Our train left the Madrid central train station a little after 10:30pm on Wednesday November 7 1973, headed north to the French border. From there my travel partner Steve and I planned to hitchhike back to Paris, where we had met each other three weeks ago. After spending a couple more days in the French capital together, we would finally go our separate ways having traveled together through Spain for the past three weeks. He to Switzerland to look for work to extend his stay before returning to the States. Me on to Italy to continue seeing the sites.
I was ready for us to part company. Back when we met, I had been so lonely, homesick and with very low morale, and the two of us had quickly bonded, really enjoying each other’s company. Now, though we had been through a lot together, there was more of a competitiveness to our relationship, and I felt like he was treating me more like a younger brother with whom a strong sibling rivalry prevailed. Of course when I said no to his request to have sex with me, that was certainly a big change point. At this moment, though still homesick, I was feeling much better about letting the last month of my travels play out, and traveling again on my own, before returning home to the States in mid December.
Steve and I were sharing a train compartment with a Spanish family including three kids, the youngest a maybe four year old boy, sitting on his mom’s lap. On one side his dad sat by the compartment door and on the other his brother, maybe a couple years older, by the window. His older sister, maybe eight or nine, sat across from her brother by the window on our side of the compartment. Steve and I had the remaining two seats on that side, me next to the girl. I don’t believe any of the family members spoke or understood any English, but they were constantly having animated conversations with each other in Spanish.
Though I could only translate the occasional word here or there, I got the gist of a discomforting family dynamic between very strict authoritarian parents and knuckled under but not happy about it kids. To the questions or comments made by the older kids, there were a fair amount of “No… tu madre…” responses from the dad and corresponding “No… su padre…” from the mom delivered in lecturing tones like two judges delivering rulings. The two adults were like a tag team, each cautioning their youthful charges not to go against the rules laid down by the other. The kids would respond to their parents statements generally with a quick “Si” while lowering their eyes, I guess to show their unhappy compliance. The whole thing was making me very uncomfortable, a fascist family in a fascist country.
As best I could tell from the sound of their voices and their non-verbal cues, the two older kids were not going to say anything challenging to their parents, speaking to their elders in measured tones and again with the downcast eyes. But the little one on mom’s lap was the loose cannon and would blurt something out, that I could not translate, but would cause his older siblings to snicker or laugh, dad and mom to roll their eyes, and one of the four of them to take turns lecturing the little one. It was like all the angst the older kids had toward their parents could only be directed at each other, or even better, toward their little brother, who didn’t know any better, but seemed somehow to get off being the center of attention and stirring his other family members up by saying something provocative or outrageous. Again, I could only judge what the younger one was coming out with based on the nonverbal and tone of voice reactions of his four family members.
The younger one had two comic books that he clutched possessively in his hands but wasn’t really looking at, probably unable to read yet. Whenever one of his siblings took one from him and started reading it, he got all fidgety and nervous. He didn’t directly demand the book’s return, I guess the comics were supposed to be shared among the three kids, but you could see that it was blowing his cool, and that his siblings were picking up on and exploiting that fact. Actually the youngest kid’s bemused contorted facial expressions were almost funny as his older siblings telegraphed their enjoyment of reading the comics, laughing at what they saw and read, sharing bits with each other and their parents. But it became clear to me that their intention was to tease their little brother, and dad and even mom were joining in at times, as a sort of shared family activity within the sanctioned authoritarian bounds and pecking order. This would eventually upset the little one to the point of crying, at which time his siblings would soon get bored of reading and return the comics to him. Fifteen minutes later, after their younger brother calmed down, one of his siblings would take a comic and the cycle would play through again.
Finally after midnight all the family members quieted down and the heavy eyed little one relinquished the comic books to his mom and fell into a fitful sleep on her lap. Everyone in the compartment dozed off. But at about three in the morning the little one started crying and just would not be consoled. For me, overtired and in that light hypnagogic semi-sleep, that sort of crying just sliced through my brain. I was grateful when the family finally debarked the train and we had the compartment to ourselves for a couple hours before reaching our destination.
