I slid open the door awkwardly and it banged loudly, causing all of the family members to start and look at me. Assuming they were German or would at least understand the language, I said “Guten abend” (good evening), trying to be as polite as possible as I had crashed their little world, currently encompassing every bit of the compartment and the overhead racks. As I entered with my big pack on my back the teen said “Ach Nein” derisively, and both his parents shushed him sharply with German words I did not understand. His younger sisters were on the bench across from him and his parents, playing on the empty seat between them with Barbie dolls and some pink to scale plastic car that the two dolls could sit in. Incongruous to the cold compartment, the two dolls were adorned in sunglasses and skimpy bikinis that barely covered their big, relatively speaking, plastic breasts. (Yeah my libido even noticed details like that!) The teen barked out something at them in German, echoing the tone his parents had used with him. The girls frowned at him and kept playing, apparently not about to take orders from their brother. Then the mom said something to them in a more modulated tone and the two girls squirmed and pouted. Finally the dad said something sharply that sounded akin to “obey your mother”. Finally the younger of the two, sitting farthest from the outside window, grabbed the car with its seated Barbie’s and took it on her lap. The older one sidled over next to her theatrically demonstrating what to me looked like all manner of passive aggressive submission.
Given the whole family dynamic I had just witnessed, I was tempted to turn around and try my luck in another compartment. But since they had made the effort to clear me at least a seat, I felt it would be rude on my part not to accept and sit down. With them all pretty much still watching me, I unshouldered my pack as gingerly as I could to ensure that it did not come close to hitting any of them, a scenario I did not even want to imagine. The mom and dad were nervously scanning the full luggage racks, loaded with all their stuff, presumably to see where and how I might stash my pack. I sat down in the now free seat across from them by the window and rested my pack against the window just in front of me. The dad stood up and with hand gestures indicated that he would try to find room somehow for my pack in one of the racks. I shook my head and said “Danke Schon, es gut” and was glad to see him finally relax back into his seat.
As the train rolled across the Bavarian countryside the snow was falling outside and the windy cold caused condensation on the inside of the compartment window to freeze in spots. I kept my down jacket on but unzipped to get just that right balance of warmth and airflow so I was neither too hot nor too cold. Though I felt lonely, doubly so amongst this family in my compartment with their difficult family dynamic, I could not board a train and look out the window at the world going by, particularly at night with the snow on the ground and even falling, without feeling that primal excitement of adventure.
My body now still my mind started to do its own traveling, and I thought about Angelica and Helmet, and how I would like to have a woman in my life like Angelica. She was sweet and caring and had that great childlike energy while at the same time being determined and mature. It was that combination that made me so attracted to her, both platonically and erotically. My close friend Angie, who I had begun my european odyssey with, and her best friend and my close friend Lane, who had conceived the backpack through Europe plan originally with Angie that I joined in on, were both like younger versions of Angelica, with that same sort of energy. But Angelica being seven years older than the three of us seemed much more comfortable in her skin than Angie, Lane, or certainly me. I craved that level of self comfort myself, and thus a romantic relationship with someone mature like Angelica. Someone who understood and would be forthright about her needs, so I could then navigate to meet those needs and be her partner. That rather than the young women more my age who generally were struggling like I was to figure out who the hell they were and what they wanted.
I pondered what were my needs in a relationship and had the sudden thought that what I craved was intimacy, honesty, and total acceptance of each other. I wanted the two of us to be able to stand naked in front of each other, metaphorically if not physically as well, “let it all hang out” as the hippie slogan went, and acknowledge the other and all their quirks and uniqueness without judgement. Not that it was readily achievable, but I still longed for this sort of connection with all my closest comrades, whether they were male or female, whether the relationship was romantic or just friends. There was a tenderness that I expressed towards my closest friends, female or male, and drew out from them in return, that I think was more conventionally part of erotic relationships than platonic ones. Even with my closest male friends back home – Jerry, Avi and Clark – we shared that intimacy, acceptance and tenderness toward each other, and there was none of that standard male competitiveness and sparring. If they tried any of that with me I simply surrendered and would not fight back or play along.
