It was Thursday October 4 when I debarked the train from Bern Switzerland in Munich Germany, fifty pound (or should I say 22 kilo) pack on my back, bleary from lack of sleep, but happy to recognize Angelica and Helmut on the train platform smiling and scanning the numerous people exiting the train. I on the other hand looked much different than the five foot six inch shorter haired fifteen-year-old kid they had met three years ago. Now I had a long curly mop of hair, surrounding my head in what they called a “natural” on a white person or an “afro” on a black person. I was now six feet, and even taller wearing my two-inch-heeled shoes. When Angelica figured out by process of elimination who I was she started waving vigorously and her face lit up. Helmut followed her lead and waved as well, though more sedately, and put on his best charming smile.
We had met them three years earlier when my mom, brother and I spent the summer living in Oxford England, my mom having worked out a deal to trade houses and cars with an English couple, making the whole thing possible on a shoestring budget, one of her specialties. I recall we met the two of them at a party in Oxford, or more precisely, they had had a close encounter with my mom. They were the cutest young couple you could imagine. Angelica, short and perky, “smart as a whip” as my mom would say, maybe seven years older than I was and Helmut, taller, handsome and sweet, perhaps a couple years older than her. Both kind of shy like me, they had been drawn to my mom’s gregarious infectious charisma, and her uncanny ability to engage and connect with just about anybody in a friendly, informal, engaging sort of way. My mom had a unique ability to let down her guard and speak from the heart that was endearing and pretty damn irresistible. She then dragged my brother and I over to meet the two of them as well. They had come over to our house outside Oxford in Horspath a couple times after that and drank Bloody Marys, mom’s favorite cocktail, and talked for hours about all our mom’s favorite topics – art, politics, feminism – and Angelica in particular was invigorated by these cerebral topics and engaged vigorously in the conversation and debate. I had participated in the conversations as well, but I think it was mostly my mom who had made the lasting impression.
So now here we were on the train platform, me the recipient of the lingering goodwill and good memories from that time past. Since none of us had had lunch, Helmut suggested that we go to the student canteen at the local university. Angelica looked at him, her face lighting up again as if to say, “Wow… great suggestion”, and then looking as well for assent from me. Caught up in their energy and feeling their caring, but not feeling so bleary and forlorn anymore, I nodded vigorously.
We went through the long busy cafeteria line with young adult students mostly between my age and Angelica’s, dressed not unlike me in my flannel shirt and jeans. Lots of guys had the long freak flag hair, some with the trendy heeled shoes like my own. Ironically it was my hosts who stuck out more with their more “respectable adult” clothing and Helmut with his shorter more styled haircut. We managed to find a small square table in the middle of the large, crowded, high-ceilinged dining hall that just barely fit our three trays of food. Surrounded by dozens of other occupied tables with their animated conversations we formed our intimate circle.
They, particularly Angelica, were full of questions about my trip so far, everywhere I’d been, my impressions of Europe relative to the U.S., and what had become of my original travel partner Angie, and Then about my mom, how she was doing, what she was doing, her painting, her activism, and being a single parent with two teenage sons. They dutifully answered my questions about their lives, including how they met at college, but for the most part conveyed that their story was not particularly interesting. Helmut worked as an engineer and Angelica as an analyst, both for big German companies. At times they finished each other’s sentences, but not in a way that felt like they were stealing the other’s spotlight. Instead they seemed like real vibrant partners, in a perhaps too routine urban middle-class life.
After lunch they drove me to their apartment so I could settle in, and I was able to take a shower, with deliciously warm water, and wash all my much in need of washing clothes. Their two-bedroom apartment was a small efficiently designed space like most of the residences I entered in Europe, including the small front loading washer and dryer built into the kitchen stacked on top of the dishwasher. Whatever stuff you needed to wash and/or dry, whether clothing or dishes, happened in this stack of appliances. It seemed that everything in Europe was meticulously thought out and on a smaller scale than the States, whether the interiors of living spaces, the distance between cities, or even plates of food at meals served at home or in restaurants.