Bleary from little sleep, we were awakened by the rap on the compartment door of the French customs agents who boarded the train at the last stop in Spain before crossing the border into France. They asked for and studied both our passports. They had us open all the various compartments of our backpacks so they could peek in and poke around with their gloved hands. They made us unroll, unzip and open up our sleeping bags. Intrusive as it was, it was way less so than the third degree we had gotten entering Spain ten days earlier, when the Spanish custom agents practically dismantled Zo and Randall’s VW van looking presumably for drugs.
I was struck by the difference between the French and Spanish police and customs agents, or at least how I perceived them. The Spanish officers generally carried weapons, some of them, like guards at government buildings, even machine guns. But they tended to be younger and friendlier than you might expect given their military type uniforms and weaponry. The French police and customs officers, ironically, were generally unarmed, not dressed like soldiers, but way more officious and intimidating in the way they carried themselves, spoke and went about their business.
Surviving the search, Steve and I debarked the train in the small town of Hendaye, just over the French side of the border and the end of the line. If I had been on my own, given my rail pass, I would have waited for the next train to Paris. But though bleary like me from little sleep, Steve was determined to try to hitchhike to save the cost of train fare. I had made the decision to stick out our travel partnership until our agreed upon parting after our return to Paris, and not fight with him about whether to take trains or hitch. He was determined to do the latter and I was equally determined to go with the flow unperturbed.
We walked a ways from the train station before finding a grocery store to provision up for the day of hitchhiking. Besides the obvious fact that everything cost double in train stations, we had learned that, particularly in the more northern European countries, even stores near a train station were generally more expensive than ones farther away that did not cater so much to tourists and travelers. Despite that fact, it seemed that the bread, cheese, yogurt and Coke that we bought was almost double the cost we would have paid for the same stuff in Spain, particularly outside of more expensive Madrid.
We walked out of town a few kilometers along the road north to Bordeaux, Tours and eventually Paris, and put out our thumbs for a ride. It was a gorgeous crisp fall day in that mild coastal climate, just inland from the Bay of Biscay, an area of France I was familiar with from playing my Avalon Hill D-Day game simulating the Allied invasion of France in 1944. The tree lined road crossed some nice low hills between small farms with old stone houses and barns. It was quite pleasant, but there was only the occasional car driving by and none of them were stopping to give us a ride. I was sleepy and totally happy to just be in the moment doing nothing.
Steve was less sanguine, really cranky even from lack of sleep, commenting to me sarcastically at one point that I needed to “grow a pair of tits and a pussy” so we could get a ride. He would say tangential sexual stuff like that to me every once in awhile when he was in a bad mood. I think he was still frustrated that I had resisted what he perceived as my natural attraction to him. I acknowledged his comment, chuckled at the obvious humor and even the subtext, and went back to spacing out and staring at the hilly horizon and the blue blue sky, perhaps passive aggressively content to be perfectly in the moment while he continued to stew. That sort of reaction by me to him had emerged as another aspect of our relationship.
So after a couple hours, noting the number of Mercedes that had spurned us with just a lone person at the wheel, Steve decided to make a sign using our trusty magic marker and sheets of newsprint from the International Herald Tribune. The sign read “Deutsch gesprochenen” to indicate to those lone possibly German speaking drivers that they could mitigate the boredom of the drive engaging in conversation with at least one of their riders.
After another two hours, still blissfully passed by me at least in the gestalt of the rural geography, Steve’s strategy finally worked. A lone driver pulled over, an older German man wearing a business suit but no tie, ironically driving a Spanish made SEAT rather than a German Mercedes. Before we got in the car, Steve had an initial conversation with him in German and found out he was driving through Paris back to Germany. Quite the break, since it was easily an eight hour drive to Paris, and given the more typical shorter rides and waits in between, it might have taken us two days to get to our destination. Steve and I concurred that he should sit in front since he spoke the guy’s language, and he would occasionally translate their conversation for me, in the back seat with our packs. After an initial round of conversation in German with our host, Steve informed me that Walter was driving through Paris to Cologne to visit his daughter, who had five kids and had recently separated from her husband.
