Even without the accent, it was obvious the words were foreign to the receptionist’s tongue, as though he’d learned them phonetically from watching an MTV spring break special. He was clean-cut and backward-hatted, good-looking in an austere, German sort of way. “Welcome to Wombats!”
He called it Wombats and Wombats alone for the same reason you call it Starbucks and not Starbucks Coffee—because everyone, everyone knew what Wombats was: one outpost of an expansive chain of hostels. There was no need to specify any further. It was an institution. Wombats had staked its reputation on two ideals. It was clean; it was rowdy. It was safe; it was slutty. It was reliable; it was reliably stocked with alcohol. Wombats did not attempt to be an exercise in cultural immersion; it was not a home-away-from-home. It was, quite simply, a party for which you paid a 16-euro cover charge, and as a perk offered you impeccably clean toilets to puke in.
I arrived at Wombats sweaty and alone. After a series of misunderstandings with Viennese public transportation—because what are semesters abroad for besides weekend trips to glamorous destinations with massively confusing subway systems?—I finally came upon a pair of automatic sliding doors marked with a fivefoot yellow W. As soon as the doors opened, the receptionist was upon me. He offered me the requisite fist bump.
“Where do you come from?” he asked, his tone playful but unmistakably corporate.
“California,” I answered.
“Ah, so you must be a beach girl!” I looked down at my skin, nearly translucent from the lack of sunlight.
“Sure,” I muttered.
We sat down on one of the red plush couches in the reception area—the only one that didn’t look conspicuously like a king-size bed. He handed me my key—electronic—but warned me that my room wouldn’t be ready until 3 o’clock, as detailed on the website. “But we can go over the contract first,” he said, pulling out a sheet of paper in triplicate while I tried to focus over the house music that throbbed headily in the background. “At Wombats,” it read, “quiet hours in the dormitories are 22:30-08:00. At Wombats, checking out after 12:00 will result in a fine of 10 euros. At Wombats, the first drink is on us.”
In the basement, there was a bar. In the bar, there were lasers. A strobe light, too, though it was hidden far enough away from the entrance that it didn’t freeze up the entire room. Drink ticket in hand—compliments of the Wombats staff—I wandered over to see the menu. Shot options: The Pantydropper. The Leg Spreader. The Blow Job. I looked to my right and to my left. There was a couple ferociously making out in the corner. A group of Australian teenagers drinking something that was on fire. A Ke$ha remix blasting on surround sound. I stopped to ponder the idea that they had made the bar so terrible in order to force people to buy more drinks just to survive. But never mind that: It was 11 o’clock at night, I was in Europe, and I was young. And this was what young people like, right? To be young and drunk, to play spontaneous and carefree, to touch strangers and sip things with silly names. And this is just what Wombats was for: not to sell beds, or towels, or shots, but to sell youth.
It’s a universal truth that wine served in plastic cups isn’t meant to be savored. It’s meant to be chugged, eyes closed, as if blocking out your vision will also block out the massive attack you are about to launch on your taste buds. So when the bartender exchanged my ticket for one glass (Solo Cup) of wine (Franzia), I had no choice but to down it like I was a Wilson-bearing Tom Hanks who had just fallen out of an airplane. After all, who was I to argue with universal truths?
What I had overestimated was the power of alcohol to rectify an already terrible situation. What I had underestimated, however, was the power of leaving. With no remaining drink tickets and a moral objection to paying the same amount for a cup of boxed wine as I would for the entire box, I quickly slipped out the back. As the smell of cheap booze and the sound of an outrageously auto-tuned Rihanna began to fade, though, I was left with an odd sense of failure. Why couldn’t I enter a room like the Wombats bar wildly, befriending and de-friending with reckless abandon, mingling to meet the love of my life—or at least the love of my next two hours? Was I a failure of a traveler? Or even worse, a failure of a young person?
After wandering around empty streets stewing in my own shortcomings, I finally resorted to the activity any good adventurer seeks out when friendless, mapless, and speechless in a foreign city: I consumed an amount of falafel that can only be described, kindly, as completely bonkers.
My three euros bought me a “child-size” falafel, named thusly because it was actually the size of a small child. Though I was the last remaining customer in this particular falafel joint, it didn’t seem like the two guys behind the counter were trying to edge me out. In fact, had they not just made me a falafel, I would have questioned whether they even knew I was there. They were heavyset guys in their mid-60s, with patchy gray hair (eyebrows, ears, and nose) and tahini stains dripping down their slouchy white T-shirts. I watched as the men threw down jacks and kings into a sloppy pile of cards on the counter. If I had to guess, I’d say the game was supposed to be speed-based. “Supposed to” is probably the key phrase here: The men, lazily tossing cards without looking too closely, played at a pace considerably more geriatric.
I glanced down to find my own T-shirt, covered—as it is wont to be—in tahini. At last, I had found my people.