Once I was settled in with clean skin and clothes, they took me to Oktoberfest, which I had already been to the week prior with my impromptu U.S. army brat hosts. Rather than take their car, we took the city’s light rail system, the above ground “S-Bahn” and the underground “U-Bahn”.
They took me to the Paulaner brewery’s tent, each brewery participating in the festival having their own. We drank the beer in those big heavy glass mugs that Angelica at least needed both hands of her skinny arms to hoist. We ate big warm pretzels just out of the oven, sweet crunchy radishes along with whole small fish cooked on a skewer over an open fire. I had never eaten a whole fish before, though you didn’t actually eat the whole thing, leaving the tail and the head on the skewer. You also had to pick out or spit out a bunch of bones along the way.
The volume of beer the three of us consumed helped loosen the two of them up, particularly Helmut. Now tipsy, I asked the two of them again for details of how they met each other, and this time they did not belittle the tale. I could tell in their story of meeting at the university, the real passion, even a hint at the sexual passion, they had for each other. They being shy like I was, Helmut even shier in some ways, it was good to see how they had managed to build such a strong relationship as comrades and peers, neither of them dominating or upstaging the other. Someday that’s what I would want in a life partner.
When my first day with them finally ended I fell dead asleep and slept until mid afternoon the next day. Helmut had gone to work, but Angelica had arranged with her work to take the day off, and gave me a walking tour of their urban neighborhood with its mix of residential and commercial buildings and little pocket parks. Walking by her side I sensed a real attraction between us, certainly me for her, and I fantasized a bit about us as a couple, though she seven years older than I was. She seemed particularly taken with my tall lanky frame, long wild and curly hippie hair, and though basically shy like her, my general chutzpah and agency to travel on my own at such a young age. My close friends Lane and Angie, both of whom I had had a thing for at some point, were like Angelica short and wiry, super smart and very perky. If Angie had been still traveling with me at this point, I was sure she and Angelica would have become fast friends.
The next day was Saturday, and as we had planned the previous evening, they took me mountain climbing, something I had never done before. I had grown up in Michigan and my dad had lived since the divorce in Ohio, neither of which had anything remotely resembling a mountain. We got up early and drove to Bayrischzell, about 70 kilometers southeast of Munich at the base of the Grosser Traithen, about 1900 meters (6000 feet) at its summit. We climbed for nearly three hours to get to the top. The first part of the ascent was through woods, and then high grass, until we came upon a hunter’s cabin. We stopped to drink and replenish our water bottles, then continued up through more woods to an alpine meadow with a house for the keeper of the cattle that grazed there in the summer. From there up the last few hundred meters through evergreen brush to the bare rocky peak, with a beautiful view of the Bavarian plain to the north and the foothills of the Alps to the south, with even the high alps just visible on the southern horizon, where I had been the previous week.
We signed the climber book in its metal box on a post at the summit (apparently every mountain that people climbed had one) and sat on the rocks there flushed from several hours of exertion in our ascent. I felt good sharing the moment with them, the three of us young adults who had achieved this goal today and others to follow in our lives ahead. Already attracted to Angelica’s can-do perkiness and positive energy, I also was now seeing more of Helmut’s quality of being her male partner without demanding the spotlight or the role of head of the family. Soaking in the sun and the rarefied air of the altitude, we looked at each other and grinned, which said it all, nothing more needing to be uttered. Angelica pulled her lunch bag out of her day pack and we consumed the sandwiches she had made. It was much easier going down, with gravity as your comrade rather than adversary, though a couple of points in the trail were tricky and nerve racking because of the loose gravel and the danger of losing one’s footing.
That evening we went to a birthday party for their friend Albrecht, who happened to be turning 31. The party goers all seemed like interesting people, though all obviously older than I was, and Angelica did her best to at least introduce me to most of them. After the introductions, they mostly went back to their conversations with each other, and it was a unique experience for me to watch and listen to them speak to each other in a language that I did not understand. Ironically, with my heels on and my big hair, I was probably the tallest person in the room. But as individuals realized that I was not reacting to their words, some began to not even look at me, tuning me out as if I wasn’t there.
