It was Friday November 23, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving. Despite all my fellow backpackers traveling the Rome-Florence-Venice circuit like I was, I somehow ended up on the after lunch train from Florence to Venice by myself. The guys from Cleveland had decided to skip Venice because they had heard it was dreary and depressing and there was not much to do. They had instead headed north to Switzerland and said they might try to get to Grindelwald, where I was planning to go after Venice. Jen and Sarah had left Florence for Venice earlier that morning. Trix and Evelyn had decided to stay an extra day in Florence before leaving. I wasn’t sure what was the status of the other four women we had shared that train compartment with three days back. Maui I think was headed west to Paris, continuing the Western European leg of his world tour that would take him across the States, via a two-month Greyhound bus pass in December and January.
I was on my own again, and as such subject to that creeping melancholy and homesickness that was always lurking inside me these days when nothing else was happening to engage and distract me. But actually it wasn’t so bad on this day because I was pretty confident I would see Jen, Sarah, Trix and Evelyn at the Venice youth hostel, since they had all said they were headed there. But I actually ended up having a distraction. When I boarded the train I had found a seat in a compartment with three elderly Italian women traveling together, two sitting on one bench by the window and the third across from them also by the window, the three laughing and chatting animatedly in Italian. They had all said “bonjourno” to me when I entered the compartment and I had replied in Italian as well, seating myself on the bench with the third but by the door leaving a space between us. Moments later a very attractive Italian woman entered the compartment, considered the two empty seats, one across from me and one next to me, and chose the latter to sit. Soon after the train started moving and got up to speed, she struck up a conversation with me, speaking some English, and seemed to even be flirting with me. Her name was Sophia, probably in her mid forties, and at least by her telling a successful businesswoman, traveling alone and headed to Venice for a weekend conference related to her business.
She had initiated things by asking me if my backpack was heavy. Trying to be a suave European traveler, I quickly did the conversion in my head to the metric measurement for my 50 pound pack, and I responded that it was about 23 kilos, but that I had been traveling for two months and had gotten used to lugging it around, sometimes doing up to maybe ten miles of walking a day with it on my back. Surfing on my puffery and somewhat theatrically scanning my body, she responded that I looked like I was in very good shape. I grinned shyly a bit embarrassed but otherwise pleased, and we were off.
“Two months!” She repeated the words twice for emphasis like it was something difficult to fully comprehend, and then commented that I must have had some very interesting experiences, and that her life was pretty routine right now, with her work taking most of her time. “So I would love to hear about them,” she said, “It’s a long train ride”.
She was dressed for business in a gray pencil skirt, fishnet stockings and black heels. She was tall, slim and shapely, and wore a black button up blouse with the big collar turned up. The top three buttons were undone giving one in my position next to her a pretty good view of her breasts and the black lace bra that cradled and barely cloistered them. She wore a lot of makeup and her hair was jet black, short, straight, expertly coiffed and hairsprayed in that sort of conventionally masculine part on the side look that seemed to be a style among many women in all the big cities I had been to. (It had been Giselle’s dazzling daughter Laurence’s hairstyle along with thoroughly fascist Jeanette at the Rue Titon hostel.) Sophia smelled of a very pleasantly sultry perfume.
I happened to be in my best looking outfit as well, my paisley shirt, gray flared slacks and my two-inch two-tone heels, rather than my big clunky hiking boots which were tied to each other and dangling from my pack above my head. And though I always rolled the deodorant under my arms every morning I had not taken a proper shower since four days back in Rome, at the rare hostel that had water that was not icey cold. And I had not washed my clothes since Paris, though this particular shirt had been worn less in that span than its two comrades. I of course with my long wild curly hair.
So I started to share with her my European travels story, with Angie and I flying to London together, but after a few days her deciding to bail and go back to the States. Sophia was intrigued, and assuming Angie and I were a couple, asked if we had had a breakup. I told her we had just been friends, and she was intrigued that a young woman would agree to travel abroad with a young man who she was not interested in romantically. I then went back farther in time and told her that Angie and her best friend Lane had had the original plan to travel through Europe together, and that I had convinced the two of them to let me come along. She laughed at that and said a threesome never works. I told her that when Angie decided to return to the States I had considered abandoning the trip myself but decided to continue on my own. She put on a big showy smile with her red lips and big white teeth and said, “Mio amico, you are an adventurer!”
Though I mostly maintained eye contact with her or looked out the train window as I talked, when I paused to think of what to say next I would look down and my eyes would be drawn to her thighs in the fishnet stockings, held closely together and disappearing under her tight skirt, and drawn to her left breast, mostly unconcealed by her silky, partially unbuttoned blouse and lacy bra that barely covered her nipple. Having been staying at youth hostels with no private moments to relieve my burgeoning libido, it was certainly percolating at this point and she seemed to sense that, but did not display any perturbation that my eyes were scanning her body when not engaging her big painted gaze or the view out the window. Meanwhile the three elderly women continued to chat and laugh, mostly oblivious to the two of us doing whatever it was we were doing, since we were speaking in English which I presumed they did not understand.
