Coop Goes to Europe Part 1 – Parting Company

Coop 18 Intl Student IDPreviously that summer of 1973 I had made a note in my journal…

I missed the 1968 generation. I came too late. That’s when we were still all together moving in the right direction. Now the momentum is shattered. People are turning inward and cruising. But maybe because I’m not part of the 1968 “Vietnam” generation I’m not disillusioned. My time may still be to come.

I felt I was somehow too young, born too late to have the bonafides to be an actual “hippie” radical, like my good friend Avi’s older brother or the characters in the movie The Strawberry Statement. It was like that boat had sailed and I could only at this point be some sort of poser wannabe… no thank you!

I had finally cut myself loose from schooling. For the first time in thirteen years a Labor Day, and the first cool winds of fall that usually accompanied it, came without the anticipation of an impending year of school, whether elementary, junior high, high school or college. My life in the year ahead would be completely of my own design. My own self-initiated, self-directed adventure. For that fall my chosen adventure was to backpack through Europe.

Actually the trip had originally been conceived by my two female friends, Lane and Angie, for the two of them to go together, and I had later asked if I could join them. They had agreed, though I’m not sure how a male friend joining their trip changed the dynamic, I don’t think I was sensitive to that at that point. We had targeted flying to London in September 1973 and travelling through Western Europe for two or three months. The two of them had just graduated from high school and I had completed my first year of college and figured I would take a year off from that educational enterprise for this trip. I had worked all summer at a local Hilton Hotel making minimum wage as a “house boy” helping guests with their luggage, doing janitorial work and cleaning guests’ rooms to save the money for the trip. My mom tossed in a several hundred dollars to help me pay for the plane ticket.

Over the summer, due to other circumstances, Lane had dropped out of the odyssey, but Angie had decided to continue with the plan and go with me. That of course completely changed the dynamic from two best female friends and their male companion tagging along to a male female couple, even though we were just friends. At that time many of my closest friends were female peers in school or my theater group, but I had never had an actual romantic relationship of any significance. Though they were both close friends of mine, I had had a crush on Lane for a couple years and I’m sure Angie knew that as well.

Longing for a romantic relationship, and with Lane now interested in another older guy, Angie was coming on my radar because of our shared plans for the fall. I felt that sort of relationship was the one key thing missing from my life, and I imagined that it would be very fulfilling, and cure a lot the anxiety I felt about my life in general. I knew I had a real hangup in this area of my life. After many episodes over the last four years with very cool young women interested in me, and even hitting on me, I had always managed to get cold feet and bail. With Angie maybe I could cure that, and it would be a beautiful addition to our relationship and bring us closer together.

I’m not sure I really knew what I was getting myself in for, but I did have that previous experience spending the summer in England with my mom and brother, three years earlier, plus a two-week Russian Club trip to the Soviet Union a year after that. Prior to that the adventures of long family car trips back east or the ad hoc day-trips with my brother and dad. So I felt comfortable with being a traveler and the logistics involved, and I felt I would not be intimidated by being in other countries where I did not speak the language.

So Angie and I got our passports, bought our plane tickets and two-month European student rail passes, making the adventure feel more like it was really going to happen. We outlined initial plans for how long we would spend in each city we were going to visit. At my mom’s suggestion and with notes that she had kept from our time in England three years previous, I sent letters to several of the people we had gotten to know when we were there. The family next door that we had gotten to know in Horspath village outside of Oxford. The young German couple, Angelica and Helmut, and a very charismatic and charming Englishman named David, all whom we had met as tourists during our travels in England. Also a French couple, Giselle and Paul, my mom had meant on a subsequent trip to Switzerland. I gave them dates of when I would likely be where they lived, and they all replied that they would love to see me.

In terms of plans beyond our trip, I had discussed with my theater group mentor Robert the possibility of joining him and other of my JLO companions in Reno in maybe January or February, where they were headed in the fall, to pursue more opportunities in theater, movies and television. But nagging me in that regard was a sense that my abilities in the acting and performing department were not up to the same levels as some of my comrades who I felt were tremendously talented.

