"Sometimes trains would cry in the night with heartrending and ominous plangency, mingling power and hysteria in one desperate scream." — Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
I hopped off the train and raced into Dijon before my connecting leg left an hour later. I found myself loving the quaint town (yes, the birthplace of the spicy mustard), with its fabulous pedestrian old town and laid-back evening atmosphere. I wished I could stay a little longer, but I'd made it my mission to leave France before the strike worsened, and if all went well, I'd be well into Switzerland within the hour.
All indeed going well, I arrived in Bern around ten with no accommodations readied: in the haste of travel, I hadn't been able to secure a hostel before leaving France, and Bern's few hostels were booked full for the night. I considered a budget hotel, but budget hotels in famously pricy Switzerland went for a minimum of two hundred dollars per night, and though I'd find it difficult to stomach that amount on a mattress for one in any circumstance, it seemed utterly wasteful to do so already so well into the night. The sun would rise in just seven hours, so I headed to the station's arrival waiting room to await its arrival. It was warm in there—the rest of the open-air station was frigid—and I found a nice marble ledge just wide and long enough for a reclining body, and there I made myself a little nest of backpack and scarf and went to sleep.
I was woken a few hours later by two Swiss guards who were closing up the waiting room—the last train for the night had just arrived—and clearing out the remaining riff-raff (myself and a few others) from the area. They didn't mind if we stayed in the station, so long as we were sufficiently cold and uncomfortable, so I grabbed my things and descended the escalator to a long, quiet corridor underneath the boarding platforms.
I found a bench and reconstructed my nest and tried for sleep once more, but just then the cleaning crews arrived, driving their noisy streetsweepers all up and down the corridor. And above, thundering clangs rang from the train tracks, some sort of massive rail-cleaning device scraping along steel. I fell in and out of sleep, the march of machines all around me, giving up around 3AM and once again rising to search for quieter quarters, passing along the way the other zombies of the night, disheveled men like myself all dragging tired legs below them, just looking for a calm, warm place to rest.
I slept on the floor by the ticket window, and at the bottom of the staircase by the entrance to the subway. I slept up on the third floor, where I hoped the heat would rise, and I hobbled like the living dead from ATM to vending machine, pawing at them for heat, hoping for a little radiance from their screens or their backsides and finding none. Sleep is probably the wrong word; I didn't really sleep at all. I just begged it to come, sleep or warmth or daybreak, I'd take any of the three, but none were in any hurry to arrive.
Groggy workers came instead, shuffling into the station around four and unlatching the locks from their coffeeshops, and I sat outside and watched them slowly set up for the day. I fired my camera and pressed the hot bulb of its flash against my lips for warmth, and I waited. At five, they were finally ready for business. I rushed in and ordered a coffee, and clutched it tightly until I stole all its warmth, until it was cold and I was just a little warmer, and then I drank it as a poor substitute for sleep and wandered out into town, hoping to create a little heat to keep me warm.
Bern was magical. At that early hour, the streets were empty and the sun not yet above the horizon, and it smelled like fresh morning. The fog hung, tangled up in the trees the way it did in western China—really, the whole place felt more like western China, with its rust-colored shingles and stacked houses, than anywhere I'd known in Europe—and I walked the old roads with fog hanging in my mind, too, drowsy and delirious.
I took a nap in the park and woke up shivering; I tried to read to pass the time but the words melted on the page. I walked more and grew wearier. I ducked into a cafe for sustenance, some calories to keep me going, and balked at the absurd prices: seven dollars for a small coffee, five dollars for a muffin, twelve dollars for a packaged sandwich. I knew Switzerland was expensive, but this seemed crazy. I headed to a grocery instead, and paid just a fraction less for some fruit and chocolate, then passed midday in a quiet park hiding in the shade of a big tree.
My skin had fared well during my five weeks on the road, bronzing and browning with the dozen hours I was spending outside each day, but I had gone a bit overboard in Paris, I think, too much sun for a little too long, and it got greedy and bit a chunk out of my right cheek. Already with a little lasting sun damage from my prior summer on the road, the cheek now glowed bright red and burned to the touch. It felt like it might peel or tear or worse, so I had gotten some suncreen—seemingly the only affordable thing in Switzerland—and vowed to stay hidden in the shadows for the next week. Around mid-afternoon, I raced from the shadow of the tree to the shadow of the train station, so much brighter and friendlier and warmer in the daytime, and I caught a train to Zurich, way out on the other end of the small Swiss state.
The night before, trying to make time move more quickly, I read a little more about Switzerland's towns and cities and found a great little place by the Julian Alps, a tiny town of two hundred by the name of Gimmelwald. It had breathtaking views, I was promised, and a hostel with an outdoor hottub in which you could soak and stare out at the mountains, and more hiking trails than a wandering adventurer could ever come to know. It sounded lovely.
It'll get better, I told my body as I trembled in the cold train station. Just stick with me, and within twenty-four hours we'll be at the foot of the Alps in hundred-degree bubbles, surrounded by sublime scenery and fields of fresh snow ...
