Coop Goes to Europe Part 28 – VirginSeptember 25th, 2016 at 15:48
It was Wednesday November 28, 1973 and I awoke that morning from a memorable yesterday, which had been my first full day in Grindelwald, a day full of camaraderie and special moments. When I emerged from the bunk room after a long hot shower and getting dressed, I could see out the big picture window that the sun was shining, and so presumably the clouds had finally lifted and the featured mountains would reveal themselves. I went immediately out on the balcony and the view was stunning beyond anything I had anticipated.
The hostel sat on the north slope of the little valley, looking south with the village below at its base. Rising from the other side of the valley was a row of five magnificent mountains that filled the sky. The winter morning sun was behind them, and though there northern faces were shaded there was enough diffused sunlight to see that all of them were sheer rock and ice, literally rising from the valley floor almost three kilometers (a mile and a half) nearly straight up like giant jagged teeth. Those jagged tops caught bits of the sunlight behind them and glittered like a silver aura that made their shaded faces that much more foreboding, like one was viewing those teeth from inside the impossibly large gaping maw about to close and consume you.
The left or southeastern tooth was the Wetterhorn, “wetter” the German word for “weather” and “horn” for “peak”. To its right the Schreckhorn, “schreck” German for “fright”. The third tooth, directly across the village center from us, was the Eiger, a famous mountain made so in the United States by Clint Eastwood’s 1972 movie The Eiger Sanction. Infamous in that so many climbers had died attempting to ascend its sheer north face. The derivation of its name was not completely clear but was thought by some to be a variation of the German word for ogre. The fourth, set back and partially hidden by the Eiger’s big north face, was the Mönch, German for “monk”.
To the right of the Mönch and set back a little more was the last of the set, the Jungfrau, which from my line of sight had more of the classic look of a mountain with a single peak coming to a point, and on this morning catching a little more of the sun than its four comrades. It was actually the tallest of the five with a summit at 4156 meters (13,642 feet). Its name was fascinating to me, made up of the German words “jung” (young) and “frau”, the latter translating in English to either “woman” or “wife”. But together as one word in German, “jungfrau” translated to “maiden” or “virgin”. I had laughed when I read the derivation of the mountain’s name in one of the hostel’s brochures. In patriarchal culture, as reflected in the German language, a man identified his wife as “his woman”, and a young woman was by definition also a virgin. Apparently once she had had sex she was no longer a young woman and was something else entirely. I pondered who it was who would have decided to name a mountain thusly, certainly not women! Instead I figured some horny male German speaking explorer had named a mountain perhaps based on its shape like a young woman’s breast, or that it lay beautiful and hidden behind more prominent and masculine seeming peaks.
I was transfixed by the view, having seen nothing like it in my life. I had grown up in the southern peninsula of Michigan, which had no mountains or even hills to speak of. The most mountains I had seen in the States had been on our family vacations traveling through Upstate New York, northern Pennsylvania and eastern Massachusetts, but those were rounded, tree covered, civilized “hills” all under a mile in height. Of course I had hitchhiked through the mountains of central Switzerland earlier in my European odyssey and even climbed that mountain in Bavaria with Angelica and Helmut, with its impressive view of the Bavarian plain below. But that had been just a two kilometer (6000 foot) summit, easily ascended on a walking trail and nothing even remotely close to this. I knew I was in a very special and unique place, among some of the most storied and photogenic mountain peaks in the world.
Taking it all in, it struck me that I had somehow found my way, on my own at age eighteen, to one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on Earth, with a whole lifetime of additional adventures ahead of me. Yes I was still homesick, but I knew at some level that I had the courage and the agency to seek out and find a place like this. Other comparably mythic destinations would be attainable in the future when I was ready to seek them.
It was in fact the prospect of breakfast, particularly all the delicious yogurt and granola that I could eat, that finally overcame the grip of the view and its “meta” (a word that was not part of the cultural lexicon yet), that is its metaphorical and metaphysical implications. Like dinner the night before, breakfast was served buffet style, and featured the much anticipated big bowl of granola and another on ice of homemade yogurt. There were two big baskets of freshly baked bread, one white and one a dark brown, wrapped in towels to keep the thick slices warm. Finally pitchers of milk, apple juice and water.
