Préface: I wrote it to be read by non-hitch-hikers too. You might find some superfluous explications.
A NOMADIC DATE IN PARIS
My name is Julien; I'm 27 years old; I come from Reunion Island, in the Indian Ocean; I'm of French nationality; I live in Hamburg, Germany and I started hitch-hiking to Paris from Poland on the 4th of August 2008.
Kostrzin - Berlin / the basics of hitch-hiking
There is no need to explain here why I'm from the Indian Ocean, living in Germany with a French passport. But I can tell you that I was in Poland (city of Kostrzin, right at the German border) for a three days long rock festival that saw a 200 000 people attendance. Three days living between a tent and a stage, with a very fluctuating weather that left me and most of my stuff covered with a thick crust of dust; far away from the nearest shower.
But the reason why I was heading to Paris hitch-hiking it makes sense to present to you: A small group of enthusiast travelers had decided to organize the first European Hitch-hiking Week. Or was it the first "International ..." I'm not sure, and I suspect that the organizers don't know for sure as well, and actually don't care. The aim was to give one location and one time for a rally, and broadcast it to all the hitch-hikers of the world. The place was decided to be the "Champs de Mars" in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France; and the time 10pm on the 08/08/08, hence the name of "Project 888".
The aim was to attract the public attention on this forgotten mean of transportation, and allegedly have a great time together.
Now back to present day.
During the festival, I had been careful to keep one clean T-shirt separated from the rest of my clothe in a plastic bag. Once the music stopped, I packed all my (wet) stuff in my backpack, put on the "nice t-shirt" and walked to the main road where I was planning to hitch-hike to Berlin.
Anyone can improvise himself a hitch-hiker. All it takes is a road, a thumb, and mercy in the heart of the drivers. But some tricks make you more likely to reach your destination. The first one being : "go to the right road". A hitch-hiker without a map will need a lot of luck. I had a map so I found it, the right road, and went there.
The second rule would be: "get the right spot". A good spot is: "where the drivers will see you well" and "where the drivers will have somewhere to stop if they want to". A good addition is : "where the drivers won't be driving too fast past you". I found a place like that, dropped the bag and put up my sign.
Hitch-hiking with a sign can be very useful. You can use a piece of cardboard box, a sheet of A4 white paper... some really organized travelers carry a white board with markers. You write the nearest big city in your direction and show it to the drivers passing by. My sign said "Berlin", since I believed it was pretty likely one of the drivers of that road would be going there straight. I had been standing there with my thumb out for 10 minutes when an old corrugated van pulled over.
It is my own little personal philosophy to never refuse a ride that goes my way. On the assumption that maybe the one nicest guy on Earth kind of looks like a serial killer, and I would be missing on him if I decided to be picky. I believe that even if you're a girl, blond-haired and with... hem... harmonious features, it is still the way to go. All you'd need for self defense is some self-confidence.
Inside the van, there was already two people. Both of them Polish so I had to used body language a lot (I speak "only" French, English, Spanish and German). But they were going to Berlin. I threw my bag in the back and jumped on the "middle seat" and off we went. It turned out that the seats were not fastened to the frame of the vehicle, that the seatbelts were missing and that the man seating right against me was strongly smelling of that very particular scent of a homeless person.
I, myself, hadn't taken a hot shower in days (not counting the rainstorm at the festival) so I could hardly complain.
The homeless guy turned out to be very silent, the driver very talkative. He spoke to me in Polish (where I still know some words), a bit of German and English and a lot of arm gestures. We talked very much about how the German cars were good and fast, how the weather was finally back to nice (after 3 days of rain, right onspot for my outdoor festival) about his German colleague that leaves on the other side of the border, about how the Polish food is much better than the German (I argued that point)... And as we were devising about all that, he pulled over in an industrial area and started looking for something in the neighborhood at low speed. He explained to me why he was doing that but I didn't get it.
In the early days of my hitch-hiker's life, it would have made me highly suspicious; but after 7 years of experience with not a bad one, my trust in the genuinely kind nature of the people that were nice enough to take me in is as hard as rock. Though I do recommend the harmonious blond girl to stay on her guards when that happens to her.
He finally stopped on the parking lot of one of the companies, walked out with a sign that meant : "I'll be right back". The homeless guy followed, I hanged around the truck. My backpack was in the trunk and I'm not that naive.