I knew I wanted to come back from Europe transformed somehow. I imagined myself returning with my long bushy hair, plus mustache, beard and sideburns. I wanted everyone to look at me in awe, all grown up. And maybe I could get into making movies somehow, that was drawing me now more than work on the stage. I felt that my life, as it was now, with a little improvement in my sex life, was good, but I was still conflicted. Could I stay this way forever? Do high school and college friends have to leave each other to “find their own lives”? Wasn’t that stupid to lose all those friends that you had spent so long to develop? Isn’t the world you make when you’re young fulfilling enough? Yet if I stay in Ann Arbor doing the same thing will I feel like I’m stagnating, like I should be doing something that I’m not? Yet why give up something that works?

Beyond that there was very little additional planning, other than deciding what clothes, toiletries and other personal items to fill our backpacks with. I recall packing basically two changes of clothes besides what I was wearing. Also a lightweight down jacket, down sleeping bag and basic tube tent. Shoes were problematic, being heavy and bulky. It made sense to wear my big heavy new hiking boots and pack my two-inch heels, my dressiest shoes in the pack. No sneakers, which as it turned out would have been a lot better choice than the big heavy, not broken in yet, hiking boots. Finally some other camping tools like a Swiss Army knife, water bottle, compass and flashlight.

It was Monday September 17 when we left, but I don’t recall whether it was Angie’s mom or mine that drove us and our crammed full backpacks the half-hour drive to Metropolitan airport outside Detroit. I do recall being unduly calm, akin to the reverse stagefright I would get before going out on stage in a theatrical performance. I was once again throwing myself in the deep end of the metaphorical pool of life experience. Like when I had first agreed three years earlier to perform on stage, particularly my first big lead part singing and dancing in a musical. If Angie was having any second thoughts about our odyssey at that point, so engrossed in my own feelings, I did not notice.

Our’s was an overnight flight from Detroit Metropolitan to London Heathrow, and we got to our destination in the late morning local time, having had little or no sleep. Heathrow was a maze of hallways, corridors and stairways, including moving walkways I had never seen before which I noted in my journal as “horizontal escalators”. The airport officials checking our passports were brusque and even snotty, but let us and our backpacks into the country. After asking four people for directions and some wrong turns we finally ended up on the bus we needed to take us to the London Underground station closest to the airport.

The bus traveled through oldish residential areas to the suburban London town of Hounslow, letting us off in front of the West Hounslow Underground Station. We took the District line to Earl’s Court, for a fare of 15p each. Recalling riding the London subways three years earlier when I spent the summer in England with my mother and brother, I noted that ticket prices had doubled since I was last here. We had read the book Europe on $5 a Day, and that was our goal as well, realistic or not, and I was immediately thinking about money and the cost of things, particularly transportation costs. We had two-month student rail passes that had cost $150 each, but they didn’t start until October 1, and even then would not cover bus or subway fare.

The youth hostel we had headed for turned out to be full, and it was getting into the afternoon and we both were nearly sleepless on the plan and very tired. We looked up another hostel in our guide, thought to call them first, and they were full as well. Outside the place we encountered two Americans, the first two since our arrival, who happened of all places to be from Ypsilanti, the town just east of Ann Arbor where my dad used to teach. They told us of a hostel two blocks down the road from where we were. So we went there and were able to get in. The man in charge was about 40 years old, talkative, friendly, a little uptight and pushy though. We said we might stay one or two nights so he had us give him two pounds each, and he would refund us the 1.25S each if we only stayed one night. We weren’t in any shape to argue.

The place was one in a series of rowhouses, with a basement, ground and second floor, plus attic. Angie’s bed was in one of the female rooms on the second floor while mine was with four other guys in the basement. The place was rundown, with peeling, yellowing tile, and sort of makeshift beds. The room I was in had clothing and other backpacking items from the three other guys scattered all over it. It was about 2pm and Angie decided to go upstairs and take a nap.

I sat downstairs trying to pull myself together. I felt kind of scared and rattled by what I had been through earlier at Heathrow. I realized that getting anywhere by cheap transportation would always be a hassle, even here in England where we spoke the language! Every day we were going to have the same struggle, particularly in a big urban environment like London. Getting out of this big city seemed very appealing to me then, and I thought that we ought to get ourselves to Oxford the next morning and escape the dingy hostel, and the depressing, confusing city.

