I had heard the night before, that unlike most other hostels, the showers here had actual hot water, and in lieu of a big breakfast of delicious yogurt and granola, I confirmed that the shower was hot and indulged myself a long one, including washing my hair. Naked, my body completely cleansed of dirt and sweat as it rarely was, the deliciously warm water raining down upon me, my mind wound my narrative back to my last real shower. It had been nearly three weeks ago in the Hotel in Paris where Walter, who had picked up my travel partner Steve and me in Southern France and driven us to the French capital, paid for our night’s lodging. Since then I had only had what my mom called “bird baths”, where I dabbed a wet maybe soapy washcloth on parts of my body. And since then I had traveled through Italy and been in so many famous old locations and met such interesting people who had touched my life in one way or another, all of whom I would most likely never see again, and there was a lot of sadness with that thought.
And as the water continued to embrace my naked body and soothe my tenuous soul, I recalled the sense I had had, just the previous day going through the blackness of that tunnel under the Alps, of the world, or at least my world, ending, replaced by a purgatory of nothingness. Then exploding from the other end of the tunnel (I can find no better word than “exploding”) into a white winterworld, cold and pristine and evocative of happy memories from my youth of traveling by train with my family to my grandparents’ house for Christmas. Then continuing my journey winding up the mountains in a train filled with happy, energetic children, filled with life and hope to this place, “Grindelwald”, I had heard so much about from my backpacker cohort, and I had so anticipated getting to.
So here I finally was in paradise of sorts, and I put long underwear on under my jeans and my big clunky hiking boots in honor of the snow and wintry cold and made my way into the common room. It had been so dark and cozy last night bathed in orange firelight, but was filled with the diffused light of a cloudy winter morning from the big picture window that looked out onto the deck and the valley below. I walked out on the deck and felt the cold moist air tickle my nostrils. The fog of yesterday had departed to some degree this morning and I could see the village of Grindelwald cloistered in the valley below among the evergreen trees and snow covered meadows. I could see where the mountains began to rise from the edges of the valley but then quickly disappear in the low hanging cloud cover. I was keen before anything else to see the vaunted view, but I guess that would have to wait for another clearer day. I actually enjoyed the sense of anticipation and still not fulfilled expectation.
I returned from the chilly air of the balcony to the warmth of the common room and noticed the three guys from Cleveland – Peter, Matt and Michael – who I had first met in Florence and had reconnected with last night here at our hostel high in the Swiss Alps, were sitting on couches facing the roaring fire in the big stone fireplace. Matt and Michael called out for me to join them. The two of them seemed particularly enthused to see me, and shared with me all the fun, kids in a candy store things they had done here in Grindelwald since arriving two days ago. Michael incongruously waxing on about snowball fights with the local kids, him with his Jimi Hendrix fro’d hair and headband. Matt, who had been more reserved than his two comrades, seeming a little less so, going on and on about how cool it had been to slide down the mountain on what were ostensibly cafeteria trays.
Peter, with his curly blonde mane of Roger Daltrey hair, ever trying to be the alpha of the trio, who back in Florence had sparred with me a bit for the attention of his buddies, greeted me with a more competitive calculated enthusiasm. Quick to show evidence that he was mature beyond the more childlike exploits of his buddies, his first major comment was that there was a “hot Swedish chick here at the hostel with awesome tits that I would fuck in a minute”. My libido was still percolating at a very high level so I surrendered to him my attention, though I noted disconcertedly that he was speaking loud enough that others sitting in the common room, including some young women, could probably hear him. But perhaps part of his attempt to assert his alpha status involved the three of us realizing that he was speaking loud enough for some women in the room to hear him, and that he didn’t care.
As Peter painted the picture, the young woman with the stunning face and body was named Monika and was Swedish, with the stereotypical tall stature, blonde hair, blue blue eyes, and striking countenance. He referred to her as a “slut”, though the only specific evidence he gave supporting that characterization was that she had large breasts but did not deign to wear a bra. And it wasn’t clear to me whether he was enthralled by her and meant his characterization as a backhanded compliment, or he disrespected her but would still have sex with her because she was so hot. Peter seemed an intense guy with a turbulent thought process, so perhaps it was both at the the same time. I could feel my own libido spinning up, in my mind and below in my pants, as I was drawn into Peter’s hyperbole and my own imagining of this sex goddess of a young female type person, despite noting and also reacting to the misogyny of his characterization of her.
