It was still Friday November 23 1973, and I was still processing my encounter on the train with Sophia, as I proceeded from the Venice station to find my way to the local hostel. It was by far the most sexually charged encounter I’d ever had with another human being, her pressing me about details of the women I was attracted to, sharing details of losing her virginity in the backseat of a car, and her not discouraging me from ogling her very oglable boobs. Yet she was probably more than twice my age, the age of some of my mom’s younger peers.
It’s not like I wasn’t attracted to, and maybe even casually flirted with some of my mom’s female friends, who indulged in the same with me. They were strong, intelligent, activist women, which is why my mom befriended them and why they interested me as well. Struggling for equality as they were, if their male peers were going to flirt with much younger women, they would flirt with much younger men right back. Some of them were single, either never married or divorced like my mom. But even married ones would play the flirt game, just like the married men. It wasn’t the sexually repressed 1950s anymore. They were all going through the sexual revolution in a very liberal university town that prided itself on its openness to most everything. It was a very egalitarian time, and one where people no longer acknowledged or respected their elders, I certainly didn’t. So if I, still a teen, wanted to engage with the grown ups at my mom’s parties, I was fair game. Everybody was flirting with everybody, at least in the whole male-female dynamic, if not much much more. Several of my mom’s married male friends were allegedly having affairs, and some had even hit on her at one point or another, particularly when they’d had too much to drink and their wives were not around.
But the whole thing with Sophia had been different, up a couple orders of magnitude, like nothing I had experienced with my mom’s female peers, let alone my own. Maybe this was my libido talking, but if those three older women hadn’t been in the compartment with us, Sophia and I might have ended up kissing and groping each other. Certainly I was going to be fantasizing about doing that and more, even being ‘inside her’, tonight alone with my thoughts in my sleeping bag, or even acting on it if I could find some privacy in a bathroom. Having and acting on fantasies about my own female peers, and even a couple male peers, was one thing, but this was truly a disquieting ‘brave new world’.
Yet if I had it all to do over again, would I have rathered it hadn’t happened? No way! It was that delicious intimacy with another human being that I craved. If I had to let my ‘cradle be robbed’ as it were to get some, that was the price I had to pay.
That underlying feeling of being unmoored doubled my longing to just flee Italy and go to Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps, but I was determined to complete the Rome-Florence-Venice ‘circuit’, as I had promised myself. Then the day after tomorrow, catch the evening overnight train to Interlaken Switzerland, and from there to Grindelwald. Having checked the train schedule for future reference, the information desk directed me to a place where I could catch what I thought would be a bus to the youth hostel.
As was often the case, it was more a matter of just following other obvious backpacker types ahead of me that had already started off to our shared destination. Of course, that sometimes meant that whoever was out in front of you, effectively and possibly unknowingly leading everyone else behind them, would make a wrong turn and you would all end up lost. Not great, but at least you were lost together, and then could more explicitly collaborate, pull out maps and so on, and figure out the proper course to the destination, and even maybe connect with someone interesting in the process.
But luckily, we did not lose our way in this case. But by the time I left the confines of the station, it had gotten dark and there was a thick fog and that dank smell of rusted metal, burnt diesel, and rotting seaweed that reminded you you were in a port city. After a short walk through what seemed like a light industrial district adjacent to the station, the bus stop turned out to be a boat dock. I asked a couple other backpackers types if this was the way to the youth hostel and they replied in German, with just enough words that I understood, that they thought it was. It was nice to at least superficially connect with a couple fellow travelers, even if they didn’t speak very much of my language nor I theirs. I knew many of their thoughts and mine were the same even though we couldn’t communicate those thoughts to each other with words.
We paid our fare and boarded, and the boat made its way out into the quiet even soupier fog of the lagoon, continuing into a wide canal, cutting through the calm waters with dirty old apparently once majestic buildings barely visible on either side. I did my best to make conversation with my two German comrades, who had arrived from the other direction I had, on the train from Vienna. But my soul was gripped by the all encompassing fog, hanging just above the dank dark water. The boat came up to a small quay, which we were told was where we should get off, reversing its engines to stop. People climbed off without even a line being tied, and after we had all deboarded, the boat’s engines powered up again and it quickly moved off and continued up the canal, truly more like a bus stop than a proper boat docking.
We were on a concrete walkway along the side of the canal with a line of low dark buildings on the other side of the walkway looking out onto the water. You really couldn’t call it a ‘street’, since there were no cars, no street signs, no road actually, and the buildings did not seem to have any addresses that we could make out. There were just a few overhead lights and gratefully a lit window here and there in the otherwise dark and sullen facades of building fronts. Down a ways was an area with several overhead lights and what appeared to be a building with lots of light emanating from all its windows. We all figured, certainly at least hoped, that was our destination. We walked toward it, walking by narrow dark alleys heading off away from the canal into seemingly nowhere, and were relieved to find that it was in fact our destination.
The hostel was a welcome oasis of light and noise and activity amidst the fog, muffled quiet and darkness. We entered the typical common room with tables, chairs and couches strewn about. At one end was a table piled with paper and brochures that was apparently the registration area, but nobody staffing it at the moment. A dozen or so other obvious members of our backpacker cohort sat about the room conversing, though not anyone that I recognized. Some were eating, a couple guys sitting across from each other were playing bits of songs on guitars, like they were comparing notes or maybe trying to find a song they both knew how to play. Soon a young man in maybe his mid twenties noticed us, got to his feet, and made his way over to sit behind the registration table and waved at us to come over. Luckily there were plenty of beds available. I’m not sure what I would have done if the place had somehow been full. Maybe turn around, catch the boat back to the mainland, return to the station, and catch the later evening train on to Switzerland.
