Peculiar States of Being and (almost) Adventures with Clarence & – Parts 2
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
‘If the guy sitting next to me takes out a pipe and a pouch of tobacco – especially cherry-flavored – I will crawl under this table and dig a hole through the floor.’
I’d wanted to say that out loud to my man, Jamie, but I couldn’t. We, and the guy, were all sitting at a long table in a crowded cafeteria in Paris.
Part of me couldn’t believe the coincidence. My hands were shaking, after the guy yelled at Jamie; I recognized the voice. But a pouch of cherry pipe-tobacco, that would clinch the coincidence.
Backing up a bit: this was at the end of April. At the end of the previous October, out of college and done working at a children’s hospital (I thought), I flew to London on PeopleExpress. $149 to cross the Atlantic – a revolution in air travel. You made a reservation but didn’t pay until you boarded, once the plane pushed away from the gate. With my savings from illustrating greeting cards in college, I bought that plane ticket, a 2-month Eurailpass, and calculated daily expenses to get me through until Christmas.
I didn’t know anybody across the pond, wasn’t part of a school or program, didn’t know where I’d sleep the first night, or any other night. Didn’t know squat but what I’d read in Let’s Go: Europe.
But I figured, If I don’t do this before my student loan payments begin, I may never have the chance to wander like this.
To see, in person, the art and architecture I’d been lapping up in books, since childhood! To hear the music of other languages, maybe learn to count to ten in some of them, say ‘excuse me, please,’ beyond the French I’d studied. To learn the choreography of other cultures’ gestures, gaits, paces, senses of personal space. To feel history vibrate and breathe through me in ancient towns, maybe the air of taller mountains than I’d ever seen, to inhale the steam from combinations of foods I’d never tasted before. To meet – for an hour, a day, a few weeks – people who did or didn’t grow up American (having lived in different Americas myself, growing up), to hear what a person cared about, wondered about, wanted, created -- one by one.
Before I ran out of money at Christmas.
To my surprise, on the day I thought I’d have to fly back to the U.S., I hadn’t even started to use my railpass, and still had most of my illustration money.
I knew I could live on less than the $15 a day estimated in my budget-travel book. I might have to choose between a cappuccino over a meal, some days. Sleep on benches in trains overnight, rather than pay $8-12 for a youth-hostel bed. All fine with me. What I hadn’t anticipated? Meeting people who would open their homes to me, refuse any money, let my savings last much longer. (Like 5 additional months.)
In early January, I boarded a bus from London to Athens, then a ferry to Crete. I made my way over to Brindisi, to steep myself in Italy for a month. Then up and over and around through Austria, Switzerland, the Mediterranean coast of France.
Waiting for a night train to Barcelona, I met an Australian named Jamie, whom I’d somehow expected to meet, and with whom I bonded before we even fell asleep. Together we ventured through Spain, France, the Netherlands, and finally a squatter’s house full of young Italians, outside London, in May.
Even in the presumably liberated 1980s in ‘western’ countries, a young woman traveling alone had to keep all her senses, including what we now call “Spidey-sense,” thrumming full-time. (Women in the 2020s now -- probably still need this hypervigilance. Men might not understand how women carry this alertness in their bodies. Especially, but not only, in unfamiliar countries, when alone.) I would not have hitchhiked by myself, for example. Jamie and I hitched through most of Spain, then into France, and all the way up to Paris – one ride all the way from Carcassonne to Dijon! Another from Dijon to the Left Bank. I would not have risked it, alone.
As a solo female, you didn’t just take anyone up on an offer to bring you back to their home. You didn’t just take anyone up on an offer to grab an espresso! Sometimes you’d meet someone who gripped your ‘gut’ tight, your deep sense of self, wary of Spidey-danger. Yet that same gut protected you toward meeting (many more) persons who taught you something beautiful and memorable, by knowing them for an hour, a day, a few weeks. (No, wait – all the persons taught you something.)
Just in Switzerland, for example, two very different gut-knowings:
On a train near Fribourg, guy starts a conversation, guessing you’re either Italian or American. (Italians, in Italy, stopped me for directions; I wasn’t quite prepared for that, but loved the misidentification. My grandmother Donovan, nee Betz, had told me the night before I left DC that we had a ‘smidge’ of Italian – first I’d heard of it. I hadn't known that would be our last conversation.)
A few Italians asked specifically if I were ‘di Catania,’ a town in Sicily.
My friends Karen and Jim, who lived in Rome for 4 years, concurred. “We went to Catania – you do look like them!”
All Jim could explain was ‘something about the shape of the eyes?’
‘Tis a welcome mystery. (To digress willfully, I would only ever want to become famous or recognizable enough for Henry Louis Gates to explore my ancestry on ‘Finding Your Roots.’
