Coop Goes to Europe Part 6 – Rivers

I left Angelica and Helmut at the Munich train station on Wednesday October 10 1973 and headed out by train using my rail pass, on my own again, this time headed to Mainz to take a boat up the Rhine river. I was due to meet my mom’s friend Giselle in Paris in six days and I decided in the interest of time that I would pass on exploring the Black Forest for now. My new plan was to spend a few days touring the great historic river, which separated France from Germany, that Patton’s army breached in World War II with my dad as an artillery platoon leader, and that I had done a report on in sixth grade with ample assistance from my dad. A couple of my fellow young backpackers that I had spent the night with in the Bern train station had suggested that the sightseeing boat ride up the Rhine and then down the Mosel were spectacular.

In the narrow hallway of the train I passed a young adult guy, maybe a few years older than me, wearing an American army uniform, shiny black boots and a beret, which I figured meant he was in some sort of elite unit, maybe airborne. He seemed distracted and distant and did not look me in the eye, even though we had to do an awkward little dance to get around each other in the narrow aisle, me with my big backpack on my back, him moving into a sitting compartment momentarily to let me clomp by in my own not so shiny black hiking boots. I suddenly remembered that the war must still be going on in the Middle East, and though I didn’t think the U.S. was involved directly, since Israel, Syria and Egypt were, then the U.S. and the Soviet Union were probably already active behind the scenes and mustering various forces just in case the other side made some big military move.

I got that image in my mind again, the one I got when I had first heard about the assault by Egypt and Syria on Israel on German TV news, of the young Egyptian soldier and his comrades following orders from their superiors crossing a temporary pontoon bridge over the Suez Canal to meet whatever their fate was in a military conflict with equally young Israeli soldiers. We young people, including the guy I had just had that awkward encounter with, were the pawns of a power politics in the hands of our elders who gave the orders to march, fight and die for “the cause”, whatever that was. It pained me that we did not have the solidarity with each other to acknowledge and support each other, and even challenge that authority!

Refocusing on myself, I pondered my limited budget, where I wanted to go and what I wanted to accomplish. This was the first time I’d hit a region on my own and I realized I had to learn how to go about it. Should I stay focused on seeing and doing everything on my list or should I just wander and not worry about it. With my rail pass I could actually just get on any random train, unaware of its destination, and ride it until it stopped somewhere that seemed interesting. No limits really, until it expired in early December. But I was drawn to this area of southern Germany, the Low countries and northern France, where much of the action in the Avalon Hill military simulation board games I had played so many times – Battle of the Bulge, 1914 and Waterloo – took place. I had stared at the Rhine river, the Ardennes, and the rest of this region’s geography on game board maps, and moved my armies, represented by little cardboard squares across it so many times. Now I could see some of that geography for real.

Other random thoughts came to me as I rode alone in my train compartment and updated my journal. I wrote…

Just thought of something – Let us not try to put together the pieces of 1968 but scatter them to the wind to form a new collage.

That year was already becoming iconic for all its cataclysmic and transformative events. The Prague Spring challenged the hegemony of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe. The Tet Offensive by the Viet Cong had upped the ante in the Vietnam War. Successfully challenged by Eugene McCarthy in the New Hampshire primary over the U.S. conduct of that war, President Johnson did not seek reelection. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy spoke out and then were assassinated. Young activists battled Chicago police outside the Democratic Convention. American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute on the medal stand at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

The older siblings of my own peers were the hippie activists that had put forward the vision of “peace, love, joy” and pacifist “flower power” and taken to the streets to battle the establishment and try to transform the world. By most conventional reckonings they had failed, but to me and many others of the younger Baby Boomers, they were bigger than life figures that we admired and aspired to emulate somehow. Perhaps they had become disillusioned and focused on the more attainable “sex, drugs, rock n roll”, but deep in my heart I carried their torch, and would continue singlehandedly if necessary (though hopefully not) to lead that more profound ethical transformation, that “new collage” of sorts. Forty-seven years later writing these words still send a chill up my spine as I once again recommit to this calling.

