Lefty Parent

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Circle of equals

Coop Goes to Europe Part 3 – Chur

May 31st, 2015 at 15:34

Chur, Switzerland

So Friday morning my new travel companion Jack and I left Munich, Oktoberfest, and our army brat hosts, and based on our agreed upon plan, took off hitchhiking south for Switzerland. Our plan was to travel together for a week in Switzerland and then return to Munich, hopefully to finally hook up with Angelica and Helmut. Rides came slowly, maybe half an hour to an hour wait before someone pulled over, a lot more waiting with your thumb out than I was used to hitching back and forth from college that past year. But the weather was pleasant and Jack and I enjoyed talking about our time in Munich and travel plans going forward.

We did not make it into Switzerland that day due to an unexpected detour by our last ride, a forty-something guy hauling a big sailboat behind his VW bus who seemed somewhat crazy or at least very very scatterbrained. With darkness approaching he took us into the town of Friedrichshafen in the very southernmost part of Bavaria, where he said he was going to participate the next morning in a big boat race. The town was on the north shore of a forty mile long lake called the Bodensee, which made up part of the border between West Germany and Switzerland. It was a beautiful town with great views of the lake. The blue-gray water blended into the blue-gray somewhat hazy sky at dusk to make the interface between the two indistinguishable, and with the far shore hidden in the haze, it felt like the town was on the edge of an endless abyss.

Being on the road with somebody, you really get to know them, as you observe them dealing with obstacles, missed opportunities, need for improvisation, plus periods of boredom. While we toured Munich and were feted by our army brat hosts, my new travel companion seemed even tempered, thoughtful and a generally pleasant person. But his personality seemed to change during the course of the day of hitchhiking, waiting a long time for rides as car after car passed us by, and we dealt with a motley crew of loners who were willing to stop and give us a lift. He got moody and irritable, and as I did not go there myself, he looked to me more and more as the day went on to be the guide. In our discussions early in the day while we were waiting for our first ride I found out he was 23 and I shared with him that I was only 18. Intuitively I felt that that was somehow discomforting for him, that I was so much younger than him but more resilient and self assured, making him feel the lesser.

Since Friedrichshafen had no youth hostel we were lucky to find a fairly reasonably priced, if sparsely furnished hotel room in town, given tomorrow’s boat race that the “mad yachter”, as we jokingly called him, was in town for. The next morning was a beautiful day and we walked into the center of town on the lake from our lodging, but no boat race! Just a big ferry docked at the wharf loading cars, and our crazy yachter nowhere to be seen.

Walking down the main drag with our packs someone pulled alongside us and offered us a ride, even before we put our thumbs out, and took us west along the north side of the lake to Lindau where we had gotten detoured by the “mad yachter” yesterday. From Lindau a young guy in a truck pulling a camper picked us up and took us into Switzerland. I put on my sunglasses, opened the truck window and enjoyed a real feeling of controlling my world. Saw my reflection in a window, decked in shirt and sunglasses, curly mane of hair blowing in the wind, a real traveler. A few more short rides got us to Chur, which we would later learn was purportedly the oldest town in Switzerland.

The mountains were astounding, jagged and abrupt, seeming to rise up to great heights from the flat land of the valleys, some even with snow on their tops. Villages all the way up their sides. The hostel in Chur was on the edge of town on the side of a mountain too steep to climb. A cold wind was starting up, indicating we might be in for bad weather, and we were hoping to continue our hitching tomorrow some 200 miles across the Alps and reach Leysin, in the western part of the country near Montreux and Lake Leman.

We found a small store and bought what would become my typical traveler food stuffs: a couple hundred grams (about a quarter pound) of mortadella and/or hard cheese, uncut baguette or loaf of bread (or some sort of crackers if in a convenience store without freshly baked bread), maybe a piece of fruit if available, granola and yogurt. Those last two items I had not eaten or even seen before coming to Switzerland, but made for a delicious and easy to prepare and eat breakfast or other meal. All this food would keep okay in your backpack for a day or two, except maybe you’d want to eat the yogurt sooner rather than later. Another food item I had not seen in the States was unrefrigerated “long life” milk in an aseptic, often tetrahedral container, where you would rip off one corner and drink. It tasted somewhat palatable but pretty chemically.