Matt was sitting alone and eating. A number of others were eating, but Peter, Michael, Monika and Ragna were nowhere to be seen. I took the seat across from him. I quickly realized he had something he was dying to share with me. Michael had had sex with Monika last night in the men’s bathroom after we all returned from the tavern, at least that is what Michael had told Matt in the middle of the night when he returned to the bunkroom. Each shower stall was private, with one set of curtains separating the the stall itself from a small private changing area, and a second set separating that changing area from the shared area of the bathroom. A great set up for a shy person like me who was generally uncomfortable getting naked in front of a group of my male peers, particularly ones I did not know. But also a good setup apparently for a clandestine sexual encounter, particularly at night when the bathroom was likely to have very few others using it.
As I consumed my bowl of yogurt mixed with granola, I was not really that surprised given what had transpired yesterday between the two of them. The way she had lit up when she had first encountered him in the common room. How she had in mock anger pounded on his shoulder when we were all at the card table teaching him to play Hearts. And as Matt had told it, how she had brazenly played “bumper trays” with Michael sliding down the road to the tavern and crashing both of them into the snowbank where she had taken it a step further by gleefully climbing on top of him and rubbing snow in his face. But I was so envious that he, and not I, had been relentlessly pursued by such a sex goddess, that Monika represented to all of us heterosexual young men.
That said, would I had been naked in the shower stall when Monkia clandestinely slipped into my changing area to get naked with me, would I have even had the nerve to go through with the encounter, or balked and bailed as I always had in the past, when some young woman took a shine to me in more of a sexual way. I could so imagine every facet of her tall naked body pressed against mine, just not how the encounter would begin. For me, getting naked with someone was an act of intimacy, intimacy I craved, expressed physically and part of a broader metaphorical sense of “letting it all hang out” as they say. Getting naked with someone was an end in itself, even if it was say two guys with no sexual intentions and went no further than that. But it also could be a starting point as well for further explorations of fun body parts and sensations, shared with your partner or even several other people, like I had done with other boys in the bushes or in our basement walk in closet when I was nine.
Finishing our breakfasts, Matt and I wandered into the common room together. We were now connected by the secret we shared, a secret that Michael had told Matt but apparently not Peter. I assumed Ragna knew too, whether Monika had shared with her or she figured it out somehow herself. It seemed unlike Ragna to miss anything. The guy who had been playing piano the previous day at dinnertime was at it again with his repertoire of Jethro Tull songs. Someone had said his name was Schuman, and was German or at least spoke German when he wasn’t singing in English. He had wild eyes, exaggerated in size by the thick thick lenses on his glasses and hair a shock of blonde curly locks that ventured out mostly horizontally from his head, very Einstein. This morning’s current offering was the band’s hit, “Living in the Past”…
Happy and I’m smiling
Walking miles to drink your water
You know I’d love to love you
And above you there’s no other
We’ll go walking out
While others shout of war’s disaster
Oh, we won’t give in
Let’s go living in the past
Seemed kind of fitting for sleepy little Grindelwald, dominated by mountains that had probably not changed that much since human civilization first came here, reportedly in the 12th century. A place unscarred, at least geographically, by the human mayhem of the 20th century’s two world wars.
Once I used to join in
Every boy and girl was my friend
Now there’s revolution, but they don’t know
What they’re fighting
Let us close our eyes
Outside their lives go on much faster
Oh, we won’t give in
We’ll keep living in the past
I felt that I and my generation were part of that “revolution” and that I would never recommend “living in the past”. But the mountains here spoke in their awesome silence to the merits sometimes of being above the fray.