When I got to Mainz I went directly to the tourist office, something by now I had learned to do in each new town I entered where I wasn’t visiting someone I knew that lived there. Often I would encounter other young adult peers from English speaking countries at these venues, and in this case it was two American women maybe a year or two older than I was. They were close friends with each other and seemed friendly and even a bit flirty with me as we established that we were all headed to the youth hostel in town. Like most of the young women I encountered who had been lugging around a heavy pack for some time, they had developed a kind of rugged confidence and buffed up physicality, that seemed to lead to not feeling the need to show deference to guys and play encounters with them from that conventional giggly feminine point of view.

We were all thousands of miles from home and from any parental, teacher, or other community expectations about our behavior, including our sexual behavior. I liked that sense of liberation and all options open, at least in theory, and how it percolated through this and many other encounters with my traveller peers, particularly those of the female persuasion. Not that I had enough courage to overcome my shyness and act on those feelings, but flirting a bit was still a kick for a traveller so on his own.

So I and my two female comrades de jour took a bus to and checked into the hostel and spent the evening in it’s common room eating our squirrelled away food and talking late into that evening until lights out. Along the way an Australian and another American guy (“dude” would have been the word I used back then) along with a young woman from New Zealand joined our conversation, which included where we had been, where we were intending to go in the near future, plus lots of “shop talk” about stuff like currency exchange, food that wouldn’t quickly spoil in your backpack, and lack of hot water in youth hostel showers.

Miranda, the young woman from New Zealand was really an odd bird. You would think that someone who had been traveling all over the world by herself, and mostly by hitchhiking wherever possible, would be particularly hip and mellow, easily rolling with the punches, going with the flow, and not the least bit tone deaf. But Miranda was probably the most uptight young traveller I encountered on my entire time in England or the Continent! After hearing several of us talk about visiting a particular city for just a couple days, she pronounced that you had to stay in a town five or six days or it was a waste of time. When I mentioned that there were two youth hostels in Munich she replied simply, “There’s one”. When I restated that I was pretty sure there were two she stated as if categorically, “There is only one youth hostel in Munich”, and then would say no more on the subject. She was rather plain even homely looking, and had that British snobbishness about her, which included looking at you somewhat disdainfully when you spoke and tried to get in a word edgewise as she went on about this or that.

Given her off putting style, her story of her travels was still pretty riveting to all of us, though I suspected it was at points embellished, and we only somewhat begrudgingly let her hold court and dominate our impromptu agenda for a while with her narrative. She told us that she had booked a cabin on a freighter from Auckland in her home country to Indonesia, specifically Surabaya, a port city that she explained with fanfare and in great detail was named after a mythical shark (“suro”) and crocodile (“boyo”) who fought to an uneasy truce with the former controlling the sea while the latter the land. She then worked her way up through Java and Sumatra, pronouncing both with a hard nasally “a” sound, to Singapore and then on up the Malaysian peninsula through Burma into China. She said she tried initially to hitchhike across China, was briefly arrested for doing so and spent a day in a Chinese jail, and was forced to take trains across the country, eventually making her way to Vladivostok in the southeastern tip of the Soviet Union. She then took the Trans Siberian Railway through seven time zones, some eight days and over 9000 kilometers to Moscow, and from there by train to the Western half of Europe where we all were now. The Trans Siberian apparently was like a rolling market, opening itself up to the locals at each stop to come on board and buy things. It sounded like an awesome experience.

Her details of being arrested in China and later of being “accosted” by a German man who picked her up hitchhiking were at times lurid and she seemed to insist that we be impressed. My own buttons being pushed I guess, I found it hard to drum up respect or sympathy for someone so overbearing. But then again, at some level I had admiration for her, acknowledging that it may have been her prickly confidence that allowed her to traverse difficult circumstances the rest of us at the table would have not even attempted. And bottom line for a lonely traveler like myself and probably the others at the table, despite her diffident disposition and egoism, when you are travelling in foreign lands, you take what you can get in terms of conversation and camaraderie with other travellers who speak your language!

Perhaps attempting to shut Miranda up for a while, the conversation turned to rugby, with both the Australian and American guy apparently being die hard players. But Miranda was not to be silenced and plunged into the new topic with the two of them, going back and forth about the fine points of league versus union. The intensity of the conversation between the three of them was such that only about half the comments I attempted to interject on the subject under discussion were even recognized. I had to give it to our lone female at the table, what she lacked in beauty, charm, tact and grace, she made up for in pure conversational alacrity.

