Our evening at the tavern had been more low key last night. There were no less pitchers of beer, but the old German guys had not been there on the bar stools to sing their song and inspire us to sing ours in response, replaced by trendier tourist couples. I had talked more with Schuman and others about music, and with Beth about the details of her own European odyssey, which in ways paralleled my own. She had lost her own travel partner Christine, who while they were traveling in Spain had decided to return to Australia, Beth deciding to continue on, a challenging venture for a young woman alone.
It felt cold in the bunkroom, in fact a lot colder than previous mornings, and I stayed in my sleeping bag as long as I could, keeping an eye on the clock on the wall so I would not miss my precious breakfast of granola and yogurt, breakfast ending promptly, oh so promptly, at nine. I knew I’d be leaving the hostel and Grindelwald this morning, such a sad thought, and getting up would mean fully facing that sadness, along with the cold. I made a tactical decision not to take a shower this morning, since I had had three straight mornings previous with a long hot shower getting all nice and squeaky clean. When I finally opened up my toasty down sleeping bag, and exposed myself to the chill, I scrambled quickly to put on my clothes, including my thermal undershirt. I was the last one out of the bunkroom. Cold or no cold, endings or endless, life had to go on!
Peter, Malc and Dred were in the common room sitting on the raised hearth of the fireplace with their backs to a roaring fire. Peter saw me and shouted out, “It’s frigging cold in here this morning!”
Playfully upping the ante, Malc sitting next to Peter, feigning a shiver and rolling his eyes in his best mock look of high anxiety, shouted out, “It’s fucking freezing in here!” Dred chuckled, always playing off Malc, often with the opposite reaction, and gave just a deadpan “Indeed!”
Beth was sitting across from Michael in the dining room, with Matt by Michael’s side. They were all grasping big mugs with both hands of what I guessed was hot coffee. I thought about those various adult types who had told me that they started drinking coffee when they went off to college. Well I had gone off to college for a year and had not drunk a drop of the stuff. I was actually sort of proud of not drinking any of that “adult” beverage, idolized in its way by the older generation, their little pick me up to get through another day in the dysfunctional world they had created. But this morning in the chill air it looked and smelled good. I got my yogurt and granola, plus a mug of my own and filled it with the hot dark brown fragrant liquid from the big percolator, adding lots of sugar and fresh cream.
The obvious spot to sit was across from Matt next to Beth, which I did, though my shyness might previously have had me sitting on the other side of the table instead. I did leave a couple inches of space between my arm and hers, but once I sat she kind of theatrically shivered and snuggled up against me, consistent with the running theme this morning that it was fucking cold in the hostel.
As had struck me last night, Beth was becoming our new Monika, and Michael, Matt and I had found our close orbits around her. From the more temperate Australia, she was no polar bear like the tall striking Swede, and her average sized breasts looked sheathed in some sort of a bra under what looked like a thick flannel shirt covering a thermal long sleeve t-shirt. Though I had managed to relieve some of my libido in the shower stall last night, it was sure going again and insisting that I notice these sort of things.
And unlike Monika, she was somehow much more approachable. Monika had the physical stature, movie star looks and body, charisma, that made her intimidating. Though I had never found her full of herself or stuck up in any way, she exuded an obvious alpha female confidence and comfort in her own skin. Beth was relatively more diminutive, maybe five foot eight, definitely good looking, long thick curly brown hair coming down to her wide shoulders, slender and with a nice body, but not head turning striking or charismatic like Monika.
What was most endearing about her, in my opinion, was her attitude, both tough and friendly. Yeah she was a fighter, but you felt like she would fight for others she cared about too. Not so much an obvious alpha like Monika, but always a contender, always a determined wannabe. If she and Monika had had some sort of brief thing yesterday, either in a shower stall the previous night, or up in the glacier caves under the Sphinx observatory yesterday, I get why Monika was taken with her.
I think it was particularly true of people like Beth and I, backpackers traveling alone, that you learned to quickly assess the people you met, judge their character, and connect deeply with those that you felt safe and comfortable with. Everything and everyone was so transient, in a few days you would be off in your own direction and your new buddy in theirs, probably never to meet again. But with that human need always for connection and community, at a minimum for someone each day to have more than a cursory conversation with, a conversation without a language barrier, people you met just a couple days ago could feel like old friends.
So you could imagine I was more than pleased when Beth announced that she was taking the midday train down to Interlaken, the same train I was planning to be on. She of course was headed southeast from there to Venice, chasing Monika perhaps. I was “chasing home”, headed west to Bern and then from there catching the train north to Munich, the first leg of my long journey back to Ann Arbor. She seemed satisfied as well that we’d be sharing the train ride.
