It happened twice. Oddly enough, both times during a vacation in Europe.
In the month of May, after my junior year of college, I traveled to Switzerland as an “early graduation present” (yes, that’s a thing….or, at least, it was). The goal was to spend 2 weeks in the Swiss Alps, snowboarding and taking photos with my new 35 MM camera (this too, was also a thing…it had real film).
I flew into Zurich and took the Swiss Rail to Zermatt, where I would lodge in a hostel for most of my time, taking advantage of the late springtime snow on the Matterhorn. It was the off season, no tourists and reduced prices….I was chasing the endless winter.
I boarded the train and piled all my gear, including my snowboard bag, a camera bag, a camcorder bag, a clothes bag, and a book bag in one singular pile, spread out over 3 or 4 seats. The train was not crowded, and I remember thinking I should stay awake the couple hours it would take to get to Zermatt, not only for the sightseeing, but also for safety’s sake, considering all the valuable gear I was was lugging with me. However, jet lag, time changes, and simple exhaustion got the best of me. I slumped over the pile sideways and fell into a deep slumber, only waking once and a while, briefly, with a few sparse, different passengers each time.
It was horrifying coming out of a deep, all-encompassing sleep, only to realize I was a stranger, in a strange land, with all my possessions out in the open for the public eye to see……
I remembered how my art teacher had her passport pick-pocketed only a year or two earlier on a chaperoned trip to Italy, and determined to wrap all my valuables around my arms, tucking the most essential under me where I slept. Clearly, I was an easy target, yet gracefully, I was unharmed and all accounted for by the time I arrived.
But grace (or maybe naivety?) could only stretch so far, and within 2 days of my stay in Zermatt I was sexually solicited.
The first incident was after enjoying a meal in one of my favorite side-alley Italian restaurants in town. It was late in the evening, dark, and I had stopped on a small bridge to gaze at one of the many creeks that flowed through town.
Out of the shadows, came a “Pssst!”. At first, no alarm. But it persisted.
“PSSST!” again, and I knew by the 3rd or 4th time it was directed towards me. I turned, looked up the alleyway, and standing under a lamppost, yet still in the shadows, was a man beckoning me with hand gestures to come close. I still remember his outline….lots of curly hair, about my height, and nothing but darkness over his face.
I couldn’t see any defining features of his profile.
It gripped me in terror. Looking back, I wonder if my feelings were slightly unwarranted? Especially since he chose to “ask” me into his presence, rather than wait and pounce when I was alone and unaware. But for my 19 year old brain, he was the embodiment of something I knew was inevitable, the loss I knew was coming, the degradation of all my innocence and the demon lurking, waiting to steal my pristine moment and smudge it with a “forever wound”…
Who knows, maybe sex wasn’t his mischief. Maybe he was after my wallet, but it’s doubtful.
Immediately, I turned and began a brisk power walk back to the hostel. I didn’t want him to see me running, or scared, yet at the same time, wanted to feel empowered enough to know I could bring him down if he got close to me. The effort was futile, I was petrified and my heart was beating a crescendoing rhythm in my ears. The walk back to the hostel was only about 5 or 6 blocks total, and most of it was on open public road. However, it was nighttime, and hardly anyone around, and every time I peered over my shoulder, or turned a corner, I saw him not too far behind, still soliciting me with even more emphatic “PSST!”‘s, followed by hand gestures.
To this day, I’m not sure why I did this, but, after arriving safely to the front door of the hostel, I turned an about-face, looked his direction, and took a bow before slamming the door behind me. I still remember seeing his figure, about a block away (in an open court yard) standing under a lamppost. His posture wasn’t aggressive, just completely slithering and pathetic.
Why I took a bow, I’ll never really know. Maybe I wanted to let him know I wasn’t afraid, and I knew he was there, but was completely unwilling to follow his leading. Maybe it was the adrenaline of euphoria felt when I realized I was safe from harm. Either way, I can’t vouch for any effect it had, other than thoroughly confusing him….I mean, who pretends they don’t hear your obvious solicitation, and then, turns to give you a bow instead of the finger???
To this day, I wish I would have went with the finger.
Quickly hustling to my room (hostel, with upgraded individual rooms), I shut the door, locked it, and crawled across the floor without turning any lights on. My window faced out towards the square, where my solicitor was still standing, and I didn’t want him cued in to my exact location or feel I was “signalling” (already, I was regretting the bow) for another encounter.