I wondered where Sophia was now. Probably at some fancy hotel on shore sipping a martini at the bar with those three older men, all of them so enjoying her company and fantasizing about having sex with her. Derrick would definitely label her a ‘slut’, and other guys I knew might fault her for ‘toying’ with me. But I had learned enough from my mom and her feminist friends that women were not mischievous aliens, and also not paragons of virtue to be held to a higher standard than men. Just fellow people with the same needs and desires that I had, to be given their due as I should be given mine. Sophia and I had willingly entered into our little encounter and enjoyed it (I certainly had), and I even got a nice free meal with lots of wine out of it!
I had hoped I would encounter Jen and Sarah in the common room, since they still should be in town, but the two Aussies were nowhere to be seen at this point. Even though to me it felt like the middle of the night, it really wasn’t. They were probably still exploring the city or chowing down at the already found best cheap place to get a delicious hot meal, as they had in Florence.
The two German guys and I found beds for ourselves in the bunkroom. They left their packs behind because they were headed into the city and even offered to have me join them but I declined. It wasn’t that we barely knew enough of each other’s languages to cobble together anything more than the most rudimentary conversation. It was more that I just felt so fragile and unmoored, and needed the familiarity of yet another hostel common room to try to ground myself before I ventured out into the dark foggy dreamscape outside. The sun was going down early now in late November and the chill in the air plus the thick fog added to that sense that one’s day was done and one should retreat to cozy confines, such as were available. I decided to stay put at the hostel and see if Jen and Sarah turned up, and then venture forth in the morning. Hopefully after a night’s sleep, in the light of day I would feel more grounded and ready to explore.
Since I was staying put for the evening and needing to access various food, utensils and maybe other stuff in my pack, I unbungied my sleeping bag from its location against the aluminum frame below the main nylon bag of the thing, pulled it out of its sack and spread it on my mattress, to claim my sleeping place. I returned to the common room with the rest of my kit and found an unoccupied table. It really wasn’t as late as it felt, the clock on the wall said it was only 7:30.
A key way I acclimated myself to a new locale was by studying it on any maps I had access to. First my wonderful Western Europe map, to see its context within its country and region, plus relative to important rivers, lakes, mountains, forests or seas. I pulled the thing out of its side pocket of my pack with its shiny cardstock cover, a reassuring stiff smoothness to my fingertips. That map was precious to me, so much so that ideally I would have kept it in my money belt around my waist with my other critical documents, travelers checks and paper money. But alas, it was too bulky and large in its even folded up dimensions to fit. It now had food stains and some minor tears along the edges, but was well made and still very reassuringly intact.
The challenge to make it useful in a particular instance was to unfold it and then refold it strategically so the viewable map section showed my current location and its applicable environs, but was not so large as to not fit easily in my hand, on my lap, or other current work surface. But also in that refolding, not stress its creases so much that it would start to degrade and tear along the foldlines. At that moment I managed to create a visible area that included the city, Northern and Central Italy, plus the southern part of Switzerland, including the city of Interlaken, as the name suggested, aptly wedged between two long narrow lakes, Thunersee and Brienzersee. It was the visible gateway to my much anticipated Grindelwald, which was too small to show on my map. Venice was on the shores of the Adriatic at the northeast top of the very leggy boot of Italy. A long boot squishing the northern Medditeranean Sea into the Tyrannian Sea to the west and the Adriatic to the east.
From that high level context I would descend to a street map. One of the first things I did when I arrived at any city was search for a good detailed map of its streets, and not just some of the larger streets like some free touristy maps. I had found and paid for detailed street maps of the center city of both Rome and Florence which I used extensively in both to navigate around town. At Venice station they happened to be out of free maps at the information desk nor had I found one for sale in the station shops. But the hostel brochure I’d been given just now by the guy who checked us in at least had a small map on the back identifying all the islands in the lagoon that made up the old city, and the boat bus lines and stops that connected them. He said that the hostel was on Giudecca Island across the main channel from the central part of the old city, which itself was essentially another island, connected to the mainland by just a narrow causeway. Our two islands were in the lagoon surrounded by a number of other inhabited islands that were also parts of the city and could only be reached by the boat buses.
Nibbling now on some peanut butter crackers from my pack’s food stash, I studied the little map and other tourist brochures I’d picked up at the front desk. The two guys with guitars searching for musical common ground finally found some, and were both banging out the chords and singing the lyrics of the Who’s “My Generation”. It was a now iconic call and response sort of song, one of them singing the main lyrical line, doing a passable job on the requisite stutter, and the other the response, “Talkin’ ‘bout my generation”…
People try to put us d-down (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Things they do look awful c-c-cold (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I hope I die before I get old (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Why don’t you all f-fade away (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
And don’t try to dig what we all s-s-say (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m not trying to cause a big s-s-sensation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my g-g-g-generation (Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
This is my generation
This is my generation, baby
It sent shivers down my spine to hear The Who’s seminal anthem in this context, a room full of my backpacker cohort, where most everybody had their freak flag long hair and nobody seemed over thirty. The song’s narrator was the stuttering youth calling out his alienation and independence from an oppressive and clueless older generation, who were profoundly unable to understand what we were about. Unsure of himself perhaps, thus the stutter, but certain of who his cohort and comrades were, what the deal was, and who were his adversaries. The last line did strike a note of discord. The ‘baby’ presumably referring to his girlfriend or other female comrade. Wasn’t it HER generation too?
