Coop Goes to Europe Part 2 – On My Own

With all the bravado I could muster I left the hotel and my travel companion Angie, the two of us having decided to part company, I to continue some version of our original planned trip to the continent, and her to stay in London and hook up with her parents who had planned a trip to England. Though I was not excited about continuing, and part of me wanted to bail on the whole odyssey and return home, I could not bear the sense of defeat I knew I would feel if I gave up the adventure, even now alone and on my own. Like it or not, for my own still tenuous self respect, I had to continue. I knew at some level I was throwing myself into a hugely developmental “deep end” that I was in no way looking forward to but determined to traverse somehow and return home a triumphant European traveler.

I walked with my fifty pound pack through the West London streets to the nearby train station and purchased a ticket that included a train to Folkston on the English Channel, a ferry across the Channel to Calais, and then a second train across France via Lille and Strasbourg to Basel Switzerland. From there I would have to find another train to my destination of Munich Germany.

I ended up sitting in a train compartment with a young good looking Swiss woman, Sylvia, who was also headed to Basel, to meet her parents. She spoke English and we talked. She had three pieces of luggage and I volunteered to carry one for her. So we became comrades of sorts… score one for assertiveness! My sense of aloneness and trepidation subsided significantly at least for the moment.

It was foggy at the coast, and we crossed the channel on a large ferry boat that also carried automobiles. Sylvia and I parked our bags and pack out on the promenade and enjoyed the fresh cold sea breeze. At one point neither coastline was visible in the fog. I think we both felt less alone in each others immediate company.

It was dusk when the ferry docked in Calais and the wharf was all lit with different colored lights. Gratefully, we got quickly through French customs to our train waiting on the other side of the building. Sylvia and I found a comfortable, you could even call it cozy, second class compartment all to ourselves. I felt blessed by such nice accommodations and compelling temporary travel partner. I wrote hyperbolically in my journal later…

It was amazing, second class yet the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

A man came by selling bread and cold cuts and said we could pay later. The food tasted good and we were hungry, and we both ate lustily. There is something romantic about riding on a train, alone with a travel companion, with the nighttime world going by outside and the regular shake and creak of the train wheels below you. Even though we didn’t have a ton to talk about, we seemed comfortable in each others company. Since no other riders entered our compartment to take the empty seats, each of us had a whole side of the compartment to lay down on. So we slept off and on through France, being awakened frequently by conductors, food vendors and train stops.

Our train arrived in Basel about 5:30am. I again helped Sylvia with her bags and we met her parents on the platform. She wished me well and gave me a little sort of perfunctory hug. I wished her and her parents the same and with another show of bravado turned from them and jauntily headed toward the ticketing area. I really felt out of my territory now, alone surrounded by people speaking alien languages. The big constantly updating train status boards high on the walls were in German, and I struggled to make sense of them, eventually figuring out that “Abfahrt” was German for departure and “Ankunft” arrival. I had to fight back fear and homesickness to keep focusing on the task of buying a ticket on and finding the next train to Munich.

The good news was that I found a ticketing agent who spoke some English. The bad news was that he told me, in English, that there was no direct train to Munich, I had to change trains in Zurich. I bought my ticket and boarded, what turned out to be a beautiful ride through foggy wooded morning mountains, but this time without even a fleeting travel companion.

I had a two hour wait in Zurich for the Munich train, so I checked out the station and even went outside a bit in the still foggy day. I continued to try to familiarize myself with the German words on an array of signs I encountered. While waiting in line to buy my ticket to Munich, a sleazy looking guy approached me and asked in English if I was taking the train to Munich. He said there was a bus outside going there for half the price leaving right away. I felt like a mark, like he was zeroing in on the young naive traveler, and I declined his offer, and he rolled his eyes and went off looking for another.