That night, I lay in bed looking at the ceiling for a long, long time before finally falling asleep….
Every day, I would grab my snowboard, gear, a lunch, and head up to the mountains, in the shadow of the looming Matterhorn.
First ride was on a Gondola, then a transfer over to a regular ski lift beyond the main lodge. From there, there were multiple open groomed trails, all connected by one major lift (all other lifts were closed for the season). Essentially, I had the run of many trails, and would often have them all to myself, yet, each would curve and dump off on the same major lift. Therefore, all paths led to one inevitable encounter….my introduction to Hans.
Hans worked in his own little, quaint ski hut at the top of the main lift. Seeing him everyday was unavoidable, and since there was a sparse crowd, all faces became familiar.
I could tell his sexuality was “anything but heterosexual” right off, but the budding 19 year old Christian fundamentalist in me didn’t seem to care.
It had to do with one of my favorite mentors at the time. His name was Lance, and he was one of my most memorable art professors, and a powerful influence in my life. Someone I looked up to, admired, and felt safe around.
Therefore, I might have subconsciously transferred the same feelings of safety (and possibly affinity) over to Hans. He fit the same demographic as Lance, age 50-60, bald, single white male with a pleasant smile and demeanor. Soon, he was inviting me into his ski hut for tea and conversation….
Fortunately, we were not alone, there was another couple from Germany visiting the slopes as well (our common language was English, by which they all, surprisingly, spoke rather fluently). A husband and wife, in their early 50’s, donning the last remaining spandex and fluorescent colors of 90’s ski-wear….but I loved hanging with them the same. We were a small crew with Hans at the center, always hosting us with cheer and a laugh consistently embedded in the base of his voice.
Eventually, he invited us all over to his house for Swiss fondue, and surprised us by modeling what he’d been previously bragging about….his Crocodile Dundee impression (yes, it was a thing too…see photo).
I have to admit, it was pretty impressive, I had an actual photo of Hans in his get-up, but have since lost it.
Yet, there was something about the “Dundee outfit incident” which symbolized a turning point in our relationship. The leather, the bare skin, the tassels…..I couldn’t help but feel as though Hans was directing his “energy” towards me, or at least testing the waters to see if I was attracted to him.
But in those kinds of scenarios, you only have hunches and premonitions, NOT verifiable evidence. There is nothing you can do about it until the possible predator’s motives become openly revealed……
I wonder how many women have been in this position, maybe numerous times throughout their lives? Their “spidey sense” going off about someone, but with no verifiable proof of the predator’s intent….only intuition and the accompanying feelings of doubt of their own judgement.
The next move came when he began offering me alcohol while we all gathered at his home. Yes, it was only wine, and YES, it was Europe, but besides being an underage American, I was also straight edge at the time, and felt strong in my convictions….it was visibly clear Hans was unsettled by my lack of indulgence, and again, I couldn’t help but think he was using it as a tool to get somewhere in our relationship….
Finally, we came to a climactic, awkward halt a few days later.
Hans and I had many good conversations together, not all were slimy. One of those was about the hostel I was living in. He asked me about it, and I even expressed my concern over safety, but in no way was I hinting, or angling for anything from him. He pondered it quietly for a while, then told me he might have a solution.
The following day, he greeted me on the ski lift with his usual bright smile, and “good news”. One of his friends owned a hotel (in Switzerland, this kind of hotel is called a “Haus”…it’s less of an Americanized hotel, as much as a bunch of small, studio apartments). He had spoken to his friend and since it was the off season, she was happy to hook me up with a better daily rate than I was paying for the hostel.
It really was.
There was a small kitchen, bathroom, living room, all adorned with floral arrangements and bright painted colors, a murphy bed on the side wall, and most importantly, a solid, wide, concrete balcony overlooking the Alps. I spent my last week in Switzerland sitting on that balcony, rain or shine, with my own freshly cooked meals, watching pedestrians walk below and the sun set on the mountainside above. It was wondrous, beautiful, magic…
A night or two after moving in, I received a call on the apartment’s landline (yes, a thing once…)
It was Hans.
He asked me if I was all settled in and what I thought of it. I enthusiastically explained to him how much I was enjoying it, and how grateful I was he help me score it on the cheap. He replied with “Good! Good!”, “Glad you like it!” but, the conversation took an unexpected (for me) twist within a matter of a minute.