Beth actually looked worse for wear this morning, her eyes drooping as she sucked down a second mug of sugary coffee, saying she had not slept well last night, a lot on her mind though she did not share what. Again I thought about Monika and what might have kindled between the two of them, now that I was getting this whole education about sexual feelings that might venture beyond the constraints of heterosexuality.
Aware that both Beth and I were leaving this morning, leaving our little shared snowy paradise, Malc, Dred, Peter, Matt and Michael decided to walk down to the station with us. They had all decided to fork out the 60 Swiss Francs to take the cog railway up to the Jungfraujoch, based on the rave reviews from Beth, Monika and Ragna yesterday. The day was becoming only partly cloudy, so the views from the various venues along their journey ought to be pretty spectacular. I wistfully rolled up and secured my sleeping bag to the bottom of my pack frame and repacked the few stray items into their various compartments within my pack.
Convening back in the common room, Beth and I were now the ones with the big colorful packs on our backs, mine a bright red Kelty model and hers a shiny lavender. Schuman was nowhere to be seen, someone saying he had left on the train this morning, and I was disappointed I hadn’t gotten to say goodbye, particularly after connecting with him down at the tavern last night in our big discussion about music. So Beth and I, and the five members of our entourage exit the very chilly hostel into a bitter cold, Monika even zipping up her jacket, morning.
As our new Monika, Beth led the way, though not by anybody’s conscious decision, but by a sort of gravitational affect, the rest of us forming around and behind her as we headed down the snowy road to the village and the station. She looked a bit of the bedraggled zombie as she trudged down the hill with her slightly puffy eyes, though riding for the moment a serious caffeine and sugar buzz, from three big mugs of coffee.
Employing the technique to spur conversation again, I asked Malc and Dred about deciding to head east from Grindelwald with Peter, Paul and Michael to Vienna. They said they were both big theater types, having done musical comedy, like me, in high school. Besides a fondness for the contemporary glam rock music, they had a thing for opera, and were looking forward to hopefully taking in a couple operas there. This of course led to Malc, Dred and I sharing parts we had played in various musicals, and even singing bits from the favorite songs we had performed in character. For me, it was a rendition of the beginning of “Bored”, from the musical Celebration, as sung by my character Mr. Rich…
If you could see the inside of my stomach
I think it might just take your breath away
But no matter how I diet
It simply won’t stay quiet
It’s like some sort of riot
Or like a fiery blast on judgement day
My blood pressure
You ask me about my blood pressure
My cardiograph reads like some comic opera plot
I cannot sleep
I cannot eat
And none of those stupid goddamn doctors
Has the slightest idea what I’ve got
Finally at the station, Beth and I unshouldered our big heavy packs and said our separate goodbyes to the five of them. Peter, Matt and Michael giving me more conventional male to male hardy handshakes, though Michael made a little humorous show of wagging a finger in my face and saying that he “owed me one” for the facefull of snow I had given him, Monika style, yesterday in our Bull Rush game in the snowy gully. Malc, riffing on our theater connection perhaps, opened his arms wide to give me a big hug. He put his stubbly cheek against mine and said softly in my ear, “Be well mate! Keep singing!” The two of them endlessly playing off each other, Dred gave me a very mock formal salute and a handshake, then he grabbed my chin between a thumb and forefinger, finally smacking me gently on the cheek with that hand. Beth got hugs from everyone.
As Beth and I boarded the train, I felt a moment in time ending, with its particular dynamic and web of connections, never to be again. I recalled all the moments of different sorts of intimacy I had had with my group of comrades. Playing cards with Ragna, sharing the luck of the draw or the tactics of a particular card play, with a sign or a grimace or catching of the other’s gaze. Monika taking my arm at the base of the glacier to tell me she admired my feminism, plus our final hug with her breasts and hair and scent and words about my mom, obviously referencing the loss of her own. Peter and I drunk and boisterously singing “Yellow Submarine” together, eyes on each other. Matt’s quiet thoughtfulness. That moment playfully on top of Michael in the snow, roughhousing, the only socially acceptable way for men to get physical with each other. Malc and Dred’s theatrical goodbyes at the station.
At least I had Beth as a buffer for the next hour on our train down to Interlaken, so I wouldn’t be completely alone. She in the lead down the narrow coach car hallway, quickly finding an empty compartment and we entered, unshouldering our packs in preparation to hoist them into the luggage racks above the seats. There was a physicality you developed carrying a big pack like that, and watching a good looking young woman I was attracted to demonstrating that physicality right next to me was a moment of intimacy that thrilled my libido.
