Lefty Parent

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Circle of equals

Two Inch Heels Part 12 – Aldea

December 15th, 2019 at 13:52

Thursday October 25 was our last morning in Barcelona. The sun pushed its way through the narrow window of our room in the little pension, inspiring us to get up early and enjoy getting out in its bounty of heat and illumination one last time in our beautiful old Gothic Quarter neighborhood of bricks and stone. Our plan was to try to hitchhike south to Granada. If I had been traveling on my own I would have used my rail pass to take the train, but Steve did not have one, and he wanted to avoid the expense of the train if at all possible given his limited funds. I certainly appreciated that, having very limited funds myself, beyond that key asset of the pass. To have a continuing travel partner, at least for now, I was happy to go with the flow, whatever the universe presented as the way forward.

Steve and I bypassed our hosts’ little breakfast pastry spread for the moment, and went out to the little grocery store across the plaza from our pension and picked up supplies for our anticipated day on the road. I noted the prices in my journal…

Spanish sardines in oil 10 pst
4 (125cl) tubs of strawberry yogurt 32 pst
2 glazed donuts 10 pst
Biscuit cookies 9 pst
100 gm cheese 22 pst
2 bananas 9 pst
6 smallish tomatoes 3.5 pst
1 liter of Coca Cola 15 pst
Total 110.5 pst

That was about a dollar each U.S, such a deal! Yogurt, which I had first been turned on to in Switzerland, along with a banana would supplement our host’s “breakfast” of basically pastries and coffee. I could never look at “pastries”, what my dad would call “donuts and sweet rolls”, without thinking of him, addicted as he was to the things, and having at least to some degree passed that onto me. The sardines, cheese and tomatoes would be squirreled away for lunch, with the biscuit cookies and of course the purchased donuts available as needed for a snack on the road. Sardines and hard cheese, which both kept well in my pack, had quickly become two of my new favorites, along with of course the yogurt. It occured to me that we could of just saved the 10 p on the donuts and just taken some additional pastries from our host’s offering, but that did not seem wholly proper somehow, and she was nothing but proper in every way.

Returning from the grocery store she was out from her little apartment behind the front desk, wearing her usual dark clothes and her hair in a tight bun, to solemnly wish us a “good morning” in English. She almost smiled when we both brightly responded “buenos dias senora”, but not quite. She was always taciturn, and though short and slight in stature, she exuded a gravitas and command of the situation which felt comforting somehow, particularly in this semi-facist country. It didn’t hurt that she seemed to have some sort of thing for the two of us tall strapping young men, which may or may not have had anything to do with how meticulously she had folded our underwear, after soliciting us for 250 pesetas to wash our clothes yesterday. Steve and I had joked last night, rather crudely actually, that maybe she should have paid US the 250 p to play with our dirty underwear.

That last morning she engaged us in conversation about where we were heading, concerned as always for our welfare, and our perhaps naivete about her country’s mores and manners. As we sat chowing down our breakfast at one of the little tables in her main room, we told her we were hitchhiking south to Granada. She scowled very disapprovingly, by far the most emotion we had seen on her face for our entire stay with her. She said that we should surely think again, that was something respectable people, and despite my wild hair she apparently was including us in that category, did not do.

Back up in our rooms we loaded our packs, including our much cleaner clothes and tromped downstairs to say our last goodbyes to our host, who seemed more distant, perhaps still disapproving of our intended means of travel.

Departing from her little pension for the last time, we had our last walk through the now familiar Gothic Quarter and out to the main highway that headed south to Valencia and then on further south to our destination of Granada, and put out our thumbs. I had heard plenty of stories from fellow young travellers back in the hostels we had stayed in up north that it was difficult for guys to hitchhike in Spain, and not to be done by women travelling alone or otherwise without a male travel partner. Steve had heard those stories too, but was determined to try, despite his travel partner not being equipped with breasts, that most obvious visible sign of femaleness given so many young guys having long hair.

“We should buy a couple oranges and put them under your shirt to fake a pair of perky tits”, he joked, given my long hair on the top of my head and the lack of facial hair below it. “Then of course you’d really have to fight the guys off trying to get in your pants!”

