By the time I left the confines of the station, it was getting dark and there was a thick fog and that dank smell that reminded you you were in a port city near the sea. After a short walk through what seemed like a light industrial district adjacent to the station, the bus stop turned out to be a boat dock. I asked a couple other backpackers types if this was the way to the youth hostel and they replied in German, with just enough words that I understood, that they thought it was. It was nice to at least be with a couple fellow travelers, even if they didn’t speak very much of my language nor I theirs. I knew many of their thoughts and mine were the same even though we couldn’t communicate them with conventional words.
We paid our fare and boarded, and the boat made its way out into the quiet even soupier fog of the lagoon, continuing into a wide canal, cutting through the calm waters with dirty old apparently once majestic buildings barely visible on either side. I did my best to make conversation with my fellow backpackers, who had arrived from the other direction I had come on the train from Vienna, but my soul was gripped by the all encompassing cloud, hanging just above the dank dark water. The boat came up to a small quay, which we were told was where we should get off, reversing its engines to stop. People climbed off without even a line being tied, and after we had all deboarded, the boat’s engines powered up again and it quickly moved off and continued up the canal, truly more like a bus stop than a proper docking boat.
We were on a concrete walkway along the side of the canal with a line of low dark buildings on the other side of the walkway looking out onto the canal. You really couldn’t call it a “street”, since there were no cars, no street signs, and the buildings did not seem to have any addresses that we could make out. There were just a few overhead lights and gratefully a lit window here and there in the otherwise dark and sullen facade of building fronts facing the canal. Down a ways was an area with several overhead lights and what appeared to be a building with lots of light emanating from all its windows. We walked toward it, walking by narrow dark alleys heading off away from the canal into seemingly nowhere, and were relieved to find it was in fact our destination.
The hostel was a welcome oasis of light and activity in the sea of fog and darkness. It had the typical common room with chairs and couches strewn about. At one end was a table piled with paper and brochures that was apparently the registration desk. A dozen or so other obvious members of our backpacker cohort sat about the room conversing, though not anyone that I recognized, some eating, a couple guys sitting across from each other playing bits of songs on guitars, like they were comparing notes or maybe trying to find a song they both knew how to play. There was nobody at the registration table when we entered the place, but soon a young man in his late twenties noticed us, got to his feet, and made his way over to sit behind the registration table and waved at us to come over. Luckily there were plenty of beds available. I’m not sure what I would have done if the place had somehow been full. Maybe turn around, catch the boat back to mainland, return to the station, and catch the later evening train on to Switzerland.
I wondered where Sophia was now. Probably in some fancy hotel on shore sipping a martini at the bar with those three older men, all of them so enjoying her company and fantasizing about having sex with her. I know a lot of guys who would have called her a “tease”, perhaps even think ill of her for that reason as she flirted with me, and pulling my strings and pushing my buttons to ease the boredom of a long train ride. But I had learned enough from my mom and her feminist friends that women were not mischievous aliens, but just fellow people with the same needs and desires that I had and to be given their due as I should be given mine. She and I had willingly entered into our encounter and enjoyed it (I certainly had), and I even got a nice free meal and half a bottle of wine out of it!
I had hoped I would encounter Jen and Sarah in the common room, since they still should be in town, but the two Aussies were nowhere to be seen at this point. Even though to me it felt like the middle of the night, it really wasn’t. They were probably still exploring the city or finding the best cheap place to get dinner as they had in Florence.
The two German guys and I stowed our packs on beds in the bunkroom and returned to the common room. They were headed into the city and even offered to have me tag along but I declined. I don’t know whether it was the fact that we barely knew enough of each other’s languages to cobble together anything more that the most rudimentary conversation, or that I just felt fragile and a need to cocoon. So I sat by myself in a chair at a small table and pulled what remnants I had of food out of my pack and ate them – a couple slices of salami and hard cheese wrapped in a now grease stained piece of butcher paper, and a package of peanut butter crackers. The food tethered me but only tenuously to any sort of reality. Again, it really wasn’t as late as it felt, the sun was going down early now in late November and the chill in the air plus the thick fog added to that sense that one’s day was done and one should retreat to cozy confines, as best those could be arranged. Despite that strong feeling, the clock on the wall said it was only 7:30 pm. I debated what to do. Just hang out in the hostel until bedtime or try to venture out into the city on my own.
