The Novice Foreigner
I stepped from the ferry and, for the first time, my feet touched foreign soil. Or, rather, concrete. It was only Calais, but at that moment I was James Cook, Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus. I'd rehearsed my first words to the natives on the voyage, dredging with difficulty for the few hazy words of O-level French. I approached a middle-aged woman and, with a sense of occasion, I spoke. "Excusez moi - ou çe trouve l'autoroute sud?"
The woman was sympathetic. "Ee, sorry love, but I just don't speak your language." I'd stretched my hand across an ocean and made contact with a tripper from Barnsley. But I was undaunted. The most exotic adventures have to find room for the commonplace.
When at last I found my way to the main road south and settled to the strange experience of sticking out my thumb on the wrong side of the road, the magnitude of what I was doing hit me. I had no idea where I was going or where I'd be sleeping that night, if at all; I was alone amongst strangers in a strange land; and I was euphoric.
Very early that morning I'd put a rucksack on my back in my Sheffield flat and headed out to hitch for Dover. The original plan had been to go with a friend but, three weeks earlier, he'd landed himself a job as a fireman in Scunthorpe. Uncertain as to whether I'd have the courage to set out alone I'd spent those three weeks burning my bridges. "I'm going to the continent," I told friends. "Hitch hiking. Alone." Come that fateful morning it had taken less courage to heave up my rucksack and leave than to stay and face the ridicule.
The morning had whirled by. Lift after lift to the ferry port at Dover; the ferry itself, waving farewell to the white cliffs before making my way to the front of the ship for my first glimpse of the continent; and now I was there. My destination. Not Calais, as such - not even France - but rather that strange, exotic, slightly suspect and somehow amorphous collection of places we British think of simply as `Abroad'.
Over the years, hitching in England had become something of a hobby, if not an obsession. Living 160 miles from my family in London and with old school friends scattered around various University towns it was also something of a necessity if I was to keep in contact with them without falling out with my bank manager over travel expenses.
It had all started at a friend's house when she suddenly decided to visit an acquaintance in Derby and informed me I was to accompany her. I felt this to be somewhat unreasonable, partly because I was flat broke but mainly because it was three in the morning. My companion would have none of it; I was going and that was that. So it was that I meekly followed her into the city centre but not, to my surprise, to the railway station. Instead, she took me to the start of Sheffield's Parkway where we stopped and she raised her thumb.
This was too much. Thumbing for lifts was no better than begging and besides, it involved taking lifts from strangers. Very strange strangers, since I could conceive of no reason why anyone in their right mind might stop for us.
After half an hour or so a truck pulled up ahead of us. It didn't occur to me that this event might have something to do with my companion's upraised thumb until she began to run towards it, dragging me along in her wake. Minutes later we were comfortably settled in the driver's cab, chatting amiably with as normal a bloke as I've ever met, we were on our way to Derby and I was hooked.
Over the following years I was to learn the one wonderful certainty of hitch hiking; stick out your thumb at the roadside and, sooner or later, someone will stop for you. Beyond that, nothing is predictable. Hitching - whether down the M1 or across the mountains of arctic Scandinavia - is an adventure, free of the dull certainties of timetables and disinterested fellow passengers. The vehicle can be anything. Once I was picked up by a gent in a Rolls Royce; another time by a young female Sergeant in a plush army staff car who was less than pleased at the disdainful attitude of a very superior officer she'd been chauffeuring earlier that day and so stopped to cock a snook at the army establishment. Then there was the hearse complete with coffin, thankfully empty; an ordinary service bus in Sweden whose route took it past a better place for me to stand and whose driver insisted I got on free as a hitcher; a double decker bus converted as a mobile base for an air display team; and once, strangely, an unobtrusive man in an unobtrusive car who claimed to be an operative for MI6 whose tales of espionage bore no resemblance to the stories of John le Carre, but considerable resemblance to Peter Wright's Spycatcher, a book not to be published until some time later. These were unusual journeys but whatever the vehicle, whoever the driver, there are always experiences to be shared, opinions to be debated, feelings to be expressed.
