We were hitchhiking east towards Basel Switzerland, and it was going to be the swansong of our travels together. We had met three weeks ago in Paris, traveled through Spain and back to Paris. Steve was headed to Bern Switzerland to see if he could get a visa to stay and work in the country. I was headed for Geneva Switzerland and then on to Italy. Both our paths went through Basel, and since the dry mild weather seemed to be holding for now, Steve convinced me to hitch with him there and then go our separate ways.
We did have some trouble finding an open grocery store to buy our provisions for a day of hitchhiking, but when we finally found a place that was open, the only obvious impact of the food strike was a lack of fresh fruit. It was near noon when we left the store with long baguettes protruding from the tops of our backpacks, plus big wedges of hard Emmental cheese stuffed inside them. We took the Metro to the road that would lead us east from Paris some 500 plus kilometers to Basel. Coming out of the subway we did encounter a crowd and the end of what was apparently an Armistice Day parade.
In a bit of symmetry with when Steve and I left Paris three weeks ago headed south to Spain, we were picked up after about ten minutes by one of our long haired “freak” cohort, a young French guy driving another little beat up old Citroen “deux cheveaux”, with its small engine that sounded like a lawnmower. Unlike his counterpart three weeks previously, he unfortunately had no hash for us to smoke to put us in the proper frame of mind for our day of adventure on the road. He let us off in a little village about fifty kilometers from Paris. We sat down to eat some of our provisions by the roadside, but before we could even unpack our cheese and break our bread two other young French guys in a somewhat larger and less austere car pulled over and asked if we needed a lift. Again no hash was offered, but they took us another 130 kilometers down the road to the city of Troyes (pronounced “twa” in French like the number three).
It was a nice quiet town with a lot of wide tree lined streets, and now mid afternoon, we sat and ate our bread and cheese in the center of town in a nice little park just off our continuing highway east. We then put out our thumbs again but the groove we were in earlier was now gone. After a couple hours with no ride, the sun was starting to set and we figured we were stuck here for the night, and needed to find the local youth hostel. I asked a friendly man in the park “Où est l’auberge de jeunesse?”, and though he spoke no English he graciously offered to take us there in his car. It turned out to be an old deserted looking place outside of town, that was open, but no one was staying there. The guy who ran it suggested another place in town and he also was nice enough to offer and give us a ride there.
The place he took us to was described as a “village des jeunes” or youth village. It was a whole small campus with dormitories, snack bar, playground and swimming pool set amongst nicely landscaped trees and shrubbery. Everything in the campus seemed brand new and ultra modern. The dormitories had translucent glass doors and big windows looking out onto the landscaped campus. They included big rooms with many beds like the conventional hostels we were used to, but also smaller rooms with two beds like college dorms. Though it was also open it was pretty deserted as well, but it was dark now and the twenty-something guy running the place seemed very friendly. So Steve and I paid five francs each (about $1.25 US) and were given two beds in one of the big rooms, otherwise empty. We asked the guy in charge where we could buy more bread and he was also nice enough (and apparently had nothing else better to do than) to take us in his car to one store, which turned out to be closed, then to a second which was open where we could buy more baguettes to have with some more of our remaining Emmental cheese for dinner back in the youth village’s empty snack bar. All this ready assistance for two foreign backpackers after hearing such horror stories about how snotty French people were to foreigners.
So we were shocked when we woke up the next morning to find that our remaining stash of bread, cheese and other foodstuff was missing from our packs, presumably stolen. After that initial shock, we then felt lucky that nothing else had been taken, and speculated that someone had seen the baguettes protruding from our packs, snagged them and also grabbed the cheese and other groceries right under the baguettes in our packs. It was a different guy at the desk that morning and he too was shocked when we told him and apologized profusely. Ever thrifty me was particularly irritated because I was hoping not to spend any more money until I got to Switzerland where I could exchange my ten franc note. My remaining bread and Emmental cheese was to be my breakfast and lunch that day to hopefully get me to Basel. So instead we found a grocery store where I blew the entire ten francs on more bread and cheese and more extravagant items like yogurt and salami.