Not that there’s a line of people waiting to make me famous or recognizable! Mostly I prefer to hide. But that’s a blog for another day.)
Anyway. Switzerland, first example. The guy Steve is American, and suggests you join him as he ventures off the train to “Oberbottigen,” where his Swiss friend Fred works on a farm. Your gut tells you this guy will not harm you, nor will his Swiss friend Fred on the farm.
You tramp together through mist-shrouded fields past unperturbed cows toward this farmhouse, and spend a couple of nights there.
Fred had been an exchange student at Steve’s high-school in Seattle, I think. You just sit back, safe and warm in Oberbottigen, and listen to their reminiscences. Cheered by the reminder that relationships endure, beyond many time-zones, and years. (This, in the days before e-mail, much less texting. There we 3 were, and there lucky me sat, to bathe in these friends’ connection.)
On one of the nights, the three of us walked to the only grocery store nearby. Fred suggested spaghetti for dinner, shrugged at Steve’s suggestion of adding tomato sauce, then pointed to an ice-cream freezer. The only flavor? Chocolate with orange. “It’s the only kind of ice-cream they ever have.” You and Steve are willing to give it a go.
You don’t know why, decades later, you still think of that fact from that tiny market amid Swiss farmlands. The only kind they ever sold.
You can still see how incredibly handsome, the Swiss friend Fred. How in love he must have been with a certain girl at Steve’s high-school in Seattle (?) the way he still talked about her, asked about her, physically crumpled to hear she was now engaged. How very kind these two guys were to you, who made sure you had the comfiest spot near the farmhouse’s fireplace to sleep, even though you’d protested. You did not want special treatment. You were not used to that. Yet you slept soundly as an infant there, or a dog in her person’s bed.
You aren’t sure Steve’s name was Steve. All you wrote on the back of this photo? “Oberbottigen, near Fred’s,” so you are sure about the Fred of it.
Such a memory rises, welcome, through the years.
Just 2 weeks ago, in June 2021, eating dinner on a patio with a dear friend Tom and your mother, you hear that one of the dessert specials is “chocolate and orange ice cream.”
Tom orders it, loves it, talks about something theatrical happening soon. You smile to yourself, and hold onto your chocolate-and-orange story, inside. While listening to your friend, now you remember how soggy your socks and shoes were the whole time, and how lovely and watchful and curious those cows.
Comes now the other example from Switzerland. You don’t often think about this other guy you met there, also during February, because that memory still creeps you out. You will give a shortened version:
After noticing during coffee and breakfast at a youth hostel (so clean! the Swiss youth-hostels. and expensive.) a man … not so youthful? … you aren’t sure … and you aren’t even sure of age-limits at ‘youth hostels’ anyway … a man who seems, what? … hostile? time-bomb, ticking, just over there? across the hostel breakfast room?
You notice him noticing you and you finish your bowl of milky coffee and skip the bread and cheese, to head outside and start wandering, early. Throughout the day, though, you catch a glimpse, behind you, of that same hostile guy, and try to shake it off. He is NOT following you around, right?
Or he is.
He is, and he is trying to appear as if he is not. You have been walking all day, and as the sun dips below the treetops, you duck into the equivalent of a diner in Switzerland, hoping he missed that move.
He pushes through the main door, points to you, says he’s your friend, and the hostess brings him over. You are stuck. You have no idea, with no preparation about such things, how to signal to the hostess that you’d rather not, this man be seated with you. But she seats him with you.
The man starts talking. He doesn’t stop. He speaks with a very strong accent, in English.
“You the only person who speak to me all week.” (I had said, only, “hello,” when the hostess sat him down in the diner.)
“I so very lonely. You meet my mother, she love you. You the woman, even though not Chinese, who make her happy for me. We go together to meet her.”
Holy shit. What was happening.
“Where you go next? I go with you. You come from the Bern, the farms.”
HOLY SHIT. Wait. Was this guy … stalking me? Like, from Fred's?
To be clear, I have no quarrel with meeting the mother of someone who might love me. But this was full-out crazy-town. And I felt trapped.
“Where you go next?” he asked.
Brain shuffle. “Not sure. There’s so much to see.”
“I go with you! I don’t care the where. You the only person who speak to me, all week!”
The next morning, I checked out of the youth-hostel very early, skipping the included coffee and bread-and-cheese, the coffee of which held high value for me, yet I ventured, fast, to the train-station.
Flash-forward, end of April, in Paris, with your man from Perth.
You feel, somehow, compelled to tell this man about a creepy guy in Switzerland, who seems a lifetime ago. You could not leave your cheap-ass room for dinner in a cheap-ass cafeteria on the Rive Gauche of Paris, without telling your Jamie about this strange guy. You do not understand why it's important!
