Two Inch Heels Part 25 – Under the Alps

It was Sunday November 25, 1973 as I perched on a bench on the platform at the Venice train station waiting for this dormant steel beast in front of me to come alive. It was the train that would take me to Switzerland, and my anticipated Alpine paradise, soon to open its doors and let us board. As it got close to its departure time, I saw a group of four other what looked like Americans roughly my age with their long hair and backpacks. I kind of recognized them from the hostel. They all looked a few years older than me with their stubbly unshaven faces. (At eighteen, I still wasn’t growing facial hair yet, but gratefully at least pubic hair!) I could hear them joking with each other but in a sharp edged jocular sort of way, like Derrick, but even more so.

“You know what that big Aussie chick said to me?” one called out, “She said that she liked my butt but not my attitude. What a total fucking nympho bitch!”

His three comrades nodded and chimed in with their agreement.

He continued. “But I’d totally do that girl she was with, you know the one with the short dark hair.”

“Somebody said they were dykes”, volunteered one of his comrades.

“Figures”, said the first, “That big one probably has a dick down there.” He laughed grimly.

All my life I had encountered guys like this and had been totally intimidated by them. If they engaged me in conversation, I would play along with whatever crap they were dishing and try to say as little as possible before I could make some excuse to disengage. I’d even been intimidated by Derrick at first, but managed to overcome that as I developed some sort of relationship with him. Derrick at least felt younger than I was, so it was easier. These guys were obviously older and I could feel the fear shiver down my spine.

But wasn’t I the Coopster now? Weren’t Jen and Sarah my friends so I should say something to defend them? But I felt like a scared kid again, like I had a hundred times before. I wished I could stride into their midsts and tell them they were a bunch of clueless assholes. But it wasn’t going to happen, something strong and primal held me back. I had always been a chickenshit, and Coopster or no, apparently I still was.

So when the train opened its doors to let us in, I hung back and let them enter first, and was careful to note that they headed forward after boarding. So when I finally climbed on board at the same door, I headed the other direction. There was not a huge crowd boarding, and the train was originating here in Venice so there were plenty of empty compartments. I picked one, and waited to see if anyone else would join me or I’d have the place to myself, not sure which I wanted given the unmoored state of my soul.

Cut loose now from all the people I had shared the Italian “circuit” with – Morgan, Jen, Sarah, Trix, Evelyn, the boys from Cleveland and finally Jules – I was leaving Venice on fumes, tired and homesick and needing the universe to get me home, but having another few weeks of money to spend and time to kill spending it before my plane flight back to Detroit departed from London on December 11. I was hoping that Grindelwald in the high Alps would be the waystation where I could kill four or five days with a hot fire, a beautiful view, maybe some nice company, and a good supply of that delicious Swiss yogurt.

At a grocery store outside the train station, I had done some serious shopping for my long train ride. Two big loaves of my now beloved ciabatta bread, which seemed to keep pretty well all day in my pack. In fact, I enjoyed it when it got a little stale, dry and extra crunchy and chewy, like the more you had to chew on it the more it satisfied. From the cold case, 250 milligrams of Genoa salami which I had sliced, and an equal amount of Jarlsberg cheese, which I didn’t have sliced because it kept better that way, even for a full day or more at room temperature in my pack. I even decided to get one small container of yogurt, which I was also finding would keep fairly long, at least a few hours, unrefrigerated as well. Then an array of snacks, including a bag of dried apricots, a bag of raisins, an apple, a package of biscuit cookies, and a bar of dark chocolate. Finally a glass bottle of sparkling water and a plastic bottle of cheap rose wine, with Jules making several cracks about a vintage measured in milliseconds rather than years. Stuffing it all into the nooks and crannies of my pack was quite an effort, with my various pack bags bulging, zippers straining, and the two loaves of bread protruding prominently out of the top flap. Particularly with the sparkling water and wine, my pack was probably weighing close to 60 pounds.

