It was still Friday November 30th when I parted company with Beth at the Interlaken train station and boarded the train to Bern. She had been the last vestige of the little community of backpacker types we had put together briefly in Grindelwald. The past two weeks, really since meeting Morgan and then Jen in the Rome hostel, had been the best of my odyssey to date, particularly these last three days up in Grindelwald. Now it was just a fond memory, and I was on my own again.
Just thinking those words, ‘on my own’, triggered Dylan in my mind’s jukebox…
How does it feel?
To be on your own, with no direction home
A complete unknown, like a rolling stone
I cringed as I always did at Dylan’s bone chilling lyric, though I at least clung to having a ‘direction home’.
It was not lost on me that though I’d been traveling basically on my own for the past two weeks, which made for some lonesome moments like this one, I had been able to connect with an array of interesting and engaging people, most of them my peers. While I had been traveling with Steve for the previous two weeks before that, I had not connected with so many new people. Certainly part of that was staying in hotel rooms in Spain rather than youth hostels brimming with my backpacker comrades. But another aspect was that when I had a travel partner, a lot of my need for connection was satisfied by my partner, and particularly as a shy person, I did not necessarily make the effort to reach out to other people or give them the opportunity to reach out to me, Randall and Zo being the exception I guess.
If I had had a travel partner at the time, would Trix have taken both of us under her wing on the train to Florence and invited us to share her compartment with the five other young women? Would I have gone for gelato with Sarah in Rome? Would Sophia have engaged me in our somewhat amorous exchange on the train to Venice? Would I have connected so much with Jules in Venice? Would Ragna have hit on me? Would Beth and I have shared our secrets?
I pondered all this as I boarded the train to Bern and worked my way down the narrow corridor of each coach looking for a compartment with one or more young travelers like myself to sit with. If not, maybe a somewhat older female type person or even a group of women who might be interesting to engage with as well, particularly if they spoke some English like Sophia did. But I found none of the above, instead mostly families, older couples, and businessmen, finally giving up and entering a compartment with what looked like grandparents with a preteen granddaughter.
When I slid open the compartment door, the girl looked at me like I was an alien from outer space with my big teased out hair and big backpack on my back, but then softened to more precocious curiosity and wished me an inquisitive “guten tag”. I replied in kind and stowed my pack and took the spot by the compartment door on the bench with the granddaughter at the other end by the window, the elderly couple sitting across from us.
As the train proceeded along the side of the frozen Thunersee lake, and I processed all my experiences since Jen crashed my conversation with Morgan in the Rome youth hostel, I realized that though I had engaged with both males and females of my backpacker cohort, I really enjoyed being with the young women more. Sure, my libido was more tuned to women, so it was exciting watching them strut their stuff, engaging with them, and fantasizing about them as sexual partners, but also I was just more comfortable around women than men. I got more of what women were about, their hopes, desires and concerns. And I generally found those hopes, desires and concerns more thoughtful and mature than those of young men my age.
Most of the guys – like Matt, Michael and particularly Derrick – seemed more ego involved and self centered, less mature somehow. The things they talked about generally didn’t interest me. They built relationships with other guys based on a ‘pack’ or a ‘posse’. Then within that group, a competitive engagement to determine who was tougher, stronger or smarter, depending on what was the necessary skill set for the group goal of watching or playing sports, or chasing women. Real intimacy was often not seen as compatible with that competitive engagement, seen instead as weakness and avoided. Once the more alpha person in the relationship or group was established, bonds were built and strengthened by sparring with each other to playfully challenge, but in the end reinforce that hierarchy. There were of course exceptions, particularly among my nerdier male peers, like Morgan, Schuman, Malc and Dred, along with Jerry, Avi and Clark back home.
The women – like Monika, Ragna, Beth, Trix, Jen and Sarah – seemed less focused on themselves and their needs and more mature about their connections with others. There was often ego and alphaness at play and a hierarchy between women, and they made connections and formed their own ‘packs’, but it wasn’t reinforced generally by the same sort of sparring that men were acculturated to do with each other. Yeah Monika and Ragna ‘sparred’, but that felt more like sibling rivalry. Women’s relationships seemed more about building intimacy. I was more comfortable with that goal, generally preferring intimacy over competition. And of course there were exceptions too, like Mranda.