I tried to stay close to Angelica, who did her best to translate at least the gist of conversations she was in, or when someone said something to the group that made everyone else laugh. Still in the cadence and delivery of their voices, the facial expressions and non-verbal clues, how they gestured with their hands and arms, I could fathom a lot about each individual, even not knowing the content of their words. But I was at best a passive viewer and not a participant.
The wine flowed, and at least holding my cup out for a refill kept them aware I was there and participating in at least the drinking part of the party. As such I ended up drinking a great deal of Austrian sweet white wine, plus eating a rather heavy dish known as “Leberkase” or liver-cheese. In fact I probably consumed more of the food and drink for lack of being distracted by interesting conversation.
The birthday boy, Albrecht, was a thin, curly haired, nerdy looking guy with thick black plastic glasses. After they all toasted him, he gave an impromptu speech in German to his comrades, which from his facial expressions and his delivery seemed like a lament, but elicited scattered laughter throughout. Angelica said that he was “worried that people say you can’t trust anyone over thirty”. Hearing her sidebar to me, he came over and asked me in English with a thick German accent if as the “younger generation” (saying the words looking at my big hair), I took any stock in this conventional wisdom of the “youth culture”.
Having felt like a total outsider so far at the party, I so appreciated that he was reaching out to me, and I struggled to respond with something that might be helpful.
The best I could muster in the moment was, “I guess it is important to try and stay young at heart.”
He scoffed, and I felt that my words had missed the mark. I tried again.
“I think there is a mindset among the older generation that they are comfortable with things being the way they’ve been, and transformational change is not possible. We aren’t going to accept that.”
“Yes”, he acknowledged, “but we all get older. We all eventually turn thirty one if we make it that far.”
“True”, I replied.
His eyes lit up. “It was a statement intended to shock the older generation to listening to the younger.” He wagged his finger in the air. “Yes indeed!”
He looked at me and cracked a half smile. “Dankeschön.”
My mom had taught me the you’re welcome response. “Bitte!”
His eyes flared and he made a theatrical gesture of looking at me from above his glasses. “Sprichst du Deutsch?”
I shook my head and said “Nein”.
He chuckled and patted me on the shoulder and walked off.
The evening’s festivities were hijacked to a large degree by events in the world. A war had broken out in the Middle East with Egyptian and Syrian troops attacking Israel. Egyptian armored columns had crossed the Suez Canal and were racing across the Sinai Desert towards the heart of the Jewish state. Syrian troops were trying to do the same from the Golan Heights in the north of the country. A subset of the guests were drawn around the TV to watch the news coverage, in German of course, and I was eventually drawn there as well, depending on an occasional English translation from Angelica or Albrecht. Drunk and feeling queasy from the Leberkase, I stared at the small screen and tried to ponder the implications of this conflict on the larger fate of the world. I almost couldn’t believe it, as I sat here in a strange country drinking too much sweet wine, Israel could conceivably cease to exist, and a larger conflagration could ensue. Disturbed by the images of tanks rolling across the desert terrain on the TV screen, I continued to accept the offers to fill my wine glass, as I retreated into the warm fuzziness of the deep alcohol buzz, to try to somehow anesthetize myself from these strange and disquieting events, narrated in a strange language in a strange land. Still in my mind’s eye I could just see those pontoon bridges being lowered down across the Suez canal and young Egyptian soldiers streaming across.
Albrecht, already wrestling with reaching the age of generational fear and loathing, now quite inebriated himself, noted the troubling events and commented on the ironic metaphors of it happening on his birthday. He even translated his angst into English for me, desperately fishing as he was for any and all mitigating or medicating comments from the assembled revelers. Normally I might have been intimidated by being surrounded by all these five to ten or more years older people, but the alcohol, my fledgling “world traveler” chutzpah, plus my sense of empathy to provide some requested respite, emboldened me to attempt a reply. This time the best I could muster in that regard was a joke.
“Life goes on… and at least there seemed to be plenty of wine left.”
Angelica burst out laughing. He glanced at her, then me and scoffed again, though with a twinkle in his eye this time, as he presented his half full wine glass to me and said “Prost!” and guzzled it down.