The guy at the registration table had said that the hostel was on a small island across the main channel from the main part of the old city, which itself was on another island, connected to the mainland by just a causeway. Our two islands were in the lagoon surrounded by a number of other inhabited islands that were also parts of the city and could only be reached by the boat buses. He had given me the hostel brochure with a small map on the back showing the key islands and the bus routes between them, which I did my best to study. I decided I would stay put, see if Jen and Sarah turned up, and then venture forth in the morning. Hopefully after a night’s sleep in the light of day things would seem less forbidding.
The two guys with guitars searching for musical common ground had finally found some, and were both banging out the chords and singing the lyrics of the Who’s “My Generation”. It was a now iconic call and response sort of song and one of them sang the main lyrical line and the other the response, “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation”…
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
It sent shivers down my spine to hear The Who’s seminal anthem in this context, a room full of my backpacker cohort, where most everybody had their freak flag long hair and nobody seemed over thirty. The song’s narrator was the stuttering youth calling out his alienation and independence from an oppressive and clueless older generation, who shouldn’t even bother to try to understand what we were about. Unsure of himself perhaps, thus the stutter, but certain of who his cohort and comrades were, what the deal was and who were his adversaries. Though I myself had never been so in your face in my own challenge of the established order of my parents’ generation, I resonated with that blunt take no prisoners point of view, as exemplified in this lyric and others, like the MC5’s, “We’re going to be taking over. You better get out of the way.”
As they played on, I pulled out and counted my remaining money, about $140 U.S. I judged it enough to sustain me for two weeks on the Continent and then pay for a boat back to England and my last few days there before my flight left for the States on December 11. I really was looking forward to spending at least four days or more in Grindelwald, up in the Swiss Alps, relaxing by the fire and eating that wonderful Swiss yogurt, if nothing else. I reaffirmed in my own mind that I would spend just two nights here in Venice and take the overnight train Sunday evening to Interlaken, from where I was told I could catch another train up to Grindelwald.
“Did you rob a bank?” The question was asked with an impertinent lilt by a guy who had been sitting at a table near me and apparently observing me. He was perhaps the one person in the room actually over thirty, maybe in his forties even, who spoke his English with a very French accent. I chuckled and in keeping with the song, said that with my luck the bank turned out to be bankrupt. He acknowledged my humor in response and asked if he could join me at my small table. I motioned to the empty chair next to me and he sat. His name was Jacques and was indeed French. He worked for the French auto company Simca and had been on business in Italy. He had the weekend free and decided to come to Venice. He was traveling alone like I was at this point. He had a loaf of bread that he offered to share with me and we “broke bread” together.
We talked pretty much nonstop until curfew at 11pm. He was an interesting contrast, in some ways very adult, yet in others very childlike and irreverent. He really could not talk about anything seriously for more than five minutes or so before finding all manner of humor in it and turning the whole topic into a joke or some sort of satire. His work was serious enough. He was an automotive engineer and was part of a team that designed cars, a profession he of course had come to find ridiculous, but paying well enough to pretend that it wasn’t. But not well enough, I pointed out, that he wasn’t lodging on the cheap at a youth hostel. He was like a French John Cleese from Monty Python, smart and with a sharp acid wit, outrageous at times to a fault.
When I told him the long tale of my travels, he came up with outlandish backstories for many of the people in my narrative. For example, I told him the story of the two Norwegian women I had met in Chur, sweet Ashild and her travel companion the very political anarchist thinking Bublil, their Israeli friend David, and the incident where I got pulled over for driving the wrong way on a one-way street and ended up taking a breathalyzer test. Jacques said that the two young women were obviously Norwegian intelligence agents, Bublil the brains and Ashild the muscle, posing as anarchists to infiltrate a Baader-Meinhof gang cell in Switzerland. David was a Mossad agent with a competing operation against the Gang that he wanted to keep hidden from Bublil’s team while keeping them under surveillance. The police pulling us over had been staged by David, who then was able to pass documents to Swiss authorities under Bublil’s nose, given that I had described how David had drunkenly grabbed one piece of paper after another from the glove compartment and handed it to me to give to the police officers. I found it ridiculous but very funnily so, and at least momentarily pulled me out of my ennui and homesickness.