With Angie asleep upstairs I decided to walk around the neighborhood a bit. The manager of the hostel gave me directions to the post office, and I figured I would pick up a postcard or something to write home to my mom. The post office was right across the street from the Earl’s Court Underground station. As I walked along I noticed the smells of this sort of urban area, smells of fresh this and that or rotting this and that. There were all sorts of people on the streets. Facial expressions ranged from the normal expected faces in a public place to weird far off looks. There were other obvious Americans with their backpacks and scraggly hair. Dingy British businessmen. Mothers with their children. Young couples and girls alone, and a few young British men alone. There were also a great number of Asians, which I had noticed at the airport and my hostel as well. It was a strange bunch of people, most of whom I was not used to encountering in my Midwest, middle class, mostly white college town.

I couldn’t find decent postcards so I bought an aerogramme at the post office instead. They were cheaper too, just 6p including the postage. I also stopped at a small food store and after much pondering and consternation bought a can of Campbell’s “Scottish Broth” for 10p. I felt like I was copping out, but this was the only food that was both appealing and reliably familiar. I wasn’t ready to experiment yet with British convenience food. I picked up a couple of familiar British candy bars at the Underground station and headed back. I quickly ate the candy bars, but decided to stow the soup away because I wasn’t all that hungry. I sat down and wrote my aerogramme to mom and brother. I wrote about my sense of overwhelm.

Angie reappeared from upstairs and we both walked over to the post office. She bought three aerogrammes and I got one more. She agreed with me we should only stay that night and make our way to Oxford the next morning. We found a little fast food place and stopped and ate and discussed our plans for the morning, both agreeing to take off for Oxford first thing in the morning, either by bus or by hitchhiking. She had taken a nap and was a bit refreshed, but I could feel the deep fatigue in my body from little or no sleep, though I still continued to function. Angie shared that one of her roommates mentioned that she thought they had bedbugs, the kind that crawl into your sleeping bags, suck your blood and breed in your bedding.

We were definitely not getting off to a good start! And our relationship was not such that we were used to sharing our fears and troubles and discussing difficult personal issues with each other, so we really did not process our misgivings. Finally we parted company for the evening, her heading upstairs and me to the basement. I decided I would sleep somehow tonight without opening my sleeping bag.

The next morning we found our way to a bus station and onto a bus to Oxford. We both felt good to be exiting the big city and driving through the English countryside on a sunny warm day. There had been a radio in the room I slept in and the station had played Ron Argent’s song “Hold Your Head Up”. So this next morning, all during our bus ride, its opening organ riff and lyrics were repeating in my mind’s ear…

And if it’s bad
Don’t let it get you down, you can take it
And if it hurts
Don’t let them see you cry, you can make it

Hold your head up
Hold your head up
Hold your head up
Hold your head high

And if they stare
Just let them burn their eyes on you moving
And if they shout
Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing

Hold your head up

My Greek chorus, even several thousand miles away from home, was speaking to me and giving me a mantra to get through this. During the bus ride I tried my best to refresh Angie on my previous time three years back living in Oxford. That we had an invitation to stay with the Clays, the family who had been our next door neighbors, back then in the little village of Horspath just outside Oxford proper. She seemed to be hanging in there.

When we got to the Oxford bus station it turned out that the bus to Horspath did not leave for some three hours! Remembering my greater Oxford area geography, plus armed with a map, we finally figured out to take another bus to the Cowley roundabout, which was just about three or four miles from our destination. From there I called our former neighbors, and Mr. Clay, Bill was his name, answered the phone and said he would come right by and pick us up.

Bill was soon there in his new VW, full of his good friendly energy, very glad to see us. He and his wife Madge had lived next door to us three years ago when we had spent the summer in England. My brother and I had befriended their kids, Kevin, who was my age, and his younger sister Kate, who was about my brother’s. Bill cheerily filled Angie and I in on his family’s goings on, and inquired how my mom was doing, and how I knew Angie. Kevin was in trade school studying to be an auto mechanic and now working part time at a gas station, and Kate was into the whole teenage thing going to the little high school in Horspath that Kevin was going to back when we lived there.

When we got to their house, the neighborhood looked unchanged from how I remembered it, with the five hundred year old manor farmhouse across the street and the thousand year old church behind their backyard. The couple next door to the Clays, who my mom had traded houses with had since sold the house and moved on. Madge seemed thrilled to see us and gave me and Angie big hugs. Madge’s mom had had a lot of health issues and was now confined to a wheelchair, seeming unlike three years ago, very bossy and impatient.