I laughed. Given our whole long morning session in just our underwear yesterday, plus the brief reveal of each of our penises, both experiences I had found fun and even exciting, I was getting comfortable engaging in this sort of light sexualized banter with him. I imagined what it would be like having a body with cute breasts and a vagina down below instead of my own sexual configuration. My libido was certainly percolating for more than a week without any relief. I wondered if I was such a female type person if I’d be attracted sexually to Steve, and he to me.

On the busy road we stood for the next couple hours, waving our thumbs plaintively, watching a hundred cars go by, many drivers in their Spanish-made SEAT cars with disapproving faces like “our lady of the pension” as we were calling her now, along with the big trucks belching exhaust with that distinctive smell of burnt diesel. We were hoping to luck out with some more hippie types like Randall and Zo, but instead cursed the sexism of the male drivers who scorned us but would have probably quickly picked us up if one or both of us had been female, or even appeared so. But on that warm sunny morning it did not manifest, and by lunchtime my travel partner agreed to give it up for the day and at least take the train out of the big city to where we might somehow have more luck hitching the next day.

We walked to the train station and ate our cheese, tomatoes and sardines for lunch, sucking the delicious fishy garlicky oil from the latter off our fingers, while we waited for the train south. We took it as far as Tarragona, another somewhat smaller coastal city 100 kilometers and two hour train ride to the south. The train chugged through low rolling hills and scrub trees and brush, and occasional views out the windows of the Mediterranean. It was warm and sunny and seemed like a completely different world than the cold cloudy wooded countryside and big river valleys of northern Europe I had been in just a week ago. I felt content.

Walking about the town around the train station in the mid afternoon sun, we decided it was too late to try hitching again today, and found a small hotel that charged only 160 pesetas for a room for two. There was also an 80 peseta, “menu del dias” dinner in a small cafe down the street from our lodging, and now more skillfully using “point and pray” ended up with paella followed by some sort of meat stew again. But this time, even though we lacked the theatrical waiter, or any waiter at all for that matter, the bottle of wine, though plastic, was much better than that memorable meal in Barcelona with the shitty wine. I realized that it had been kind of a nothing day when, still tipsy, I sat down to write in my journal and decided there was nothing much I really cared to write about. Perhaps contentment did not inspire the muse so much.

The next morning after provisioning ourselves for the day at a little market with freshly baked bread, we tried to thumb it again on the road south to Valencia. We stood by the side of the road again for almost two hours before finally getting picked up by a young Spanish guy in a beat up old SEAT who took us another 75 kilometers down the road to a little town called Aldea. Steve agreed to try the train again, but when the last train of the day south came into the little bare platform station in town, it was packed with people, and for the first time since I had been riding trains in Europe or my entire lifetime actually, the conductors wouldn’t let us on. The town had one dinky little hotel which was also full, so with the sun beginning to dip below the hills to the west, there we were. For the first time in either of our European travels we had nowhere to sleep, not even a train station lobby. Unfazed, unfazeable even, at least in that moment, we decided to go with it and try sleeping outdoors. We had good sleeping bags and ponchos for tarps. I even had a simple “tube tent”, a continuous piece of waterproof nylon tarp, open at both ends that you could string nylon cord through tied to trees on either side, which I had been yet to use or even remove from the plastic packaging I had bought it in.

So we walked out of town south along the main highway we’d been trying to hitch on and found a small woods, the trees now all bare due to the season, that was enough off the side of the road that we would not be easily visible from cars on the road, particularly at night. There were no other people around and no houses nearby, nor any lights at all really, including no moon that night. As we crunched through a solid carpet of fallen leaves, though we could barely see anything, we found a spot that was flat with no protruding roots, and given that there were stars in the sky and no real wind, we decided we would just sleep under those stars.

We used my tube tent, fresh out of its bag, as a tarp, and laid our sleeping bags on top of it. My bag was made with goose down, which I had bought specifically with this backpacking trip in mind because it was light weight, could be squeezed down into its small carrying bag slung under my pack, yet was rated for very cold temperatures even below freezing. Its one big drawback given it was made with down, was that it was not a good idea to let it get wet, because water could ruin that down filling. Concerned about possible morning dew doing a number on my bag, I covered it with my poncho.

With no moon or lights anywhere, and only an occasional car’s headlights off in the distance on the road, it got seriously dark, and when we turned off our flashlights we could barely see each other sleeping just a couple feet apart. It was a strange sensation sleeping on the ground and feeling the cool night outdoor air, and it struck me that I had never really slept outdoors before. Several times in screened in patios but never anything like this. Neither of my parents or any of our circle of friends were outdoor types, so I had never really gone camping or even slept in a tent. I shared that with Steve and he laughed, saying that he had been on a number of camping trips with friends, including up in the Rocky Mountains.