Just before curfew Jen and Sarah literally stumbled into the hostel, laughing and both obviously pretty drunk. Jacques and I were the only other people in the common room, but sitting in the far corner from the outside door initially unnoticed by the two of them. When Jenn who was in the lead started to stumble backward, Sarah grabbed her shoulders to catch her from falling, massaged her back briefly, and then kissed Jen on the back of her neck. Jen arched her back and moaned in response, then theatrically whirled around, grabbed either side of Sarah’s head and planted a big long kiss on her mouth, which Sarah responded to as passionately as it was delivered. I had never seen two women kiss each other in such a passionate way. When their mouths separated they both suddenly noticed the two of us in the corner, recognized me and called out “Coopster… you’re here!” and giggled uncontrollably as they stumbled into the women’s dorm.
After the two Aussies had blown through and Jacques and I were alone again, he looked at me and with all the mock seriousness he could muster, said that that was wilder than anything he could think up and how the hell did those two know me. I told him it was a long interesting story and I’d tell him tomorrow. He said he would love to hear it and would even buy me a meal so I would tell him the long version! We agreed that we would head out in the morning together to explore the city, and adjourned finally to our bunks.
Ensconced in my now so familiar sleeping bag, where I had spent maybe half my nights since arriving in Europe eight weeks ago, and every night since arriving in Italy a week ago, I pondered my weird day and the strange dreamlike lagoon city that now surrounded me. My own libido still percolating as I replayed my encounter with sexy sophisticated Sophia on the train, trying to rationalize the dynamics of that encounter, while also indulging flights of fantasy of our naked bodies together in bed. And then my voyeuristic witness of the first lesbian kiss that I could ever recall having seen. Given my own crush on both Jen and Sarah, their display of their own similar feelings for each other generated both a sense of thrill and one of jealousy in me. I longed for that level of intimacy with either of them that they had for each other. As can sometimes happen, particularly when I sleep in a new place for the first night, my mind did not quiet to let sleep and dreams overtake me, the real world around me seeming so already strangely dreamlike.
Finally it was morning and I surrendered any further attempt to sleep. A diffuse light lacking any of the warm color temperatures of direct sun suggested that the low cloud still enveloped the lagoon. That bubble like feeling in my head from lack of real sleep made everything seem even more dreamlike. In the bathroom I tested the shower and the water felt ice cold, so for yet another day I had no shower, but I did give myself a bird bath with a wet soapy washcloth. Though the clothes I picked to wear had been worn on an number of different days since last washed, at least they weren’t what I’d worn yesterday. Thus clothed and superficially cleaned, I emerged into the common room of the hostel.
Jacques saw me and waved me over to his table. I was generally not one to drink coffee, but he offered to get me a cup and I consented. The hot bitter liquid anchored me in some sense of reality, the caffeine buzz not really counteracting but adding another aspect to the bubble of sleeplessness in my head. We headed out to take the boat bus across the channel to the main island of the city. The hostel’s island was separated by a 100 meter wide channel from the main island. It was almost directly across from St. Marco’s square. All along the wide channel boats were docked – big tankers and liners, small tugs and taxis. Particularly in the sound muffling fog, the only noise one could hear was the groan and chug of the boat’s engine and the low whoosh of water sliding along it’s outer hull.
Once we were off the “bus” on the other side of the channel, and it pulled away and chugged off, a quiet was everywhere as we made our way down old narrow alleyways, passing other pedestrians, and I felt the strangeness of a city with no cars, and none of that background audio buzz of engines and horn noises that one would hear in virtually any other city in Europe or the entire world. Without the vehicle traffic and with the old building facades, I could almost imagine what the city looked, sounded and felt like prior to our industrial age. Times when rich merchants walked the streets and all sorts of exotic goods from the Middle East, India and even China were being hauled about or sold in the markets.
Our alleyway finally opened up into the Piazza San Marcos, as I understood it, the center of the old city. The plaza was rectangular, about 50 meters across and over 200 in length. On three sides were the long facades of three story buildings, with arches all along the ground floor level. On the fourth side farthest from us and obscured in the fog, was the Basilica San Marcos. We found a little cafe, sat at one of its tables just outside the door with a view out onto the piazza, and bought some coffee, bread, butter and jam, which Jacques insisted on paying for.
I was happy to have another well to do patron today, as Sophia had been yesterday on the train, and as previously agreed, I told Jacques what I knew of my encounters with Sarah and Jen in Rome and Florence, and how I had been dubbed “the Coopster”. Has subsequent outrageous unflattering backstory for the two of them was that Jen was obviously a succubus that “ate men for breakfast”, who not fully satisfied by easily seducible male types, was now upping her game by seducing women as well. I laughed dutifully at my generous patron’s imaginative excesses but noted in my own mind the thread of misogyny in his tale, and did not contribute my own imaginative tangents to the story as I had done to others he had spun previously.