During Peter’s horny rant, Monika actually appeared in the common room with her female travel partner, another Swede it seemed but a lesser mortal of more mundane looks whose name Peter and the rest could not remember. The two young women sat with each other on the other side of the room and started playing cards. Noticing her, as we all did, Peter lowered his voice to a deliciously conspiratorial whisper. She was indeed as gorgeous as he had described, maybe just eighteen like all of us, stunning face with prominent cheekbones, gleaming blue eyes, short wavy platinum blonde hair, perhaps a lanky six feet tall yet with a cute round rear end, and those spectacular breasts, large enough that the t-shirt she was wearing hung from the obvious poking through nipples and away from her stomach below, revealing her bellybutton. It was difficult as a mainly heterosexual young male type with little or no opportunity for sexual relief not to stare at her, captured by her face and then eyes drawn downward to loiter lasciviously on her curves and imagine them fully exposed. The four of us all squirmed in succession to adjust what I assumed were, like mine, the swelling penises in their pants.
As we continued to talk about other things we maintained our stealthy surveillance of the two of them, with Peter occasionally breaking into the flow of conversation to brag how he would “do her”, not bothering to whisper anymore, and perhaps even daring his words to be heard by her, or at least making the rest of us uncomfortable that they might. His two comrades would chime in their ascent and second to his lewd proposals. My discomfort with this dynamic finally rose to a level where I decided to stand up and announce that I was going to walk down the hill into town to find a store to buy some groceries for my lunches, the one daily meal not already paid for from the hostel. Matt and Michael were quick to reply that they would join me and show me where the store was. Peter said nothing for a moment, pondering perhaps how to react to their little insurrection, if you could call it one, finally shrugging and replying, as if asked for and granting permission, “Sure… let’s do it!”
The little road into town wound its way down the hill into the base of the valley in a circuitous way, presumably to lessen the slope and make it easier to traverse, particularly in these snowy winter conditions. The town had very few trees in its midsts, so from the hillside above it one could see the somewhat grid of streets, houses and other buildings laid out neatly in the little basin amid the mountains that rose just beyond its limits. Several young kids came by, laughing and shouting and gliding down the road on their brightly painted wood and metal sleds. I recalled fondly many days when our dad used to take my brother and I with our red metal and wood Flexible Flyers to the Arboretum in Ann Arbor where we could sled down a half dozen good hill slopes. But nothing even remotely as long as the extended descent from the hostel maybe a half mile to the bottom of the slope in the center of the village by the little train station.
The snow on the road was packed down, and was slippery enough and the grade was steep enough that you had to be wary of sliding, losing your balance, and falling on your backside. Given that and inspired by the kids on their sleds, I tried on purpose to run and slide, and could go a good twenty feet before what friction there was between my boot soles and the packed snow stopped my momentum. Following my lead Michael was doing the same, and then Matt, and finally Peter. We were just four older kids playing in the snow, as other younger more obviously kidlike kids, without our physical stature and freak-flag hair, zoomed by us on their sleds. Peter, trying as he would to run a bit faster and slide a bit farther, was the first one to lose his footing and land on his butt. Michael and Matt laughed when he did and he responded with a derisive yet friendly “Fuck you”. But we all soon had done the same once or twice, it becoming a “welcome to Grindelwald” right of passage of sorts.
Finally arriving at the little grocery store, I bought my usual array of lunch provisions – salami, hard cheese, loaf of unsliced bread, bag of dried fruit and box of cookies. Thinking thrift I skipped buying yogurt because I could get plenty for breakfast and dinner. Briefly contemplating a cheap jug of wine, Peter informed me that the hostel did not allow any alcohol on the premises, but also that most evenings hostel guests and staff ended up in one of the village pubs for a beer or two. All of us with our bags of groceries, we made the more arduous trudge back up the road, having sometimes to walk with our toes pointed outward rather than forward to get enough traction on the slick surface. Normally such a walk with others would be filled with conversation, but we were all content to just huff and puff and suck in the clear cold air and take in the pristine winter vista every which way we gazed.
Back at the hostel, the common room was mostly empty, though we all noted that sex goddess Monika was still at the table with her nippled tits and her female travel partner, their deck of cards neatly stacked between them and ready for action. The two of them noticed the four of us entering, nodded their heads to acknowledge us, Monika even fluttering her fingers in a wave before beginning a quiet but very focused conversation with her mate. Peter reacted to her gesture by looking away from the two of them and back at the three of us with big eyes and pantomiming a pant with mouth open and tongue between his lips, as he plopped down on the couch by the fire, which had been studiously stoked, going strong, and filled the room with its radiating heat.