At first, he clucked and “EWWW”‘ed and “AWW”‘ed over my revelations, then he yawned and moaned and told me he was just kicking his feet up and relaxing from a hard day’s work. I kept expanding on our conversation. He grew a little silent, then picked up right where he had left off with the groaning. I stopped talking, confused, (possibly even trying to shift the conversation onto another topic?). But the noises persisted, and it finally hit me……Hans was masturbating over the phone.
I stood, holding the receiver, my face flush, trapped in the moment, not sure what to say or where to go. Apparently, Hans didn’t need me to say anything. He finished off and picked up the conversation where we had left it, never missing a beat….
But our relationship was stained, and all the feelings of euphoria and gratefulness I once held in lofty splendor, now popped like a child’s balloon. I quickly made a verbal exit from the conversation and hung up, not wanting to embarrass him (which was wrongly applied to the reality that only I, out of the both of us, was embarrassed….Hans seemingly had no shame over what he’d just done).
The funny thing is, in a weird way, I almost felt I “owed it to him”. I realized the going exchange rate for my sweet Haus hook-up was the price of my own soul. The trap had been set, and I walked right into it….
I spent the last few days of my stay dodging Hans in every possible way. Snowboarding suddenly lost all it’s luster. Another local Swiss friend (my age) named Frank, told me to take a day or two off and go hiking. And I did.
Taking my 35mm camera, I spent the next couple of days exploring the Zermatt countryside, taking pictures of the wildflowers and sheep-herding structures in the surrounding area. It was as if I found a glass of cold water in the desert. I went up on the slopes only once after that, and didn’t say much to Hans except for a generic goodbye.
SO, WHAT DOES ALL THIS MEAN FOR ME PERSONALLY?
As one who’s been on the receiving end, I’ve suffered the cause and effect of continually wondering about the sexuality of every man I meet. Through this lens, I wonder how their “sexual self” may be expressed towards, or against me, at any point in our relationship. “Sizing them up” has to do with sexual intent, instead of an “as is” basis. My sense of safety took a hit, and it’s yet to fully recover…….I’m dealing with this as we speak.
More than that, I’ve looked into the other side of the “sausage factory” and only seen a small glimpse of the reality many women deal with on a daily basis. You want to express your best, most beautiful self, but the stage curtain opens and you find you’re presenting it to an audience that misreads you as a signal for their personal desire to have sex with you.
Also, most importantly, there’s no surrounding culture which affirms the actions of Hans, at least in my world.
I’m free to make jokes, jest, tell and retell my story….which, in itself, provides healing for the wound. However, if my world was made up of a bunch of “Han’s”….a Hans as my boss, a Hans on the subway car, a Hans on the sidewalk, during the commute, at the gym, in my church, in my neighborhood, on TV, and especially, MOST ESPECIALLY, a Hans leading my country, I would have a hard time thinking I’d deal with it in the same, candid manner. In this case, every walk home in the dark has not one, but many solicitors in the shadows, asking for my faceless, nameless favors.
It’s a world full of shadows, not light.
Is this what many women feel? Various levels of fear and loathing from sexual predators and encounters? Because if so……it’s awful.
SO WHAT ARE WE AS MEN TO DO?
I’m not going to even pretend to know.
In a way, I consider myself out of the game. I’ve been married for over 15 years.
But, as a man, living in a state of constant fear of being misunderstood for your sexual intent DOES NOT seem to be a solid long term solution. It’s only fighting fire with fire.
It seems to me we need to begin to ask more questions, and spend more time listening. One thing I’ve learned from my years of marriage is you really can’t over-communicate…even on sexual matters. In fact, in most instances, asking, listening, and communicating can be a HUGE turn-on for the one you love.
In the end, my story is only part of a bigger conversation we are all having. It’s meant to relate a shared experience, in an attempt to create a sense of mutuality, healing, and empowerment. The greatest fall of man is not so much selfishness, as much as it is loneliness and the feeling of being isolated in your sufferings. We were made to be together, and form deep relationships. Choosing to either follow that call, or recoil and run from it, in a large part, determines our overall well-being.
And for all of those determined to betray the innocence of others with their own selfish sexual intent?
Well, it might be best to warn you with the words of Jesus:
“He said to His disciples, ‘It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him….” Luke 17 vs. 1-3 NASB