It was Tuesday September 25 as I walked alone now, my big red backpack on my back, through residential streets of west London to the subway stop that would take me to Victoria Station and my train to the Continent. I felt the locals I passed were looking at me like some sort of oddball. If Angie were still with me they would have seen instead just another couple young “hippie Yank” travellers, a matched set.
At several points along the way I almost turned around, went back to Angie in the hotel, and bailed on what was now a solo odyssey, that was feeling like it was going to be an ordeal. But I could not bear the sense of defeat I knew I would feel if I gave up. Like it or not, for my own still tenuous self respect, I had to continue. I knew at some level I was throwing myself into a hugely developmental “deep end” that I was in no way looking forward to but determined to traverse somehow and return home transformed, a triumphant European traveler.
It was a short subway ride to Victoria Station where I purchased a single ticket that included a train to Folkston on the English Channel, a ferry across the Channel to Calais, and then a second train across France via Lille and Strasbourg to Basel, Switzerland. From there I was told I could find another train to my destination of Munich, Germany.
As I got to the platform, the train was sitting there, not ready to board yet, but pensively hissing like some giant annoyed beast. I had always loved these beasts, since my parents took me on my first train ride at age three, overnight in a sleeping compartment, from Ann Arbor to my grandparents in Binghamton, New York. My last train ride had been last fall on Amtrak, from Ann Arbor back to college at Western in Kalamazoo. In the States, passenger trains were seen as oddities, relics of a forgone age. Normal people drove or flew to their destinations. But here in Europe, at least here in this grand station in London, it seemed like they took their trains much more seriously, the main way people got from one city to another.
I felt alone in the crowd milling on the platform waiting for this metal beast to let them board. Looking around I noticed a young woman, maybe my age, standing by herself on the platform about thirty feet from me next to three big suitcases. She had chic clothing, a white blouse with a sweater over, knit knee length skirt, and short well styled hair, so I figured she was from the Continent. While I was looking at her she noticed me and smiled. Shy me would have normally stayed put, but my aloneness trumped that and I wandered in her direction.
As I approached she sized me up and said, “You are an American, correct?” Her accent sounded French to me. Sexy.
I smiled and nodded, psyching myself up to say something that sounded hip and not lame. She spoke before I managed to deliver my line.
“My name’s Sylvia”, she said with what I thought was admirable confidence. “It’s a pleasure”, she continued, thrusting out her hand to shake mine. I had not encountered this sort of greeting from a stranger before. I took her hand and she grasped it firmly and shook it like we were signing a treaty or something.
My struggle to say my first words seemed to take forever. Finally I uttered, “I’m Cooper. I’m headed to Basel.” Not very hip, but at least not lame either. Matter of fact.
“C’est bon… So am I. Is Basel your final destination.”
“No”, I replied, “I am headed on to Munich.”
“I see”, she said. “Going to Oktoberfest?”
I shook my head, not knowing what that was, and proceeded to tell her about how I had spent the summers in England three years ago, with my mom and brother, and we had gotten to know this young German couple Angelica and Helmet. Now I was backpacking through Europe, “on my own” I said, and was planning on looking them up.
At that point the doors of the train opened and the conductors stepped out in their blue uniforms, like chorus members in a musical number about to sing. The crowd on the platform pressed in on the doors. Sylvia scanned her three big suitcases with a look of concern, and this time I was quicker to respond.
“Can I help you with your luggage?”
“Oui Merci”, she said, “Thank you, yes!”
I took the initiative and picked up her biggest case, which seemed to weigh nearly as much as my pack. I staggered a bit, and Sylvia, carrying her other two, was already pushing forward toward the conductor and the open door. She glanced back at me quickly and said she would go ahead and find us a compartment. The conductor had to help me get her big suitcase up the stairs and through the narrow doorway. Unlike the Amtrak trains in the States that had a center aisle and seats on either side like a bus, this train had an aisle on one side and compartments with seats on the other. I had seen these sorts of trains in several movies.