The homeless came back after three minutes with a fridge on a trolley. I helped him to unload it near the van and he went back with the trolley... only to come back with another fridge. I figured that some help might be needed over there so I followed him this time. Total, we loaded eight fridges in the van before taking off again. I had no idea why and I didn't really care to know. Their business.
We arrived in Berlin before 3pm. He dropped me near a S-bahn station (the "tube" of Berlin) and wrote down all his coordinate in my back-pocket-notebook, in case I would come back to Kostjin one day. I warmly thanked him and his homeless friend and took off feeling a bit shitty because even if I would eventually go back to Kostjin, Calling him is pretty unlikely to be on top of my list.
People call me names very often for buying into stereotypes all the time. But I do believe that there are, sadly. About this type of guy, my friend Paul that is even more outrageous than me said: "Those types, they would give away their life for a complete stranger like you. They have no culture, no education, just a big heart". Then I started calling him names. But of course he's right and the world is far from that cool place of liberty, equality and fraternity that I sometimes think it is.
Anyway, back to the road novel. I had so many dirty things that needed to be washed, including my own body, that I stayed two days in Berlin, at a friend's place. Anyway, I had a lot of friends to pay a visit too so I was quite busy there. I think I left with more sleep lack than after the festival.
Berlin - Hamburg / The luck factor
Going out of a big city takes a bit more than a map. It takes the advices of someone else that have been hitch-hiking out of the city every few days in the past five years. Such a person certainly exists, but I don't know him/her, so the next best thing is called "hitchwiki.org". It's a wiki web page where anyone can go and write about some good spots to go from A to B and that's where I found out how to get out of Berlin in the direction of Hamburg. I wrote down the instructions on my back-pocket-notebook (definitely one of my most precious items) and said goodbye to my friends. On the road again.
The spot I was heading to turned out to be impracticable because of road works. I had been inspired enough to write down the instructions to an alternative point of departure so I went back into the S-bahn and lost 1h of precious hitch-hiking time.
The alternative spot turned out to be pretty shitty. As it is for any big city. Most of the driver getting on the motorway are actually going to the near suburbs and are of no help to me.
When hitching the motorway, one must be very wary of where a driver will drop him out before he steps into the car. The best transit spots are the gas stations along the road. Being dropped anywhere else can lead to serious delays.
In my case, nobody stopped in two hours. My sign said: "A24 / Hamburg", A24 being the one motorway that is just out of Berlin, in the direction of Hamburg and has a gas station, according to my map.
In that time, I saw only three cars from Hamburg (in Germany, you can tell by reading the identification plate). The third one slowed down hesitantly but there was already 4 people in it and they gave me waves and smiles instead. That still helps.
Half an hour later they were back and took me in. They probably realized that there was actually enough space for me a bit too late, drove to the next exit, turned around, drove back and turned again. This has happened to me already 3 times and, despite the thousands of drivers that acted as if I was translucent while passing me, it revives for a while the agonizing humanist that used to drive most of my thoughts.
They were pretty young, one of them around 15 years old, the others around 18. Including one of the blond-harmonious types described above; I locked my hands in my pockets and my eyes on the road.
I speak German on an acceptable conversational level so we could speak somehow. But as many people of this wonderful country, they were fluent in English. I wonder what's wrong with mine.
I had a problem: For the 888 project, I had decided that Hamburg would be a stopover city for those coming from Scandinavia. I had organized a little gathering in a local pub, invited the Hamburg people to meet them and set the rally time at 9pm. I got picked up in Berlin at twenty to nine. And it's a 3h drive. The fault was mine, I had not planned enough margins and there was no way I would have been on time. When I arrived at midnight, I went straight home and started sleeping before my head hit the pillow.
Hamburg - Utrecht / The reason why we do it
Utrecht was the last stopover for anyone coming from anywhere north-east of Paris. There was also a little meeting organized there and I really wanted to get there before 10pm. Last time I had gone there hitch-hiking it had taken me eleven hours. But I had so much stuff to do that I left home at 12. Tight margins again!
To hitch south from Hamburg there is a really cool spot. You can ride the S-bahn and the bus to a far suburb and then actually walk to a motorway gas station that sees a lot of traffic. As usual, I got the tip from hitchwiki.org.
When I got there there were already four hitch-hikers waiting.
The common sense philosophy when you reach an already occupied spot is to walk to the holder of the grounds and introduce yourself and see if your going the same way. If yes, the two (or more) would then join their effort and try to get a ride together. If the driver would take only one person, the one that had been waiting the longest would get it. But it has happened often to me that the other person would see me as an invader (if he was there first) or as a parasite (if I was) and try to compete with me. Which I find truly stupid and I hope you do too.