I had brought a pair of gloves with me but I had managed to lose them when I was in Munich. They were the first of many such losses of various bits of my kit, including several Swiss Army knives along the way, given my easily distractible nonlinear mind and the fact that when you are constantly sleeping in different places it can be very difficult to stay organized. Resigned to my penchant, the trick was not to lose anything critical, like passport or rail pass or travelers checks (the bulk of my money), that would be a showstopper, so I generally kept those things in a very thin money belt around my waist under my t-shirt, even sleeping with it on me. Tomorrow was Sunday, and if we were going to continue our hitching, I’d just have to keep my hands in my pockets and let Jack stick out the thumb.

After several unsuccessful attempts to stay at youth hostels up to now, due to them being full (and that place Angie and I had stayed at that first night in London being more of a flophouse than a real certified hostel), here finally was the real deal. It looked like a big two-story house on the side of a woodsey hill that quickly became a huge mountain. It had a large common room with tables, chairs and a couple sofas around a big fireplace. There was a kitchen, which was used mostly by the staff, but they did not serve food. There were two large dormitory rooms, one downstairs for men, another upstairs for women. Each had rows of built in bunk beds closely packed along each side perpendicular to the aisle down the middle, so you had to enter and exit your bed from the end on the aisle. You were expected to have your own sleeping bag or bedroll. There were men’s and women’s bathrooms with several shower stalls, and to my chagrin, but like most hostels I stayed at during my journey, the showers had only cold water.

The two guys that ran the hostel were actually from “the States” (the conventional colloquial way most people I encountered in Europe referred to the United States, a convention I quickly adopted) and maybe just in their late twenties themselves. Jack and I filled out registration forms, showed our international youth hostel membership cards (mine purchased by mail prior to leaving “the States”), and paid maybe five or six Swiss Marks (about two dollars) for the night’s lodging.

The next morning I awoke in my warm down sleeping bag to a cold room and the sound of wind and rain outside, rattling the one window at the end of the aisle opposite the door to the main room. As it would often be the case going forward, taking a cold shower lost out to just pulling on some pants and my down jacket and staying warm instead. So unshowered (as I would come to start many of my days going forward) I made my way into the main room where a fire was going in the fireplace and various other travelers my age or older were sitting about, some consuming food that they had brought with them. I found Jack and checked in with him as I ate my yogurt with granola mixed in, I had bought the previous day and squirreled away.

In the mid morning the hostel staff kicked everybody out to clean the place. Jack and I put on our rain ponchos and walked into town to get the lay of the land and find some sort of market or grocery store to buy food. It was no more than a mile down down the hill to more of a business district, with some little stores surrounding a small park including a couple of tennis courts. It was Sunday so most of the stores were closed, but we found a market open with cold meat, cheese and yogurt. They were out of bread so I bought a package of crackers.

As we sat in the park and ate carved off slivers of a section of salami and a chunk of hard Swiss cheese, Jack informed me somewhat guiltily that he had had a talk with the guys that ran the hostel and had decided that he was going to stay in Chur and try to find work. Switzerland marched to its own drummer, neutral in the wars, not in NATO or other alliances, and with sort of a libertarian streak of decentralized, mind your own business attitude. Apparently maybe a third of the workforce of the country were casual foreign workers without papers.

Jack’s announcement felt kind of like a divorce, even though he and I had first met less than a week ago outside the train station in Munich. Once I left the hostel and Chur I would be on my own again! I was not happy with that thought, but had also been souring on the prospect of traveling much further with him, as he continued to have bouts of moodiness and distance. I made up my mind that I would stay in town for a few days, at least enough time to psych myself up for traveling alone again, and also to find a store in town where I could buy some new gloves.

