(Here goes..comments welcome at post's end-- Ch 2 up tomorrow.)
Chapter I - The Poet Gives Herself to Destiny...
Chapter I - The Poet Gives Herself to Destiny...
“Sempre libera degg´io
folleggiare di gioia in gioia,
vo´che scorra il viver mio
Free and aimless I frolic
From joy to joy,
Flowing along the surface
of life's path as I please.
Violetta di Valery - "Sempre Libera", Act I, La Traviata, Guiseppe Verdi
My best friend and fellow poet Caroline and her sister Julia had been to
Europe before and they were world-traveler savvy. I was not.
So it was that in early June of 1973, I borrowed a huge Army Surplus duffel bag into which I packed the following:
An extra pair of low-waist, bell-bottom jeans. A few knit tops. A cream wool poncho from
given to me by my mother. A blue-striped rayon mini-dress I had made. New Mexico Bikini underwear times four. An extra front-loading bra.
In case we encountered a blizzard somewhere, a long flannel nightgown, and a pair of long woolen socks. A brush for the long hair it had taken me years to grow.
And, down at the bottom of the duffel bag, where I thought they would remain undisturbed until I needed them, my journal, my manuscript of poetry, tampons, my diaphragm, and a huge tube of contraceptive jelly.
I kept my passport and money in my jacket pocket for easy access.
I kept my passport and money in my jacket pocket for easy access.
But at the Customs Desk at O'Hare, the graying and weary agent opened and closed my diaphragm case, raising one eyebrow, nodding, as if to say:
He jotted everything down on a yellow form.
My companions, who had flown out before me, had state of the art backpacks with various handy compartments so that they could be perpetually organized: no packing, repacking, frantic searching needed. They took one change of clothes a piece, and cash to be converted country to country with which to buy couture bikinis and other clothes along the way.
They brought enough underwear so that they only had to rinse it out every ten days or so, hang it from the low branches of a tree in a campground, breeze-dry it fast, and put it away. They were each on the “pill,” later finding it hilarious that I would bring my diaphragm to
“If one of those European men gets pinched by that thing, he'll just pull it out and throw it out the window,” one of them had laughed.
My friends wouldn't have been caught dead in flannel nightgowns; they brought long t-shirts, counting on their new sleeping bags to stay warm. I had carried my bedroll separately: an old thing loaned to me by an ex-boyfriend, a cotton batting-filled “mummy bag” smelling of
fishing trips and campfires. Minnesota
I had thrown myself into a hurried leavetaking, finding it most difficult to abandon my home of the moment. My apartment was in a turn of the century brownstone that gave itself to a writing life, and my neighbors were writers and thinkers. I felt safe there in a time when it was hard for me to feel safe anywhere; in many respects, having lost a whole childhood to filling an ill mother's shoes, I had not yet fully come to terms with being out on my own. Yet, I needed to take wing.
I forced myself past my anxiety, praying that I was making the right decision. Like a rueful catbird vacating a nest, I consolidated my shabby-chique belongings, stored them in a friend's basement and bid farewell to my little studio with its French double doors opening out onto a tin roof from which I could actually see the
Mississippi River over the treetops, the barges steaming upriver.
I could always come back, I reassured myself; St. Paul with its mythical Fitzgeraldian twilight, its dissipated raconteurs and plethora of poets who congregated at day's end at the Commodore Hotel bar around the corner from my apartment, would be waiting.
It was a crisp, blue and prescient morning when I lugged my duffled and now baffling life to the curb in front of my apartment. My heart pounding, I caught a taxi to Minneapolis-St. Paul International. Several hours later, having withstood the first lap of my adventure, we deplaned in
Chicago, where I boarded an older jet for Frankfurt. It was packed with German tourists who were already boisterous without the help of any beer.
