It was a cold morning walking through Dresden Neustadt for the bus to the edge of town. The driver was also cold and wary. Maybe it was my 25-year-old coat, or my 40-year-old backpack, or maybe the hitchhiking sign I was carrying: WROCLAW. From where he dropped me, I walked a quarter mile toward the highway and staked my spot. An hour. Then a stylish woman stopped but she was turning toward Berlin. A half hour later, a college guy pulled over, but he was going to Saxony. I turned them both down, always a hard choice when you’re on the side of the road, but I didn’t want a 5-mile ride to the next fork when I had a good spot.
Waiting. Enough waiting for my bus driver to make his loop twice. I always wave to bus drivers, but the second time he waved back like he meant it. I could tell he was pulling for me at this point. Such are the weird bonds of hitchhiking. People along the way, bus drivers or shop attendants, who reject hitchhikers in the abstract come to see their human side. And for the hitchhiker, the complete surrender to the generosity of strangers is enlightening on some visceral level. A paradox of surrender and liberation. Or maybe surrender and connection. Your fate depends on strangers, not on family or tribe, but on human connection in general. In a way, this is true for all of us all the time, but on the shoulder that truth becomes concrete and immediate. Someone must pick you up. And it could be anybody.
In this case, “anybody” is a Polish hippie who had recently moved to a simple country shack, with a teenager in the passenger seat. They had just met at an animation conference, the kid a hobbyist and the hippie still enough on the grid to make a living writing musical accompaniments for animators.
So we cruised, we three, through a lovely cold day in Poland. In two days, I would hitchhike through Czech Republic, hitting small mountains and snow and chilly spots beside the road, riding with Henryk, the jolly businessman who supervised 150 people, and with the Prague cop who warned me of every possible crime that might be committed against me in Prague. But for now I was happy to escape the cold, to meet my couchsurfing hosts before dark, and to play with their 3-year-old, who was just the right age to teach me a few words in Polish.
Online ride share going from Aachen to Plauen. Google-mapped “Plauen.” A suburb of Dresden. Perfect. I would start the first day of my “victory lap” around central Europe, before leaving the continent, the easy way – ride share instead of trying to hitchhike through the middle of Cologne and on east. We were well into the central hills and forests of Germany before I realized my driver was going to another Plauen, much further south. She dropped me at Jena, where I googled hitchwiki to see that “hitching out of Jena is difficult but not impossible.” So when a teenager said he’d take me from my gas station in Jena just a short way, I grabbed at it. Another station-only stop, with no way to get on the road. An hour. Then a Russian in a van signaled me. (What is it with Russians in vans? This is the third time I’ve been picked up by a Russian in a van, or in one case a van full of Russians, while hitchhiking in Germany.) He would go back to Moscow in a couple of years to sell his own design of vans customized to be miniature mobile homes. We swapped contact info. You never know. They always need English teachers in Moscow. And customized vans for vagabonds doesn’t sound half bad for the US market. Getting dark. Alex offered to drop me on the highway or the train station in Chemnitz. A ride straight to the station and a local train into Dresden was too tempting.
For my German friends, or anyone interested in the German language, or in German anything, here is one of the many wonderful sentences in Mark Twain’s The Awful German Language, one which, incidentally, mimics the infelicities it recounts:
“An average sentence, in a German newspaper, is a sublime and impressive curiosity; it occupies a quarter of a column; it contains all the ten parts of speech — not in regular order, but mixed; it is built mainly of compound words constructed by the writer on the spot, and not to be found in any dictionary — six or seven words compacted into one, without joint or seam — that is, without hyphens; it treats of fourteen or fifteen different subjects, each enclosed in a parenthesis of its own, with here and there extra parentheses which re-enclose three or four of the minor parentheses, making pens within pens; finally, all the parentheses and reparentheses are massed together between a couple of king-parentheses, one of which is placed in the first line of the majestic sentence and the other in the middle of the last line of it — after which comes the verb, and you find out for the first time what the man has been talking about; and after the verb — merely by way of ornament, as far as I can make out, — the writer shovels in ‘haben sind gewesen gehabt haben geworden sein,’ or words to that effect, and the monument is finished.”