My heart sank. I'd admired the photographs of the town and the hostel and the tub for minutes without picking up on one very crucial detail: they all looked so lovely because they were blanketed in thick snow. And though it was June, I learned all too well during my last summer in the mountains that June means something very different up there: it means forty-foot walls of snow that don't get plowed until the end of the month. Hoping I was wrong, I checked the forecast. I was right. It wouldn't climb higher than thirty-two Fahrenheit the whole week in Gimmelwald. I suddenly felt colder, like a great wind had carried the chill in from the Alps right to my seat on the floor of the Bern station to show me what I was in for and dare me to still come. I didn't.
Back at that same station twelve hours later, I instead boarded a train to Zurich, which took me safely across the Alps, and I admired them in my t-shirt and shorts from the window of the traincar. I was deposited at Zurich just a quick hour after leaving Bern, not even enough time to doze off, and I walked around the shiny town in a stupor, wanting nothing more in the world than just a little rest.
If I didn't find it in Bern, however, I certainly wasn't going to find it in Zurich. The place was extraordinarily expensive, hotels midranging around five hundred dollars, so I decided almost immediately upon arrival that evening that I would leave that night, and I scanned departures for a suitable destination. There was an 11PM departing Zurich toward Munich, an overnight that didn't even require reservations, and that sounded spectacular. My sole day in Switzerland had been miserable, and I was glad to leave.
I still had hours to pass in Zurich, though, so I trudged with drooping eyelids to and through the Kunsthaus, a decent museum offering free admission that Wednesday, then to dingy park for a nap, and as the sun set, eagerly back to the station to board early. I found an empty car with an empty cabin, the kind with two rows of three seats each facing each other, and I put my head on one and stretched my feet over to the other, a pathetic bodily bridge, and fell instantly asleep.
I woke at midnight, decided I wanted more sleep, decided to skip Munich and continue on to Salzburg. I slept again.
I woke at one. A girl had entered my cabin and said hello, and seemed really quite friendly. With a trick of her hand she made two seats became one, reclining into a great flat bed, and I was amazed that such a thing was even a possibility, and she kindly helped me combine my own two seats with a smile. If ever there were a chance to live my Before Sunrise moment, the romantic inside me yelled, this was it.
But my body was having no part of it. I returned her warmth and generosity with a gruff "thanks," the only thing I could offer in my sorry condition, and again I slept.
I woke outside of Salzburg at four, my phone kicking me with soft vibrations. I fell into my shoes and stumbled over my sleeping cabinmate, who offered me a sweet goodbye as I woke her—again, gruff, strained pleasantries in return—and I spilled out of the train and dripped and dribbled along the sidewalk, oozing across Salzburg's empty streets like slow, sticky tar.
I'm don't feel as though I was ever in Salzburg. I remember it like a dream, remember just trolling its ghostly roads for some indeterminate length of time, then flashing to a heavenly garden for a little more, then another flash and I was lying on cold, damp grass watching the first rays of light shower onto a nearby building, calculating that they'd reach me in ten minutes, that it was okay to sleep, that I wouldn't freeze, that warmth would find me in time ...
I remember that it did, but only mildly. I remember standing up some time later and trickling back to the station, a great scoop of ice cream taken out of the freezer and only just beginning to melt. I don't remember finding the next train to Munich, nor do I remember boarding it, but I do remember waking up two hours later as a train screeched to a halt at Munich's central station, and I found myself on it.
I booked a room for the night in a hostel by the station, but check-in wasn't until 2PM, so I once again found a park and once again slept intermittently, the day that would never end, that had begun in Paris and landed me, after countless hours and France and Switzerland and Austria, in Germany. Two o'clock finally came, and I checked in and washed the filth off me, and it spun down the drain in a murky mess, and I put on fresh clothes—at least the freshest I had—and felt leagues better, like an entirely different person.
Part of me loves it: the sleeping in stations in Bern and parking garages in Las Vegas, in tiny parks in Ashland and chemistry labs in Boulder. It's not really about the money—I had done pretty well in keeping below budget for most of my trip—but about proving to myself that I could: that though shelter was nice, I could make it on my own, that a man could still live in this world without paying or depending upon another for his slumber.
That's why I had brought the sleeping bag and tent: not because I thought I'd use them all that much, but because I needed to know that I had them. I needed the option of independence. Sending them back had set me free, free to roam with a lighter pack, so light I didn't even bother dropping it at hostels anymore, but it had imprisoned me in another way, chaining me to those same hostels for shelter, shelter from the rain and the cold and the bugs and the pests of the night.
No matter. I was in Munich, and I had a bed for the night, and I smelled like sweet apricot and that great red patch on my right cheek was getting better. Life was good. I treated myself to an excellent meal at a vegan restaurant—conscious cuisine was expanding quickly in all of Germany, I learned—and washed my weariness away with good German beer, and then I used whatever energy I still had to explore a little of Munich. The city's Englishcher Park was spectacular, the old town a little underwhelming but lovely still, and having seen as much as I could before my consciousness came crashing down once more, I retreated to the hostel for my first true sleep since Paris.