The next morning I hooked up with the two American young women I had met the day before at the tourist office, incidentally from St. Paul Minnesota, and the three of us took the bus down to the Rhine boat launch site. We bought our tickets along with a horde of German speaking tourists and boarded the large ferry boat with our big packs on our backs, iconic “backpackers” as most of the other tourist types recognized as such. Almost minor celebrities to the more conventional and provincial tourists who we crossed paths with on the boat, asking us in whatever English they could muster where we were from, how long we had been in Europe, and what had been the most memorable part of our travels. These Europeans tourists we casually encountered on the river boat tours made me realize that despite the language barriers, there was a sort of culture of respect for travellers that I didn’t believe was as prevalent in the States.

The boat had basically two decks. An upper one out in the elements with lots of chairs and a railing you could stand against and look out at the shore. Then an enclosed lower level that was a restaurant of sorts with big round tables and windows that looked out on either side of the big dining room. If you sat at the tables downstairs you would be expected to buy something, if just a cup of overpriced tea or coffee. Given that the elements were cold and blustery that day, we decided to take our chances at a table downstairs.

While we waited for the boat to embark I wrote postcards to my mom in Ann Arbor and my dad down in Xenia. During my tearful conversation with my mom some three weeks earlier, after my friend Angie had informed me in Salisbury England that she was bailing on our journey together and I was unsure whether to continue on my own, I had promised my mom I would try to write a postcard to her every day if possible. Now three weeks later it had become maybe an every other day thing, but still an important part of my routine, a lifeline of sorts back to the world where I really belonged, and most every day imagined returning to in early December as the accomplished and triumphant traveler.

I wrote her a couple quick sentences about my plans to take the boats down the Rhine and Mosel rivers and be in Paris on October 17. I also asked her to write me at the American Express office in Madrid. I figured I would be there around the end of the month, and it being a place where I could get mail, I figured I would be there far enough in the future for her to get my postcard and send a letter of her own arriving before I got there. It was also a place where she could send me money and I asked her to send me some if she could. Doing the math with my stash of remaining travelers checks in my money belt, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to early December when my student rail pass ran out, which I figured would be the appropriate time to then return to England and fly back to the States.

Perhaps every second time I wrote a postcard to my mom I would write one to my dad as well. I didn’t feel as closely connected with him, since we didn’t live in the same city, and our relationship, even when we had it, didn’t have the same emotional connection I had with my mom. But in the card I wrote him besides the quick sentences on my status, I did ask him how his new semester of teaching was shaping up. And I noted that this was the first fall in 13 years, almost my entire life that I could remember, that I wasn’t in school, “and I don’t really feel withdrawal pains”. Since the first day I had set foot in public school at age five, I had never been comfortable with this institution that featured adult overlords monitoring and even directing most everything I did. Outside of school my parents basically stayed mostly out of my way and let me chart my own course, though doing things behind the scenes to help facilitate my self-directed world. This odyssey in Europe I was currently in the midst of was just another more intense chapter in that self-direction that was my natural state of engaging with my world.

So given the cold windy day topside, I and my two American female companions du jour sat in the restaurant of the boat at a table with our backpacks plus two young French women from Paris and two forty-something American women tourists. We all were technically tourists, but those at the table from my age cohort I did not hang that somewhat pejorative label on like I did the two women from my parents’ generation.

So we all started talking, and when the server came around to exact our financial obligation to sit inside, we all ordered the minimum necessary, a hot cup of coffee or tea. The latter for me, since even a year of college had not turned me into a coffee drinker.
Surrounded by six interesting women in that relaxed on holiday kind of milieu, with I the only male type person, I was perfectly comfortable, even energized by the dynamic. I had discovered over the past few years that female people were at their most engaging and fun to be with when their gender dominated the group but at least one or two guys were present and participating in the conversation to kind of keep them on their best behavior. I had first noticed this hanging out with my mom and her female comrades, sometimes as an active participant but also as more of a fly on the wall mostly unnoticed in an adjacent room. I had also seen it in my youth theater group with its two to one majority of females to males. I had also found the same applied in reverse for better behavior among groups of males when at least one female was present.

