It was Friday morning September 28. As we had agreed, my new travel companion Jack and I left Munich, Oktoberfest, and our army brat hosts, and hitchhiked south. Our plan was to travel together for a week in Switzerland and then return to Munich, hopefully for me to finally hook up with Angelica and Helmet.
Knowing that we’d probably be doing a lot of walking, and the blisters on my feet were still healing, I wore my two-inch heels, and hung my hiking boots from the top of my pack frame. Despite those blisters, I had done fine walking about Oktoberfest in Munich in my heels, and my feet hardly hurt at all.
This was my first time actually trying to hitchhike in Europe. I had cut my teeth on this means of transportation the previous year, in the States, for the 100 mile journey home from school in Kalamazoo to Ann Arbor. It had worked out pretty well and seemed a fairly dependable way to get home, particularly if there was basically only one highway to traverse to get to the destination, and it usually ended up taking about the same amount of time as taking the bus or the train, and certainly the price the right. Several times one of my rides was another young student type like me, who offered up all or part of a joint to smoke together.
But here and now leaving Munich, rides came slowly, maybe half an hour to an hour wait before someone pulled over, a lot more waiting with your thumb out than I was used to back home. But the weather was pleasant and Jack and I enjoyed talking about our time in Munich and travel plans going forward.
We did not make it to Switzerland that day due to an unexpected detour by our last ride, a forty-something guy hauling a big sailboat behind his VW bus. He seemed somewhat crazy or at least very very scatterbrained. With darkness approaching he took us into the town of Friedrichshafen in the very southernmost part of Bavaria, where he said he was going to participate the next morning in a big boat race. The town was on the north shore of a forty mile long lake called the Bodensee, which made up part of the border between West Germany and Switzerland. It was a beautiful town with great views of the lake. The blue-gray water blended into the hazy sky at dusk to make the interface between the two indistinguishable, and with the far shore hidden in the haze, it felt like the town was on the edge of the abyss.
Being on the road with somebody, you really get to know them, as you observe them dealing with obstacles, missed opportunities, need for improvisation, plus periods of boredom. While we toured Munich and were feted with intoxicants by our army brat hosts, my new travel companion seemed even tempered, thoughtful and a generally pleasant person. But his personality seemed to change during the course of the day of hitchhiking, waiting a long time for rides as car after car passed us by, and we dealt with a motley crew of loners who were willing to stop and give us a lift. He got moody and irritable, and as I did not go there myself, he looked to me more and more as the day went on to be the guide. In our discussions early in the day while we were waiting for our first ride I found out he was 23 and I shared with him that I was only 18. Intuitively I felt that that was somehow discomforting for him, that I was so much younger than him but more resilient and self assured, making him feel the lesser.
Since Friedrichshafen had no youth hostel we were lucky to find a fairly reasonably priced, if sparsely furnished hotel room in town, given tomorrow’s boat race that the “mad yachter”, as we jokingly called him, was in town for. The next morning was a beautiful day and we walked into the center of town on the lake from our lodging, but no boat race! Just a big ferry docked at the wharf loading cars, and our crazy yachter nowhere to be seen.
Walking down the main drag with our packs, someone pulled alongside us and offered us a ride, even before we put our thumbs out, and took us east along the north side of the lake to Lindau where we had gotten detoured by the “mad yachter” yesterday. From Lindau a young guy in a small truck pulling a camper picked us up and took us into Switzerland. I put on my sunglasses, opened the truck window and enjoyed the breeze on my face and a real feeling of being in the moment. I saw my reflection in the side mirror, in my mirrored sunglasses, curly mane of hair blowing in the wind, a real mister cool traveler. A few more short rides got us to Chur, which we would later learn was purportedly the oldest town in Switzerland.
The mountains were astounding, jagged and abrupt, seeming to rise up to great heights from the flat land of the valleys, some even with snow on their tops. We could see little villages all the way up their sides. The hostel in Chur was on the edge of town on the side of a mountain too steep to climb. A cold wind was starting up, indicating we might be in for bad weather, and we were hoping to continue our hitching tomorrow some 200 miles across the Alps and reach Leysin, in the western part of the country near Montreux and Lake Leman.