Chilled from the walk, Michael, Matt and I followed suit. I was quick to partake of my purchased items, since I had missed breakfast, and the walk, particularly the trudge uphill had heightened my need for sustenance. The others talked about what to do this afternoon. In the midst of my informal dining on thin slices of salami, carved slabs of cheese, and big bites of bread torn from the loaf, Monika sauntered over into our space seeking an audience. She and her nipples had our immediate attention. Without a hint of shyness or coyness she said, “Hello… Do any of you guys know how to play Hearts?”. She said “guys” in a tentative sort of way as if she had just learned the word and wasn’t sure she was using it appropriately in this context. She spoke her English with a thick Swedish accent, which made her even more sexy if that was even possible.
The three Clevelanders furrowed their brows. I on the other hand was an accomplished Hearts player and raised my hand in assent. Monika cast her blue blue eyes on me, sizing me up in a friendly smiling sort of way, and said, “Good… we have one but we need one more,” and turned her gaze on the still furrowed Clevelanders.
The horny human equivalent of a deer in the headlights, Peter stared at her blankly for a very long seeming couple seconds before managing to push words out of his mouth. “I play poker?”
Monika scrunched up her nose and said, “Okay” slowly, exaggerating each syllable.
Her gaze turned to Michael, and her body language gave away that she had an instant fondness for him. He seemed to pick up on that vibe and ventured, “I’m a quick learner?”
To which she responded with another “Okay”, again slowly with exaggeration, but this time with a rise in her voice on that last syllable to contrast to the previous response to Peter. Then brightly, “My name is Monika.” We all nodded to indicate that yeah, we knew that already, we had been briefed. Each of us gave her our name. To Matt and Peter she suggested that they were welcome to watch and learn, and she abruptly turned and returned, cute butt and all, to her comrade at the table with the deck of cards.
As Michael and I joined the two of them at the small table and Matt and Peter hovered behind, Monika introduced all of us to Ragna, she with long straight light brown hair, pursed lips, and nerdy black plastic glasses, framing grayish eyes, her hands already starting to compulsively and expertly shuffle that deck of cards as she looked at each of us in turn. Ragna waited for Monika to introduce all of us before tersely responding, “Gentlemen!”, like some casino croupier. Her accent sounded more British and less Swedish than her travel partner’s.
I sat across from Michael with Ragna to my left and Monika, across from Ragna and to my right. In her deadpan way Ragna quickly and succinctly explained the rules of the game to Michael who listened intently and seemed to get it. She did not miss a beat when she suggested that we play one hand with cards on the table and talking through the strategy behind each choice of cards played. She deftly dealt all the cards face up, thirteen for each of us, organizing each person’s hand in columns by suit as she dealt, calling out key cards including the “wicked queen” of spades, which would set you back thirteen points if won in a trick, not just one point like a heart, unless of course you “shot the moon” successfully, winning tricks with all the hearts plus the queen.
Once all our cards were on the table, literally if not figuratively, Ragna explained to Michael the pass of three cards, on this first hand done to the left, and the various strategies as to which cards to pass and which to keep. She told Michael, though he might initially think to pass them, better to keep the queen and and king of spades since he had three other spades to protect them, and “It’s much better to have the ‘lady’ to give away, if you have the proper protection, then to receive her”, spoken in flawless British English. She suggested he pass three of his four clubs to Monika to his left, saving the ace to play on the first trick to void himself in clubs. Monika and I in turn each indicated which three cards we would pass, and the strategy behind passing those and not others in our hands. And finally Ragna explained the reason she was passing the ace of spades to Michael and a couple higher hearts, but not her ace of diamonds. Since she had only one other spade, that was not enough to protect the ace from possibly forcing her to take the “lady” in a second spade trick before she could slough that ace in a trick where she was void of the suit led. Michael’s eyes rolled as he struggled to fully comprehend the nuances of strategy that Ragna was explaining.
I had the two of clubs, which must always be played first, and I placed it in the center of the table, Ragna nodding in assent and explaining that convention to Michael. As set up by his pass of three clubs to Monika, Michael ended up winning the first trick with his ace and now being void in a suit, generally a plus. We played through several tricks, including each of us explaining about having to follow suit if you had it, or playing any other card if you did not, including a heart or the queen of spades, if you were void of the suit led. Ragna and I both led spades at one point and explained how we were trying to “flush out” the queen. Monika took the first trick with a heart in it, explaining the tactic of taking at least one heart to ensure that no other player could “shoot” that hand.
