The Heart of Gold’s Improbability Drive made it the most powerful and unpredictable ship in existence. There was nothing it couldn’t do, provided you knew exactly how improbable it was that the thing you wanted it to do would ever happen…
’The daaaaay is beauuuuutiful!’ he yelled into my face as soon as I scrambled up into the truck cabin. The driver repeated this word, ‘beautiful’, about 26 times during our 45-minute drive from Frederikshavn to Aalborg.
I looked out of the window. Just pissing rain and ceaseless wind in the gray early Danish spring.
‘My last drive of the season! I am going to dump this truck at home and in a few weeks set sailing towards Scotland on my boat!’ he continued, and I thought that this is probably the happiest person I met in a very long time. He had nothing to complain about, and had the entire world rested on his palm.
He lived in a little fairy harbor of Aalborg, Fjordbyen, where all houses seem to be taken out of Oz or Wonderland, slightly inflated and sprinkled along the fjord. He drove me right there, took me to the tiny pub filled with other happy people, and treated me to some coffee.
‘I have a perfect job. I drive when I feel like it, then take a whole season off and go sailing, or hang out with friends. Here in Fjordbyen, we do not need anything from the outside world. We are like a town inside a town. We don’t even need police – nothing ever happens here’.
I thought that it’d be a perfect setting for a bloody murder mystery.
In July, I was hitching a long distance from Alicante up to Donostia, which would take roughly 6 hours of non-stop driving. I was preparing myself to spend a night at some gas station in the middle of nowhere if needed. However, miraculously came Manuel, a señor from Donostia who was driving right there from Alicante where he lived. What were the odds of me getting a direct ride from A to B in the middle of the week? As good as getting picked up by a ship powered by infinite improbability drive.
From the yellow plains of Valencia through red deserted highways of Aragón, into the misty hills of Euskadi, we made around 10 coffee breaks and at least 5 sightseeing stops, among the chatting, political discussions and storytelling. Manuel drove extra 50 kilometers to drop me off in the town where I was staying, and bid me farewell.
‘Here is my email. If you need a ride someday, message me – maybe I will be driving your way,’ he smiled. ‘Or just send me some pictures from all the marvelous places you will be visiting’.
A week later, I was standing under the pouring rain on a gas station near Hondarribia, by the Basque-French border.
It was not going well at all. After at least one hour of waiting, no one even stopped to pick me up, and I was getting pissed off and pissed on by the rain.
’No one is stopping because people do not like taking hitchhikers across the border, although there is no border between Spain and France anymore. You Europeans are weird. Hop on, we have a place for you!’ the guy that approached me said in a mix of Spanish and Portuguese. Him and his female co-driver have been watching my miserable attempts to get out of here for the past hour, from their truck parked a few meters away.
‘But there is two of you and only two seats in the cabin. I think it is illegal to take an extra passenger unless you have a spare seat,’ I tried to be a responsible adult.
‘Haha, well then we gotta hide you better!’ he laughed.
Fr. and C. were both from Brazil, although met each other in Portugal where they both had come for work.
‘We’d been here a few years until our paths crossed. Amazing how you go overseas to find happiness and then find it with someone from your own country,’ C. said. Fr. was too shy to speak Spanish, but we all communicated in some meta-Romance language, which was enough to share our dreams, songs, aspirations, and stories.
‘We will go back to Brazil in a few years. It is fun in Europe, and the pay is good. But when we have children I want them to grow up under the Brazilian sun. We will open a guesthouse on the coast, sleep in hammocks, play guitar, you should come and visit!’ C. told me not long before they dropped me off near Montpellier.
‘You are in Sicily and not visiting Termini? Not going to Cefalu? Ay mamma mia!’ the signore who picked me up from the outskirts of Palermo was in shock. His Southern Italian accent with some incomprehensible Sicilian words was the funniest thing I’ve ever heard in this country. ’No, I can’t leave it like this and simply drive you to the opposite side of the island! We are going on a detour and I will show you everything I can in one hour!’ despite being in a rush, he considered it his mission and duty to introduce me to his marvelous island.
From old scenic villas to medieval coastal towns, from the blue sea to narrow streets of Cefalu where he dropped me off, I had a crash-course in the history and cultural heritage of Sicily, as well as an in-depth lesson of comprehending the Sicilian dialect of Italian.
’Nooo, I cannot believe you are staying just a few days. Sicily is impossible to explore even in a lifetime!’ he kept shaking his head.
‘Oh my god, you are leaving Sicily the day after you arrived?! What kind of traveller are you? You can stay here for a month and still not see every marvelous little corner of this island!’
My second ride also sounded like he was working for a travel agency and the purpose of his life was promoting his native island to every stranger that sets foot in Sicily.
‘By the way, I am not going where you need to go,’ he pointed out after 5 minutes of blaming me for not staying in Sicily longer, ‘but you can come to Catania with me.’
What is in Catania? Where the duck is Catania? I think somewhere near Etna.