Plenty warm within my down bag, it really was thrilling to be outdoors feeling the energy of the open space and the occasional sound of dry leaves rustling in slight breezes that would momentarily come up. I struggled to fall asleep because my mind insisted in indulging in a parade of thoughts. Of today’s travels. The penises of Barcelona real and imagined. Sleeping next to Zo in the VW van. The prostitutes on the Avenue De Clichy in Paris and Giselle’s stunning daughter Laurence. My long evening searching unsuccessfully for youth hostels in Luxembourg and Belgium. The “meat market” bar in Trier. Climbing the mountain in Bavaria with Angelica and Helmut. The sweet Ashild and the ideological Bublil and the breathalyzer test in Chur. And Angie, who I’d started my European journey with, wondering what she was up to now back in the States.

Finally I must have drifted off because I awoke with a start to a low rumbling noise in the distance, seeming to grow louder and closer with every moment. The bare tree branches above me were brightly illuminated somehow. I lifted my head to look around in the darkness and saw a bright light in the distance that seemed to be the source of the noise. Out in the middle of nowhere it was all so out of any context and I could hear Steve’s regular breathing indicating he was still asleep. The light got brighter and closer and noisier and the ground vibrated a little below us. Suddenly I found a context for the visual and auditory stimuli, a train was coming and we must be close to some sort of railroad track. With the train seeming to head right at us, I had one freaked out moment when I panicked that we might somehow be sleeping on the tracks somehow without knowing it, but the train curved slightly away from us as it approached. In fact the track was just maybe 15 feet from us on the far end of the little woods opposite the road. Steve was awake now as the train approached, its headlights illuminating the whole area around us, and it roared by, the northbound companion for the passenger train we had tried unsuccessfully to take south today. If anyone had been looking out the train windows just then, they might have briefly seen our sleeping bags with our two faces peering out the top.

Juiced now with adrenalin, there was no calming my mind to sleep, and when the very first morning light came, I gave up even trying. I realized that putting my poncho over my bag to keep off the dew had backfired. The warmth and moisture from my body had caused droplets of water to condense on the bottom side of the poncho and my bag was wet. Ironically, there had been no dew and the top side of my poncho was dry. I was concerned at first but realized my bag was not all that wet, but I made a mental note for next time. As dawn broke, with both of us pretty bleary from little sleep, we rummaged through our packs and ate whatever remaining food we had including the rest of that loaf of bread. Steve said he wanted to try and hitchhike again today, and I decided again to just go with the flow.

We walked back into Aldea to buy more food and then set up by the highway again and put our thumbs out. We agreed that if we didn’t get a ride by 1pm we’d take the train. People walked by, some looking at us askance, some carefully trying not to pay any attention to us at all, and others telling us in English or Spanish we should take the train. One guy was begging for food near where we were, so we decided to move up the road a bit so he didn’t conflict with our effort. There were lots of trucks on the road this morning. They roared past causing minor hurricanes, and I imagined their drivers checking to make sure neither of us were female, and we joked again about a couple strategically placed oranges. After a while we got tired of the standing by the road with our thumbs out thing, particularly with the regular town folk around looking at us like we were a nuisance. We leaned our packs against each other by the road, and using an International Herald Tribune as a poster board, scrawled “Valencia” on it with a magic marker and lashed it to the side of our packs, while we found a spot to sit.

It was getting to be about noon, and the two of us were just sitting by the side of the road when a familiar looking VW van pulled over. Amazingly, it was Randall and Zo, the two Canadians who had given us that long eventful ride from outside Lyon across the border into Spain and down to Barcelona. Zo called out from the passenger’s window, her shock of red curly hair above her ever present red Canadian flag headband wilder than ever from riding with the window open, lampooning her partner Randall’s standard greeting.

“Hey dudes! How’s it hangin? Smoke anything good?”, Randall in the driver’s seat briefly chuckling at her cheeky homage.