It was such a pretty afternoon drive across the French countryside, which looked much like the States but a bit more picturesque with the old stone farms and towns, and I happily dozed in and out of consciousness in the back seat as Steve had to do double duty, though bleary like me, conversing with our gabby host.
At one point we pulled over and Steve informed me that Walter had stopped to pee. Rather than find a gas station, Walter just pulled over to the side of the road and in full view of the road and the farm across the road, he unzipped his fly, pulled out his penis and let it rip. He urinated unabashedly with a palpable sense of entitlement. We had exited the car as well, our bladders pretty full too, and Steve cast a look at me like, “Well you can hold it if you want but i’m going for it!” Not to be outdone, I quickly joined them. All three of us watering the plants by the side of the road, me looking about as I did so, a bit embarrassed and wondering who was watching us and whether what we were doing was even legal and might get us arrested. Walter glanced briefly at the two of us with our dicks out and cracked the slightest smile and chuckle as we shared in his entitlement. It was a case of “when in Rome…”, or more specifically, when in France do what the Germans do. Steve, I noted, still had the biggest dick of the three of us.
Continuing on the road for several more hours, darkness came on and we were still quite a ways from Paris, so Walter decided he needed a break from driving and was going to stop for dinner. He had started his drive that morning from Madrid. If he had been closer to our age, we probably would have offered to take turns driving like we had on the long haul from Lyon to Barcelona in the VW van with Zo and Randall. But Walter was in his fifties, clearly part of our parent’s generation, and the generation gap between us, given Walter’s seriousness and formality, seemed like an unbridgeable chasm. Though I only got some of the content of their conversation translated to me by Steve, the cadence of Walter’s questions made it sound like he was interrogating my travel partner, who obediently provided the information requested, and would politely respond with his own questions as conventionally appropriate to do so.
After a quick mostly unspoken sidebar of facial expressions with me in the back, Steve and I being almost telepathic with each other after living and traveling together for the past few weeks, we decided to join him and eat, though we really weren’t into spending all that money. It just seemed like the appropriate thing to do given the scope of the ride he was giving us.
We had an amazing meal. First potato soup, hot and nicely spiced with rosemary. Then gobs of stuff – marinated cabbage, cucumbers, chicken paste, lettuce salad – from the h’or d’oeuvres tray. After that were bowls of big grilled chunks of tender beef in gravy served with pomme frites, “French french fries”. Then dessert, a delicious pudding filled cake that I would later learn was tiramisu, served with coffee. Both Steve and I just stuffed ourselves. I hadn’t been planning on eating anything special that evening, just leftover salami, crackers and hard cheese, the remains from the morning provisioning at the grocery store. But here was all this wonderful food, and of course there was the bottle of wine, and not our usual cheap stuff but a dry red Bordeaux, the product of a city we had driven through several hours back.
It had never occurred to me prior to my European trip that the wine varietals were named after the region of, in this case France, where the grapes were grown, and reflected the special features of the geography of that region. Being a great lover of everything geographical I thought that was really neat.
At meals end Steve and I excused ourselves from the table and huddled in the bathroom at adjoining urinals as to how we were going to pay for this, for our total combined amount of francs did not cover what we estimated would be our share. But when we returned to the table it was like Walter had tapped into our conversation and he insisted on paying for everything, this was his show to orchestrate. We probably should have at least halfheartedly protested to not seem like we were expecting him to pay, but we both thanked him profusely in German and English. Walter was turning out to be the kind of ride you hear about in hitchhiking lore but, if you even believe the story is true, never think you will actually experience for yourself.
