Chapter 2: Europe '96
One of the things I was organising, in between all the work, during that harrowing semester at the end of '95, was a placement in Switzerland for the summer (the winter in Switzerland alas). A practical placement was a necessary part of the degree I was working towards, and I had every intention of fulfilling it abroad if I could. I was blessed with success, the first international placement in the history of my degree, but at no small cost in terms of political friction and stress on my part. As if I wasn't already sleeping poorly on account of the work, I battled with establishment for the right to work in Europe.
I was working a 42 hour week as the Swiss do, and had some seminars and reports to present to my university back in Adelaide, all the while taking three courses through the correspondence school. My free time situation hadn't improved much really. But I did get some long weekends off. At every opportunity I fled and took a trip away. Switzerland is well placed in central Europe after all for weekends away.
I hitched of course. The contrast between the professional engineer they knew at work, and the vagabond they imagined on the road, brought a smile to the faces of my workmates. Each of those trips was exhilarating, and wild in its own way, so back in Adelaide in July 1996, I continued the tradition of recounting the tales. The memory was fresher and the pool of stories smaller, so the stories are accordingly longer.
I'd arrived in Switzerland just before Christmas, intending to stay a half year. I was a little concerned about how to make Christmas interesting given my lack of family and friends there. On arriving I stayed with a friend in Zuerich for a few days, and together we went to a party, where the problem disappeared. A half Italian girl was organising an alternate Christmas party, for those who didn't want to or couldn't spend it in the traditional family environment.
In the mean time I moved to Bern where I had some work on, but come Christmas Eve, I hitched back to Zuerich for this party. It turns out that I was the only one to turn up! So it was just the two of us. Now the irony was, that her sister wasn't going home for Christmas as promised and so her mother was all alone, and we decided the right thing would be to go and visit her mother for a while. We stepped out her front door, which just happened to lie on the road to Frauenfeld, some 40 kms away where mother lived, and waved our thumbs around for a while.
Eventually this car screeches to a halt, and offers us a ride to the airport, so we go along. The guy drives like a nutter, and screams to a halt at the airport, where he offers the girl a job writing for an alternate paper of his (which she declines). Glad to be rid of him, we hang around this intersection at the airport waving thumbs again, until this nice Syrian chap stops for us. He's not going to Frauenfeld, but part of the way, he'd just dropped a friend off at the airport and was on his way home. We got chatting and listening to some his Syrian music, and he decided he'd take a fairly hefty detour and drop us off in Frauenfeld, for which we were more than grateful.
As luck would have it we arrived spot on time. We had a pizza and a family chat before heading home again around 11 at night. The roads were quiet at this stage and we walked in the cold damp winter air. It was raining just a little, enough to put the umbrella up once in a while anyway. By the time we almost got to the edge of Frauenfeld and no one had stopped yet, we were beginning to wonder about the Christmas spirit. But eventually a young guy stopped, who took us all the back to Zuerich, dropped us off at home in fact. He was going skiing the next day (Christmas) and we joked about coming along to get some sun (up in the mountains it was apparently sunny, down here in the valley it was miserable). Well, we got home, and not long after we crashed the night.
We slept in a long time on Christmas day, but when we did get motivated we went for a walk down to the lake, were we tossed up the idea of hitching up into the mountains as we'd said yesterday. Why not? Waved our thumbs around again on a road running along the lake side, in the drizzling rain, until somebody stopped. "Where you going?", he asks. "The mountains!", we say. He can take us a part of the way along the lake anyway, so we hop in. While driving we get to talking about how far the mountains are away, like an hour or two to drive I think, and the same back again. Our watches were telling us it was mid afternoon already and the sun was going down before 5, and that maybe it wasn't so grand a plan anyway. Hitching back in the cold snow after dark wasn't so attractive an idea even if it was still sunny when we got there. So we made it about halfway around Lake Zuerich, and decided we'd take a ferry across the lake and hitch back along the other side of the lake. Everyone, including our driver felt it was a good idea, so we did just that.
