning. In all of it, comparison and association reign rather than processes of integration and substitution. A place to which the owners continually add and which overflows while somehow never being full. In it, I cannot help but find the modern translation of Brueghel’s allegorical “Fire” tableau, a mundane piling up, in which I find the quintessence of the youth hostel.