Three of the ones that were there were on their way to Utrecht as well, for the same reason as me; one was going to Hanover; so we were not interested in the same drivers.
I got out of there after 40 minutes waiting, which is a pretty good score according to my past experience. A truck driver with the tattoo of a bald eagle standing in front of the flag of the USA with the word "AMERICA" printed under. I refrained a giggle.
He was going quite far on my way but had to stop 70 kilometers later to clean the truck. Which was going to take him around 2 hours. I asked him to drop me off at the nearest gas station. A short but fun ride since the guy was really cheerful.
On my next gas station, I noticed the weather was getting really hot. My previous sign said "Bremen" and I was hoping to get the next ride past it. So I took off my shirt, sat down in the grass and started working on another one: "Osnabrück / Utrecht". I had seen a couple of dutch cars and I had a small hope to get a direct ride to the Netherlands.
Once my sign over, I put my T-shirt back on, raised it and in 3 minutes, a parked truck gave me a honk. Quick one.
Indeed I had been inspired. The guy was driving to Rotterdam, which is past Utrecht. I could do all the rest but the last "into the city" ride with him. And he turned out to be the nicest truck-driver I had ridden with since ages. First he put a pack of cigarettes in front of me with a lighter and the instructions to use it as if mine. Then he proved to be very talkative and on interesting subjects (I'm not very prolific on football, cars and girls). My only problem with him was that he was not really in a hurry and I was somehow. He kept on stopping for coffee, or little pauses, or food, or shopping, buying me stuff all the time, which made the little stressed businessman that lives inside me completely frantic. So far he was shut down by the rastafari in me that decided to enjoy the moment, that was indeed very enjoyable:
- At the trucker's rest area where he ordered his meal, there was an harmonious blond woman serving the food (that was more in his age-range). He convinced her to take a break at our table, which got us a free round of soda.
- At the Dutch border he stopped to shop some food. The little supermarket had a little booth selling plastic jewelry and other accessories. He walked into that and scrutinized the earrings long enough for the shopkeeper to come up to him (another one of those blond things). They discussed jewelry for a while but it turned out they didn't have the type of earrings he was keen on wearing but still left with a wristband, leaving a tip that was around the value of the purchase.
I believe that there was actually no "blond factor", that he's just a really nice guy, and that it was just incidental that both cases involved an harmonious blond person of female gender. he told me the following on the way back to the truck: "There no difference really between you french guy, me and that girl from Romania (talking about the jewelry girl). We're all just human and this is how I relate to her."
Though he had told me an hour before that "there are two types of people on this planet: the humans and the assholes". But I'm sure there is a way to combine the two without being inconsistent.
He dropped me into the latest gas station before Utrecht, that was seeing almost no traffic. Even given the proximity and the popularity of my destination (Utrecht is a big town), it took me another hour of smiling, waving and holding my sign near the pumps before someone unstranded me.
I was still in luck, the guy was another brand of "nicest guy on Earth". He took me into the heart of Utrecht, quite departing from his route, so that I'd save on the bus ticket. Another warm thanks later, I was standing on the side of the Oude Gracht, which truly must be the most beautiful canal of the world; a fading smile on my face. It was 9:30pm.
Right after securing my pack on my back, I reached for my back-pocket-notebook where I had written the address of the rally point; and scanned the street for nice local helpers. The first person that crossed my path was a pretty young girl that turned out to speak 7 languages or something and didn't know where the place was. So she took me under her arm and we went out looking for it together. She actually walked me to the very entrance door of the pub, I invited her for a beer.
It was 9:57pm, I love to be on time.
Already sitting there around a table were a group of 10 noisy and smiley people, that obviously had some fresh adventures to tell the assembly and couldn't wait to. My friend Robin was also there and I couldn't keep myself from jumping on him in a big laugh. After I had dropped my 14 kg bag, that is.
The girl I had brought with me (and that goes by the interesting name of "Selma") found the atmosphere to her taste and hang around for a while. The contrary would have surprised me. There is nothing more cheerful than a traveling crowd of travelers. I had no idea where I was going to spend the night but there was some interested local people so I was figuring that one of them would offer me hospitality. I ended up going with Robin to his home in Amsterdam by train, from where we would leave together the next morning.
Utrecht - Paris / Broadcast it to the world!