Thinking about all this looking out the window at the snowy world, as the train rumbled along, sharing it’s own intimate rhythmic shakes and rattles below me, it occurred to me that that may have been why Steve had propositioned me in our hotel room in Granada. I had been sending signals to him conventionally interpreted as sexual. I was always tender with him and I always would surrender rather than spar, except in the most gentle playful war – sparring that would have signaled more obviously that I was heterosexual and not gay. It also explained why I almost said yes to his proposition, since it would have been a very intimate shared experience, and why I was not uncomfortable continuing to travel with him after that night in Granada and even okay sleeping in the same bed with him in Walter’s hotel room, or sleeping next to him, both of us squeezed into my narrow tube tent on that rainy night outside Bar-sur-Aube.
I thought about Angie and Lane, and when I got back to Ann Arbor which one of them to perhaps try to pursue a romantic relationship with. It was complicated by the fact that they were best friends and I was attracted to both of them. To pursue one felt like I was saying that my feelings for the other were not as great, which would not be true. At some level I had hoped that having Angie alone without Lane for three months might have created a space for kindling a romantic relationship between us. It might have taken shy me that long, even spending every day traveling together, to get comfortable with having that sort of relationship with her. But it didn’t play out that way, and when she decided to bail on our joint journey and return to the States, it became my own personal odyssey, a very different sort of thing.
As I had hoped, the German family in my compartment got off the train at Ulm. No new passengers entered, so I had it to myself as the train pulled out of the station and continued on its way through the cold snowy night, the wind now strong enough to noticeably buffet the train with its stronger gusts, more ice building up on the inside of the window.
I felt a chill run through my body along with a wave of sadness, and I suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, felt totally alone in a big strange world. Just a moment ago I had been sitting, nestled in my now so familiar orange down jacket in the midst of that family with their discomforting dynamic, cozily looking out the window at the cold snowy night, having insights into the meta of how I made relationships with others, and thinking about the possibility of forging a new romantic relationship with one of my friends back home. Now I felt like I had been away from home far too long and life was going on there and somehow passing me by. That sense of impending oblivion, that had overcome me in the tunnel under the Alps, had returned, with no burst out of the darkness ahead to jar me out of that troubling head space.
At the next big stop in Stuttgart, my near empty compartment attracted two passengers who had just boarded the train They stumbled in, laughing at their clumsiness and seeming obviously inebriated. It was a fifty-something white guy, paunchy and balding, dressed under his wool coat in a very wrinkled worse for wear black suit with the collar of his white dress shirt unbuttoned. With him was a forty-something black guy, wearing a navy pea coat and cotton drawstring pants, a long gaunt face bristling with whiskers and looking a bit rumpled, like he had spent the previous night sleeping in a train station. Though tipsy himself, he seemed a lot more together than his older comrade, and shepherded him into the compartment and down on the bench opposite me.
The black guy looked at me with dark twinkling knowing eyes, that felt uncomfortably like they could look into the depths of my soul. He said with an obvious Caribbean accent, guessing correctly I spoke English, “My new friend shared his bottle of schnapps with me and I think he’s had a bit too much!”
Caught by surprise by their theatrical entrance, breaking the spell of my heightened aloneness, shy me didn’t know quite what to say and I just smiled in my own friendly, knowing, tender way. He furrowed his brow as he studied my completely non verbal response, but then softened as he got whatever assurances in my look, or from somewhere deeper inside me. He spoke to me in his sonorous well modulated voice, “My friend”, referring to me now, “You look like you have been on a long long journey!”
This seemed to confirm that he was able to see into me, and so many feelings welled up that I choked up a little and still could not push words out of my mouth, and that fact made me feel like I was being overwhelmed by some incomprehensible abyss. The best I could respond was a nod.
He continued to look into me way too deeply for my comfort, processing the fact that I was somehow struggling to respond. “Where is home?” he asked, that last word resonated its long “o” sound in his mouth, and with all that word’s lifetime of connotations.
I was desperate to undo whatever metaphysical gag had silencing me and managed to barely push out only “the States”. He nodded. Then a bit more… “Ann Arbor Michigan.”
He nodded, smiled and tried to repeat my words. “America… Michigan… Ann Harbor.” He said my state with a “ch” sound rather than the “sh”, and “Harbor” instead of “Arbor”.