Once finally on the train that would take me to my final destination, I relaxed some and caught up on events, particularly my encounter with Sylvia, in my journal. I finished the entry…

Now I am on the train to Munich. I’ll have my first chance to really spend the time to tour the city. I’ll be crossing the Rhine soon for the first time in my life. Trains here can be expensive. I’m glad I have my pass.

It was Wednesday, September 26 and my student rail pass started October 1 through November 30. I felt a bit better that I had successfully negotiated my first foreign-language train station. I was looking forward to hooking up with Angelica and Helmut, who we had befriended in England three years earlier, and who I imagined would be excited to see me and I would be grateful to share their company for the next few days.

Things did not work out that way. The Munich station was even more chaotic than Basel’s, with people everywhere including outside on the surrounding streets. I did not know at first that I had stumbled into the Bavarian capital during its yearly Oktoberfest, the busiest week of the year. I called the number I had for Angelica and Helmut, but repeatedly there was no answer. Looking for an alternative plan, I discovered that the nearby youth hostel was full, along with virtually all the hotels, cheap or otherwise, that I might have in desperation paid for a bed to sleep in. My friends did not answer my continued phone calls. I had the phone number of several youth hostels in the city and called them as well, but they were all full. Hearing other tourists around me chattering in English, I soon gathered that every hotel and youth hostel in the city was packed to capacity for Oktoberfest.

I didn’t know what to do. It was getting dark and I had no place to stay other than sitting in the train station, which was a madhouse of people arriving into town for the the festival. I went outside the station for respite from the crowds and to maybe find something to eat. I was quickly learning that food in a train station might be twice the cost of the same thing bought in a restaurant or store just across the street. After my long transit from London across the Channel, France and Switzerland, I could not even imagine having to figure a new destination at this point.

On my own in this crowded chaotic environment, I quickly learned that these major European travel nexuses, like the Munich train station (and youth hostels I later stayed at) usually had a fair amount of other older youth and young adults like myself from the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and other English-speaking countries, also traveling about like I was. This impromptu network became a very important asset going forward that I could usually tap into when needed.

In the Munich train station it was a Canadian guy named Jack, maybe a couple years older than me, who noticed me looking around perplexed and came up and said hello. I shared with him my dilemma, and he provided the possibility for a solution. He was also traveling on his own, like me, and had arrived just several hours earlier and had been presented with the same lodging dilemma. He had had the fortune to meet an American, Stu, also around our age, whose dad was stationed at the U.S. military base in Munich. Stu was living in a college dorm on the military base and taking classes at an extension of some U.S. university, and had offered Jack a place to stay while he was in town. Jack suggested that maybe his impromptu host could find me a bed or couch to sleep on as well.

It sounded good to me… I was quickly learning to go with the flow, have low expectations when traveling, and focus on the basics, which in this case was that anything had to be better than spending all night in a busy train station. I tagged along with Jack as he guided us back to his host’s neighborhood, a cluster of buildings adjacent to the U.S. army base in town. When introduced by Jack, Stu was gracious and welcoming and offered me he and his dorm mate’s living room couch to sleep on.

Jack, Stu and I seemed to forge an instant bond that I ended up sharing with many other people my age that I met in the course of my European odyssey. We were immersed in the remnants of that flower-child, hippie ethos of solidarity with others of our kind. I certainly looked the part with my mane of long hair, bell-bottom pants and pack on my back. Stu had his long “freak flag” hair as well. Thinking about it now I recall Graham Nash’s opening lyric in his 1970 Crosby, Stills & Nash song “Teach Your Children”

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picks, the one you’ll know by.

