I was concerned. Not for myself, but for others (well, a little for myself too).
Although this was technically my third time hitchhiking around Europe, it felt entirely new. On my first trip, over three years ago now, I travelled with my friend Megan from France to Croatia. Our decision was motivated primarily by the fundraising initiative set up by Link Community Development; we had to raise £395 each for the charity, using social media to promote the cause and generate a sense of ‘personal sponsorship.’
I also went hitchhiking just this August with my partner at the time. It was (theoretically) cheaper and far more adventurous than a typical holiday, and it allowed us to meet in a neutral, romantic space free from the dull familiarity that can exist in a home environment – a point we both felt strongly about. Throughout both experiences, the presence of another person, especially a woman, felt like a near guarantee that I wouldn’t come across as a threat to drivers. That I wouldn’t be perceived as a rapist or violent sociopath, to be brutally truthful.
Tackling the challenge of free travel alone felt like applying for a new job with no references, and significantly higher stakes. Was the personal statement enough to get me through? I had to believe it would be, otherwise it wouldn’t be. As a hitchhiker, your success or failure is predominantly a matter of confidence, kindness and perseverance. And when the first two fail you, which they inevitably will at times, you will crumble into a heap of self-pity if you don’t possess the third. Trust me: it’s a crisis of self-worth that I’ve lived through many times.
Staying faithful to the notion that fear takes root in moments of stillness, I woke up and didn’t fuck around. I even resisted the glittering allure of Mcdonald’s, echoing words of persuasion in my ear. “Come back for some more sedation. If food won’t sufficiently numb you, we have unlimited free WiFi too.” I even resisted the temptation of their hot water and clean sinks. I had to get my first lift in order to believe that I could get a lift; but I had to believe that I could get a lift in order to get a lift.
It was a strange, frustrating paradox, but I decided the secret was simply to stop overthinking for once. So I found a good-looking spot by the exit of a small petrol station, stretched out my arm and waited, trying to smile and feign confidence. The first twenty minutes seemed like an hour, so I migrated into the station shop to get some breakfast. Mini chocolate muffins seemed like the obvious choice. Nutritious? Nope. A source of sustainable energy? No way. Comforting? Yes, very much so. I’m aware it all sounds very dramatic, but I assure you it’s nothing more than a sincere reflection of my thought process at the time.
Quickly after returning to my original spot, I got a lift. The driver was a 40-something year old farmer who lived nearby and had a distinctly humble and resourceful air to him. After talking for just a few minutes it was clear his work satisfied him deeply and he loved his wife and children in the joyful, unconditional way everyone strives to. Once I told him my next destination was Paris, he asked if I had a sign. “No, I don’t”, I replied, trying to hide the embarrassment in my voice. He kindly assured me that he would make me one when we stopped. “Thank you so much”, I said, filled with gratitude. It was a small gesture, but a strong sign of character.
Just before I jumped out of the car I offered him one of my muffins, attempting to repay him in some way for his generosity (it’s worth noting that my gratitude was especially high since this driver singlehandedly confirmed to me that hitchhiking as a single male IS possible). He declined, but I could still feel the appreciation in the tone of his voice .
The place where he dropped me was a nice intermediary between the motorway and the city. A large country road that bent inwards exactly where I was standing, leaving drivers with the perfect place to stop. I initially used the sign he gave me, but it seemed to act as an ineffective kind of ‘filter-search’. I could imagine drivers thinking: “He wants to go directly to Paris, so I won’t pick him up. EVEN though I’m going in his direction.” It’s the kind of false reasoning people create to avoid any sense of personal responsibility, but it can be highly effective. So I tucked the piece of paper away in my backpocket and went back to basics.
In the twenty minute window before my next lift, I scoffed a few muffins and washed them down with some water. Actually, the reason I waited at all was probably the fact that nobody wants to pick up someone shoving food in their mouth. A little more effort than that is required – but who knew? This driver was a slightly younger and significantly more robust character. He worked on construction sites so he naturally possessed a rougher-around-the-edges form of practicality than the farmer, but he was equally kind hearted. Despite his minor grasp of English and my complete absence of French we managed to connect very well, in the kind of understated but grand way any two people can when they are unafraid to be themselves.
The only issue with the language barrier was that it could result in me being dropped off in a very awkward spot. To avoid this I used Google translate to ask if he could leave me by a petrol station on route to Paris. Apparently this was impossible for him, as he had to turn off in a different direction long before the highway I needed to be on. He did still take me to a petrol station, only it was on the opposite side of the road to where I needed to be, way off the motorway. After repeating the routine of offering my driver a muffin (he declined as well) and sincerely thanking them, I walked across the road and stood by a block of traffic lights. It seemed fine there. People were definitely driving in the direction of Paris, and there was (some) opportunity for them to stop. I had thought that these two basic criteria’s were enough to yield results. Evidently, not always.
After wasting at least an hour there – filled with too much optimism to recognize earlier that I should move on -, I followed the road signs searching for a better spot. It was suddenly clear that there was nowhere remotely close to me any better than where I already was. But I didn’t mind. After overcoming the anxiety of travelling alone, all obstacles paled in comparison to how liberating it was just to be on the road. So I begun to walk along the motorway hoping to find a petrol station – not literally in the road, although it was still definitely illegal and marginally dangerous.
The warmth enveloped me beautifully. I kept walking without any sense of how close the next stopping point would be, content in the knowledge that I was edging gradually closer to Paris. 1km, 2km, 3km, 4km, 5km – and I’m sure many more. I don’t know exactly how far I went, but I was walking non-stop for at least three hours. Unlike the time I walked along the motorway at night (just you wait), I didn’t track my mileage. Although I was in a good state of mind, I started to feel physically drained. The sun was shining directly in my eyes the whole time, and while I loved it, I was not used to it. I also loved walking for miles, but I was not used to that either.