Speak of the devil and her not quite step sister, Monika and Ragna had appeared in the common room as well, sitting at their little table in the corner playing some two-person card game. Monika saw us and did her patented finger flutter to acknowledge us and say hello. Matt and I gravitated into her proximity, like sheep or happy zombies, and Ragna grinned at her de facto younger sibling’s ability to bring any and all male type people into her orbit. Monika had another one of her signature t-shirts on, thin soft cloth fabric showcasing every geographic detail of her own pair of impressive peaks, and after my quick initial glance I made a determined effort not to stare at her chest.
“You guys want to join a group of us going down to see the glacier after noon?” Monika’s passable English with that wonderfully thick Swedish accent and deep throaty voice, plus the funny way she said “guys” with an “s” rather than a “z” sound at the end, was always a treat to hear. Matt and I smiled and nodded our heads in unison, joyful zombies indeed, at least that was what I imagined Ragna was thinking. Matt and I pulled up chairs to watch them play cards. Actually it was only Ragna playing, a more complicated solitaire game than the standard Klondike that my mom always played, involving laying an entire deck of cards out face up on the table in eight columns and then moving cards from one column to another based on what looked like similar but more complicated rules than Klondike.
Monika was watching the cards on the table pensively as if trying to decide something. Finally she stood up and her older almost step sister looked at her with gray bespectacled querying eyes. Monika stared back at her with her bright blue ones and most of the communication at that point seemed like it was all in the subtle changes in their eye muscles, close to telepathic. Monika spoke slowly and each syllable deliberately, “I’m going out for a walk. I’ll be back before Noon.” There was just a hint of challenge in her voice, like an implied “you got a problem with that?”. Ragna listened with her own signature pursed lips, saying nothing but eyes through her glasses still locked on Monika’s, and finally backing down perhaps and nodding ever so slightly in accent. I had seen this sort of communication before between my mom and a couple of her best friends, also between my friend Angie and her longtime best friend Lane, every facial nuance apparently replacing whole sentences. Monika and her awesome rear end finally sauntered out of the common room and exited the hostel.
Ragna took a deep breath, exhaled, and donned her croupier persona, looking at Matt and I and saying, “Gentlemen?” I could feel her sense of frustration with Monika that I assumed was all about Monika’s clandestine encounter with Michael last night. I could also feel her sadness and self doubt, which heightened my sense of kinship with her, I certainly being familiar enough with self doubt. I would typically intuit these things in someone else but do nothing, but not this time, I decided to take action, halfass perhaps, but do something.
I quickly moved my body from the chair next to Ragna to the one across the small table from her where Monika had been sitting, the seat still warm from her butt. I continued the somewhat theatrical move by leaning in toward Ragna in a conspiratorial sort of way and even pointing a finger at her like I had done to Beth across from me at dinner last night to get her attention and put her a little off guard. It caught Ragna off guard too, in a positive sort of way, since her usually pursed lips cracked the slightest smile facing my finger pointing between her eyes, those great grey querying eyes.
Finger still targeting her and her grey glare targeting mine back, I told her I knew a cardgame, “Russian Bank”, that my mom had taught me, that she probably did not know but would enjoy playing. By the very slight rise of her right eyelid and the eyebrow above, plus a noticeable relaxation of those pursed lips, I felt like I had slipped through her defences, and that she was not unhappy that I had. It was as if I had grabbed her hand with mine and put the other on her waist and said, “Shall we dance?” as the band struck up the vamp for a tango and I pulled her body against mine.
She said that in fact she had heard of the game but did not know how to play but would “love you to teach me”, with none of the possible double entendre in those words lost on me. I could feel her relax, and her frustrations, with Monika always sucking the oxygen out of the room, monopolizing all the “guys”, and apparently launching into sexual adventures, fading to the background. (I thought about the Jan Brady character on The Brady Bunch obsessed with playing second fiddle to her too perfect sister Marcia – “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”) It was all very cerebral, but now there was a heightened level of intimacy between us, at least on that very cerebral level.
It was a level of intimacy I found and treasured with my female friends, since there was none of that competitiveness between us that often made my relationships with my male peers more difficult. But then with my female friends I always balked at broadening it into any sort of physical intimacy that might add a sexual component to our relationship. I also managed to find that level of intimacy with the few good male friends I had, sometimes more easily so because the sexual component was off the table, forging an implicit agreement with each that we would play none of the patriarchal male to male games with each other and just try to be soul mates.