Regaining a bit of my composure I corrected him and explained that my hometown was named after two women named Ann who settled the town with their husbands and were into planting trees, thus their “Arbor”. He asked me how long I had been away from home and I said ten weeks. I told him I would be returning in another ten days and that I was anxious to get home. He smiled and nodded like he already had figured that out.
In a sing songy voice, I figured due to the alcohol, he said his name was Hugo and he was a traveler too. He was originally from the Dutch West Indies but now lived in the Netherlands and traveled around Europe for his work. He was headed home too, but would be there nine days earlier than I would. As he shared with me the details of his story, he kept putting up a finger and excusing himself to speak German to his friend, Max, who was sitting next to him slumped against the window, barely conscious. He told me they had met a couple hours earlier in the Stuttgart train station waiting for the train, and that Max had kind enough to share a bottle of schnapps with him, so Hugo wanted to make sure he did not ignore him.
Still sounding a bit tipsy, Hugo waxed effusively about how good people were, using his German friend as an example. He told me that he had had just one bad experience as a kid, in a bar in Texas, where two drunk white guys had lured him outside and beaten him up because they did not like the color of his skin. But since then he had met so many good people to change his mind. He said he knew I was a good person too, and it was his pleasure to make my acquaintance.
Max was now completely passed out and slumped against the compartment wall by the window, snoring with his mouth open and drool dribbling out. Hugo looked at me and chuckled, his eyes twinkling as he asked me to pardon his friend, who he said had had a very long day. He gently put two fingers under Max’s chin and pushed his mouth closed, then adjusted his head so he stopped snoring.
The train continued to rattle forward through the cold snowy night, buffeted by each big gust of wind. It was now close to midnight and a layer of ice had formed on the entire inside of the window, distorting the view outside to just occasional small patches of now unfocused light in otherwise darkness. Like those bits of light, I felt like our existences were all so tenuous, like we might have already passed over to some other realm. I was grateful that Hugo continued to talk about his life, and his drunken narrative and sonorous voice kept me anchored in some semblance of reality and even a degree of comfort.
He apologized for talking so much, and I chuckled and shook my head, because listening to his voice and story was soothing my tattered soul. I told him that from what he had told me that I thought he had had an interesting life, and that I hoped that mine was, or would be, a story worth telling as well. I told him about living with my mom and younger brother, about my beautiful tree filled town of Ann Arbor, that my mom and dad were divorced and my dad lived 200 miles south of us but came often to visit or take us down to spend weekends with him. I told him about my friend Angie and some of the highlights of my trip so far, and finally that I was looking forward to spending Christmas with my family – my mom, dad and brother at my aunt Pat’s house. I certainly had had a great journey these past ten weeks in Europe, but now, all I wanted to do was get home.
He nodded with a friendly smile on his face as he acknowledged my goal. He looked deep into me again and said, “I would like to take you home! I would like to take you at least to my home to spend the day with my girlfriend, her kids and me. Feel all the love we have for each other, and how you, as my friend, will feel that love as well. Then we will put you back on your train to Amsterdam.”
His offer caught me by surprise and actually made me uncomfortable. I had accepted such offers during my trip from other white Europeans, but even though he spoke beautiful English his skin was black. Based on his own rumpled clothing and his life’s experience I had presumed he wasn’t of, or hadn’t risen to, that professional and academic class of people that my parents had aspired to make us part of, and represented most of the people in my neighborhood back home or whose kids I went to school with or called friends. I fretted that he might be trying to take advantage of me, maybe even rob me. I would not have called myself racist or even somewhat prejudiced, but I had never been in a black person’s home. Though I had several members of my theater company that I had worked closely with who were black, I had never been to their homes, been with their families, been in their worlds. They had always been in the shared world of our high school and our theater group, a world that was for me comfortably middle class, academic, and very white.
Though I was uncomfortable with his offer, I was even more uncomfortable at the thought of making some excuse and saying no. Hugo had reached out to me, listened to my heart, and responded from his own, and how could I call myself a good person and refuse. Or maybe it was just my shyness and timidity actually assisting me in this instance. I told him I would like that, and hoped he could not intuit my misgivings and inner conflict. We finally both quieted, and with the continued rhythmic rattling of the train, and the sense of an oncoming abyss lessened, I lost consciousness and slept.