Monika played the queen of clubs, explaining to Michael that if we were playing for real and could not see each other’s cards, that though she suspected he was void of clubs because he had passed three to her, she was betting on him not having the queen of spades. I and Ragna both threw in lesser clubs and play came round to Michael, void in clubs and with the queen of spades plus a couple hearts. Ragna explained that if he did not dump the wicked queen on this trick, which was Monika’s to win based on her queen of clubs high, there was no guarantee he would have another opportunity. Michael did so and Monika, who had obviously planned this to happen, pouted theatrically as she reached out to take the four cards of the trick she had just won including the wicked thirteen point queen. Continuing the mock display of sadness and anger, she made a sour face and beat on Michael’s shoulder with her fists, saying “I hate you!” and then letting out quite a hearty laugh, now massaging the spot on his shoulder she had just been playfully pummelling.
Notably, Monika’s laugh came from her belly, full of joy, self satisfaction and even lust, and nothing like that coy stereotypically feminine giggle young women often employed around guys they were flirting with. When she let loose with it I noticed Peter, watching the action from his vantage point behind Ragna (presumably to get the best possible view across the table of Monika’s breasts), roll his eyes and grimace a bit. I could just imagine him again judging her a “slut” because of that unrestrained laugh. I certainly was jealous that her obvious attention was focused on Michael instead of me, but in no way did I think less of her because of it. I’m sure Ragna was seeing all the dynamics as well, she did not seem to miss a trick (pun intended).
So the four of us played Hearts through the afternoon until dinner time, with Peter and Matt in the peanut gallery behind Ragna with his great view of “the mountains”, and getting a running play by play from her regarding each trick, the playing out of each hand, and who was winning in the overall scoring of the four players. Our game had plenty of ups and downs, dramatic moments, triumphs and tragedies within the context of the game play, plus shifting alliances targeting the player of the moment with the best (lowest) score, which was generally Ragna. Michael had several hands where he misplayed his cards and ended up with twenty plus points, even though Monika and I did our best to try to get Ragna to take more points. I attempted to “shoot the moon” at one point, and along with Monika and Michael thought I had it until the final trick where Ragna had a diamond higher than mine that took that trick including Michael’s last sloughed heart.
With Michael almost over the limit of one hundred points and Ragna in the lead as usual with the least, Monika managed to “shoot the moon”, despite her protestation throughout the hand that she was just trying desperately to lose the lead and not take all the heart tricks, then leading with the queen of spades as her last card to complete the brazen gambit. That added twenty six points to every other player’s score, putting Michael over a hundred and giving Ragna and I enough to put us above Monika in points, winning her the game. She was not so brazenly rude to laugh in victory, though I would have enjoyed hearing it, but I could see the extreme pleasure in her eyes that she had bested us male types but particularly her brainiac travel partner.
Throughout my life I have found that a good four or more player card game, combining lots of strategy with some luck, with players having changing opportunities to ally with or play against each other, tends to be a great arena for every player’s personality to shine and relationships to be forged. That was certainly true in this case. The four of us players were comfortable in each other’s company, at least in the context of the game, though Monika and Michael taking it even farther with her obvious thing for him. I was in awe of both Monika’s and Ragna’s intelligence and gamesmanship, plus their good hearts, and I think they, or at least Ragna, likewise appreciated my own. Based on her running commentary of the game to the peanut gallery, Ragna won Matt’s admiration and even softened up Peter some, I don’t think he had ever had such a close encounter with an interesting female person where he wasn’t just thinking about getting in her pants.
But when the game was done the spell of the moment was broken and we reverted to our old selves in our different worlds. Monika and Ragna went outside for a walk and did not invite any of us guys to tag along with them. I noted that Monika, who had just been wearing a t-shirt and jeans inside the hostel, just put on a light jacket which she left open in front to go outside. She seemed to be a total polar bear with no sense of the cold. Peter, Matt and Michael went back to the fire and got into a conversation with a couple guys from England about cars, with Peter all back in his alpha thing, and the energy of the five guys boasting about this or that sports car really doing nothing for me. Since it was still light outside and the air felt so fresh and not that cold, I wandered back out onto the deck, looked down on the village in the valley, still shrouded above by clouds, and manipulating my fingers to overcome the stiffness from the cold, I brought my journal up to date.
At dinnertime the dining room and the common room filled with people. Many were obviously my cohort, young adults with their freak flag hair. But there were others staying at the hostel who looked a bit older with shorter more kempt hair, and they tended to sit separately from my peers and talk to each other. Peter, Matt and Michael were sitting together and I could see Peter gesturing and obviously holding forth about something. Monika and Ragna were off in a corner surrounded by a bunch of guys who seemed to be doing their best to try to chat them up. There was an open chair at the end of a table in the dining room where five other people were already sitting and talking in English.