So I spent the next hour teaching her the game and having us play through an initial round where I explained to her the various applicable rules as we went along and they became applicable. The game was a form of double solitaire with two decks of cards, so Matt had contributed a deck he had in his backpack and actively watched and asked questions, he unlike his two fellow Clevelanders a game nerd himself. The initial setup was for each player to take their deck of cards and put out the first four cards face up in front of them in a column to their left, leaving enough room in between those two columns for two more empty columns with room for four cards each. Then each player built a stack of twelve cards face down in front of them from their deck followed by a thirteenth card turned face up on top of the stack, known appropriately as the “thirteen pile”. Whoever had the highest card on their thirteen pile went first, with ties broken by the rank of the suit with spades the highest.
Ragna echoed everything that I did, and she turned up a jack on top of her thirteen pile to my ace. She immediately fired off a query with her very British accent so unlike her de facto sister, “Aces high or low? I presume low if this is like solitaire!”
“Low indeed”, I said, trying to be all Britishy and sophisticated myself.
“What if both players turn up the exact same card?” She spoke like a kid in a nerdy candy store, definitely from inside her defences.
“Hmm,” I scrunched up my face a bit theatrically, “I guess that has happened before, one in fifty-two chance, but I don’t remember what we did!”
“Maybe then compare the first card each player played in the middle,” she mused, “Or put another card face up on the thirteen pile!”
Sensing a love of the absurd in her I replied in my best Monty Python old English woman falsetto, “Oooh… then it wouldn’t be a thirteen pile anymore would it dear!”
She grinned, a beautiful full grin this time, and said in her own version of the Monty Python old English woman voice indicating her familiarity with their work, “Indeed!”
Matt chimed in with an appropriately accented “Indeed!” as well. We were three peas, at least for this brief moment, in the same Pythonian pod.
So Ragna played first. I explained to her the solitaire like rules for moving cards among the two columns of four cards between us, building down by one and alternating color, making spaces, and moving any ace to the empty columns in the “center”, followed by the two, three, et cetera of the same suit. Then looking to the card face up on her thirteen pile, and if she could play it on the board how she would turn up the next one and try to play that. I explained to her she could even play on the face up card on my thirteen pile, if the card was one higher or lower of the same suit. Finally when no other moves were possible, she would draw the top card from the rest of her deck. If she could play that card she could continue to play on the board or from her thirteen pile as before. If not, she put the card face up in yet another pile, her “discard pile” and her turn would be done and play would pass to me.
On my turn I would look to play as she did, first on the game board and from my thirteen pile, including piling on her thirteen pile with an appropriate card or even piling on the face up card on the top of her discard pile. Finally when all other moves were made I would draw from my remaining deck, and if the card could not be played I’d start my own discard pile and play would return to her.
I also explained the critical rule that you always had to make the move to the center first, either the ace or the next card of the same suit in sequence, if it could be done, and failing to do so the other player could call “Russian Bank”, and you immediately stopped your turn and the other player’s turn started with making the move to the center you failed to make. I told her with mock wild eyes that it got really crazy because you could also call “Russian Bank” if your opponent did not make the available move to the center that required the least number of card movements.
So we stumbled through the first game but Ragna quickly of course got the hang of it as we played, her energetic shift indicating her pleasure with the whole experience, distancing her from sibling issues. Since I had shared that I had learned the game from my mom, who like her mom had divorced my dad when I was nine, Ragna asked me about her. Despite the issues I had had with my mom, around the divorce, her low moments when she talked about ending her life or depended on me for psychological support, and her bigger than life presence that was always a hard act for me to follow, I found myself speaking fondly of all her good qualities – she was an artist, a tennis player, a political activist, a feminist even. Her parties were full of interesting people who discussed and argued the issues of the day. Her best friends were women who were feminists as well and who I had gotten close enough to to call them my “feminist aunts”.