When we returned to the hostel after lunch, I decided that I wanted to not just hang with Jack but broaden my circle, ending up sitting at a table where a very good looking young woman around my age was sitting and knitting. Score two for assertiveness… I asked her what she was making and we got into a conversation. Though I initiated it with my question, she was not shy at all and plunged us into a fairly deep discussion about travel, philosophy and international politics as she continued to knit. Her name was Bublil and she was from Norway. She was joined shortly by her female travel companion Ashild, like Bublil, very tall, very blonde, very Norwegian and thoroughly striking as well but in a more big-boned athletic sort of way. So I continued to talk and get to know the two of them along with the two guys they were traveling with, Peter, also Norwegian, and David, who was Israeli. At Ashild’s suggestion the four of us played bridge for a couple hours. She and I ended up as partners, and she was a much stronger bridge player than I. I had learned the mechanics of the game but was not expert at either bidding or counting the key cards and finessing our opposing team playing one of those key cards. But I so enjoyed the way this engaging vibrant young woman looked at me deeply, trying to get inside my mind and communicate with me telepathically, and enjoying that effort, as we exchanged bids or she or I played a card.

During all this time Bublil continued to knit and lead and provide most of the input in a continuing conversation about travel, philosophy and politics. She made no bones about being an anarchist, and when Peter challenged her that anarchists were just a bunch of “bomb throwers”, literally or at least figuratively, she countered that “bomb throwers” were actually nihilists, while true philosophical anarchists were generally peace loving people who simply believed in informal egalitarian governance. Ashild spoke in support of Bublil’s assertions as well, but not with the intensity of of her female comrade.

Given my own study of the Russian 19th century anarchists as part of my Modern Russian History class in high school, I chimed in in support of Bublil’s challenge to Peter’s assertion, she saying that anarchism was about natural authority, versus imposed authority. In support of her view I did my best to share a version of Bakunin’s quote…

Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker.

Bublil was pleased to have someone second her thought, though she seemed perfectly content to soldier on alone with her strongly held beliefs, allies or no. Ashild smiled at me as if to say, “Way to go!”

That evening, David suggested I join the four of them and head into town to look around. We squeezed into his tiny little car, with him driving and Peter with him in front, and Ashild, Bublil and I having to somehow all share the two-person backseat. Ashild playing social director and deferring to her girlfriend’s more alpha status, suggested Bublil sit in one seat and I in the other, with her squeezing between us. This final maneuver ended up with Ashild mostly sitting on my lap, while apologizing vociferously for being a “big girl”, and making the point of checking every couple minutes if I was okay and apologizing again. I must say it was cramped and she was no petite person, but I was not the least unhappy to bear her weight and feel the warmth of her body against mine, along with her constant attention and concern for my well being, as she tried to adjust her rear end to minimize my discomfort.

We parked in the center of town and escaped the cramped car for the sleepy streets of Chur on a cold blustery afternoon. Peter was suddenly starving and led the rest of us on a crazed pursuit of a restaurant with reasonable prices. We all laughed at what Ashild described as his “savage” hunger. We eventually found a tavern that had soup and wonderful fresh baked bread, along with great local beer on tap. Loosened by the alcohol, we all had a beautiful in depth conversation about our lives, how we had ended up here in Switzerland at this moment in time and what we imagined for our lives ahead. I had plenty to share about the chain of events that led to the backpacking adventure, parting company with Angie, and my experiences in Munich, but not so much to say about my future, in the short term or the long.

Peter perhaps ate too much or otherwise felt under the weather, so David suggested he would drive him back to the hostel. Bublil decided to join them but Ashild said that she and I would stay a while longer and walk the maybe two miles back to the our lodging. We walked along quiet residential streets winding up the side of the mountain. We passed a house with an apple tree in the front yard with branches full of green apples hanging over the street. At her suggestion we picked a couple each and ate them as we continued our journey up the hill as it grew dark and still blustery.

The next morning it was again chilly and windy, but only a light drizzle falling from the sky. By the time I got up, a bit hung over, I decided again not to take a cold shower, and stumbled into the main room, Ashild and company had already headed out for the day. Jack was also nowhere to be seen, probably following leads from the hostel staff to try to find work. So when it was time for the staff to clean, I slipped into my orange down jacket and donned my orange poncho and walked down the hill into town, following the same route that Ashild and I had walked the previous night. I found the little store by the park with the tennis courts and bought a box of crackers and my usual rations of Mortadella and Swiss cheese. I sat in the park in the cold and drizzle under a clump of trees for a bit of protection from the weather. There was no one else in the park or anywhere outside as I prepared and ate my purchased provisions.