Back at the highway in town Steve and I put our thumbs out about nine in the morning, but two hours later we still had not gotten a ride. Hitching in France seemed always feast or famine, either a whole bunch of rides right after each other or nothing for hours. So we walked up the road a kilometer to get out of town where hopefully we would have better luck. We waited another 90 minutes and finally got picked up by a middle aged French man going just 50 kilometers up the road. I almost managed to carry on a legitimate conversation with him in broken French – where I was from, where I had traveled, what I had seen in Paris. I was convinced that if I had stayed in France for any length of time I would have surely picked up the language.
He drove through the Parc Naturel Régional de la Forêt d’Orient (Regional Natural Park of the Orient Forest). He did his best to explain to us in French, that it was an area of woodlands and manmade lakes covering an area of some 700 square kilometers in what was the Champagne region of France, that had recently received “protection” by the government from further development. He let us off on the other side of the park in a small town called Bar-sur-Aube, “sur” meaning along, as the town was split by the Aube river which fed into the Seine further west, which ran through Paris and then out to the English Channel. We tried to hitch all afternoon and into the evening from outside of the town with no luck. We had no French money left and it was too late to get a travelers check cashed, so with the weather seeming fairly mild and calm, we decided we would sleep outside, like we had done south of Granada in Spain. We walked across a field to a small clump of trees, found a clearing amidst the trees and set up our camp for the night.
When we first settled down the stars were out and it looked like a “bon nuit” with a night sky full of stars. But it soon clouded up, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. It was going to rain. At first it sprinkled and my poncho over the bag kept the water away though the wind would from time to time blow part of it off. Later it started to really rain and Steve and I scrambled to pull out my tube tent, run a cord through it tied to trees on each end. The space inside the simple triangular tube of waterproof nylon, open on each end was just enough to keep the two of us, squeezed next to each other in our sleeping bags mostly out of the falling rain. We had to leave our packs outside our tiny impromptu shelter, covered with our ponchos and hoping for the best that their contents would remain relatively dry.
It was an awkward situation for me, still fresh in my mind from two weeks ago when Steve had suggested that, since in his opinion we were both attracted to each other, and we were on our own in a foreign land, that we should have sex together. After a long discussion where I at least entertained the thought in my own mind, I had stuck to my saying no, and Steve, though frustrated with my response, had not brought it up again since, though it had transformed our relationship in a subtle though profound way.
So here we were in this tiny semi dry space with barely enough room to lie next to each other, each in our own sleeping bag but the two of us pressed up against each other to fit in the tiny tube tent, like some “bundling” scenario from Colonial times. I had not slept this close to another human being since my night sleeping next to Zo in her VW van, back some three weeks ago, when I awoke with her and I cuddled up against each other and Steve and her comrade Randall not around. In this present situation, I was still too shy to even bring the subject up and Steve didn’t say anything either, so the little I slept I did so fitfully. But Steve was, that expression that women used, “a perfect gentleman”, and did not try to take advantage of the situation, if he still held those kind of feelings for me at this point after I had turned him down back in Granada.
At some point in the middle of the night when we both were awake, as the raindrops continued to bang against our tenuous semi enclosure, we did acknowledge that this might be it, our last night together. He was headed to Bern to find out about the possibilities of working legally in Switzerland, since he was about out of money and was not feeling ready to go back home to the States and deal with the hassle of whether to go to graduate school. I could read him really well between the lines of what he said, and I wondered if he was looking to have some sort of romantic and sexual relationship with a guy here in Europe, where it might be easier for him than back in the States. He probably had hoped that relationship would have been with me. Europeans seemed less hung up about sexual stuff that was not within the conventional norms of society. Back home he might get labeled as a “faggot” or a “homo”, or just have to put those feelings aside and limit himself to relationships with women, though he seemed more interested in men.