Though I myself had never been so in your face in my own challenge of the established order of my parents’ generation, I resonated with that blunt take no prisoners point of view, as exemplified in this lyric and others, like the MC5’s “High School”…
The kids know what the deal is
We’re getting spun around every day
We’re going to be taking over
You better get out of the way
As the two of them played on, I pulled out and counted my remaining travelers checks out of my money belt, about $150 U.S. I judged it enough to sustain me for a couple more weeks on the Continent and then pay for a boat back to England and my last few days there before my flight left for the States on December 11, though cutting it kind of close. I really was looking forward to spending at least four of those days in Grindelwald, up in the Swiss Alps, relaxing by the fire and eating that wonderful Swiss yogurt, if nothing else. I reaffirmed in my own mind that I would spend just two nights here in Venice and take the overnight train Sunday evening to Interlaken, from where I was told I could catch another train up to Grindelwald.
“Did you rob a bank?” The question came out of nowhere and was asked with an impertinent lilt by a guy who had been sitting at a table near me and apparently observing me. He was perhaps the one person in the room actually over thirty, maybe in his forties even, and spoke his English with a charming French accent.
I chuckled, and riffing on the Who’s ‘won’t get fooled again’ nihilism, delivered my response line with a scoff and a big dose of deadpan pathos.
“Yeah well… with my luck the bank turned out to be nearly bankrupt!”
His eyes lit up like he had found a kindred spirit.
“Nothing is sacred!” he scoffed in response, then, “May I join you?”
“Always a place for a fellow traveler!” I replied. That was my second homage to Trix’s opening line back some four days ago as she and I entered that already full train compartment with the rest of her crew.
I motioned to the empty chair across from me and he sat. Following Trix and Jen etiquette, I thrust out my right hand. Unlike with Sophia, there was no overthinking what to say.
“I’m Cooper. It’s a pleasure!”
His eyes twinkled. “Then I must be Jules. The pleasure looks to be mine as well!” It was a hardy handshake.
I gave him a two minute introduction of who I was, like I was a talk show host introducing me at the start of an interview. Born and raised in Ann Arbor Michigan in the States. Came over with a friend but she bailed after a week. List of countries I’d been to. Now eight weeks into a maybe eleven week backpacking journey through Western Europe. Homesick and running on fumes at the moment. Headed to the mountains in Switzerland in a couple of days to hopefully sit by a roaring fire, stare out at the snowy Alpine peaks, and add some fuel to the tank to get me home. I was remarkably candid in my synopsis, even though I was stone cold sober. I finished with a theatrical “that’s all, folks” look and was quiet.
“Just as I suspected”, he responded, grinning, and went into his own spiel.
He was indeed French, but apologizing for the alliteration, more precisely a “Breton from Brest in Brittany… the busy port not the body part”. (With his accent, I wasn’t sure whether he’d said ‘body’ or ‘baudy’, but I didn’t ask.) He worked for the French auto company Simca and had been on business in Italy. He dabbled in the literary and dramatic arts in his spare time, and aspired to be, “The second worst Breton playwright”. He had the weekend free and decided to come to Venice. He was traveling alone like I was at this point, so looking for company.
He finished his initial self portrait and looked into my eyes.
“Are you hungry young man?”
He pulled a big loaf of ciabatta bread out of the big cloth bag in his lap. He placed it in the middle of the table like a wager. I laughed and pulled my own smaller loaf out of the top of my pack and placed it parallel to his.
“Apparently mine is bigger than yours”, he noted, pausing like it was another humorous statement and he was waiting for me to laugh again, and when I didn’t respond, finally continuing with a raised eyebrow and his nice French accent, “Yours is probably fresher!”
“I suggest we both share”, he continued, “And replace my mere speculation with some hard data!” He broke his loaf apart and handed half to me. Playing along, I followed suit and handed him half of my separated loaf. I pulled the rest of my squirrelled food out of my pack. Hard salami, hard cheese, and a box of raisins.
He tore a bite out of my loaf with his teeth and chewed it lustily, finally swallowing and noting, “Yours is delicious!” and then scoffed, “Mine may leave something to be desired.”
I chuckled dutifully and nodded, and we ate our little indoor picnic of food, heavy on the ciabatta. I couldn’t taste any difference between his loaf and mine, and I chalked all his comparisons up to his attempts to be always witty and pithy, like I was going to otherwise write him off as over thirty and not be interested in him. But he was a welcome distraction, though I did not tell him that. I did try to show him with more nods, smiles and chuckles that I was enjoying his schtick.
We talked pretty much nonstop until curfew at 11pm. He was an interesting contrast, in some ways very adult and calculating, yet in others very childlike and irreverent. He really could not talk about anything seriously for more than five minutes or so before finding all manner of humor in it and turning the whole topic into a joke or some sort of satire. His work was serious enough. He was an automotive engineer and was part of a team that designed cars, a profession he of course had come to find ridiculous, but paying well enough to pretend that it wasn’t.