Before long on the other side we got a ride back into town and chased some dinner ... An interesting thing to note is that in Switzerland they have an annual rail pass which lets you ride all the trains and busses in Switzerland all year long for nothing. She had one of those passes. I didn't and I'm a hitcher, so she hitched with me. It was one of my more interesting Christmases in the end. So much for my fears on arriving ...
I had just arrived in Bern before Christmas to work on a six month project, and was already planning my first holiday, a new years celebration in Wetzlar. This was an Esperanto do, the Internacia Semajno or International Week, colloquially the IS. It draws about 300 young people from Spain to Russia, Scandinavia to Italy, and I was expecting to meet a lot of old friends there from years gone by, none of whom were really aware that I was back in Europe (I was still coming to grips with it myself, something of a whirlwind plan really).
On my first day off, which was the Saturday just before new years (December 30th) I started the trip. Since arriving I'd been so busy starting work, finding a place to live and so on I'd not had a spare moment to find a map of Germany, so I had no real idea where Wetzlar was, somewhere north of Frankfurt was all my friends told me before Christmas.
No grave impediment, I figured I'd work it out along the way somehow and went out to Wankdorf Platz on the outskirts of Bern, with some card, a big black pen, my pocket knife, my camera and a change of clothes and sleeping bag, what was slowly becoming my standard luggage on a trip like this. Bern is always an easy place to get away from, and before long I was on my way into Germany.
Not long after Basel I stopped at one of the German service stations for my fee map of the freeway, where with a little help I found Wetzlar! Alas it was a fair way to go, a long days hitch all right, and not very well situated for access (behind Frankfurt from where I was coming). Getting as far as Frankfurt was easy enough and with a little effort and patience I cut my way across to Wetzlar as well not long after sundown. The last ride was with three nice young Germans who were on their way to Wetzlar for some party of their own in fact.
It hit me then though, that having found Wetzlar, and realising suddenly that Wetzlar is no village but a fair sized city, that I had no clue where in Wetzlar the IS was happening. This time of night just before New Years everything was shut alas, and information was scant. So I figured I'd head up to the youth hostel, ask them if they'd heard about the IS, and if not crash there the night and resume my search in the morning.
Imagine my surprise when I get to the youth hostel and there it is, the IS I mean, it's all happening right there at the youth hostel. Well it turns out they always run at youth hostels, but I didn't know that then, and really there aren't too many other places that 300 skinflint young Europeans can get together for week of resident debauchery I guess.
The IS had already been running for a few days when I got there, and I spent this first night tracking down familiar faces. It had been two years since I was in Europe, and many of the people here new me then as near bald, I was now touting a rather solid head of hair. Given that I saw many people off on my way home to Australia, for all they knew that's where I still was, and it took a good moment for some to recognise me, and vice versa I have to confess (two years is two years).
The festival was great, bar the fact that like many others, in the last day I came down with the worst case of flu I've ever experienced. An epidemic was sweeping Germany that winter in fact that made the news, and I fell victim to it. So, with a mildly bad conscience as to my affect on others and a few Panadol to sweep the symptoms under the carpet I hitched back to Bern in a day ...
While working in Bern, on the spur of the moment I planned an Easter visit to the Italian Youth Festival (an Esperanto do attracting some two hundred youth from all over Europe). It was being held this year in a small mountain village of the Dolomites, Santa Orsola Terme, near Trento in the north east of Italy.
A colleague of mine was going to Zuerich to pick someone up from the airport on the morning of Good Friday, and I'd arranged to tag along that far. It turns out the lift was running wildly late and it wasn't until late morning that I was near Zuerich, hitching further east. I got around Zurich, and then on to St. Gallen, where I got my first long distance ride for the day with a student from St. Gallen heading over to Austria to see her family. She left me in a great spot by Innsbruck where a mini-bus-load of drunken Austrians (with the happy exception of the driver) picked me up not long after.
Looking back on it that was a great spot, several times later I broke all my old records and waited 5 hours around Innsbruck. My record to date was 3 hours, and I'd been hitching Europe for years. It is a definite black hole as far as hitching goes. These Austrians were friendly anyway, pumping me full of beers the whole way, they moved between inviting me to their holiday on the Garda lake and inviting themselves to my Easter party in the hills (to which they'd have been more than welcome really). Ultimately they went their way and left me to mine at the expressway exit to Trento.
