My friend Sarah [not her real name!] and I were wandering the streets of Nice, wearing 60-pound backpacks. We needed a place to stay. I hadn’t made a reservation. I hadn’t thought you needed to make reservations at the kind of cheap youth hostels I’d been planning on staying in. My Lonely Planet guide hadn’t mentioned that part, or at least I hadn’t paid attention. Let me tell you, should you ever plan on making such a trip, to a vacation destination like Nice in the middle of the summer, make a fucking reservation.
“What about that hotel over there?” Sarah asked. “They might have some openings? And maybe air conditioning?”
“I thought we were going to stay in a youth hostel,” I said, through gritted teeth. “We can find something. I know it.”
Sarah and I had been best friends, freshman of college year. We’d gone skinny dipping at the reservoir, planned crazy road trips that usually never happened, played pranks on boys we liked; and often trekked to the diner at 1 a.m. for pie with ice cream. She’d left after our sophomore year, to go to culinary school or outdoor survival school or both, I think. We stayed in touch for a little while, but it got harder when she lived in the mountains for a few months. Slowly, we fell out of touch.
Until three years later, when I got a $10,000 settlement from a car accident (I’d been hit by a minivan while riding a moped, and was bruised but otherwise fine, thanks for asking) and decided to say fuck you to the working world and leave for Europe. I’d had full time summer jobs since I’d been 17, and had started working at a law firm two weeks after graduating college (yes, that’s how I got such a big settlement. Next time you’re negotiating with an insurance company, do it in the room your law firm hangs their awards in). I had been planning on going to law school before realizing that I was on the fast track to becoming the most boring person I knew. I wanted an adventure — to do crazy things I’d never done before. Also, that summer was sweltering. I wanted to topless-sunbathe on the beach.
Sarah, who had been dawdling her way towards an MFA at that point, was my only friend who both had the resources and was uncommitted enough to come with. I was going for five months; she would come for the first two weeks. Never mind that we hadn’t really spoken in two years. She was perfect.
Until our plane landed.
As soon as we got to London, she started bringing up the idea that maybe instead of my whirlwind London-Paris-Nice-Barcelona-Portugal in two weeks plan, we could just stay in London for a few extra days.
“But,” I said. “I bought the four-country Eurorail pass.”
“You bought a Eurorail pass?” she asked. “Was I supposed to too?”
As a compromise, we knocked Portugal off the list. Paris was fantastic. Sarah had gone on a magical trip there in high school, and we spent a lot of time visiting those same sights. The Notre Dame was still just as beautiful as it had been back then. The Latin Quarter, slightly less interesting. We tried snails (me, for the first time, her again), and ate lots of pastries. And, before Sarah could decide she wanted to stay for a few extra days in Paris too, we’d left for Nice.
Finally, at the end of the hostel section in my guidebook, I noticed that it suggested we ask at a restaurant for a room. I dragged a sweltering Sarah to the address, and inquired if they had a place for us to stay.
Yes, the hostess there assured us, they had room. “You do?” I asked, I trying not to let the smugness creep into my voice.
“Sure,” she said, “it is on the couch. Is that okay?”
I couldn’t hear Sarah’s reply over my enthusiastic “Yes!”
She then led us to a living room to wait on one of the most disgusting couches I have ever seen. This thing was long, covered in sheets and occupied by the owner’s crippled, blind dog. The dog had obviously been using the couch to relieve itself when it couldn’t make it outside. It also could only use one of its front paws, and so spent most of the time we were in the room with it doing a kind of rock-slither thing across the cushions, occasionally emitting the most blood curdling bark-yelp-moan I’ve ever heard. It was as if, robbed of all the normal attributes that might make a poodle terrifying, it had decided to disgust us into submission. We did start to wonder if we should help it when it almost rocked itself, head-first, crashing onto the floor. At the last minute, the dog saved itself and let out another blood curdling moan. It then promptly threw up.