I could see threads of this play out even in the little family grouping in my compartment. The looks and conversation going back and forth between the girl and her grandmother, with occasional looks, smiles and other facial expressions at me. Their verbal interchanges were all in German and I mostly could not translate but I got the gist that some of it was about me, the wild looking young man with the big heavy backpack. At one point the older woman pulled a box of cookies out of her bag and handed it to the girl who then looked at me and then back at her grandma. The older woman grinning and nodding, the girl offered me a cookie, which I took, said “danke”, and proceeded to eat. The girl then looking at her mom in mayber mock surprise, as if to say “Wow… he’s actually eating the cookie!” I was hungry actually, so every cookie she offered me I gratefully took, said thank you, and consumed, and she was enjoying our little feed the wild haired young man game. The dad was reading a magazine and would only chime in when he thought his granddaughter was not behaving appropriately, or when there was something he was concerned about in the article he was reading. But he was not picking up so much on the dynamic between the two female people and me, that I understood the daughter’s inquisitiveness, and that I was enjoying it.
It was all enough human interaction and distraction to get me to Bern without getting too caught up in my own thoughts of losing all the people I had connected with over the past two weeks, never to see them again. In the station I checked the big electromechanical board with the departures and saw that I had an hour to kill before my train left for Munich. That was enough time to exit the station, find a small grocery store and provision myself with food for the rest of the day on the train at a reasonable price – cold meat, hard cheese, bread, yogurt, dried fruit, chocolate and Coca Cola. Indeed a sumptuous feast. I also picked up an International Herald Tribune to read on the train, along with writing and posting a set of postcards I had bought in Grindelwald with views of all its photogenic mountains.
I boarded the train and found a compartment with two young women who looked to be roughly my age, maybe a year or so younger, both wearing stylish wool coats and dark slacks with boots, and had the short coiffed hair typical of many European women I had encountered or passed on the city streets. They sat side by side, each having a very cerebral countenance, both sizing me up with dark eyes through black plastic glasses. They reminded me of Ragna actually, though maybe four years younger than her. Like the Ronettes, they were the ‘Ragnettes’, I thought to myself and chuckled.
The shorter of the two noticed my chuckle, frowned, and said, with major league chutzpah I thought, “Ce qui est si drôle?”
I knew enough French to know that she was asking me what was so funny, but not enough to answer her, so feeling put on the defensive I punted, saying, “Je ne parle pas français”.
The shorter one wasn’t going to let it go at that, tilted her head, pursed her lips not unlike Ragna would, and lectured me playfully, “Vous parlez un peu de français!” She was technically correct that if I could say “I don’t speak French” IN French, then I could speak at least a very small amount of French.
I tried to load what I could scrounge up of my junior high French from the recesses of my mind into my active memory. I recalled vaguely that ‘effectivement’ was like ‘indeed’, one of my current favorite English words, and said with all the mock matter of factness I could muster.
“Effectivement. Je parle un très petit français”, then after a pause, “Je parle beaucoup d’anglais!”
The shorter one gave me a look I could not quite parse, like maybe she couldn’t figure out if I was really being serious or full of shit. The taller one sputtered out a delayed laugh. The two of them looked at each other then back at me. “We speak some English too, but only some”, said the taller one.
So a conversation in basic English began. Still feeling defensive, I tried to justify my previous chuckle that the shorter one had brazenly called me on, trying to speak simple English words.
“Both of you remind me of a young Swedish woman I just met at the youth hostel”, I remembered I knew that in French, “l’auberge de jeunesse in Grindelwald”.
They both stared at me like Ragna would and I continued.
“Her name was Ragna and I thought she looked unique, so I think it is a weird coincidence to see the two of you look just like her.” I wasn’t sure they’d be able to translate ‘unique’ and ‘coincidence’, but it seemed to not be an issue. “So when I saw you two it made me chuckle!”
“Chuckle?” the shorter one said. I wasn’t sure if she was upset at being laughed at or just couldn’t translate.
“Glousser”, the taller one chimed in, translating. The two of them looked at each other and both pondered that completely straight faced.
Very Ragna indeed, I thought, so I couldn’t resist throwing a little more grease on the fire and noted, “She was very cerebral!”
They both furrowed their brows deliciously, and I thought they were struggling to translate.
“Cerebral”, I continued, “It’s like being intellectual.”
The shorter one wrinkled her nose and said, “Yes we know what cerebral is. It is a French word your English borrowed.”
Wow, I thought, she was taking no prisoners.
I did my best to try and recover by telling them about Ragna’s backstory, her going off to college at Cambridge University, her mom getting divorced then hooking up with Monika’s widowed dad. I told them about playing cards with her, her “croupier” persona.
When I paused for a minute at one point to compose my next thought in simple English words, the shorter one broke in.
“Were you attracted to her?”
And feeling like I was kind of putting on a show for them, trying now to be suave and funny I threw in another, “Effectivement”.
They both laughed, plus I think enjoying the implication that I might be attracted to the two of them as well, since they both reminded me of her. With that exchange we were suddenly the best of friends, at least in the context of being in our cozy compartment, in a train speeding through the snowy valleys of northern Switzerland together.