Sylvia waved to me from the other end of the aisle. I moved down the narrow corridor with her big suitcase in front of me until I reached the door of the compartment she had found and entered. There were two older women already sitting opposite each other by the window. Side by side, Sylvia and I worked together to lift her suitcases up and put them on the overhead luggage rack. She smelled nice, but it did not smell like perfume. At one point in the effort our hips happened to touch, that was exciting. Then she put her hand on my shoulder to briefly maintain her balance and that was electric, to say the least. I was intoxicated by her presence next to me. I had fantasized so many times about being physically intimate with one of my female peers, and this young woman filled the chasm of my imagination.
Once her luggage and my pack were secured in the racks above, Sylvia sat down on one bench by the door, with a space between her and the woman sitting by the window. Though part of me wanted to sit next to her, it seemed inappropriate to do so, since we weren’t a couple. So I sat down instead on the other bench across from her.
It was a two hour train ride from London to the coast. Sylvia told me she was returning home from school in London to her family outside Basel. I told her that I was just a week into my extensive travel plans through Europe, but I had just lost my travel partner, referring to that partner as a “she”. Sylvia asked if she was my girlfriend and I said no, just a friend. It seemed our conversation went back and forth like that, more about having someone to talk to so you didn’t feel alone, rather than real connection.
When we finally exited the train and boarded our ferry across the Channel, me again lugging her biggest suitcase, the fog was coming in. We parked her bags and my pack out on the deck and stood next to each other at the railing on the prow, looking out at the foggy nothingness the big boat was now pushing into. It felt like one of those scenes from an old movie where the guy says something romantic and the girl is swept up in the moment and they kiss, to violins on the soundtrack. Except I said nothing, romantic or otherwise, and there was no kiss. We did share a stare out into the abyss, lonely at least together.
It was well past dusk when the ferry docked in Calais and the wharf was lit with different colored lights. Gratefully, we were quickly through French customs to our train waiting just outside the building. We lucked out and managed to find a comfortable compartment all to ourselves. A man came by selling sandwiches and said we could pay later. The food tasted good and we were both hungry. I enjoyed the ambiance of riding on a train, alone with a travel companion, though temporary in this case, with the nighttime world going by outside and the rhythmic shake and creak of the train wheels below. Even though we didn’t have a ton to talk about, we seemed comfortable in each others company.
Since no one else entered our compartment to take the empty seats, we each had an entire cushioned bench to ourselves. The train pulled out and we sat quietly by the window across from each other. The silence was nice even, but got uncomfortable. She would finally start a conversation by asking me some random question that wasn’t too personal, like what was I going to do when I got back from my travels. So I would tell her that I’d probably get a job for the spring and summer and go back to college in the fall, basic stuff like that. She would smile and nod like that was really interesting. Then she would say she would be going back to school next week to start her fall term. I would likewise smile and nod like that was interesting. I guess it could have been interesting if one of us had asked a probing more personal question as a follow up. But neither of us did. If we had been a proper couple we could have just sat next to each other silently with our sides touching and maybe her head resting on my shoulder and mine against hers.
Finally after a number of such silent periods and verbal forays to break that silence, Sylvia announced that she was getting tired and that, if it was okay with me, she was going to lie down on her bench and try to get some sleep. She suggested I might want to do the same. It was like it would be rude or maybe unladylike to just lay down and close your eyes without giving a heads up to your company, the guy at least who had helped you carry your bags when needed. She carefully removed her shoes, by moving her knees to one side, still pressed tightly together. Her being fairly tall and the bench not wide enough for her to stretch out completely, she had to assume a sort of fetal position with her knees out toward me. She spent a lot of time arranging her knees and her skirt that did not quite reach them in this position. I presume to not provide me a view under her skirt and between her legs. I probably spent too much time watching her arrange herself in a modest way which just made her feel she needed to spend even more time getting it just so.
Once she had arranged herself appropriately, I assumed a similar position facing her on my bench, though wearing pants I did not have the same modesty issues. She smiled at me, which I so enjoyed and appreciated, and then closed her eyes, the residual smile still there. I closed my own eyes just enough so they looked closed but I could still look out at her. My eyes were drawn to her pretty face and then down to her chest, cloistered in starchy white shirt under blue plaid sweater, and finally her bare knees protruding from under her skirt and the long line of her calves, with their white knee socks but shiny black shoes removed. I imagined that we were in the same bed together and all that would imply about our relationship. Her still modest with her bed partner, but me still her bed partner.