As an aside that I think is appropriate to tangent on here, the song goes on, leveraging a parallel structure, to speak to the role that our younger generation needed to play for our parents’…

And you, of tender years
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by
And so please help them with your youth
They seek the truth before they can die

Teach your parents well
Their children’s hell will slowly go by
And feed them on your dreams
The ones they pick, the ones you’ll know by

That whole flower-child hippie, Strauss-Howe “prophet” generation thing had imbued me and many others in our generation with a sense that we had august things to accomplish on behalf of our ancestors and to move humankind developmentally into the future. Given that admittedly nebulous feeling, we believed at some level that we better stick together lest we lose focus and fail in our mission. That at times nebulous but still powerful bond was very often celebrated by my generation by smoking marijuana, our own “recreational intoxicant” of rebellion against the older generations and their snobbish martinis and Manhattans. Not that we didn’t consume more than our fair share of alcoholic beverages, but smoking weed somehow was the iconic peace pipe of our generational solidarity, and I suppose we had our own snobbery around the practice.

As it had been in my own college dorm the previous year at Western Michigan University, it was the state of things and rules of engagement when Jack and I were invited into Stu’s dorm suite. Stu’s living room couch (my appointed sleeping place) currently sported two of his fellow army brat student comrades sharing a pipe with a big chunk of hashish in the bowl. There was also a half-full bottle of Tanqueray gin on the coffee table with a scattering of shot glasses. I unburdened myself of my heavy pack and gratefully, and dutifully, took my place in that third spot on the couch, joining, at least for now, this “circle of equals”, passing our peace pipe of sorts. Between the THC and the gin chasers I got seriously fucked up, pretty quickly, to the point where I was having “rushes”, in my case feeling like my body was accelerating backward into the cushions of the couch where I was ensconced.

With continuing gratitude and great focus I endured this ritual without passing out or getting physically ill (on other occasions I was not quite so blessed), until my couch mates and my host decided to call it a night, and I had the sofa to myself and transitioned more gracefully into unconsciousness. When I managed to utter a somewhat mumbled comment that I was having a “rush”, I got affirming nods from the other participants in the intoxication, their hospitality being appropriately appreciated and indulged in by me. I was not caught unprepared, for I had had the “rush” experience that previous year smoking weed with my dorm buddies. College had trained me well at least in this regard!

The next day when we finally came to semi consciousness after sleeping off the long evening’s indulgence, one of Stu’s dorm mates, who happened to be the only black guy amongst a bunch of WASPy white guys, offered to play tour guide and take Jack and I into town and to check out the Oktoberfest. That afternoon and over the next three days, Jack and I explored the Bavarian capital with its state of the art urban rail system and its eclectic mix of new and old architecture, including some of those big ornate steampunk automaton clocks above the front entrance of some of the classic buildings.

We visited the Oktoberfest beer gardens, huge tents filled filled with long tables surrounding a small platform in the middle with an oom-pah-pah band that drunken revelers could pay to conduct for a particular favorite German beer drinking song (of which I imagined there were many). I quickly learned to request, “Ein grosses bier, bitte”, and was rewarded with a huge foam-dripping mug of amber liquid way tastier than any of the shitty standard American beers I guzzled down at college the year prior to my European trip. It was particularly pleasurable to the pallet when partnered with with salty pretzels, charcoaled fish on a stick, and big bittersweet radishes. The tents also featured big burly bouncers at the exits to keep you from stealing those big beautiful glass mugs. Outside the tents were various small rollercoasters and other spin you around carnival rides, which seemed like just the thing you didn’t want to do after drinking too much beer, but I guess were for the kids too young to drink.

We also spent a fair amount of time those three days talking to our hosts and their circle of American army brat college student comrades. I was a bit shocked to find that most of the group spent the bulk of their time in their little campus enclave, attending their classes during the day and limiting their evening hours to pretty much just hanging out with each other, generally getting high and drinking the cheap booze they could buy at the base PX. It was ironic that I had spent all this money and done all this planning to get to Europe so I could explore this storied continent, while they were already here, but rarely ventured out into the surrounding environment of Munich, the beautiful environs of mountains, forests and the Rhine River in the larger Bavaria, along with other nearby countries. Somehow sharing that certain ennui, while passing the bottle and hash pipe, was more compelling, or perhaps just more comforting and even medicating, than venturing out into these wonderful foreign lands.