Trying to engage with him with my own parallel irreverence, I chimed in.
“But not well enough”, I pointed out, “That you’re not lodging on the cheap at a youth hostel!”
“I am undone!” he replied, feigning great injury, “You cut me to the quick!”
He was too much! Like a French John Cleese from Monty Python, smart and with a sharp acid wit, outrageous at times to a fault.
When I told him the long tale of my travels, he came up with outlandish backstories for people in my narrative. I told him the story of the two Norwegian women I had met in Chur, big sweet Ashild and her travel companion the very political anarchist thinking Bublil, their Israeli friend David, and the incident where we got pulled over when I was driving the wrong way on a one-way street and ended up taking a breathalyzer test. Jules said that the two young women were obviously Norwegian intelligence agents, Bublil the brains and Ashild the muscle, posing as anarchists to infiltrate a Baader-Meinhof Gang cell in Switzerland. David was a Mossad agent with a competing operation against the Gang that he wanted to keep hidden from Bublil’s team while keeping them under surveillance. The police pulling us over had been staged by David, who then was able to pass documents to Swiss authorities under Bublil’s nose, given that I had described how David had drunkenly grabbed one piece of paper after another from the glove compartment and handed it to me to give to the police officers. I found it ridiculous but very funnily so, and at least momentarily pulled me out of my ennui and homesickness.
Just before curfew Jen and Sarah literally stumbled into the hostel, laughing and both obviously pretty drunk. Jules and I were the only other people in the common room, but sitting in a far corner from the outside door, initially unnoticed by the two of them. When Jen, who was in the lead, started to stumble backward, Sarah grabbed her comrade’s shoulders to hold her up and then massaged them briefly. She then kissed Jen on the back of her neck. Jen arched her back and moaned in response, then executed an awkward 180 degree turn, grabbed either side of Sarah’s head and planted a big long kiss on her mouth, which Sarah responded to as passionately as it was delivered. I had never seen two women kiss in such an intense romantic way. When their mouths separated they both finally noticed the two of us in the corner, recognized me and called out “Coopster… you’re here!” and giggled as they stumbled into the hallway to the women’s bunkrooms and out of sight.
After the two Aussies had blown through and Jules and I were alone again, he addressed me with all the mock seriousness he could muster.
“Two drunken wanton daughters of Sappho stumble into our humble lodgings and they both know you? I did not even suspect I was in the presence of the actual ‘Coopster’!”
I told him it was a long interesting story and I’d fill him in tomorrow. He said he would love to hear it and would even buy me breakfast so I would tell him the longer version! We agreed that we would head out in the morning together to explore the city, and adjourned finally to our bunks.
Ensconced in my now so familiar sleeping bag, where I had spent maybe half my nights since arriving in Europe eight weeks ago, and every night since arriving in Italy a week ago, I pondered my weird day and the strange dreamlike lagoon city that now surrounded me. My own libido still percolated as I replayed my encounter with sexy sophisticated Sophia on the train, trying to rationalize the dynamics of that encounter, while also indulging the fantasy of our naked bodies together in bed, her noting when I was finally ‘inside her’. And then my voyeuristic witness of the first lesbian kiss that I could ever recall having seen. Given my own crush on both Jen and Sarah, their display of similar feelings for each other generated both a sense of thrill and one of jealousy in me. I longed for that level of intimacy with either of them that they had with each other. My mind kept recycling and playing through all the thoughts rather than quieting into unconsciousness.
Finally it was morning and I surrendered any further attempt to sleep. A diffuse subdued light lacking any of the warm color temperatures of direct sun suggested that the low cloud still enveloped the lagoon. That bubble like feeling in my head from lack of sleep made everything seem even more dreamlike. In the bathroom I tested the shower and the water felt ice cold, so for yet another day I had no shower, but I did give myself a bird bath with a wet soapy washcloth. Now clothed and somewhat cleaned, I emerged into the common room of the hostel.
Jules saw me and waved me over to his table. I was generally not one to drink coffee, but he offered to get me a cup and I consented. The hot bitter liquid from a percolator set up at the checkin table anchored me in some sense of reality, the caffeine buzz not really counteracting but adding another aspect to the bubble of sleeplessness in my head. Thus stoked, we headed out to take the boat bus across the channel to the main island of the city. The hostel’s island was separated by a 100 meter wide channel from the main island. It was almost directly across from St. Marco’s piazza. All along the wide channel boats were docked – big tankers and passenger ships, small tugs and fishing boats. In the sound muffling fog, the only noise one could hear was the groan and chug of our boat’s engine and the low whoosh of water sliding along it’s outer hull.
Now on the other side of the channel, the ‘bus’ having chugged off, a quiet was everywhere as we made our way down old narrow alleyways. We passed other pedestrians, and I felt the strangeness of a city with no cars, so none of that background audio buzz of engines and horn noises that one would hear in virtually any other city in Europe or the entire world. Without the vehicle traffic and with the old building facades, I could almost imagine what the city looked, sounded and felt like prior to our industrial age. Times when rich merchants walked the streets and all sorts of exotic goods from the Middle East, India and even China were being hauled about or sold in the markets.