“Vagabonding through France and Belgium” might be a better title. Unlike in most of my “hitchhiking” blog entries, there was not much thumbing on this trip. I’d been on a backpacking whirlwind from New Orleans to New York to London, and I started this day with a 6 am coffee prepared by friends in East London’s Rotherhithe, near the pub that commemorates the proximate embarkation of the Mayflower.
Then the London overground to a meeting south of town and a ride-share to and across the channel from Dover to Calais. The driver, Gilles, was generous with snacks and journey information, and we shared the car with a Frenchman, Ren, who worked for a London publisher, and a French woman, Sophie, studying law in London, both heading out for a weekend in France.
My companions helped me with a little French.
“Je voudrais allez a Bruxelles.”
“Je voudrais un bus/tren pour Liege.”
“E-42 (oe – quarante deux), s’il vous plais.”
They were all much better at English, though, making it the language of choice. Ren’s girlfriend was in New York and his family in Lille; Sophie was Parisian through and through. She gave me some great tips about romantic little fishing villages on the French Atlantic. Maybe one day Mary can come from the U.S. and meet me there.
The guys were still digging the French-Italian-American rap when Sophie got some Verdi through the bluetooth. When she told the story of La Traviata writing the letter that spelled catastrophe while her innocent lover hovered over her thinking all was beautiful and well, it had me near tears. And I don’t even like opera.
All the while, along the way to Lille, I eyed up the good, the bad, and the ugly ramps for hitchhiker’s reference. You never know.
My first hitchhiking point in Lille was a great pullover location but not a direct feed to my route. Drivers from here could be going three of four different highway directions or around the upcoming circle and into the city. Lille looked a beat, dusty off-white in the afternoon sun from this angle.
After just 10 minutes I got a ride. Well, sort of. A rough-hewn, amply tattooed woman picked me up, said she’d hitchhiked in from Paris herself yesterday, and drove me about 500 meters, just past the traffic circle to the ramp that led to multiple highways.
“I thought this would be a better spot,” she said.
It was once step closer to my destination route, but the cars flying around the curve onto the tightly bordered ramp had no place to pull over. I walked back to my old spot.
Another hour or so. I started slowly walking toward the Metro station with instructions I’d gathered from Ren about which station to go to for trains into Belgium. Then another hit. A young North African couple (Algerian/Moroccan) picked me up, fed me on leftover steak and candy bars, and got me onto the right highway into Belgium. This was much further south than the route I’d hitchhiked last month through the Flemish part of Belgium. This is the French part. No problem there, other than greater language difficulties for me. The sun was slowly setting. The couple driving me offered to go miles out of their way to bring me to the station in Mons and walk me in to make sure I could get a ticket. From there is was a series of three cheap local trains — to Liege, then Verviers, then Aachen.
I love the feeling of being in Aachen. I strapped on my pack and walked the shortcut, bypassing the medieval tower at Franzstrasse and going through the neighborhood, to zig zag down the ski slope shaped steps that led down from the neighborhood to the cinema.
Then to the altstadt and my room at the Theaterplatz, to look over the night lights and the shops below before a good night’s sleep and a morning visit to Charlemagne’s Dom.
I had a good spot in Kelmis, at the end of the #24 bus line from Aachen, just inside the Belgian border. Light rain, but my petrol station was covered nearly to the street. It was secondary road from Aachen to Liege, but it looked good on the map and I’ve gotten a little wary of Autobahn ramps with no shoulder.
My first ride, a college-aged German couple, rerouted me back the Autobahn but left me in a good spot. Then it was a quick series of rides. The Afro-British guy with the fancy car who swerved to pick me up before I could even get set up and dropped me at an official Autobahn rest and petrol station. It’s always a little weird for me at such stations. I scoped out the front door, busy with family people coming in and out while pumping gas. The back door that led from the station to the separate restaurant seemed OK, but accosting people could be awkward there. The huge parking lot itself or the exit from it was an option. Two young hitchhikers walked up and we were comparing notes when someone saw my “Brussels” sign and called me in. I turned mid-sentence and jumped in with the Albanian and his Belgian girlfriend. He left me near central Brussels, as the language barrier was enough that I think he never quite understood that I was not really going into Brussels but trying to bypass it.