Robin was one of the most active organizers of the event. We got home at 1:30 but went to bed only at 3:30 after doing some organization related work. Robin is also very active on various hospitality networks and there was a couple of USers already asleep in the attic, one Canadian guy and one German still awake, the German completely stoned.
The alarm clock went off at 7am, departure from the house planned at 7:30 (occurred at 7:36) because we had a date at 8:30. The kind of date you can't really miss.
Robin had written a press release about the event and had sent it to the local media companies. One of them had suggested a TV report on it, to be shown in the news, and they were already waiting for us when we got there at 8:45.
They fitted Robin with a microphone and filmed him getting his first ride out. The bastard actually stood at the red light, walked to the first car with an open window, exchanged 3 words with the driver and hopped in. I never had anything that fast.
It was planned that he would go off at the nearest gas station, where the TV crew, me, Cliff (the Canadian guy) and Hans (a freelance cameraman filming the making of the TV report) would find him again. So after he left, Cliff and me started doing the same. Cliff actually found a guy in a SUV that clearly didn't want to talk to him but when he heard it was only 'till the next gas station, he said ok. Then I screamed through the street : "Is is ok if I come too?" he nodded in an annoyed way. Hans didn't even ask and jumped in before I closed the door. The poor SUV-owner had been tricked into doing a good deed.
Mercifully enough, the gas station was only 500 meters. He was soon allowed to enjoy the spaciousness of his cockpit alone with himself.
Then the TV crew decided it would be good to film Robin asking rides to drivers that had stopped at the gas station. That made his task a lot more difficult since it doesn't quite put the drivers at ease when they have to deal with someone asking them a favour, with a huge camera and a sound-taker just behind him. But eventually one guy volunteered to take him to the next gas station. The business type, with a huge Cadillac car that took him plus the cameraman plus the anchorman in his car for a 15 minutes ride. Cliff had already left with Hans with another driver so I did the trip in the TV crew car, with the sound-taker as a driver. A really nice guy that writes music when he's not holding a perch behind a cameraman.
The business guy was actually the perfect character for our needs. He said he was regularly picking hitch-hikers, that they never caused him any trouble, and gave us some really nice piece of TV when he started driving off with Robin's bag still in his trunk, Robin running after him and banging the side of the car.
The TV crew left at 10am. The same evening they aired the report in the news of the main channel.
Robin got himself two coffee after this stressful experience and told me: "My friend, you get the next ride". So I did my usual trick: standing near the door of the boutique of the gas station, holding my sign and trying to look harmless.
Chronogically, a motorcyclist came up to me and told he would have taken me straight to France if I had been carrying an helmet and if I didn't have such a big bag. Then Robin came up to me and mocked my technique, saying that he was going to show me some Real hitch-hiking, and went off to the pumps to try to engage conversation with the drivers. Then a woman came up to me and said she could take us to Antwerp, that there was probably space for us two. Ha! In your face Robin!
From the moment the TV crew left till we took off: 40 min.
The woman was Dutch, living in France. She was travelling with another french lady, which lead us to an interesting situation. Sure enough the French woman could speak only French, so that language was good for 3 of us (Robin can a little bit too but not fluent). English was good for 3, dutch for 2. No lingua franca. So we were constantly switching, translating, misunderstanding and I love it when it is like that.
I can't remember how it started but we were singing songs most of the way. Dutch, French and Creol (Reunion Island language) songs. Possibly because the radio was broken. A short but very nice ride.
We crossed the border and got dropped on a really nice gas station just before Antwerp. The vehicle flow was concentrated into a narrow passage from where everyone that would enter the station would have to see us.
We were hungry by then but, as usual, I was a bit stressed to miss the one perfect ride if we took a break so I started hitch-hiking again straight. Robin started taking pictures.
After 50 minutes, a Dutch guy with his Dutch mother came up to me and told me he could take us to... yeah, you heard it my friend: PARIS! Ooh yeah!
It was a long but quick ride. Just a small break for food. The guy happened to be working in the same building block Robin was working in. They'll probably meet again often for coffee.
We went through a dozen of heavy rain storms on the way. I unconsciously prayed for good weather. Unconscious prayers work better.
Their destination was "Pont de l'Alma" so they dropped us in front of the Eiffel Tower. It was 5:20pm, 7h20 after the departure of the TV crew, no more than 8h from home. Great score.
I thought we would be the first to arrive. Heck! There was already a crowd of around 30 people sitting on the Champs de Mars, half of them playing Ultimate Frisbee. There was nobody I knew from previous travels and travelers-gatherings. I dropped the bag and jumped on the field to join the game.