Our alleyway finally opened up into our destination, the Piazza San Marcos, the center of the old city. The piazza was rectangular, about 50 meters across and over 200 in length. On three sides were the long facades of three story buildings, with arches all along the ground floor level. On the fourth side farthest from us and obscured in the fog, was the Basilica. We found a little cafe, sat at one of its tables just outside the door with a view out onto the piazza, and bought some coffee, bread, butter and cheese, which Jules insisted on paying for.
I was happy to have another well to do patron today, as Sophia had been yesterday on the train. And as previously agreed, I told Jules the extended version of my encounters with Sarah and Jen in Rome and Florence, and how I had been dubbed “the Coopster” by Jen. His subsequent outrageous backstory for the two of them was that Jen was obviously a succubus that “consumed men for breakfast”, who not fully satisfied by easily seducible male types, was now upping her game by seducing women as well. I generally enjoyed and even participated in his creative flights of fantasy, but in this case I felt like he’d crossed a line into belittling two of my comrades I had great affection for. I felt too much fatigue to challenge his narrative, or think up a more positive alternative story of my own, so I just nodded, and waited pensively for him to finish his thought and move on, and he detected the tepidness of my response.
“Forgive me young man”, he said, showing a little pout, “I am wicked at times in my jests, and spare no one, not even myself. I mean no disrespect to your fellow travelers. I am duly chastised!” He made a show of slapping himself on the wrist.
He was, as always, charming, and I nodded and grinned this time.
The piazza had its share of humans, mostly of the tourist variety, but more notably an overabundance of the most assertive pigeons I had ever seen. There were hundreds of them all told in the square clustered in big groups pecking at bits of possible food on the ground. When one bird moved to a new location on its own and looked like it had found something edible, dozens of others would fly towards the spot to join the scrum to get their share. There were several street vendors selling small paper bags of seed to feed the birds. When some tourist type bought a bag and scattered some seeds on the ground, they would be inundated by the birds, the most brazen of the mob even landing on the person’s arms, shoulders and head. Even people passing through the square not even attempting to feed the pigeons could be accosted. It just took one hungry bird thinking this human might have food and flying to their feet, to get a bunch of its hair trigger comrades to converge on that person as well.
Finishing our buttered bread, cheese and coffee, Jules and I finally ventured from our cafe across the piazza towards the basilica, hugging the archway on the perimeter of the square to try to avoid most of the aggressive birds. We finally walked up its steps and entered the big old spooky church. Its walls were painted in dark somber colors, and the floor was like nothing I had seen before, sunk in some spots and raised in others to create a sort of frozen waves effect. The whole place looked like it had emerged from under the sea and was now on the verge of descending back down, or just plain falling down. Pillars were bent with stress, the arches and catwalks were all crooked and not quite plumb with each other. Jules enjoyed my own flight of fantasy, that we were actually in the carcass of a gigantic sea beast that came on shore disguised as a church to eat the populace of the city, but finally died from starvation when the inhabitants had mostly become atheists.
So we spent the day exploring the main island of the old city in such a mode with both our imaginations in full gear. The fog, which never lifted, amped up the fantastical allure. Adding to the untethered zeitgeist of the place, there was no rhyme or reason to the ‘streets’, that is, the pedestrian walkways of the city. There were long winding alleyways, past sleepy old buildings corroded by years of sea air and the occasional flood. We’d follow an alleyway for five minutes around a number of corners, over several tiny canals, only to come to a dead end, like we were in some giant maze. There were no address numbers that I could see, barely any direction signs, and retracing one’s steps to find a particular interesting restaurant, museum or shop, stumbled upon earlier, was daunting at best. On foot, my little island map was rather useless! Some of the side alleys were barely wide enough to walk down two abreast. Along them you passed kitchen windows, front doors of houses, metal gates leading to little gardens or terraces. The only way you knew you were on a main drag was by the fact that there were other people. You walked and constantly changed directions, so particularly in the fog, without the sun as a guide, you had no sense of the compass points. And I swear that it seemed like the only entrance to some buildings was from a canal.
You got an entirely different point of view and sense of the place riding the buses down the channels around and between the islands that made up the old city. The waterways that cut through the city had more of a sense of a grid to them. Bigger channels and canals, plied by ‘buses’, and then tiny narrow canals traversed by a narrow gondola or two cutting perpendicular between the channels, crossed by little arched bridges that rose just far enough above the water to let the iconic little boats under. Occasionally I would see an actual gondolier doing his thing, standing on the back of his narrow little craft, with his long oar stirring the water, a tourist couple sitting in front of him looking like satisfied customers, now having ‘done Venice’.
There really was not a lot to do besides just experiencing the sensory gestalt of the place. But it totally captured my mood and fired my imagination, and in the moment I judged it the most intriguing city I’d seen in my entire European odyssey. I’d seen so many – including London, Paris, Rome, Munich, Madrid, most recently Florence – but this place stood out because of uniqueness and sheer atmosphere. Some of my fellow backpacking cohort I had encountered in Rome or Florence had described the place as depressing. But if I had seen them again I would tell them that I thought it was rich! Old yes, run down yes, corroded by the sea yes, but rich, like fine aged wine!
I shared my thoughts with Jules who agreed but then added his signature twist, given that we had stumbled upon several glass blowing and molding shops.
“I shall definitely return here when I am ready to die. I shall arrange for my ashes to be poured into a beautifully hand blown bottle and allowed to float out into the Adriatic.”