In that moment I was tempted to ask her if she wanted me to hoist her big pack up onto the rack. I thought about my mom last summer when I opened a door for her entering a restaurant, her saying, “Are you doing that to be thoughtful or are you patronizing me?”. I was a bit taken aback by her provocative query, coming out presumably from her own budding feminist reframing of social conventions. I said nothing, and pondered for a while after that, wrestling with what my truthful answer would have been. It had led me to really look at all these social conventions between men and women, and which ones might really be appropriate or not if we believed in a true equal partnership between the sexes.
I was experimenting with a rule of thumb that I wouldn’t do something for a woman, like open a door, if I wouldn’t do the same for a man of similar age and ability and in a similar circumstance. As a somewhat conflicting corollary, I would do something for a man if I would do it for a woman. So if I got to a door first before a man, I would open it and let him go through first before going through myself. And if a woman got to a door before me, I would let her open it, rather than quickly move in front of her to open it for her, something I would never do with a man.
I hoisted my own fifty pound pack up onto the luggage rack and did nothing further. Beth, exhibiting her low energy with a sigh, picked up her big pack, hoisting it to shoulder level then pausing to take a breath called out to me, “Help me mate!” Together we maneuvered it up on the rack next to mine. She slumped into the bench under the luggage rack and said “ta”, that great British slang utterance for thank you. She smacked the leather cushion next to her inviting me to sit, which I did. Sighing again, she said, “Wow… I’m knackered mate! All that coffee this morning should have kept me going.” She shook her head to try to release the grip of enveloping fatigue.
We sat quietly next to each other as the train lurched forward and gathered speed, falling into its wonderful slightly jostling clickity clack rhythm as it did. Beth’s shoulder gently bumped against mine with each rhythmic shake, but she made no effort to inch farther away from me so it wouldn’t keep happening. There was a nice sort of intimacy in our shared silence in such close physical proximity to each other in an otherwise empty compartment. I wrestled with whether to just let it be or to try to start a conversation.
She finally broke the silence, asking me to tell her again where I was heading once we parted company in Interlaken. I told her that I would take the train to Bern and catch another train from there to Munich, where hopefully a German couple I knew would be able to put me up for a night or two before I continued on to Amsterdam. She said that she had had a great time in Amsterdam, and suggested that I take the tour of the Heineken brewery, for free beer at the end if nothing else. She also recommended the Christian youth hostel as the best place to stay, noting that despite the name it was a pretty cool place and not religious at all.
I asked her about her itinerary. She said that since winter was here she was headed south to Greece, to see Athens and all the ancient ruins, then head out to the Greek islands in the Aegean. From there work her way along the Mediterranean coast to Istanbul and her flight back to Australia. She had been traveling through Europe for almost three months, a month longer than I had, and had been doing so on her own since her original travel partner Christine had decided she couldn’t continue the trip and had to fly home. Beth didn’t provide any more details of why Christine went home at that point, but did share with me that she had wrestled with aborting the rest of the trip and going home with Christine but decided instead to carry on, “get my money’s worth”.
I shared with her my similar experience, flying to Europe with my friend Angie but then parting company in London after our first week on the road, because she had had a change of heart. Beth asked me if Angie was my girlfriend and I told her she was just a “really good friend”, though I confessed that I had hoped our journey together might lead to a more romantic relationship.
At that Beth gave a big sigh and a plaintive sort of ironic chuckle. She strained to open her heavy eyelids and look at me. She said, “You seem like a really sweet bloke that I can be honest with!”
I felt trepidation, but this was the kind of intimacy I craved, and I nodded vigorously in affirmation and said “of course”, she doing her best to look through my eyes to see into my soul for more confirmation that it was okay to proceed.
Finding that confirmation, or deciding to proceed anyway without it, she started to relate the story of her and Christine, looking mostly straight ahead as she did while only occasionally hazarding a quick look in my direction. As Beth related it to me, she and Christine had been best friends since as far back as she could remember, Christine living next door in Cairns where they both were born and grew up. They had been inseparable, always in complicated imagination and fantasy play together. They often slept over at the others house, dressing each other in the morning and taking baths and showers together, until their parents actively discouraged this. As teens they had continued as close friends but had gotten into the whole dating scene with guys, Christine having several serious boyfriends, though not so much Beth. Whenever Christine would tell her about having sex with her latest boyfriend, Beth would get “insanely jealous”, but eventually learning to shelve her feelings as inappropriate.
Beth and Christine had developed a longstanding plan to travel through Europe after they graduated highschool and had indeed followed through with that plan, flying to London together this past August. Alone together traveling, their relationship had become more intense and intimate. When they finally got to Spain where their budget could afford sharing a private hotel room together, rather than just beds in a hostel bunkroom, they started experimenting with sharing a bathtub again and experimenting sexually.