They insisted that we stay with them, we were still feeling a bit jet lagged and sleep deprived and happy to agree. Angie was given Kevin’s room and he and I would sleep in the living room. He kind of went right back to where he and I had been three years ago and was excited to show me and Angie the new motorcycle he had bought. She and I were still a bit on overwhelm, still not having found our center of gravity as travel buddies. So after eating supper with the five of them all squeezed around their dining table we made an early night of it. As all others retired to their rooms, Kevin and I lay on the living room floor in our sleeping bags and he continued to regale me with the highlights of the last three years of his life, and quizzed me for details about my own. I could barely keep my eyes open but I felt it would be rude not to answer his questions, plus it just felt good to be around people I knew, sleeping in a place that was not completely strange to me.

The next morning the five of them were up early, Madge fixing breakfast for all. Kate with her books, dressed in her school uniform off for her short walk to the school in the village. Kevin off on his motor scooter to his classes and Bill in his new VW off to work. Angie slept in and even when she got up we were both happy to just sit at the dining table and hear Madge’s take on things those past three years, her mom’s worsening health and confinement to a wheelchair and her daughter becoming a “teenybopper”. I told Madge about my brother and how my mom had gotten involved in local politics and the women’s movement, which seemed to make perfect sense to her remembering my mom’s gregariousness and strong views from back then.

Remembering the town from three years ago, I played tour guide and took Angie into Oxford on the bus and showed her around the storied university campus. Both of us growing up in a college town, it felt not too strange to wander among the cloistered brick and stone buildings in the midst of a crowd of students doing what we were so used to doing in previous falls. Though Angie and I were both eighteen, having skipped kindergarten, I had spent one year already in college while Angie had just graduated from high school the previous June. I recall our conversation was more about the scenery of the city than our interior geography, how we were feeling about our whole odyssey just beginning and off to perhaps a rocky start.

This time we managed to get the bus back to Horspath in a timely fashion and I took Angie for another tour of the village. First we stopped at the little store across from the bus stop and I treated her to a “Cornish”, a plain vanilla ice cream bar with wafers on both sides. We took the road up the other side of the village past the stone building of the village pub, the runty little thousand year old church, and the village’s jarringly modern looking secondary school for kids 11 to 18. We then continued on the road up the hill to the Shotover ridge just above the village, still as I remembered it with fields of waist high bracken ferns. We waded through the ferns and then down the ridge through the cow pasture of the still operational manor farm across the street from the Clay’s house. Angie had no sense of where we were and was pleasantly surprised to be suddenly back just across the street from our host’s little house.

That evening after supper at the Clay’s, Bill and Kevin took Angie and I over to the village pub. I, an experienced beer drinker from my year in the dorm at college, had a beer on tap. At Kevin’s suggestion, Angie had a shandy, a mixture of beer and fruit juice. He and his dad quizzed us about how we knew each other, and we shared with them we were schoolmates but became friends working together in our Junior Light Opera theater group. It seemed a kick to both of them that Angie and I had both been in a number of plays including singing and dancing on stage. I was so hoping that Angie’s comfort level with our whole adventure ahead was being improved by this much more friendly and domestic third day of our journey.

The next morning was Friday, and after breakfast with the family, we said our goodbyes, repacked our backpacks, and Bill drove us back to the bus station in town so we could catch the bus to Salisbury, which had both a youth hostel and Stonehenge. Again, Angie and I had little experience in our relationship as friends talking about difficult subjects, like what was apparently her growing discomfort with and second thoughts about our planned extended journey going forward.

That evening, after we had checked out Stonehenge and checked in, successfully this time, at our youth hostel, Angie finally told me that she had decided to cut her trip short. Though I had not expected this announcement, I had at some level felt her discomfort since our arrival in London.

My first thought was a sense of great fear and loneliness, that I should throw in the towel too, return to London and figure out how to catch the first flight possible back home. But that was quickly followed by another very strong thought that I did not want to admit defeat so easily. I had a lot of my own time cleaning hotel rooms all summer at $2.10 an hour invested in my plane ticket, plus a great deal of pride as a budding world traveler. And how could I be comfortable telling people that I had bailed on my European odyssey so quickly and completely and have any self respect?

