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.
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.
It was Friday November 23 1973, the day after Thanksgiving in the States. Despite all my fellow backpackers traveling the Rome-Florence-Venice circuit like I was, I somehow ended up on the after lunch train from Florence to Venice by myself. The guys from Cleveland had decided to skip Venice because they had heard it was dreary and depressing and there was not much to do. They had instead headed farther northeast to Vienna, where I had originally planned to go after Venice. Jen and Sarah had left Florence for Venice earlier that morning. Trix and Evelyn and their crew were probably already in Vienna. Moana I think was headed west to Paris, continuing the Western European leg of his world tour that would take him across the States, via a two-month Greyhound bus pass, in December and January.
I was on my own again, and as such subject to that creeping melancholy and homesickness that was always lurking inside me these days when nothing else was happening to engage and distract me. But actually it wasn’t so bad on this day because I was pretty confident I would see at least Jen and Sarah at the Venice youth hostel, and get a welcome “hey Coopster” out of them plus maybe more.
It was Thursday November 22 1973, and I purposely got up early and managed to head out from the hostel and avoided encountering Derrick, Matt and Michael. It was raining again. There had not been a single completely dry moment since I got here three days ago. I was happy to be on my own, or at least without ‘the boys’ for now, as I walked through the streets of the old city in the light rain.
Yesterday had been a different sort of day. I had slept in until nearly 11 o’clock when the hostel staff kicked me out of the bunkroom so they could clean it. Then ‘the boys’ had ambushed me in the common room. To try and fend them off without being rude, I told them that I had a day of ‘chores’ planned; buying groceries, going to the post office to mail postcards, and finding a place to wash my clothes, which hadn’t been washed since Spain a couple weeks ago, figuring that agenda would be boring for them and they’d leave me on my own for the day. But Matt and Michael said they needed to get all those things done too so they suggested accompanying me. Derrick grudgingly agreed. I didn’t have the heart or balls or whatever organ was in play there to say no.
It was Tuesday November 20 1973 when I awoke in the male bunk room of the youth hostel in Florence, or as I was referring to it now by it’s suaver sounding real Italian name, ‘Firenze’. I had arrived at the hostel the previous evening with a big throng of my cohort, all of us with wet ponchos from the rain, dripping everywhere in the main common room as we stood in line, boisterously chatting with each other about the shitty weather, anything to break the ice. Trix and the other five young women, who I had shared a crowded compartment with on the train from ‘Roma’, went off in their own directions for the evening, and Jen and Sarah, who had left Roma for Firenze a day before, were yet unsighted among the throng in the hostel that night, but hopefully I would encounter them again.
It was Monday November 19 1973, and I boarded the train headed from Rome up to Florence. I saw others of my ilk, easily spotted by their backpacks and ‘freak flag’ hair boarding as well amongst a crush of people at every coach door. Some of them I recognized, but I presumed most of them had been staying at our hostel, or perhaps another one across town, and were now headed for guess where, probably Florence.
The train did not originate here in Rome, so there were apparently plenty of people already on it as all of us boarded. I started to move up the corridor of the coach, looking for a compartment with a seat for me, finding each one chocked full of people, a big family perhaps or just six, or even seven individuals filling the seats and space. It was indeed a full train, and now I was encountering people going the other way down the narrow corridor, where we could barely squeeze around each other, me with my big pack on my back making it particularly hard, our bodies touching each other as they sidled past. It was interesting that the Italians among the train riders I encountered in those narrow hallways seemed much more comfortable putting a gentle hand on my shoulder to ease by than the WASPier Northern Europeans who tried their best not to touch me at all.
The next morning was Saturday November 17. Jen and Sarah were off to the train for Florence. Hopefully I might see them again there. Our other comrades from last night’s dinner had not been in the common room . But I met Morgan there as planned and we decided we’d do the whole ancient imperial Rome thing today.
But first we adjourned to the bakery across the street where they had fresh loaves of Italian bread called “ciabatta”. Not long and thin like French baguettes, but more flat and oval shaped like a deflated football. We each bought one and sat at a table by the front window of the bakery, tearing apart and devouring the warm yeasty, chewy cooked dough. After all this wonderful bread I had had in Europe – soda bread in England, pumpernickel in Germany, baguettes in France and now ciabatta in Italy – I would never be able to go back to eating shitty Wonder bread in the States.
The next morning, Friday November 16 1973, I was up early at the hostel with a plan. Morgan had visited the Vatican and the Sistine Chapel yesterday, but had been frustrated at the big crowds filling the Chapel by the time he got there. I was determined to get their early, head quickly through the first parts of the museum labyrinth to get to the Chapel as quickly and early as possible.
So I ate whatever remnants of food I had in my pack and headed out to walk to the Vatican, which was not too far from the hostel. With my Rome city map all strategically folded so it showed just the rectangle of streets between me and my destination, I navigated the city’s hodgepodge of streets and arrived at a spot on a small street on the periphery of the sprawling connected Vatican complex of buildings. There was just a small stairway up to a nondescript door. I had anticipated the entrance to the museum would be some ostentatious portico, so I thought I was in the wrong place. There was no one around except for a fairly official looking man standing at the bottom of the small staircase, so I asked him in my minimal Italian where the entrance to the “Museo del Vaticano” was, expecting to have to try and parse directions in Italian to somewhere else, hopefully nearby. He pointed to the door at the top of the little stairway and said that the “Musei Vaticani” (apparently it was considered museums plural) would be open in “quarantacinque minuti”, about forty five minutes.
So the next morning, Thursday November 15, I set out on my own into the streets of Rome with the task of making my now much anticipated flight home a reality. I was headed to the BOAC office to book my already paid for return flight from London to Detroit, and then to the post office to mail postcards. Eyeballing my Rome city map, and folding it in such a way that just the route from the hostel to the airline office was displayed, I calculated it to be about a five kilometer walk, maybe forty minutes, and with as much walking as I was now used to doing, what I now considered an easy hike, even shouldering my fifty pound pack. I was carrying it because I would try again to call Marcello, and hopefully hook up with him and head directly to his mom’s house and enjoy the hospitality of him and his mom.
It was Wednesday November 14 and the morning sun lit the interior of the Basel train station where I still sat waiting for the train to Rome. I remembered the station from my first day on the Continent six weeks ago, on my own for the first time after I’d just left Angie behind in London that morning. I remembered how intimidating it had been to step off the train at three in the morning in this big place and see all the signs and schedule boards in languages I did not understand, having the challenge of figuring out how to purchase a ticket and board the train to Munich. That had been the beginning of “Phase One” of my odyssey on my own. Now having just concluded “Phase Two” with Steve, I was starting my presumably final “Phase Three” on my own again, feeling now, finally, that the entirety of the odyssey was really doable.
I had said goodbye to Steve yesterday evening in Mulhouse where I had to wait in the train station for the next train from Bar-sur-Aube to bring my passport and rail pass. It was a miracle that the station master had found my documents after they had fallen out of my jacket pocket as I boarded the train. Without that miracle I would probably now be heading back to Paris, to the U.S. embassy to get a new passport and then quickly return to the States, ending my trip several weeks earlier than anticipated. But instead I was headed to Italy, as originally intended, with a new lease on life and fate. The whole loss of my documents experience had chastened me, and made all my continuing issues with homesickness seem not so big a deal.