After the warmth of camaraderie with my generational peers the previous day, I felt very much cold and alone in the park, under the gray desolate sky. The past was done. The future was cloudy. Here I was in the present… all that there was really, at least for this moment in time and space. I always have such strong feelings about things, particularly when I am alone. And in such situations, music generally comes to mind, my own sirens and Greek chorus. As in other alone times, it was often the introspective songs of Simon and Garfunkel that would invade my mind’s ear. On that day it was there song “For Emily” that sang to and for me…

What I dream I had, pressed in organdy
Clothed in crinoline of smoky Burgundy
Softer than the rain

I wandered empty streets down past the shop displays
I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alley ways
As I walked on

And when you ran to me your cheeks flushed with the night
We walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight
I held your hand

And when I awoke and felt you warm and near
I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears
Oh I love you, girl. Oh, I love you

Perhaps the lyrics about rain and wandering empty streets caused the song to trigger and play as if on a juke box inside me. What a dream I did have, somewhere deep in my soul but not fully visible to my conscious mind, as I stared out of my poncho’s protective shield at the cold quiet wet park. I could feel the goosebumps rise on my forearms and tears filled my eyes and were soon flowing down my face mixing with the water in the air. Deliciously yet painfully alone, I longed to be in love, with my own version of someone like Ashild, some day, if I could just hang in there. Actually, honestly, I was probably projecting. I wanted so desperately to be in love with myself, to embrace the little adventurer who had the courage to go on, to be good to him and give him what he needed to find joy and meaning in his life. Who had more often failed and bailed, but now was determined to soldier on. Even as I write this paragraph, listening to the song on my earbuds, the tears again still come. It was an epiphany without clarity, or language that could be remembered, just a strong feeling that that song always invoked.

I stayed there for several hours, transfixed, in a present that was everything that was and nothing more, yet lonely and boggled and intruded by dreams of past and future. Finally a clock on a building across from the park told me I could return to my place of lodging and hopefully my fellow travelers. When I got there I was grateful to see Ashild, Bublil and David sitting at the big table, waving me over. Peter was still not feeling well and was sleeping. David suggested we again venture into town in his car and revisit our tavern for more beer and conversation. I was grateful to be taken out of my vulnerable alone place.

All of us traveling on a backpackers budget, David and company having to feed his car gasoline as well, that evening we focused our precious discretionary funds on the wonderful on tap beer and not food. Our wide ranging conversation that night quickly fixated on international politics, and particularly United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, to end the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Arab adversaries. David and Bublil, always passionate, found themselves in this case in passionate disagreement. She, the pacifist anarchist Norwegian believing the Israelis should make the “land for peace” swap and he, the tough zionist Israeli, convinced that the only thing the Arabs understood was a fight. Both points of view seemed to have merit, though my tendency was to side more with peace over war. Their argument whet their thirst as well and David in particular got pretty drunk, while I nursed my “ein grosses bier” and spectated along with Ashild from the other side of the table.

It got late, and given that the hostel locked its doors at 10pm, we realized that we had to get back, but David was in no shape to drive and Bublil, Peter and Ashild did not know how to drive David’s standard transmission car. I on the other hand had learned to drive a VW van with a stick that summer working at the Hilton hotel, offered to drive home since though tired and bleary, I had had only one large beer. It felt good to volunteer, to step up among my older comrades and be the person of the moment they were all depending on.

It was a short drive to the hostel but it was located just a quarter of a mile up a street that was one-way going down the hill. To return to the hostel you had to find the other end of the u-shaped street and head up the hill and then come around to where it was located. Given it was late, we were tired, and there seemed to be no other cars around, the advice from my passengers was to take the short drive up the street the wrong way to our lodging visible less than a quarter mile up ahead. I switched into a lower gear and jammed the gas pedal and we headed up the hill.