I told her the story of finding a place to stay with the army brats in Munich when I had nowhere else to go. Hitchhiking with Jack south to Switzerland and the anxious breathalyzer test incident in Chur after going the wrong way up an “ein ban strasse”. She laughed at the latter and said it was always important to know what direction you should be going.
She was intrigued when I told her about meeting Miranda and hearing her story, crossing Asia and the Soviet Union on her own, invoking several “dio mio”s from Sophia as I spun the story as sensationally as I could to meet her expectations for an interesting tale to pass the time. She asked if Miranda and I had “gotten together”, to which I paused, apparently showing some subtle signs of embarrassment, and shook my head. Sophia pressed for details, and under her comfortable charm spell, I even shared the story of Miranda hitting on me, touching her knee against mine under the table when we ate together in the restaurant in Cochem. She was intrigued why I had not accepted her advance and asked if Miranda was pretty. I paused again, not wanting to say that Miranda was not pretty, but Sophia got the implication. She scowled, mocking contempt, and said “You men!”
I was enjoying Sophia’s attention within the rules of engagement of our conversation, where I would describe a situation in some neutral way and she would then probe for the potentially spicier details. So I shared that I had visited my mom’s friend Giselle and her family in Paris. Sophia queried about the other family members, and when I shared that Giselle had a daughter, Laurence, my age, she honed in on that, pulling out of me details on what Laurence looked like and how I felt about her.
The same when I described traveling with Steve and being picked up by the two Canadians, Randall and Zo, in their VW van for the long ride across Southern France to Spain. When her questioning revealed that Zo was a young woman, she asked again for a physical description, and I went on that Zo was short, kind of stocky and had wild curly red hair, always contained above a red Canadian flag bandana. I couldn’t find the words to describe Zo’s vivacious personality. Perhaps I should have just described her to Sophia as “vivacious”, but instead I just said she was “cool”, but Sophia picked up that I was taken with her. Sophia did not miss anything, even the subtlest cue. She asked if Zo and Randall were a couple, and she was intrigued when I said that they probably were but I wasn’t sure. It was the sort of detail Sophia would never leave to uncertainty.
As our train continued to make its way toward Venice, and the three elderly Italian women continued their animated chat in Italian on the other side of the compartment, I spun the tale of taking my turn, after midnight, driving the van through the hilly terrain of Southern France. I described the winding road and the old stone farms and little villages we drove by. Sophia’s questions revealed that Zo shared the front seat with me during my stint to help me stay awake, and how I had enjoyed that degree of intimacy with her, while the others slept in the back. And finally the van getting low on gas, stopping at the petrol station that was closed until the morning, uncertain we could find another open station on our remaining fuel, so deciding to stop their until morning. Zo and I squeezing between Steve on one side of the narrow mattress and Randall on the other, sleeping next to each other.
Perhaps intoxicated in her own way by my tales, or just feeling the urge to amp up the flirtation, she shared with me her own story of losing her virginity in the backseat of a car at age 17 on a long road trip with her boyfriend at the time and his best friend, who was asleep in the front. They had similarly pulled off the road in the middle of the night to get some sleep before resuming in the morning. The two had snuggled together in the rather spacious back seat. She told me how sweet he was and how nice he smelled and how she had let him touch her all over her body, and how in a moment “he was inside me”. Whether that last statement just slipped out or she had delivered it with premeditation, she immediately straightened herself up, adjusted her shirt collar and skirt, and apologized for being so explicit. I was quick to respond that it was okay, I didn’t mind, though I glanced at the three elderly women to confirm that they were still oblivious. I was actually thrilled at being so verbally intimate, and I’m sure she sensed that, though I would never share something like that.
She said she wanted to hear more about my journey, perhaps hoping now that I would share an equally steamy and sexual encounter that I had had. Whether I would have shared it if I had had such a tale, I had none to tell, and I could feel that she was sensing that I was a virgin, though she never was so rude to ask. Caught up in this intoxication of our shared intimacy, strangers on a train, with the elderly women sharing our compartment ensuring that our intimate encounter stayed in the realm of only words, I had the urge to share with Sophia the story of Steve asking to sleep with me. The opportunity passed and I did not, for fear that due to the fact that I had even discussed it with him and entertained the possibility, she would judge me as some sort of deviant, and not the thoroughly heterosexual young man she imagined she was flirting with.
