It was nearly dinner time on Thursday November 29 1973 when us six guys trudged back into the hostel with our rosy cheeks, aching muscles, but that juicy sense of wellness that one can get from a day of playful exertion in the snow. We managed to arrive just before the group returned from their cog railway odyssey. From the deck we could see them trudging up the road to the hostel, through the now deep accumulation of snow, with more still lightly falling, Monika in the lead, as usual.
My libido would be remiss if I did not once again mention her breasts, which pointed the way forward, and noticeably oscillated from side to side under that t-shirt as she planted each step. Oh to see her naked, like Michael supposedly had and more, though he never confirmed their sexual encounter, and I had no intention of asking him. I pondered whether my reluctance was motivated by respecting their privacy or minimizing my jealousy, probably more of the latter. He and I and several others waved at them from the deck, and Monika replied with her signature finger flutter. A few others behind her waved, though Ragna just continued to trudge ahead, head down. We retired from the deck to the common room to greet them. Schuman was at the piano playing the beginnings of Jethro Tull’s musical epic “Thick as a Brick”, his shivering tenor voice quietly grasping for the lyrics…
Really don’t mind if you sit this one out
My word’s but a whisper your deafness a shout
I may make you feel but I can’t make you think
Your sperm’s in the gutter your love’s in the sink
I caught the words of that last line for the first time having only heard the long song a few times previously. ‘Sperm’ and ‘love’ seemed reversed from where they should be, but maybe that was songwriter Ian Anderson’s little twist. Schuman continued in his trembling tenor, singing an instance of the chorus with the title line of the very long song…
So you ride yourselves over the fields
And you make all your animal deals
And your wise men don’t know how it feels
To be thick as a brick
The returning group entered the hostel, removing their gear in the entryway, hanging jackets, hats and scarves on the hooks, and boots along the wall. Monika, stepping out of her big clunky hiking boots like mine, even took off her socks. Every bit of her body one had the privilege to see unclothed was a treat, she just in her normal short sleeved t-shirt and jeans, her toes now wantonly naked. Ragna in jeans as well, but a long sleeved sweater rather than just a t-shirt under her jacket, removing her less clunky boots, revealing multicolored toe socks. It was a nice whimsical touch, a revelation perhaps of another side to that no nonsense croupier persona she presented to us most of the time.
The Aussie guys and the other male types that had returned from the cog railway excursion, chatting animatedly with each other, scattered to various other venues and next activities. But Monika sauntered into the common room, ready to take a load off and maybe share the experience with those of us less fortunate who had not joined their adventure. She plopped herself down in the middle of the big couch facing the fireplace with a self satisfied grunt, leaning back and stretching her arms in either direction along the top of the couch and spreading her legs like a guy would, with her big braless breasts spreading indolently across her chest under her t-shirt, with not the slightest shred of ladylike modesty. I laughed to myself to see her, so obviously and unabashedly female but not the least bit feminine in her behavior, well except maybe for that finger flutter.
Schuman was still at the piano, crooning Tull to no one in particular…
Spin me back down the years and the days of my youth
Draw the lace and black curtains and shut out the whole truth
Spin me down the long ages, let them sing the song
See there! A son is born and we pronounce him fit to fight
There are blackheads on his shoulders and he pees himself in the night
We’ll make a man of him, put him to a trade
Teach him to play Monopoly and how to sing in the rain
Ragna sat on the couch to Monika’s right, legs together with hands on her knees and sitting upright with much better posture than her younger semi sibling, trying to assert some parity as another member of the ‘panel’ about to share with all of us about their excursion. With pursed lips, her dark intense eyes scanned all us guys beginning to gather and find all our quantum orbits around Monika.
In the matter of orbits, Michael was eying the spot to Monika’s left and she may have been expecting him to take it, but Beth maneuvered by Michael and laid her claim instead. She mimicked Monica’s grunt as her butt hit the couch cushion, as well as with her own sprawled repose, with her left arm stretched out claiming what remained of the top of the big couch on that side. Like the goddess’ new acolyte, she sat close enough so Monika’s outstretched arm was behind her. Her right arm could not extend that way without tangling with Monika’s shoulder, so instead she held it in and placed her hand on the couch between her own and Monika’s jean clad thigh.
