The Palace was the kind of place where you felt immediately at home, and at the same time, immediately out of place. It was the kind of hostel where everyone seemed to already know each other, which can make the new nomad on the block feel a bit like an outsider. But the people were friendly and I soon found myself being brought into the fold, and making friends with everyone.
I hobbled in the door that first day, dropped my backpack, and headed to the outdoor smoking lounge to roll up a cigarette. There were backpackers from around the globe, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, sharing laughs, and chilling out to Bob Marley – all nursing a collective hangover from the previous night’s antics. My kind of place.
I remember thinking that this hostel wasn’t like any other hostel I’d ever been to – which is saying a lot considering that I’ve been to hundreds of hostels all over the world. As I came to know The Palace and the interesting band of characters that inhabited it (affectionately known as Palacites), I soon realized that this was a sort of Shangri-la for backpackers. It was the kind of place where life was just easy. Too easy for anyone to ever leave.
Dave, the owner of the place was an awesome old burner-type character. A life-long traveler who had been around the world and now in some ways, was bringing the world all around him. To me, Dave looked like the kind of guy you’d have a enthralling, but ultimately dead-end conversation with at a burnt out dive bar in San Francisco’s Haight district – his denim jacket and wild, wiry hair, and his jaded, “I’ve had this conversation a thousand times” demeanor made him an interesting character to tango with, to be sure. But if you caught him at a good moment (or just after a joint), he was as personable as they come.
Over the years, Dave had turned The Palace into what it is today, certainly a shining standout in a sea of lackluster backpacker’s accommodation. I remember wandering around The Palace my first few days and noticing some of the things that set it apart from other hostels. One thing was the homey, eclectic kitsch-factor. There were knickknacks everywhere and strange paintings on the wall everywhere you turned. In the upstairs hall of the main house, there was a triangular corner shelf that had a small brass dish on top, and underneath, a large bulbous spittoon. In the Fritz house, there were three ceramic statuettes of chefs, complete with aprons and toques. My bedroom had 3 (somewhat tasteful) paintings of naked women, including one of a dark skinned Polynesian women, reclining like Ingres’s Grand Odalisque. There was just stuff everywhere, and it felt like a real home.
Actually, it took me a month to realize the most blatant reason why The Palace was different from other hostels – no bunk beds.
“Loads of common areas and no bunks” I think that’s how Lonely Planet summed up The Palace. Which is true, and awesome, but you really can’t get a feel for what The Palace is really like from a guide book one liner, no matter how clever and succinct those Lonely Planet writers can be. You really can’t even get that feeling from reading this blog or looking at my collection of pictures.
To really know The Palace, you have to get swept up in the spirit of communal living and dive into the global mishmash of culture. You’ve got have a hung-over coffee conversation and swap hookup stories with Lu, and you’ve got to drink beers and jam on the guitar with local legends, Steve and Brady. You’ve got to Laugh with Jane and Paul and then laugh again at how ridiculous their laughs are. You’ve got to drink too many pints with the Aussies at Grumpy Mole until 4AM and then still wake up in time to catch the free breakfast a few hours later. You’ve got to learn to say filthy and adorable things in French from Sophie, the French cleaner girl (no, she didn’t wear a French maid outfit, sadly). You’ve got to drink way too much vodka and translate lyrics from The Killers with three awesome German girls. You have to make a late night run to McDonalds for hot chocolate and soft serve with Mimi. You got to learn how to communicate with Fish Factory Frank (short hilarious phrases, with a thick East German accent tends to work best, i.e. “Never Again” and “Fuck radio”). You’ve got to play drunken dress-up with Iffy and Gjon, and party with the Swiss team and watch movies with Britta and drink cheap Kiwi wine with Julie, and… well… you get the idea.
There were too many good times and way too many good people to mention them all here.
Since my days at The Palace, I’ve moved into a flat on Bronte St. I’m just a short walk from the palace, and I’ve been back often to visit. Unfortunately, these days most of the old Palaceites have moved on – some are still traveling somewhere in the world, while others have returned to their respective home countries to resume their normal lives.
In the time that we all had together at The Palace, I think we shared a kind of uninhibited lust for life. I mean, we were really living it the way it’s meant to be lived – just enjoying ourselves and each other’s company. We were like children on their first summer vacation and we never wanted it to end. It was the kind of wild, free-wheeling experience that you could spend your whole life trying to recapture. The kind of experience that often shakes Nostalgia from its slumber and sends you chasing memories and quietly smiling to yourself, because no one else will ever understand.