I was indeed attracted to them as well, and admired the shorter ones’ pluck, and how they both were willing to try to engage me in a language they had probably learned in school and maybe not used very much outside of that context. I certainly would have been more reticent to engage a Russian speaker with my own school learned Russian.
They told me about their lives, as best they could with their limited English. They told me about their intensive studying for the entrance exams to get into a “grande ecole”, that is one of France’s elite universities, the shorter one to study linguistics and the taller philosophy. I thought of Giselle’s daughter Laurence, studying for those same entrance exams, one of a now gallery of intriguing young women I had had the fortune to encounter on my odyssey.
I told them about my life back in the States. Growing up in a college town. Mom and dad divorcing. My getting involved in theater and my unique youth theater group in high school, and then going off to college to continue to study theater. My friends Lane and Angie’s plan to backpack through Europe, letting me tag along, and then Lane dropping out. How, ironically, it had been just Angie and I flying to London, and Angie dropping out, leaving me alone to take the journey my two female friends had planned.
“Does ‘ironically’ translate in French?” I asked, thinking it maybe did not.
The shorter one immediately scoffed, rolled her eyes and said, “French word.”
The taller one chimed in, “Was she your girlfriend?”
I chuckled again, trying to estimate how many times I’d been asked that question, particularly by my female peers, and told them, “No, just a friend.”
The train came into a large suburban area which quickly became more urban, Zurich. Soon we pulled into the big train station, and they both wished me “bon voyage” as they wrestled their suitcases from the overhead rack. Per my protocol, I made no effort to assist them other than wishing them “bon chance” (trying again to be suave by saying something other than parroting back “bon voyage”), and they were off. I felt the aloneness surround me again, and that sense of loss of my little impromptu community we had built in Grindelwald.
As the train traversed more of the wintry Swiss countryside, I pulled out my various groceries, and while I ingested hunks of bread, slices of salami and wedges of cheese, I read the latest edition of the International Herald Tribune I had picked up in Bern. President Nixon’s attorney had revealed the existence of an eighteen minute gap in one of the White House tape recordings related to Watergate. Greek dictator George Papadopoulos was ousted in a military coup led by Brigadier General Dimitrios Ioannidis, which made me think of Beth headed to Athens. A cargo plane believed to be used by the Italian Secret Service and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency for electronic surveillance, had exploded over the Adriatic Sea killing all four people on board, speculated to be the result of sabotage. Three young Arab nationalists hijacked a Dutch Boeing 747 with 264 people on board over Iraq, forcing the plane to fly first to Malta, where hijackers released eight female flight attendants and most of the passengers, then with eleven remaining passengers to Dubai, where the hijacking ended without further incident. Finally a Dutch geneticist was the first woman to have her total DNA genome sequenced.
Though the Arab-Israeli war seemed definitely over now, the danger of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviets diminished, and no more young soldiers on both sides were dying for the political agendas of their elders, the world seemed still a pretty crazy place. Great that a dictator was ousted, but would the coup leaders be any better, or was it a case of, as the lyrics of The Who song ‘Won’t Get Fooled Again’ noted…
Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss
A wannabe radical activist myself, I imagined what it would be like to feel such zeal for my cause that I would participate in the hijacking of a plane to publicize that cause, carrying a weapon and at least threatening others with death to make it happen. Yes we had the democratic process in our country and other parts of the world to hopefully facilitate peaceful change, but if it just led to people like Nixon trying to manipulate elections by bugging the headquarters of his Democratic party opposition, was that really a path for real change, or was more radical action, like advocated by the Black Panthers or the Weather Underground, necessary instead.
Not so consequential in the scheme of things, but looming large in my hometown with our obsession with our college football team, the ‘Wolverines’, I read in the sports section that the climactic Michigan Ohio State game was a ten-ten tie. And though the two teams were also tied for the best conference record, the Big Ten commission had decided that Ohio State should go to the Rose Bowl. My mom and dad were both diehard Michigan fans, and I had inherited a good deal of their zeal in that regard, sharing their various vicarious ups and downs with the local team’s fortunes on the field. It felt good to return my focus to the issues of my little Ann Arbor world and feel my parents’ presumed pain, which I hoped to mitigate with my return, concluding a postcard to my mom and brother…
Michigan tied OSU and then got screwed!!! Well, I’m coming back which makes up for that. See ya’ll soon. Adios! Bonsoir! Auf Wiedersehen!
My prose was kind of manic, overcompensating for the lonesomeness I was feeling.