Leaving the restaurant, we got back on the road to Paris, which Walter figured we’d get to a bit after midnight. That would be too late for us to find a hostel to stay at, so as we neared the French capital we told our host that we’d look for a good woods by the side of the road to pitch our tent and spend the night, where he could let us off. We were so tired we really weren’t looking forward to the hassle and so couldn’t decide on one that looked appropriately isolated enough for our clandestine lodging, and we were soon greeted by lighted highway and factories which marked the outskirts of the metropolis.
Apparently Walter was planning on driving around Paris and continuing on a bit more before stopping for the night. We figured we’d let him get out of town again and then we’d find our woods. But as we drove through the outskirts of the city, the signs got very confusing. I got out my map and tried to to be useful navigating, through Steve as the translator, but I just managed to get us even more lost in a light industrial area in the western part of the city. Though I didn’t understand his words exchanged with Steve, I could tell Walter was fatigued to the point of frustration and I had perhaps only made the situation worse.
We drove by what looked like a little cafe or diner with a cab driver parked out front smoking a cigarette. Walter pulled into the parking lot, and spoke to the driver in French, then German to Steve, who translated for me in English. We would leave the car here, and take the cab into the city to a hotel. In the morning the cabbie would take Walter back to his car. Seemed like a very strange plan to me, why not just drive the car to the hotel, but I guess Walter was done with driving for the day. I felt bad that I might have contributed to his frustration and fatigue with my errant directions, and after him being so nice to us with the long ride and the wonderful expensive dinner, and worried as he must be about his daughter’s situation.
Steve and I managed to get our packs and Walter’s suitcase into the cab’s trunk. We sat in the backseat while Walter sat in front and conversed with the driver in French. Steve and I had a whispered sidebar in English in the backseat that given Walter’s proclivities it would probably be an expensive hotel, with the two of us having no possibility after midnight finding an open hostel. We didn’t think he would pay for our own hotel room, and we did not even think of sharing a room with him. Would we have to pay some huge sum of money to get our own room? Or maybe find a train or bus station where we could hang out or maybe even sleep in the waiting room until morning? The driver took us into the center of the city by what seemed like the most indirect route imaginable. Ever frugal, I was fixated on the meter clicking away, ringing up the charge, as we seemed to meander through the dark urban environs.
The driver stopped at a hotel by the Opera House, and with the meter still incrementing Walter went in to see what he could get. He came back out and told Steve they had a single room for him for 30 francs and one for us for 130 francs, which was more than $25 US. I could see Steve’s brow furrow as he cast his eyes down and said something to Walter in German. Walter frowned as well and then told the cab driver in French to continue the search for another hotel. He took us to a little hotel by the Gare du Nord train station which had a room with two beds for 66 francs, which Walter decided was our best bet, to be shared by the three of us, and he said he would pay for. It was now two in the morning as we hauled our stuff up to the room in a funky little elevator that barely fit the three of us, Steve and I with our packs, and the bellhop.
The room was a bit overwhelming. Not only did it have wallpaper on all the walls with a brown floral pattern, but it also had the same wallpaper on the ceiling and the doors. Only the floor and all the moulding was bare wood. It had two beds, a single and a double. Walter took the smaller and we would share the other. I was the last one to make a trip to the bathroom down the hall, and when I came back Walter was in his gray silk pajamas in his bed, with Steve in the other bed on the side closest to Walter’s. I undressed to my t-shirt and underwear and slid into the bed next to Steve. Now actually in the same bed with him and still a bit gunshy since his sexual proposition in Granada, I tried to stay as far on my side as possible without being obvious about it.
I pondered the events of that night in Granada when his proposition had been followed by a long argument where he tried to make the case that I was attracted to him and was simply falling victim to conventional thinking, and not, to paraphrase Stephen Stills, loving the one I was with. Though I understood the mechanics of sex with a woman, the foreplay and vaginal penetration, I really did not have a sense of how that heterosexual union would move beyond the mechanical to something truly sensuous and how that would play out, one thing leading to another. The few sex scenes I had seen in R-rated movies and tales I had heard from peers in high school or college seemed more like lurid sexual conquests in the heat of some all consuming passion, rather than my natural urge to just get naked together and play with each other and see where that went, no big deal.