We found a small store and bought what would become my typical traveler food stuff. A couple hundred grams (about a quarter pound) of cold meat and the same of hard cheese, Mortadella and Swiss cheese in this case. Loaf of bread or package of crackers when bread wat not available, this morning a fresh baguette. A piece of fruit if available, today a green apple. And finally two new items, granola and yogurt, which I had not eaten before but had heard were two of the best foods of this mountain country in the center of Western Europe. I quickly discovered they made for a delicious and easy to prepare and eat breakfast or other meal. All this food would keep okay in your backpack for a day or two, except maybe you’d want to eat the yogurt sooner rather than later. Another food item I had not seen in the States was unrefrigerated “long life” milk, in a tetrahedral container, where you would rip off one corner and drink. I bought a small container and it tasted somewhat palatable but pretty chemically.
I had brought a pair of gloves with me but I had managed to lose them when I was in Munich. They were the first of many such losses of various bits of my kit, including several Swiss Army knives along the way, given my easily distractible nonlinear mind and the fact that when you are constantly sleeping in different places it can be very difficult to stay organized. Resigned to my penchant, the trick was not to lose anything critical, like my passport or rail pass or travelers checks (the bulk of my money), that would be a showstopper. So I generally kept those items in a very thin money belt around my waist under my t-shirt, even sleeping with it on me. Tomorrow was Sunday, and I was finding that small towns like Chur were pretty shut down. So if we were going to continue our hitching, I’d just have to keep my hands in my pockets and let Jack do most of the sticking out of the thumb.
After several unsuccessful attempts to stay at youth hostels up to now, due to them being full (and that place Angie and I had stayed at that first night in London being more of a flophouse than a real certified hostel), here finally was the real deal. The Chur hostel looked like a big two-story house on the side of a woodsey hill that quickly became a huge mountain. It had a large common room with tables, chairs and a couple sofas around a big fireplace. There was a kitchen, which was used mostly by the staff, they did not serve food. There were two large dormitory rooms, one downstairs for men, another upstairs for women. Each had rows of built in bunk beds closely packed along each side perpendicular to the aisle down the middle, so you had to enter and exit your bed from the end on the aisle. You were expected to have your own sleeping bag or bedroll. There were men’s and women’s bathrooms with several shower stalls, and to my chagrin, the showers had only cold water, which others staying at the hostel said was pretty typical for these establishments.
The two guys that ran the place were actually from “the States” (the conventional colloquial way most people I encountered in Europe referred to the United States, a convention I had already adopted) and maybe just in their late twenties themselves. Jack and I filled out registration forms, showed our international youth hostel membership cards , and paid six Swiss Marks (about two dollars) for the night’s lodging.
The next morning I awoke in my warm down sleeping bag to a cold room and the sound of wind and rain outside, rattling the one window at the end of the aisle opposite the door to the main room. As it would often be the case going forward, taking a cold shower lost out to just pulling on some pants and my down jacket and staying warm instead. So unshowered (as I would come to start many of my days going forward) I made my way into the main room where a fire was going in the fireplace and various other travelers my age or older were sitting about, some consuming food that they had brought with them. I found Jack and checked in with him as I ate my yogurt with granola mixed in, that I had bought the previous day and squirreled away.
In the mid morning the hostel staff kicked everybody out to clean the place. Jack and I put on our rain ponchos and walked into town to get the lay of the land and, given that it was Sunday, try and find some sort of market or grocery store that was open to restock our food. It was no more than a mile down the hill to the small business district of town, with some little stores surrounding a small park including a couple of tennis courts. We managed to find a market open with cold meat, cheese and yogurt. They had no bread so I bought a package of crackers.
As we sat in the park and ate carved off slivers of a section of salami and a chunk of hard Swiss cheese, Jack informed me somewhat guiltily that he had had a talk with the guys that ran the hostel and had decided that he was going to stay in Chur and try to find work. From what army brat Greg and the young guy in the truck who picked us up hitchhiking had told us, Switzerland marched to its own drummer. It was neutral in the world wars, not in NATO or other alliances, and had a libertarian streak of decentralized, mind your own business, attitude. Apparently maybe a third of the workforce of the country were casual foreign workers without papers.