Hearing all my references to feminism, Ragna asked me as a male person how I felt about the topic. Again I found myself declaring my own support for the cause, even the more radical feminism and challenging of “patriarchy” that was the orientation of my mom’s best friend Mary Jane. I felt comfortable strapping on that persona, even with another male type peer, Matt, participating in the conversation as well and passing his own judgements on me.
Ragna shared her own relationship with her mother, the negatives not so outweighed by the positives as she portrayed it. Her mom was intellectual to a fault, always rationalizing things rather than dealing with feelings. Given her mom’s problematic relationship with Ragna’s dad, Ragna felt it had been for the best that they had divorced, but then her mom immediately started living with Monika’s widowed dad and the relationship seemed like more of the same. I could see that Ragna had not gotten to that place with her mom that I had with mine, a place of accepting her as another flawed human being like myself just trying to do the best she knew how to do. Matt even chimed in at that point about his parents, saying that even though they were still together, their relationship was not a very good one either, his mom always giving in to his dad even when she was right.
Despite Ragna being a quick study, I ended up winning the first game, calling “Russian Bank” on her at a critical moment when she had to move six cards to put one in the center and I had a way to get a different card to the center in just five moves. We played two additional games, Ragna finally winning the third one and probably at a point in her game skill where she would likely win the majority of games between us in the future. Though she was pretty low key about it, given her deadpan style, I knew she was grateful I had helped her out of her morning funk. Monika finally returned from her “walk”, perhaps cover for another encounter with Michael, and the two women excused themselves and retreated to the women’s bunkroom. Matt and I headed into our bunkroom to glean lunch from the grocery remnants in our packs and returned to the common room to eat.
As we ate, the group assembled in the common room to take the walk to the glacier. Monika and Ragna reappeared, still looking at odds with each other. Peter, who had been hanging out with the two British guys all morning rather than his fellow Clevelanders, appeared with them in tow. Beth appeared with several of the Aussie guys she had been arguing with at dinner yesterday. Michael finally appeared, the first time I’d seen him all morning. I watched Monika acknowledge him, but just barely so, and neither of them did anything to indicate they were a couple or into any sort of romantic thing. As usual, all the guys sort of orbited around Monika, though in this case she had organized the informal outing. No trays this time, we would all walk down the hill like regular grownups.
The “Oberer Grindelwaldgletscher”, as it was called in German (“Oberer” meaning “upper” since there apparently was a second “lower” glacier as well in another part of the valley) was over six kilometers in length and “flowed” ever so slowly down between the Wetterhorn and the Schreckhorn into the little valley that cradled Grindelwald. The approach to the glacier from the village was through a woods of evergreen trees that were covered in a thick layer of soft quiet snow. It was a sunny day with no wind to speak of, and for the dozen or so of us who made the trek, including Monika and her blue jean clad butt in the lead followed by Ragna and the rest of us single file, the only audible noise was the crunch of our boots on the packed snow of the trail winding uphill through the trees. No one spoke, as if we were all being respectful of entering sacred space, or at least savoring the gorgeous silence and slightest evergreen scent of the frozen woods.
Finally emerging from the trees, we were confronted with what looked like a frozen avalanche of glistening blue ice, the “tongue” of the glacier, it towered over us though nestled in the crotch between two impossibly large mountains. There was a little stream of melt off that ran from the edge of the glacier down into the valley with clear icy water. Its shape, size and blueness, made it look out of context amidst the white snow and ice and exposed gray rock of the mountains. We in fact were right at the base of the ice and rock face of the Schreckhorn, which climbed from the place where we were some three kilometers, nearly straight up to its jagged peak. I felt a discomforting sense of vertigo trying to look up at the top of the peak, as if I was about to fall backwards.
We all scattered at this point to make our individual or small group approaches to different parts of the edge of the glacier’s tongue. We all touched it, to confirm that it was real and not some massive optical illusion. We spent more than an hour there, sharing a collective sense of privilege and grace to be in the presence of one of the true natural wonders of our big, beautiful, geographically diverse planet, a planet whose stewardship we would be inheriting from our parents’ generation and hopefully do justice to.
