It was November 19 1973 and I boarded the train headed northeast from Rome to Florence. It was a Monday, not that I kept track of what day it was since the days of the week made no difference to me, except maybe for Sunday, where in some of the more traditional areas, some of the grocery stores or the museums might be closed for the Christian sabbath. The only reason I knew it was Monday was because I’d seen the Pope do his Sunday thing in St. Peter’s square the day before.
As I boarded the train I saw others of my ilk, easily spotted by their backpacks and “freak flag” hair boarding the train as well at different doors. Some of them I recognized but I presume most or all of them had been staying at our hostel, or perhaps another one across town, and were now headed for guess where… probably Florence. My cohort of fellow travellers stuck out because most of the Europeans milling around us had way less unkempt hair, instead styled if even simply so. Easy to maintain short hair seemed to be the “mode” of the day for men and women, functional and even elegant on someone like Giselle’s daughter Laurence, who I had met in Paris. It was all about style I thought… most Europeans had a real sense of simple practical style. Thus the wild often unkempt manes on all of us backpacker types stuck out, along of course with those big packs often to be seen on our backs.
I boarded the train and started to move up the corridor of the coach, looking for a compartment with some room for me, finding each one full of people, a big family perhaps or just five or six individuals filling the seats and space. It was a full train, and now I was encountering people going the other way down the narrow corridor, where we could barely squeeze around each other, me with my big pack on my back making it particularly hard, our bodies touching each other as they sidled past. It was interesting that the Italians among the train riders I would encounter in those narrow hallways seemed much more comfortable putting a gentle hand on your shoulder to ease by you than the WASPier Northern Europeans who tried their best not to touch you at all. I made it to the end of the coach finding no compartment and managed to move past the scrum at the open door of the next coach as more people were there entering the train. The conductors at each door were urging everyone to move toward the back of the train where I guess there was more room.
Working my way past even more people in the narrow corridor of the next coach I encountered another of my cohort, big pack on her back, headed toward me. She was tiny but her pack was not, and we both realized that neither of us could maneuver around the other and we both laughed. I slid open the compartment door I was next to, though it was full and the people looked at me hoping I wasn’t planning to try to stay there, to step in briefly to let her by. She smiled at me and said in her downunderish accent that despite what the conductors were saying she had not seen much of anywhere to sit in the coaches she had already traversed. Her “mates” were up toward the front of the train and maybe they could squeeze me in. She was striking with her five asymmetric pigtails of thick curly brown hair and her bright green eyes and rosy complexion, probably not even five feet tall though her big clunky black hiking boots elevated her a couple inches.
I thanked her and rolled my eyes and stuck out my tongue to dramatise what a hassle this was. She chuckled at my mugging and signaled me with her fingers to follow her. We heard the sound of steam venting, the conductors shouting and the train doors slamming closed. The train lurched forward and caught us both by surprise, she losing her balance and her big pack falling against me and causing me to almost fall backwards myself, but managing to stagger back, grab a compartment door and keep my feet under me. She apologized profusely from somewhere in front of her pack that hid the entire top half of her body above her butt from my view. We pushed our way up the crowded corridors of the coaches, negotiating the little rhumba with a dozen people or so moving the other direction toward the back of the train. At one point, as we worked our way forward down the crowded corridor of a coach, her hand appeared from above her pack and gave me that forearm rotating royal wave with fingers together and palm cupped, saying, “I’m Trix by the way… I remember you from the Rome hostel… happy to almost make your acquaintance!”
It was a good ten minutes before we had negotiated our way forward to the front second-class coach, my backpacking cohort generally not sitting in the first-class coaches where the tickets were more expensive and the student rail passes that many of us had did not apply. Trix’s compartment already had five other young women, each with their own version of big wild hair, and each also with a big pack now stowed in the racks above the benches and every spare corner, Trix and her load making six. That was generally the seating capacity of the compartments with me the odd seventh. Two of the women looked at me kind of suspiciously and gave Trix a questioning look to which she replied, “Madhouse out there, nowhere to sit, always room for a fellow traveller”, realized she hadn’t asked me my name and said to me, “Introduce yourself to my mates!”
Feeling kind of on the spot, standing there in the doorway of the compartment, about to make it more than full, with the six of them looking at me expectantly, my mind of course completely blanking on anything clever to do or say. I said, “Hi, I’m Cooper”, smiled, and then mimicked Trix’s royal wave to me a moment ago and rolled my eyes again in honor of the crazy situation on the crowded train, which immediately occurred to me was a pretty lame entrance, but it at least somehow signaled my comfort level amongst this all female assemblage. Trix chuckled at my homage to her previous gesture and a couple of the other young women chuckled as well. I felt them all relax, like though I was male I would be no bull in their all female china shop.
