So I followed suit and kept my tray. There were about two dozen of us in that initial batch that headed down the mountain, including the Cleveland Gang, Beth and her Aussie guys, Ragna and Monika still with her unbuttoned jacket, t-shirt and no bra. That woman was indeed a total polar bear, impervious to the cold, presumably from years of living in the frozen north. About half of us had trays, including Monika, but not her travel partner who said to her, “I’ll walk behind, and drag your unconscious body to the side of the road so you don’t get run over!” as Monika got a running start and planted her rear end on the tray with clear indication of athleticism and skill.
Remembering our card game this afternoon with her cardshark persona and her deadpan wit, it was a vintage Ragna comment, and I chuckled and my admiration for her grew. Triumphing again over my conventional timidity, I walked over to her and said in jest, “No tray?” She just stared at me with her pursed lips, saying nothing, and then theatrically tilted her head down to look at me over her glasses, taking a “you must be kidding” pose. I laughed. She cracked just the slightest little bit of a smile in response, which I of course noticed and privately enjoyed immensely. I walked alongside her holding my tray under my arm as we watched Monika, Peter, Michael, and Matt, and the others from our cohort on their trays, with various degrees of skill or lack thereof, slide down the road to the first big curve. It was interesting to see them all behaving like playful kids after trying to be all sophisticated and grown up in the lodge at dinner, and I pondered which persona was more real?
“So are you going to use that thing or just carry it?” Ragna interrogated me like the croupier asking for bets. I was tempted to just keep talking to her, but I said I would give it a try, and she even offered to give me a push, but saying, “I’ll vigorously deny that I gave you this push if it leads to your demise.” I sat on the tray with my butt as far back as possible, my knees up to my chest, and just the back tips of my boot soles on the front edge of the tray, gloved hands grasping each side edge. I felt her own gloved hands on my shoulders. It felt good, electric even. I was in her hands. She said, “Godspeed you sir”, and took five or six running steps and sent me sliding down the road.
It was not bitter cold, but the temperature was below freezing and the packed snow on the road was nicely, but not dangerously slick. Between Ragna’s push and the fairly steep grade, I easily had the momentum to get down at least to the first big turn in the road as it wound its way down into the village and the little tavern that was our destination. The issue I immediately encountered was steering, and I tried to put my hands out on either side of me to keep me and my tray facing forward. But the first patch of snow I slid over that offered a little more of a tug of resistance, and I slid right off the tray and quickly came to a stop, the tray managing to get by me and continue down the road. From my sitting position I theatrically collapsed spread eagle on the ground, swore and then laughed.
Ragna and the other dozen or so trayless walkers from the lodge soon came upon me. “Bravo” she said, “Bravo!”
“Indeed”, I replied, reacting to her accent by mustering my favorite British word. Then trying my best to appear philosophical and above the fray, I continued in all the mock seriousness I could muster, “I always hope in failure there are lessons to be learned!”
And in her sumptuous deadpan she replied, “We all hope, but it certainly can be painful to watch.” She put her gloved hand out to help me up. I grasped it, and for a moment we were holding hands, but once upright, she immediately released it, as if not to appear to forward, just lending a hand as it were, one human being to another.
Ragna and I continued down the road with the others. I employed my mom’s conversational tactic that had worked so well for me with Trix and her crew on the train to Florence, asking her how she and Monika met. I found out they were actually almost stepsisters, though not officially so. Ragna’s mom had divorced her dad when she was nine and then had started a serious relationship with one of her dad’s friends, who happened to be Monika’s widowed dad. Monika’s mom, who had been an artist, writer and actress, apparently of some notoriety, had died tragically of breast cancer, and even written and performed a one woman show on the topic in the last couple years up to her death. Ragna and Monika had actually known each other as schoolmates before their parents became a couple, but had been in very different circles and not been friends at all. Ragna had gone to a boarding school in England and then done two years of college at Cambridge. Being a couple years older, she confessed to me that though she had to put up with Monika and all her craziness, she took some solace and even pleasure in getting to treat her like “my baby sister”, and I could tell that she had come to care very deeply for her not quite stepsister.