‘WHAT IS IN CATANIA? Are you kidding me? What is in Catania, you are asking? Oh mamma mia! I am going to call all my friends now and tell them that I met this foreign girl who’s wondering what is in Catania! Everything! Catania is everything! The volcano! The city under the city! Oh mamma mia don’t ask me what is in Catania!’
Catania it is then. I had waited for a ride for about 2 hours by then, and the spot was bad, and my chances of getting to the mainland before dark were quite low. I can go to Catania. Who cares that it is 200 km in another direction?
That evening, Maurizio took me to meet his friends for pizza (of course), and the following day we strolled the streets of Catania. A remarkable city indeed. Imagine a bunch of people who decide to build a settlement. They build it next to a volcano. ’Tis okay, nothing’s gonna go wrong!’ they say. Throughout the centuries, your city is being destroyed by seismic activity and volcanic eruptions several times. But you just keep building it on the exact same place every time. ’Tis okay, it can’t go wrong again!’
In the North of Italy, I stand on the road with a sign written on an empty pizza box. Because Italy.
’I hardly ever see people hitchhiking here, and girls – never,’ tells me my driver from Parma to Brescia. ‘Very strange! When I was young and served in the army, I was stationed on the French border, and had a girlfriend back at home in Parma. So I you know, the young blood and young love – of course I would go visit her every weekend. Transport was not that good, and money was not in abundance, so I always did autostop. Never had to wait more than 15 minutes – times were different back in the 60s.’
In Italy, one of the toughest European countries for hitchhikers, I hear this same story again and again: I picked you up just because you are a girl, you look decent, and I myself used to hitchhike back in the day… when the grass was greener.
To Trieste, I arrive with one of the most fascinating couples I ever met on the road. They are both from France, driving an old jeep all the way to Croatia for a summer boat trip with their friends. They tell me how back in the day, before they even met and started traveling together, the lady had worked in Afghanistan, and her husband flew airplanes in Chad. Then they got married, did the Paris-Dakar moto race, drove across South America, and finally settled with two daughters somewhere in the south of France near Marseille.
‘You are some of the coolest people I’ve ever met!’ I admit. They were the only ones who picked me up from a gas station after 2 hours of waiting.
‘Our daughters probably don’t think so,’ the lady laughs. ’They always ask us, when are we gonna stop going on last-minute long trips to Croatia, or South America. We are over 60 now, and we are still planning new places to go for years ahead. We are going to go to Colombia next year for another long-distance race, and then – who knows?’
‘I think our daughters wish we had lived a normal life and made more money. We are quite poor in comparison with other people in the region, but well – we have a proper house and a summer house. It is quite okay for them to start off their own lives,’ her husband adds.
It seems that the wandering gene always skips a generation. Maybe their grandchildren will grow up inspired by grandma’s and grandpa’s travel shenanigans.
On the way from the caves in Slovenia, my temporary travel companion Mariana and I hitch a ride with an American guy who’s rented a car to drive across the Balkans. He is not going my way but insists to drop me off at a roadside café where I can wait for another ride.
He has a whole load of stuff in the trunk, including a guitar, so we sit down for a cup of coffee and a song. We end up discovering a few melodies in common and improvise a small concert. We could have probably sat there for another hour talking about stuff, but it is time to move on.
Vincenzo saved me from sleeping at a gas station near Milan. It’s been a long day and I still had to make it to Basel in the north of Switzerland. The sky was getting grayer and my final destination seemed more and more distant.
‘Listen, if you insist, I can leave you at some gas station so you could continue on to Basel. But if you are a reasonable person you might want to stay over in my village, I have a yoga and meditation center up in the mountains,’ Vincenzo said. Next morning, I woke up in a room overlooking the beautiful hills of Ticino, to the sound of church bells echoing through the mist and rain. It was humid and cold outside, but inside the house with hundreds of Buddha statues, carpets, pillows and incenses, all the outside world seemed like a parallel dimension.
Vincenzo’s house is a platform for cultural life and exhibitions, meditation and yoga sessions for the local community, and also a refuge and rehabilitation center for those who seek it, or being sent here by the doctor.
Next afternoon, Vincenzo drops me off at a big gas station near Bellinzona. I shake his hand repeatedly and thank him for his amazing hospitality.
Before driving off, he stops and searches for something in his glove compartment.
‘Here you go. This will bring you luck,’ and he gives me a purple clown nose.
I don’t know what cracks me up more: the fact that he kept a clown nose in his car, or that he felt it would suit me and be my lucky charm.
I didn’t have to wait for my next ride too long.
‘I saw you standing there and I think it is a bad place to wait for a ride – nobody really sees you quickly enough to stop,’ said my ride near Gothenburg, Sweden. ‘Jump in, I am going just for 20 kilometers but we can figure out another place to drop you off.’