I could not answer that last question satisfactorily in my own mind and realized that like it or not I somehow had to continue with this now very different sort of odyssey. Looking back now at my dilemma, it seems like a very negative motivation that was pushing me to continue, but in hindsight, based on all the experiences I had and the personal development the trip catalyzed, I made the right decision. But I was certainly no longer viewing the next couple months as a fun adventure.

So I found a private phone booth down the street from my youth hostel, one of those iconic red ones that I had seen in TV or movies set in England. With a pocket full of British coins and a helpful operator I managed to make the connection back to the states and was grateful when my mom answered the phone. My voice was shaky and the tears flooded out of me as I explained to her what had happened and that I had decided that like it or not I had to continue. I recall her being very understanding and striking just the right tone of being very concerned for my welfare but supportive of my decision. She insisted that I send her a postcard every day from wherever I was and to call her again collect whenever I needed to talk. So I thanked her, still in tears, composed myself and returned to the youth hostel and did my best to try to get some sleep (despite my mind buzzing with all the implications of my decision) before the new day came in this brave new world that felt not of my making, but in retrospect certainly was.

Angie called her parents that evening as well. Apparently they had already had a plan to fly to London for their own vacation in England, and arranged to meet Angie in the city several days from now. I was so caught up in my own feelings of being left on my own, alone in another country, that I don’t think I really solicited exactly what her issues were with truncating her participation in our trip. I do recall her sense of relief, and that she was comfortable continuing our more immediate plan to head to Southampton before going back to London, since she had several days to fill before she planned to meet up with her parents.

The next day we took a bus to Southampton, a port city along England’s south coast. After calling him on the number he had given me in his letter,David met us at the bus station there in his very tiny Mini Cooper, that barely fit Angie and I and our backpacks. David seemed one of those caretaker type people that was always focused on taking care of others, which was probably why we had originally made such a connection with him. He quickly quizzed Angie and I and found out all the details of our situation, and did his best to assure us that everything would work out for the best.

When we had met him three years earlier he had been single, but now he was living with a girlfriend and her two young kids in a somewhat rundown working class neighborhood of the city. While David was closer to my mom’s age, I recall that his girlfriend was a shy person of color who was significantly younger than him, closer to Angie and my age, who spoke very little English. He was not her kids’ biological father, but given his inclination, was filling in as such. It was a small one bedroom apartment, and David, his girlfriend and her kids all slept in the small bedroom while he made room for us in their main room.

I recall finding their relationship discomforting, since he seemed to treat her more like a daughter though he was apparently sleeping with and having sex with her. And here were Angie and I, platonic friends (though I had imagined our odyssey might have led to more than that) sleeping in our separate sleeping bags just one thin wall from their shared bed.

The next morning was Saturday, and David convinced us to stay a second night and took Angie and I on a tour of the city and at the end of the day to a big youth dance hall. Feeling like fish out of water among all these other young people our age or younger who we did not know, Angie and I finally got the nerve up to dance with each other to the DJ’s rock music. His playlist included American and British bands we knew, like The Who, David Bowie and Stevie Wonder, plus other British bands we were not familiar with like Slade and Thin Lizzy. With Angie’s participation in our extended European odyssey resolved such as it was, we relaxed and danced like the friends and theater comrades we were. We would be going our separate ways in several more days, but it somehow seemed meant to be. The real journey was to be mine alone, everything that had happened up to now was just a way to get me to this starting point.

On Sunday we took the bus back to London, decided instead of a hostel to splurge on an inexpensive shared hotel room there with two beds. We took the Underground to see some tourist sites that Monday, and spent one more night together before we parted company. Tuesday morning we hugged and wished each other well and no hard feelings and I shouldered my backpack and grabbed a bus to the station where I would catch a train to the coast, across the Channel, and then several more train connections to get me to Munich with the hope of hooking up with Angelica and Helmut.

I really did not have a sense of what I was getting myself into. I was still shaky and scared even, if I had been honest with myself. But I had a strong sense of how utterly defeated I would feel to return to the States having bailed on my opportunity to wear that bonafide badge of a person who had had this unique developmental experience and was courageously charting his own course through life. That was the person I craved to be, and I could not bail on this experience like I had on a number of others before. I would go on as best I could, one day at a time for as long as I could, writing a postcard each day to my mom as I had promised her, until I had had the experience I wanted to have had, if not yet ready exactly to have, if that makes any sense. My fun adventure with a friend had reframed as an ordeal by myself.

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