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June 20, 2016

It was called the Palmer’s Lodge, near Swiss Cottage station, just north of central London. The hostel was something out of a Harry Potter novel—like a wooden British boarding school with its tall, broad staircases and bunk beds fringed with red curtains. Balustrades, chandeliers, inlaid ceilings, suits of armor, stained glass, and decorative curtains—if it seemed like it didn’t belong in a hostel, Palmer’s Lodge had it.

I arrived at Palmer’s several hours later than I’d hoped, given I was on the clock. After navigating the overground from Gatwick and the Underground from London Bridge, I made it to the hostel and hastened to grab my first British dinner. It had to be fish and chips, even though the only place in the neighborhood advertising fish and chips was an Italian restaurant, Pasticcio. A young Polish nanny sat next to me, dining alone—when I explained to her I’d been to London before and liked the city quite a lot, she made a face and said, “Really? Ugh.” (She turned out to be a nature person.)

There is nothing exceptional about a night in London working in a hostel alone until close to midnight, except for the people watching. Palmer’s Lodge had a separate bar and lounge area, which made it easy to hole up in the lounge without a monumental sense of FOMO that I wasn’t out on a Friday on my first night traveling abroad. And the people in the lounge were, much as I was, silent, looking at their cellphones or computers or guidebooks. No doubt they were mostly trying to plan their trips, not crunching numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, but nevertheless they were not having envy-provoking buckets of gleeful fun.

I settled down with a cup of mediocre black tea on a leather easy chair and looked around for people to sympathize at a distance with, the Friday night overworked. There was a woman sitting alone in a cove of coaches, making official-sounding phone calls. Two American students drew architectural designs for a project—they would end up working all night from various places in the room, including next to me, where I snuck a peek of what looked like a drawing of a ferris wheel. An Asian guy sat over his laptop on a short table, literally statuesque; he may not have moved once the whole night, not even to top off his mediocre black tea.

People pinballed in all night, indecisively bouncing their way to their ultimate destination in some couch or easy chair, until it spit them back out again into the doorway from where they arrived. Some folks stuck around for a while. Others navigated around them, moved from couch to couch or came and went and were replaced—a girl in slightly ripped jeans and a punkish black concert tee with Japanese letters; a blonde girl with shoulderblade tattoos wearing a white tank top and light-colored denim; a curly-haired girl with a baggy black T-shirt with a spirit-wolf-like motif; a German or French family, dead silent, barely acknowledging each other, waiting for something, neither looking at their phones nor any other reading material.

There were a few more garrulous types whose conversations I couldn’t help but overhear. The couch to my right was occupied, as midnight approached, by a family with two French teenage girls, a French mother, and a British man. The latter was clearly a boyfriend, not a father—around for long enough to have a joking familiarity with the girls, but not to have clearly settled into a fatherly role. He and the girls spent most of the time trading light-hearted barbs in English—he relishing his ability to do so more quickly and wittily than the apathetic, tired, and native French speaking teens.

I knew the night was getting late and a little weird when a bespectacled girl with a nasally voice across the lounge loudly responded to one of his offhand comments about drinking by saying, “You know, I just bought a bottle of absinthe for my friend”—confidentially, as if confessing some devious secret. Without looking up, I could tell the man just gave her a look and let silence stop the conversation. I was gratefully ready for bed and left without having saying a word to any one of them, glad to have gotten my work done and ready to start the trip in earnest the following day.

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