The piazza had its share of humans, mostly of the tourist persuasion, but more notably an overabundance of the most assertive pigeons I had ever encountered. There were thousands of them all told in the square clustered in groups pecking at bits of possible food on the ground. There were some street vendors selling actual bags of seeds to feed them, and when some unsuspecting tourist type bought a bag and opened it up, literally a hundred or more birds would quickly converge around them some even brazen enough to land on the human’s arms, shoulders and head. Even people passing thru the square with no obvious food to feed them with could be similarly accosted.
Finishing our buttered bread, cheese and coffee, Jacques and I finally ventured from our cafe across the piazza towards the basilica, hugging the archway on the perimeter of the square to try to keep most of the pigeons at bay and fighting off the others. We finally walked up its steps and entered the big old spooky church. Its walls were painted in dark somber colors, and the floor was like nothing I had seen before, sunk in some spots and raised in others to create a sort of frozen rough sea effect. The whole place looked like it had emerged from under the sea and was now on the verge of falling down. Pillars were bent with stress, the arches and catwalks were all crooked and not quite plumb with each other. Jacques enjoyed my own flight of fantasy that we were actually in the carcass of a gigantic sea beast, that came on shore disguised as a church to eat the populous of the city but finally died from starvation when the inhabitants had mostly become atheists.
So we spent the day exploring the main island of the old city in such a mode with both our imaginations in full gear. The fog, which never lifted, amped up the dreamlike allure of the place. Adding to the untethered zeitgeist of the place, there was no rhyme or reason to the “streets”, that is, the pedestrian thoroughfares of the city. There were long winding alleyways, past sleepy old buildings corroded by years of sea air and the occasional flood. We’d follow an alleyway for five minutes around a number of corners, over several tiny canals, only to come to a dead end, like we were in some giant maze. There were no address numbers, barely any street signs, and retracing one’s steps to find a particular interesting restaurant, museum or shop, stumbled upon earlier, was daunting at best. On foot, the city map was rather useless! Some of the side alleys were barely wide enough to walk down two abreast. Along them you passed kitchen windows, front doors of houses, metal gates leading to little gardens or terraces. The only way you knew you were on a main drag was by all the people. You walked and constantly changed directions, so particularly in the fog, without the sun as a guide, you had no sense of the compass points. And it seemed that the only entrance to some buildings was from a canal.
You got an entirely different point of view and sense of the city riding the buses down the channels around and between the islands that made up the old city. The waterways that cut through the city had more of a sense of a grid to them. Bigger channels and canals, plied by “buses”, and then tiny narrow canals traversed by the iconic gondolas cutting perpendicular between the channels, crossed by little arched bridges that rose far enough above the water to let the occasional gondola under. Occasionally I would see an actual gondolier doing his thing, standing on the back of his narrow little boat, with his long oar stirring the water.
Later in the afternoon Jacques and I visited a glass factory and he talked about memorizing the exact location of everything inside it so we could return that night to rob it. At dusk we even took a bus-boat out to the Lido, the famed Venetian resort. It was deserted, since the swimming season was over, but somehow that was appropriate to the whole dead city feel of the place. Jacques convinced me to take off my two-inch heels and socks and dip my toes in the chilly Adriatic, which I did while he voyeuristically watched from the dry part of the shore. It was my first and only glimpse and feel of this body of water, which slid off into foggy oblivion.
There really was not a lot to do besides just experiencing the place. But it totally captured my mood and fired my imagination, and in the moment I judged it the most intriguing city I’d seen in my entire European odyssey. I’d seen so many – including London, Paris, Rome, Munich, and Madrid – but this one rated because of uniqueness and sheer atmosphere. Some of my fellow backpacking cohort I had encountered in Rome or Florence that had already been here had described the place as depressing. But if I had seen them again I would have told them that I thought it was rich! Old yes, run down yes, corroded by the sea yes, but rich, like aged wine! Jacques agreed and said he was definitely coming back here when he was ready to die. He’d arrange for his ashes to be poured into a beautifully hand blown bottle and allowed to float out into the Adriatic.