By this stage it was already dark and raining a bit, but with no other options before me I waited by the expressway exit till a ride into Trento came along. Under the circumstances I figured I'd take a train from Trento, Santa Orsola Terme was only 20 km away and the trains in Italy are cheap. Some while later I score a ride into the train station with a hurried young chap who thrusts a phone card into my hand and flies off to do his thing.
Most everything is shut at this time of night on Good Friday in Italy, but it didn't take long to work out that there was no train to Santa Orsola Term, only buses and they weren't running on Good Friday. Oh well, stuck in the middle of a large town with only taxi's in front of me, dwelled on my options. I responded to an urge to visit the toilet. The toilet was closed with some Italian sign in front of it. I was desperate. An African fellow on the platform spotting my rather evident confusion directs me to the staff toilet.
My business finished, still dwelling on my problem I get to talking with this African fellow, who happens to be the cleaner who'd put the sign in front of the other toilet. He hears my problem out, and takes me around to the ticket counter, the only thing open at this time of night to discuss my options for me, he mastered Italian a whole lot better than I did. "No trains and no buses" is about as far as we got.
"Well, I'll have to hitch then", I say to him. All I needed was a map of town to help me find the road to Santa Orsola Terme, from in front of the train station in the middle of town I wasn't going anywhere in a hurry, even if there was any traffic, which there wasn't. So my newfound friend asks about a map of town. Not available. He tracks a friend of his down, Francesco, with who he discusses the problem, trains buses, maps ... Between them they decide I'll have to take a taxi. No chance. O.K. then I'll have to sleep at the station and take a bus in the morning (it's getting pretty late anyway at this stage). No chance, this party in the hills is an all day and night affair ... and I'm going to be there.
The train has a bar, and for lack of any clear alternative they invite me to sit down for a drink to get to know one another a little better. Francesco it turns out knows the road to Santa Orsola Terme, it's the same road that goes to Venice in fact. So after our drink we go out front, and Francesco tries to explain how I get to this road on foot.
It's a fair hike he warns, but this is how you do it ... Right, then left, then right, then right, then, huh? What was that again Francesco? O.K. again, right then left then ... huh? Stuff it I'll take you there he says ... So me and Francesco start walking off to Venice at about 10pm on Good Friday from the Trento train station.
We go through town, come out the other side and start walking up this damned hill. Nowhere to stop, just enough room for the cars to get by without taking us with them. Francesco's walking ahead of me, it's single file here and I'm waving my sign out the back in the vain hope that someone might stop. There's a moderate stream of traffic. Francesco's heading for a spot at the top of the hill where cars can stop, I think he's enjoying the walk because this is the road and he could leave me here if need be, I could make it to the top of the hill where cars can stop myself. All of a sudden a car stops.
Cars start banking up behind him and beeping. I say my thanks to Francesco, throw him a quick hug, and dive into this car and we're off. Francesco and his African friend were wild, friendly, helpful, and probably as grateful for the touch of chaos I brought them as I was for the help they lent me. I regret the sharp departure really.
Anyway, this ride takes me about 15 of my 20 kilometres to the biggest town near Santa Orsola Terme. A nice guy actually, who drops me off on the road I need. Not much traffic though. Santa Orsola Terme is a small village in the hills, with a tiny little road leading up to it. So I start walking ...
Before long I walk past this church with piles of Christians coming out of their Good Friday mass. Cars are streaming out of the car park, this way and that, some of them up to Santa Orsola Terme. I wave my thumb, I wave my sign, I smile my Christian smile, but not a sharing soul among them alas. Too busy preaching love thy neighbour to practice it I guess ... C'est la vie, I keep walking.
Ultimately a nice fellow pulls up, who actually lives in Santa Orsola Terme, knows the hotel where this party's at, and takes me to the front door, with midnight approaching. Having made it, I dump my stuff race down to the dance floor to find Claudia, this girl I know from Bern, who is always on the dance floor. Happy as I was to find her, it was a long and tiring day and in spite of all her efforts I just wouldn't dance more than one song ...