There amidst the disapproving locals walking by and the stinky diesel trucks roaring past on the road, Zo and Randall debarked from their hippie chariot with arms open for hugs all round, like the four of us owned the place. Zo said they had decided, after dropping us off before, to stay in Barcelona as well, and were now headed a bit south to a campsite near Benicarlo, and could drop us off in town. We agreed and offered to even chip in some more pesetas for “gasolina” (ah no longer “essence”, my all time favorite word for gasoline). Being fellow financially strapped travelers, they gratefully accepted. We climbed into the back of their hippified van and sat on that same big mattress, where the back seats would have normally been, that we had memorably all slept together on, what was it just five nights ago.

We headed off with Zo now taking a turn at the wheel and Randall in the front passenger seat, neither of them saying much, like something was hanging in the air between them. I wondered again whether they were a romantic couple having sex on their backseat mattress or just friends, travel buddies like me and Angie had been in our original plan to backpack through Europe together. I pondered again what my relationship with Angie could have become if we had not parted company in London just a week into our intended long journey together. Would the travails of the road led to us becoming a romantic couple, just deepened our platonic friendship, or maybe something else less positive, finding out things about each other we were not so comfortable with?

Uncomfortable with the silence and wanting so much to enjoy particularly Zo for as long as I had her, I pondered a good conversation starter and then asked the two of them what had inspired them to take their Europe trip. Zo snorted out a chuckle and she and Randall looked at each other. They said nothing for a moment as some sort of inside joke percolated between them.

Randall, still looking at Zo, said to me, “Odds are you’ve never been to Saskatoon, and never will have a reason to go there!” Zo snorted again and seconded with her own, “Odds are!”

I shared that all I knew about their hometown was the Guess Who song
“Running Back to Saskatoon”, an homage to the place, written by the band’s frontman Burton Cummings, who himself had grown up in much bigger Winnipeg Manitoba, about 500 miles to the east. Yeah I knew all that back story, and that caused them both to burst into giggles (maybe THEY had been smoking some good stuff!) They obviously both knew the song well and spontaneously, as if we were in a musical together and this was their cue, took turns singing the lines of the song back and forth to each other…

I been hangin’ around gas stations
I been learnin’ ’bout tires
I been talkin’ to Grease Monkeys
I been workin’ on carbs (carburetors)

I been hangin’ around grain elevators
I been learnin’ ’bout food
I been talkin’ to soil farmers
I been workin’ on land

Moose Jaw, Sawtooth, Moosomin too
Runnin’ back to Saskatoon
Red Tail, Terrace, Hanna, Medicine Hat
Sing another prairie tune

Cummings’ chorus calling out all the neighboring towns on the Canadian prairie. Our hosts joined in unison for the following lines of the interlude as Zo sped down the road…

This dude is home grown
Don’t come from Hong Kong

Turns out both of them had parents who owned farms outside of town, with older siblings who were keen to be part of the family businesses. But not the two of them, who had been childhood buddies and always longed to see what was beyond the faraway prairie horizon. It was also interesting how smoking marijuana had been a significant developmental experience for them as well, bonding them together as older teens and separating them from their parents’ world along with a lot of their more alcohol fueled less wanderlusting peers. Something about weed, smoking it fired one’s imagination.

They were at least a bit shocked and impressed that I knew this more obscure Guess Who song. I explained to them with some pride that my own hometown of Ann Arbor was just 45 miles west of Detroit, with Windsor Ontario just across the Detroit River, which connected Lake Huron with Lake Erie and formed the U.S.-Canada border. The big AM music station for the greater Detroit area, CKLW, was actually located in Windsor, and while it played all the Detroit Motown songs, by Canadian law it had to play at least forty percent Canadian music, so it played a great deal of the Guess Who, even their more obscure songs.

I noted that at least our hosts had a rock song for their hometown. The closest thing my town had was Ann Arbor band Brownsville Station’s “Smokin’ in the Boy’s Room”, which was allegedly written about my high school…

Sittin’ in the classroom thinkin’ it’s a drag
Listening to the teacher rap just ain’t my bag
When two bells ring you know it’s my cue
Gonna meet the boys on floor number 2
Smokin’ in the boys room
Teacher don’t you fill me up with your rules
Everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school

They actually had heard the song, and I continued with a story of how my high school’s main first floor bathrooms were right across from the office wing where the principal and all the adult administrative staff had their offices, so not particularly friendly to clandestine activity. But the second floor bathrooms above them were much more off the beaten path. I shared that in my last couple years of high school, to try to get the cigarette smoking students out of the bathroom, the school staff set up a smoking lounge, where it was okay for students to light up. After the policy was implemented most of the tobacco smokers left the bathroom, but ironically, the growing number of marijuana smokers, who could not light up even in the smoking lounge, moved in.