Standing alone in a little nook of blue ice at the base of the thing, pondering that stewardship and other metaphysical thoughts, I heard the crunch of boots approach me and felt an ungloved hand slide between my left arm and my rib cage, squeaking on the slick nylon of my down jacket and finally grasping my upper arm, another hand completing the grasp. I started, but only the briefest bit, quickly relaxing into the embrace of the two ungloved hands on my arm. It was Monika, and it was the first time she had touched me and the closest I had been to her since we had met what seemed like ages ago yesterday. Her blue blue eyes examined mine as she spoke softly with her lovely low voice.
“Cooper.” I had not heard her say my name before, and I liked that she had said it, and that she knew who I was.
“Hi Monika!” I tried my best to say it with a cheerful lightness to convey that her approaching me was not something unexpected, was certainly welcome, but no big deal, even though indeed I felt like it was a big deal.
“Ragna said you were nice,” Monika adding just the slightest pause after the word before continuing, “… to teach her a new card game.”
“Russian Bank,” I confirmed, “I’m glad she likes it!” My mind quickly pondered whether Monika meant that Ragna said I was nice generally, or just nice to teach her the game, and whether Monika thought I was nice too.
Monika continued with what she wanted to say, “Ragna says you are a feminist. You learned from your mother. A man and a feminist. I admire that. I am a feminist too. My mother taught me that way. She taught me to always be who I am and not let men stop me.” I recalled the story Ragna had told me of Monika’s mom, the artist, actor and writer of some notoriety, dying of breast cancer when Monika was just a kid.
“I’m sorry you lost your mother! She sounded like an incredible person,” I replied.
“Thank you. Yes.” Monika nodded, grew quiet, looked out at the glacier, and scrunched her face in obvious thought for a long moment, still grasping my arm. Her face finally relaxed again, signalling she was returning to the moment. I was tempted to tell her more about my own mom – her political activism and teaching me the same, her ingenuity to figure out how we could spend a summer in England on a tight budget – but then thought maybe now was not the time, it would be painful for Monika to hear.
The moment passed, she patted me on the back and said, flashing her big killer smile, “Maybe you’ll teach me to play Russian Bank too, better than Ragna, so I can beat her!” She let loose her laugh, from her belly, patted me on the back again a bit harder this time, turned, and her boots crunched away.
At that moment I was a huge bundle of conflicting thoughts and emotions as I stared out at the mass of blue ice in front of me, now alone again in my own little nook along the glacier’s face. If I could somehow have my heart’s and my libido’s desire, would it be Monika or Ragna lying naked beside me? Given my budding feminism, which Monika said she so admired, how would I pursue either of them and not shatter that admiration, and instead be just another typical self absorbed guy trying a clever new line about being a male feminist to get in their pants?
I wrestled with my ever present shyness, more than shyness, timidity really, in these matters of sharing with a woman my romantic feelings for her. Yes I was fucking timid, that was the more accurate word. To be shy was cute maybe, workable, but to be timid felt like a fundamental impairment. But then I had conquered so much fear, yes so much timidity, continuing my odyssey through Europe even when Angie decided to part company with me seven weeks ago and go back home. I had not given in, and someday when I was ready, I would not retreat from telling a woman how I felt about her. It probably wasn’t going to happen in Grindelwald, or Europe even, but it was going to happen before too too long!
With dinnertime approaching and a bit of a hike back into town and then back up the hill to the hostel, our group departed the Oberer Glacier and the base of the Schreckhorn. Single file again down through the woods, Monika in the lead once more, joyously, at least it seemed to me, prancing down the descending path, demonstrating all her athleticism deftly negotiating every bit of rocks or slippery ice, and her rear end quivering sensuously with every footfall. She was indeed a sex goddess to all us “guys”, but was obviously much more than that, a leader, a force to be reckoned with. If Ragna thought she was going to rein in her younger almost sibling, Ragna was doomed to failure!
