A story about going off the grid — before there was a grid.
By the 4th night things were getting rough. He’d lost everything of importance, save for his wallet, half a week ago hitchhiking down from the north into Munich. Probably in the backseat of that Mercedes.
Guy floored it for two hours straight on the autobahn, 200 km/hr, no talking. U.S. Passport, return plane ticket home from Zurich to JFK (Sabena Air), and most inconveniently, his International Youth Hostel card, stamped for summer 1972. Gone. This last was crucial because it was his ticket to really cheap overnight stays at youth traveler hotels all over Europe, generally complete with a hearty breakfast.
He had located the airline office first, middle of the business district. Walked in all scruffy. “Not a problem, my good man. Found the record of your purchase last May. Just need your passport and we can print you off a new one.” In German, which he was getting the gist of. The Jugendherberge Bureau was helpful and sympathetic. A friendly-voiced madchen, as cheerfully as though she were singing amidst jingling cowbells in a pristine meadow in the Alps, informed that since summer was nearly over he could receive a replacement hostel card for only $10. Just need to process your passport. That left the U.S. Embassy; surely they’d be responsive for one of their own. “Sir, do you have any idea how many people would like a U.S. passport with no evidentiary credentials? We need to telex your info to DC so they can prove you exist and have flown to Europe. Should take about 6-7 days, then we can print you up a temp replacement passport. Anything else?”.
In truth he sort of liked the predicament. Backpacker without a country for six or seven days. No credentials. About half of the money left, maybe $90 in traveler’s checks, and a little more than two weeks left before he had to get to the airport in Switzerland. Even among the fellow student backpackers he was anonymous now. Living by his own wits. And sort of an okay prognosis once the telex works. He pictured himself a wayward dark sleek meteorite, sleuthing through the foreign galactic territory, avoiding detection.
He trudged along a residential-ish part of the city, neither despondent nor optimistic. It was getting near dusk now and though hungry, he needed to think about improvising some shelter. Sometimes luck came by reviewing recent events. 1st night he ended up in a park across the street from a popular youth hostel. Sort of force of habit. But no way to get in. Then early evening an alarmingly upbeat fellow wanderer, with one arm, stopped by and asked his life story. Turned out this fellow was a resource from heaven, Australian, who’d been travelling around the world over a year, and his maxim was: never spend more than one U.S. dollar per day. Two is too much. The youth-hostel cost two, but this guy loved challenges. So he relaxed his own maxim, signed up for the night, and then located and opened a side window about five feet off the ground. And just like that, he was let into his lodging free of charge. Aussie had scouted a bed which looked anonymous and likely to remain unused, and man without a country was home free for day one. Before bed, Aussie kicked his ass at knock hockey, playing as if he had three arms, and regaled him with stories of much more trying circumstances in Albania. In the morning they both tore through the buffet breakfast. Then Aussie had to be off, because that is what such characters do. But not before imparting some advice about free meals at three of the local breweries. You just showed by at 11AM or 2PM for a tour of their premises led by a smart co-ed which culminated in free beer, sausages and bread. Gold mine. Not surprisingly, a good 50% of the tour-goers were backpackers.
2nd night was a bit dicier. He wandered around a university hoping to make a connection when he heard tell of a Hadyn symphony performance, 8PM sharp. Found the auditorium, sat his backpack down next to him and settled into the cushy seats, exerting some effort to look awake. Music went over an hour, and as the crowd thinned he slipped through a side exit into a hallway filled with classrooms on both sides. He walked around a bend putting some distance between himself and the dispersing voices and then picked an unremarkable looking room and slipped inside. Waited 45 minutes in silence. Nothing happening, so he erected a platform bed of three adjacent desktops and unrolled his sleeping sack on top of it. Selected a cleanish flannel shirt for a pillow and went to sleep gradually, wary of being found out by the notoriously efficient and orderliness-fetishing German gendarmerie.
Middle of the night had to pee; this meant opening the door and locating a men’s room. Scary. Tiptoed to the door and very very luckily he turned the knob with meticulous slow care. Luckily, because soon as the door slivered open — it was a huge massive thing confering impressive silence when shut — he heard and saw the back of an imposing security guard in a dark blue uniform and by his side a very serious looking German shephard dog on a tight leash. They walked in solemn lockstep; that animal was trained to the hilt. Froze and waited two seconds, had to make certain no click emerged from the doorknob latch clasped tightly in his hand. The patrol kept moving away slowly. Without exhale, he nanometered the door back towards him into place and waited what seemed like ten minutes before releasing the knob to let out a soft click.