With a theatrical hand gesture, Trix graciously offered me the remaining seat on the bench that would have been for her, but I refused and said I was happy to sit on the compartment floor. That was easier said than done given that two of their packs were already leaning against the window between the benches. My awkward attempt to find a spot for my pack and myself triggered them all to get up and begin a bustle of rearranging packs on the overhead racks and floor, none of them flinching to muscularly hoist their loads as necessary showing their strength and agency. After several not quite working arrangements of all our stuff, followed by another grunting and lifting rearrangement, it ending up with mine laying on the floor by the window with me sitting on it looking at all of them, them smiling with satisfaction at their finally effective reconfiguration of all their stuff.
I recalled my mom dragging me along to some political cocktail party with her, her entering the kitchen filled with women she did not know but who obviously knew each other. I tried her same tactic, and said to them all, “So how do you all know each other?” As it had proved when delivered by my mom, my query was equally effective in breaking the ice, starting a flurry of back and forth between them. Trix, short for Patricia, had met her travel partner Evelyn at college, both “Kiwis” from New Zealand. They had met Amelia and Anna at the Rome youth hostel, who were childhood friends from Cairns Australia. When the four of them boarded the train in Rome when I did, they had fortunately stumbled upon this compartment where Hannah and Emily were sitting, two other Aussies, also college friends, who had been riding the train up from Naples. They were all obviously a couple years older than me, but not so much so that I did not feel like a peer.
After their telling of the web of connections between them it was obviously my turn. One of them referred to me as “Coopster”, having heard the nickname Jen had given me in the main room of the Rome hostel, and they all laughed as I blushed but was certainly not unhappy at having some sort of notice and even notoriety with the female types among our cohort. I introduced myself to the group with my story of getting in on best friends Lane and Angie’s plan to see Europe after high school graduation, then ironically Lane dropping out before leaving and then Angie doing the same after arriving in England, from there setting out on my own. To this turn in my tale, Trix, obviously the de facto alpha of the group, commented, “Courageous indeed but only a bloke”, and the other five nodded and vocalized in affirmation. Only a guy could realistically and safely travel on his own in Europe.
To Trix’s comment I told them the story of Miranda, and how she had told me that she left New Zealand on her own, crossed Australia, then Indonesia, up the Malaysian peninsula then across Burma and China to Vladivostok where she had taken the Trans Siberian Railway across the Soviet Union to Western Europe, where I had met her in Germany. They were all duly amazed and impressed. I chose not to tell them what an odd bird Miranda was, and certainly not how she had hit on me. Her courage and confidence was a tale that should be told untarnished by inconvenient sordid details that might make one think less of her. And perhaps puffing up my own sexual attractiveness was not how I wanted to play it with this all female room.
My tales kindled their various stories of interesting people they had met in their travels, including guys who had hit on them at various points in their journeys, some welcome and others not. Though eventually we all shared where we had been, including my intimate encounter with the Sistine Chapel, it was all the unique and crazy people we had met that were the highlights of our adventures. In response to their tales of young men hitting on them, I even got brave enough to tell the story of my travel partner Steve asking if he could sleep with me. Trix seemed fascinated that my “mate” was a “poof”, and that despite the incident I had continued to travel with him for another week and a half.
If felt good to finally share that experience with someone else, and my female listeners seemed supportive, though I did not share the whole discussion Steve and I had had and that I had even considered assenting, if only fleetingly. It had weighed fairly heavily on my mind, given that I was a virgin and so my own sexual orientation had not yet been established by deed, and given that I had had the precocious proclivity to get naked with my male peers when I was eight and nine years old. I was happy to play the heterosexual young man who had said no, but kindhearted enough not to abandon his “mate”.
And it was interesting that I had ratted on Steve but not Miranda, who had more discreetly and indirectly propositioned me at that restaurant in Cochem along the Rhine. I guess I felt sorry for her, her prickliness and social awkwardness, though I had also admired her almost clueless courage to do what she had done, travel across Asia on her own, probably because no one was willing to travel with her.
And as the train crossed the Italian countryside, we continued to share all our stories as peers, fellow travelers, children of the universe, whatever the hell we all were. We broke our bread together, shared our cheese and cold meat, me with a package of cookies or “biscuits” that I handed out to all. Anna dug out a big plastic jug of cheap rose wine from her backpack that was almost sickeningly sweet, but added to the esprit de corp of our impromptu kabal as we each made a face for the assemblage after we gulped down a slug right out of the bottle. Evelyn produced a bottle of chianti from her kit, actually glass rather than plastic, which she cracked open, passed around, and was shockingly tart to the taste after the sweet.