As the two of them lead us down the winding path toward the village in this beautiful winter wonderland, surrounded by my peers from various parts of our gorgeous planet, enjoying watching Ragna do her best to keep up with Monika’s athletic pace, I felt a sense of joy and being part of a larger community, a thing larger and more compelling than myself. I had feelings for both of those young women that were taking their turn leading us (as I had taken my turn to lead us in song the previous evening at the tavern) and had now had the privilege of moments of nonsexual intimacy with both – a moment with Monika at the glacier, and a morning with Ragna “teaching her” a card game, satisfying her cerebral “lust” as it were. Watching them play out the latest scene from their sibling rivalry drama, my mind’s jukebox brought forward the song that I had not sung since that long lonely day I had spent in Luxembourg and Belgium, looking for an open youth hostel never to be found, the Cowsills, “The Rain, the Park and Other Things”…
I love the flower girl
Oh, I don’t know just why
She simply caught my eye
I love the flower girl
Meant everything to me
Yeah a puppy in love perhaps, not ready to transform it, like Monika and Michael had, into adult dog love all hot and sexual, but certainly with feelings as intense if not more so.
Walking up the hill from the village, Michael and I ended up walking next to each other, quite the pair, both of us with our teased up hair, his an “afro” and my white guy version generally called a “natural”. There was an awkward failure to say anything for a moment, but he made the effort to overcome that, asking me how long I had been traveling in Europe. I told him that it had been eight weeks but it seemed like forever, and that though I loved it here I was really looking forward to getting home to Ann Arbor. He laughed and said, “Evil Ann Arbor!”, and then explained that he was planning to go to Ohio State in Columbus, my hometown University of Michigan’s arch sports rival. I laughed too, and shared with Michael that I thought it was really ridiculous how seriously some of my peers and older adults in Ann Arbor took the rivalry. So much so that I would see a fairly common bumper sticker on cars that read, “Oh how I hate Ohio State”. Perhaps presuming his own radicalism based on his big Jimi Hendrix hair, I shared with him that my radical “Feminist Aunt” Mary Jane would call it out as the inherent competitiveness of the male patriarchal pecking order.
He was quiet a moment, don’t know if he really agreed with that assessment, but he finally said that that was interesting but he had never thought of things that way. I decided that I did not want to start haranguing him with feminist polemics, not appropriate for this get to know you conversation. As we continued to talk he actually seemed more professionally focused than political, off to school to train to be a medical doctor like his mom and dad, but perhaps somewhat ambivalent about it. He asked me about my aspirations and mine came out less focused, all about theater and maybe a career in film or television.
That evening after dinner we all went down the hill again to the tavern, some of us in kid mode sliding down on the hostel’s cafeteria trays howling and yelling, others at a more leisurely adult pace on foot, talking instead about our day, or our lives, like grownups. Monika and Michael had a rematch of their “bumper trays”, but she got the better of him again, though of course, to lose to Monika was to win. Peter, who seemed transformed since the previous morning when he was such a grinch pronouncing on Monika’s slutiness, trayed down the hill with the two British guys, shouting and laughing, now apparently his new best friends. Matt and i walked down with Ragna and we talked about our trek to the glacier, along with discussing Nixon and American politics.
Down at the tavern our cohort sat at the long tables again, though this time Monika cozied up next to Michael and Ragna was across from me, going a little farther an this night than nursing just one mug of beer. Again the cheap beer flowed until 7pm, and the singing commenced, first the old guys at the bar again singing a German folk song, this time “Du, Du Liegst Mir im Herzen”, which I actually knew, and sang along to their great surprise and pleasure, my mom having taught me the tune and lyrics to the first two verses…
Du, du liegst mir im Herzen
du, du liegst mir im Sinn
Du, du machst mir viel Schmerzen
weißt nicht wie gut ich dir bin
Du, du, du, du, weißt nicht wie gut ich dir bin
So, so wie ich dich liebe
so, so liebe auch mich
Die, die zärtlichsten Triebe
fühl’ ich allein nur für dich
Ja, ja, ja, ja, fühl’ ich allein nur für dich
When the song ended Ragna clapped in my direction and said something to me in German thinking I actually knew the language. I shook my head in incomprehension and laughed and said my mom knew German, not me, and she had taught me the words to the song, but if she had told me what they meant in English, i’d forgotten. Ragna had me recite each line to her in German, sometimes several times in repetition given the noisy cohort around us and my sloppy German diction, listening intensely with those dark gray eyes of hers, finally understanding and repeating each line back at me with her Queen’s English accent…
You are in my heart
You are in my mind
You cause me much pain
You don’t know how good I am for you
So as I love you
So love me too
The most tender desires
I alone feel only for you
It didn’t occur to me until a couple minutes later when the moment had passed and Ragna was in an animated conversation with someone else that she might have been flirting and even hitting on me in her own sort of indirect way. Or was I just making stuff up with my mind.