Now what. Too risky to find a bathroom. Looked around in the closets in the back and found something like a flower pot. Was this a botany classroom? Got into the closet and hunched down, his body and the doors acting like silencers and half-filled the pot with pee, taking care to stutter so as to make no noise and to aim for the sides of the pot to cause no splashing. Found some gardening soil or something like it and filled up the rest of the pot, covering the pee. Tried to clean his hands best as he could, rubbing them in dirt and then rubbing them against each other. Back to a fitful sleep on the desktops.
Morning came before his wits did and so did the cleaning lady. She rolled her supplies into classroom, began eyeing the task ahead, the chalkboards and the floor to mop, and then glancing to the back of the room let out a shriek of genuine oh-my-God old cleaning woman horror, as though this was the one single morning out of a career of ten thousand efficient cleaning days that a wild caveman-looking foreigner was sleeping on some desktops. He let his best most gracious and lovingly pronounced Guten Morgen, Frau Washerwoman walk out of his mouth. Then tried to smile pleasantly in the most nonchalant manner. “Sorry to disturb you, I’ll be out of your way quickly. You know my grandmother was part German and she was really a wonderful cleaner too.” Then it was a casual race, to zip up the sack and format his belongings into their accustomed shape for backpacking, and please find an exit from this building before the canines were alerted. Guten Tag, have a pleasant day, and out the door, closing it behind him. Walking briskly. Morning, no students yet, bad sign, but a few functionaries walking around getting set to start their day down the corridor. Crossing a wide indoor plaza, looking for an exit sign. Down two flights of stairs. Suddenly up in the second balcony, just before he could slip into another corridor, there was the cleaning lady pointing down at him and explaining the situation to some official standing next to her. Geez, these people were organized! Continued walking, briskly, trying to appear purposeful rather than criminal. A voice called from the plaza behind him but no dogs in sight. Finally a crossways with exits both right and left. The left corridor was shorter but it appeared to lead to an inner courtyard. A trap. So he turned right. Burst through the doorway surprising a person standing there who happily had no short-wave radio device on him. Across the street. Saw some students arriving, the early-birds. Zigzagged down two or three more blocks before feeling at ease.
3rd night, last night, was miserable. Constant raining. Pretty heavy at times. Found an open-sided arched monument in the center of a paved plaza. Not alone there. Another unlucky traveler had chanced upon the same recourse as he. A kind of unspoken protocol ensued, no smalltalk. Stranger had his wallspace and he staked out his own on the opposite side of the stone archway. Cold and breezy. Not much rest that night. Dreams of his own incompetency and comedic errors preventing his achieving anything.
He spied a small neighborhood church across the street about half a block on. Hmmm, a possibility? Tired from walking he scouted it strolling past and then crossed the street and came back to it from the other sidewalk. The doubled wooden doors were still open. He stepped in to the smell of candles expiring and two people, sitting separately a few aisles apart, in contemplation. Selecting an oaken pew near the back he sat down effecting a posture of thoughtful piousness, and scanned the premises. A couple of nice old vertical stained glass windows near the altar. No other windows. No sign of a priest, but once in awhile a person emerged from the altar doing some sort of tidying up, watering flowers, and so on. He noticed a balcony behind him, directly above the entrance. Probably for a small organ and choir. Waited for the two contemplatives to finish, maybe ten minutes, and then headed for the exit where he had come in. There was a small vestibule foyer where he pretended to peruse some pamphlets. “Is Your Home Of This World, Or The Next?”. Then seeing the circular stairwell leading up he veered into the doorway and up the stairwell, taking care to note if the altar person was around. Softly up the twenty or so steps. The balcony had a low three foot wooden wall concealing him from the church proper. He sat down, leaning against the organ and relaxed. If no one came up here, unlikely at this hour, he had a bedroom for the night, even a contemplative cozy one.
Plan worked. Within fifteen minutes he heard the worker stride down the aisle and step through the vestibule and close and lock the church doors behind him. Only about 8PM and he was alone and safe. Rolled out his stuff, made a place as comfy as conditions permitted, and rested. This would be heaven, maybe ten whole hours of warm rest and peace. He made a solemn pact with himself not to even think about messing with the organ, lest close by parishoners were awakened by the sound of angels. Thought about things. How if you stand a little back from ups and downs, they tend to balance out and it gives you a more relaxed space in which to consider everything. Sleep.