Despite getting cranky with his behavior sometimes, I really cared about and felt kinship with him, and reading between the lines of what he shared with me, I felt for him and his situation. Before Steve, I had never really engaged with anyone, at least knowingly, who was gay or bisexual and tried to see the world from their point of view. A couple years later I would begin to learn that some of my male theater comrades were gay, but at this point I was pretty clueless in the area of sexual orientation. Though we never had a conversation about it explicitly, my mom and dad seemed to pretty much buy into the whole conventional societal belief that being gay was deviant and based on some sort of psychological pathology, rather than something natural you could be born with and positively embrace. Though I was increasingly challenging a lot of conventional wisdom – particularly embracing anarchist, feminist, and youth liberation ideas – I had not opened to possibly challenging these conventions around sexual orientation.
That included not really thinking about the implications of my own naked explorations with other boys at age nine as possibly representing some element of bisexuality on my own part. I don’t think I was even familiar with the idea yet that sexual orientation could be a spectrum rather than a binary. In a perfect world without these taboos around same-sex sexual behavior, he and I might even have gotten in bed naked with each other that night in Granada and had fun seeing where it went, and continuing that additional aspect of our relationship for the rest of our travels together, where privacy permitted. As I had bailed on several sexual opportunities with female peers in the previous several years, here I had bailed on my first such opportunity with a guy. Lacking the context and language I have now, still thoughts in this vein were going through my head that night as I lay next to him in our intimate tube tent enclosure.
I shared with him again that my intention was to go to Italy, with perhaps an initial stop in Geneva Switzerland on the way south from Basel. From Italy north to Vienna Austria, the “museum city”, to see an opera, before heading back to England to fly home. Once home I figured I would get a job and work before getting back on that ever present societal train and returning to college in the fall to continue studying theater.
Morning finally came and the rain had stopped but the breezy air had a real chill to it and I felt cold and soggy. Our sleeping bags were fairly wet from both condensation on the inside of the tube tent dripping on them plus the water the wind had blown in the open ends. I was concerned about mine because it was goose down and I had read that getting the down wet could ruin its effectiveness if not carefully dried. Our packs had kept mostly dry in the rain but under our ponchos all night. I rolled up my tube tent and poncho, both still wet and managed to stuff each into its nylon bag, but I did not try to put either of them in my pack. I was afraid to roll up my sleeping bag because of concern for what that might do to the wet goose down inside it. So we walked through the muddy ground of the little woods out to the road, with our packs on our backs and me holding the two nylon bags in one hand and my sleeping bag in the other, longing for someplace warm and dry.
So we walked into the little town of Bar-sur-Aube to the small brick and stone train station. To my query in French, the ticket agent told me that the train to Basel departed at 2:45pm that afternoon, it was now just 9:00am in the morning. I was actually happy we had the long wait because the little station was so nicely warm, dry and empty, hopefully giving me the opportunity to dry my down bag and my other wet stuff. I was content to just sit in the cozy little waiting room all day and happily stare at the walls. Steve needed to exchange some dollars for francs so I successfully asked the agent in French for directions to a bank in town, and understood his words back to me. Leaving me at the station to watch all our stuff, he headed off to the bank and store and returned with fresh bread and other groceries, plus the new edition of the International Herald Tribune.
The Tribune’s headline was yesterday’s signing of the U.S. sponsored ceasefire between Egypt and Israel. I was glad to read that no more of the two sides’ young soldiers would be dying in battle with each other. The pages were full of the latest stories about the Watergate Scandal, the ongoing political soap opera back home, focused in this week’s edition on the newly appointed Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski. Also the Congressional override of President Nixon’s veto of the War Powers Resolution and the launch of the Mariner 10 Space Probe to the planet Mercury. Between Watergate, Vietnam and the war in the Middle East, the whole world seemed to have become unhinged since I left the States, another reason I wanted to get back home, though not enough of a reason to cut my trip short.
The waiting room had a big metal radiator which I laid my wet sleeping bag out on top off for the first couple hours until it was dry, followed by my wet nylon poncho and finally the tube tent. All were nicely dry bagged and stowed in their spots in my pack by the time the train from Paris, headed to Basel Switzerland, arrived at the station.