Jules bought me dinner at a little ristorante along the Piazza, with table cloths and waiters, such a contrast to the cheap trattoria in Florence. We had an entire proper meal; antipasto, soup, veal scallopini, pasta, and a bottle of nice red wine. Somehow in my mind, the cheap trattorias of Florence had had better fare, but the price, for me at least, was certainly right, and the view of the Piazza, now in the dark with all the lamps illuminating the old ghostly buildings with the dead sea beast of the Basilica at one end, was unlike any other place I had been on my journey. Still I felt unmoored, but in the moment deliciously so, adrift in this surreal city, itself seemingly floating on the shore of the Adriatic, and now deliciously buzzed and in the moment from the wine.
I shared with Jules that I was really homesick and his eyes twinkled.
“My young intrepid traveler has been gone too long and seen too much and needs to return to more familiar vistas!”
After dinner we made our way to the ‘bus stop’ on the main channel and rode the boat through the ever present fog back to our hostel’s little strip of an island. When we entered the common room it was abuzz with my backpacker cohort. I was pleasantly surprised to see Trix and her companion Evelyn. Though the charismatic Kiwi was short, she had a magnetism about her that aligned all the other people near her into a sort of formation around her, like iron filings around a magnet. And I’m sure her wild one of a kind asymmetric pigtails and alien green eyes made just about any head turn, hers being perhaps the most striking human face I had ever encountered. Certainly Jules’ fertile imagination was percolating at seeing her visage, murmuring to me in his best Rod Serling melodramatic Twilight Zone deadpan.
“As I have always suspected, we are not alone!”
Jen and Sarah were also there sitting together in the corner, actually at the same table that Jules and I had been sitting at the previous night when we witnessed their drunken smooch. I was a bit surprised that Jen wasn’t working the room like I’d seen her in Rome and Florence. A little intimidated by Trix and her current surrounding throng in the center of the room, I headed toward the two Aussies in the corner with Jules in tow to at least say hello and goodbye. Since I was planning to head out for Switzerland the next day, and might not encounter them then, I would most probably never see either of them again.
Sarah saw me approaching and let out a somewhat subdued and pensive “Coopster!”, followed by Jen with the same but with a little more friendly oomph. As I continued to approach them Sarah fixed her handsome dark gaze on me and queried.
“Were we drunk last night or what?” In her eyes I could see a complex set of thoughts and emotions traversing the synapses of her mind behind them.
From all my time spent with my mom and her female best friends, plus all the long hours working with Lane and Angie and all the other talented female peers of my YTU theater group, I was learning to read the sophisticated array of nonverbal cues that women exhibited, many seeming much more subtle and multilayered than those from male type people. I intuited that she was looking for some kind of acknowledgement that I was okay with seeing their dramatic kiss last night, and if I was not, that that was my problem and not hers.
I felt a sudden intimacy with and caring for her, the kind of connection I strived to reach with every person in my life. I felt also fleetingly daring, dropping my shields since she seemed to have dropped hers. I grinned and said with all the loving comradely bravado I could muster, “You two certainly were!”
At that Jen joined the exchange, laughing and saying “Indeed”, that great word that the British and their Aussie cousins overuse for emphasis. But none of us said anything about the kiss.
I introduced the two of them to Jules. They each smiled and stuck out their hand with the standard “pleasure” call out. He took each of their hands and shook them, but with a less engaging more officious little nod of the head and saying, “Ladies!”, a bit too formally.
I found Jules response incongruous, like he thought Jen was really some dangerous mythical succubus and was keeping his distance, but I plowed forward with the conversation, telling the two of them that I was headed off to Switzerland tomorrow and I wanted to wish them well on the rest of their journeys. They said they were bound for Vienna tomorrow themselves, and Jules chimed in with some must see museum suggestions, without any of his usual satire.
I noticed the continuing pensiveness and complicated thought processes behind their eyes. They did not invite us to join them, but Jen stood and faced me, holding her hands apart inviting a hug and calling out again the nickname she had given me back in Rome. A little tentatively I advanced and pressed my body against her and we wrapped our arms around each other, her perhaps the biggest female person I had ever hugged. Her energy and scent, with a fair measure of salty sweat, was intoxicating, and spun my libido immediately up. As we embraced she whispered in my ear, “Safe journey mate!”, and then disengaged, smacking me on the shoulder for good measure, like christening a ship before it’s adventurous maiden journey.
Sarah followed suit, rising and approaching me, but giving me a more constrained and formal hug. Still her more petite and demure frame pressed briefly against mine and she gave me a little peck on the cheek. I restrained my libidinal urge to pull her more strongly against me. She smelled sweeter with less of the brininess of her partner, plus emanating a strong but more inward energy. The peck on the cheek was followed by a softly modulated call out of my real name directed into my ear just inches from her mouth.
“Cooper, Cooper, Cooper… so much remains unsaid as we go forth on our adventures.” Then after a pause, “Take care of yourself mate. And thanks for that arm when it was needed!” I assumed she was referring to our walk together to get gelato in Rome, where those boisterous young Italian guys had intimidated her. Her fingers then touched the same patch of cheek her lips had encountered. I was consumed in the intimate moment until Jen spoke.
“Ooo… Shakespeare’s in love!”
Sarah’s eyes caught mine and rolled. She pursed her lips and then directed her words to her partner.
“One could do far worse than this sweet bloke m’lady.”