As I read the Tribune and consumed my bits of dinner, I stared out at the snowy east-west valleys the train wound its way through, between the mountains of northern Switzerland. It went by the eastern tip of the long narrow Bodensee (what we call Lake Constance), through the town of Bregenz, where I had spent the night some eight weeks ago. The lake was then an ice free steely gray seeming to blend into the sky in the prevailing mist, but alive and full of boats and larger ships. Now it seemed in hibernation, subdued by great areas of ice and snow on its surface, looking like frozen waves.
I recalled the person I had been back then, staring out into what seemed like an endless extent of water to the western horizon in the foggy dusk. Still a wannabe traveler then, with so many memorable and even profound experiences yet to be had. Breathalyzer test and fear of arrest and deportation. Sexual propositions from both female and male comrades. Bulls slaughtered for a paying audience. Old unrepentant Nazis. Alone in the Sistine Chapel. Walking the Vasari Corridor. Swallowed up in the fog of the Venice lagoon. Consumed by the oblivion of the long dark tunnel under the Alps. Transfixed by the awesome mountains towering over little Grindelwald.
And the array of bigger than life people I had shared these experiences and venues with, particularly the female types, who yes thrilled my libido, but I also identified with, more so than their male counterparts. Anarchist Bublil and sweet Ashild. Obtuse Miranda, the unrepentant world traveler whose sexual proposition I had spurned. Vivacious and political Giselle and her handsome daughter Laurence. The proud hippie Zo from the Canadian prairie. The older worldly Isabella in Spain. Foxy though fascist Jeanette staffing the Paris hostel. Big-boned force of nature Jen and her suave partner Sarah in Rome, Florence, and their passionate kiss in Venice. Short but dazzling green-eyed Trix and her female cohort on the train to Florence, and later there and in Venice. Sexy and sophisticated Sophia on the train to Venice. The stunning, physical and charismatic Monika and her not quite stepsister, the cerebral Ragna in Grindelwald. And finally the determined and courageous Beth.
As we crossed into southern Germany, there was still much snow on the ground, which I hoped would still be the case in Munich. Seeing all the snow and cold of a darkened world out the window seemed to trigger that deep instinctual urge to be wherever the word ‘home’ had the most resonance. I noted in my journal…
Snow makes you turn inward. It separates you from the world. You consider your immediate environment. It is not good to be adrift in the snow. Best to have a nice tight world to fall back on.
And here I was in the cold, dark and snow in a much ‘looser’ world, with no simple, already plotted road ahead to that destination in the next ten days. With my train running late and now not due into Munich until 10pm, a youth hostel would not be an option. Would Angelica and Helmut be home when I called them from the station and able to pick me up and put me up for the night. If not would I have to spend the night in the cold drafty train station and catch the train to Amsterdam in the morning.
I continued in my journal…
11 more days! A period of time to be endured though it won’t seem like as much at a later date. I don’t wish it to be over, but I can’t wait until it is. How my spirits fluctuate when I’m traveling alone. I am quite melancholy right now. I am thinking where I’ll be if I can’t get in touch with Angelica and Helmut. I’m tired of uncertainty. I wish my route home was very simple and all booked and ready for me. Clockwork! But this is possibly difficult. Life goes on!
One part of me longed to be home, surrounded again by familiar venues, friends and family, sharing the experiences I had had, hopefully as the wiser, less naive, and more self assured person I was becoming. But another part of me was grieving the end of a profound experience where every day was an adventure. Once home, would I fall back into my normal routines, or get a job with its own new, but every day the same routine, not nearly so adventurous? Back home, would I continue to become the person I was becoming here, on my own, the ‘Coopster’, a young strutting citizen of the world, every few days deciding some new place to go to next, throwing myself in some new deep end? Would my home town be as compelling a geography to continue my developmental adventure?
The conductor came down the coach corridor outside my compartment calling out that our next stop was Munich. The train finally came into the big station and shuddered to a halt. Still alone in my compartment, I wrestled my big heavy pack off of the luggage rack above me and then shouldered it onto my back as I had done so many times before in these past now nine weeks. I had been riding trains all day, and it was hard to believe that it was just this morning that I had woken up in the hostel in wonderful Grindelwald, now seeming so far away in both time, physical, and mental geography.
I remembered the first time I’d arrived at this station two months ago, at the other end of a long day on trains, after parting company with Angie in London. Thousands of miles from home, now in a country more foreign than England because I couldn’t read or speak the language. Still shaky about going forward with what had been planned as an up to three month long odyssey, gritting my teeth and pushing myself onward, trying to overcome my fear. Calling Angelica and Helmut that day from the station to no avail. Hearing that all the hostels and hotels were full due to Oktoberfest. Finally meeting Jack and tagging along with him to find a place to stay at a college dorm on the U.S. military base. It seemed like such a long long time ago.