I sat down next to an American woman reading a magazine. As we introduced ourselves to each other and began to talk, I learned that she was on her way to
to spend the summer in a cabin and write a book about her great-grandmother, a suffragette. I immediately envied her savoir faire and independence. Traveling alone to the Switzerland Alps to a cabin seemed no big deal to her. The implacability with which she returned to her reading, seemingly disinterested in the fact that we were en route to Europe, reassured me as we taxied down the runway toward the unknown.
We took off, up, and into an infinite dusk. The Germans, with an innate sense that to be comfortable suspended over the ocean you drank, ordered brimming, yeasty steins of beer, and toasted to a safe journey. I took one look at
Lake Michigan under the rising plane, and ordered a gin and tonic.
I'll just have one of these, I thought.
Suddenly, we were over an endless expanse of darkness. The pilot came on the overhead speaker.
“Welcome to World Airlines Flight 122. We're doing just fine, heading up to 14,000 feet; if you look out your window, you'll see the
Atlantic. We'll be over the ocean for about ten hours; Frankfurt ETA 7 a.m."
I wasn’t ready to look out the window at the ocean; instead I settled back, sipping my drink. I pondered the events that had brought me to this problematic moment. I had bravely assented to Caroline's invitation to take this trip. She was worried about me; I'd been enmeshed in an affair with the volatile and hard-drinking crime reporter for the local daily newspaper. He had been popping in and out of my life like a besotted cuckoo, manically cycling between me and his wife-- the first woman prosecuting attorney in
. St. Paul
I counted this glass ceiling-breaker among one of the last people to cross; she was damn mad that I'd fallen for her tom cat husband when we both worked for the paper, and often cruised past my apartment at night in The Good Ship Affluence-- her new Cutlass Supreme.
I didn't blame her for being furious, and I had repeatedly tried to get him to go back for good. But he would show up at my apartment with his shirts and ties on hangers, a libido fueled by anxiety and obsession, so that I couldn't slam the door of my heart shut and keep it that way.
The whole thing seemed to have no resolution and had been good for about a forty pound weight loss and a lot of tears.
Caroline was a writer and her sister Julia, a sculptor and painter. Caroline had made it through the worst of a divorce; she was free, beginning a new chapter, and she wanted to share it. She had proposed the trip over a glass of wine in my apartment on a late spring day.
"Julia and I are already booked. I checked and I can get you a cheap seat on a tourist flight and we'll meet you in
Frankfurt. I'll cover it. A trip always makes you feel better. You'll get a new lease on life, I promise you."
I knew this chance would never come again. And, I was a poet: despite being worn down from the affair not to remember and a bad case of agoraphobia that had arisen from a panic attack I had a year earlier on the freeway between Albert Lea, Minnesota and Des Moines, it was my nature to take risks, to seize the day with all the élan I could muster.
Moreover, my first collection of poetry had just been accepted by the Minnesota Writers' Publishing House, a collective press started by the infamous poet Robert Bly. I had a sense of destiny about myself and I thought a trip to
Now, unbelievably, I was in the air and not only in the air, but sitting in an aluminum tube with wings that presumably, via the mysteries of aerodynamics, could and would remain aloft across open water for a number of hours. This was overwhelming and in those days, there was but one solution. After my third gin and tonic, finally accepting that I was suspended in time over the
Atlantic, I relaxed. I dozed, my dreams punctuated by German drinking songs.
In time the journey itself became a dream, laced with murmuring voices and the steady hum of the jet's engines. If I woke, I lulled myself back to sleep; if we fell out of the air, I wanted to be asleep and to have no awareness whatsoever of my own plunge into the sea.
Hours passed. Then, amid loud cheers from the Germans, we landed, taxiing to a terminal where as I de-planed, I could see my two friends at the gate.
My reverie over the
Atlantic abruptly gave way to pellmell activity. Suddenly we were all on a train, whooshing into Frankfurt, Julia having lugged my knapsack into the packed car where it needed a seat of its own.
"Why on earth did you bring this?" they had laughed.