Had to go to the bathroom again, middle of the night. It was likely the case that some rooms off the side of the altar would contain a toilet, and probably an immaculately clean one. He gazed over the balcony rim reassuring himself that he was in solitude. Then, socks on, and down the spiral staircase softly. Good to be quiet; seemed appropriate for the context. Walked up the center aisle, just a small light on the altar to guide him. Simple church, no spectacular icons. The altar was raised one step and carpeted — that felt pleasant. Off to the right a doorless doorway led to some functional rooms. Closet for vestments, frankincense, a silvery globular canister perhaps filled with communion wafers. Then further to the right a door with a knob and no lock, which led to a small foyer. There, a way down to the basement, a little room with a tiny lamp lit in the corner, and a bathroom. He used it in silence and darkness, taking care to make no excess mess. Washed his hands, which felt good, and splashed water on his face. Spent a long minute re-folding the towel perfectly. Then on the way back, a quick glance into the dimly lit sideroom. Holy Moly – a kitchen. Tiny table, tiny sink, and a small box-sized refrigerator. Boy was he hungry. Opening the fridge door, first thing he saw was a white plate with a sandwich on it, looked like egg salad, and a German dill pickle, nicely wrapped in clear cellophane with a thoughtful toothpick creating some leeway between the rye bread and the wrapper. Atop the whole affair was a yellow sticky paper with a heart drawn on it with a black magic marker. Beside this sat a can of brown soda of some sort. He considered, but hunger quickly won out. The sandwich was delicious and fresh, the egg mixture being punctuated with plump black raisins, pieces of onion and celery, and a sprig of dillweed. After two bites he retreated with his gatherings quietly back to the sleeping loft to eat and drink in relative safety. He ended up saving half the sandwich, diagonally cut, for tomorrow’s brunch. Cleaned the teeth and mouth with a swig of water from his sack and then back to resting, and sleeping.
This time he was prepped for morning. Well-rested, he slowly sat up in his spot and planned. When the morning person arrived to open the church doors there was little chance he would come upstairs, but instead go directly towards the altar for his setup work. That would be his chance to slip down the staircase into the vestibule and out into the Munich morning air. It was about 6AM, he supposed. He quietly folded up his things and changed clothing. Today was a change-underwear day, always a tiny happiness. His strategy concerning undies for this European sojourn was to bring along eight fresh pairs and wear each one on consecutive days, three to four, until decency demanded otherwise. And then he would simply discard them in some trash, reasoning correctly that it would be quite inexpensive to purchase replacements on the go. This way, much less need to do laundry. Same for socks. All dressed, he rolled up the sack and gathered the empty soda can into it for later disposal, tidied up the carpet, and waited. About ten minutes later the sound of the large wooden doors being manipulated below him. He heard the stranger first open the vestibule doors and then go back and completely open the church doors to the worshiping public. Then he heard the man walk down the center aisle and even hazarded a quick glance over the balcony to see his back down below. When the man arrived at the altar, he judged he now had enough time to get downstairs undetected. Strapped on the bacpack and descended the spiral, smelling the oaken wood panels. In the vestibule he avoided the center where he’d be visible to any casual glance from the altar, and took a quick look at the nearby pamphlet rack. He picked up a German copy of the psalms and slipped a coin into the donation box on the way out. The morning air was splendid and already some inexplicably cheery but routinized neighborhood folk were going about their morning chores. He paused a moment a few feet from the entrance and considered which way to walk, glancing about; then smiling, he placed the psalms into his backsack. They would be challenging to read. In a very nice mood, he turned right and began walking neither slow nor fast, equipped with half a delicious sandwich, and entirely unobserved.
Unobserved — save for one nice old lady, who was peering through a linen curtain on the third floor of an apartment building directly across the street from the church. She took in the whole episode with a detached loving regard, and let her eyes follow the walking backpacker for maybe twenty paces. Then a soft smile as she made the sign of the cross, and wrote something upon a tiny notepad:
#14 – dark hair, looks American, about 5’10”, with a kindly face – 6 August.
She walked over to her kitchen table and began gathering things for some sort of project. A box of toothpicks, two fresh eggs, some bread, a pot of water for hard-boiling, a glass jar of dill pickles and a box of raisins, and a felt-tipped pen. Then, remembering good things from many years ago, she made herself a cup of tea.
[ Image: Public domain artist’s depiction of Oumuamua, the first extra-solar object ever noticed by astronomers. It careened at high speed and at an unusual angle into the inner solar system and veered round the sun about five months ago, missing the earth by 15 million kilometers. Algorithms have traced it’s origin as from the current direction of the Pleaides. However, the object’s journey at it’s known velocity would have taken 400,000 years and at that time the Pleaides would not have been located in this place. The word Oumuamua means ‘first messenger from afar’ in Hawaiian. (I’ve done a fair amount of reading about this mysterious vertical invader since October, and I really find it fascinating.) ]
You can read another adventure about hitchhiking in Europe at age 19 here.
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