The trip back was interesting. After three nights of partying I was a sleepy wreck, and I had to go back to work in Bern the next day. I tried very hard to get some sleep on the last night, while others just partied through (but then they were catching trains home, I was hitching home). I got up nice and early and stood there waiting at the bus stop into town with some friends. There was zero traffic in Santa Orsola Terme, and I felt a need to get at least as far as the expressway by Trento before my thumb would prove any use to me.
To our collective dismay there were no buses running from Santa Orsola Terme on Easter Monday either! Working that out is a trial and error process in Italy, that involves waiting until you can wait no longer. That's because the Italians themselves don't know if the buses are running on Easter Monday or not, and they're habitually late anyway. Our patience expired however, people had trains to catch and we concluded the buses weren't running.
One of the partiers, with a car, had the night prior offered a fallback lift into Trento in just such a circumstance, so off we went to wake the poor bugger. We were running a little late for one of the trains, that of my soon-to-be lover in fact, and this guy wasn't driving nearly fast enough for our tastes. As it turns out we stop at the station a few minutes later than the scheduled departure time, scramble to the platform, and thank God it's Italy, the train is still there on the platform.
A few chaotic good-byes between us all, and I got a lift with this guy to the expressway just down the road. While driving out to the expressway the conversation brought to light our very different perspectives. Peter from Dresden was my driver and I remember well his curiosity at my mode of transport. Why was I leaving so early (the festival actually runs on to that afternoon)? Because I have a day long hitch home and I prefer to hitch the daylight hours. Why not hitch tomorrow? Because I have to work tomorrow. The two concepts were mutually exclusive in his world view somehow. What if you don't get there today? Oh, I'll get there, don't worry.
Sure enough on the way home I got stuck in Innsbruck for some five hours and the day just rolled on ... I did make it home, in time for the last tram of the night, to take me to my apartment, but I was wondering for a while if I shouldn't have been so cocky with Peter about my chances. Murphy was reaching out to touch me I thought.
One of the deeper ironies that came to light later is that Peter, who drove home to Dresden, with a car load of revellers from the Festival, had a rather serious accident on the way home, with more of them in hospital for a while, and didn't make it work on time ... Fortunately no-one was seriously injured ... still the irony is wry.
I was working in Switzerland for 8 months, during which time I'd acquired a lover. We met in Italy at an Easter bash, she was from Berlin, I from Bern, not especially convenient, there being a good 1000 km between us. I was in Switzerland only on an internship towards my degree, and I was destined to return to Australia late in July. The flight was booked well in advance and I had work commitments in the week leading up to it, so I took two weeks off at the start of July to see her.
It turns out that my Berlin girl, Robina, a 2nd year medical student, was sitting her finals at precisely that time. Her friends were questioning her sanity at having me round just then, and so did I when she told me! But she knew as well as I did, that my own schedule was pretty fixed and inflexible as well, and insisted I come up for a week before I fly (back to Australia). So the trip it seems, was on.
I packed all my things together, stored them at a friends, moved out of my unit, and was invited by a friend, Karin, to stay with her during my last week in Bern, when I got back form Berlin. I'd promised the boss one last weeks work just before the flight !
Now I hitched from Bern to Austria first, where I spent a few days catching up with my father's side of the family, before heading north. Leaving Innsbruck was as difficult as it always is. Breaks all my waiting records each time. Some five hours of waiting around and bugging people at service stations I was finally on my way into Germany. The ride I got from Munich to Kassel was notably hair raising. Some German guy in a convertible Merc with the roof down, on his way home from Hungary who insisted on driving 250 km/hr at any and every opportunity. Took a while to get the knots out of my wind-blown hair after that. Before moving into Berlin I decided to drop in on an old friend from Adelaide in Hamburg. Turns out he was sitting his finals just then as well, and we didn't have time for much more than a late night beer and man to man talk over love and life.
The next day I hitched to Berlin, where I stayed for a little over a week, during which time sure enough, Robina barely lifted a book. She had two exams, one on the Friday, the other on Saturday. It was a two day hitch back to Bern and I had to be at work Monday morning, so I was planning to leave on Saturday as early as I could.
