Hitchhiking through France and Belgium

“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.


Hitchhiking Germany to UK


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.


Hitchhiking Aachen to Mainz


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.”

img_2371I 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.

Hitchhiking New Orleans to St. Louis


“People don’t hitchhike any more.”

“It’s harder to hitchhike these days.”

I started hearing these comments in the 1980s, but I never found them to be true. Until Jackson, Mississippi, two days ago. OK, I admit, I haven’t hitchhiked in the U.S. since the early 1990s, so there’s a gap in my data. But still, people really tuned me out in Jackson. It took me about 3 hours to get from New Orleans to the south side of Jackson. Then a 3 hour wait. Then a ride to north central Jackson. Then a half hour walk to find a spot and 5 hours in the beating sun with no ride. Sunset. Cheap hotel. The next morning, another 5 miles walking the shoulder and 3 hours burning sun before I finally got a ride out of town.

But first, before Jackson, the endless rows of debris from gutted houses after the Louisiana floods.


Then a few good rides out of Louisiana and into Mississippi. The country people — the less educated the better — helped me through. Blue collar guys going to construction sites, chain-smoking women with raspy voices and straw hair, the Pentecostal missionary. But Jackson, that was rough. Until a tattoo artist fresh out of prison finally picked me up and drove me into the pine forests between Jackson and Memphis.


A scrap metal dealer asked me how long it took me to hitchhike from Mississippi to Germany. Nice as could be, clueless, big on the second amendment, an avid voter, and not for Hillary Clinton. Who was I to argue? When he dropped me, he didn’t want to let go, but kept talking to me while I stood with the door open.

I couldn’t take the sun any more on my arms and neck. I harassed people at the truck stop. The truckers were sympathetic, but this was not the 1970s. Nowadays, insurance rules forbade them from taking on hitchhikers, and trucking companies had cameras in the cabs. The great age of trucker-hitchhiker camaraderie was gone. The manager kicked me off the property but not before an old guy offered to take me halfway to Memphis.

Next stop. Skin baked. Butterflies on the side of the road.


I hovered by the gas station door and asked the first guy who pulled in with a pickup if he could help me with a ride to Memphis. He wasn’t thrilled, but let me in. In a half hour, we were fast friends. His wife had just got out of the national guard and was studying biology on the G.I. Bill. He had flunked English through high school and had barely gotten his GED. Now he and his brother had two trucks zigzagging around the country delivering trailer homes on recurring contracts. He took me all the way to Marston, Missouri. The lady working the truck stop counter there was chatty, supportive. Where the other manager had kicked me off the premises, she would have no doubt badgered every driver in sight to help me out. You never know what you’re going to get. But my plans had changed. Rachael was now on the way down from St. Louis, so she and my driver, Billy, and I met in Marston for coffee. Then Billy headed north to cross paths with his brother on I-57, and Rachael and I turned southward, back through the heart of the Bible Belt before we could reach the French Catholic swamplands of Louisiana and the lazy, humid, brass-band nights of New Orleans.


So do people hitchhike any more? Is it harder to hitchhhike? Flying in your own car would take 8 hours from New Orleans to Marston, Missouri. It took me 27 hours to go the first half and 4 hours to go the second half. Draw your own conclusions.


Hitchhiking Freiburg to Stuttgart


Hitchhiking out of Freiburg was a little chaotic today. On a tip from the hostel, I walked to the gas station to seek a ride instead of busing it to the autobahn. I tried both the street and the station door, but waited about two hours. Probably not aggressive enough at the door. Vocally asking for rides has never been my style, even in my 50,000 miles hitchhiking in my crazy, bohemian youth. And it turns out that really only the left lane went to the autobahn.

Just as a family picked me up going to Offenburg, the sun came out over the Black Forest.


Offenburg wasn’t as far I’d like, not Karlsruhe, but maybe a better spot. The father spoke better English than the mother or the teenage son. Or maybe the teenage son was just a teenager, too self-conscious to admit his own mastery.

They dropped me at an autobahn rest stop, where my only option was accosting people at the door. This time, I accosted in earnest, landing a ride in thirty minutes with a young wrestling champion (2nd in Germany, 5th in Europe) going home to milk the cows at his family farm. When he found out I was a wrestling captain in high school, he showed me a video of his finals match on his phone.

He went out of his way to find me a good spot between Karlsruhe and Stuttgart, but finally had to drop me. Hitchhiking in Germany is pleasant, wholesome even. Everyone is nice, no one is afraid, no one considers you morally questionable for hitchhiking. But there are damned few good spots, good shoulders, good ramps. I walked, praying that I wouldn’t have to walk for hours, and reached a decent spot – cars could pull over, albeit on the rural side of Pforzheim. A nice man about my age offered to bring me to a better spot on the other side of Pforzheim.