Jacques bought me dinner at a little ristorante back at the Piazza, with table cloths and waiters, rather than a cheap trattoria like the ones I had frequented in Florence. We had antipasto, soup and veal scallopini and a bottle of nice red wine. Somehow in my mind the cheap tratorias of Florence had had better fare, but the price for me at least was certainly right, and the view of the Piazza, now in the dark with all the lamps illuminating the old ghostly buildings with the dead sea beast of the Basilica at one end, was one of a kind and a moment I would always remember. Still I felt unmoored, but in the moment deliciously so, adrift in this surreal city itself seemingly floating on the shore of the Adriatic, and with a “belly full of wine”. I shared with Jacques that I was really homesick and his eyes twinkled and said, “My young intrepid traveler has seen too much and needs to return to more familiar vistas!”
After dinner we made our way to the “bus stop” on the main channel and rode the boat through the ever present fog back to our hostel’s little strip of an island. When we entered the common room it was abuzz with my backpacker cohort. I quickly noticed Trix and her companion Evelyn. Though the charismatic Kiwi was short, she had a magnetism about her that aligned all the other people near her into a sort of formation around her, like iron filings around a magnet. And I’m sure her wild one of a kind asymmetric pigtails and alien green eyes made just about any head turn, her’s being perhaps the most striking human face I had ever encountered. Certainly Jacques’ fertile imagination was percolating at seeing her visage, murmuring to me in his best Rod Serling melodramatic Twilight Zone deadpan, “We are not alone!”
Jen and Sarah were also there sitting together in the corner, actually at the same table that Jacques and I had been sitting at the previous night when we witnessed their drunken kiss. A little intimidated by Trix and her current surrounding throng in the center of the room, I headed toward the two Aussies in the corner with Jacques in tow to at least say hello and goodbye, since I was planning to head out for Switzerland the next day, and might not encounter them then, and would most probably never see either of them again.
Sarah saw me and let out a more subdued and pensive “Coopster!”, followed by Jen with the same but with a little more oomph. As I continued to approach them Sarah fixed her handsome dark gaze on me and queried, “Were we drunk last night or what?” In her eyes I could see a complex set of thoughts and emotions traversing the synapses of her mind. From all my time spent with my mom and her female best friends, plus all the long hours working with Lane and Angie and all the other talented female peers of my JLO theater group, I was learning to read the sophisticated array of nonverbal cues that women exhibited, many seeming much more subtle and multilayered than those from male type people. I intuited that she was looking for some kind of acknowledgement that I was okay with seeing their dramatic kiss last night, and if I was not, that that was my problem and not hers.
I felt a sudden intimacy with and caring for her, the kind of connection I strived to reach with every person in my life. I felt also fleetingly daring, dropping my shields since she had dropped hers. I grinned and said with all the loving comradely bravado I could muster, “You two certainly were!”
At that Jen joined the exchange, laughing and saying “Indeed”, that great word that the British and their Aussie cousins overuse for emphasis. I introduced the two of them to Jacques, who responded to their friendly hellos with a less engaging more officious little nod of the head and saying, “Ladies!” a bit too formally. I found Jacques response incongruous, like he thought Jen was really some dangerous mythical succubus and was keeping his distance, but I plowed forward with the conversation, telling the two of them that I was headed off to Switzerland tomorrow and I wanted to wish them well on the rest of their journeys. They said they would be headed off to Vienna tomorrow themselves, and Jacques chimed in with some must see museum suggestions, without any of his usual satire.
I noticed the pensiveness and complicated thought processes behind their eyes. They did not invite us to join them, but Jen stood and faced me, holding her hands apart inviting a hug and calling out again the nickname she had given me back in Rome. A little tentatively I advanced and pressed my body against her and we wrapped our arms around each other, her perhaps the biggest female person I had ever hugged. Her energy and scent, with a fair measure of salty sweat, was intoxicating, and spun my libido immediately up. As we embraced she whispered in my ear, “Safe journey mate!”, and then disengaged, smacking me on the shoulder for good measure, like christening a ship before it’s adventurous maiden journey.
Sarah followed suit, rising and approaching me, but giving me a more constrained and formal hug. Still her more petite and demure frame pressed briefly against mine and she gave me a little peck on the cheek. I restrained my libidinal urge to pull her more strongly against me. She smelled sweeter with less of the brininess of her partner, plus emanating a strong but more inward energy. The peck on the cheek was followed by a more audible call out of my real name, “Cooper, Cooper, Cooper… take care of yourself… be good!”