With Venice as its starting place and not that many boarding, the train shook into motion with no one joining me in the compartment. Savvy now to how these particularly long haul overnight trains worked, with coaches being unhooked from one train and hooked to another at major stations, I confirmed with the conductor that the coach I was on was going to Lucerne Switzerland. From there I would change trains to Interlaken and then take a third train up to Grindelwald. I was tired, and was hoping I might continue to have the compartment to myself overnight, or at least the full three-person bench I was sitting on, so I could lie down across it rather than try to snooze in a seated position. It was early evening but the darkness outside made it feel much later.

I pulled out some of the food I had purchased and made myself a rather ample dinner. Most of a loaf of ciabatta, half of my sliced salami and Jarlsberg cheese, the bag of apricots, the yogurt, all washed down with slugs from the bottle of wine, looking for its sweet buzz to maybe comfort me and keep my brain from spinning too wildly out of control. I was preferring these days to eat bread, meat and cheese separately rather than doing the American sort of thing and slicing the bread with my Swiss Army knife and building a sandwich. Eating each of those items separately I better savored each thing’s flavor notes and mouth feels. I noted once again, that unlike the wimpy white Wonder Bread back home, this bread had a real substantial mouth feel, and sweet subtle earthy flavors on its own.

As I chowed down I read the International Herald Tribune I had bought at the train station. The lead story was about Nixon’s lawyer revealing an 18½ minute gap in one of the key White House tape recordings related to Watergate. It felt good to read about my home country even though it was about Nixon and all his efforts to subvert the political process and then cover up what had been done by his operatives. Another story was about the cease fire in the Yom Kippur war holding between the Egyptians and Israelis. I thought about all those young soldiers on both sides, who had not been killed or wounded in the previous battles, breathing a sigh of relief that they may be done putting their lives at risk for decisions made by their elders. And I thought about young American guys not much older than I still losing their lives in Vietnam. I felt like I should be doing something about it, working with others to end all these wars, and since I was not part of that solution right now, as Eldridge Cleaver had famously said, I was still part of the problem.

I had met great comrades in Rome, Florence and Venice, but they were gone now and I would very likely never see any of them again. Maybe Moana if he looked me up in the States. Here I was in the moment, in the middle of a different continent, now connected with no one, playing out the last chapters of my odyssey for my own ego and bragging rights when I returned home. I needed serious respite, that I was convinced I would find when I got back to the States. Back to my hometown, my family, and my friends. And to tide me over in the short run, hopefully some temporary respite in the Alps. Respite from the ordeal of my travels, pushing myself from one city to the next, always wrestling with the logistics of navigating a new place, whether I was really up for it or not. Respite from the travails of traveling alone, as a shy person always having to push beyond that shyness to seek out others to have an engaging conversation or to find at least a temporary buddy.

My mind’s jukebox dialed up The Beatles’ song “You Never Give Me Your Money”

I never give you my number
I only give you my situation
And in the middle of investigation
I break down

That andante mournful bluesiness shifting to more of a bright crisp allegro for the verse, where I’d never figured out quite what they were talking about…

Out of college, money spent
See no future, pay no rent
All the money’s gone, nowhere to go
Any jobber got the sack
Monday morning, turning back
Yellow lorry slow, nowhere to go

Then slow and bluesy again for that line that always slayed me…

But oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go

Kind of a weird lyric. When you conventionally think of things that might inspire a magic feeling, ‘nowhere to go’ is usually not at the top of the list. But I had taken the line to mean that feeling of being totally in the moment without any concern for having to be somewhere on some sort of a schedule. I had taken to singing the song to myself when I was walking the streets of my hometown, maybe going to Avi and Jerry’s for an evening of smoking weed and playing war games. That was actually ‘somewhere to go’, but nowhere with any stress or concern, so I would space out on my walk and just enjoy the trees and the squirrels. Ann Arbor sure had its bevy of squirrels.