“You don’t think… that this is our couch, do you?” Sarah asked.
“Can’t be,” I replied, my faith in the power of adventure still unshaken.
And it wasn’t! Our room was worse.
The hostess came back and led us up four flights of stairs to what was going to be our room. She turned on the light and immediately a flock of two-inch cockroaches scurried out of sight. There were molding dishes in a sink and three bunk beds crammed into what felt like a hallway. Backpacks, men’s underwear, magazines and sneakers were strewn everywhere. There were mattresses on the floor. Hesitantly, we asked the hostess if we were the only girls in the place.
“Well,” she said, “I think there’s a girl the boy in that bunk over there sometimes sleeps with.”
“This is your couch,” she said, pointing to a molding, stained piece of foam that was, I guess, folded into the shape of a couch. She unfolded it. Its insides were more torn than its outsides. She flopped the edge down on the floor where moments earlier, an entire town of cockroaches had been mating.
“Here you go,” she said. “Fifteen Euros each.”
While we were settling (read: figuring out how to unpack without having any of our stuff touch the floor) a young Irish man wandered in. “Oh,” he said. “Are you sleeping there?”
“Yes?” we replied. “Sorry, was this your spot?”
“No, it’s fine,” he said. “Madame charges me less if I sleep on the floor for the night.”
He moved his pillow from on top of the “couch” we’d just been maneuvering and laid it on the floor in front of one of the bunk beds.
Since Sarah and I got blackout drunk that night (the dinner that came with our room consisted of wine and a baguette), I can’t remember exactly what happened. What I do remember is wandering the streets at 2 a.m., screaming that I had to take out my contacts and my case was in my pack. Sarah, in turn, was screaming about not walking anywhere alone. I think she insisted on coming with me? I’m not sure. Neither of us knew where we were going. I may have screamed at her that she didn’t have to have come on the trip with me in the first place. Somehow we ended up back at the beach, where we spent the night, away from the cockroaches: me contact-free and she making out with an American boy we’d just met.
When we were woken up at 6 a.m. by the men who sell beach chairs, neither of us talked about the fight. We quietly agreed to find another place, any place else, to stay. After one night in an air-conditioned Best Western, we moved on to Barcelona. There the heat seemed to have hit new levels of oppressiveness, in the hundreds and packed with humidity. We were staying in a 20-bed room with no fan and no window. The was an opening in the wall that looked onto an airshaft. The airshaft, with its clear plastic roof, actually made the air ten degrees hotter. Occasionally through the opening wafted the vague smell of sewage.
Sarah got sun poisoning from our first trip to the beach. I hadn’t slept in three days and was starting to get a series of small red bites across my stomach that I hoped wasn’t from bedbugs. We went to a cheesy nightclub where we got hit on by backpackers and danced to American hip hop. You didn’t even want to drink, it was so hot.
“Don’t you want to go to the beach?” I kept asking her, each time hoping that maybe by then the 100-degree temperature in our room had helped her sun poisoning fade. As a result, I spent a lot of time wandering the streets alone, discovering the wholesale jewelry market. Sarah spent a lot of time sleeping.
By the time we flew back to London, she and I were barely talking. Since we’d pushed back our itinerary by so many days, we were getting in just in time for her to make her flight back to America. I rented a cheap hotel room with a shower for us to both freshen up in before we parted ways. At that point the only thing I felt was exhausted and overheated. I also had a strong desire to take a million showers and maybe get this bedbug thing checked out by an expert. I think Sarah just wanted to go home. I’m not sure. We didn’t really talk about it. Instead,
Sarah put on her bag and looked at me.
“Well,” she said.
“Well,” I said. “Thank you so much for coming!”
“Totally!” she said, and turned around and went down the stairs to the cab waiting to take her to the airport.
We haven’t talked since. Also, 14,802 people in France alone died from the heat wave.
Erica Sackin found out later that she did indeed have bedbugs from staying in that hostel. But don’t worry, she hasn’t had them since.