As to how sex with a guy would play out, besides the societal taboos about “queers” and “faggots”, I wasn’t even clear on the mechanics – kissing, sucking, jerking off, penetration – let alone moving beyond the mechanical to something appropriately fun and intimate. If we could have just approached it like two kids in a candy store of sorts, well maybe that would have been fun and fulfilling. But I had no idea whether Steve would have been willing to approach it that way, and I would not want to set any ball in motion (no pun intended) not knowing if it would be just fun exploration like that, or degenerate into some ardent quest on Steve’s part to “take” or “have” me. No thanks! Despite all these percolating thoughts, sleep soon overtook me.
We woke up about ten, when breakfast, which was included in the cost, was brought to our room. It was bread, apricot marmalade and coffee and tasted very good. While the three of us sat around the table and ate, Steve replied to something Walter had said about the continuing standoff in the Middle East where the Israelis still had the Egyptian Third Army surrounded in the Sinai desert east of the Suez Canal. This triggered Walter to spill forth his political beliefs in what must have been a forty minute rant in German, a language that can sound intimidating when spoken with such intensity. His words were mostly directed at Steve, who would respond with an occasional “Ja” or another German phrase that I did not recognize. Walter would occasionally glance at me as well, and I sensed from his body language that he was assuming we were in agreement with his political views.
As best as Steve could translate it for me, Walter was a very conservative German businessman. He disliked Willy Brandt, the current German Chancellor from the Social Democratic Party, saying that Brandt was selling his country out to the Russians. He said that communism was bad because in practice it didn’t work, the Russian workers and farmers were very poor. Socialism discouraged people from working hard, made them lazy.
On a roll with his rant, Walter then said that though Hitler had had his faults that he had kept the country free of communism and had revived the German spirit, encouraged business to thrive while holding down the prices on food. He had apparently served in the German army during World War Two, but said that even though his country was ultimately defeated by America, he had a great admiration for our country and our work ethic. Segueing to his take on our country, he said that he thought Nixon was a strong leader too, by implication I guess like Hitler, and felt that liberals trying to brand him as a criminal were out of line.
It was discomforting for me to realize that our current host and benefactor had fought in Hitler’s army against our own fathers in World War Two, Steve later sharing his similar discomfort. Walter might even have been a full blown Nazi for all we knew, approving of the holocaust of the Jews, we were not about to ask him. And here he was reaching out to try and establish some common ground with us of the younger generation. Steve didn’t want to provoke him by challenging anything that he said, including his very provocative comments about Hitler, and just listened respectfully.
Walter was not the first older German man I had encountered on my trip who had expressed a nostalgic longing for Hitler, and not just prosperous ones like Walter, but even older guys who were living on the street. It was very disturbing and even creepy, and always in situations like this one where I felt intimidated to challenge it, and instead just remained silent and wondering, in the words of the iconic Eldridge Cleaver mantra, if I was part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Most of the Germans I had interacted with, like Angelica and Helmut, had acknowledged their country’s dark past, but were from a younger generation that was focused on the present and the future,
We finally finished eating as his rant ran out of steam and he realized that we were politely but uncomfortably silent and not responding to his strong opinions, probably because we didn’t agree and we were about to part ways with him. It was a profoundly awkward moment, after all he had done for us, he had shared his soul and we were shocked and stunned into polite silence. I could tell that he was feeling that something was suddenly very wrong, but his pride and our unwillingness to confront him created a huge chasm between him and us.
We again thanked him profusely, too profusely, disingenuously profusely, Steve in German and me in English, for all his gracious hospitality. We said our goodbyes, with that elephant still in the room, seeing his distress that we seemed suddenly so eager to go. Maybe if his rant had been in English I would have screwed up the courage to challenge him directly, but not indirectly with Steve having to translate. I felt we owed it to him to be more honest, but instead we made our retreat, and shouldering our big packs, Steve and I left the hotel and Walter behind and headed for the train station for our final days together back in Paris.