Peter and the two British guys came over to me and said they had another song for us to sing in response, again the Beatles, this time
“All You Need is Love”. The four of us started out with the opening chorus…
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Love, love, love
Most people in our group figured out what we were singing by the second stanza and started to join in. We got to the first verse and the four of us looked at each other and belted it out for the world to hear, with others in our group doing their best to join in if they knew the words…
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung
Nothing you can say but you can learn how the play the game
Yes everything was doable, “Ain’t no mountain high enough”, as Diana Ross had sung, we could develop the agency to change the world. Just about everyone of us joined in for the chorus, the congealed essence of the whole hippie ethos…
All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need
The four of us again belting out the next verse, drunken glances and smiles between us as we crooned the words to reaffirm the underlying principles to each other…
There’s nothing you can make that can’t me made
No one you can save that can’t be saved
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time
A reminder that the revolution began inside each of us, in overcoming the strictures of conventional society and learning to be and express our unique selves.
For the last verse we all thought to raise our beer mugs and pronounce…
There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known
Nothing you can see that isn’t shown
Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be
That second to last line had the four of us clinking glasses soon followed by everyone else from our cohort. Perhaps a sense of collective destiny that had brought us to this special place, from which we would scatter and try to change the world. And then one final time with the chorus, all our mugs raised in the air.
It all felt like some sort of culmination, here with such good company, our comrades, our fellow travelers, in one of the most beautiful places in Europe if not the entire world. Many of us in our cohort had been on the road shouldering our backpacks for some time, me for eight long and memorable weeks, others for longer than that. I can imagine that some great adventures feel like they are over in a flash, all the sequential days compressing into one timeless gestalt in one’s mind. But not for me. I felt the wear and tear of a long haul on my soul, even though I was feeling a great sense of accomplishment and connection with my fellow travelers – Monika, Ragna, Matt, Michael, Peter, Beth and the others – here in the reality of mythic Grindelwald. I felt the sum total of each day’s loneliness, grind, apprehensions, uncertainties weighing on me, even though it had led me to this point in a sort of backpacker paradise. The lyric I had thought up sitting in the Rome station waiting for the train to Florence again played on my mind’s jukebox…
I want to see those faces glad
I want to see my mom and dad
To feel accomplishment and then
The mellowness of home
Yeah I was a wanderer at heart, and someday in the not too distant future I would most likely wander away from home and not come back, other than for the occasional visit. But for now I still needed those glad faces of family and that “mellowness”, that friendly familiarity, of my Ann Arbor to sustain me. My parents had been wanderers and explorers, exploring new places geographically and intellectually in their youths, settling, perhaps uneasily, in Ann Arbor to have a family. But in the most profound product of their domestication, their progeny, my brother and I, they had offloaded and perpetuated that wanderlust. For my dad it was those day trips he’d take on Saturday or Sunday with my brother and I in tow, with no specific destination, just driving off in one compass direction or another, reinforcing the implicit message that life was at its best an adventure. For my mom it was more the developmental exploration of art, community organizing, politics, and feminism – philosophical rather than geographical wandering. Perhaps if I somehow made the decision to stay in Europe and not come home, my parents would feel sadness and miss me, but they would honor and even resonate at some basic level with that decision, since those were the kind of decisions they made as young adults.