Once we had fulfilled our obligation to buy something and were served, we all pulled out the various food we were carrying and contributed it to an impromptu sort of potluck. A loaf of bread, some salami, hard cheese to make sandwiches. I antied up strawberry and rhubarb preserves which I had bought a week and a half ago in Chur Switzerland. My faithful jar of preserves had graced several meals already, contributed to this repast, and was still not empty at the end. Our two American “tourists” at the table actually chipped in the lion share of the foodstuffs, so I had a big lunch at the cost of just half a jar of jam, a financial plus that my thrifty on a tight budget self noted in my journal later.

As we ate and enjoyed each other’s company our boat went past little one road towns along the hills and cliffs dominated by different sized castles in different states of ruin or repair, as we talked about location and trajectory, where we were from and where we were headed in our travels, swapping “must see” and “should see” suggestions. The two older American women sort of flirted with me, a bit too interested in and opinionated about the details of my parting company with Angie at the beginning of my European journey, having mentioned that as part of my backstory when it was my turn to share my narrative of how I got to the here and now. It is interesting how one can use intrusive questions about someone else’s story to tickle one’s own libido. I certainly enjoyed the mildly amorous attention, though unfortunately my two backpacking table mates, who had been kind of flirty when I had met them yesterday and were headed to the same youth hostel as I for the night at our day’s destination, did not seem at all interested in the details of my tale.

Every time we passed some obvious tourist view along the storied Rhine river, lots of people sitting in the restaurant deck would rush outside with their cameras to take pictures. It was so funny to watch, they were like ants, or lemmings but stopping short of going overboard. I had made a decision not to bring a camera with me since the only one I had was a cheap Polaroid Swinger my mom had bought me for Christmas, the ad jingle I can still hear playing in my mind…

Meet the Swinger
Polaroid Swinger
It’s more than a camera
It’s almost alive
It’s only nineteen dollars
And ninety five

And even a more conventional cheap Kodak would have involved the added expense of purchasing and hauling around all the film. Of course writing this nearly forty years later, I would have loved to have had all those pictures I would have taken!

When the boat got to Koblenz after lunch it had started to rain and was still pretty cold. We said our goodbyes and good wishes to our four other table mates, and my two fellow backpackers and I, all equipped with our rain ponchos which we helped each other pull out and properly drape over our big packs, followed the queue of people exiting into town. We took a bus waiting by the debarking pier to the train station, found an information booth and then made our way on foot the mile or so to the youth hostel. It was across the Rhine in an old fortress and it was quite a walk up the long winding entranceway to the hostel.

We encountered a group of a dozen or so young German girls under their brightly colored umbrellas going to the hostel and they led the way. I talked with a young woman who was one of their two guides, taking up the tail of the animated gaggle of preteens. She was about my age, and had that angular aryan face with light blue eyes and prominent cheekbones under straight blonde blonde hair. She was so stunning to look at that I would have been totally intimidated to initiate a conversation, but she had done so, asking me where I was from, and did not seem to have the least bit of conceit or ego that I might have stereotypically expected. She was from Hanover and was in charge of all these younger girls for a week. It was some kind of tour, and tonight was the last night, and she was happy to be returning home tomorrow. Still I didn’t dare go so far as to ask her her name or tell her mine.

When we all completed the long hike up the winding entryway of the fortress to the hostel, there were throngs of people, including all the German girls with their umbrellas, milling around the entrance way, some running around and screaming playfully. The light rain continued, and my fellow backpackers and I had to wait in a long line for nearly an hour to book a bed. After finally getting out of my rain gear and stowing my stuff I headed down to the common room, which had now cleared out a bit, but with a fair amount of people still milling around. There were two young guys a bit older than me sitting on the big couches across from each other in the middle of the room just tuning up and starting to play their guitars together, not attracting much attention yet from the other youth and young adults buzzing about, some still in line to try to get a bed.

