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.

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Hitchhiking Germany to UK

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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.

 

Aix-la-Chapelle

Our cathedral in Aachen (or Aix-la-Chapelle as the French and English would have it) shares its major traits with other gothic cathedrals.

The exterior is all verticality, from the pointed arches of windows, doorways, and other architectural features, to the high thrust of the steeple rising from its smaller fellow points.

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The exterior as a whole, especially from a distance, brings the eye across the social plain and points all the world’s grandeur upwards, from the hierarchies of the medieval social structure to the vanishing point atop the steeple, teasing the eye still further home into the heavens.

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The interior houses, among other things, the richly-colored stained glass walls that fill the apse and frame the altar.

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Arguably, the stained glass in all gothic cathedrals serves at least two symbolic functions in addition to the narrative function of transmitting sacred history to an illiterate congregation: (1) they create an illusion of the world’s most massive structures being held up by pure light, just as the entire material world is held up by the Word of God and the light of Christ’s sacrifice; and (2) they signify the light passing through the walls of Mary’s womb in the Christian mythos’s moment of greatest mystery.octagon

But what keeps me coming back is the detail – the little unique spots and patches of aesthetic beauty in this massive canon of gothic symbolism — from the octagon that remains from Charlemagne’s 8th century original structure

 

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to the exterior features of the facade that seem unique, at least to my amateur eye

 

 

 

to the quirky details of the interior

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I don’t even know what to call these spots and patches. They point back to the gothic canon, the symbolic template that the Dom here in Aachen shares with the larger gothic traditions, but they are also little aesthetic chips in their own right, separable from the mother building and marvelous for their random beauty. In this sense, you can see them through the lens of Jung’s synchronicity. As opposed to the causal aspect of apprehension (in this case, the gothic structure that determines the details), synchronicity focuses on the chance aspect of what is before the eye, the random beauty that emerges best when the object is stripped from the external causal nexus and viewed in its own right. It’s a little bit like moving from traditional art to abstract art, where the idiosyncratic arrangement forces you to find, or create, a new register of intelligibility.

It’s not always worth it – this sort of move from traditional to abstract – this move away from the causal frame of reference into something more like vertigo. But to me, it’s always worth it when it comes to gothic cathedrals. Unlike modern and contemporary artists, who cover the whole range from profound to puerile, gothic cathedrals never disappoint. It doesn’t take a shred of true religious belief to feel, as one approaches and enters these architectural wonders, that no artist or movement of artists of any period has created such powerful, holistic, and all-encompassing moods as those who built these magnificent structures 1000 years ago.

Hitchhiking Aachen to Mainz

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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.

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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.

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Then the bus to the village of Stadecken-Elsheim.

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So ride-sharing through websites where you can, and hitchhiking the last leg as needed, might be the way to go.

Aachen to Maastricht

The bus to Maastricht crosses the border from Germany into the Netherlands as soon as you leave Aachen. Here are some fields along the way

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and at Dreilanderpunkt where Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands meet. (OK, I took this picture earlier/greener in the season, but it’s along the way.)

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Then Maastricht, from the images that capture the gist of the town

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to the churchimg_2315

to the really weird stuff; e.g., I’ve never seen a urinal like this

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or a bookstore like this

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I have on some occasions seen an underground art scene like the one at Landhuis/Wasteland

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For example, this would fit at The Farm in Tennessee or in the Bywater/Marigny/St. Claude area back in New Orleans, where a kind of free-spirited, low-budget, random exuberance knocks things out of the way and creates its own field of aesthetic play. Perhaps it might fit the industrial art scene of London. But this kind of spectacle is at first glance less visible in Germany, except maybe in Berlin or in some of the other eastern cities I’ve heard about like Leipzig and Dresden. This is a generalization, of course, not a universal truth, but the Germans seem a bit more inclined to color inside the lines and get things done. I’m still poking around though, making the most of my contacts with those Germans who break the boundaries and enjoying the kindness and generosity of Germans in general.

Oh yeah, and then there’s dope boats in Maastricht.

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Sorry, though, the government has cracked down. No smoking weed on the dope boats without a Dutch passport — for now, anyway.