Arrayed now as they were on the couch, the energy and power of these three female people was palpable, at least to me, and to my libido, at times seeming to be an entity unto itself. But both those entities sat joyfully and anticipatedly in attendance on the adjoining overstuffed chair at a ninety degree angle to their right, on Ragna’s side of their triumvirate. Michael sat on the corresponding chair across from me, nearest to Beth, Matt sitting to his left. Derrick, Malc and Dred hovered behind me shuffling around, with body language that was at times focused on the three young women and at other times focused away, but always in their orbit.
Monika looked at all us male types and frowned, “It is too bad you guys did not come with us. It was something I will remember”, and I watched with rapt interest as she laid her hand on Beth’s upper thigh and patted it several times. Beth seemed unfazed by what looked to me like a very intimate and even sexual gesture, looking freshly anointed instead. She nodded her second to the motion and started the retelling of their shared narrative, the other two women joining in at points, Monika more to move the story along while the other two women, with more command of the English language, filling in a lot of the more geographic and technical detail.
As they told it, they boarded the first ‘cog’ train at the Grindelwald station that took them on its special track up to the Kleine Scheidegg station up on the south side of the valley at the base of the Eiger. From there, a second cog train, using a different sort of special track, took them up to the Eigergletscher station in the little village of Lauterbrunnen at the base of the Eiger. From their the train continued up and literally into the Eiger to an underground Eigerwand station, where it stopped for a short time so riders could get out and look out special windows in the station built into the sheer north face of the mountain that looked down on Grindelwald maybe half a kilometer below. The next segment of the ride took them farther up inside the Eiger to the Eismeer station, with similar windows but those looking out to the southeast at the Grindelwald-Fiescher glacier. Finally the last leg taking them to the end of the line, the Jungfraujoch station, at about three and a half kilometers above sea level, apparently the highest altitude train station in all of Europe, situated underground, underneath the Sphinx Observatory. From that station they were able to walk through a long tunnel to the ‘Ice Palace’, a series of ice caverns beneath the glacier. They also took an elevator up to the observatory itself, one of the highest in the world, which sits on a rocky protrusion in the ‘saddle’ between the peaks of the Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger, and had amazing views from its exterior observation deck of those three peaks and the massive glacier between them.
I could tell by their words, their passionate delivery, and their body language that the three had been moved by their shared experience. Beth was the hyperbolic one, confessing to being overwhelmed by views that were all “stunning”, “mind boggling” and “unforgettable”. Though the other two women nodded in assent to every ratcheted up adjective she called up in her descriptions. Even the normally poker faced, seemingly unmovable Ragna, shook her head with disbelief at what she had witnessed, saying at one point that it was like they had been transported to some other icy planet.
At Ragna’s comment Beth burst out with an overwrought, “God yes… it was a fucking other planet!”, reaching across Monika to smack Ragna on the thigh to show her impassioned affirmation, causing Ragna to startle for a moment and then laugh.
It struck me that I had never heard Ragna laugh before, and that Beth seemed to have the knack of drawing the emotion out of the other two women with her endearing, wide-eyed kid in a candy store though a bit full of herself style. It also struck me that Monika was taken with Beth, not unlike the way she had been smitten by Michael. Having seen two other women from my backpacker cohort, travel partners Jen and Sarah, passionately kiss each other in the Venice hostel, just five days ago, this sort of erotic female to female connection had become real to me, not just some aberrant ‘lesbianism’ that I had heard about strange women who I had nothing to do with engaging in with each other. If Monika and Ragna had not been leaving Grindelwald this evening, might not Monika and Beth ended up clandestinely naked in a shower stall with each other, this time more easily accomplished in the women’s bathroom where neither would be out of place. Maybe they had already done so last night.