I could see her increasing trepidation as she shared her narrative, so to be supportive, I shared my own story of my travel partner Steve asking to get in bed with me in the hotel room in Granada, and that though I eventually said no, I had entertained the idea of letting him before finally balking. I confessed to her that I was still a virgin and I wanted my first time to be with a woman and not another guy. I also shared with her that I had played around naked with other boys when I was nine.
The relief she felt hearing my story was palpable, her whole body relaxed and she started to laugh, a real belly laugh that reminded me of Monika. Then she immediately apologized profusely for doing so, saying she wasn’t laughing at what I had told her, but at all the fear she had had that I would judge her badly, and not want to have anything to do with her. Understanding the context of her laughter, it felt liberating to share all that with her, each of us accepting each other’s story without judgement.
More at peace now and kind of snuggled up next to me on the bench seat of our otherwise empty compartment, she finished her own story. After the sexual experimentation in the bathtub they finally came home one night from drinking at a bar and started kissing each other, leading to some “serious sex” in bed together until they finally both passed out naked in each other’s arms. When Beth woke up in the morning, Christine had loaded all her stuff in her pack, was all dressed and sitting in a chair by the door across the room. Beth asked her what was going on and Christine said she was not comfortable with what had happened last night and she wanted to get a flight home as soon as possible and get a separate room to sleep in in the meantime. Beth managed to talk her down from the separate rooms, the two agreeing to take separate baths and showers and not to touch each other in bed. But Beth couldn’t convince her to continue their odyssey together, and Christine got a flight home from Barcelona and they parted company there. Beth wrote her several letters and finally got a letter back saying that Christine still wanted to be friends with her, and looked forward to her return to Cairns, but did not want their relationship to go beyond friendship.
Feeling now the need to let it all go, Beth said that back two nights ago at the tavern in Grindelwald, after drinking a lot of beer, she said that she and Monika had happened to encounter each other in the bathroom, had “a moment” and kissed. Following up on that first encounter, Beth had surreptitiously followed Monika into the hostel women’s bathroom in the middle of the night and Monika had invited her to take a shower with her. The two had gotten naked together in the shower stall only to be interrupted by someone else coming into the bathroom, who they at first thought was Ragna, causing both of them to freak out. They finally figured out it was not Ragna, but Monika had gotten flustered (I noted to myself that I could not imagine Monika ever getting flustered) and decided it was unwise to continue. The two of them had had another “moment” and kiss in the ice caverns at the Jungfraujoch. What I had witnessed between the three of them after their return to the hostel yesterday, Ragna’s displeasure and Monika’s provocative hand on Beth’s thigh, now made total sense.
Unburdened now, she sat quietly next to me and I didn’t know what else to say after all that, other than to just enjoy our physical closeness after sharing our dark secrets, and enjoy the train’s pleasant rhythmic shaking and rattling. So much so that soon she was asleep and snoring and her head slowly fell onto my shoulder and without waking, she moved to get more comfortable sleeping against me, including putting her hand on my thigh just below my crotch, something intensely pleasant that I had never experienced before. Her big mane of hair against my face smelled like strawberry scented shampoo. At one of our stops before Interlaken, with Beth still asleep against me, two forty-something couples came into the compartment and seeing us cuddling saying “Scusi”, and other words in Italian that I did not understand, but probably having to do with this being the only compartment in the coach with four open seats. As they settled into the remaining seats around us they smiled at us like we were such a cute young couple. Beth roused a moment from pleasant unconsciousness, barely opened her eyes and looking at them and said “Ciao” and closed her eyes again, still nestled against me.
That hour train ride with Beth, sleeping next to me most of the way, until our train pulled into the station in Interlaken, was probably the most pleasant of my entire trip. But the train finally halted, the Italian couples exited, wishing us well. Beth and I shouldered our packs like troopers and made our way off the train to the platform. We looked at the departure board and my train to Bern was due in in thirty minutes. Hers to Venice not for a couple hours.
We were both hungry but were both well trained not to buy the super expensive food in the train stations. We scavenged our packs and found various squirreled away remnants of food, crackers and cookies, a candy bar, that we shared sitting in the terminal. I told her about the train ride from here to Venice, and particularly about the long tunnel under the southern Alps. I explained to her about how to get from the Venice train station to the boat “bus” that would take her out in the lagoon to the youth hostel. I didn’t mention Monika and Ragna probably being there and Beth did not volunteer her plans, if any, regarding Monika.
My train came in and we both stood and faced each other. We hugged, she kissed me on the cheek and thanked me for being such a good listener. I couldn’t think what to do any different in response, so I followed suit, kissing her warm cheek, but struggled with what to say to her in response. What came out of me in the moment was to thank her for a wonderful moment together. She nodded with still sleepy eyes. We shouldered our big colorful packs and headed off in opposite directions, pretty much knowing we would never see each other again, but pretending otherwise.