Normally I kept all my important documents secured in my money belt around my waist. The downside to the added security of that location was that it required me to dig awkwardly into front of my pants above my crotch whenever i needed to produce them. But I had recently discovered a neat little inside breast pocket of my down jacket where I decided to put my passport and rail pass that I would have to show to the conductor once I boarded the train. So we hopped on board and started the search down the coach halls for a hopefully empty compartment as the train gathered speed and left the station. When we found a compartment and stowed our packs in the rack above our seats I reached into that pocket inside my jacket and realized my passport and rail pass were gone! The laminated rail pass and glossy cardstock covered passport must have bounced and slipped right out of the pocket’s slick nylon fabric.
I was quickly overcome by a sense of panic and dread. These were the two most critical documents that made my travel possible. The passport allowed me to go from one country to the next, and the rail pass, which I had spent $150 on for two months unlimited travel on European trains, was my main means of transportation going forward. Steve saw the fear suddenly show on my face and I could barely blurt out that they must have fallen out of my pocket as I rushed out of the compartment and retraced my steps back to the door where we had boarded the train, hoping beyond hope to find the two documents somewhere in the corridor, before I came completely unraveled, but to no avail. All sorts of thoughts shot through my head and I shivered as if I had had sudden symptoms of a flu coming on.
My cognitive process, disrupted by the panic, returned enough for me to realize that I must go immediately to the conductor. I found him in all his official garb and officious manner in the open hallway area between two coaches where he was having a conversation with a passenger in French. In my again barely cognitive state I got his attention and spewed out a mix of French and English words, along with a pantomime of the documents sliding out of my jacket pocket, to try to explain my predicament. Lucky for me the passenger talking to the conductor also spoke English and translated for me. The conductor listened to my translated situation carefully but showing no emotion or even visible concern. When my fellow passenger had completed my tale of woe, the conductor nodded, and without looking at me, explained to my translator that he would radio back to the station to see if my documents were there somewhere. I should check in with him shortly for news.
I checked in with Steve, who acknowledged my predicament but seemed to be lost in his own thought of his path forward on his own. Rather than sit in our compartment stewing and fretting, I kept walking up and down the coach hallways retracing our steps, looking carefully in every corner, but nothing. My mind was racing in several directions at once while the rest of my body felt numb and heavy. Without a passport I would have to get off this train before it crossed the border into Switzerland and then return to Paris to go to the U.S. embassy to see about replacing my passport. My understanding from earlier discussions about such an occurrence was that it could be replaced, but I didn’t know how long that would take. But the rail pass was in some ways the bigger loss, since I had no idea how I could replace it. I was counting on it for transportation for the next three weeks. I would be reduced to hitchhiking only, and would even have to hitchhike back to Paris to get to the embassy, or else quickly spend down my remaining amount of money continuing to ride the rails. My further journeys might essentially be over, if the wait to get a new passport took much more than a week or so. I felt a great sadness overtaking me, like somehow, even now, I had not passed the threshold of money, effort and time spent to return to the States the triumphant traveler. That this foolish loss of my key documents – they should never have been anywhere but in my money belt – was a fatal flaw in my character and therefor my case for newly won self esteem.
After about ten minutes that seemed like hours, I encountered the conductor again and the same passenger still talking with him who had assisted me with translations earlier. The passenger’s eyes lit up when he saw me and said, “You are a lucky man, they’ve found your passport and rail pass”. According to the conductor, the station agent had found my documents right there on the tracks where I must have climbed onto the train. They would be coming on the next train later this evening. I was to get off this train at Mulhouse on the French border and wait until 11:30pm for the next train to arrive and get my documents from that train’s conductor.
The sense of shock, numbness and weight lifted from my body. I was alive again, back in the real world, back on track. Though I did not believe in god I was so grateful to the universe for giving me this one, and I would figure out somehow to repay the universe in kind, “pay it forward” as they would say decades later. All things that were ahead of me in this last month, this last third of my journey, now seemed eminently doable, no matter how much I might have fretted about them previously. I had been given a second chance to be all that I could be and I would honor that gift! “Life goes on!” was emerging as my motto, how I was signing all my postcards and letters home. I noted in my diary that this new mantra was “not only a philosophy but a discipline”. Life was going on, and thankfully still in the direction, through Switzerland to Italy, as I had previously intended.
