So I followed suit and kept my tray. There were about two dozen of us in that initial batch that headed down the mountain, including the Cleveland Gang, Beth and her Aussie guys, Ragna and Monika still with her unbuttoned jacket, t-shirt and no bra. That woman was indeed a total polar bear, impervious to the cold, presumably from years of living in the frozen north. About half of us had trays, including Monika, but not her travel partner who said to her, “I’ll walk behind, and drag your unconscious body to the side of the road so you don’t get run over!” as Monika got a running start and planted her rear end on the tray with clear indication of athleticism and skill.
I had heard the night before, that unlike most other hostels, the showers here had actual hot water, and in lieu of a big breakfast of delicious yogurt and granola, I confirmed that the shower was hot and indulged myself a long one, including washing my hair. Naked, my body completely cleansed of dirt and sweat as it rarely was, the deliciously warm water raining down upon me, my mind wound my narrative back to my last real shower. It had been nearly three weeks ago in the Hotel in Paris where Walter, who had picked up my travel partner Steve and me in Southern France and driven us to the French capital, paid for our night’s lodging. Since then I had only had what my mom called “bird baths”, where I dabbed a wet maybe soapy washcloth on parts of my body. And since then I had traveled through Italy and been in so many famous old locations and met such interesting people who had touched my life in one way or another, all of whom I would most likely never see again, and there was a lot of sadness with that thought.
It was Sunday November 25, 1973 as I sat on a bench on the platform at the Venice train station waiting for the train that would take me to Switzerland and an anticipated Alpine paradise. I saw a couple other what looked like Americans roughly my age with their long hair and backpacks, but I did not recognize them and did not venture to try to connect with them, nor them with me. 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 Jacques – I was leaving Venice on fumes, tired and homesick and needing the universe to get me home, but having another two weeks of money to spend and time to kill spending it before my plane flight back to Detroit from London reserved for December 11. I was hoping that Grindelwald in the high Alps would be the waystation where I could medicate myself for four or five days with a hot fire, a beautiful view, maybe some nice company, and a good supply of that delicious Swiss yogurt.
It was Friday November 23, the day after the U.S. Thanksgiving. 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 north to Switzerland and said they might try to get to Grindelwald, where I was planning to go after Venice. Jen and Sarah had left Florence for Venice earlier that morning. Trix and Evelyn had decided to stay an extra day in Florence before leaving. I wasn’t sure what was the status of the other four women we had shared that train compartment with three days back. Maui 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 Jen, Sarah, Trix and Evelyn at the Venice youth hostel, since they had all said they were headed there. But I actually ended up having a distraction. When I boarded the train I had found a seat in a compartment with three elderly Italian women traveling together, two sitting on one bench by the window and the third across from them also by the window, the three laughing and chatting animatedly in Italian. They had all said “bonjourno” to me when I entered the compartment and I had replied in Italian as well, seating myself on the bench with the third but by the door leaving a space between us. Moments later a very attractive Italian woman entered the compartment, considered the two empty seats, one across from me and one next to me, and chose the latter to sit. Soon after the train started moving and got up to speed, she struck up a conversation with me, speaking some English, and seemed to even be flirting with me. Her name was Sophia, probably in her mid forties, and at least by her telling a successful businesswoman, traveling alone and headed to Venice for a weekend conference related to her business.
It was November 19 1973 and I boarded the train headed northeast from Rome to Florence. It was a Monday, not that I kept track of what day it was since the days of the week made no difference to me, except maybe for Sunday, where in some of the more traditional areas, some of the grocery stores or the museums might be closed for the Christian sabbath. The only reason I knew it was Monday was because I’d seen the Pope do his Sunday thing in St. Peter’s square the day before.
As I boarded the train I saw others of my ilk, easily spotted by their backpacks and “freak flag” hair boarding the train as well at different doors. Some of them I recognized but I presume most or all of them had been staying at our hostel, or perhaps another one across town, and were now headed for guess where… probably Florence. My cohort of fellow travellers stuck out because most of the Europeans milling around us had way less unkempt hair, instead styled if even simply so. Easy to maintain short hair seemed to be the “mode” of the day for men and women, functional and even elegant on someone like Giselle’s daughter Laurence, who I had met in Paris. It was all about style I thought… most Europeans had a real sense of simple practical style. Thus the wild often unkempt manes on all of us backpacker types stuck out, along of course with those big packs often to be seen on our backs.
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 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 they had found my documents after falling 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, and thus never getting to Italy, where I was now headed. The whole experience had chastened me, and made all my continuing issues with homesickness seem not so big a deal.
Dear friends and family… For the 8th year, I will be riding in the North Valley Caring Services bike-a-thon to raise money for this great community organization that supports the emergence of this poor mostly Hispanic community in Panorama City, just a couple miles east of where I live. This year’s event is on Saturday, April 16, just two weeks after my 61st birthday!
From its beginnings as a soup kitchen, NVCS has grown to offer an array of programs that help individuals and families, including Adult ESL Courses, Early Childhood Education, and Parenting Classes; a Youth Program and a Workforce Development program. They have additional services including a holiday toy give-away, free Thanksgiving meal, health screenings and referral services.
Please support my effort by making a donation of $25, $50, $100 or whatever amount you can give by clicking the “Donate” button below! This is the one time during the year I ask my network for money, and my goal this year is to raise $1000 for this critical organization!
To learn more about North Valley Caring Services and the great work they do, go to their website at www.nvcsinc.org.