More people kept on showing up. At 10pm, we were around a hundred. It was out of question to have everyone hosted by the hospitality community of Paris. We had to camp somewhere. Nobody felt like taking the train out so we decided to spend the night right here on the Champs de Mars, at the foot of the most amazing monument of Europe.
There was enough beer and wine around to keep me fueled until 3am. No problems so far except when I had to mediate between a Polish guy that was looking for weed and a parisian that was pissed-off that the Polish guy thought he was a dealer because he looked Arabic. The race issue is quite sensitive in France.
One hour later they were both laying improvised lyrics on human beats and having good fun.
I slept from 3 to 5:30am when the cops woke us up. By the time I had removed the shit from my eyes, the USer sleeping next to me had stood up and started to negotiate. I thought : "No! Not him!". It is my opinion that the French people have little tolerance for strangers, and that it worsens significantly if the later is from the USA and if the former is a policeman. But actually, the USer kid spoke french quite well and positively impressed the cops with his language skills. By the time I got there, he was already explaining them the concept of 888.
There were actually around 15 tents scattered on the lawn. The rest was sleeping on the floor, and sleeping well as my unconscious prayer had been granted.
"We'll put down the tents, wake up everyone. Don't worry. We are the kind of people that clean after themselves." They left when the last tent was down and the lawn cleaned. We went back to sleep.
The next day was spent learning tricks from each other, exchanging stories. Hitch-hikers always have really cool stories to tell. It really took us the whole day. There was so much to be said. We actually did only half of what we had planned in the morning. Around 2pm I went around asking for donations to buy food for everyone and left to the shop with 57€ in petty cash in my back pocket. The cashier at the shop loved it...
And so it was: the people that gave me some cash never asked to see the receipt to check if I wasn't stealing from the community. People that didn't contribute took from the food and later provided something else. Some probably didn't contribute much for various reasons, some probably spent more than they consumed but could afford it. No questions asked.
A good friend that wants to stay anonymous very well summarized it: "Take what you need / Give what you want". Believe it or not, it worked.
When the lights started dimming, the alcohol was already flowing. It is my personal opinion that unless we recalibrate strongly the social philosophy of such events, we'll have to choose between stopping to attend or die young from liver disease. I don't have what it takes to go against the social pressure and I doubt many have. How about we make the next one drug-free?
When I went to bed, I noticed that there was 5 tents standing. I stayed there half a minute wondering if I should wake them all up hitler-style to have them all down before the cops show up again. I decided I was too tired, and that my popularity would be too seriously damaged. The hell with them.
Two hours later, the same cops woke us up, pretty pissed-off to have to repeat the same thing. It looked like all the French speakers were somewhere else so I negotiated again.
"Clean everything, pull down the tents, and if we see you again, you all get fined". I translated to English, folded my stuff, grabbed a plastic bag and started to pick up the trash.
I had been picking stuff alone for a while (mumbling about why nobody was helping) when one of the cops, the one that looked furious, started walking towards me: "Hey you! stop what you're doing and come here!" What again!
"This is unacceptable! You're not going to clean everything on your own! Why are they not helping you! If you clean one minute more, I'm fining everyone! Tell them that." Hmm, they do have some sense of justice after all...
So everyone suddenly found themselves on the lawn picking garbage and it was clean in a matter of minutes.
To all the anarchists out there: If within such a crowd of free-thinkers, world-travelers, it takes a police order to have everyone to cooperate, just imagine at the scale of the human society. That is mostly populated with lazy followers, you will agree.
Once the tents were down we could go back to sleep; it might actually have saved all of us some hours of sleep if I had decided to have the tents pulled down before going to bed, another blink to my anti-authority readers.
And the Sunday morning took off lazily, and was follow by a lazy Sunday afternoon. I was a bit craving for action. The only collective actions were a big discussion (involving everyone that was still there) about a webplatform called "couchsurfing".
It's a hospitality network that started around the idea of sharing what we have and learning about other cultures but turns out to be a great business venture. As usual, the end-user have little hints about what is behind the nice looking webpage so we heard the testimonial of former volunteers.
And of course, one very exciting meeting for next year's hitch-hiking week. Be prepared for it. "789, the road is mine"
As people were slowly leaving, the group slowly shrinked, and then, it was suddenly over. I left with some others to another place in Paris but it would be off-topic to tell about it here.