I awoke briefly when the train came into Trier, which was a major stop and Max’s destination. His “friend” still pretty hungover and struggling to regain consciousness, Hugo, still a bit worse for wear himself, had exited the train briefly and returned with a cup of hot coffee for him. Max drank it, and as he quickly regained some of his cognitive faculties he thanked Hugo profusely in German. Hugo then carried Max’s suitcase and helped him off the train to the platform where apparently Max’s wife was waiting for him. When Hugo finally returned to the compartment I kept my eyes closed and pretended to be asleep, and soon was again for real.
It was a bit before 8am when the first light of the winter morning came through the train window, now with a thicker layer of ice on the inside from the frigid northern wind that had blown against it all night. Hugo was still asleep and snoring when I awoke, snuggled in his pea coat with arms tightly wrapped around his body to stay warm, both of us sitting up against the inner compartment wall away from the window and the cold that infiltrated through it. I foraged through my pack and found my remaining half loaf of now fairly stale bread and the remaining end of a salami. Hugo awoke just as I started eating and I offered him some of my remaining provisions. He gratefully and graciously accepted, noting as he ripped off a big piece of the remnants of my stale loaf, that we had now officially “broken bread” together, and had become friends in the truest sense of the word. He rummaged through his duffel bag and produced a tin of sardines, removing the key from the bottom of the rectangular container, and using it to crank and unpeel the thin strip of metal around the sides that then allowed him to pull open the lid. The greasy Salami and oily-salty sardines tasted particularly good in that cold train compartment, and then each of us took turns sopping up the remaining pool of oil in the sardines tin with our last chunks of bread.
When the conductor came by calling out Hugo’s Eindhoven stop, it was fully light outside, the rays of a now sunny morning pushing through our icy compartment outside window. Hugo reiterated that he wanted me to come with him, and at least for today, to feel like this was my home too. Still a bit uneasy, but hopefully not revealing it, I shouldered my pack and followed him off the train and onto the platform of the station. My down jacket, gloves, knit cap and scarf protecting most of my body parts, I still felt the bite of the frigid air on my eyes and the exposed parts of my face. Despite that extreme cold, it was a gorgeous sunny day and the fierce north wind that had blown all night had mostly abated.
The station was surrounded by a small plaza with big modern looking multistory apartment buildings with storefronts on the ground level and obviously well manicured trees and other landscaping surrounding them. Hugo said that much of this industrial city of some 200,000 people had been wrecked by Allied bombing during World War II, including most of the older buildings, giving the now rebuilt metropolis its contemporary look. We walked to the nearby bus station and it was just a ten minute ride to the village of Best in the northern suburbs of the city. The village looked very modern and affluent. Neat rows of similar looking two-story houses, all covered with a thick frosting of white, with the streets between them obscured by maybe six inches of fresh snow. We walked down one of those neat rows to the last house, through a side door and up a narrow staircase to an upstairs apartment.
As we tromped up the stairs, my big pack still on my back and my clunky hiking boots banging against each wood step, he called out “hallo” and I heard voices of two young people speaking a language that sounded like German but with an occasional English sounding word mixed in. To my query, Hugo explained that those were his girlfriend’s kids speaking Dutch, which was a sort of cross between German and English.
At the top of the stairs was a tall slender white woman wearing an oversized sweatshirt that came down to her upper thighs and what looked like pajama bottoms and bedroom slippers. She had a careworn face and long straight blonde hair knotted up into a messy bun held tenuously together by a rubber band. They embraced and kissed, rather passionately I thought, she allowing his hand to find and gently squeeze her butt cheek, but then wriggling out of his grasp with a sheepish mock scowl that i figured signaled the sexual aspect of their relationship, that they presumably would engage in later. She noted me, but with no great surprise or concern, and I pondered that i might not have been the first stray stranger he had brought home. Disengaged from the hug, he explained to her in some length who I was, in Dutch, and then translated for me briefly that he’d told her we met on the train. She nodded and sized me up while he spoke, then wiped her hand on her sweatshirt and reached out for mine, shaking it and saying in English, “I’m Femke. Welcome to our home!”