“Sure,” I said. Movement. Anything. But the new place was worse.

“There’s the ramp to Stuttgart,” he said. “Right there.” Big smile.

Yes, right there. With no shoulder at all, with Germans flying by at the death-wish speeds for which they are famous. Too rural for bus stops. I trudged through weeds back toward Pforzheim, looking for a shoulder or an intersection, anything. I finally came to a right turn lane where no one was turning right, and staked my claim. At least they could stop if they really wanted to.

In a spot like this, after an hour, one always wonders: “Is it an impossible spot and I’m just not seeing it? What are my options? Where’s the nearest gas station or bus stop?”

A light rain starts and then stops. Then a ride. A woman about my age (Kiki) takes me into Stuttgart. She had dreamed of traveling herself. She and her high school friend had planned a trip to Australia. Then she got pregnant. Twins. Then another kid. She never got out.

Almost 6 p.m. and I got an email. The Airbnb request I had put in yesterday for Stuttgart was rejected. More light rain. Kiki dropped me at a hostel. She gave me the address of a tiny jazz club (Kiste). She would try to meet me there later.

The hostel was booked, but I found a cheap hotel and walked the streets.


I would make it to Kiste – with some students I met while trying to tap the university’s free wifi. But I would not see Kiki again. You never know which on-the-road contact might stick for life, but most will always be just fleeting moments, leaving nothing but pleasant little traces behind.

Gary Gautier, author of Hippies


Hitchhiking to Tübingen

Hitchhiking today was uneventful. I took the Munich subway to someplace near the autobahn, walked 30 minutes, waited 30 minutes, then got a ride to the edge of Stuttgart. The driver played guitar and the passenger was from Jordan. That’s all I found out about them. “Salemilecham,” I said. “Shokran.” “Afwan.” That’s the closest I can come to a phonetic transcript of our 3-word conversation in Arabic. They hunted around to find me a good spot without success, so I started walking, looking, ten minutes, but before I could find that good spot, a small delivery truck swerved over and gave me a ride to the edge of Tubingen, where I accosted a young couple for directions to the bus. He was an American studying here, and she had just flown in to make sure he went straight home at the end of the semester.

Next to a bridge near the Altstadt of this medieval college town sits the d.a.i. (Deutsch-Amerikanisches Institut).


It is here that I almost got a job. I had set up a meeting with the summer camp person, but she was ill, so I went straight to the director.

“We could use someone like you,” she said. “We’re expanding our English language courses to the business community.” She offered to help me with a work permit and to set up a sample class for next week, and stepped out to speak to the language coordinator.


Five minutes of glee and she was back to say that someone had just been hired. Back to the Schwarzes Schaf coffee shop in a student-heavy part of the Altstadt to commiserate with the cool and friendly barista.


At least I got to walk up to the Schloss. That was nice.

Hitchhiking Vienna to Munich

I forgot how chaotic this kind of travel can be. A light rain hung over Vienna when I left Wednesday morning, so I took the subway to Hütteldorf, where supposedly I could step to the highway if it was not raining or duck into a station to take a train if it was raining. Before I could get upstairs, a Filipino woman told me, “No, it’s raining and the highway is far away; you must go to the Westbahnhof and take a train.”

At the Westbahnhof, tickets to Salzburg were more expensive than I had thought, so I started the rail pass that I was hoping to save for later.

Once in Salzburg, I merely had to find the road to Munich, but that in itself was an adventure. I was looking for the Salzburg Mitte ramp, which someone had told me is the best ramp for hitchhiking, but I got different directions from everyone. The tourist office told me to take the S3, but I could see it was going to a different ramp. Finally, I asked a bus driver in one of the many bus lines. He couldn’t speak English and gestured roughly in German for me to “get in, get in.” So I got in, thinking that at least he would get me somewhere. Finally, a teenager on the bus offered to show me to a ramp, but it was a dead ramp. No cars. Then a woman driving a cab picked me up and said, “I’ll take you to the best spot.” She dropped me on a street somewhere that did not look at all like a highway — more like a regular suburban street. It took 2 ½ hours before I got a ride with a guy who zig-zagged along until suddenly we were on the Autobahn going 140 km/hr.

It was raining again when he dropped me in Rosenheim, but I put on my rain poncho, held out my “München” sign, and hoped for the best. Finally, just before I was fully soaked, a guy going home from work to see his 4-month-old baby girl picked me up and got me to Munich. Found my way to Thomas’s house and we had cheap Chinese down the block before going to sleep.

Moral of the story: I got to use the poncho that I almost did not buy.

Special thanks to Ana (https://ambigirl.com/), Matt and Denisa in Vienna, and to Thomas and Felix and friends in Munich.