I shared with Steve my good fortune and great sense of relief, but also that he and I would be parting company in Mulhouse, on the French side, instead of Basel across the border. He acknowledged it all and said he was pleased for me that I had found my documents. I could almost hear the thoughts now churning in his mind. He and I were finally parting company, a relationship that had never gotten to be what he might have hoped for, and he had to shift back to really thinking about his own path forward on his own. He shared with me again all his plans for trying to find work in either Switzerland or Germany. I recalled previous discussions with fellow backpackers when I stayed at the hostel in Chur Switzerland, that that country had a thriving market for foreign labor, even people without proper visas and work permits, and that maybe as much of a third of the manual workforce in the country was working under the table without the proper documents. Steve took in my comments but reiterated that he wanted to try and work legally if he could, thinking if nothing else, that it would pay better.
Finally the conductor who had so officiously but, for my sake, successfully coordinated the recovery of my passport and rail pass came by the cabin to announce that Mulhouse was the next stop, looked at me briefly and said in French that I should wait in the station for the 23:30 train with my documents. I acknowledged and thanked him profusely in French, but there was no smile on his part, just the slightest nod of the head.
I gave Steve my address in the States and he agreed to write me when he returned there himself (Though I never did receive a letter from him). I stood and pulled my pack down from the overhead shelf, slid my arms in the two straps and shouldered it. Steve stood and faced me, put one hand on each of my shoulders and looked in my eyes. I realized right then that he had never really touched me before. He said, “Take care of yourself kiddo”, and with a bit of an edge and a twinkle in his eye, “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” and gave me a hug. At this point in my life, having grown up in the WASPy world of handshakes and minimal body contact between men, it felt a little weird, but I guess appropriate for the situation. We had been close travel partners for almost a month and been through a lot of memorable experiences together, including our almost sexual encounter, which I had nixed, but had subsequently tried not to let come between us. It had actually changed our relationship to a more adversarial one, but as the French say “c’est la vie”!
I exited the train on my own again, my head still bombarded by all these thoughts. I looked around the big busy train station and suddenly felt great fatigue. I found a bench, unshouldered my pack and sat, gulping down the rest of my Coca Cola and the last two containers of yogurt to replenish my depleted blood sugar. I could see the big schedule board already showed the 23:30 train from Paris to Basel was arriving on this same track, some four hours from now. I was fairly confident that I would get my passport and rail pass back, but I was not going to feel really whole again until I had them safely tucked away in my money belt again. I had some food left and had emptied my bladder on the train, so I was content to just sit, having already decided back on the train that I would fill the time waiting writing a long letter to my mom.
The letter began with my recounting the awful experience I had just had losing my passport and rail pass. I knew she would appreciate it because she had had several comparable experiences losing critical things and panicking. I still had a vivid memory of when she couldn’t find all our passports at the last minute when our friend arrived to drive us to the airport to fly to England for the summer of 1970. My brother and I used to tease her about it, saw it as a weakness in her character even, but now I was certainly more sympathetic. Sharing with her my own feelings of panic felt good, and a sort of peace offering that our relationship might move beyond that more adversarial child-parent dynamic.
I shared with her all aspects of my current status, trying to be very thorough and adult about it. Health was good. Spirits were fairly high. Homesick, but not too much. Enough money to make it back to London on around the 10th of December to get a flight home hopefully on the 11th, a flight that I would book once I got to Rome. If there was any change to that plan I would notify her by telegram immediately. I tried to be humorous and say that when I got home I would need a vacation, and then followed by trying to speak to her more like we were peers than like she was my parent, even throwing in a very adult expletive…
Traveling the way I am is a lot of hard work. Hunting for places to stay at night, hauling my backpack around for miles on some days, hassling with people, attempting to speak various languages, etc. This is NO FUCKIN’ VACATION!!!!! (That’s five exclamation points – count ‘em!) But it’s really fantastic and I am sure I will miss this way of life when I come home. I may be homesick this time around but I think I have a strong case of the wander lust. After I’ve recovered from this trip you may have trouble keeping me around.