Soon after that Helmut and Angelica collected me and we drove home, Helmut piloting their little car down the dark streets but probably not that less drunk than Angelica or myself. I was alone in the dark back seat, in a different world from the two of them in the front seat concentrating on what was ahead, pooling their remaining cognitive resources to jointly get us home. My head was spinning a little and I felt the creeping feeling from below of nausea and general dis-ease, the Leberkase was a huge lump rumbling uncomfortably in my stomach, threatening to come up. I pleaded with my digestive system to hang on until we get back to their place. I didn’t want to throw up in their car! They had been so good to me, thought so well of me, and me even having a bit of a thing for Angelica, all shot to hell by revealing I was just a kid who hadn’t learned to moderate his alcohol consumption.
But the urge became overpowering and I put my head between my knees and vomited twice, but managed to stop at that point with my stomach still half full of the toxic mix of liver, cheese and fermented grape juice. The two of them did not seem to notice, even when we finally pulled into their garage and exited the car, and I was in no mood to tell them at that point. I went to my room and passed out in bed.
I slept fitfully, thinking about that image I had conjured earlier of Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez Canal over pontoon bridges. I had a great interest in military history and the evolution of soldiery, equipment and technology, strategy and tactics, which I continued to explore through the numerous military simulation games I played back in the States. It was compartmentalized in my mind from my sense of ethics and humanity, and I would just as soon play the German or Japanese side in World War II games or play the Confederates in Civil War simulations. I liked the underdogs, despite what their causes might represent.
When I was younger I had done plenty of imagination play with soldiers in the basement or backyard, and pretending I was as a soldier with other neighborhood kids in the park across the street. But with all my fascination and military related play, I had no desire to be a real soldier myself, and surely would have chosen to go to Canada or even prison rather than be drafted to serve in the Vietnam war. The news each day announced the scorecard of how many American soldiers had died that previous day versus how many of the enemy. Despite what my dad had told me about his experiences in World War II and all the books I had read and the numerous simulation games I had played, I had no sense of what it was really like to be a soldier.
I awoke to hearing someone in the kitchen. My body smelled like stale sweet wine. I peeked out of the door of my room and saw it was Angelica alone. I came out and very guiltily and awkwardly told her what had happened in the backseat of their car, and insisted that I would go and clean it up by myself. She seemed very understanding, almost too understanding, sensing my embarrassment and giving me the paper towels and spray cleaner to rectify the situation. Once I had completed the unpleasant task, I returned to the kitchen where she was reading the paper. She gave me a look like she was concerned for my well being.
Still feeling embarrassed about what I had done the night before, and not wanting to be around her with those events hanging between us, I told her I was going to take a shower and go out for a walk by myself to get some fresh air to clear my head. She nodded and said that the forecast was for a cold windy and rainy day. It felt good to scrub the wine smell off my skin and feel generally cleansed. I put on a fresh set of clothes that she had washed yesterday morning and came out of the bathroom to her standing there offering me an umbrella. I thanked her sheepishly, accepted the umbrella, put on my windbreaker over my flannel shirt, and headed out.
As I walked the streets of their neighborhood in this big foreign city, alone, the cold, windy, rainy weather seemed consistent with the clouds of war that were covering the Middle East. I continued to think about the war and its implications. My travels had focused my attention on my own daily situation and my immediate environs, but the news last night had been a reminder that I was just one small person in a big world swirling with troubling events. And I was basically on my own, so so far from home. Paul Simon’s song, “The Only Living Boy in New York” came into my mind’s jukebox to remind me to not get too far afield…
I get the news I need on the weather report
I can gather all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile
Do-n-doh-d-doh-n-doh and here I am
The only living boy in New York
Half of the time we’re gone
But we don’t know where
Those Egyptian soldiers crossing the Suez on their pontoon bridges, the Israeli soldiers that faced them, the generals on both sides, the political leaders around the world, would have to work this out without me, hopefully avoiding some sort of larger war, “World War III”. Hearing those words, even just in my mind, brought up that primal fear from my youth from the Cuban Missile Crisis, the “duck and cover” drills at school, and imagining the flash of a nuclear explosion, brighter than the sun, just milliseconds before being incinerated. I had to take a deep breath, keep each foot moving in front of me in tandem, and indeed, get all my news from the weather report.