I shared with Ragna that my parents had also divorced when I was nine, after several years of their relationship deteriorating and my dad finally being caught having an affair with another woman, which had been the last straw for my mom. After sharing that, feeling that I did not want her to think my dad a terrible person, I told her that though we lived with our mom, he had continued to be very involved in my brother’s and my life, and neither of them had remarried.
We continued to share our divorce “war stories” as we walked down the road with the others toward the village, finally encountering my plastic tray at the first big turn, crashed in a snowdrift by the side of the road. Noting that it had ended up upside down, with her own flourish of mock seriousness, Ragna said that I had probably been lucky to fall off when I did.
“But I am undaunted!” I said as I grabbed the tray, righted it, placed it on the road and sat myself upon it. She responded with what she said was a quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin, ”Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other,” and gave me another push. This time I held tightly to the sides of the tray with my gloved fingers, to keep me from sliding off it, and held my bent legs out in front of the tray just off the ground to steer as needed. I put one hand in the air briefly to give a thumbs up to Ragna as I slid down the road, picking up speed as I went. Mastering the steering technique of briefly touching my boot heels on the snow, I managed to negotiate the next three turns and descended the length of the road, enjoying the rush of the speed, the cold fresh mountain air, and the remnant glow of my exchange with Ragna above. When I finally got down to the tavern, the other tray riders had already entered, but I could see a stack of their trays by the front entrance, and added mine to the top.
Inside my cohort was clustered around a couple long tables on one side of the place while others, perhaps locals or European tourist types sat on the other side, and older men perched on stools along the bar in between. In age, dress and hair there was a pretty obvious generational and cultural divide. My group were all in jeans, flannel or t-shirts and most of us had some variation of the freak flag hair, from long and either straight or curly to teased out hair that was generally referred to as a “natural” on a white person, like me or Peter, or an “afro” on a black person like Michael. Michael, with his big Jimi Hendrix afro and headband was the only black person in the bar. Many of the guys had various facial hair, including beards mustaches or sideburns, but not me, I was not growing facial hair yet.
My own hair was more than a year out since its last haircut, which had been the previous fall during rehearsals for the musical “Most Happy Fella” at college, when our director insisted that he did not want his male cast representing 1920s era California immigrants looking like a bunch of hippies. Eight months after that I had teased it up into a “natural” for a part in a musical another musical, “The Flahooley Incident”, and after the show was done had kept it that way. My hair was a medium brown with big thick curls, that came out about three inches all around my head and were now touching my shoulders as well.
The European tourists scattered around the rest of the place were generally older and had the shorter hair, more coiffed, and wore slacks and bright sweaters, either pullover or button up. They definitely seemed more dressed up and fashion conscious in their apparel than my crowd. They spoke mostly German and some Italian and looked at all of us as a kind of curiosity, but not in any sort of parochial or xenophobic way, just a friendlier sort of generation gap.
I squeezed in on the end of the table next to Michael and Matt. I could see Beth and Monika down at the other end sucking down big glass mugs of beer and laughing bawdily in conjunction with what I’m sure was an attentive bunch of guys around them. When Ragna and the rest of the walkers came in about five minutes later, Monika saw her and yelled out something in probably Swedish and waved her arms back and forth, causing her big unsheathed boobs to bounce obviously in her t-shirt, I’m sure to the delight of her male admirers. Ragna, looking very much like a fish out of water and just briefly making eye contact with me, worked her way through the crowd and was grateful to find somewhere to sit behind Monika in the corner.
With our last group now joining us we filled the entire side of the tavern and outnumbered all others in the place. We ordered lots of big pitchers of some local beer on tap that was on special that night at half price until 8pm, which I realized had motivated the quick exodus from dinner back at the lodge. I threw in ten Swiss francs to contribute to the beer fund, and soon had my own big glass mug of the cool, but not cold, amber fluid with that bitter bite of real beer that I was learning to love here in Europe. Not the wimpy champagne like beers that we had in the States. Feeling the alcohol we all got louder and less inhibited and were becoming part of the entertainment of sorts for the rest of the customers at the bar.