They both gave Jacques a hardy man-to-man type handshake, both saying to him that it had been “a pleasure”, as if following the scripted protocol. It was our cue to move on, and sad but now emboldened I left them, and made my way through the crowd to Trix and Evelyn, Jacques hanging back a bit. I finally caught the diminutive Kiwi’s bright green alien eye and she acknowledged me with a pointed finger. I approached and she introduced me to the four guys she and Evelyn were talking with, all New Zealanders as well. Certainly the little island country off the bigger Australian continent had more than its fair share of backpackers doing the European circuit.
We all shared our travel stories, mine finally including heading to Switzerland in the morning for my last sojourn in Grindelwald in the Alps before heading back to England and returning to the States. After about a half hour of traded tales, and the imminent lights out in the hostel, it was Evelyn actually that got the cue to say goodbye, turning to me, smiling broadly and saying, even flirtatiously, “Bon voyage Coopster… safe travels… don’t fall off the Alps!” Trix looked at Evelyn and noted the flirt and turned to me with her twinkling outer space eyes and said, “Guess you’ve got a fan… they can’t resist a bloke in heels!”, referring to my two-inch heels which I had gotten used to wearing now most of the time rather than my clunkier hiking boots that still could give me blisters if I wore them extensively.
I was wondering if Trix would offer a hug, but instead she stuck out her hand to me, clasped mine with a squeeze and shook it heartily and said, “It’s been a pleasure”. I was not much of a hugger at that point in my life myself, but I was a little disappointed, since I had developed such a crush on her and we had all spent that day together swapping intimate stories in the train compartment. The best part was her looking at me with, and me getting momentarily lost in, those mesmerizing green extraterrestrial eyes. I struggled to say something that acknowledged how cool I thought she was, managing only to wish her safe travels, thank her for sharing her train compartment with me, and telling her she was “awesome”, to which she snorted a laugh and blushed a bit. In the end, the blush was the highlight, I felt I had touched her. Evelyn at least gave me that hug, with her tall lanky body, sauntering up to me, breasts pressing against my chest, pushing all my libidinal buttons with hers, and lingering a moment longer than the time that would constitute a perfunctory embrace. After that I left the two of them to their other company.
Jacques suggested he take me to breakfast in the morning at the same little place on the Piazza. I told him I had not slept well and wanted to sleep in in the morning, so we agreed to meet there for lunch instead and say our goodbyes. He had a mid afternoon train to Milan. The automobiles, he said, most unfortunately did not design themselves, at least not yet. My train to Switzerland did not leave until the evening.
Still surfing all the good feelings with my fellow travelers and a sense of bravado that it was enough to keep me going, I headed off to my bunk. Alone once again in my sleeping bag, I thought about the four women, and fantasized about being naked with each of them, our bodies joining and sharing the deepest of physical intimacy. Sleep, which had struggled to engage me the previous night, quickly overcame me now.
It was well after 10 o’clock when I finally woke up to that diffused filtered light through the windows of the bunk room. Jacques and the twenty or so other guys who had slept there last night were all up and out. I dug the clothes out of my pack that I had not yet worn in Venice, though they had been worn a number of times since they had last been washed. I debated putting on my big black hiking boots, but opted as I usually did to wear my two-inch heels instead. I rolled up my sleeping bag into a tight cylinder and stuffed it in its bag, securing it to the bottom of the frame of my pack with bungee cords. I accounted for all my items as best I could, hoisted my pack and exited the hostel for a final time.
Outside, I was pleased to find that the fog still clung to the city, its romantic dreamscape still unsullied by sunlight. It was Sunday and apparently the bus boats ran less frequently, so I sat on the bench of the quay for some time, watching the pigeons and seagulls fight for bits of paper that might have otherwise been food, until I watched my conveyance round a corner of the channel into view and chug toward me. It was a little before noon when I finally got to our agreed upon meeting spot on the Piazza. I debated sitting at one of the tables, but figured I would be compelled to order something, and opted for frugality instead since Jacques said he would buy lunch. I sat instead on a bench near the little trattoria and watched the pigeons do their thing on and around the humans out in the middle of the square.
Jacques appeared seemingly out of nowhere, saying, “I have it on the best of avian authority that the pigeon insurrection will begin at 1400 hours, but that’s plenty of time for us to get lunch before the carnage begins!”. We sat at our same table out in front of the little trattoria with our view of the bird besotted square. With my concurrence he ordered the same items we had had for breakfast the previous day, with of course coffee, several cups of which he drank with lots of cream and sugar. Jacques shared all sorts of irreverent thoughts about the “scrum” at the hostel last night, as he referred to it, and particularly about each of the four women I had said goodbye to, still riffing on Jen as a mythical maneater and Trix as a scout for a planned alien infestation and eventual invasion of Earth.
