Coop Goes to Europe Part 25 – Under the Alps

It was Sunday November 25, 1973 as I sat on a bench on the platform at the Venice train station waiting for the train that would take me to Switzerland and an anticipated Alpine paradise. I saw a couple other what looked like Americans roughly my age with their long hair and backpacks, but I did not recognize them and did not venture to try to connect with them, nor them with me. Cut loose now from all the people I had shared the Italian “circuit” with – Morgan, Jen, Sarah, Trix, Evelyn, the boys from Cleveland and finally Jacques – I was leaving Venice on fumes, tired and homesick and needing the universe to get me home, but having another two weeks of money to spend and time to kill spending it before my plane flight back to Detroit from London reserved for December 11. I was hoping that Grindelwald in the high Alps would be the waystation where I could medicate myself for four or five days with a hot fire, a beautiful view, maybe some nice company, and a good supply of that delicious Swiss yogurt.

On my walk to the train station earlier in the afternoon with Jacques we had stopped at a grocery store and I had provisioned myself for an overnight train ride, because otherwise buying several expensive meals on the train would certainly bust my six dollar (~3000 lire) a day budget. I had bought two small loaves of hard crusted white bread, which seemed to keep pretty well even exposed to the air. From the cold case half a kilo of Genoa salami which I had them slice and the same amount of Jarlsberg cheese, which I didn’t have sliced because it kept better that way, even for a full day or more at room temperature in my pack. I even decided to get one small container of yogurt, which I was also finding would keep fairly long unrefrigerated as well. Then an array of snacks, including a bag of dried apricots, a bag of raisins, an apple, a package of biscuit cookies, and a bar of dark chocolate. Finally a glass bottle of sparkling water and a plastic bottle of cheap rose wine, with Jacques making several cracks about a vintage counted in hours rather than years. Stuffing it all into the nooks and crannies of my pack was quite an effort, with my various pack bags bulging, zippers straining, and the two loaves of bread protruding prominently out of the top flap.
The train was not that full, and I managed to find a compartment with no one else in it. Savvy now to how these trains worked, with coaches being unhooked from one train and hooked to another at major stations, I confirmed with the conductor that the coach I was on was going to Lucerne Switzerland. From their I would change trains to Interlaken and then take a third train up to Grindelwald. I found a compartment that was empty, stowed my pack in the overhead and sat, hoping I might continue to have it to myself overnight, or at least the full three-person bench I was sitting on, so I could lie down across it rather than try to snooze in a seated position. It was early evening but the darkness outside made it feel much later.

I pulled out some of the food I had purchased and made myself a rather ample dinner. A loaf of bread, half of my sliced salami and Jarlsberg cheese, the bag of apricots, the yogurt, all washed down with slugs from the bottle of wine. I was preferring these days to eat bread, meat and cheese separately rather than doing the American sort of thing and slicing the bread with my Swiss Army knife and building a sandwich. Eating each of those items separately I better savored all the flavor notes, and unlike the wimpy white Wonder Bread back home, this bread had real mouthfeel and flavor to it on its own.

As I chowed down I read the International Herald Tribune I had bought at the train station. The lead story was about Nixon’s lawyer revealing an 18½ minute gap in one of the key White House tape recordings related to Watergate. It felt good to read about my home country even though it was about Nixon and all his efforts to subvert the political process and then cover up what had been done by his operatives. Another piece was about the cease fire in the Yom Kippur war holding between the Egyptians and Israelis. I thought about all those young soldiers on both sides, who had not been killed or wounded in the previous battles, breathing a sigh of relief that they may be done putting their lives at risk for decisions made by their leaders. And I thought about young American guys not much older than I still losing their lives in Vietnam. I felt like I should be doing something about it, working with others to end all these wars, and since I was not part of that solution right now, as Eldridge Cleaver had famously said, I must be part of the problem.

But here I was in the middle of a different continent, connected with no one, playing out the last chapters of my odyssey for my own ego and bragging rights when I returned home the world traveler. I needed respite, that I was convinced I would find when I got back to the States, to my hometown, my family, and my friends. And to tide me over in the short run, hopefully some temporary respite in the Alps. Respite from the ordeal of my travels, pushing myself from one city to the next, always wrestling with the logistics of navigating a new place, whether I was really up for it or not. Respite from the travails of traveling alone, as a shy person always having to push beyond that shyness to seek out others to have an engaging conversation or to find at least a temporary buddy.

My mind’s jukebox dialed up The Beatles’ song “You Never Give Me Your Money”

I never give you my number
I only give you my situation
And in the middle of investigation
I break down

Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money’s gone, nowhere to go
Any jobber got the sack
Monday morning, turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go
But oh that magic feeling… nowhere to go

I felt like I was coming apart. When I had left Angie in London, on a train to the continent on my own, I had constructed an avatar of the resilient young traveler, who would push himself forward on his odyssey to prove his self worth until lack of further funds gave him the excuse to return home. That avatar had allowed me, on my own, to visit an array of cities, large and small, seeing the requisite sites and moving on. That avatar was no longer sustainable. Now just focusing on getting home, I could think of no next project in my life once I got there other than just enjoying, medicating myself really, in the comforts of family, friends, marijuana, and my familiar Ann Arbor with nowhere I had to go.