Though my own libido was pretty tuned to women, as evidenced by my fixation with Monika’s breasts, I too had had some erotic feelings for a couple other men while here in Europe, or them for me. When my former travel partner Steve had suggested that he get into bed with me in our hotel room in Granada, frankly I had wrestled with the idea before I finally balked. I had imagined getting naked with Morgan in Rome, though he hadn’t shown any inclination in that direction. Jacques in Venice, though a lot older than me, seemed to have feelings for me that were venturing beyond mere friendship, though he was very low key and polite about it and never really tried to hit on me in any obvious way. And just hours before had I not had a pleasurable experience on top of Michael in the snow, smashing it in his face ala Monika, both of us laughing and enjoying our ‘embrace’ of sorts, connecting with each other at some physical level. And if I was really honest, perhaps even for some of my closest male friends back home, because it seemed like all my close relationships, beyond my family members, had some sort of erotic component to them.
While I pondered all this, and whether I would regret having passed on an “unforgettable” experience to save a mere sixty Swiss francs, Schuman continued his own narrative, his Jethro Tull ‘Thick as a Brick’ rendition, quiet but relentless at the piano on his own parallel plane…
See there! A man born
And we pronounce him fit for peace
There’s a load lifted from his shoulders
With the discovery of his disease
We’ll take the child from him
Put it to the test
Teach it to be a wise man
How to fool the rest
Exhausting the details finally of their shared narrative, Ragna invoked her croupier persona and scanned all of us guys in attendance and said, “Gentleman… My younger sister and I must take care of a few things before dinner so we can catch our train after.”
Monika exhaled and looked in Beth’s general direction but not directly at her. Beth visibly sagged into the cushions of the couch, deflated. Monika and Ragna were headed to Venice, the lagoon city, where I had been before Grindelwald. I piped in that I had come from there, and thought Venice was a one of a kind place that would likely be memorable for them, not as much to do perhaps as here in Grindelwald, but very, “atmospheric”.
All of us gathered on and around that couch were between eighteen and twenty-one. Nowhere were there the older adult overseers that had been a part of our lives in school or at home in previous years. We were all functioning on our own, several hundred or even several thousand miles away from our homes and away from parental or educational authority structures that might have previously guided our conduct, wanted or not. We were building a new community, our own generation’s larger community, on our own, thank you very much!
The rest of us assembled shared our leave dates from this little mountain winter wonderland that had brought us briefly together. Derrick, Matt and Michael would stay another day or two, but then finally head to Vienna, and had even convinced Malc and Dred to tag along. Such were many of the backpacker’s loose travel plans that they could be changed radically on a whim, even combining smaller groups into larger to separate again later. Beth, who was actually traveling on her own, unusual for a woman, said she was planning on spending one last night here before heading to Greece to escape the winter weather. She and the other Aussies, so so far from their homes, often extended their European travels even longer than my plan for eleven weeks. Having heard Monika and Ragna’s plans to go to Venice, she said she might stop there as well on her way, and I noticed Ragna pursing her lips just a bit more than usual.
I shared that I was planning to leave in the morning, down to Interlaken then via several trains to Munich and then on to Amsterdam, making my way to my flight home from London. A profound sense of sadness gripped me as I shared those words with the assembled group of my cohort and peers. I wished we could have all launched into some joint project to keep us together for the next couple months. Something comparable to staging a play, like I had done so many times with my theater group comrades, that would give us an opportunity to collaborate and so many moments and venues to develop those intimate shared experiences and connections that were highlights of my theater days. What a group we could have been! I certainly knew there was more inside me that I had not shared with them and it seemed we were just scratching the surface of what was inside each of us. Maybe Michael had gotten further ‘getting inside’ Monika, but maybe that was just sex, for the sake of relieving the percolating hormones but not much more. Anyway I fantasized, with sadness, about what could have been.
Hearing my words about my home stretch travel plans and maybe intuiting some of my thoughts, they all nodded their heads knowingly, there was that complicated spectrum of emotions around ‘going home’, and all gave me their own version of an encouraging look. Beth asked me if I was going to take the boat from ‘the Hook’ to England (across the North Sea) or hitchhike to Calais and cross (the English Channel) there, and I told her the former, she nodded in affirmation. Malc and Dred invited me to come up to Manchester to visit them if I was still in England on the 20th of December, when they were returning home for the holidays, but I told them I was flying home before then. Derrick, Matt and Michael agreed we should have some sort of reunion once we were all back in the states, since Cleveland and Ann Arbor were only a three hour drive from each other.