We slept off and on through France, being awakened occasionally by conductors, food vendors and train stops. She would go through her modesty routine each time. I would watch but try not to stare. She would smile at me and close her eyes.
Our train arrived in Basel around 5:30am. I again helped Sylvia with her bags and we met her parents on the platform. She wished me well and gave me a little sort of perfunctory hug, the appropriate compensation for my assistance and our shared night together. I wished her and her parents the same and with another show of bravado turned from them and jauntily headed toward the ticketing area. I really felt out of my territory now, alone surrounded by people speaking languages I did not understand. The big constantly updating train status boards high on the walls were in German, and I struggled to make sense of them, eventually figuring out that “Abfahrt” was German for departure and “Ankunft” arrival. I had to fight back fear and homesickness to keep focusing on the task of buying a ticket on and finding the platform for the next train to Munich.
The good news was that I found a ticketing agent who spoke some English. The bad news was that he told me, in English, that there was no direct train to Munich, I had to change trains in Zurich. I bought my ticket and boarded, what turned out to be a beautiful ride through foggy wooded morning mountains, but this time without even a fleeting travel companion. No Angie. No Sylvia.
I had a two hour wait in Zurich for the Munich train, so I checked out the station and even went outside a bit in the still foggy day. I continued to try to familiarize myself with the German words on an array of signs I encountered. While waiting in line to buy my ticket to Munich, a sleazy looking guy approached me and asked in English if I was taking the train to Munich. He said there was a bus outside going there for half the price leaving right away. I felt like a mark, like he was zeroing in on the young naive traveler, and I declined his offer, and he rolled his eyes and went off looking for another taker.
Once finally on the train that would take me to my final destination, I relaxed some and caught up on events, particularly my encounter with Sylvia, in my journal. I finished the entry…
Now I am on the train to Munich. I’ll have my first chance to really spend the time to tour the city. I’ll be crossing the Rhine soon for the first time in my life. Trains here can be expensive. I’m glad I have my pass.
It was Wednesday, September 26 and my student rail pass started October 1 through November 30. I felt a bit better that I had successfully negotiated my first foreign-language train station. I was looking forward to hooking up with Angelica and Helmet, who we had befriended in England three years earlier, and who I imagined would be excited to see me and I would be grateful to share their company for the next few days.
The Munich station was even more chaotic than Basel’s, with people everywhere including outside on the surrounding streets. I called the number I had for Angelica and Helmet, but repeatedly there was no answer. Hearing other tourists around me chattering in English, I soon gathered that every hotel and youth hostel in the city was packed to capacity for this Oktoberfest thing that Sylvia had mentioned. I tried calling the Munich youth hostels in my hostel guide, but they were all full. I didn’t know what to do. It was getting dark and I had no place to stay other than sitting in the train station, which was a madhouse of people arriving into town for the festival.
I went outside the station for respite from the crowds and to maybe find something to eat. I was quickly learning that food in a train station might be twice the cost of the same thing bought in a restaurant or store just across the street. After my long transit from London across the Channel, France and Switzerland, I could not even imagine having to figure a new destination at this point.
A young guy approached me, maybe a few years older, with not particularly long blonde hair and wearing jeans and a jean jacket over a flannel work shirt. He said his name was Jack and that he had noticed me looking around perplexed. I shared with him my dilemma, and he provided the possibility for a solution. He was also traveling on his own, like me, and had arrived just a few hours earlier and had been faced with the same problem. He had met an American, Greg, also around our age, whose dad was stationed at the U.S. army base in Munich. Greg was living in a college dorm on the military base in town and taking classes at an extension of some U.S. university, and had offered Jack a place to stay while he was in town. Jack suggested that maybe his impromptu host could find me a bed or couch to sleep on as well, at least for the night.
It sounded good to me. Anything had to be better than spending all night in a busy train station. Jack had an address on a piece of paper and found someone who knew English to tell us how to get there. So he led us away from the chaotic scene in and around the train station to a different neighborhood, a cluster of buildings adjacent to the U.S. army base in town. We entered one of the buildings and climbed three flights of stairs to a long straight hallway that looked like all the other college dorms I had frequented in the past year. He knocked on the metal door of room 418.