I get all the news I need on the weather report
Hey, I’ve got nothing to do today but smile
My psyche patched together for the moment, I returned to their apartment to find Helmut back from running errands. The three of us were mostly recovered from our alcohol hazing and we ate sandwiches that Angelica had prepared while I was out. It was Sunday afternoon by now, and at Angelica’s suggestion, we decided to drive to a place called Neuschwanstein, the site of one of the castles in the area built by crazy King Ludwig, the last king of Bavaria. Ludwig was a patron of the arts and a recluse in later life and built this castle after a fictional castle in a Wagner opera. It was set on the side of a mountain, and we had a 15 minute walk in the rain from their car to get to it. On the car radio and on TV that evening, we continued to hear reports that Angelica did her best to translate for me, tuning into my interest in world events, which she shared.
The last two days I spent with them they both went off to work in the morning, Angelica apologizing profusely for leaving me on my own for the day. Each of those mornings she left me breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and a note with a museum they recommended I see and instructions on how to get their via mass transit.
Monday it was the Deutsches Museum, apparently the world’s largest of science and technology, a favorite of Helmut’s. He had said that among other exhibits, it had a working model of a Wankel rotary engine. Apologizing for his limited English, Helmut, the engineer, had done his best to explain to me how the engine design was so much simpler and efficient than the conventional engines with pistons and shafts. I found myself resonating with this whole context of simplicity, efficiency and diminutive size that had surrounded me since I left the States.
It was a very cool place, a great domed building on its own little island in the middle of the Isar river that ran through the city. I was totally awed like a little kid by the museum’s huge model train setup. Tracks set in a hilly environment with trees, little stations, and houses, with different working models of historical trains moving about. I spent a couple hours just standing in front of the exhibit, watching the trains and feeling drawn into its simple world.
The next day it was the Bavarian National Museum, which turned out was best known for its collection of decorative art in many different styles. This sort of art, really the way rich people designed the interiors of their homes and put artsy knicknacks in them, didn’t really do anything for me. My interest was in transforming the world rather than celebrating the ingrained order and its conspicuous display of wealth. But I did have a thing for interior spaces, design, and style, and the museum highlighted an array of different design styles that flowed through the centuries of European history. Romanesque, inspired by the remembered glory of imperial Rome, best known for its rounded arches. That transitioning to Gothic, a less sensual more austere style and it’s iconic pointed “gothic” arches. Later the Baroque, which was all about ornate extravagance, added design elements with no functional reason, just there for the fuck of it. And then Rococo, like Baroque on drugs, almost a parody of the style it arose out of. Finally the Art Nouveau, trying to capture a sense of the modern, at least what was considered “modern” at the end of the nineteenth century.
I thought about my own sense of style and design, but what did I know yet? As Alice Cooper sang…
I’m eighteen, and I don’t know what I want
None of these five styles really appealed to me. I had grown up around my mom’s sense of design – simple, functional, eclectic, put together with simple components (“a good piece of wood” she would say) but an artistic elegance – and I was not uncomfortable around that. But I pondered what was my own style. I thought about my theater work with YTU. My one big set design had been for the musical Oliver. My design used all existing set pieces, platforms and stair units, built for previous shows. No adornments, no backdrops, no detail work, just a stark see-through minimalism that I felt was appropriate for Dickensian London. I pondered how I would design and adorn my own interior space, given that opportunity. I liked the warm and simple, but not the coldly stark. Somewhere in there.
What did intrigue me about the five styles, was the flow of history and culture from one to the next. The pendulum swings between ornate and stark, functional and decorative. But it seemed with all five, style for style’s sake, function constrained by the style rather than style flowing from the function.
Throughout the six days I spent with Angelica and Helmut, they insisted on paying for just about everything and I took them up on it, given that things were relatively expensive in Germany and I had such a limited budget. I tried to make a big show of saying that I would treat them to dinner at the best restaurant in Ann Arbor, the Gandy Dancer, if they ever got over to the U.S. and my home town. They seemed to appreciate that, the offer at least.