One of them started singing Bob Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” in English but with a noticeable German accent. His comrade picked up and sang along with the chorus. I sat on one of the couches but at the other end, a respectful distance so as not to distract the two of them, staring at each other and trying to keep their chords and voices in sync. I had heard the song a couple times on the radio before I left the States, but I hadn’t really listened to and processed the lyrics until that moment…

Mama, take this badge off of me
I can’t use it any more
It’s getting dark, too dark to see
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door
(chorus) Knock, knock, knocking on Heaven’s door (repeated)

Mama, put my guns in the ground
I can’t shoot them any more
That long black cloud is coming down
I feel I’m knocking on Heaven’s door

Baby stay right here with me
‘Cause I can’t see you anymore
This ain’t the way it’s supposed to be
I feel I’m knocking on heaven’s door

The narrative of the sparse lyrics hit me, causing a chill in my spine and tingling gooseflesh on my forearms. The last thoughts of a young sheriff lying dying from presumably a gunshot wound. I suddenly was overcome by a wave of profound sadness and feeling way too alone, thousand of miles from my family and friends. I thought about all those young Egyptian, Israeli and Syrian soldiers participating in the October War, some who might be lying and dying on the battlefield at that very moment. I imagined myself as one of them. The two German guys finished the song and moved on to play and sing something else less evocative, like it was no big deal, but I was wrecked or at least destabilized at some deep level of my soul. My day on the boat up the Rhine with its pleasant banter with my female table mates was just denial for a longing percolating under the surface, to be home among friends, to have a girlfriend who would hold me and kiss me and be intimate with me, “somebody to love” as Grace Slick had howled from the radio.

I looked around for some port in this sudden interior storm. The room was full of animated people, interacting with each other, full of life and energy, none of whom I knew or were even speaking a language I understood. I knew I needed to get my equilibrium back, redirect if I couldn’t resolve my thoughts.

The hostel was a bit extraordinary because it had a dining room and served food. I had not planned on buying dinner that evening, but I noticed my two American female backpacker table mates from the boat sitting at an otherwise empty table eating. The food was out in the steam tables and I could smell the cooked garlic and onions. As nonchalantly as I could muster given my inner storm, I asked them how the food was. They both nodded vigorously with full chewing mouths. I got in line, paid my Deutschmarks and filled my segmented rectangular plastic plate with rice, liver and gravy, cucumber salad, grapes, and a square cup of onion soup, which fit neatly in one of the segments. I sat with my two comrades and focused on the delicious food and my tablemates, trying to keep my focus outward rather than inward. We were joined by two young Canadian women who were backpacking as well. The female voices engaging each other in animated conversation in a language I understood was soothing to my jittery psyche.

Given my sexual orientation, these young women backpackers, with their basic courage to wander, and the robust healthy energy they radiated from all the walking and carrying a heavy load as we all did, gave them an enhanced sensuality and sexuality that was a treat for me to be in the presence of. Whether they were classically “pretty” or not was not really that significant. Their charisma was in their physicality along with their agency to set off on their own and buck the patriarchal conventional wisdom that women on their own were in danger of being victimized by male sexual predators. I got that, and resonated with it. They were generally comfortable in their skins and that was always intoxicating for me.

Being in the company of such strong self-possessed women was where I felt most at home, having had the experience of my mom and her circle of feminist women friends, and then the cohort of charismatic young female peers in my youth theater group. I had learned to submerge myself in their worldview and mores, join their conversations as one of them, a fellow Venusian, rather than a denizen from that alien planet of Mars. Occasionally one of them would make some blanket comment like “guys just don’t get it”, and then several of the female participants in the conversation would uncomfortably look my way perhaps having forgot there was a male type person present. I would generally not be offended and nod my head or otherwise indicate that I understood that proclivity of my fellow males. I would never say it in so many words, but gender specific behavior had no real interest to me. I liked being around people being their unique selves, and that seemed much more prevalent among a group of women than a group of men.

Around my male backpacker peers I was fairly comfortable as well, though their company lacked that libidinal component that juiced my interactions with young women. Travelers tend to be independent spirits, and though my male comrades and I carried packs, we were not “pack animals”, not looking for safety, solidarity and even submergence within a larger group of other males with a similar worldview, which generally included looking at women as the aliens from Venus, and lusting after the stereotypically “hot” ones among them.

