The thing I always forget about hitching is how it feels to wait. I can tell you all about the wild rides, the interesting people, bad coffee in expensive petrol stations, the thousands of miles travelled for free, but the most important thing about hitchhiking is the pauses, the parts in between, the part where you stand by the side of the road and you wait to be picked up. You hold up a sign with your destination on it, or if that's too far away, you pick an important point on that road that lots of people might recognise. You stick your thumb out every time a car passes and, most importantly, you remember to smile, appear friendly. It works well, standing by the side of the road grinning, because even when people don't stop, maybe they've got kids or a load of boxes in the back, they smile back, or shrug, and you can acknowledge them with a wave of an arm - a small connection pass through the air. It's important to me to smile because when people shy away from me, usually the richer people, in their Range Rovers or Mercedes, with very good makeup and excellently groomed hair, when they see me and tut or frown or look disapproving, they've done that to a smiling person, a happy and relaxed person, they've shown their lack of generosity and trust very clearly.
I have been hitching for a long time, over a decade. I've travelled to Bulgaria with a Turkish man named Hakim, stopping regularly for omelette and black tea cooked in the kitchen kept in a fold out box along the side of his lorry. I've hitched in a huge circle from Holland to Croatia and back to UK through France, zipping under Mount Blanc in a lorryload of live cows, headed for abbatoir. Once I hitched the length of Germany with a kayak - from Oldenburg to Ingolstadt. (When I got there I put the kayak in the Danube and paddled all the way to the Black Sea but that's another story.) Let me tell you, hitchhiking with a kayak is no joke. You've essentially attached yourself to a large rock, there's no giving up and changing place, walking to another road, you stay where the kayak was placed and you wait there. It took me five days - and I've crossed that length of Germany in 24 hours. I used to treat hitchhiking like taking the bus in Wales, in fact, from Aberystwyth to Cardiff I could do it quicker than the bus occasionally. I remember the first time I hitched alone - me and a friend had hitched to southern Spain for a festival, giggling throughout most of it, getting picked up by the transport police twice (once for eating sandwiches on the side of the m25) and falling in love with a man named Jesus who drove through the night snorting cocaine off the back of a clipboard. My friend flew back and I faced the return to Britain alone. I stood at a service station near Orgiva, wide blue sky above me, five days until I had to be back at work in the UK and I felt for the first time the entire panoply of options that hitchhiking gave me. I didn't know where I would sleep during those five days, or how long it would take me to get anywhere. Maybe the first car would stop and they'd be on their way from Orgiva direct to Aberystwyth. Or maybe no cars would stop at all and I'd still be here, forlorn and very late for work 4 days later, having to spend enormous amounts of money to travel home very quickly. Anything could happen, I could barely control it and it felt utterly thrilling.
Every single time I stand by the side of the road and wait, I feel the same excitement, people whizz past me and one of them will choose to stop, invite me to share their life for a short time, take me roughly in the right direction, how far I don't know. It's not exactly as simple as walking to the side of the road; the trick is which road, which direction, which stopping place, which perfect spot. Do the cars have plenty of room to see you? Are they going slowly enough to stop? Is there enough space for them to pull in? The kind of small town hitching I do in Wales, hopping from Newtown to Machynlleth, is a different adventure altogether to trying to negotiate the nest of roads around Birmingham or Dortmund.
My most recent journey was from Holland to Kiev, it passed in a 3.5 day whirlwind of nerves, tension, exhilaration, exhaustion, cigarettes and naps against the passenger window. I'm going to Kiev to start a walk back to Britain and the months of preparation leading up to this departure have added to my keyed up anticipation. I started out rushing off the ferry onto the Hook of Holland, watching the lorries trundle off beneath my glass walkway, completely inaccessible to me. Instead I exited the port onto the car park, the vehicle exit securely hidden behind fences and access roads, the ferry vehicles long gone by the time I came through passport control, leaving me with just the foot passenger traffic exiting the car park. A fleet of bicycles passed me, setting out on their own continental adventure, I was the only person leaving that ferry on foot. I walked away from the port, following the small roads through the edge of town to a garage. You have to abandon yourself to circumstances when hitchhiking, accept your powerlessness. I waved my sign, smiled at cars, after about an hour I was picked up by Gerald, on his way to pick up his mother's ashes. We chatted easily about his experiences of hitchhiking in the 70's. He went out of his way to drop me at a crossroads on the edge of Den Haag. Everywhere was suburbs here, busy roads crossing and interlacing, nowhere good to hitch from. I waited at a traffic lights, holding up my sign for oncoming traffic but after about 20 minutes decided this was impossible, having to hitch with a line of cars at a traffic light was really narrowing my chances. If I went to a petrol station then the traffic would be fewer but at least they'd be slower, have more time to consider me, more space to stop. But the nearest petrol station was tiny too, we were in a built up area on the edge of the city and no one was using it. Cars zoomed past and I felt frustrated. This was wasting time and I needed to be out there on the motorway, where the people were driving long distance. I decided to walk through the city, towards the motorway interchange, seeing on Google maps the perfect motorway services. This is where the lorries would be, the necessary ingredient for long distance transport. I walked for a long time but brought myself little progress - every city block took an age to tramp past and I was still nowhere near the motorway, let alone with