The door was opened by a guy wearing a Doors t-shirt, bell bottom jeans with holes in the knees, and bare feet. He had scraggly brown hair that came down below his shoulders, almost to the face of Jim Morrison on his chest. He looked at Jack a bit quizzically but when he focused on me, he grinned. One look in his eyes and I knew he was a total stoner.
“Is one of you Jack?” he asked, Jack nodding in response. “I’m Greg’s roommate Stu. He told us you needed a place to stay.”
Jack then filled him in on my situation, also just into town and nowhere to stay. Stu frowned in solidarity as he heard the details of my difficult circumstance, looking me up and down but then starting to nod.
“Hey dude, we got two couches and your comrade can only sleep on one, so you’re more than welcome to the other.”
I thought of Graham Nash’s lyric from the beginning of “Teach Your Children”…
You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
“Thanks”, I replied, “I really appreciate it. I had no idea when I got here about this Oktoberfest thing.”
“I know… It’s such a hassle”, he noted, like the whole city festival thing was just an annoyance, then asked, “Where you from?”
“Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
He lit up as much as a serious stoner’s face could. “Oh man, I’ve heard about it but never been. Hash bash, right?”
“Yep”, I said grinning, feeling suddenly like it was a much smaller world than it had been a minute ago. I was one of Bowie’s “young dudes” carrying “the news” that our generation would triumph and transform the world somehow. I waxed journalistic.
“On March ninth of last year the state supreme court ruled that the law that made possession of even just a joint of weed a felony was unconstitutional, so until the state legislature could pass a new law, it, weed suddenly wasn’t illegal. So April Fools Day seemed the appropriate time for everyone to celebrate.”
The news my story carried was that the older generation with their ossified rules and strictures were not going to stop us. Stu and I had established our connection, two comrades flying the “freak flag”. My big mane of fro’d curls to match his long scraggly locks. Me a welcome emissary from the home front, bringing the good word of another victory in the struggle. But here we all were now in Munich, fellow strangers in this strange land of Germany with it’s old world culture and alien language, manning our bastion of the remnants of that hippie ethos.
That whole flower-child hippie thing had imbued me and others in my cohort with a sense of mission to transform humankind, finally, to fully embrace “peace, love and joy”. Our means to those ends were “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”. The sex part I was still struggling with. The drugs, at least marijuana and hashish, I was well on my way to embracing. And I was a total junkie for the rock’n’roll, it raised goosebumps on my arms.
That at times nebulous but still powerful bond was very often celebrated by my comrades by smoking marijuana, our own “recreational intoxicant” of rebellion against the older generation and their snobbish martinis and Manhattans. Not that we didn’t consume our fair share of alcohol, beer at college parties and wine with the weed. But smoking that weed was the iconic peace pipe of our generational solidarity, and I suppose we had our own snobbery around the practice.
As it had been in my own college dorm the previous year at Western, it was the state of things and rules of engagement when Jack and I were invited into the hospitality of Stu’s dorm suite. On my appointed sleeping place currently two of his fellow army brat student comrades sharing a pipe with a big chunk of hash in the bowl. Greg was nowhere to be seen. There was also a half-full bottle of Tanqueray gin on the coffee table with a scattering of shot glasses. I unburdened myself of my heavy pack and gratefully, if not dutifully, took my place in that third spot on the couch, joining, at least for now, this circle of comrades, passing the proverbial pipe. Following the lead of the others, between the hash and a couple gin chasers I got seriously buzzed, pretty quickly.
I was at that point of intoxication where I was having what we called “rushes”, in my case feeling like my body was accelerating backward into the cushions of the couch. Luckily I was not a newbie to what could be a very discomforting sensation, for I had had several that previous year smoking weed with my dorm buddies. I chuckled to myself that college had trained me well at least in this regard.
With continuing gratitude and great focus I endured the experience without passing out or getting physically ill. (On a couple of previous occasions at school I had not been quite so lucky!) When I managed to mumble that I was having a “rush”, I got affirming nods from Stu and his dorm mates. My hosts’ hospitality being appropriately appreciated, like in my parents’ generation commenting on how delicious the meal was.