You feel almost possessed by the compulsion to talk about the strange guy who, in that Swiss diner, despite your best efforts, pulled out a carved pipe and a pouch of cherry-tobacco, and began to smoke. And assumed you would cleave your life to his.
Jamie did not seem to understand either. But we were finally about to eat a meal at the cafeteria near our ‘hotel.’ We were leaving for Amsterdam soon, after a month in Paris. “We have to try this place,” we’d say every time we walked by the cafeteria. “How expensive can it be?”
While we waited for our food to be delivered at our communal table, Jamie reached out to a menu board next to it, with (possibly) removable letters describing tonight’s fare. He tried to pluck a letter.
I knew he was just curious whether the letters were replaceable or fixed. If I’d had his seat, instead of mine, I’d likely have reached out, as well.
“Don’t do that!” a harsh voice shouted. "Don't. Do that."
What the. Jamie froze, looked at the strangely authoritative Asian man, then shook it off. (Jamie was Australian, FFS. He didn’t care if some stranger cared! As it turned out, the letters were not removable.)
I froze, not Australian. Also recognizing a very specific and harsh voice and accent.
Holeeee. ‘If he takes out a pipe now, and a pouch of tobacco – especially if it’s cherry flavored – I will crawl under this table and dig a hole through the floor.’
I’d wanted so badly to say that out loud to Jamie, but he was sitting right next to the man, whom I had just, a half-hour earlier! for some compelling reason, described, in our cheap-ass room a few blocks away and less than an hour before, without understanding why.
The guy reached into his jacket and pulled out a pouch of cherry tobacco, tossed it next to his glass of water.
"I have to go to the bathroom.” And I got up and left the long shared table, to find a woman’s room.
Ten, fifteen minutes later, Jamie found me, stepping carefully out of the Dames. “What the hell? You okay?”
I didn’t know how to answer that.
“That man? Who yelled at you for touching the menu board?”
Jamie nodded, waited.
“Same guy I was JUST TELLING YOU ABOUT, in our room. The weird guy, in Switzerland! Who said I was the only person who talked to him, all week?”
Jamie’s face adjusted. “What?”
I nodded. “Same guy. Sitting right there. Here, in Paris.” All I could do, search Jamie’s face for a reason why, how, what the, something like this could possibly, peculiarly, coincide.
We walked back to our cheap-ass room to gather our cheap-ass belongings for our cheap-ass Magic Bus ride to the Netherlands.
Along the street, average singers sang Dylan, Stones, Beatles’ songs for passing change.
Jamie said, for the hundredth time, “We just need to get you a guitar, and you could make all the money we need to live.”
And, we both knew our time together was running short. I was out of money, American or otherwise. He had been away from home for 3 years! And his mum, in Perth, had already arranged for a family rendez-vous in Bali. (The following fall, she wrote letters to me in Charlottesville, where I’d returned to work as a hospital-education teacher’s aide. She signed them, ‘Jamie’s mum.’)
We spent a few weeks in Amsterdam, then in London – crashing with Italian ‘squatters’ he’d been tipped off toward – on a thin mattress in an upstairs room, but who could complain, when I had completely run out of currency (only 5 or 6 months beyond when I’d thought I’d run out)?
We would soon separate, out of necessity. We could make it work, right? from halfway around the world, right? We tried to feel sure of that, as 22-year-olds. Who knew nothing.
On the way back from the cafeteria to our cheap-ass room to pack, we passed yet another guitarist-singer on the sidewalk, playing and singing half-assed, the same five songs all over town. Francs piled up in the guitar case, nonetheless.
“These wankers. They can’t even sing! And look at all they’ve got, there. You could make a shitload…”
I hadn’t yet stepped out of the lenticular strangeness of a strange, Spidey man I’d met months earlier in Switzerland, sitting RIGHT the fk NEXT TO ME in a cafeteria near the Sorbonne, who’d yelled at my man from Perth, for being curious. For wanting to feel the fixed nature of posted letters of an alphabet.
Each of them, decades past, and none-the-less-a-teacher-for-me, among so many.
And I haven’t yet stepped into the lenticular strangeness of choosing songs I had NOT meant to choose, with Clarence held around my neck. When I went back, and busked down in the underground.
Songs I chose against my will, not understanding, yet meaningful to a listener I had not yet met. Not just in London or Paris, but closer to home.
But tonight, severe-thunderstorm-warnings keep pinging my phone. I'll hold those peculiar and Clarence-bound states of being for another blog-day.
THANK YOU as always, for reading my wandering welcomer’s wondering words, none-the-wiser in 2021. More with actual 6-stringed Clarence, soon.