They were both such nice people, and had such a great relationship. I had not had any exposure to married people of my own Baby Boom generation. Mainly couples of my parents’ generational cohort, who like my mom and dad had generally problematic or limited relationships with each other. Helmut and Angelica’s relationship seemed free of all the conflicting expectations, lack of shared interests, and patriarchal baggage of the array of failed, or not particularly compelling marriages among my mom and dad’s circles and my friends’ parents. Even my Aunt Pat and my Uncle Ray, part of that generation between me and my parents, seemed often to be traveling very different paths relative to each other at times. Seemed like the most successful of that older generation’s life partnerships involved husband and wife carving out very different worlds and generally not getting in each other’s way, rarely performing as a team like my current hosts.
It seemed to me it was all about Helmut as a male person in an otherwise male-dominated society being able to accept and defer to Angelica’s lead in situations, given her energy, intelligence and passion. My mom had a lot of similar character traits to Angelica, though my mom was more gregarious, and that was likely why the two of them connected so quickly and deeply three years earlier when we met her and Helmut in England. But unlike Helmut, my dad and seemingly most of the men of his generation were just too stewed in patriarchal conventional expectations to accept “wives” as real life partners that they could truly respect and defer to.
I did feel I sort of “sang for my supper” while I was there. In a handful of conversations over the days together I told particularly Angelica all about my world in America. Extensively about the different parts of the country, about myself and my life. She with her very compelling and attractive passion for seemingly every aspect of life, appeared to really appreciate my effort to share with her my knowledge and perspective.
Again, it was interesting the repeated pattern of the relationship dynamic of the women of my generation I connected with. Rather than being either completely platonic or completely erotic, “just friends” or actual lovers, I tended to find comfort in some sort of a dynamic between those two ends of the spectrum. I felt I had that dynamic with Angelica, though she was spoken for, and nothing was ever explicitly said that crossed the line. But she did ask me during one of our fairly deep conversations if I had a girlfriend, and I shared with her that I did not, and that I was kind of shy about that stuff, and she responded looking me squarely in the eyes that I was a really nice guy. It was a memorable moment, certainly for me at least. We probably had several of them during the time we were together. It had been that way as well with Ashild in Chur the previous week.
Now that I was beginning to understand it, it had been that same dynamic with a number of female peers during my high school years and first year of college, particularly around my theater projects. Like I would affirm some passionate part of who they were, they’d say something like, “You’re so sweet!”, and I might respond in my shy way maybe nonverbally affirming similar feelings for them. Other guys would take this as a signal and entree to “make a move”, try to transition to a more romantic relationship, but I was always too shy to do so. Women as well would have that expectation on the receiving end. Within that dynamic I certainly had a lot of close female friends along the way, but also a handful of frustrated young female peers who had developed a real thing for me, but within the patriarchal context of men making the move in these sort of things, found me afraid to do so. Even the one young woman who had had the courage to push it in that direction had been disappointed with my bailing the situation completely.
I shared with Angelica my plan to head for the Black Forest and then to Koblenz to take a boat on the Rhine and work my way to Paris on the 16th of October. From there I would head to Spain, then to Italy, followed by Vienna and then back to Amsterdam in early December when my two-month rail pass ran out, to return to England, and from there fly back to the States. She shared with me that she was going to Tubingen on October 25th to visit her mom and invited me to come and join them. Not looking forward to traveling alone, and still quite taken with her actually, I agreed. I would join her and her mom for several days, without Helmut, and then continue my original plan by heading from there to Spain.
I left Munich, Angelica, Helmut, and perhaps other bits of my otherwise pasted together, Paul Simon-ized psyche on the morning of Wednesday October 10. The war in the Middle East continued but the Israelis had defeated the Syrian army in the Golan heights and had at least stopped the advance of the Egyptians in the Sinai. Angelica and Helmut drove me to the train station, dropped me off with hugs and wishes for a safe and enlightening trip, and headed off to their various workplaces to return to their regular lives. I was on my own again, in some ways a bit better, and others a bit worse for wear, as I boarded the train to Mainz where I intended to catch a boat down the Rhine river and eventually get to Paris, but really committed to my itinerary after that.
Half of the time we’re gone
But we don’t know where