It struck me that if events had stuck to the original plan, traveling with my good friend Angie, our travels would have been a very different experience. It likely would have been more fun adventure and less ordeal. From that first week with Angie, and then later a couple weeks traveling with Steve, it was clear to me that traveling with a partner was a completely different dynamic. So much of your focus was on your partner and that relationship between the two of you within the larger context of travel and adventure. You depended on that relationship to sustain you, so you were not as open to or in need of engaging as deeply with the people you met, looking for them to at least momentarily supply you with that sustenance, which on some days, the really hard days, you would not find at all.

But beyond that respite it was becoming more clear to me that, going forward in my life, I needed to be connected to something more than just myself. To circles of people who were doing meaningful things in the larger community. To a cause, or even better, “the cause”, which was still somewhat ill defined in my mind but was all around human development and liberation. It was all around getting all those young soldiers off the firing lines doing the bidding of their angry fathers. Letting women emerge as fully respected human beings and better contribute all the wisdom and leadership that mostly festered with their limited roles in society at large. Giving peace and equality a real chance to transform society. I would never feel connected unless I was involved in these efforts somehow, not just in a peripheral way, but as a major thread, even the major thread of my life.

Still alone in my compartment, my mind wrestled with these thoughts late into the night. With the rhythmic shaking, groaning and clunking of the train cars against the track and each other providing a soothing, lulling movement and white background noise, I might otherwise have surrendered to unconsciousness, but one thought leading to the next kept my mind from falling fully asleep. I did not have a watch or carry anything that kept time, and there were no clocks in the train coaches. Short of asking a passing conductor or a fellow passenger, I had no sense of the progress of the night, whether it was still evening or the wee hours of the morning. Living outside the grid of time, the hourly schedule, at least for the moment, changed the dynamic and kept me more in that moment. I would drift off with thoughts turning more to dreams and then back to thoughts as I again gained enough consciousness to feel the train underneath and around me, my gently hurtling cocoon. A peek at the still dark compartment window told me that I was still in that nebulous zone of indeterminate time and moment only.

Finally the first bits of dawn lit the horizon behind the westbound train as I continued to try to close my eyes and drift back off, but soon the direct light of a sunny morning filled the compartment, making that harder and harder. By the time our train got into Milan it was a mild cloudless late fall day with no sense of impending winter. As the conductor had told me, my coach got switched to the train to Lucerne, and we departed the big northern Italian city, which was bigger even than the capitol Rome. That Beatles song still playing over and over in my mind… “nowhere to go”.

Trains could not ascend the high mountain passes that separated northern Italy and southern Switzerland from the mountainous interior of the country but instead took long tunnels under those passes. I had read that the famous nine mile long St. Gotthard tunnel, the first dug through this part of the Alps, had been built between 1871 and 1881 at the cost of at least 200 workers’ lives lost. I thought as we approached the high mountains ahead that that was the tunnel we would be traversing, and only learned many years later that it was probably another similar tunnel under a nearby high southern pass.

The sun still shone in a cloudless sky when we entered the south end of the tunnel, engulfing my train in a total blackness punctuated only by the regular flair of a passing light outside along the tunnel wall. The song lyric kept echoing in my mind, “Nowhere to go”, as minute after minute passed in the dark abyss, and a sense of dread started to creep into what was left of me, lonesome and sleep deprived. After what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, alone in my compartment, careening along in the all encompassing blackness outside, I was enveloped by an imagining that the world, or at least my world, had somehow suddenly ended, and I was descending into some sort of hellish underworld never to return. I felt a knot of anxiety congeal in my upper chest as I struggled to breath, my gaze fixated through my cabin window out into the lack of a world beyond it.

With no warning, I startled as the nothingness suddenly changed from black to white. For those first long seconds I was disoriented and could not comprehend what had just happened, until my eyes finally perceived snowflakes hitting and melting against my cabin window. The train had apparently emerged in a whiteout blizzard at the north end of the tunnel. It was probably another five minutes before I could see anything but white out that window, as the train found its way out of the snow squall. Now from my compartment I could see a winter wonderland of evergreen trees punctuated by the occasional wood or stone houses all decorated in a thick icing of fresh snow. Quickly my dread was gone, replaced by cozy remembrances of a young child with his mom and dad and younger brother, looking out the window of a train traversing the Susquehanna River valley of upstate New York headed from Buffalo to spend Christmas with my grandparents in Binghamton. Still I was alone, but now so in a much more whimsical world.