5 minutes later, K. invited me to stay with him and his wife in the countryside, outside Gothenburg. You know how everyone jokes about Swedes being socially awkward and weird around strangers? That day, I found out that hitchhiking is probably the best way to meet and talk to people in Scandinavia.
Far away from the city noise and shitty weather, K. and G. live in a small community with their dog and cats. We go walking in the forest for hours, and in the evening I stand under the starry sky in their front yard. G. makes an amazing dinner and we talk about Swedish life, and travelling, and home. They had both lived or travelled in the USSR back in the 70s and 80s and tell me some hilarious stories about smuggling condoms into Belarus and being spied on by secret services.
‘We have quite different in personalities. I love the anticipation of a trip, and the trip itself, and I feel sad to return back home,’ she laughs. ‘K., on the contrary, loves the feeling of coming back home from a few weeks of travel, stretching on the sofa with cats and reminiscing about the wonderful time we had!’
‘But after all, we have been together for many many years, and one thing that unites us is nature,’ K. continues. ‘If you give us two cameras and send us walking separately the same path in the forest, we will come back with the same pictures, because we both notice same details, same leaves and twigs, bird nests and animals. the world is painted same colours for us both.’
Leaving their place the next day, I met the ultimate truck driver. One of those middle-aged men with a face full of wisdom and perhaps some Kerouac behind their back. It was a long drive from Gothenburg to Stockholm, and even a longer drive for him. ‘I am going almost all the way to Nordkapp, it will take me probably 3 days,’ he said. ‘But I like it. My dream job. Ever since I was young I thought that I wanted a job with a flexible schedule, so that I could drive long distances, see different countries, enjoy the nature at every stop.’ He was based in the south of Germany but would always volunteer to drive all the way up to the north of Scandinavia.
‘My wife used to drive with me, but a few years ago we had an accident and survived just by miracle. Since then, she retired and started a pet sanctuary back at home,’ he told me. Apparently, his wife collects stray cats from all over Germany, nurses them and gives away into good hands. One time, he was driving through Italy and saw a kitten in the middle of the highway. Without thinking twice, he pulled over right there to pick up the little ball of fluff, and instead discovered two more of them hiding by the roadside. All the Italian highway kittens were delivered back to Germany and given a good home.
’The accident, it must have been very bad. How come you did not give up driving?’ I asked.
‘Well, as I said, it is my dream job. And I dodged death at least 2 times before this,’ and he proceeds telling me the story of how he got mugged in Romania and Bulgaria, twice, back in the 90s. He smiles, because that was long time ago, and now being alive feels pretty amazing.
‘I love the road. Love these icy forests under the snow. I’ve driven many miles since I started working as a truck driver. But I never missed a single Christmas back home with my family.’
I had my share of nasty moments. I had to sleep in a coffee shop at a gas station in Denmark. I got harassed by a horny Italian driver. I got dropped off in the middle of nowhere. I got yelled at by Austrian road police. I got questioned by Italian police.
But the nasty moments can be summed up in one short paragraph. The magic moments turn into great stories and life lessons.
After hitchhiking a bit in Africa and a lot in Asia, where a foreign face excites absolutely everyone, I was slightly insecure about my hitching experiment in Europe, all these years later. I waited less than 15 minutes most of the time in Switzerland, and over an hour most of the time in Germany and Italy. Most commonly, people who picked me up were immigrants, from the Balkans, Turkey, Middle East, Africa, South America. And Belgians. Those drivers who were actually from the country, always told me that they used to go thumbing across Europe back in the day, and are now paying back the good karma. They would usually say with a slight nostalgia and regret that the golden times of hitchhiking have passed. Some of them were curious about my story, others jumped on political topics upon learning about my country of origin. Some people were eager to show me their town, and in exceptional cases invited me to stay over at their house, and some of them actually drove extra 30 kilometers to drop me off where I needed. I met folks who’d worked in Africa and were eager to hear my opinion about that strange, strange continent. I met people who’d never been outside of Europe but were intrigued by the idea of exploring the world outside the bubble.
For some travellers, hitchhiking is about saving money and never using public transportation. It is a lifestyle, an addiction, a way of moving around and spending less to ultimately travel more. Some people do not get put off by language barriers or lack of common interests. For me, spending several hours in a car with someone who I cannot have a conversation with is excruciatingly awkward and exhausting.
Hitchhiking tends to be romanticized: in reality, there is little pleasure in long hours of standing under the sun, rain or snow on a dusty road, getting weird looks from the drivers who don’t stop. I pretty much hate hitchhiking: too many times I’ve spent waiting for over an hour and wasting the precious time with no moral reward in the end, while I could have easily chosen some normal way to get from A to B.
But ultimately, with the European social awkwardness, giving a ride to a stranger is the ultimate way to transcend the boundaries of normality. It is something you will probably tell your friends about the next day: ‘Hey, I picked this hitchhiker on the road the other day…’ And we’ve probably already forgotten each other’s names, but we sure will never forget the stories.