It’s 28 January, and in my inbox I find an email, reading completely unchanged (except for making the links clickable – update 2013-03-10: “liveontheroad.tv” website is gone)
We are Justina & Maarten, two graduated journalism students from Lithuania and Belgium. We got your email from Augustas and Katja. I hope you don’t mind this is in English? We contacted Augustas and Katja because of their website. They told us they are no longer on the road, but they told us a little about you.
We are planning to go travelling in April and it is their intention to film our entire trip. By next week we will have our website (Live on the road). The name maybe gives way our goal, we want to make “live reports” about people’s “life” on the road. We want to show why people travel from point A to point B, wether [sic] it is a trucker, a musician, a circus artist or… a hitchhiker. We want to travel together with those people and let them tell their story. Looking around on your websites, you would be just the guy for us.
We would like to ask you if you are planning any trip somewhere in the end of March/beginning of April and if it would be possible to follow you for a while?
Anyway we would like to wish you success in your further travelling and we definitely hope to hear from you soon!
Justina & Maarten
Always interested in being “famous for 15 minutes”, I write them back, and after that a few more emails sail back and forth between us and eventually we agree to hit the road on 3 April, and when that day comes ever nearer, I do get a bit frightened, as will be hitchhiking as a threesome, and according to Ken Welsh, author of the long-out-of-print “Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to Europe” “To try hitching in the company of more than one person is crazy.”. (1996 edition, page 24)
They arrive on Monday 2 April, of course by thumb, and after dinner they do the first of many little interviews with me and eventually, far too late in the evening, we go to bed. After waking up at the ungodly time of 5:20, we have some breakfast, and then walk the almost 4 km to the start of the A10. It’s just about light when we arrive at my usual point of departure, and given the humongous backpacks Justina & Maarten are carrying (and a big camera bag and a tripod), I’m, to express myself rather politely, somewhat worried about getting a ride.
However, my worries turn out to be totally misplaced and after what cannot be more than 10(ish) minutes, we get our first ride, from a guy who has picked me up just a few weeks before. He drops us off on the Jabbeke petrol station, and just 11 minutes ride two follows, taking us to the petrol station at Drongen, just before Gent. Here the wait is even more ridiculous, just eight minutes, but the destination is somewhat worrying. The driver, who works for a Japanese company, has travelled all over the world and when I tell him that my wife and I spent our honeymoon in Japan, he actually starts speaking Japanese – Audrone and I never got much further than “Please”, “Thank you”, and “Are you going in the direction of …”. His destination is a bit of a problem, Zaventem is not a good place to get rides, so in the end we are dropped on the “Groot-Bijgaarden” petrol station just before Brussels. This place is also pretty bad if you’re on your way to Germany, but it turns out to be pretty good for getting a ride into France: when I ask a driver if he happens to go towards Leuven or Luik, he tells me he isn’t, but that he can give us a ride towards Paris. After a “three-second” discussion with Justina and Maarten, we decide to accept his offer and at 12:19 we find ourselves on the “Aire de Lisses”, next to Fontainblau, well south of Paris, and potentially towards the Mediterranean! We take a bit of time out, finish off Audrone’s sandwiches and J&M do another one of their little interviews.
The next ride will take us to “Aire de la Forêt”, and it will also take us into weather that is a lot less pleasant. On the aire we take another break, have a coffee, J&M do another short interview and then something pretty amazing happens. Two mini-buses stop and from the look they would have no problem taking on an extra three people, so I approach the driver of the first, and ask her for a ride, explaining that there are three of us. Without any hesitation she agrees to take us, and once we’re back on the road, an even better offer follows. Isabelle works at the Maison Familiale Rurale de Saint Laurent de Chamousset, a boarding school that combines in-class with on-the-work-floor education and she invites us to spend the night at the school, complete with dinner and breakfast, and she promises to drop us back on a petrol station on the autoroute the next morning. This time our discussion takes a bit longer, but in the end we decide that the offer is too good to refuse. After an excellent dinner, and a bit of small-talk, we are taken to our own room and we enjoy a good night. The next morning we have a nice breakfast, Isabelle has even gone as far as getting croissants especially for us! After thanking the others, Isabelle takes us to the “Aire La Plaine du Forez”, on the autoroute towards to Clermond-Ferrand.