The train finally pulled into the station at Lucerne where I debarked and quickly made my way to the platform where the train to Interlaken would soon pull into the station. As I waited I scarfed down most of the remaining food in my pack – Jarlsberg cheese, Genoa Salami and now even crustier but still delicious bread. The train ride to Interlaken, as the town’s name would suggest took us west through an east-west running valley in the middle of the country along long narrow frozen lakes with high pointy Alp mountain peaks on the horizon on either sides. The snow was now gently falling in big clumps. Ever a sucker for the thrill of anticipation, I was getting more and more excited with every minute what would await me in the now mythic Grindelwald.

At the smaller outdoor Interlaken station I boarded my last train, that wound its way up between the mountains to my much anticipated destination as the snow continued to fall, but at a friendlier less frenetic pace. It was mid afternoon and apparently the end of the school day, and when the train stopped at each little village along the way, dozens of Swiss school kids either boarded or debarked from the train. They sat in the seats all around me, with their rosy cheeks, brightly colored hats and backpacks, laughing and chattering in what sounded to me like German, full of energy and enthusiasm for the daily adventures of their lives including this ride home from school on the train with all their cohort. Some of them looked at me curiously, even smiled at me, and I did my best to smile back.

I was a lonely soul surrounded by all this joyous youthful energy and hope for the future, and the irony of this scene was not lost on me. I had my reasons to be sad and reflective, but the world was full of other people with reasons for hope and joy. George Harrison’s insightful lyric, “Life goes on within and without you” went through my mind. The view of the Swiss winter wonderland out the window was appropriately stunning and I with every new moment anticipated heading to what by all accounts was a gorgeous little town at the base of one of the world’s most photogenic and storied peaks. Not enough perhaps to get this eighteen-year-old to shelve his angst, but enough at least to give his darkened places glimmers of light. Four days to relax, to do nothing if I felt like it, to mellow out and write postcards to everyone back home to reestablish my mental equilibrium and refocus to soon returning to my Ann Arbor the triumphant world traveler.

I arrived at the cute little Grindelwald train station, just a tiny building with a high pitched roof covered in a foot of snow, in the early evening, and walked in the foggy twilight the kilometer or so uphill to the youth hostel. This would be my last lengthy sojourn before my final journey back to London began. When I registered, I found out the hostel offered breakfast and dinner at a very reasonable price, breakfast even including my favorite, fresh yogurt! So I paid for four nights with eight meals, nearly a third of my remaining money.

After checking in, from the hostel’s upstairs balcony I looked out over the valley below at the lights of the tiny town, though darkness and low clouds obscured the view of the famous Eiger and other showpiece mountains across the valley from my location. I could feel the extreme wave of angst that had gripped me in the darkness of the tunnel pass away or at least recede from my conscious awareness. My acquired mantra of “life goes on”, that I had written at the end of all my postcards since almost losing my passport and railpass in Bar-Sur-Aube, was ringing a lot more true now.

The interior of the common room looking out onto that balcony and the view beyond was everything I had been told and imagined. A big cozy chalet with wood panel walls built around a big stone fireplace with a roaring fire, comfortable couches and low split-log wooden tables. There was a small dining room off it where the meals were served, and the male and female bunk rooms were upstairs. The three guys from Cleveland – Peter, Matt and Michael – just out of high school who I had met at the hostel in Florence, who had decided to bypass Venice, were there and welcomed me to our cold, snowy paradise. I could feel myself really relax as we all nestled into couches by the fire, with about a dozen other obvious backpacker types sharing our cozy common space surrounded by the winter wonderland.

Dinner was a hot beef and vegetable stew with scalloped potatoes and warm pumpernickel bread with fresh butter, and all tasted delicious as we shared our stories of what we had done since Florence. They had spent a night in Milan and gotten to Grindelwald two days ago, and were enjoying it so much they were planning to stay a whole week. I told them all about foggy funky Venice, and how much I had loved all it’s moody charms. As my belly filled with the hot stew and cheesy potatoes I felt fatigue overcome me and I was soon to bed in the bunk room and a deep long sleep.

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2 replies on “Coop Goes to Europe Part 25 – Under the Alps”

  1. Apparently my last comment didn’t make it. Anyway your tale continues to engross and delight.
    Tonight we watched an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation with Ken Jenkins as guest star. He plays a scientist who loves base ball. He plays games in his head based on memorized statistics. The acting is superb — you can see the game in his eyes. That, naturally. brought you and your strategy games to mind. If you happen not to know it, I expect you will enjoy it. It’s called Evolution and is episode 1 of season 3.

  2. reuben says:

    Hey Coop,

    I await with anticipation the final chapters of this oeuvre; your remaining days in Switzerland, the trip to London and then home. I have much enjoyed the 25 chapters to date and am somewhat saddened that the saga must come to and end.


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