So usually when the song came to me, I was focusing on the ‘magic’ part. But this time the ‘nowhere to go’ gripped me. At that highest, most strategic, metaphysical level, where was I going with my life?

I felt like I was coming apart. When I had left Angie in London, on a train to the continent on my own, I had adopted a persona, a theatrical character of sorts, of the reluctant young traveler, forced by circumstance to push himself forward through his odyssey to prove his self worth until sufficient time and insufficient remaining funds gave him the bonafides to return home heroically. Call him ‘Clubius the traveler’, ‘Clubius’ that nickname my mom and dad had given me as a little two year old not yet really talking. My reluctance to speak a sign to them of a dubious soul, and yet sensing a precocious brightness in me, imagining me some reincarnated Roman philosopher, the rhyming with ‘dubious’, ‘Clubius’.

So sixteen years later, last April, not relishing a coming fall bound to yet another year of school (college in this case), this latter day version of little ‘Clubius’, had hitched a ride on his theater group buddies Angie and Lane’s exciting journey to backpack through Europe. Such a lark! Such a romp with these two full of life best friends. What could be more fun, and even educational, for all you grown up types that cared about that stuff. And when Lane dropped out, still, my chance to share a sustained and intimate adventure with the charming and vivacious Angie, and maybe even create the conditions for a romance to bloom, with Lane out of the picture.

But then, having taken the plunge with Angie, alone together on the first leg of our shared adventure, in England, she had decided it was all too much, the dynamics with me certainly not the same as with her longtime female best friend. Me now marooned in this no longer lark or romp of a journey, one that I felt I could not bail on without losing my self respect and for the rest of my life having to explain why I balked (as I had balked on so many compelling experiences previously, several romantic, including one with Lane) on perhaps the most compelling experience of my young life. Instead now at worst an ordeal, and at best a true odyssey of the soul.

So without what I felt was another viable option, I had embarked on that odyssey, and was now two months into the thing. And like a bonafide odyssey, it had transformed me. It had taken all the strength of my soul at times to keep going. Like that day when I never did find a hostel in Luxembourg and Belgium, and tired and under the weather, was turned away from that last hostel in Liege at five minutes past their midnight closing time, having to make the hour and a half walk back through the city to the train station. Throughout my journey I had been stirred and moved by the array of compelling characters I had encountered, particularly the kind assistance of so many of them, including that old homeless guy in the Bern train station who had ventured out and bought all us stranded young travelers a six pack of beer.

Somewhere along that path I had finally lost little ‘Clubius’ to the dustbin of my development.

In dubbing me the ‘Coopster’, with my big hair and strut in my two inch heels, Jen had seen that new emergent persona, which Trix and her crew had seconded. It was a persona incompatible with my parents’ little ‘Clubius’, the dubious and reluctant soul. Whether it was really a new me yet was another question.

I was like a trapeze artist, who had to release their grip on one bar, before they could latch onto the next. No longer a teenage ‘Clubius’, I was not yet really the ‘Coopster’. I was flying through the air unmoored, hoping my hands would encounter that second bar before I fell. All the compelling events of the past week had kept me outwardly focused, but now alone on my overnight train, I was inevitably turning inward.

It was becoming more clear to me that, going forward in my life, I needed to be connected to something more than just myself. Connected to circles of people who were doing meaningful things in the larger community. To a cause, or even better, “the cause”, which was still somewhat ill defined in my mind but was all about human development and liberation. It had something to do with getting all those young soldiers off the firing lines doing the bidding of their angry fathers. Letting women emerge as fully respected human beings and better contribute all the wisdom and leadership that mostly festered with their limited roles in society at large. Giving peace and equality a real chance to transform society. I would never feel connected unless I was involved in these efforts somehow, not just in a peripheral way, but as a major thread, even THE major thread of my life.