The next day, Jack and I finally came to semi consciousness after sleeping off the long evening’s indulgence. It was afternoon already and everyone was gone except for one of Stu’s dorm mates, Greg, who hadn’t been there the night before. He was the only black guy amongst a bunch of WASPy white types. We all introduced ourselves. He said his dad worked at the base in supply and he was studying political science. He was back from classes and was free for the rest of the afternoon. He had a bag of salty, greasy potato chips which he shared with us.
“You two want to go check out Oktoberfest with me?” he asked. “It’s kind of a kick watching a bunch of Germans get drunk and happy, and the beer is great. Nothing like that swill they call beer in the States.”
“What about Stu?” Jack responded. “Should we wait for him to get back from class and see if he wants to join us?”
Greg scoffed and wrinkled his nose. “He’s not much for fraternizing with the townies, even if it’s just to get drunk. None of them are! They’d rather stay in their sad little world here and explore the ozone. You’d think this is an air force rather than army base.” He tilted his head, rolled his eyes, and made a funny face. He had a lightness to him that none of the others seemed to have.
We happily agreed, and headed into town with our guide on the “U-Bahn” subway line. I wore my two-inch heels. The blisters were still there on my feet from my hiking boots, which I was learning, painfully, were not sufficiently broken in prior to leaving the States. My two-inch heels did not hurt my feet so much, and didn’t aggravate those gnarly blisters, which I tried to keep covered with bandaids from my little first-aid kit. The shoes also gave me a different cooler kind of look. I was noticing more and more how well dressed and suave the locals looked, particularly in the big cities, like here in Munich. I did not want to be one of those garishly unsuave Americans!
That afternoon and the next day, with Greg’s able guidance, Jack and I explored the Bavarian capital with its state of the art urban rail system and its eclectic mix of new and old architecture, that included those big ornate automaton clocks above the front entrance of some of the classic older buildings.
We visited the Oktoberfest beer gardens. There was a set of huge tents each filled with long tables surrounding a small platform in the middle with an oom-pah-pah band that drunken revelers could pay to conduct for a particular favorite German beer drinking song (of which I imagined there were many). I quickly learned to request, “Ein grosses bier, bitte”, and was rewarded with a huge foam-dripping mug of amber liquid way tastier than any of the standard American beers I guzzled down at college the year prior. It was particularly pleasurable to the pallet when partnered with big salty soft pretzels, charcoaled fish on a stick, and big bittersweet radishes. The Oktoberfest tents also featured large burly bouncers at the exits to keep you from stealing those big beautiful glass mugs. Outside the tents were various small roller coasters and other spin you around carnival rides, which seemed like just the thing you didn’t want to do after drinking too much beer, but I guess were for the kids too young to drink.
We also spent a fair amount of time back at the dorm talking to our hosts and their circle of American army brat college student comrades. As Greg noted, most of the group spent the bulk of their time in their little campus enclave, attending their classes during the day and limiting their evening hours to pretty much just hanging out with each other, generally getting high and drinking the subsidized booze they could buy at the base PX. It was ironic that I had spent all this money and done all this planning to get to Europe so I could explore this storied continent, while they were already here, but rarely ventured out into the surrounding environment of the town they lived in. Plus the beautiful environs of mountains, forests and the Rhine River in the larger Bavaria, along with all the nearby countries. Somehow sharing that certain ennui, while passing the bottle and hash pipe, was more compelling, or perhaps just more comforting and even medicating, than venturing out.
Then again that second night, drunk and stoned past the point of inhibition, they shared with Jack and I, their generational comrades and honored guests, their mostly negative view of the context of their lives. They saw themselves as isolated in this enclave surrounded by an uncomfortable foreign world, going through the motions of college classes because that was their parents’ expectations, and what else was there to do. Most of their dads were military officers, a role that none of them seemed to aspire to themselves.
While we drank and passed the hash pipe, there would always be music playing on a very high fidelity stereo. They were drawn to the hardest and darkest of rock music. British bands Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and Deep Purple, along with U.S. counterparts with a more Southern flavor, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. The songs they really grooved to were generally the hardest and darkest of these bands’ offerings, and reflected their own discomforting embrace with coming of age in these unique circumstances.