Jack’s announcement felt kind of like a divorce, even though he and I had first met less than a week ago outside the train station in Munich. Once I left the hostel and Chur I would be on my own again! I was not happy with that thought, but had also been souring on the prospect of traveling much further with him, as he continued to have bouts of moodiness and distance. I made up my mind that I would stay in town for a few days, at least enough time to psych myself up for traveling alone again, and also to find a store in town where I could buy some new gloves, now that mine would be the only ride hailing thumb.
When we returned to the hostel after lunch, Jack went off talking to the two guys running the place about the possibility of finding under the table work in town. I decided it was well past time to broaden my circle of acquaintances. Pushed out of my normal shyness again by circumstance, as I had back at the train platform in London where I encountered Sylvia, I sat down at a table where a very good looking young woman around my age was sitting and knitting. Score two for assertiveness… I asked her what she was making, and we got into a conversation. Though I initiated it with my question, she was not shy at all and plunged us into a fairly deep discussion about travel, philosophy and international politics as she continued to knit. Her name was Bublil and she was from Norway. She was joined shortly by her female travel companion Ashild, like Bublil, very tall, very blonde, very Norwegian and thoroughly striking as well, but in a more big-boned athletic sort of way. So I continued to talk and get to know the two of them. The two guys they were traveling with joined us, and I was concerned initially that they might think I was hitting on their female partners. But I was pleased that Peter, also Norwegian, and David, who was Israeli, were not at all unhappy for me to join their circle.
While Bublil continued to knit, at Ashild’s suggestion, the rest of us played bridge for a couple of hours. I was pleased that she suggested she and I be partners, rather than her pairing with one of the other guys, one possibly some sort of boyfriend, though I couldn’t easily tell by the way they talked to each other. I was doubly pleased, relieved even, when I saw how intense and cutthroat Peter and David were playing the game. Ashild was as good as they were, but much less intense about it, and very accommodating of my lesser skill level and experience. I so enjoyed the way this engaging and vibrant young woman looked deeply into my eyes, trying to get inside my mind and communicate with me telepathically, as we exchanged bids back and forth.
I had learned the mechanics and basic strategies of the classic card game from my mom actually, who quite enjoyed it as one of many competitive things she excelled at. When she and my dad were still together they used to go out for “bridge nights” at friends’ houses. And even more recently, when she wasn’t actually playing the game with other people, she would keep her “skills sharp” reading the bridge column in the paper and “playing” the hand displayed in the column, striking out each played card with a pencil. I had only ever played a few hands with some high school friends and was not great, particularly at the bidding part, or counting the key cards and knowing when my high cards were sure to win the trick.
Ashild even came around to my side of the table during the two hands where it ended up being my contract to play, to help me play our cards. She knelt next to me with all her long blonde hair and athletic physicality, our shoulders touching and her hand occasionally also on my shoulder to make a particular point on what card she suggested I play. She would whisper in my ear a particular bit of strategy in playing a certain card she did not want Peter and David to hear. I was completely taken by how totally comfortable she was being in such close proximity to me, a person she had known for just a couple hours. But really, I could imagine she was that unguarded with everyone.
During all this time Bublil continued to knit and lead and provide most of the input in a continuing conversation about travel, philosophy and politics. She made no bones about being an anarchist, and when Peter challenged her that anarchists were just a bunch of “bomb throwers”, literally or at least figuratively, she countered that “bomb throwers” were actually nihilists, while true anarchists were generally peace loving people who simply believed in informal egalitarian governance. Ashild spoke in support of Bublil’s assertions as well, but not with the intensity of her female comrade.
Given my own study of the Russian 19th century anarchists as part of my Modern Russian History class in high school, I chimed in in support of Bublil’s challenge to Peter’s assertion, she saying that anarchism was about natural authority, versus imposed authority. In support of her view I did my best to share a version of Bakunin’s quote…
Does it follow that I reject all authority? Perish the thought. In the matter of boots, I defer to the authority of the boot-maker.
Bublil was pleased to have their new acquaintance second her thought, though she seemed perfectly content to soldier on alone with her strongly held beliefs, allies or no. Ashild smiled at me from across the table as if to say, “Way to go!”