I was so pleased that Zo and Randall enjoyed my tale of the ironic evolution of our generation’s counterculture. They shared the story of when they both got high for the first time, together actually at age 16. Appropriately enough I guess, they clandestinely hitchhiked from Saskatoon to a friend’s place up in Prince Albert and a guy in a pickup truck, the main vehicle of agricultural Saskatoon, picked them up and offered to share a “doobie” with them. I shared my own first experiences smoking weed in college with my roommate Ease, including attending a J Geils concert with him and his friends stoned, which was the most intense musical experience of my entire life.

The discussion somehow segued from there to U.S. politics. We had all seen the stories in the latest editions of the International Herald Tribune about Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre” and the deepening scandal around Watergate. Zo pulled no punches in expressing her disgust with our country’s politics, the scandal, and our foreign policy, particularly the Vietnam War, which though U.S. troop levels were being reduced, continued unabated. She also railed against our cultural “hegemony”, trying to foist our shallow image-obsessed consumerist culture on the rest of the world, including of course our smaller, less provocative neighbor to the north. I think it was the first time I’d heard another human being use that word “hegemony” in conversation, rather just in print in some political piece. Zo was as fiery as her frizzy red hair, and I was of course now even more entranced with her.

With my mind’s jukebox now focused on the Guess Who, Zo’s rant brought their big hit “American Woman” up onto its virtual turntable. It’s lyrics were metaphorically powerful, equating my country and all its excesses with a dazzling and sexy woman that was nothing but trouble…

American woman, get away from me
American woman, mama, let me be
Don’t come hanging around my door
Don’t wanna see your shadow no more
I don’t need your war machines
I don’t need your ghetto scenes
Colored lights can hypnotize
Sparkle someone else’s eyes

Of course the song had its misogynist aspect too, and I had first heard and learned that word “misogyny”, that is fear and hatred of women, from my mom’s radical feminist friend Mary Jane. But certainly when the song was sung by a Canadian, I appreciated the metaphorical critique of my country, though not the underlying conventional patriarchal narrative of demonizing women who try to manipulate men with their sexuality.

On the subject of women, a subject I often pondered and even obsessed over, I had become a real connoisseur of interesting young women, like the present Zo, who confidently marched to the beat of their own drums. I so identified with them and longed to be intimate with their energy and passion. This had on various occasions in the past few years become problematic when my drive for an intimate connection with a young woman, who was also attracted to me, had led to the conventional assumption that the relationship should take that quantum leap to the romantic and sexual level. Not that I didn’t long for this in my fantasies. And when either I was afraid to go there or the young woman tried to take it there and I balked, and I was too shy to really talk honestly about my feelings and my shyness, then there would invariably be a frustration on their part, like I was just a tease, all talk, and the relationship would suffer. After each such discomforting scenario played out, I would swear to myself that I would try not to balk the next time.

As we continued down the road with Zo at the wheel, having let off some steam in her rant, the conversation shifted to what we all had done while we were in Barcelona, and Steve and I were happy to gab about highlights of our three days in the big quirky port city. They had done a lot of the same touristy things we had – gone to the main market and the Picasso museum, though on different days – and partook of various cheap restaurants’ paella. They had actually found a trailer park sort of place to sleep in their car down by the docks.

Too soon we came into Benicarlo, and we reluctantly parted company there in town, after another round of goodbye hugs and wishes of good travels ahead. As she hugged me, her frizzy hair once again and now familiarly tickling my chin, I again felt that sadness of the thought that I might not ever see them, and particularly her, again, though of course I had had that same thought at our last parting yet here we were. So the context of our goodbyes this time were, an “until such time as our paths cross again” thing.

Steve and I walked to the little train station in town and got the departure time of the evening train south, our fallback means of travel should further hitching fail. We returned to the highway, leaned our packs together again by the side of the road and reaffixed our crude “Valencia” sign to the side and sat and waited for perhaps more young traveler types to give us that next big ride maybe all the way to Granada. After three hours of diesel spewing trucks and Spanish made SEAT cars buzzing by us with their drivers disapproving looks, the sun got lower and the air got chilly, I realized I did not have my light jacket and must have left it in Zo and Randall’s van. I upbraided myself in my own mind for my continued penchant for losing stuff. At least the jacket though very useful was not essential, but still a significant loss! Had I at some subconscious level not wanted to sever my connection with the formidable Zo, and hoped they would see that I’d left my jacket and somehow found us again for a third time?