Still alone in my compartment, my mind wrestled with these thoughts late into the night. With the rhythmic shaking, groaning and clunking of the train cars against the track and each other providing a soothing, lulling movement and rhythmic background noise, I might otherwise have surrendered to unconsciousness, but one thought leading to the next kept my mind from falling fully asleep. I did not have a watch or carry anything that kept time, and there were no clocks in the train coaches. Short of asking a passing conductor or a fellow passenger, I had no sense of the progress of the night, whether it was still evening or the wee hours of the morning. Living outside the grid of time, the hourly schedule, at least for the moment, changed the dynamic and kept me engulfed in my ruminating interior. I would drift off with thoughts turning more to dreams and then back to thoughts as I again gained enough consciousness to feel the train underneath and around me, my gently hurtling cocoon. A peek at the still dark compartment window told me that I was still in that nebulous zone of indeterminate time.

Finally the first bits of dawn lit the horizon behind the westbound train as I continued to try to close my eyes and drift back off, but soon the direct light of a sunny morning filled the compartment, making that harder and harder. By the time our train got into Milan it was a mild cloudless late fall day with no sense of impending winter. As the conductor had told me, my coach got switched to the train to Lucerne, and we departed the big northern Italian city, which was bigger even than the capital Rome. That Beatles lyrical line playing over and over in my mind…

Oh that magic feeling, nowhere to go

Trains could not ascend the high mountain passes that separated northern Italy and southern Switzerland from the mountainous interior of the country but instead took long tunnels under those passes. I had read that the famous nine mile long St. Gotthard tunnel, the first dug through this part of the Alps, had been built between 1871 and 1881 at the cost of at least 200 workers’ lives lost. I thought as we approached the high mountains ahead that that was the tunnel we would be traversing, and only learned later that it was probably another similar tunnel under a nearby pass.

The sun still shone in a cloudless sky when we entered the south end of the tunnel, engulfing the train in a total blackness punctuated only by the regular flair of a passing light outside along the tunnel wall. The song lyric kept echoing in my mind, “Nowhere to go”, as minute after minute passed in the dark abyss, and a sense of dread started to creep into what was left of me, lonesome and sleep deprived.

After what seemed like an inordinate amount of time, alone in my compartment, careening along in the all encompassing blackness outside, I was enveloped by an imagining that the world had somehow suddenly ended. What if the ceasefire between the Arabs and Israeli’s had broken down. What if Israeli armored units had broken through the Egyptian lines, crossed the Suez Canal, and were headed toward Cairo. What if the Russians had responded and put those parachute divisions in the air headed for Egypt to defend their ally. What if the U.S. had given the Russians an ultimatum. What if the Russians had launched their nukes preemptively not wanting to be caught by a U.S. preemptive strike, triggering that massive nuclear exchange that the world had dreaded since the Russians had successfully tested and deployed their own H-bombs. A dread that I had taken on eleven years ago with the ‘duck and cover’ drills in my elementary school in 1962.

Maybe Switzerland had initially been spared, but the rest of Europe, the States and the Soviet Union had been decimated. Soon even Switzerland would be engulfed by a cloud of deadly fallout, killing everyone even up in the sheltered mountains. Even when the train exited the other end of the tunnel, we’d have no way of knowing that the human experiment of life on this planet had essentially come to an end. I felt a knot of anxiety congeal in my upper chest as I struggled to breath, my gaze fixated through my cabin window out into the lack of a world beyond it. Just the occasional nebulous flare of light, every thirty seconds or so, like the last ticks of some doomsday clock.

Grasping for something other than the apocalypse to grab hold of and get me out of this tunnel, there was more to the song that needed to be sung…

One sweet dream
Pick up the bags and get in the limousine
Soon we’ll be away from here
Step on the gas and wipe that tear away
One sweet dream came true today
Came true today

With no warning, I startled as the nothingness suddenly changed from black to white. I was disoriented and could not comprehend what had just happened. Compared with utter whiteness, blackness at least had a rational reason, the lack of light. Was this somehow the white light of a nuclear explosion that the grownups had said would be “brighter than the sun”?