That evening, David suggested I join the four of them and head into town to look around. We squeezed into his tiny little car, with him driving and Peter with him in front. Ashild, Bublil and I had to somehow all share the two-person backseat, which you could imagine I was not at all unhappy with, given I was about to be squished in with two very attractive female types. Ashild, who functioned as social director for the group, took on the task of trying to arrange the three of us. She had Bublil sit in one seat and I in the other, with her trying to squeeze between us. This final maneuver ended up with Ashild sitting mostly on my lap, my right hand having nowhere else to modestly go than across her back and perched on her far shoulder. As half her ample rear end pressed against my crotch, she plaintively apologized for being such a “big girl”. Then every couple minutes she’d adjust her butt slightly and ask me, “Is that okay?” Truth be told, it was way more than okay, but I was not a suave enough talker to come up with some funny line that would acknowledge the erotic stimulation without sounding crude. My left hand even assisting her by gripping the underside of her left thigh to help her make an adjustment at several points.
All of this contact she continued to be completely comfortable with, except for her continuing concern for my discomfort. And I of course was loving it, except for my concern that I would appear too much like I was loving it.
We parked in the center of town and escaped the cramped car for the sleepy streets of Chur on a cold blustery Monday afternoon. Peter was suddenly starving and led the rest of us on a crazed pursuit of a restaurant with reasonable prices. We all laughed at what Ashild described as his “savage” hunger. We eventually found a tavern that had soup and wonderful fresh baked bread, along with great local beer on tap. Loosened up by the alcohol, we all had a beautiful in depth conversation about our lives, how we had ended up here in Switzerland at this moment in time and what we imagined for our lives ahead. I had plenty to share about the chain of events that led to the backpacking adventure, parting company with Angie, and my experiences in Munich, but not so much to say about my future, in the short term or the long.
Peter perhaps ate too much or otherwise felt under the weather, so David suggested he would drive him back to the hostel. Bublil decided to join them but Ashild said that she and I could stay a while longer and walk the maybe mile and a half back to our lodging.
We walked along quiet residential streets winding up the side of the mountain. In response to her asking, I told her the whole story again about Lane and Angie, the plan to backpack through Europe, and how I ended up traveling on my own. She said I was braver than she was, and then related her story of how she, Bublil and Peter were all good friends from school who decided to take the trip together. Then how they had met David in Copenhagen and he had a car that they traveled around in instead of having to pay for trains. Nowhere in her story was it clear if Peter was her or Bublil’s boyfriend, and I was too shy to ask. It would have been a reasonable enough question, I mean Sylvia asked me whether Angie was my girlfriend, though Ashild, hearing a similar telling, had not. Having spent much of the day with the four of them, my intuition told me that, if nothing else, David had a thing for feisty Bublil.
We passed a house with an apple tree in the front yard with branches full of small green apples hanging over the street. At her suggestion we picked a couple each and ate the tart crunchy things as we continued our journey up the hill and it grew dark and still more blustery. A couple times she’d take a big bite out of an apple and the juice would squirt out and run down her chin. She’d look at me and struggle to laugh, with a bunch of half-chewed fruit still in her mouth, and then laugh at her inability to properly laugh with that mouthful. Then she’d wipe her chin with the back of the same hand that held her half-eaten apple and grin at me.
It went through my mind that if I wasn’t such a chickenshit I might have dared to kiss her. What was the worst that could happen? That my fragile male ego would be crushed by her spurning me? If that were true, I was already doing a pretty good job crushing it on my own, due to my long standing timidity when it came to my romantic urges. But it was more complicated than that. I had come to find that engaging with most of my female peers, if I took romantic and sexual stuff off the table, they would relax and share more with me about who they really were. We could truly be friends rather than pursuer and pursued, aliens within the same species. And I just did not want a woman I was interested in to ever think that I just wanted to get into her pants. I had absolutely no respect for guys who were that way. Or was I just a chickenshit, trying to rationalize it all as more than just that? So I guess the only way it was going to happen was if Ashild had taken the initiative and kissed me.