None of them had girlfriends, and they talked about their female classmates like they were another species of sexual creatures that they studied, like some zoology class. There were the young wormen who were “foxes” that they would love to fuck. The ones who were “stuck up bitches” and never “put out” willingly, but still might succumb to sufficient alcohol and or drugs and some coercion if necessary. The ones who were “sluts”, who they wouldn’t fuck because they did not meet their standard for appropriate female behavior. The ones with plain faces but nice tits and asses that they still might have sex with, in a pinch, after they had “put a bag over her head”. And finally the rest who were “dogs” not to be bothered with.
I certainly was turned on by some of their lurid descriptions of their sexiest female classmates, and indulged vicariously in some of the sexual fantasies they shared. But the songs they loved best spoke of darker rules of engagement with female types.
Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” seemed to capture their angst, frustration and ennui…
Finished with my woman ’cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time
All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify
Can you help me occupy my brain?
I need someone to show me the things in life that I can’t find
I can’t see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind
Guess Jack and I showing up at their door was helping “occupy” their brains, at least for a couple days.
Then there was Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”, calling out the male sexual predator’s rules of engagement with his prey…
Hey, hey, mama
Said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you groove
Oh, oh, child
Way you shake that thing
Gonna make you burn
Gonna make you sting
Hey, hey, baby
When you walk that way
Watch your honey drip
Can’t keep away
And at the end of the song, still the fantasy of eventual romantic bliss after stalking and capturing just the perfect female type…
All I ask for when I pray
Steady rollin’ woman gonna come my way
Need a woman gonna hold my hand
And tell me no lies, make me a happy man
I wrote in my journal…
Weird bunch of dudes. They were all so messed up. So uptight about this or that, violent or childish. I would hate the isolation of a college right in the midst of a foreign country. It’s definitely an unhealthy atmosphere. But they were friendly as hell to us.
It was interesting that some of us humans, including yours truly, were bitten by the travel bug while others of us weren’t into this sort of adventure at all, even when blessed with the golden opportunity of circumstances. As I had learned from my dad, life at its best should be an adventure, maybe not always fun or easy, but a compelling narrative to experience, to learn from, and to share later with others. It was that principle that inspired my mom and dad, not even a couple at the time, to make the journey from their home of Binghamton New York in the late 1940s to Ann Arbor Michigan, some 600 miles west, a journey that eventually led to my birth. It was that principle that motivated me to jump on my friends’ Angie and Lane’s plan for this lengthy European backpacking odyssey, just barely an adult. And beyond the fear of returning early a failure, it was also that principle that helped me keep going now.
I pondered the decision of most of my army brat hosts to stay cloistered in their little campus, as Jack and I said our goodbyes and parted company with this crew the next morning to continue our travels. I wondered whether, at least at this point in our lives, I was perhaps more of a seeker and a free agent than they were. I had been hot to go to Europe with Lane and Angie for reasons beyond just hanging out with the two of them and being able to return with the feather in my cap of the experienced traveler.
Greg of course was the exception. He had quizzed both of us on our itinerary, and in every country or city we mentioned had his suggestions of where he would go if he got there. Apparently his dad had just recently been stationed here and he was making his own plans to travel about Europe once his term ended in mid December. In the meantime he was at least using his free afternoons and weekends to explore the city the surrounding Bavarian countryside.
Touring Munich with him during the day and smoking hash with him and the army brats in the evenings, Jack seemed like a nice enough person that I was fairly compatible and comfortable with. He did not say a lot, but when he did say things they were meaningful, and suggested the wisdom of someone older than me. He suggested that we travel together, at least for a while. His plan was to work his way down to Greece and maybe try to find a job there, but he said he would be happy to accompany me on my journeys in the short run, including returning to Munich in a week and on to Paris after that. Still feeling like a stranger in a strange land, a new travel comrade seemed to me a blessing, so we agreed to partner for now in our travels. We decided we’d hitchhike down through Switzerland for a week and then return to Munich so I could try again to hook up with Angelica and Helmet.