At my query, he shared more about his own life. His work as an automotive engineer, the politics of work for Simca particularly after their recent purchase by Chrysler, and his speculation about the company’s dim prospects. His residence in Poissy on the west side of Paris, an apartment shared with an old friend. Never married but happily single. My life as a young person just did not seem to match up to his adult existence. But I told him about living with my divorced mom and younger brother in a very progressive and very political college town. My previous summer’s job cleaning hotel rooms, which he thought was so humorous, asking if they made me wear a maid’s outfit with short skirt and fishnet stockings.
In a moment of seriousness, Jacques asked me what I was planning to do when I returned to the States, referring to me again as “my young traveler”. Despite the obsequious characterization, it was a fair question, and one that I could not recall really being asked before during my European odyssey, and one that I found myself stumbling over to try to answer. Though often homesick during my journey, and imagining how great it would be to return to my family, familiar hometown, and circles of good friends there, I had not really been thinking about what was “next” for me in a larger sense. I shared with Jacques some ambivalence, that I supposed I was doing what might conventionally be called taking a “year off from college to travel”. That led to a discussion of what I was studying at college, the answer I gave being “theater”, which sounded a little strange to me in this context, the shy kid traveling alone, I felt anything but theatrical.
But Jacques thoughtfully processed what I had said and applied his fertile imagination to the possibilities. “So you are the young playwright perhaps gathering material for your first great opus!” I laughed, a bit embarrassed at the grand characterization. He said he hoped he was somehow memorable enough to make it as at least a minor character in one of my future creations. I told him he was certainly getting there, and he laughed as well. I went on to share with him some of the highlights of my theater experiences, sets I had designed, musicals I had sung and danced in, other notable characters I had played in more dramatic performances. And of course I imparted my one playwright experience, adopting the novel Lord of the Flies to the stage including the whole issue around my script having a character say “Fuck the rules!” Then playing the character Maurice, with all the cast wearing the very brief costumes that left all the guys on stage nearly naked through the second half of the play. Jacques eyes lit up at all this and he said he would have loved to have been in the audience in the front row for my “debut”.
Finally Jacques theatrically consulted the watch on his wrist and said it was time for him to head inland to catch his train, and I said I would tag along since my train was later on in the afternoon. He seemed pleased with that and we continued to swap stories as we navigated the alleyways and boat bus back to the train station on shore.
It occurred to me that Jacques was maybe not unlike Sophia had been, enjoying an encounter with an interesting young man. My encounter with Sophia on the train to Venice had had the obvious sexual overtones, with her sharing her intimate story of losing her virginity, and perhaps undressing me with her eyes and not uncomfortable that I was most likely doing the same to her. The thoughts shot through my mind as we continued to talk. I pondered whether Jacques was somehow doing his version of the same, that he like my former travel partner Steve, was perhaps attracted to me in some sexual sort of way, though Jacques had never said anything to me that I recognized as hitting on me, though this was all such new territory for me. And again, as with Steve, though my libido seemed tuned to women, getting naked and otherwise being physically intimate with this charming Frenchman across the table from me was not totally unappealing. That said, there was no way I was going to go there, I was going to have my intimate experiences of that sort more conventionally with women. I was timid enough about all that as it was, without venturing into that whole taboo world.
When his train was ready to leave we got up from our seats on the platform and faced each other. He asked me if young men who were friends embraced in my country. I said not so much, but that I’d enjoy a hug from him, that I had really enjoyed spending time with him and wished him well. He said that spending time with me had made his weekend. We embraced and he kissed me on the cheek. I wasn’t sure if that was intended to be sexual or just French. He quickly wrote his address and phone number on one of his business cards and gave it to me, saying to look him up if I ever got to France again. He boarded his train giving one last grinning, knowing look to me.
I sat alone on the platform. There were still a couple hours before my train to Switzerland would arrive. I thought about all the people I had met in Italy. I felt that sense of sadness and loss I was used to feeling when I completed work on a theater production and would no longer have that close daily contact with my fellow participants. I would probably never see any of those people again. I felt my encounters with them had shifted me in some subtle way. I hoped I somehow would not lose that!