As the time passed, Matt, who had been the most reticent of the Clevelanders, but now on maybe his third beer, shared with me a bit of excitement that had happened on their slide down the road on their trays. As Matt told it, Monika had purposely kept crashing her tray into Michael’s as the two of them raced down the hill, until finally she crashed them both into a snowbank, “and was on top of him laughing and smashing snow into his face”. I looked at Michael, who was listening to the retelling attentively, and he just grinned and nodded that his comrades rendition was accurate. Peter was rolling his eyes and said, “That chick is a total…”, I expected him to say “slut” again, but instead he said “maniac”, and said it without the negative charge he had applied to the more derogatory adjective before.
I was so fucking jealous of Michael in that moment, him being pursued by this apparently hedonistic, uninhibited sexy young woman. But if she had been chasing me, would I even have been willing to be caught, or would I have fled in the fullness of my timidity. I had to reconcile myself to that somehow, but it was hard to do so, easier to just be jealous.
One of the old guys sitting on a stool at the bar near us raised his beer mug and clinked it with a fork to get our attention and said with telegraphed tentativeness and a twinkle in his eye, “To Nixon?”, querying our sentiment but presuming the answer. Many of us groaned and booed, not just the Yanks among us, but Aussies, Kiwis and Brits too. There were a couple shouts of “Fuck Nixon” and then a couple “Fuck Heath”, the current conservative British prime minister, thrown in for good measure. The older guy at the bar and his buddies laughed. He raised his mug again and said, “Rock and roll!”, and we almost all called out in assent, except perhaps Ragna, playing the observant anthropologist in her corner. The local brew flowing while it was still cheap, we were all quickly drunk, again except Ragna, who nursed her original mug with small sips.
At one point the old men at the bar started singing what presumably was some sort of drinking song in German, for our consumption, to show us they could be fun and raucous as well. I still find it interesting that German, with all its guttural consonants, seems like a hard language to sing in, unless you are in fact inebriated and happily slur all the “g”s and “k”s. They sang, and did so with gusto, and we acknowledged them, swinging our mugs to their tempo, and trying to sing the chorus once we had heard it a couple times, finally breaking into shouts and applause at the end.
I don’t know what got into me, other than a couple quickly downed pints of beer and wanting so badly to be the subject of Monika’s lust. But when Peter said to me and his buddies, “We need a song!”, I just spontaneously started belting out the Beatles “Yellow Submarine”, which turns out most everyone in our group knew and joined in, including Beth, Monika, and even eventually, Ragna…
In the town where I was born
Lived a man who sailed to sea
And he told us of his life
In the land of submarines
So we sailed up to the sun
Till we found the sea of green
And we lived beneath the waves
In our yellow submarine
It was the perfectly off the wall song to sing up in the mountains at the center of the continent hundreds of miles from any oceans or seas, and we sang it with fervor, if not quite gusto, even more so for the chorus, since everyone knew that cold, or certainly so after the first time through…
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
We all live in a yellow submarine
Yellow submarine, yellow submarine
There were several people in the group, besides me, who even knew the words of the second verse, with the rest joining in once we started and it came back to them…
And our friends are all on board
Many more of them live next door
And the band begins to play
What followed in the real song was an instrumental line with a brass band playing, and several of us, including Peter and I, tried to imitate the band instruments in a halfass sort of way, which quickly broke down to chaos and laughing, but the momentum of the song was quickly recaptured by the second go of the chorus.
The third verse had its call and response, and I led the call part and Peter, who seemed transformed by this whole experience, or perhaps just the alcohol, knew and led the response…
As we live a life of ease (a life of ease)
Everyone of us (everyone of us) has all we need (has all we need)
Sky of blue (sky of blue) and sea of green (sea of green)
In our yellow (in our yellow) submarine (submarine)
When we completed our song many of the European tourist types in the place applauded, and the old guys sitting at the bar raised their glasses to us, and we raised ours right back at them. It was just one of those moments, in a little tavern, in a little valley nestled amongst humongous mountains (which still had not revealed themselves to me) in the middle of the European continent, on planet Earth towards the end of the twentieth century of the common era.