The talking ceased. It was our cue to move on. I felt the deep sadness that I would never see them again, but that was how it went in this world of travelers. We were a community but a profoundly temporary one. Sad but now emboldened I left them, and made my way through the crowd to Trix and Evelyn, Jules following but hanging back a bit. I finally caught the diminutive Kiwi’s bright green alien eye and she acknowledged me with a tip of her head. I approached and she introduced me to the four guys she and Evelyn were talking with, all New Zealanders as well. Certainly the little island country off the bigger Australian continent had more than its fair share of young travelers doing the European circuit.
We all shared our travel stories, mine finally including heading to Switzerland in the morning for my last sojourn in Grindelwald in the Alps before heading back to England and returning to the States. After about a half hour of traded tales, and the imminent lights out in the hostel, it was Evelyn actually that got the cue to say goodbye, turning to me, smiling broadly and saying, even a bit flirtatiously, “Bon voyage Coopster. Safe travels. Don’t fall off the Alps love!” Trix looked at Evelyn and noted the flirt and turned to me with her twinkling outer space eyes and said, “Guess you’ve got a fan… guess they can’t resist a bloke in heels!”, referring to my two-inch heels which I had gotten used to wearing now most of the time rather than my clunkier hiking boots, that still could give me blisters if I wore them extensively.
I was wondering if Trix would offer a hug, but instead she stuck out her hand to me, clasped mine with a squeeze and shook it heartily and said, “It’s been a true pleasure mate”.
I was a little disappointed, since I had developed such a crush on her and we had all spent that day together swapping intimate stories in the train compartment. But I hung on to the fact that she’d thrown in the word ‘true’ in front of pleasure, we’d been something more than the standard ‘pleasure’. The best part was her looking at me with, and me getting momentarily lost in, those mesmerizing green extraterrestrial eyes. I struggled to say something that acknowledged how cool I thought she was, managing only to wish her safe travels, thank her for sharing her train compartment with me, and finally telling her she was “awesome”, to which she snorted a laugh and blushed a bit. In the end, the blush was the highlight, I felt I had connected with her. Evelyn at least gave me that hug, with her tall lanky body, sauntering up to me, breasts pressing against my chest, pushing all my libidinal buttons with hers, and lingering a moment longer than the time that would constitute a perfunctory embrace. After that I left the two of them to their other comrades.
Jules suggested he take me to breakfast in the morning at the same little cafe on the Piazza. I told him I had not slept well and wanted to sleep in in the morning, so we agreed to meet there for lunch instead and say our goodbyes. He had a mid afternoon train to Milan.
“The automobiles”, he said, “Most unfortunately do not design themselves, at least not yet.”
My train to Switzerland did not leave until the evening.
Still surfing all the good feelings with my fellow travelers and a sense of bravado that it was enough to keep me going, I headed off to my bunk. Alone once again in my sleeping bag, I thought about the four women, and fantasized about being naked with each of them, our bodies joining and sharing the deepest of physical intimacy, being ‘inside’ each of them as Sophia had said. Sleep, which had struggled to engage me the previous night, quickly consumed me now.
It was well after 10 o’clock when I finally woke up to that diffused filtered light through the windows of the bunk room. I dug the clothes out of my pack that I had not yet worn in Venice. I debated putting on my big black hiking boots, but opted as I usually did to wear my two-inch heels instead. I rolled up my sleeping bag into a tight cylinder and stuffed it in its sack, securing it to the bottom of the frame of my pack with bungee cords. I accounted for all my items as best I could, hoisted my pack and exited the hostel for a final time.
Outside, I was pleased to find that the fog still clung to the city, its romantic dreamscape still unsullied by sunlight. It was Sunday and apparently the bus boats ran less frequently, so I sat on the bench of the quay for some time, watching the pigeons and seagulls fight for bits of paper that might have otherwise been food, until I watched my conveyance round a corner of the channel into view and chug toward me. It was a bit before noon when I finally got to our agreed upon meeting spot on the Piazza. I debated sitting at one of the cafe’s tables, but figured I would be compelled to order something, and opted for frugality instead since Jules said he would buy lunch. I sat instead on a bench near the little trattoria and watched the pigeons do their thing on and around the humans out in the middle of the square.
Jules appeared seemingly out of nowhere, saying, “I have it on the best of avian authority that the pigeon insurrection will begin at 1400 hours, but that’s plenty of time for us to get lunch before the carnage begins!”. We sat at our same table out in front of the little cafe with our view of the bird besotted square. With my concurrence he ordered the same items we had had for breakfast the previous day, with of course coffee, several cups of which he drank with lots of cream and sugar. Jules shared all sorts of irreverent thoughts about the “scrum” at the hostel last night, as he referred to it, and particularly about each of the four women I had said goodbye to, still riffing on Jen as a mythical maneater and Trix as a scout for a planned alien infestation and eventual invasion of Earth.
At my query, he shared more about his own life. His work as an automotive engineer, the politics of work for Simca particularly after their recent purchase by Chrysler, and his speculation about the company’s dim prospects. His residence in Poissy on the west side of Paris, an apartment shared with an old friend. Never married but happily single.
My life as a young person just did not seem to match up to his adult existence. But I told him about living with my divorced mom and younger brother in a very progressive and very political college town. My previous summer’s job cleaning hotel rooms to make money for my trip, which he thought was so humorous.