Shuman finished his long opus at the piano. I actually made a point to applaud when he finally got up from the piano bench, saying “Thick as a brick… bravo!”, since as a stage performer myself I thought it was important to acknowledge anyone engaging in our craft, entertaining and presenting thoughtful work to others. Following my lead, most of my comrades in our informal gathering clapped as well. Shuman seemed a bit surprised, but immediately liked that someone had acknowledged him. It felt good as well that in at least a little way I had taken yet another Coopster step beyond my shyness and timidity.
It was dinnertime, noodles in cream sauce with pieces of some sort of marinated meat, a nice savory vinegar flavor ran through the dish, and the group adjourned to the dining room and various related conversations continued regarding everyone’s paths forward. Without any words exchanged we all decided to sit together at one of the long tables, wanting to maintain that sense of solidarity we had developed over the last several days together, topped off by the conversation we had just had. Shuman even made the point of sitting next to me, when he had previously sat off in a corner somewhere when he ate. Derrick was on my other side and Malc, Dred and Beth were across from us.
As we chowed down on our sour noodles, I asked Schuman about his interest in Jethro Tull and the words burst forth from him like a jail break. He was studying music at the University of Berlin, working on his thesis on British folk music’s contribution to the roots of rock and roll. This led to a general discussion with almost everyone at our table contributing their ameteur musical historian wannabe two cents. We talked about our generation’s music, which had been developmentally important to each one of us in its own way, and a key cultural thread that wove all of us together. We talked about the various strands in the fabric of the rock music we all loved and shared. The roots from the black R&B and white folk music. The merger of the two by bands of the ‘British Invasion’ – The Beatles from Liverpool in the industrial north of England, the Kinks, Stones and the Who from London in the south, bringing their compelling hybrid to the U.S. Dylan helping to bridge that gap as well, and bring an expectation of more thoughtful gravitas to the song lyrics.
We shared and reinforced the common mythology around our beloved music. The implicit, and at times even explicit sexuality, with the word ‘rock’ standing in for the taboo word ‘fuck’. I shared that my local Ann Arbor-Detroit band the MC5 had a song ‘Kick Out the Jams’, with the initial lyric line of the first verse, “Kick out the jams motherfuckers”, only to have the radio stations and the record labels censor it and pressure the band to a version subbing in ‘brothers and sisters’, that finally got airplay. Most of the others, even the Aussie Beth, on the other side of the world, had somehow heard about that. There was the legend of Dylan meeting the Beatles, with him convincing them to write more thoughtful lyrics and them convincing him to go electric. Apocryphal perhaps, but it was a great story that made such sense. And of course a shared bemoaning of the untimely death of so many great young musicians – Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mama Cass Elliot, Duane Allman, and Gram Parsons – and speculating what great musical heights they may have achieved if they had lived.
Eccentric nerdy Schuman, with his Albert Einstein horizontal hair and wild thick glasses magnifying blue eyes, was at the epicenter of the discussion. He was an odd bird, who never initiated conversation, and would stare down at the table in a sort of thoughtful trance. But he listened to every word said and would respond with bursts of very insightful thoughts to things that the rest of us chimed in with, without really looking at you when he spoke. So I shared growing up near Detroit with all the Motown soul music coming out of the ‘Motor City’. Schuman threw in the gospel roots of the call and response lyrics that gave many Motown songs their distinctive edge. Beth shared about Australian ‘oz rock’ music, how it continued to struggle to get airplay on the radio stations in her home country which pretty much played only the American and British pop and rock hits. Schuman said that one American rock song from 1954, Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, was credited with getting an entire generation of Australian youth starting bands in the late 1950s, what was considered the ‘first wave’ of Australian rock.