After some debate I convinced Steve that we might as well bail on the hitching for today and walk down the road to see if we could find that campsite Zo had said they were staying at before returning to town to take the train further south. We walked a mile or so out of town and came upon a campsite, which I at least hopefully assumed was the one they must be staying at. In the process of searching we met and were assisted by a forty-something Spanish lady named Isabella, who was camping with her husband and kids and was university educated and spoke pretty good English. Our search of the rest of the site had proven unsuccessful and I was frustrated to learn from her that there were a number of campsites in this area and our Canadian comrades could be staying at any one of them. So much for my jacket and another encounter with Zo!

As we shared with Isabella about our travels, she as much as lectured us in no uncertain terms that it was much better to travel with one’s parents or have a travel agency arrange things. It was like she was picking up where our lady of the pension had left off back in Barcelona. Isabella was worried that we didn’t have enough money, that we would get tired of traveling, even get in trouble somehow, and have nowhere to turn.

Maybe to pull her chain a bit, I proudly noted that everything I had here in Europe was on my back. Steve seconded. She laughed nervously, shaking her head, and I swear she almost cried. I think it made her particularly uncomfortable that I was only eighteen, but she certainly seemed to be convinced that all people of any age and their activities should operate within defined structures of authority, control, and support. To her we were anarchists of sorts, flouting the way things should be done. I wondered if she was a Franco supporter.

Embracing the role of being at least momentarily a spokesperson for my generation and my backpacker cohort – for Steve, Zo, Randall, Miranda, Bublil, Ashild, Jack, and the rest of the numerous young travellers I had met on my trip – I tried to explain to her the reasons we travelled on our own. First of all we felt perfectly capable of doing so, the proof being Steve and I had done it successfully for the past month or so already. Second, in my case, my divorced mom did not have the money to travel in Europe, though I did share with her how my mom ingeniously traded houses and cars for the summer three years ago so we could spend those months living in England. Third, the conventional agency arranged travel involved booking hotels and tours and could run into maybe a hundred dollars or more a day, and we budgeted more like six dollars a day. So I could spend ten weeks in Europe at the cost of a conventional trip of maybe a week or less. In every argument I made I tried to impress her with my thoughtfulness and maturity. Without challenging her assumptions directly, I wanted to present my own story in such a way that SHE would have to challenge HER OWN assumptions. We talked for so long, most of the exchange being between me and Isabella with an occasional second from Steve, that it got dark and we had to hurry to walk the couple miles back into town, buy some food for dinner and beyond, and then get back to the train station to hopefully be able to board our train to Granada when it came into the station.

After we restocked our provisions, we got to the little train station in Aldea to find only a handful of other people on the platform waiting for the train, which we took as a hopeful sign. But when the thing finally arrived, and the conductors opened the doors and stepped down onto the platform, we knew we had our work cut out getting on board somehow. Steve and I were standing at the end of the platform by the door to the first passenger car behind the engine. Behind the conductor we could see passengers standing just inside the door, not planning to exit the train, but apparently having boarded at a previous station and not found anywhere to sit. As Steve and I approached the door, the conductor frowned, shook his head, said something in Spanish and waved us toward the back of the train.

At each door it was the same situation. Packed to the gills inside with each conductor waving us to try further back. Finally after failing to find a way on in any of the passenger cars, and feeling a sense of desperation, we approached the last car, which was the train’s cafe-bar. Though there were people crowded in the entryway, the conductor was distracted. Pack on his back, not waiting for the conductor to notice us and object, Steve grabbed the handrails, put his feet on the metal step below the door and literally forced his way into the standing crowd. I followed in his wake and we were on board. The conductor pushed his way in behind me and closed the door.

The train jerked and started up, throwing us against several of the older men packed around us. Surprisingly, no one really grumbled. We quickly realized that they were all joyfully imbibing the alcoholic beverages served in the bar, now all fairly buzzed and laughing and chatting with each other. They all took it humorously in stride as Steve and I stumbled back and forth against them as the train lurched and accelerated. We took their cue and laughed with them as well as we all banged against each other a few more times until the train got up to speed. Score one for recreational intoxication, in this case a true social “lubricant”, allowing us to squeeze into this drunken crowd.

