I would start my journey by train from Amsterdam to the Hook of Holland port in the south part of Rotterdam, which was itself a huge industrial port city, Europe’s largest port even. I would then have a short walk to the boarding platform for a ferry that would take me across the North Sea to the English port town of Harwich. From there I would board a British train on to Colchester. It cost 43 Dutch guilders, about $12 U.S., gratefully within my budget, given my diminishing remnant of funds with still a week of travel and living expenses to finance. I duly noted that I was able to buy a ticket in one country’s train station for a train in another country, even another country with a body of water intervening. It seemed so much less parochial and more international than how we interacted with the world in the States.
It was late Sunday afternoon December 2nd when the train I had boarded in Best arrived at the big Amsterdam central station. The mostly clear skies in Best and across the Netherlands had given way to more overcast as we neared its capital city. The two hour trip had been uneventful but otherwise kind of fun, enjoying the view out the window of chaste, white and wintry Holland, plus enjoying the mouth feel of the gooey, cheddary, grilled cheese sandwich that Hugo’s girlfriend Femke had made and wrapped up for me. And I had to give it to the Dutch, their trains were the prettiest I had seen in Europe, all bright yellow on the outside with slashes of red forming abstract designs on the sides. And unlike yesterday’s train from Munich, the compartments, at least my compartment, was toasty warm.
Coming into the city, the train tracks had already crossed a handful of its iconic canals, and finally there was a view of the huge man made Ijsselmeer (Lake IJssel) to the north just before we came into the station. I would learn later that it was the largest “lake” in Europe, having originally been part of the Netherlands’ Zuiderzee bay, but had been separated from the bay by a 32 kilometer dyke in 1932 and became a freshwater body filled by the Rhine river. All these views were very exciting, particularly from my cozy train compartment, and took my mind off my homesickness.
It was Monday December 1st and I awoke in Angelica and Helmut’s guest bedroom. A real bed with real bed linens, not the sleeping bag on the bunk mattress that had been my nightly resting place for much of my odyssey, including every night in the past three weeks since Steve and I slept in that bed together, platonically, in Walter’s hotel room in Paris. I had been so relieved last night when I called them from the Munich train station and Angelica answered the phone, said that of course I could stay with them, and offered at that late hour to come and pick me up. I felt so bad that I had boarded the train to Munich in Bern forgetting to call them from there to give them a heads up. After I hung up I had a moment of angst wondering if I had displayed too much entitlement in expecting them to retrieve me and put me up that late on a weekday evening, without any prior notice!
They had both seemed happy enough to see me at the train station, Angelica giving me a big hug and Helmut a hardy welcoming handshake. He drove their little sedan home through the brightly lit snow frosted streets of the city, while she grilled me from the front passenger seat on my adventures. I was sitting in that same back seat where I remember throwing up, that night back in early October when I consumed way too much sweet white wine and Leberkäse (liver cheese) at their friend’s thirtieth birthday party. That had certainly been the most embarrassing moment of my entire now ten week odyssey. And it was right up there with my other worst moments, including being pulled over by Swiss police and given a breathalyzer test in Chur, losing my passport and railpass boarding the train in Bar-sur-Aube, and being turned away from that youth hostel in Liege at five minutes past midnight and having to trudge the eight kilometers back to the train station with my fifty pound pack on my back, dead tired and sneezing from an oncoming cold.
It was not lost on me that though I’d been traveling basically on my own for the past two weeks, which made for some lonesome moments, I had been able to connect with and interact with some of the most interesting and bigger than life people in my young adult cohort. While I had been traveling with Steve for the previous two weeks before that, I had not connected with so many new people. Certainly part of that was staying in hotel rooms in Spain rather than youth hostels brimming with my backpacker cohort. But another aspect I pondered was that when I had a travel partner, a lot of my need for connection was satisfied by my partner, and particularly as a shy person, I did not necessarily make the effort to reach out to other people or give them the opportunity to reach out to me, though maybe Randall and Zo were the exception. If I had had a travel partner at the time, would Trix have taken me under her wing on the train to Florence and invited me to share her compartment with the four other young women? Would I have gone for gelato with Sarah in Florence? Would Sophia have engaged me in our somewhat amorous exchange on the train to Venice? Would I have connected so much with Jacques in Venice?
Our evening at the tavern had been more low key last night. There were no less pitchers of beer, but the old German guys had not been there on the bar stools to sing their song and inspire us to sing ours in response, replaced by trendier tourist couples. I had talked more with Schuman and others about music, and with Beth about the details of her own European odyssey, which in ways paralleled my own. She had lost her own travel partner Christine, who while they were traveling in Spain had decided to return to Australia, Beth deciding to continue on, a challenging venture for a young woman alone.
It was Wednesday November 28, 1973 and I awoke that morning from a memorable yesterday, which had been my first full day in Grindelwald, a day full of camaraderie and special moments. When I emerged from the bunk room after a long hot shower and getting dressed, I could see out the big picture window that the sun was shining, and so presumably the clouds had finally lifted and the featured mountains would reveal themselves. I went immediately out on the balcony and the view was stunning beyond anything I had anticipated.
The hostel sat on the north slope of the little valley, looking south with the village below at its base. Rising from the other side of the valley was a row of five magnificent mountains that filled the sky. The winter morning sun was behind them, and though there northern faces were shaded there was enough diffused sunlight to see that all of them were sheer rock and ice, literally rising from the valley floor almost three kilometers (a mile and a half) nearly straight up like giant jagged teeth. Those jagged tops caught bits of the sunlight behind them and glittered like a silver aura that made their shaded faces that much more foreboding, like one was viewing those teeth from inside the impossibly large gaping maw about to close and consume you.
So I followed suit and kept my tray. There were about two dozen of us in that initial batch that headed down the mountain, including the Cleveland Gang, Beth and her Aussie guys, Ragna and Monika still with her unbuttoned jacket, t-shirt and no bra. That woman was indeed a total polar bear, impervious to the cold, presumably from years of living in the frozen north. About half of us had trays, including Monika, but not her travel partner who said to her, “I’ll walk behind, and drag your unconscious body to the side of the road so you don’t get run over!” as Monika got a running start and planted her rear end on the tray with clear indication of athleticism and skill.
I had heard the night before, that unlike most other hostels, the showers here had actual hot water, and in lieu of a big breakfast of delicious yogurt and granola, I confirmed that the shower was hot and indulged myself a long one, including washing my hair. Naked, my body completely cleansed of dirt and sweat as it rarely was, the deliciously warm water raining down upon me, my mind wound my narrative back to my last real shower. It had been nearly three weeks ago in the Hotel in Paris where Walter, who had picked up my travel partner Steve and me in Southern France and driven us to the French capital, paid for our night’s lodging. Since then I had only had what my mom called “bird baths”, where I dabbed a wet maybe soapy washcloth on parts of my body. And since then I had traveled through Italy and been in so many famous old locations and met such interesting people who had touched my life in one way or another, all of whom I would most likely never see again, and there was a lot of sadness with that thought.