As their tongues loosened and they tried to top each other’s stories, they started sharing more risque tales of encounters with guys, good and bad. What each of them liked and didn’t like in their “blokes”. While they told these sorts of stories, they would not look at me, but the others listening would glance my way, curious how I was reacting. I just kept quiet, listened with a serious look on my face, shaking my head to show support. Amelia, who had the bustiest figure of the group, shared a harrowing story of being drunk on the dance floor at a bar dancing with her date and his best friend came up behind her and pressed his crotch against her butt and reached around and started squeezing her breasts, her date doing nothing but laughing and telling her that it wasn’t a big deal, that her “cans were irresistible”. This leading to a difficult odyssey getting back to her dorm, given that it was late and her date had driven her out of town to this bar, and she was afraid to let him and his friend drive her home.
Some of the stories like that one often were punctuated with a supportive response from one of the listeners about “blokes”, and being “all alike”. Again they would glance my way to see my reaction. I was tempted a couple times to blurt out, “We’re not all alike, I would never do anything like that!”, but didn’t. Don’t know if it was just shyness or me not wanting to break the spell of being let into this all female circle. So I only continued to shake my head and gaze at the floor.
I liked all six of them, but then I don’t know that I could recall any of the female backpackers I had met on my journey who I had not taken a liking to, given my eventual fondness for even the oddest of odd birds Miranda. (Hell, I even had enjoyed talking to fascist Jeanette!) I particularly had a thing for Trix. She seemed very self assured, both tough cookie and sweetie, and with her coarse curly hair strangled into five random pigtails, three roughly on one side of her head and the the two on the other, and her fiery green eyes below them, she seemed not so much human as some alien race that was humanlike but of shorter stature. Not even five feet tall herself, her five companions were probably all over five six and towered over her when they stood up. Still based on her stocky physique and the way she carried and lifted her huge pack, she could probably kick the shit out of the rest of us in a fight.
Sated and a bit buzzed, rattling along the west side of the mountainous spine of the Italian peninsula, joyfully comfortable in this moment in each others company, there was a lull in the conversation. Someone finally realizing that we had all stopped talking and laughed at the fact, followed by everyone else in chorus. It felt heavenly to me, to be in the company of women, letting my own gender identity melt away and merge with theirs. If there had been another guy in that compartment the dynamic would probably have been very different, and it would not have been so easy to surrender my maleness to six fellow human travelers who had their vaginas, and all that went with that, rather than a penis and all its baggage.
As the others busied themselves now with quiet sidebars with their partners, taking inventory of their kit or writing postcards or in journals, I still atop my backpack between them pulled out and unfolded my big map. It was a map of Western Europe published in Europe, and the city names were the real ones and not the anglicised versions that appeared on the maps I was more familiar with. Yeah Paris was still “Paris” but Cologne was “Koln”, Munich was “Munchen”, Rome was the more lyrical two-syllable “Roma” and Venice a four-syllable “Venezia”. Our three-syllable “Vienna” was the single syllable “Wien”. But the city we were headed to was the most transformed yet from its anglicised appellation. What we Yanks and Brits called “Florence” was really the much saucier sounding “Firenze”. It was interesting that in Belgium, France and Spain the actual city names were the same as the names I was familiar with, but in Italy and Germany they generally were not. Why that was I pondered but had no good theory.
When we got to Firenze it was raining pretty hard, the big raindrops pelting the window of our compartment to alert us we needed to break out the rain gear. As the rest of us were digging our ponchos out of our packs, Trix decided at the last minute that she needed to switch from her sweatshirt to a heavier sweater. She had a t shirt under it so it shouldn’t have been a big deal pulling it over her head, but in the process of negotiating her riotous pigtails her t shirt rode up exposing her gray sports bra underneath momentarily, and a pretty good sense of the shape of her ample breasts underneath. Never showing a moment of embarrassment or a loss for words she said, “Free show Coop, but all ya get mate!”, and pulled down her undershirt, put on the heavier sweater and donned her poncho with the rest of us. It was plenty, believe me.
One by one, looking like aliens from some cheap sci-fi movie with our colorful ponchos over what looked like huge humped backs, and particularly so Trix, who did not try to put her poncho hood over her pointy pigtails, we filed down the narrow corridor of our train coach and out the door down to the platform. Someone else from our larger backpacker cohort had already gotten directions to the youth hostel and was spreading the word among the rest of us. It was maybe fifteen or sixteen of us in all, colorful plastic poncho’d aliens, walking our way down the street along the Arno river in the old section of town, past buildings that were at least 500 years old.
As most often when I walked and was not in conversation with someone else, a song came into my mind’s jukebox from my Greek chorus somewhere deep in my subconscious, that I had probably heard a hundred times on my brother’s record player or on the radio, from my main muses the Beatles, “Got To Get You Into My Life”…
I was alone, I took a ride
I didn’t know what I would find there
Another road where maybe I could see another kind of mind there
What can I do, what can I be
When I’m with you I want to stay there
If I’m true I’ll never leave
And if I do I know the way there
As I walked I pondered who the “you” was. Trix? The whole female assemblage in that train compartment? Or more broadly the world of women?