any access to the service station once I got there. I decided to get a taxi, knowing I couldn't walk the final section to the service station anyway. I got a bar to phone for me, drank a bottle of cold water, reminded myself to sit down, realised I was tense and keyed up. The taxi arrived, we drove away and disaster. I'd read the map wrong, gas station was on the opposite side of the road and I was still thinking in UK driving directions. I was stumped, there was no equivalent on our side of the road, nothing was suitable and the meter was ticking up. Eventually we picked a petrol station, I couldn't hitch on the exits to the motorway and needed to get out of this city sprawl. It was terrible, off the autobahn, tiny and isolated, only a single car at the pumps. I had to pay the guy here though, it was incredibly expensive. The only bright spot in this landscape was a train station across the road. I immediately decided to take one, thus messing about still further but nothing was right about where I was and I couldn't fix it without either spending hours walking to the right place or paying money for magical immediate transportation. Google map search to find another petrol station with nearby train station. Then an hour on the train, falling asleep, another 3 mile walk through well ordered suburbs, crossing small canals, admiring the calm and cleanliness, groups of boys on bikes. Finally I made it to the right place. An open bright, main route gas station with plenty of cars and lorries going long distance and plenty of room for me to be seen. Ferit picked me up pretty soon after; a ponderous Dutch man, driving the same hour long commute for 18 years, working as a pharmaceutical research scientist. It was good relaxed conversation about our lives, about being trapped in the life of work and routine, exchanging freedom for money and security. He took me 150km and I was grateful for it, even though our last piece of the conversation was about his anti-islam, pro-Brexit sentiments. Another wide open sky for me to stand like a small thing at the end of the service station, almost where the cars speed up to enter the motorway and it's not too long before a white van stops for me, PL on the numberplate. A man with quick movements speaks to me in German. Poland? Poland. He gets out to put my bag in the back but cars line up behind him and he gets back in the van to reverse it onto the grass verge. It's a step a western European wouldn't take, they'd pull into the side of the tarmac as closely squeezed as they could, the lack of fucks given in running the van up onto the grass makes me immediately like him. He is a funny, shaven headed, good looking man with big fashionable glasses and he is driving back to Poland non-stop, to arrive at 4am and begin deliveries the next day. We click. It's funny and relaxing. It's about 6pm and I drive with him across Germany overnight. I use Google Translate for the first time and it makes it so much easier to connect with him. We are making jokes with each other, I giggle as I make the recording and wait for him to laugh as he hears the translation. We flirt a bit but not seriously - How old are you? How old do you think I am? Part of you could be 20 and part of you could be 40. Well which part of me do you think is 20? Without this magical translating machine, I would never get to ask the late night question 'what do you need to make you happy?' of this 40 year old Polish van driver, ex alcoholic, father of 3, two failed relationships, chain smoking, energy drinking, barely sleeping. More importantly, to have him answer me. He tells me his story of alcoholism during his first relationship, how he made his son ashamed of him, how he stopped drinking 10 years ago. He tells me about his second relationship, it's broken down this year because he refused to get married again, his partner is strongly Catholic and won't continue 'living in sin'. We speak into the phone, facing the road, not looking at each other. He spits his hatred for the Catholic Church, their land ownership, their manipulation of the poor, their pedophile priests, mimes everybody in a village going to church and bowing down anyway. He worked away in Germany for years, now he works from Poland, makes sure he is home every weekend to be a better father to his two young children. I work so hard and I am still poor, he says. I will always be poor. We drive until 4am, by which time I have attempted to sleep in every conceivable position on the front seat. Then, when he finally bloody stops, in front of the factory he will deliver to, I go into the back, next to the plastic wrapped pallets of whatever it is he's delivering (something to do with tents) and sleep. He sleeps stretched across the front seats, it's normal for him. We sleep for three hours before he knocks on the side of the van, time to make the delivery. I am insane with tiredness, he is a force. We are in Western Poland and I have the choice to stay with him all day as he makes drops across the centre of the country or get out here. It's raining and I make the decision to go along for the ride all day; it will be slower travel but I'll end up further east. He's going to head down to Lodz and then finish near Warsaw at about 3pm. There's a choice at the drop near Lodz, do I get out here and try on rural roads in a straight line east to the Ukrainian border, or do I stay with him another hour north to a logistics centre on the outskirts of Warsaw. Higher chance of a direct long distance lift but also that I will be mired somewhere unsuitable and difficult to escape from. I choose to go with him, it's a gamble and I'm worried I will end up cursing myself but most hitchhiking decisions end up getting worried about or cursed over anyway. The problem is the total lack of proof that you made the right decision. I always get picked up eventually, the nerves come with the uncertainty of waiting. Me and Marius parted with a hug and a handshake. Hitchhiking is a liminal space where you share intimate parts of life with a stranger, once I have slept in front of someone, spent hours with them, they have invited me in, I am a little bit in love with them, we are linked. It goes deep and it also ends really neatly. We walk away. They take a stranger into their vehicle, a bit of interesting company, but they are always going home, a place I'm not invited, I am always moving on, we will never share more than this.
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