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The Camaraderie of the Trail
updated: Feb 05, 2011, 8:30 AM
By John McCafferty
"So, what brings you to the North Pole?" Nina, age, 55 to 60, from Helsinki, smiled across the breakfast table in a Tallin, Estonia, hotel. We had met in the breakfast line while laughing about being smacked, rather hard, by a swinging door out of the kitchen while we waited for our cold cuts and soft-boiled eggs.
Thus are mini-friendships formed on the road. I enjoy this phenomenon of travel -- the camaraderie of the trail, as someone called it. Maybe it was I who called it that. It happens on High Sierra hiking trails, Russian trains, Greek islands, or in this case, a Baltic tourist hotel. They are short-term, these little acquaintances, but some stand out brightly in your memory. They offer a kaleidoscope of lives passing by, your paths crossing briefly. Sometimes they're surprisingly intense. For example:
I explained to Nina about my younger wife working while I satisfied some travel curiosities I'd had for years, in this case the Baltic States and their ornate cities. We briefly exchanged histories -- my happy and fortunate second half of life, how much I had enjoyed seeing Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, how different the Baltics were from Russia, where we were staying while my wife worked with Peace Corps volunteers.
She told of her second marriage, which appeared to be unraveling even as we spoke. She talked about happier times some time ago, when she had lived in California for a few years. The small world bit: At one point, nearly 15 years ago, we had unknowingly lived within a couple of miles of each other in the Los Angeles area's South Bay.
"We were supposed to be here for a nice little holiday from Helsinki, but it didn't work out," she said. "We had a terrible fight last night. He's out . . . somewhere." She waved in the direction of the Old Town, out beyond the window. Oops. Had he pulled an all-nighter? "Well, the hell with him," she chuckled humorlessly, with a wan smile. Smoker's teeth, smoker's voice.
I was suddenly uncomfortable, and concentrated on digging some egg out of the shell. Too raw for me. The white cheese was good. And the ham. Rolls not up to European standards. Coffee was OK.
We chatted on, wondering why it can be so hard for us people just to get along, sometimes.
"Ah well …" she shrugged. She wasn't eating. Probably wanted a cigarette, but it wasn't allowed. I didn't know what to say, so I didn't say much. I regarded her over the rim of my coffee cup as she stared out the window. Her face looked older all of a sudden, now that the conversation had turned to marital discord. Her reddish-dyed hair seemed to have turned grayer. Like me, she'd wandered many a weary mile. It showed right now. She drummed her fingers on the table while I folded up a little ham and cheese sandwich, regretting that I didn't have any mustard. Her ugly, gray-pink nail polish was a little chipped. Maybe she wasn't careful enough about such things, her hair and her nails. Who knew?
Suddenly she said: "How would you like it if you were (meaningfully whispered) in bed with your husband of 10 years and he called you by another woman's name?"
"Oi!" I said, clutching my forehead. Why didn't she just drop a bomb or something?
Tears flowed, and she blotted them from her lower eyelids. Now I was really uncomfortable. Didn't know what I could possibly say, but felt that something probably should be said. Personal counseling like this wasn't my strong point, if I have one. I worked on the second egg, frowning and focusing on removing the uncooked white part.
"Oh!" she breathed, as if she'd just stepped in something disgusting. She was looking out the window. There came the jerk in question. "That's my husband." She nodded in the direction of two men coming up the steps into the hotel. "The one with the mustache." He looked like someone famous. Who? I realized later he was a shorter version of Mark Twain. Mostly brown hair, very long, as if he were in the 1960s. Drooping mustache.
"Well," I said, picking up my coffee cup and saucer, "you probably want to talk." Also I didn't relish being a close witness to a public Finnish shit-fit, which she looked angry enough to throw.
"Oh no no no, please stay. I have nothing to say to him at this point anyway." Well, OK, but where would this lead? An extensive co-counseling session? I didn't have time for that.
But it didn't lead anywhere. I guessed that she just didn't want to be alone, and didn't want to sit with him. The two men came into the large dining room, walked briskly by without looking at us, got their food and sat some distance away. Nina sagged in her chair, looking weary, but then perked up while telling me places to see in Helsinki, where I was going. She said she wished she were drunk, and recalled a wild night in San Francisco, when a policeman had let her off a drunk-driving charge because her plane was about to leave for Finland.
We exchanged a few more drinking stories from our California days. My college episodes, her parties with some American business associates. But I really had to go, had to get my ferry ticket and leave time for another quick look at Tallinn's Old Town, really a splendid collection of buildings from the Middle Ages and later. I'd look for some good coffee.
We shook hands warmly as I left her at the table. I wished her well, urging her to be firm and do what she felt she should do -- protect her own interests, because if she didn't, no one else would.
Then felt like a dummy. I had only obvious, trite comments to offer. She needed a female comrade on the trail, not me. Sisterhood.
And off, into the surprisingly cold air of early September, time to book ferry passage across the Gulf of Finland. Eighty kilometers, an hour and a half, and at last I'd see one more city that looked great in my 7th-grade geography book. Ye gods, I thought, that's more than 50 years of being curious about something without finding out about it. That's crazy! What else was lying around on the dusty shelves of my poor, dumb head?
Later, absorbed by such thoughts and bent into the seemingly constant, chilly wind from the south, I nearly ran into Nina, who was headed back into the hotel as I was leaving it after checking out. What kind of situation was she going back to, I wondered.
We shook hands again, grinning. Friends.
"So nice to talk to you!" she said, taking my hand in both hers. My hand large and warm, hers large but cold.
"So … you'll take care of yourself?" I asked. Trite! Simplistic! You dummy! What was this, an old English war movie? Violins in the background, please …
"Yes, I will. Thanks." She smiled almost happily. "And be sure to take the harbor cruise in Helsinki!"
"I will. Goodbye, Nina."
"Goodbye, John." Squeezed hands and let go. A thoughtful, wistful expression, almost a frown, crossed her smile.
I had to hurry, turned and started away.
"JOHN!" I looked back, a little hesitant.
She stood about 15 feet away, smiling and tipped forward, almost drunkenly. Maybe she was drunk, I thought. The Finns drink long and hard. Some more California memories had evidently stirred, resonated in her fevered brain. She said theatrically, "If you're going to San Francisco (I wasn't) … be sure to wear … ", she swallowed, "some flowers in your hair …" Now she was smiling and crying at the same time.
"OK!" I said cheerily, "And I'll think of you!" I pointed my finger at her. She waved, I waved, and I turned away again, walking briskly.
Flowers in my thinning gray hair. God, that's ridiculous, I thought, hitching up my backpack. That poor woman. Makes me weepy to think about it.
NOTE: "If you're going…" -- The words are from a popular song from the 1970s (the "hippie" era), "San Francisco," sung by The Mamas and the Papas.
John McCafferty is a retired English teacher and journalist.
Photo: The skyline of Tallinn (CQ), Estonia, and it shows that there's a special quality to the old town.
(The language there, kind of a spin-off of Finnish, looks funny to a Yank: the bus stop terminal, for example, is the "autobussyjamb.")
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