It’s again raining, and it takes us 1h35, the longest wait of our entire trip, and only one of just two(!) waits longer than one hour, to get a ride. The driver is going into Clermond-Ferrand, and so we decide to get out at the last aire before it, “Aire de Limagne”. We are now at one of those places that is difficult to get away from (because we don’t want to go to the obvious destination, i.e. C-F), and in the end it takes us almost an hour to do so. The two guys that give us a ride are on their way to Paris, but they very graciously decide to take us to the “Aire de Veyre”, south of Clermond-Ferrand – if their SatNav had any human emotion, it would have been screaming at them for not turning around at successive exits…
On the aire we have just enough time to put our backpacks against the wall, before Seb(astien) returns to his car. When I ask him for a ride, he doesn’t have to think about it and immediately offers us a ride. The aire is on the A75, Seb is on his way to Perpignan (I had asked him for a ride in the direction of Montpellier), and that means we will cross the river Tarn on one of the most amazing structures in France, the Millau Viaduct. Seb’s passed the place before, but to do us a favour, he stops at the aire just before it and together we spend a good half hour climbing up to the vantage point and taking pictures. Driving out of the aire, J&M go for a scary piece of filming by mounting their camera on the front bonnet, to produce a shot of us driving away. Once we’re moving again, Seb asks us what we want to do once we get to Perpignan (we’ve already abandoned Montpellier), and we tell him that we might try to go to Andorra. What follows is pretty extraordinary! Seb tells us that he’s not needed in Perpignan until around 13:00 the next day, and that he will take us to Andorra, where he can pick up some cheap cigarettes. During a stop I try to find us a place to stay via Couch$$$urfing, but the only member in Andorra seems to have logged in from Barcelona earlier in the day and I do not get an SMS back. (Once back home I find out that he was indeed in Barcelona, and wouldn’t have been able to host us). In the end it doesn’t really matter, as the weather is really horrible when we approach Andorra (snow and temperatures only just above zero), and we decide to go back to Perpignan with Seb, who eventually drops us just before the péage south of Perpignan, at 21:56, which is pretty late to continue. We spend a little time organizing ourselves, before walking to the péage. Hitching at these places is officially illegal, but there is a small car-park behind this one, which would allow us to tell any police that we were dropped there by a driver on his way to Spain.
Fortunately, there is no need for this, because at 22:45 we are offered a ride that will take us almost 300 km up north, to a petrol station after Toulouse, where we end up spending the night. J&M do their final long interview, and just when I’m starting to fall asleep at around 06:00, Maarten finds us a ride. The driver is on his way to Clermond-Ferrand, but agrees to take us to the last aire before turning off. He misses it and eventually drops us on the “Aire de Puy de Grâce”, which is in essence just a car-park with a toilet, and a place that should be avoided at all costs if you’re hitching, but like the whole trip until now, luck is again on our side. A few minutes after our arrival, another car stops. Maarten goes off to talk to the driver, but eventually comes back empty-handed, the driver is from Bulgaria and equates hitching in France to hitching in Bulgaria, where, if we may believe him, most hitchhikers are in fact bandits. Then something amazing happens, the guy goes back into his car and while driving towards us, he actually offers us a ride. It will be the last one the three of us start together.
Twenty-four kilometres later we stop at the “Aire de Porte de Corrèzze”, just before Limoges. Justine and Maarten get out here, they want to spend Easter with a friend who lives in the place, and after saying goodbye to them, the Bulgarian doctor (he turned out to be a paediatrician) takes me another almost 400 km, to just south of Paris. After answering a call of nature and a quick cup of coffee I walk back to the pumps, just in time to catch Albert and Janne, a Dutch couple who’ve been visiting their son who emigrated to France a decade ago to start a farm. About three hours later they drop me off at the petrol station “Kalken”, between Gent and Lokeren. It’s on the wrong side of the motorway, but the map shows two nearby bridges and the one just south of the place is easy to get to and across and once on the other side, the ditches are narrow enough to jump over. The first driver I approach gives me a no, but the second turns out to be going to Zandvoorde, and a mere three minutes after arriving at this side of the motorway, I’ve got my final ride. Once in Zandvoorde I decide to take a bus, but after finding out that the buses are temporarily suspended, I end up walking home, for some well-deserved sleep, unlike German Raststättes, French aires don’t seem to offer a decent place to get some sleep, and even now, three days after returning home, I still feel the effects of the night without sleep.
As for the experience of hitching as a threesome? It was simply amazing. As I wrote near the beginning, I was more than a little worried about it, but in the end it turned out to be an incredible experience, what most stands out is the fact that many of the drivers went out of their way to help us. Maybe it was because of the unusual combination of an old guy with two people who were young enough to be his children, maybe because it was because of the camera that was always prominently visible, whatever it was, it was a blast.
As for some, there he goes again, boring facts and figures? Total distance as a threesome: 2,225.4 km in 22:11 (pure driving time), so averaging a very respectable 100.3 km/h, just marginally slower than my 32-year average of 100.7 km/h. More amazing were our waiting times, averaging just under 36 minutes, vastly better than my own long-time average of almost 53 minutes. Also, our average distance of over 171 km/ride compares rather favourable with my own average of just over 123 km/ride. The highlight for me? My first visit to Andorra, but somewhat strangely I do have mixed feelings about this, because I didn’t actually hitch any rides in the country itself…