As we ate our dinner I got into a long conversation with one of my table mates from Canada. She had been employed at an abortion ward of a hospital in Montreal, and had worked with mostly the younger girls. She would hold a classroom session and explain exactly what was going to be done and then talk to each of them to make sure they were definite about having the procedure. She would let them know that if they had the baby it would be instantly adopted by a long waiting list of people. She shared that the hardest people to deal with were the 13 and 14 year old girls who came in, some knowing so little about sex that they didn’t really know what had happened to them. I pondered how awful it would be to go from being an innocent kid who had stumbled into a sexually intimate encounter, to then be faced with either carrying a pregnancy to term or having an abortion. I pondered how profoundly different it was to be in a woman’s shoes, accidentally becoming pregnant rather than a guy accidentally getting someone else pregnant.

The same young woman had been traveling around with three others in a van for a while and she told me how to arrange something like this. You come over to Europe in September and supposedly there are hundreds of vans for sale in London or Amsterdam or other major coastal cities. You can get a van for about $500, and insurance will cost you $200 for a year. Gas is about $15 a day. Between four people that’s an initial investment of $175 each and then $4 a day, which covers transport and even a place to sleep. I thought I’d like to do something like that if I was traveling with people I knew. It seemed like a good way to travel around with a lot of freedom of movement.

That night, in the male dorm room with lights out, I was alone in my sleeping bag with my fragile psyche. I did not sleep well, back in the interior of my own thoughts, imagining myself as the dying young marshall or the pregnant teen, both facing transformative experiences ahead, to say the least. The night seemed endless until the light of dawn creeped thru the few small windows in the large room. I was not feeling comfortable in my own skin, and felt the need to keep pushing forward to somehow find some future place or state to ameliorate that. I bought and ate breakfast by myself in the hostel’s dining room, my table mates from the previous evening not around anywhere.

I left the hostel and its surrounding fortress ramparts and towers on a very cold gray morning and did the long walk, by myself this time with my pack as my only companion, down the winding entryway and across the storied Rhine river back to the train station, where I figured out how to catch the bus back to where the river boats docked. The boat I boarded to take me and many others down the Mosel river was very similar to the one I had ridden down the Rhine yesterday, perhaps a little smaller. The biting cold drove me immediately to the lower restaurant level for sanctuary along with most of my fellow passengers. My tight budget only allowed me to purchase the obligatory cup of tea to pay for the right to sit in the restaurant level, and still be cold but presumably not as cold as I would be on the almost empty upper deck.

As we headed south on the river in the direction of France the banks on either sides were full of vineyards, stark for now with bare vines with no visible signs of life going up steep hillsides with big stone houses or even castles dominating the landscape from above. From where I was sitting there were no other obvious fellow backpackers sharing the ride to Cochem at the end of the line. From there I would catch a train down the river further to Trier.

I saw a headline on a copy of the German tabloid Bild (“Image” in English) daily newspaper that someone was reading that called out something in German like “Agnew tritt zurück”. Someone else had the weekly Die Welt (“The World”) with a comparable headline beginning with “Agnew”. Finally heard a couple of English speaking tourists talking about the U.S. Vice President Spiro Agnew resigning after pleading no contest to criminal charges of tax evasion.

I wrote in my journal…

Agnew has resigned. I’ve come to like that dude over the past couple weeks. His views are totally different than mine, but he definitely has guts and he’s a real person unlike his boss. He stood up for what he believed in, and though awkward, he was sincere.

The dining area was draftier somehow than the other boat and I struggled to write with my cold aching fingers. Laughing, mostly German speaking daytripping tourists surrounded me, seemingly impervious to the cold that was afflicting me. Many of the boat riders were drinking a lot of alcohol and I could here the growing intoxication in the music of their voices around me. German is a gutteral choppy language which seems to become much more musical with less rough edges when the speaker is a bit inebriated and slurs the hard consonants a bit. It felt good to note my thoughts and the sequence of events since my last journal entry, like I was at least accomplishing my mission, and the growing joyful inebriation around me was kind of infectious to my own worse for wear soul.

Continuing to get caught up on my writing I wrote a postcard to my mom and shared with her at least the tip of the iceberg of my angst…

I took the boat from Koblenz to here today down the Mosel. It was very cold. It makes me think of going to Spain or Italy – or coming home. I am learning to appreciate food and warmth and a place out of the rain. And people – friends.

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