I got my tray and filled a big bowl with some sort of a meat and vegetable stew out of a very large kettle and then took a couple of rolls as well. In the past I would have been gun shy to take that seat at a table with five strangers. But on this day at this point in my odyssey, it just seemed the thing to do and I had no reticence to sit down. The young woman across from me was in a very animated conversation with the others at the table about travel logistics, a common topic among my backpacker cohort. I ate my stew, which was hot and delicious, and listened to her and the others arguing about how best to buy a used VW van in Amsterdam.
By her accent she was obviously an Aussie, loud and brash like many of her comrades. With my libido still percolating in high gear, I was instantly attracted to her, even though she seemed a bit full of herself. Of course the other four guys at our table who she was going back and forth with, all seemed a bit full of themselves as well, so maybe she was just going with the flow, not about to be cowed by a bunch of loudmouth male types. She would cast a furtive look my way in between her verbal salvos with the other guys. I could feel my normal timidity cautioning me to keep quiet but I decided to ignore it and speak to her. I figured I would get her attention and throw her off guard a bit with a compliment.
The next time she stopped talking and glanced my way I pointed at her and said that she appeared to have some expertise on travel logistics. She seemed a bit stunned, and looked at me more carefully than her previous glances, trying to process who I was. Now enjoying her full attention, at least momentarily, I told her that my current plan was to get to Amsterdam on the last day of my rail pass, stay a couple days and then see if I could get a boat from there back to England that wasn’t too expensive.
I could see by her body language that she had reacted positively to my compliment. She said the boats from the Hook of Holland and Ostende Belgium were expensive. She suggested I might be better off, if I was tight on funds, to try hitching down to Calais and taking a much cheaper boat across the channel there. It felt like I was in a tennis match and she had returned my serve and now I needed to hit it back in her court. I told her I’d done plenty of hitchhiking, but wasn’t the weather likely to be “shitty” this time of year and therefore more difficult for hitching. I used the expletive instead of just “cold and rainy” because it seemed to better match her swagger with a little of my own. She made a face as she pondered my point and I could see in her eyes the calculations firing in her mind. So if I was going to pay for the train to Calais from Amsterdam, she figured the boat from the Hook across the North Sea to Harwich probably wasn’t that much more. I nodded my head and said thanks, that seemed like good advice, followed by telling her my name was Cooper. She said hers was Beth and “good to meet you”, before being drawn back into the conversational fisticuffs with the four other guys at the table.
As I continued to eat my stew, now ripping apart and dipping my rolls in the remnants in my bowl, I pondered the last week and a half’s “end game” of my European odyssey, as Beth continued her back and forth with the four guys, but now glancing at me occasionally and making faces for my consumption at one of their comments. Though my thinking seemed to change every day, right now it was to stick to my original plan and take the boat to Harwich and then maybe find the Crewe’s in Colchester or back to Oxford to see the Clays, or both even. It might cost me more but that’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to arrive in London with eight days until my plane flight home. I would stick to the plan as it was before. Night of December 1st in Munich. 2nd to Amsterdam. Reserve flight in Amsterdam on the 4th. Boat to England on the 5th.
With the huge mountains outside waiting patiently to reveal themselves to me, as I continued to finish the bread in my big bowl of delicious stew, surrounded by my backpacker cohort, while I watched Beth pontificate on travel logistics across from me, and I pondered my own European odyssey’s upcoming swansong, my multitasking mind also realized I was hearing someone playing the piano in the common room. It was Jethro Tull’s “LIfe’s a Long Song”, and I heard a male voice, high and squeaky, a tenor I thought, tentatively singing out the lyrics…
When you’re falling awake
And you take stock of the new day
And you hear your voice croak
As you choke on what you need to say
Well, don’t you fret, don’t you fear
I will give you good cheer
Life’s a long song
If you wait then your plate I will fill
The gestalt of it all, happening at the same time, sent shivers through the skin on my arms making the goosebumps rise and I could feel the tears collecting in the lids under my eyes. I had so much I needed to say but was not yet ready to say it yet. We all did. And life was indeed a long song, a marathon and not a sprint, at its best a long series of adventures, and I was suddenly so fucking proud of myself and grateful that I had made that decision to go on eight weeks ago when my travel partner had decided to bail and return to the States. Yeah it had been fear of going home empty handed as it were, that overcame the anxiety and homesickness I felt if I continued. But whatever the motivations, I had made the right choice, and I was now the grateful beneficiary.
The voice at the piano continued…
As the verses unfold
And your soul suffers the long day
And the twelve o’clock gloom, spins the room
You struggle on your way
Well, don’t you sigh, don’t you cry
Lick the blood from your eye
Life’s a long song
We will meet in the sweet light of dawn