Sensing my limited funds perhaps, or feeling it appropriate to compensate me for the engaging conversation on what would otherwise have been a boring business trip, she offered to buy me lunch in the dining car. Enjoying being “kept” if just briefly, I accepted, and continued my tale sitting across from her now with proper plates and silverware, cloth napkins and wine glasses between us. She had a cucumber sandwich and mine was chicken salad. The bottle of wine we shared was dry and delicious. I was bold enough to suggest that we toast “to the adventures of life”. The waiter all but smirked at the two of us. I wove the rest of my tale to bring her up to the present. Hitchhiking from Spain back to Paris, and the long ride, dinner and shared hotel room with Walter, with his stunning rant and endorsement of Hitler the next morning over breakfast. Spending that last night with Steve sleeping outside in the rain. The almost catastrophe of having my rail pass and passport slip out of my jacket pocket as I boarded the train to Basel, and my great fortune to manage to recover those essential documents so I could continue my journey. And finally my time at the youth hostels in Rome and Florence and all the interesting backpacking peers I had encountered there.
I tried my best to ask her about her life, not wanting to come off as some sort of stereotypical self-obsessed young man who thought that life was all about them and women were there to look sexy and be good listeners. I managed to pry out of her that she had been married and divorced, both some time ago, but was now happily single and financially successful in her business which involved being some sort of rep for a large European pharmaceutical company. I thought it was ironic that the two native Italians I had met, Marcello waiting for the train from Basel to Rome, and now Sophia here on the train to Venice, had both sold drugs, though the ones Marcello pedaled were illegal. I screwed up the nerve to ask Sophia about her “future plans”, those words at first getting lost in translation. When she finally figured out the intent of my question, she looked me in the eyes, raised an immaculately painted eyebrow and said with obvious mock seriousness, “Do you have something in mind young man?”, and then waved her hand in front of her face as if to disperse the inappropriate words and thoughts, laughing and apologizing profusely for being “so bad”. I got at some level that it was the last act of the long flirtation she had engaged in with me to pass the time on the train, one I had been more than happy to participate in.
Back in our compartment, as the train pulled into the Venice station, I started fumbling with my pack as I prepared to hoist it on my back, thinking we might exit the train together. Interrupting my effort, she stood and addressed me by name to garner my attention. She gave me one of her big smiles, eyes twinkling as they caught mine, and said very formally “goodbye”, with a slight tip of her head. Then still looking at me and her face softening to more of a shameless grin, said in a lower and more intimate modulation, “grazie bambino”, kissing me on each cheek, wiping the lipstick marks off my face expertly with her thumb. She then turned, grabbed her briefcase and her bag and exited the compartment and headed down the hallway. I figured that she did not want me to follow. When I finally exited the train I saw her walking away in the distance among three older men in black suits, carrying their own briefcases and one also carrying her bag. The four of them were gesticulating, and by their body language at least, appeared to all be joined in an animated conversation.
The Beatles’ song, “Sexy Sadie”, came into my head…
Sexy Sadie what have you done
You made a fool of everyone
You made a fool of everyone
Sexy Sadie ooh what have you done
Sexy Sadie you broke the rules
You layed it down for all to see
You layed it down for all to see
Sexy Sadie oooh you broke the rules
One sunny day the world was waiting for a lover
She came along to turn on everyone
Sexy Sadie the greatest of them all
Sexy Sadie how did you know
The world was waiting just for you
The world was waiting just for you
Sexy Sadie oooh how did you know
Sexy Sadie you’ll get yours yet
However big you think you are
However big you think you are
Sexy Sadie oooh you’ll get yours yet
We gave her everything we owned just to sit at her table
Just a smile would lighten everything
Sexy Sadie she’s the latest and the greatest of them all
I knew guys who would have said that Sophia was just teasing and toying with me, though if they’d been in my shoes I think they would have been thrilled by the encounter, such as it was, as much as I had been. And even though the Beatles were in the pantheon of of my Greek Chorus, up there at the top of my list of musical gurus, their little ditty had what my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane would have called a “misogynist” thread to it. The psychic sum I had paid “to sit at her table” was a pittance really in the scheme of things. Hell… she had bought me lunch! (It would be decades later that I would learn that John Lennon’s intended title for the song was “Maharishi”, written by him as a critique of their Indian guru, but George Harrison convinced him to change the title somehow to “Sexy Sadie”.)
That said, as the four of them disappeared in the crowd, I felt suddenly alone, unmoored and adrift, way too far from home. It was already dark outside and I knew I needed to push forward with finding and getting to my youth hostel and book my bed for the night. But first I checked on the trains to Switzerland. There was one that left Venice every evening, arriving in Interlaken Switzerland the next afternoon. From there I had been told I could catch another train up into the mountains to Grindelwald. That was the one place left in Europe that was really calling to me. I had been tempted to head there directly from Florence, but felt I should stick with my original plan and at least check out Venice for a couple days.