Numb with jet lag, I blurted: "Oh...I borrowed it. It has everything in it that I'll need." They laughed again, as if they knew something I didn't.
"What now," I asked.
"We've decided that we should buy a bus or a van and camp wherever we go," Julia said. "It's cheap and a great way to see
Europe. You meet great people. Lots of great guys too."
Our train slid along its rails like a silver fish into Frankfurt on the
Main. My anxiety hadn’t abated; I didn’t feel up to a camping trip. We had talked about getting Eurail passes and I was disappointed. In my selfish fantasies I had envisioned gingerbread Alpine hostels and hotel courtyards with small rose-trellised rooms, little writing tables in the windows where I could position myself as a semi-tragic figure looking out at a piazza at twilight. I was ill-equipped to rough it, I thought-- I needed a real bed.
We meandered through a terminal choked with people from all over the world. Following my friends, lugging my knapsack, I was terrified. Swarthy and sinister-looking men followed us with hungry eyes. We were bombarded by multiple languages echoing from the loudspeakers announcing the arrival and departure of trains to everywhere.
Caroline stopped at a tourist's kiosk and was directed to a used car dealership near the army base.
That such a thing existed was a revelation to me; I had anticipated all things quaintly and quintessentially European, a cornucopia for the senses and not a tiny slice of
in the middle of Frankfurt-on-the-Main. Americana
But we took a taxi to the used car lot, and here was a young ruddy-faced young man from state-side, greeting us, taking us up and down rows of cars and vans.
"Look at this," Caroline called, having gone off on her own to ponder the sea of vehicles.
We found her standing in front of a two-tone green VW bus with tangerine and cream-striped curtains.
"You should get this," the American, an ex-GI named Bob, said. "It's perfect. It was outfitted for a safari; look."
We stepped in.
There were custom shelves and cabinets, and the curtains pulled all around for privacy. It could sleep six, which meant that there was plenty of room to make up our beds at night and for each of us to have room to stretch out and rest.
The bus was adorably conspicuous, and Caroline put down 250 in German marks for it. We had it tuned up, a tire replaced, and stayed in Bob's place that night in our bedrolls, on the floor.
On this, my first night in
Europe, I couldn't sleep. I couldn't gear down at all. I was suddenly at my friends’ mercy, necessarily abiding by their whims, their guest. “Just relax and get some sleep,” I said to myself. But I tossed and turned until at daybreak, life filled the cobbled streets. A market was set up under our window. German women appeared on their balconies, shaking out feather bedding, watering their geraniums. Everywhere the sound of German, sweet, salty, guttural.
My friends, rising like goddesses from their down bags, were shortly fresh-faced, their hair combed. I was preoccupied with the fact that I hadn't had a chance to bathe, and made do in a bathroom where there was not only a toilet but something then unrecognizable to me that would have solved my issues: a small porcelain bidet. I gave myself a sponge-bath, combed my hair and tied it back, and rubbed a little lipstick on my cheeks.
We went out into the day and got a ride to our bus. We stowed our belongings and our basics, which consisted of yogurt for the cooler, a huge globe of white wine and cans of hearts of palm-- the guilty pleasure du jour for all of us, somewhat compensating for the fact that we weren’t going to booking rooms at a five-star hotel. We would stop and get fresh fruit along the way.
We headed down the Autobahn to
, Julia at the wheel. Caroline had the map. Nuremberg
“Where are we going,” I asked more than once, as we sped along, reaching for my journal and jotting down a few things on one of the counter tops in the lurching bus.
“We don't know. That's how it is in
Europe. You just head out, you just travel around.”
Seriously? This I couldn't believe, that we would recklessly wind our way along thousands of miles from home, letting fate dictate the journey.
xxNightfall in Verona Chapters 1 through 22 as published on this blog is the exclusive intellectual property of Jenne' R. Andrews. You may e-mail me at email@example.com with permission to repost or reprint requests..