The two young teens sitting on the couch watching TV were the voices I had heard earlier. A daughter that looked a lot like her mom, with the same long straight blonde hair, but hers hanging down to mid torso. Her brother, that looked roughly the same age, twins perhaps, with that same hair but cut above the shoulders in a sort of pageboy. Hugo waved to the two of them and they responded in kind, both looking comfortable with his presence on the scene. I followed suit and waved as well and they both nodded sheepishly. At Hugo’s suggestion I unslung my pack and stowed it in a small closet in the compact main room, that was living room, dining room and kitchen of the small two bedroom apartment.
After more conversation in Dutch between the two of them, Hugo suggested we sit at the small dining room table, Femke’s kids, Yvonne and Robin, eventually joining us when the TV show they were watching ended. As the rest of us sat at the table, Femke put a pot from the refrigerator on the stove and pulled out a loaf of sliced bread from the cupboard and a big block of cheese and proceeded to make grilled cheese sandwiches with a big saucepan. Normally in situations like this, though I’d never been in a situation quite like this one, I would make the attempt to make conversation, but I was still kind of engulfed in my feelings.
Luckily Hugo spoke up, sharing the story of his past month in Innsbruck Switzerland working as a contract worker on a commercial building project, living at a hostel there to keep his expenses low. He spoke in Dutch and then in English for me, as Femke ladled out the soup and gave us each a grilled cheese sandwich. The project was now shut down for the holidays to resume in January, which had allowed him to come home. I ate hungrily while I listened to Hugo’s story.
Trying to acknowledge me or at least my country in the conversation, he noted that there was a monument in Eindhoven to a U.S. soldier who had died in the city during the war. The soldier had fallen on a grenade to save twenty of his comrades. Hugo noted that this soldier was a “good man”, but not a hero, because he thought “hero” was a word for someone who makes a big deal of their act. Hugo seemed obsessed with selfless acts for others even at the expense of oneself. Thinking about that poor probably young American soldier who died on that grenade did not make me feel proud or inspired, but only saddened me, thinking of the lengths one might have to go to be worthy of praise, and increasing my melancholy.
Hugo picked up on this at some level and asked me if they had not made me feel at home. As I pondered how to respond I could hear neighborhood children playing outside in the snow, shouting and laughing. I recalled my own fond memories of winter days when my dad would take my brother and me to the Arboretum in our home town. We would sled down the hills while our dad smoked his pipe and read a book, occasionally asking to join one of us on our sled to go down a hill together. I could remember the nice smell of his pipe tobacco on his jacket as he sat behind me on the sled and wrapped his arms around me as we pushed off and down the hill.
As the four of them quieted and looked at me, I finally managed to say that they had made me feel welcome, made me feel at home, and I thanked all of them for that. But I could not stop the tears welling from my eyes. Wiping them back and trying not to sob, I attempted to make the case in halting words that I was not unhappy, just sad, missing my own home. I said I had been away from home for ten weeks and had many great experiences that I was grateful for. I told them about the wonderful time I had had in Grindelwald, which I had left just two days ago, though it seemed longer. The hostel there, the snow, and the awe inspiring mountains. Then further back to Italy – foggy sultry Venice, princely Florence, and eternal Rome.
Through the tears, though I talked about the places in each city I had been and , I thought about the people I had met in those places, particularly the women I had befriended – Sarah, Jen, Trix, Monika, Ragna, Beth – all of whom I would probably never see again. Though I did not share this with them, it was dawning on me that the sadness I was feeling was not merely being homesick but also grieving all I was leaving behind. I was not the same person who had left Ann Arbor ten weeks ago, but that new updated version of me seemed so tenuous and I feared likely not to accompany me back across the Atlantic.
Femke and her kids understood my English more than they could speak it, and nodded that they got it, and let me, the phrase I learned decades later, “be in my feelings”, as we all sat around their small kitchen table. Yvonne and Robin seemed intrigued and even moved by my tears and the sadness behind them. Femke finally got up and busied herself doing the dishes, Hugo getting up to help her, but also suggesting something in Dutch to Yvonne and Robin which sent them busily back to the area around the TV set looking through piles of papers. After a few moments, Robin sheepishly approached me.