Came true today
Came true today

My frozen open eyes perceived tiny white geometric patterns colliding with the window glass then derezzing into transparent blobs. My way too clever mind shook off the apocalyptic fantasy. Snowflakes were hitting and melting against my compartment window.

The train had apparently emerged in a whiteout blizzard at the north end of the tunnel. It was probably another five minutes before I could see anything but white out that window, as the train found its way out of the snow squall. Now from my compartment I could see a winter wonderland of evergreen trees punctuated by the occasional wood or stone houses all decorated in a thick icing of fresh snow. Quickly my dread started to recede, replaced by cozy remembrances of a young child with his mom and dad and younger brother, looking out the window of an overnight train traversing the Susquehanna River valley of upstate New York headed from Buffalo to spend Christmas with my grandparents in Binghamton. Yeah in theory there still could have just been World War III, and maybe Switzerland was just waiting for the radioactive clouds to envelope it, but probably not. Still I was alone, but now in a much more whimsical world with flourishes of warm childhood memories.

The train finally pulled into the station in Lucerne where I debarked and noted that everybody, including the station staff, looked pretty business as usual, so no World War III. I quickly made my way to the platform where the train to Interlaken would soon depart. As I waited I scarfed down most of the remaining food in my pack – Jarlsberg cheese, Genoa Salami and now even crustier but still delicious ciabatta bread. The train ride to Interlaken, as the town’s name would suggest wedged between two long inline lakes, took us west through an east-west running valley in the middle of the country. The long narrow Thunersee flat and frozen off the north side of the train, the snow now gently falling in big clumps. Ever a sucker for the thrill of anticipation, I was getting more and more excited with every minute what would await me in my now mythic Grindelwald.

At the smaller outdoor Interlaken station I boarded my last train, that wound its way up between the mountains towards my much anticipated destination as the snow continued to fall, but at a friendlier less frenetic pace. It was mid afternoon and apparently the end of the school day, and when the train stopped at each little village along the way, dozens of school kids noisily boarded or debarked from the train. They sat in the seats all around me, with their rosy cheeks, brightly colored hats and backpacks, laughing and chattering in what sounded to me like German, full of energy and enthusiasm for the daily adventures of their lives including this ride home from school on the train with all their comrades. Some of them looked at me curiously, even smiled at me, and I did my best to smile back.

I was a lonely soul surrounded by all this joyous youthful energy and hope for the future, and the irony of this scene was not lost on me. I had my reasons to be sad and reflective, but the world was full of other people with reasons for hope and joy. George Harrison’s insightful lyrics whispered in my mind’s ear…

Life goes on within and without you

The view of the Swiss winter wonderland out the window was appropriately stunning and I with every new moment anticipated arriving in what by all accounts was a gorgeous little town at the base of one of the world’s most photogenic and storied peaks. Not enough perhaps to get this eighteen-year-old to shelve his angst, but enough at least to give his darkened places glimmers of light. Four days to relax, to do nothing if I felt like it, to mellow out and write postcards to everyone back home to reestablish my mental equilibrium and refocus to soon returning to my Ann Arbor the triumphant world traveler.

I arrived at the Grindelwald train station, just a tiny little storybook Santa’s village building with a high pitched roof covered in a foot of snow. It was early evening, and I debarked on the snowy platform to find a map of the village posted in a glass display case. It looked like about a kilometer walk up one road to the hostel. Inside the little station I was pleased to see they were giving away that same map of the town.

In the foggy twilight I walked the kilometer or so uphill past wooden and masonry two story cottages to the youth hostel. The snow had stopped, and now there just above me through the light fog, protruding from the side of the hill like a proper looking little ski chalet, not that I’d ever really seen one, except maybe in a TV show or a James Bond movie.