I poked through a park, made myself a “Ghent” sign, and found a long busy street back to the highway. I tried to walk it briskly since there was no way to pull out of traffic. Then a horn blew and a tour bus full of Africans from Ghana with an Italian driver beckoned frantically for me to get in, get in before the light changed. Why not? The language barrier was again significant. Who knows what fantastic tour they were on or why they picked up a hitchhiker, but we shared my trail mix and our few moments together on the “long, strange trip” of which Jerry Garcia sang. The ride ended, for reasons unknown to me, miles from the highway, this time in the city of Ghent by a small train station. The Africans fanned out into the city and I stepped into the station. Tickets to Bruges were about $7USD, so I bought one an hour out and walked into town to seek coffee and wifi. Two women suggested I go with them to a coffee shop but it was a far enough walk that I’d miss my train. I should have gone with them. I dawdled in Bruges late, found all hostels booked, the train station locked overnight, and the weather too cold to stand for long periods or roll out my sleeping bag in the wooded track on the way to the highway. Credit card. Hotel. Lovely town, but I’m sure I’d have had cheaper accommodations in Ghent, if accommodations had been called for there.
The next drowsy morning, I figured I’d stop at the bus station along the way before sticking out my “Calais” sign. Sure enough, a bus was leaving for London and I took it. Luckily. The ferry terminal at Calais was a vast, incalculable mess (although it may have been more navigable on the foot passenger side). Also, without the bus, I would not have met the tattooed guy with bubble gum blue dreadlocks who reset my phone for the UK, nor the Colombian fire chief who had done the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and with whom I could practice Spanish.
You can hardly call it hitchhiking, really. I’d scoped out a great place to hitchhike out of Aachen – the Europaplatz – but then thought I’d try the ride-sharing site on line. Someone was going past the Frankfurt airport at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow, so I figured I’d meet him at the Stadtpark, take the ride ($14 for 250 km or 155 miles), and hitchhike to Mainz from there. It was a guy from Syria. He’d studied in Würzburg and was now a trauma surgeon at the hospital in Aachen. He had only one sister left in Syria – his parents and other siblings had come to Aachen – but she did not want to leave home. I couldn’t tell how fast he was going on the autobahn, but he definitely lived up to the German reputation for high-speed driving.
There were two places to hop out and head for Mainz. The country road would be better for scenery and long rides, but would be worse for getting stuck with no place to stand and no place to duck in for coffee. Still, if it weren’t for the dearth of pullover spots in Germany, I’d take the country road. I’m convinced that the Germans would find a way to help out a stranger. But no, I want to get to my friends in the village near Mainz, so I take the more populated route. Ataya, my driver, goes out of his way to find me a spot. Hwy 43 would run all the way to the west bank of the Rhine in Mainz, from which I could probably walk a bridge to the altstadt.
After a few minutes standing in the cold, I risk my good spot to walk ahead to a gas station and warm my hands around a coffee. The counter person tells me I can catch an S-train (like a suburban subway but over ground) around the corner that goes all the way into Mainz. This is too easy. I’ll be damned if I’ll give up my hitchhiking trip that quickly merely because taking the S-train is the logical thing to do. I go straight back out, where I can hitchhike the road and pivot to accost those who stop for gas. The latter strategy works, and I hop into a van with three Russians. The woman speaks excellent English. She has been to New York and found the Americans pleasantly relaxed compared to the Germans. The two guys with her speak German but they too want to practice their English. They are really from Kazakhstan but identify as Russian. From their point of view, most of the former Soviet republics are comfortably allied to Russia, except for the Ukraine and Georgia. In the inevitable discussion of politics, they concede that Hillary Clinton is more knowledgeable than Trump, but the fact that Trump means less tension between Russian and America overrides all for them. I am so wrapped up in it that I am startled when they say “Aussteigen; this is Mainz, that way to the station.”
I start walking. I can tell I’m in the city proper and not the suburbs, but I’m not so sure of my direction. I call Sheila, my friend in the nearby village. As the phone rings, I get oriented suddenly. There it is: the metal sculpture of St. Martin by Albert Sous, near the little church with the Marc Chagall stained glass.
I’ve been to this very spot before. I am oriented.
Now I can walk leisurely through town to the station, taking a couple of pictures as I skim by.
Then the bus to the village of Stadecken-Elsheim.
So ride-sharing through websites where you can, and hitchhiking the last leg as needed, might be the way to go.