“Do you want to see Star Trek on TV?” He and his sister had found it in the newspaper TV schedule listings, and it would start in just a few minutes. I nodded, still teary. Femke had made hot chocolate for everyone as we gathered on the couch and chairs around their small black and white TV. She cuddled up next to Hugo, with her daughter on her other side, and Robin and I sitting in the chairs. It was one of the more forgettable episodes where Kirk, Spock and McCoy beamed down to a desert planet with that often used set with the big boulders. The familiarity and mundaneness of it calmed me somehow, along with the catharsis from the tears and words I had just shared. The dialog was in English with Dutch subtitles. I remember that when Captain Kirk said “set phasers to stun”, a long many syllable Dutch word appeared in the subtitle phrase, presumably the translation of “phaser”.
At the end of the show Femke said that the train to Amsterdam would be stopping at the Best station soon and asked Robin to take me there, it being just a five minute walk from the house. Unlike my train from Munich, it was a Dutch train that stopped at all the little stations and not just the big cities like Eindhoven. She wrapped an extra grilled cheese sandwich in wax paper for me to eat on the train. Hugo told me that the Christian youth hostel in Amsterdam was in his opinion the best place to stay. I thanked them all profusely for their hospitality.
I was tempted to give Hugo a hug but he thrust out his hand to me instead, grasping mine held out in response. Femke followed his lead and shook my hand as well, hers soft and warm from the dishwater. Yvonne held out her hand rather limply and I took it, doing all of the shaking for the two of us. Robin put on his jacket and knit cap from the closet, looking empowered as he stood by the stairway down to the outside door to their apartment. His mom said something to him in Dutch and he nodded and scowled a bit as if she was unnecessarily telling him something he already knew. I donned all my outdoor gear, shouldered my pack, thanked the rest of them one last time, and followed him down the staircase and back out into the cold pristine day.
As we walked together in silence through the fresh snow down the street, the younger kids were still out and about throwing snowballs or building snowmen and other things in the snow. Two younger boys across the street called out to Robin and he gave them just a small nod in response. A girl who looked his age called out to him as well, waving animatedly. Robin smiled a bit nervously, looked at me and then waved back at her. It occurred to me that if I had been a young teen in Robin’s place, accompanying an older male as he was, due to my extreme shyness at that age I might not have responded at all to that girl.
At the station Robin asked me in English if I needed help buying a ticket. I wondered if he had come up with that on his own or his mom had told him to offer. I told him I had a rail pass but thanked him for asking and walking me to the station. He nodded his head somewhat vigorously and I felt intuitively his need to be acknowledged as more than just a kid, just a “child”, that word having such a derogatory meaning when hurled by one adult at another. I struggled with what to say to him, a young teen, that would acknowledge him as a unique human being. I did not know what his interests or passions were, and this late moment when we were about to say goodbye, presumably never to see each other again, did not seem like the appropriate time to ask.
I decided it would acknowledge and honor him if I spoke candidly to him about myself, trusted him with my candid thoughts. I tried to do so with the most simple English words and sentence structure I could muster so he would understand it all. I told him that I had started the trip with my good friend Angie, who was “just a friend” and not my “girlfriend”. He nodded in a way to indicate that he got that important distinction. Then I said that if I was honest with myself I had hoped that during our long trip together we might become boyfriend and girlfriend, and that when she told me she was going to go home after just one week that I was “turned upside down”. I could see he did not understand that term and I tried to say it more simply as “unhappy and not sure what to do”, and he finally nodded. I told him I was afraid to continue alone but my pride would not let me return home without completing my entire journey.
He nodded vigorously at that last statement as if he really understood and appreciated that conflict. He looked me in the eyes and said, “And you did it, you finished your journey and now you can go home!” He gave me his biggest smile. Then he got more pensive and said, “I want to travel too, like you have, and see the whole world!”
The train was coming into the station with more of a whoosh than a chug. It was a Dutch train, very sleek and modern looking, the engine and all the coaches painted yellow with red lines forming abstract designs along the sides. My mom would certainly have appreciated that.
I stuck out my hand and Robin shook it vigorously. I thanked him again and told him to tell him mom, Hugo and his sister how much their hospitality had meant to me. Tears started to fill my eyes again and I could see that he noticed and he nodded his head thoughtfully and got quiet. I turned away from him, pack on my back as always, and climbed on the beautiful yellow train.