Eventually my physical state frustrated me, and I started to enter quite a negative space. It occurred to me that I could still be ten miles away from anywhere where I could (legally!) hitch from – or perhaps much further. I also pondered the fact that I had travelled no more than 20% of the way to Paris, in about 5 hours. Luckily someone pulled over – on the motorway! – to pick me up before I started to really breakdown. I was greeted by an alarmingly mad old man, screaming at me in French from the moment I got in the car. I tried to explain that I only spoke English, but either he didn’t understand or he simply didn’t care. Considering the situation, he was probably warning me against walking along the motorway in case the police were to see me.
I had no problem ignoring the apparent hypocrisy of his position (telling me off while committing a very similar crime) as long as it got me somewhere, so I endured all of the abuse like a polite, confused foreigner. He left me by a roundabout close to the motorway. When I said goodbye I didn’t offer him a muffin; he probably would have thrown it back in my face anyway. I was still extremely pleased that he picked me up, however, since I only had to wait ten minutes before another person stopped for me. In all matters except age, he was the complete opposite of the mad man (sorry, I can never remember names). I fondly listened to him talk about his various different careers. Once a lead player in an orchestra; then a university professor; after that a thriving entrepreneur; now an unemployed man happily living off his wealth of skills and experience. He also had a loving wife and bright, successful kids by the sound of it. He was becoming more of a stately, awe-inspiring figure with every piano note* that he shared with me.
I was sad to realise that he wasn’t taking me far, and I’m even more sad at present to admit that I can’t remember his name – although I’m sure it was something appropriately eccentric. Where he left me was perfect; I practically hopped straight into another vehicle. I heard a sudden beep of a car horn and turned my attention towards the source of the sound. Further down the road, someone had stopped and waited for me – for how long I can’t say. Failing to fulfil the basic requirements of a hitchhiker, check.
The man who stopped was French born with Indian heritage, roughly in his mid-forties. I quickly apologised for not seeing him at first, and he let out a joyful, forgiving laugh. This was going to be fun. At first he talked to me all about his job as the owner of a women’s lingerie store. “Like the French version of Victoria’s secret?”, I inquired, trying to pin point his target market. “Yes exactly, it’s the biggest adult lingerie chain in all of France.”
Oddly, perhaps perversely, the next topic we discussed was his family. He proudly talked about his two children – both in their mid-twenties – and their ambitions. It pleased me to see a father with such nurturing instincts, and an apparent capacity to support his children in whatever it is they chose to do. His daughter studied Fine Art at university, and now “she’s creating and selling artwork in her own time”, he declared. Then, when we came to a halt at some traffic lights, he took out his phone to show me an example of her work. It was a beautiful portrait, drawn in bright oil pastels. A testament to what can emerge when a child receives unconditional praise from their parents.
Most astoundingly, he promised to call his brother and try to set up another lift for me. “He works in Lyon but lives in Paris, so if he went into work today he should be travelling home soon”, he remarked, as if it was nothing at all. When he let me out (by the point I had dropped the muffin routine, deeming it more creepy than kind), it felt like I was saying goodbye to a true friend. Not only had he opened up to me; I had also told him about the purpose of my trip and my hopes to become a journalist, in a very raw, honest way. It was just immensely real.
His brother never did pick me up, probably because I got another lift so quickly – thank you, gas stations! Unsurprisingly, it was another man (a topic I will discuss later). A thirty-something year old teacher, with a piercingly perceptive gaze and a warm, compassionate demeanour. Speaking nearly perfect English just like my last driver (Felipe), he was able to tell me all about his work teaching adults their own health and safety rights. “Teaching adults for a living must be where he gets his authoritative patience”, I reflected.
Since we were nearing Paris at this point, he asked me where I planned to stay that night. “I have no idea, my phone just died. But it’s fine, I’ll find somewhere to camp.” Kindly, he let me locate the address of a campsite on his phone, and then called them to check their availability. “They have space”, he told me with a slight smile. “I’ll take you there directly.” His generosity, and the coolness of it, was quite impressive. (Perhaps he offered to take me there because he could detect that my orientation skills were little better than that of a four year old child, but I’m choosing to ignore that interpretation.)
Arriving filled me with relief. It’s exciting to have no idea where you will sleep, but it can also be great to know you won’t end up in a gutter. I ended the day much like the one before; gorging on WiFi and getting an early night. No Mcdonald’s, though, so I count that as some progress…or perhaps a step backwards? It was also nice knowing I could wake up and have a shower. Walking along the motorway is a quick way to feel disgusting, but it’s also so much fun.
It all goes to show: the concern of hitchhiking as a lone male was pointless. The reality of it is quite beautiful; the reality of hitchhiking as any single person, that is. With anyone who already knows you, a degree of your comfort zone lingers in the air throughout every interaction. If it gets awkward, you can always turn to them. If you feel scared, you can always turn to them. If you just want to exchange a glance, to communicate a thought about your driver wordlessly, you can always turn to them.
With no one to turn to, there exists only two individuals and the mutual interest to connect; to fill the journey with the excitement of getting to discover another person when nothing hinders authentic self-expression.
Thanks for the read. I’m my next post I will discuss the topic of getting hopelessly lost in Paris. If you enjoy laughing at my moments of misery, you’re going to get plenty of joy out of it.
- Piano note* – a small anecdote, or personal story.