Drunk and stoned past the point of inhibition, they shared with Jack and I, their generational comrades and honored guests, their mostly negative view of the context of their lives. They saw themselves as isolated in this enclave surrounded by an uncomfortable foreign world, going through the motions of college classes because that was their parents’ expectations, and what else was there to do. Most of their dads were officers in the U.S. military, a role that none of them seemed to aspire to themselves. They were drawn to the hardest and darkest of rock music. British bands Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Judas Priest, and Deep Purple, along with U.S. counterparts with a more Southern flavor, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top. The songs they grooved to were generally the hardest and darkest of these bands’ offerings, and reflected their own discomforting embrace with coming of age in their unique circumstance and particularly their sense of the rules of engagement with women.

Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” seemed to capture their angst, frustration and ennui…

Finished with my woman ’cause she couldn’t help me with my mind
People think I’m insane because I am frowning all the time
All day long I think of things but nothing seems to satisfy
Think I’ll lose my mind if I don’t find something to pacify
Can you help me occupy my brain?
I need someone to show me the things in life that I can’t find
I can’t see the things that make true happiness, I must be blind

Guess Jack and I showing up at their door was helping “occupy” their collective brains, at least for a few days, and they were the most gracious of hosts.

Then there’s Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” calling out the male sexual predator’s rules of engagement with women…

Hey, hey, mama
Said the way you move
Gonna make you sweat
Gonna make you groove

Oh, oh, child
Way you shake that thing
Gonna make you burn
Gonna make you sting

Hey, hey, baby
When you walk that way
Watch your honey drip
Can’t keep away

And at the end of the song still the fantasy of eventual romantic bliss from pursuing and capturing just the right woman…

All I ask for when I pray
Steady rollin’ woman gonna come my way
Need a woman gonna hold my hand
And tell me no lies, make me a happy man

I wrote in my journal…

Weird bunch of dudes. They were all so messed up. So uptight about this or that, violent or childish. I would hate the isolation of a college right in the midst of a foreign country. But they were friendly as hell to us.

Munich is a nice town but very expensive. They have a beautiful train system that will get you all over the place. I’d hate to be an American student going to that crazy university at the U.S. base there. It’s definitely an unhealthy atmosphere.

It is interesting that some of us, including yours truly, are bitten by the travel bug while others of us don’t seem to be into this sort of adventure at all, even when blessed with the golden opportunity of circumstances to do so. As I learned from my dad, life at its best should be an adventure, maybe not always fun or easy, but a compelling narrative to experience, to learn from, and to share later with others. It was that principle that inspired my mom and dad, not even a couple at the time, to make the journey from their home of Binghamton New York in the late 1940s to Ann Arbor Michigan, some 600 miles west, a journey that eventually led to my birth. It was that principle that motivated me to plan for a three-month European backpacking odyssey, just barely an adult, with one of my close high school friends. It was also that principle that inspired me to keep going now.

Their choice, these sons of American soldiers, and my own thoughts about their circumstances that contributed to them, stuck with me as I parted company with this group and continued on with my travels. I continued to pondering whether, at least at this point in our lives, I was perhaps more of a “seeker” and a “free agent” than they were. When my original travel companion had informed me in England of her decision to truncate her trip and return to the U.S., my first thought and perhaps the easiest course for me would have been to do the same. Maybe it was mainly pride and ego that drove me to continue on my own, not really knowing what I was in for and lacking the safety net of a close friend at my side.

Touring Munich with him during the day and smoking hash with him and the army brats in the evenings, Jack seemed like a nice person that I was fairly compatible and comfortable with. He suggested that we travel together. His plan was to work his way down to Greece and maybe try to find a job there, but he said he would be happy to accompany me on my journeys in the short run, including returning to Munich in a week and on to Paris after that. Still feeling like a stranger in a strange land, a new travel comrade seemed to me a blessing, so we agreed to partner for now in our odysseys. We decided to hitchhike down through Switzerland for a week and then return to Munich to visit Angelica and Helmut.

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