Everyone contributed to the musical pot luck with Schuman supplying the connections between the dishes and the gourmet sauce. The Clevelanders chimed in with their fondness for the psychedelic music of Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd, and more mainstream bands’ albums like the Beach Boys Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Revolver, and the Stones’ Their Majesty’s Satanic Request, with Schuman calling out Pink Floyd’s Syd Barret’s seminal psychedelic classic, ‘See Emily Play’. And Malc and Dred spoke to the continuing cauldron for musical innovation in the British Isles, with the Glam Rock bands like T Rex, The Sweet, Roxy Music, and of course Bowie. In response to that, Schuman really lit up, saying the British excelled at borrowing and even stealing from other musical traditions, and that was what had inspired him to write his thesis. Monika, the daughter of a woman who had been a writer and performer, was all about the women singer songwriters – Aretha Franklin, Melanie, Bobbie Gentry, Carly Simon, Carole King and Joni Mitchell.
Finally, the very animated conversation was spent, we had all shared and we all basked in the gestalt of our actual meal, now nestled in our warm bellies, and our metaphorical meal of shared musical heritage, bubbling in our brains. Ragna, who had had the least to say in the discussion, announced that she and Monika had to head down the hill to catch their train to Interlaken. The rest of us, even Schuman, agreed to walk down with them and head from the station to the tavern for our now nightly ritual.
In contrast to the spirited exchange we had just had, we all trudged down the freshly snow covered road mostly in silence, perhaps in honor of a shared sense of endings, or perhaps caught up in the infectious quiet of the still falling snow. Monika and Ragna walked together in the lead, their big colorful packs on their backs for the first time since their arrival in Grindelwald, reminding us of the transient nature of our little cabal, that we were all travelers soon to head off every which way. Beth walked pensively with Schuman and me, she staring at the sky a lot, perhaps pondering what had kindled in the past twenty-four hours between her and Monika. Similarly, Michael, walking with Matt, looked deep in thought. Derrick, Malc and Dred took up the rear, quietly talking amongst themselves off and on.
The train came into the station, brakes squealing and spitting steam. Monika, pack still on her back, gave every one of us, even Schuman, a big hug, saving the last and longest for Michael and Beth.
I must confess that I had dressed in anticipation of the possibility of this moment, enduring the chill with just my soft flannel shirt on with no t-shirt under and wearing my down jacket open, like Monika did. So when she hugged me, she in one of her ubiquitous t-shirts and of course no bra, I could feel her big breasts press against me, her nipples touching just about on my own through just two thin layers of cotton fabric. My libido went absolutely wild, and it was a good thing that my penis was oriented such in my jeans that it could react without embarrassing me. It was a heartfelt embrace, two or three exquisitely long seconds of our bodies pressed together, her cheekbone pressing into the soft flesh of my cheek, and smelling the floral shampoo scent in her hair, the muskier scent of her neck tinged with sweat, and the faint smell of deodorant from below. She was at that moment, as always, awesome, and it had been my pleasure to have had these three days to make her acquaintance, though not as intimately as Michael or perhaps Beth had. She spoke softly in my ear, “Give your mom a hug for me”, and then broke the embrace and moved on.
Ragna, who might more naturally have just shaken hands, followed suit by giving everyone a hug, though more formal and perfunctory in her case. Still, she and I took our turn, and our bodies were joined for a second or two, with the scent of the same shampoo as Monika in her hair, and when we separated she looked at me with those intense gray eyes and spoke.
“Every time I play Russian Bank in the future, and I do intend to add it to my repertoire, I will think of you!”
I was pleased she hadn’t hung a ‘young man’ or ‘good sir’ on the sentence in croupier mode. I responded in kind.
“Thanks for that translation in the tavern, and for me, Hearts will never be quite the same!” The little play on the word ‘Hearts’, like maybe ‘my heart’, was perhaps a fortuitous turn of phrase, because I was rewarded by the faintest twinkle in those dark eyes and a slight crack of a smile on her pursed lips. If the two of us had been alone on that platform I think I could have kissed her then.
And just like that the two of them boarded the train and were gone, the rest of us silently feeling the power of their absence as we stood for a few reverent moments on the platform, the last of the snow still drifting down. Seven of us guys, six with our big hair, and Matt with his shorter coiffure, once neatly parted but now mussed in solidarity, now gravitating into orbit around Beth, ready to take her place as our new Monika. She finally breaking the thrall to lead us to the tavern with her own smaller, but still worth watching in action, rear end.