These medical exams in Germany run under a peculiar system. They are multiple choice, the answers are posted immediately after the exam, and the official results are available that same evening. On failing an exam, a student is required to resit it four days later. The failure rates are astronomical with fewer than half the students making it through the first time, and a third or so not making it through at all. Failing an exam will cost a repeat semester.
Come Friday Robina sits her first exam. It was apparently a tough one. She needed 30 out of 50 points to pass and our personal tally from the posted results scored 31. When the final results came in that night it turned out that she'd only scored 30! Just pulled through.
On Saturday morning as she was preparing to leave for her exam, knowing I felt myself under some pressure to leave, she asked if I intended to stick around till after the exam. Not really wanting to wait around till the early afternoon I said I'd rather not. Searching her eyes for any form of disapproval or resistance, and not finding it, we said our good-byes, and went our separate ways, she to her exam, me to the road. Specifically to Dreilinden the old border crossing into East Germany from where it's easy to hitch into the west.
From Dreilinden I got a ride after only a few minutes into West Germany, to Kassel of all places, where the guy in the Merc dropped me on the way up. That night I made it to Shaffhausen on the Swiss border, where I crashed at the youth hostel. A very pleasant stay with a caring host I'd recommend to anyone. The next evening I made it back to Bern, via Zurich where I dropped in on a friend for some brunch.
It turns out that Karin wasn't home, she had to spend the week minding her grandmother on the other side of town. In fact neither of her two flat mates was home either, one was on holidays and the other was house-minding for friends on holidays. July is the season when Europe is on the move. But Karin gave me the keys and invited me to make myself at home in her room, where I promptly crashed, more than a little tired after the trip home.
That night though I rang Robina, to see how she went in her exam. Her story ripped me in two. So much so that I rang a friend of hers, to arrange something, and hear the tale from another angle. Between the two I pieced together what follows.
Robina went to her exam that Saturday morning, crying, distraught. Her friends were amazed she bothered to sit the exam at all. But sit it she did. She had hoped to finish it early and catch me before I left, but in her state of mind it took her the whole time to finish the thing. Immediately afterwards she took her mother's car and raced home only to find the note and mementos I'd left behind for her. She raced back down to the car and headed out to Dreilinden in the hope of catching me there. She knew quite well that public transport out to Dreilinden moved at a snail's pace and she had every chance of beating me there. Ironically, had I known as much, I might as well have stuck around and got a lift out with her. Evidently I was confused.
When she got there she couldn't see me, nor could she pull over, caught in the wrong lane. So she turned around at the next exit (Dreilinden is on a motorway) and doubled back. The loop took her some time on account of a huge event, called the Love Parade, which was on in Berlin that afternoon and evening, drawing over half a million Germans from all over, most of who were moving in on Berlin at a snail's pace in their own jam at this very moment. When she finally got back to Dreilinden, this time in the right lane, I had in fact turned up! But would you believe it, I was getting into this car! She pulled up behind us, searching frantically for the horn unable to find it in her frenzy only to have us pull out in front of her.
The two punks hitching behind me rush up to her all excited at the thought of a ride and she shoos them off before pulling out behind us in hot pursuit, still unable to find that damned horn. Alas by the time she'd got into the traffic stream she had a few cars between us and her. The motorway was only two lanes wide, with traffic (and us) in the fast lane cruising at 160 km/hr plus. Her mother's car was struggling to push a 160 and mile after mile more cars crept between us and her.
It pays to remember, that at this stage I'm unaware of anything, chatting happily with my driver, who happens to be a doctor, about medical exams and how incredibly hard these ones are to pass! Robina can describe in detail the car, the driver, the punks, everything, she was acutely aware of what was happening, sadly though not so acutely aware of where the horn was.
After some 20 km of pursuit, having lost sight of us completely, half a tank of gas, no money or ID on her, she had to give up and took the next exit back to Berlin, to join the other half a million cars creeping their way into town. Some two hours later she makes it back to the university in order to get her grade. She realises at this point that she knows damned well where the horn is on this car. Blows it a few times in frustration, unable to explain how or why she couldn't find it when she needed it. Further still, attached to her key-ring is a small leather purse, into which her mother had slipped 800 Marks knowing full well she was likely to do something crazy ... gas money. To make the day, of the 36 points (out of 60) she'd need to pass she scored 35!
