At the Mercy of Strangers

by Justine Saracen

Readers who grew up in pre-gay liberation times, or who come from conservative religious families, will remember the loneliness of the deep closet.  Mine, in the 1960s was no different, but was exacerbated by my living in a foreign country.    

In the 1960s, Europe was still a very foreign place: few people spoke English, the food was strange, the clothing was different, and you couldn’t even telephone the USA directly. I’d lived with a German family but then, to immerse myself in German culture, I moved to a room in Frankfurt and audited classes at the university. It was like learning to swim by leaping into deep water. In the arctic.

Studies kept me busy, and I had a few acquaintances, but there was that continuous hunger which I’m sure you all remember. Not for sex, or even romance, but for someone who lived in the same emotional world that I did.

A school friend, a very effeminate boy who I was certain was gay, was studying in Bordeaux, France, and at some point, when I couldn’t bear the loneliness, I decided to visit him. I thought we could commiserate and I would know that at least I had an ally some place.  Being poor, I hitchhiked. Alas, my feeble attempt to reach out was wrong, reckless, and unrequited. In a word, folly.

The hitchhiking to Bordeaux went smoothly, but the friend was way too deep in his own closet to deal with me. He insisted he had a girlfriend at home, and was going to marry her. He was still a flaming queer, only a frightened one. After a desultory few days, I headed back to Germany.

I must have started too late, and got too few rides, because night fell and was on the roadside and still in France.  Finally a car stopped, and I climbed in gratefully. But the moment the car door closed and we took off, I sensed I had made a mistake.

The driver kept asking in French if I was a ‘good girl,” but I feigned ignorance, and kept saying “’Allemagne, s’il vous plait”,  and “je ne comprends pas.”  Just how much trouble I was in became clear when we passed a highway sign that said “Allemagne” and he turned instead in the opposite direction, back into France, while I sat cowering and clutching my knapsack. Finally he turned off the highway and onto a dirt road into the woods. Woods. That was it. That was the place were I was going to be raped.  I wondered if he would kill me too.

What kept it from happening immediately was his bladder. He must have known that I would run the moment he stepped away from the car, because he came around to the passenger side and leaned against the door, imprisoning me, while he relieved himself. Then he zipped up and got back into the driver’s seat and laid his hand on my knee. At that moment I threw myself out of the car and ran full bore into the woods. I don’t know when he stopped chasing me, or if he chased me at all. In any case, there I was, in the woods. Somewhere in France. In the dead of night.

I stumbled through the woods for hours before finding a road into a tiny village. No one in sight, of course. I began knocking on doors, trying to find someone to talk to. After several cold receptions, a woman opened who spoke German and I told my story. She said she could not invite me in, but she’d seen the town mayor in his barn and maybe he could help me. The mayor fortunately also spoke German so I asked if I could sleep in the barn. I must have looked a wreck, for he took pity and said yes, then left. Five minutes later he returned and said he wife insisted on inviting me in. Their son was in the army and his room was free. Groveling with gratitude, I went with him, and was promptly put to rest in the son’s room.

I spent a restful night, in the house of complete strangers, putting the lie to the idea that there is a French national character, of rudeness or aloofness. The next morning, the family gave me breakfast, packed me a lunch, and brought me to the highway to Germany, where I resumed my trip. I arrived in Frankfurt that afternoon, wiser, soberer, and still gay. I had not found any comfort from my closeted friend, but a renewed appreciation of human unpredictability.

This is a commiseration story, for those who are still struggling, with no particular moral to it except that, if you are lonely, you probably should not hitchhike to France.

3 Responses to “At the Mercy of Strangers”

  1. 1 Carol March 19, 2011 at 1:13 PM

    Thank you for sharing this with us Justine.



  2. 2 C.P.Rowlands March 19, 2011 at 1:14 PM

    omigod, J. What a story …thanks for posting this. I was in Switzerland in the 60’s too and, unlike today, “English” was not as commonly spoken…this story gave me the chills. But as you so deftly pointed out, there were/are good people around us. Is “soberer” a word, BTW? …good story.


  3. 3 Anita Bradshaw March 19, 2011 at 3:58 PM

    I agree, what a story! And thanks for sharing it. I think many of us made mistakes along the way, sometimes with strangers and sometimes with someone known to us. But, I also agree there are good and decent people in the world who will reach out or open their hearts and homes to those of us who are wandering. Thanks!


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