The next morning it was again chilly and windy, but with only a light drizzle falling from the sky. By the time I got up, a bit hungover, I decided again not to take a cold shower, and stumbled into the main room. Ashild and company had apparently already headed out for the day. Jack was also nowhere to be seen, probably following leads from the hostel staff to try to find work. So when it was time for the staff to clean, I slipped into my orange down jacket and donned my orange rain poncho and walked down the hill into town, following the same route that Ashild and I had walked the previous night by that apple tree. I found the little store by the park with the tennis courts and bought a box of crackers and my usual rations of Mortadella and Swiss cheese. I sat in the park in the cold and drizzle under a clump of trees for a bit of protection from the weather. There was no one else in the park, or even in sight, as I prepared and ate my purchased provisions.
After the warmth of camaraderie with Ashild and the rest of my fellow travelers the previous day, I felt very cold and alone in the park, under the gray desolate sky. The past was done. The future was cloudy. Here I was in the present… all that there was really, at least at this moment in time and space. I always have such strong feelings about things, particularly when I am alone. And in such situations, music generally comes to mind, my own sirens and Greek chorus. As in other alone times, it was often the introspective songs of Simon and Garfunkel that would invade my mind. On this day it was “For Emily”…
What a dream I had, pressed in organdy
Clothed in crinoline of smoky Burgundy
Softer than the rain
I wandered empty streets down past the shop displays
I heard cathedral bells tripping down the alley ways
As I walked on
And when you ran to me your cheeks flushed with the night
We walked on frosted fields of juniper and lamplight
I held your hand
And when I awoke and felt you warm and near
I kissed your honey hair with my grateful tears
Oh I love you, girl. Oh, how I love you
Perhaps the lyrics about rain and wandering empty streets caused the song to trigger and play on that internal jukebox. What a dream I did have, somewhere deep in my soul but not fully visible to my conscious mind, as I stared out of my poncho’s protective shield at the cold quiet wet park. I could feel the goosebumps rise on my forearms and tears filled my eyes and were soon flowing down my face mixing with the water in the air. Deliciously yet painfully alone, I longed to be in love with someone like Ashild, some day, if I could just hang in there. Actually, honestly, I was probably projecting. I wanted so desperately to have real affection for myself, to embrace the little adventurer who had the courage to go on, to be good to him and give him what he needed to find joy and meaning in his life. Who had more often failed and bailed, but now was determined to soldier on. It was an epiphany without clarity, or language that could be remembered, just a strong feeling that that song always invoked.
I stayed there for several hours, transfixed, in a present that was everything that was and nothing more, yet lonely and boggled and intruded by dreams of past failures and a future that was still cloudy. Finally a clock on a building across from the park told me I could return to my place of lodging and hopefully my fellow travelers. When I got there I was grateful to see Ashild, Bublil and David sitting at the big table, waving me over. Peter was still not feeling well and was sleeping. David suggested we again venture into town in his car and revisit our tavern for more beer and conversation. I said I was in, grateful to be taken out of my vulnerable alone place. Peter eventually woke and joined us.
All of us traveling on tight budgets, that evening we focused our precious funds on the wonderful on tap beer and not food. Our wide ranging conversation quickly fixated on international politics, and particularly, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, to end the ongoing conflict between Israel and its Arab adversaries. David and Bublil, always passionate, found themselves in this case in passionate disagreement. She, the pacifist anarchist believing the Israelis should make the “land for peace” swap and he, the tough zionist, convinced that the only thing the Arabs understood was a fight. Both points of view seemed to have merit, though my tendency was to side more with peace over war. Their argument whet their thirst as well and David in particular got pretty drunk, while I, watching my pennies (or centimes in this case), nursed my “ein grosses bier” and spectated along with Ashild from the other side of the table.
It got late, and given that the hostel locked its doors at 10pm, we realized that we had to get back, but David was in no shape to drive and Bublil, Peter and Ashild did not know how to drive David’s standard transmission car. I on the other hand had learned to drive a VW van with a stick that summer working at the Hilton hotel, and offered to drive home since though tired and bleary, I had had only one large beer. It felt good to volunteer, to step up among my older comrades and be the person of the moment they were all depending on.
It was a short drive to the hostel but it was located just a quarter of a mile up a street that was one-way going down the hill. To return to the hostel you had to find the other end of the u-shaped street and head up the hill and then come around to where it was located. Given it was late, we were tired, and there seemed to be no other cars around, the advice from my passengers was to take the short drive up the street the wrong way to our lodging visible less than a quarter mile up ahead. I switched into a lower gear and jammed the gas pedal and we headed up the hill.