Out of nowhere it seemed a police car appeared behind us with its sirens on and lights spinning and flashing and pulled us over. The two policemen were quickly up by the side of our car shining their bright flashlights in our faces. I rolled down my window and they spoke to me in German, a language that, when you don’t understand it, sounds pretty intimidating when it is directed at you in imperative statements. No one in our car spoke German and the two of them did not speak English, but managed to say something that sounded like “license”. It struck me that I could have gotten an international driver’s license but had not thought to pursue it. Why would my Michigan driver’s license even be valid here! I fiddled around in my money belt, found it, and handed it to the cop, trying to appear ignorant of our law breach by sheepishly querying “Einbahnstrasse?”, to which they curtly replied “Ya”. David, fairly obviously drunk in the seat next to me, cursed in what was probably Hebrew, feverishly dug through the small glove compartment pulling out a handful of various pieces of paper written in languages foreign to me, that I passed on to the policemen. The two of them stepped back from the car and carefully assessed all our documents.

Panicky, my mind started imagining all the awful possibilities, however unlikely based on a more sober assessment. Would they arrest me for driving without a proper license? Or for improper car registration? Was I legally drunk by their standards? Would they put me in jail? Deport me?

They motioned me to get out of the car and my panic escalated, but luckily that shock reaction of dead calm, I had gotten before I went on stage, kicked in, and my mind quieted and I was almost sleepy and dead calm. They took me back to their car and had me sit in the backseat while they assembled a device with tubes and meters that I realized was some sort of breathalyzer. I looked at the other officer and tried to stand up for my ethical compass by saying hopefully, “Ein bier”. His partner completed the assembly and held the thing in front of me indicating I should blow into the rubber hose, which I took in my hand and dutifully did. Another agonizing, endless moment of pondering the abyss of Swiss judicial process while they analyzed my results. And the great gush of relief when one of them said, “Ya, Ein Bier”.

They returned me to the car and the looks of my comrades, relieved that I wasn’t being arrested while concerned for my general well being. I indicated to them that I was okay, and rolled my eyes to indicate that we had dodged a bullet. The police pointed down the hill as the proper direction for us to go and returned to their car to presumably complete their paperwork. All my fellow travelers became vocal inquiring how I felt, had I done a breathalyzer before, and good thing David wasn’t driving. David made the point to say he was so thankful that I’d offered to drive home.

So I started the car, put it in gear, executed an awkward three-point turn and headed down the hill, around and up the other end of our u-shaped street up the hill the right way finally arriving at our hostel about ten minutes after closing time, but the staff person on duty let us in. I gobbled down a candy bar David offered me from his stash. The three of them and Peter were planning on heading out in the early morning to visit Peter’s friends in Germany. David and I exchanged addresses, and I said I hoped to visit him someday in Israel. Ashild gave me an address where she would be in London in December and asked me to look her up. Seeing me writing in my journal, she asked if she could write something in it to remember our several days together. She pondered for a couple moments then set to work writing quickly and with great focus, closed my journal and handed it to me. She kissed two of her fingers and touched them to my cheek and said goodnight and headed up to her dormitory upstairs.

She wrote…

To Cooper

I hope you never turn into a “fat”, egoistic materialist but keep forward with your ideas and with eating immature apples. Keep staying at the piano, too.

The scream cut the silence like a knife
It echoed in the young man’s heart
That terrible scream of WAR

We spent a good time together

Love, Ashild

Not sure where she got that I played the piano, I didn’t, and she probably had me mixed up there with someone else. But I appreciated her hope for me, and made my own quiet vow to be true to it. I pondered her three-lined verse about war, maybe she was reacting to David’s zeal to continue the fight with Israel’s Arab adversaries. I felt the deep sadness that we were going our separate ways, that I would be leaving Chur as well and our little circle of comrades and fellow travelers. I puzzled based on what she wrote whether she might be attracted to me romantically, though presumably she was with Peter, or was it just the way she was with everybody, warm, engaged and intimate. I had so enjoyed in my life engaging with now a growing list of interesting intelligent women as peers, in a deep and intimate way, but that whole sexual zone I just did not know how to transition into without risking ruining everything, risking being just another guy wanting to get into their pants.

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