It was the first time I had ever walked out on a job. Ever.
During my working life I have been pretty lucky with the kind of employers I’ve had and working conditions I’ve been subjected to (apart from one terrible office job I had where the CEO of the company was a perverted racist misogynist, but we’ll ignore that for now). I guess this means that I’m used to being treated how I treat others and being respected for working hard and doing everything that needs to be done.
Which was why it went against everything I believe in to actually just up and leave a job when the going got tough.
In my defence, I hadn’t actually wanted the job in the first place. It was volunteering in a hostel in Budapest for an acquaintance of Scott’s; a hostel he had stayed at once before several years earlier. They said they could do with having someone to help out in return for a free bed – an offer we couldn’t turn down.
I’d always wanted to visit Budapest but it was too out of our price range right now if we were paying for accommodation as well as living expenses; so why not help out for a few hours a day in return for being able to see a great city? Seemed like the perfect trade-off.
That was, until we arrived there at midnight after a much longer-than-anticipated train journey, tired and grouchy, to find that the “bedroom” we had been assigned was actually no bigger than a broom cupboard with an old bunk bed in it and covered in clothes, knick knacks and a thick layer of dust. The hostel owner hadn’t even deemed it necessary to clear out the room for our arrival, which spoke volumes about how the rest of the experience would continue. My heart sank. I just wanted to sleep. I felt like crying, partly because I had ignored the nagging feeling I’d had that maybe this wasn’t quite the “job” I was looking for at this point in my life, despite my love of travel.
But being the trooper that I was, I was determined to give it a go. We managed to clear a space in which to sleep that night and I tried to think of tomorrow as a new day.
Tomorrow came and it wasn’t much better. We started to clear out what can only be described as “junk” from our room and eagerly awaited our instructions on what was expected of us during our time there. We never got told. Our questions were always met with vague answers.
“What time in the morning do you want us to get up by?” “Erm, it depends. It isn’t always busy, so you don’t have to always get up early in the mornings to help.”
“What do we do if someone checks in and they don’t have sheets?” “Erm, they should be in the dryer or in the cupboard upstairs”. No move was made to show us which cupboard. This was as clear as mud and extracting information was as bad as pulling teeth.
Nonetheless, we managed to check in our first couple of guests unsupervised that same day and felt as though we were really making a difference, being around when the two hostel owners couldn’t be.
Then the next day came and we were told we would only be needed for a couple of hours to be around for a handful of people to check in and then our time would be our own. “We want you both to be able to enjoy Budapest as if you were tourists, too. You’ll have plenty of time to yourselves”. Great! Just what we had hoped.
We ended up manning reception for nearly eight hours.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not work shy. Sometimes I work too hard and put too much pressure on myself. But this was starting to become irritating. We weren’t getting paid, our sleeping conditions were pretty damn miserable and we weren’t even getting to see any of the city we’d come to enjoy. But we soldiered on, hoping this was just a one-off.
On a daily basis we entertained guests as they started to mingle early-evening, gathering to go out for drinks. We gave advice on where to eat, where to go, where the nearest ATM was, despite having only spent a few hours in the city ourselves. We tried really hard to keep the place running, despite the dwindling number of hours the two owners were spending in the hostel themselves.
Then, on around the sixth day, we got up in the morning to have our breakfast and noticed that the male owner, who was only ever around in the mornings, seemed to be annoyed at us. Having not had much sleep in the tiny and hard bed on which I was now sleeping, I felt barely any sympathy and was quite confused – we had been working hard (or so we thought) and under barely any clear instructions.
Then it all went wrong.
He asked us if we could take the hostel guests out drinking that evening, as neither of the owners were free to do it. There were many things wrong with this. One, we didn’t have enough spare money to be buying rounds for the over-exuberant hostel guests. Secondly, we’d agreed to meet a couple of fellow travel bloggers for dinner that night and it was just too late notice to cancel or rearrange.
He got mad. So I got mad.
He started saying that we weren’t doing enough to warrant the fact that we were staying there for free, despite the fact that we’d been working almost as many hours as we would have done in a full-time paying job. It was obviously a total-breakdown of communication, but it made me angry.
“I haven’t had a weekend off in five f*cking years!” He said to us. Woah. Since when was that our problem? We were just here to help for a few hours a day for two weeks.
When we told him that we’d been staying up til 1am to check-in latecomers and had been woken up at 4am by partygoers who’d lost their keys, his response was “You think that’s bad? I slept in that room every night for years!” Cry me a river, crazy man.
There was obviously a big problem here, and it wasn’t us, but him, and his resentment of the hostel and its guests in general. I no longer wanted to be a part of this. My gut instinct was right. We should never have come, and certainly not without clear instructions as to what we were supposed to do.
So early the next morning, we packed up our stuff and we snuck out of the hostel like thieves in the night. We wrote them an email explaining why we couldn’t stay and what we felt had gone wrong. Almost laughably, he replied with an abusive email to the effect that it was us who had the problem and had just been trying to freeload off of him.
If the experience taught me anything, it was that you should always trust your gut and also that you should never enter into something without really knowing at first what you are getting yourself into. I can look back on some of this experience now and laugh, but at the time I was upset that my integrity was being brought into question.
I guess there are some things even bloggers shouldn’t do for a free bed or a good story. This was definitely one of those times.