Out of nowhere it seemed a police car appeared behind us with its sirens on and lights spinning and flashing. We pulled over. The two policemen were quickly up by the side of our car shining their bright flashlights in our faces. I rolled down my window and they spoke to me in German, a language that, when you don’t understand it, sounds pretty intimidating when it is directed at you in imperative statements particularly by an official in uniform. No one in our car spoke German and the two cops did not speak English, but managed to say something that sounded like “license”. It struck me that I could have gotten an international driver’s license but had not thought to pursue it. Why would my Michigan driver’s license even be valid here! I fiddled around in my money belt, found it, and handed it to the cop, trying to appear semi ignorant of our law breach by sheepishly querying “Einbahnstrasse?”, to which they curtly replied “Ya”. David, fairly obviously drunk in the seat next to me, cursed in what was probably Hebrew, feverishly dug through the small glove compartment pulling out a handful of various pieces of paper written in languages foreign to me, that I passed on to the cops. The two of them stepped back from the car and carefully assessed all our documents.
Panicky, my mind started imagining all the awful possibilities, however unlikely based on a more sober assessment. Would they arrest me for driving without a proper license? Or for improper car registration? Was I legally drunk by their standards? Would they put me in jail? Deport me?
They motioned me to get out of the car and my panic escalated, but luckily that shock reaction of “reverse stagefright”, I had gotten before I went on stage, kicked in, and my mind quieted and I was almost sleepy and dead calm. They took me back to their car and had me sit in the backseat while they assembled a device with tubes and meters that I realized was some sort of breathalyzer. I looked at the other officer and tried to stand up for my ethical compass by saying hopefully, “Ein bier”. His partner completed the assembly and held the thing in front of me indicating I should blow into the rubber hose, which I took in my hand and dutifully did. Another agonizing, endless moment of pondering the abyss of Swiss judicial process while they analyzed my results. And the great gush of relief when one of them nodded and said, “Ya, Ein Bier”.
They returned me to the car and the looks of my comrades, relieved that I wasn’t being arrested while concerned for my general well being. I indicated to them that I was okay, and rolled my eyes to indicate that we had dodged a bullet. The police pointed down the hill as the proper direction for us to go and returned to their car to presumably complete their paperwork. All my fellow travelers became vocal inquiring how I felt, had I done a breathalyzer before, and good thing David wasn’t driving. David made the point to say he was so thankful that I’d offered to drive home.
So I started the car, put it in gear, executed an awkward three-point turn and headed down the hill, around and up the other end of our u-shaped street, up the hill the right way this time, finally arriving at our hostel about ten minutes after closing time, but the staff person on duty let us in. I gobbled down a candy bar David offered me from his stash. The three of them and Peter were planning on heading out in the early morning to visit Peter’s friends in Germany. David and I exchanged addresses, and I said I hoped to visit him someday in Israel. Ashild gave me an address where she would be in London in December and asked me to look her up. Seeing me writing in my journal, she asked if she could write something in it to remember our several days together. She pondered for a couple moments then set to work writing quickly and with great focus, closed my journal and handed it to me. She kissed two of her fingers and touched them to my cheek and said goodnight and headed up to her dormitory upstairs.
Later I checked what she wrote…
I hope you never turn into a “fat” egoistic materialist, but keep forward with your ideas and with eating immature apples. Keep staying at the piano, too.
The scream cut the silence like a knife
It echoed in the young man’s heart
That terrible scream of WAR
We spent a good time together
Not sure where she got that I played the piano, I didn’t, and she probably had me mixed up there with someone else. But I appreciated her hope for me, and made my own quiet vow to be true to it. I pondered her three-lined verse about war, maybe she was reacting to David’s zeal to continue the fight with Israel’s Arab adversaries. I felt the deep sadness that we were going our separate ways, that I would be leaving Chur as well and our little circle of comrades and fellow travelers. I puzzled, based on what she wrote, whether she might be attracted to me romantically. Was Peter in fact her boyfriend. Was being warm, engaged and intimate how she was with everyone she met. I had so enjoyed, in my life so far, engaging with now a growing list of interesting intelligent women as peers, in a deep and intimate way. But that whole sexual zone I just did not know how to transition into without risking ruining everything.