For the next couple hours we just stood there in the hallway entrance to the cafe-bar car, grateful to be on the train headed south. Not feeling there was enough clearance around us to take our packs off our backs, we worked our way to a corner where we could at least lean them against the bulkhead and take some of the weight off our hips and shoulders.

When the cafe-bar finally closed for the night after midnight, the drunken men disappeared forward back to the compartments filled with the rest of their families. We followed the last of them forward into the passenger cars, now much quieter with far fewer people in the narrow hallway along the one side. But every compartment we trudged by was packed with people, in many cases what looked like an extended family with parents, grandparents and children, along with all their suitcases, with blankets unfurled everywhere to facilitate at least the young ones possibly falling asleep. We found the same sort of thing in every car, along with the awkward encounters in the narrow hallway with conductors and a few passengers still trying to get around each of us with our big packs on our backs. And when we got to that front passenger car with no respite or solace, our bodies were tired and aching from shouldering our loads now for several hours. But our only choice was to retrace our steps. We headed back, again with the awkward hallway encounters, again past all the nestled families including the now mostly passed out dads and granddads who we had seen earlier drinking.

Finally back at the entrance to the cafe-bar car, there was no one about, except for the steward who had been dispensing the food and drink and was finishing cleaning up before locking the car up for the night. He was thirty-something, spoke some English and engaged us in friendly conversation. We told him we had walked to the front of the train and back and found absolutely nowhere to sit. He suggested that we could probably stay right here in the hallway by the cafe-bar entrance since it would be closed until it opened it up again the next morning. Now dead on our feet, we unshouldered our packs, propped them horizontally against the bulkheads so they couldn’t topple over on us, opened and rolled out our sleeping bags on the quivering and clanking metal floor, and used our down jackets as pillows. Despite feeling the corrugated metal floor wobbling beneath me, industrial strength “magic fingers” as it were, I quickly fell asleep, maybe lulled so by that rhythmic wobble. Like the previous night it was another first… the first time I had slept in the hallway of a train!

I awoke to a different steward standing above and speaking brusquely at us in Spanish. We did not understand most of his words, but knew we had to gather up our stuff and move. We quickly shouldered our packs and again began to negotiate the narrow hallway forward through the passenger cars, holding our impromptu bedding in our hands, hoping to find a couple seats that had opened up after several overnight stops, including a big one in Valencia. We passed those same compartments with the extended families, the older men who had been drunk at the cafe-bar car yesterday evening, later passed out with their families, were now awake drinking coffee and engaging their fellow family members in friendly conversation, a couple with young children on their laps.

We found two spots to sit in a compartment where the rest of the seats were taken up by one of the many families on the train – dad, mom, a young boy on her lap, his older brother, maybe five, sitting by the window, and an elderly woman, presumably grandma, sitting across from the mom by the compartment door. The kids were fascinated by Steve and I as we made our dramatic entrance, two tall beings with wild hair. They watched as we unshouldered our big frame packs and wrestled with our sleeping bags to get them back in their nylon sacks and stowed in their spots against the metal frame under the pack bags, then lifted the whole assemblage up on the luggage rack above the seat. Our entire show leading the two boys to what was obviously furtive conversations with their parents about the two of us, though we didn’t understand their words. The mom and dad smiled at us and we smiled back as they fielded their kids’ queries encouraging them to use quiet voices and not to point. When Steve and I talked to each other in English I could see our strange language caught the kids’ attention again, inspiring more verbal exchanges with their parents as the two kids shot glances at us.

It was one of those instances, that I was starting to get used to, of feeling like an oddity on display, or maybe more positively and given my theater background, like I was playing a character on stage. The role of the second hippieish traveller was played in today’s performance by Cooper JC Zale. Though sometimes my shyness got the best of me, like maybe in this instance with the perhaps equally shy Spanish family, still I was always proud of myself and my backpacker cohort, and what we represented. Young people who saw themselves as citizens of the world rather than parochial partisans of their country of origin. Sons and daughters of the American GIs who came to Europe thirty years ago at the same ages to fight against the armies of fascism. Finding our common ground with the offspring of the soldiers of the allied countries our fathers fought alongside with. And even finding new common ground with the sons and daughters of the men who fought in the armies of the fascist dictators.

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