I was not at this point a well loved personality I suspect, neither by her, nor those friends that saw her sit this exam in tears only to fail. It was small consolation that 450 students out of 700 failed, and the vast majority by more than 1 point.
Well, I knew she had to sit this exam again four days afterwards, on the Wednesday -- so I rang the railways and asked the price of a night train to Berlin. It was dear, but affordable, and more than worthwhile I thought, to be there, when she came out of that exam on Wednesday. I told my boss (to whom I'd promised this last week of work before flying), I need Wednesday off. Not especially pleased with the idea, he gave me the time all the same, the cause was after all good. I rang a friend of hers, asked her to make sure that Robina goes home after this exam, no clues, secret, surprise, just make sure she goes home, and not off to her parents or somewhere else that will catch me out. I rang again on Tuesday night before catching the train. Sure enough she had every intention of hopping into her car Wednesday afternoon and driving the 1000 km to Bern to catch me before my Friday flight. No thought I, this one's on me, it's definitely my hand to play this time. I was assured though that she'd go home before she did anything too wild.
I caught the night train up, couldn't sleep and got there before her exam started. I waited around a while to be sure she was in the exam and headed out to her place. Now Robina lived in the very top floor of a five story block. The basement door as it turns out was often left unlocked, through which I gained entry into the building. Indeed so was the attic door, though which I got up into the roof. Now there existed a rather short though somewhat twisted ventilation duct between her bathroom and the sky, via the attic, and this duct was coincidentally accessible through a convenient hole in the attic. The duct itself while short involved three right angle bends and was barely wider than I. But I had time to kill, a sense of adventure and the surprise would be worth it, so feet first I wriggled through this duct into her bathroom, my mind on the possibility of getting jammed all the time (that would have been embarrassing). I got a pile of dirt into the bathroom, knocked a pot-plant over and scratched myself a bit here and there, but I made it in. Finding myself conveniently in the bathroom I took a shower and did my best to undo the mess I made getting in. Nice white walls. It turns out that a dirty hand-print of mine high up on her white wall escaped my attention ...
Tired as I was after the sleepless trip up, and the exhausting journey into the apartment, I tacked a cheeky cartoon to the door, locked up the way I found it and went to sleep on the couch.
Some while later I hear Robina at the door. She stops at the cheeky cartoon, wonders what it might mean, though it's reference to me doesn't escape her. She comes in and finds me on the couch. No words for a long time, none required. But the look was worth it. A long warm hug, embraced with a sense of timelessness somehow.
When words do come, she manages "How on earth did you get in here?". They remain the only words for some time. We move over to the bed ...
An hour or so later her mother comes up the stairs, bearer of good tidings. She scored 47 points, out of 60 on this exam. We grab some lunch, buy some junk food, hop in the car and head off to Bern, both of us knowing well I had to work the next morning again. At 2 a.m. we finally arrived in Bern, and crashed, a wrecked heap, in Karin's bed, where I was staying that week.
Thursday morning, my last day of work before the flight, Karin's flatmate, Prisca who was house-minding elsewhere till now, comes home. Now Karin lived in one of these rather tight European apartments, and the only way for Pris to reach her room was through Karin's, which she promptly did, to find the two of us grinning up at her over Karin's sheets. Pris of course was expecting me, but not Robina, and while she was polite and didn't say anything, I thought I'd better ring Karin and let her hear this one from my lips, not Pris' ...
I worked my last day in Bern, and that night we drove to Zurich from where I'd fly the next morning. We stayed at a friends place, on a mattress on the floor, and enjoyed our last night together in that special way, that only the last night together can seem to capture. Serene, caring yet passionate - on a matress on the floor of a friends place.
Friday came around, and the good-byes were long, and drawn out. Moving through the customs barrier was the ordeal it always is when lovers separate across them ... The dirty hand-print I left on her wall remains there as a reminder of the whole episode.