“Did they make you wear a maid’s outfit with short skirt and fishnet stockings?” The look in his eye made it seem he was enjoying that image in his mind.
It was a little disconcerting, but then I thought of my whole thing with Sophia on the train two days ago. Jules like her was just blowing off steam and passing the time, and I decided there was no harm in playing along. Just like with Sophia and some of my mom’s friends, I liked being desirable. Safely off limits, but desirable.
“Yeah”, I said flaring my eyes and rolling my eyeballs around, “Those damn stockings, hard as hell to get those seams straight in back.” I recall my mom some years back wrestling with a pair and complaining.
He seemed very pleased that I had chosen to play along with his little fantasy.
In a moment of seriousness, Jules asked me what I was planning to do when I returned to the States, referring to me again as “my young traveler”. Despite the obsequious characterization, it was a fair question, and one that I found myself stumbling over to try to answer, like the other times it had been posed to me. Though often homesick during my journey, and imagining how great it would be to return to my family, familiar hometown, and circles of good friends there, I had not really been thinking about what was ‘next’ for me in a larger sense. I shared with Jules some ambivalence, that I supposed I was doing what might conventionally be called taking a ‘year off from college to travel’.
That led to a discussion of what I was studying at college, the answer I gave being ‘theater’, which sounded a little strange to me in this context, the shy kid traveling alone, I felt anything but theatrical. But then Jen had dubbed me the ‘Coopster’, presumably that character was if nothing else, theatrical, strutting in his big teased out hair and two inch heels, flinging his hands around and expounding provocatively about commie high school teachers and anarchist philosophies.
Jules thoughtfully processed what I had said about theater and applied his fertile imagination to the possibilities. I could just imagine him designing sexy Italian cars, though the Simca’s I’d seen weren’t particularly sexy.
“So you are the young playwright perhaps gathering material for your first great opus!” he noted.
I laughed, pleased, but a bit embarrassed at the grand characterization. He said he hoped he was somehow memorable enough to make it as at least a minor character in one of my story’s chapters. I told him he was certainly getting there, and he laughed as well. I went on to share with him some of the highlights of my theater experiences, sets I had designed, musicals I had sung and danced in, other notable characters I had played in more dramatic performances. And of course I imparted my one playwright type experience, adopting the novel Lord of the Flies to the stage including the whole issue around my script having a character say “Fuck the rules!” Then playing the character Maurice, with all the cast wearing the very brief costumes that left all the guys on stage nearly naked through the second half of the play. Jules’ eyes lit up at all this and he said he would have loved to have been in the audience in the front row for my ‘debut’ in loincloth.
Finally Jules, with his own flash of theatricality, consulted the watch on his wrist and said it was time for him to head inland to catch his train, and I said I would tag along since my train was later on in the afternoon. He seemed pleased with that, and we continued to swap stories as we navigated the alleyways and boat bus back to the train station on shore.
It occurred to me as we sat side by side riding the boat bus back to the mainland by the train station that Jules was definitely not unlike Sophia had been, enjoying an encounter with an interesting young man. My encounter with Sophia had had the obvious sexual overtones, with her sharing her intimate story of losing her virginity, and perhaps undressing me with her eyes and not uncomfortable that I was doing the same to her. It seemed clear that Jules was somehow doing his version of the same, that he, like my former travel partner Steve, was perhaps attracted to me in a sexual sort of way, though Jules had never said anything to me that I recognized as hitting on me, though this was all such new territory for me. And again, though my libido seemed tuned to women, as with Steve, and Morgan actually, getting naked and otherwise being physically intimate with this charming Frenchman across the table from me was not unappealing. That said, there was no way I was going to go there. I was going to have my first intimate experiences of that sort more conventionally with women. I was timid enough about all that as it was, without venturing into this whole taboo world.
I said I wanted to stop at a grocery store to provision myself for my long train trip ahead. Jules offered to pay for all my groceries but I said that was “Too much”. We continued on to the train station.
When his train was ready to leave we got up from our seats on the platform and faced each other.
“So in your country, do young men who really care for each other embrace when they say ‘adieu’?” he queried with his lovely lilting French accent, throwing in that little bit of his language at the end.
“Not so much really”, I responded, “But I’ve come to like the ways of you European types and would love a hug from you.” I had been thinking I’d say ‘enjoy’ but it came out ‘love’.
His eyes practically glowed.
“Sweet young man”, he said, approaching me with arms open and pulling my body against his.
His cheek against mine he spoke softly in my ear, “Spending time with you made my whole weekend, my month, and please forgive my indulgences. I am incorrigible I know.”
He then pulled away, still holding my shoulder, his lips pursing for a kiss, which he quickly planted on my left cheek, in his case no lipstick marks to rub off. I wasn’t sure if that kiss was intended to be sexual or just French. He quickly wrote his address and phone number on one of his business cards and gave it to me, saying to look him up if I ever got to France again. He boarded his train giving one last grinning, knowing look to me. Given my unrelieved libido, I had a brief fantasy of what it might be like to be naked in bed with him.
I sat alone on the platform. There were still a couple hours before my train to Switzerland would arrive. I thought about all the people I had met in Italy. I felt that sense of sadness and loss I was used to feeling when I completed work on a theater production and would no longer have that close daily contact with my fellow participants. I would probably never see any of those people again. I felt my encounters with them had shifted me in some subtle but profound way. I hoped I somehow would not shift back!