And so the evening went and when the hour for cheap pitchers ended and our collective beer fund finally dried up, several of the tourist types and the old guys at the bar bought us more, inspired by their own joyous intoxication, the joyous part we having contributed to. And I think they also were relieved that though we looked somewhat like “hippies” we were apparently fun and mostly harmless. Even the bartender, probably the owner, gave us a round of pitchers for free. There was a fleeting gestalt (a word I use now documenting this moment but did not have in my vocabulary at the time) of the cohesion of the human species and the generational acknowledgement and passing of the torch from the rest of them to us.
My cohort, faux “freaks” with our self-conscious big hair and store-bought bellbottoms, were not so blatantly challenging everything “the establishment” or “the man” had created before us. We might even trust at least a few people over thirty if they were cool enough (or bought us a round of beers) and we would settle for social lubrication with their alcohol rather than our own generational intoxicant marijuana.
And when my fellow hostellers finally left the bar, to trudge back up the hill to get to the hostel before they locked us out for the night (and the story was that they would indeed lock us out… that whole run on a schedule thing again), we had a sense of solidarity and blessing that exceeded our inebriation. A couple of our number, worse for wear from the alcohol consumption, were helped with a hand from their comrades. Matt had his arm across Peter’s shoulders, the latter having gotten sick and “bowed down to the porcelain god” as the Aussies would say, but most of us had learned from experience how to “hold our liquor” like the real grownups did.
It was noticeably colder and the air was now drier and crisper and my nasal membranes got that sensation of swelling and collapsing as the cold air passed through them. Those of us who had taken trays to leverage gravity to get down the hill now had to carry them back up, not a big deal, but at least one hand that one could not keep in their jacket pocket for maximum warmth. I noticed that even Monika had her light jacket buttoned up, as she walked up the hill in front of us, still displaying her obvious physical fitness, and awesome butt, but now in a sisterly way hand in hand with Ragna. It was probably my hormones inspiring the thinking, but it struck me in that moment that a woman’s rear end was generally by patriarchal convention, and physiology perhaps, allowed to swing back and forth significantly more unlimbered than a man’s, conveying so much personality in its sensuous physicality, Monika in particular letting her body fully express everything that it was about. I walked next to Michael, who I noticed was pensively staring off into space between glances in her direction.
We started our ascent in a spent and mostly silent trudge, one foot deliberately after the other, crunching on the matted snow of the road winding up the hill. We collectively felt the drag of gravity and the slog of challenging it in our diminished state, and a couple of the British guys in our group, in an effort to help the group better endure that slog, started singing the song “Marching to Pretoria”. A British marching song from the Boer War in South Africa, made popular in the States by the folk group the Weavers, but familiar to me mostly from hearing a comic rendition by the Smothers Brothers. It was a classic walking song, which I had actually been first taught in elementary school, and many of us joined in, with its appropriately simple melody and lyric that lent itself to one syllable verb substitutions to launch each new verse…
Sing with me, I’ll sing with you, and
So we will sing together (x3)
Sing with me, I’ll sing with you and so we will sing together
As we march along
We are marching to Pretoria, Pretoria, Pretoria
We are marching to Pretoria, Pretoria, Hooorah!
Walk with me, I’ll walk with you, and
So we will walk together (x3)
Walk with me, I’ll walk with you, and so we will walk together
As we march along.
After “walk” the improvised substitutions continued, and eventually getting more apropo to our situation – “drink”, “trudge”, “freeze” et cetera (though not “barf”) – as the two dozen of us continued up the hill, me singing louder than most with my theater trained voice, always enjoying the opportunity to join others in song. We finally arriving at our destination, the grinning hostel staffer, perhaps just three or four years older than I with his own long straight version of freak flag hair, opening the door for us and perhaps noting on his watch that we had twelve minutes to spare. Quickly stumbling to the bunk room, I fell asleep in the cradle of my cohort’s solidarity and my own important contribution to it as a songleader in the bar, feeling like a little bit more of the me I longed to be.