I entered my new sanctuary through a blue painted wood door on the side of the place as I had viewed it from below. There was the simple word “Jugendherberge” in carved wood letters on a narrow painted sign above the door. I opened it to a narrow hallway with stone tiles covered with a rubber mat full of holes, and a rack along the left side filled with hiking boots dripping water from their plastic treads. I happily took off my hiking boots, which were as usual, now eight weeks into my journey, still doing a bit of a number on my poor feet, and put them in an empty spot on the rack. The young man at the check in table had the stereotypical blond hair and blue eyes.

When I registered, I found out the hostel offered breakfast and dinner at a very reasonable price, breakfast even including my favorite, fresh yogurt! So I paid for four nights with eight meals, nearly a third of my remaining money.

After checking in, from the hostel’s upstairs balcony I looked out over the valley below at the lights of the tiny town, though the fresh darkness and low clouds obscured the view of the famous Eiger and other showpiece mountains across the valley from my location. The extreme wave of angst that had gripped me in the darkness of the tunnel was now barely a memory. My acquired mantra of ‘life goes on’, that I had written at the end of all my postcards since almost losing my passport and rail pass in Bar-Sur-Aube, was ringing a lot more true now.

The interior of the common room looking out onto that balcony and the view beyond was everything I had been told and imagined. A cozy chalet with wood panel walls built around a big stone fireplace with a roaring fire, comfortable couches and low split-log wooden tables. There was a small dining room off it where the meals were served, and the male and female bunk rooms were upstairs.

Surveying the common room I was surprised to see ‘the boys’ from Cleveland. Derrick sitting regally in an overstuffed chair by the fire, with Matt and Michael sitting on the couch at a ninety degree angle to him. I recalled that with great enthusiasm, I had told the three of them in Florence that, after a couple days in Venice I was planning to go to Grindelwald. Though like their comrade Derrick, not interested in Venice, Matt and Michael had been intrigued by this much spoken of place in the Alps, and suggested to Derrick that maybe they should go there too. Derrick had done his best to veto their suggestion, seeing it perhaps somehow as my challenge to his alpha status with his two friends, and had stated emphatically that they were proceeding from Florence to the ‘museum city’ Vienna. But apparently not successfully, as here they were!

Michael noticed me and waved energetically, Matt quickly following. Derrick, whose back was to me turned and saw who they were waving to. I could see his body language shift, his shoulders tightening.

Feeling much bolder now than when I’d first encountered gnarly Derrick in Florence, I strode up to them and popped the obvious question.

“So what happened to going directly from Florence to Vienna?”

I had the thought to put my hands on Derrick’s shoulders Jen style, maybe even adding the smack on the shoulder side when I delivered my line, but decided not to. Wasn’t sure the ‘Coopster’ would rub it in.

“Ya’ know”, said Derrick, struggling to look philosophical and still in charge, “We needed a break from one city after another. Someone had said this was a cool place in the mountains so we thought we’d check it out.”

“Got it”, I noted, grinning, certainly one of those someones had been me. I flopped down in another overstuffed chair across the low table from Derrick’s, like a pretender to his throne. I could feel myself really relax as I felt the soft cushions embrace me and the warmth of the blazing fire, with about a dozen other obvious backpacker types sharing our cozy common space surrounded by the winter wonderland.

At dinner I shared a table with the three of them. It was a hot beef and vegetable stew with scalloped potatoes and warm pumpernickel bread with fresh butter, and all tasted delicious as we shared our stories of what we had done since Florence. They had spent a couple days in Milan and gotten to Grindelwald two days ago, and were enjoying it so much they were planning to stay a whole week. I told them all about foggy funky Venice, and how much I had loved all it’s moody charms. As my belly filled with the hot stew and cheesy potatoes I felt fatigue overcome me and I was soon to bed in the bunk room and a deep long sleep. Respite for the weary traveler indeed.

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