I wanted to reconnect with everything about my family and my home town, but from what I hoped was a more thoughtful, more adult perspective. I shared my joy that our local Michigan Wolverines were having a successful college football season so far, my mom being also a big fan of the team. I weighed in on what she’d shared with me about my brother’s situation, with the possibility for him to go to the newly launched, very alternative, Community High School. I thought it was a great idea, as I wrote, “no need to get involved with those asshole administrators at Pioneer”, my old high school. I told her to have a good time at the Mortimer’s Thanksgiving party, an annual family ritual of ours, and that I would be in Italy for the holiday and would go to dinner and have ravioli. I shared with her thoughts of possible Christmas gifts for my brother, Aunt Pat and Uncle Ray. And for my dad, maybe one of those Sherlock Holmes caps with brims on both front and back. I brought up U.S. politics, the whole Watergate thing, and that Nixon deserved everything that was coming to him, knowing she would agree on that since she was no fan of our president.
I addressed the fact that I was traveling on my own again, but unlike before I felt much better about it, that I was a “veteran” traveler now, and I would be visiting big cities and staying at hostels with lots of other people my age to hang out with.
With still lots of time to kill, I recounted the most recent days of my traveling, leaving Paris with Steve, staying in Troyes, and though sleeping out in the rain outside Bar-sur-Aube the previous night, how my sleeping bag had performed like a champ keeping me warm. I even drew her a little impromptu map showing the road from Paris through Troyes and Bar-sur-Aube to Mulhouse and Basel. Then followed with all my current thoughts of where I planned to go next… Rome, Florence, Venice, and Vienna, which I described as “the museum city” where I intended to see an opera, finally returning from their to England.
I shared with her about my diet on the road, not too varied but at least I wasn’t going hungry. Bread… lots of bread… plus cheese, cold meat, fresh fruit and yogurt, bought mostly from small markets and grocery stores. To drink… Coke, milk and a fair amount of beer in Germany and wine in Spain. Prior to going to Europe, most of the bread I had eaten was like Wonder bread, that soft processed sliced stuff that had very little taste or texture. Here in Europe I was eating still mostly white bread, but some darker or whole grain varieties, but generally fresh baked loaves or baguettes much denser and more flavorful and satisfying to chew on. I had learned in restaurants to eat bread with soup and sop up the last remains in the bowl, and intended to continue to do so back home.
I told her how much fun it was going to be to to get back home to all the things I took for granted. To having nothing to do, nowhere to go, with hopefully lots of snow on the ground. To eat lots of good food, hot food, to watch TV, to help around the house, to play war games, to talk with her, to throw the football with my brother, to visit all my friends, to sit in the basement, to listen to records, to just “cool it” and become a “clam” for a while before launching anything new.
Finally I called out the aspects of the profound developmental experience I was having…
This trip has been quite an experience and an education. The places I’ve seen, the perspectives I’ve gotten, the feelings I’ve felt, the things I’ve had to do. But most of all, the thing that is greatest, is all the strange, wild, and different people I’ve met. Kids from all over the world, bums, policemen, businessmen and businesswomen (Giselle!) Though that’s not all she is. Travelers and people who have never left their town. All kinds of people. Everyday a couple more, a lot more. I can’t keep track of all the different people. I think I’ve just about reached the saturation point. There’s only so much you can take in. By the time I get back to London my brain will be chocked full.
Finally the train I had been awaiting pulled alongside the platform where I had sat for most of the last several hours writing the letter to my mom. One of the conductors who stepped out onto the platform was holding up my two documents and looking about. I approached him and indicated they were mine. He confirmed my pictures matched and gave them to me. I boarded the train, my life now whole again, and I could now proceed with “phase three” of my journey, comfortable on my own at least for the present, though now chastened and grateful for the bounty of the universe!