There will always be people who view we hitchers as I viewed myself that first night - mere beggars freeloading on the good will of others. So be it - it's not for them our thumbs are raised. They signal instead to those like that first truck driver looking for company to break the monotony of a long journey; a businessman who used to hitch himself as a student and wants to compare experiences; a young stud in a flash car seeking an audience for tales of his sexual prowess; an old woman afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. For all their diversity they have one thing in common; the desire to talk. If you're not willing to talk back, to listen, to sympathise or debate, take the train; conversation is the hitcher's fare and besides, it's conversation that makes hitching interesting.
It is also what makes many a hitcher timid of travelling abroad; language is not a currency readily exchanged at the ferry port.
On this my first hitching excursion to foreign lands - indeed, my first ever trip overseas - the language barrier was my greatest concern. Come whatever else may it was a guaranteed obstacle. For that reason I attached a Union Jack to my rucksack for prominent display at the roadside; I felt it only fair to forewarn drivers of my speech deficiency.
In the event this small courtesy actually helped speed me on my way. Even today, in a world of jet engines, satellite communication, the internet, the European Union and other manifestations of Global Villagedom, a foreigner remains a person of interest. For the first time I myself was this exotic creature and my speed as a hitcher increased accordingly. Far from being dismayed at my minimal French and complete lack of any other language, drivers saw in my flag a heaven-sent opportunity to practice and improve their English. Lifts came with such eager rapidity that I spent my first night abroad in Geneva, the guest of a young woman driver who put me up in a small mansion set in grounds so huge that a cottage could be tucked unobtrusively away in one corner to house the chef. In under 24 hours I'd travelled seven hundred miles and a world away from my Sheffield bedsit.
Such hospitality turned out to be far from unusual. For seventeen of those first twenty one nights abroad I was someone's pet Englishman as drivers offered me beds for the night, preceded by an evening's entertainment as I was trailed around cafés, bars and homes to meet friends and family. I was asked for tutorials in English and was tutored in turn in French, Flemish, Dutch, German, Italian. Within hours of crossing a nation's border I would be familiar with its government, its customs, local events and places of interest only to have those views modified or dispelled with my next lift as the country around me slid kaleidoscopically into focus. Exotic local delicacies would appear before me as expectant faces looked on for my reaction. There were things I just had to see, places I just had to go, things I just had to do and people, people and more people I just had to meet with their own questions, their own answers, their own stories. Avoiding big cities with their cosmopolitan impersonality, in the smaller towns and villages I found again and again the spirit and wonder of the nations themselves.
And yet, in all this excitement, all this bustle, it was often during those quieter hours when, as at Calais, I found the greatest euphoria simply standing at the roadside, waiting for a lift. Back in England there'd always been something niggling - an appointment, a deadline, washing to do, the shopping to get, plans to be made and followed. But here, by the roadside, there was nothing. The past was irrelevant - that had departed with the last car - and the future was a blank upon which anything might be written and for which nothing could be prepared. At those times I felt an equanimity that was mystical. If no cars were passing, then no cars were passing; there were still clouds to be looked at, the wind in the trees, an ant pulling the carcass of a beetle ten times its size up the cliff face of the kerb at my feet. In such small things I found a joy I'd rarely experience before. If it rained and there was no shelter, I got wet - and yes, there was even pleasure in that, in the water running down my face and the cool freshness of it all. There were times when the euphoria became so intense I'd find myself dancing and laughing madly at the roadside, sometimes destroying an already slim chance of getting a lift by doing so, but what of it? There'd be time enough for that.
Never in my life had I known such freedom and it was intoxicating; and yet, the more I travelled, the more I came to realise that these same feelings had been available to me in some measure back in England all along. Once, I lost a night's sleep travelling to Cologne to visit a friend. I arrived to find him out around five in the evening. He hadn't been expecting me and so might be anywhere - out shopping, back in ten minutes perhaps or on holiday, back in two weeks. What should I do? Without hesitation, the answer presented itself. I'd hitch to Norway. I promptly returned to the motorway without so much as a passing thought that my trip to Cologne had been pointless. How different to the irritation I often feel when calling on an absent friend back in England, perhaps only five minutes' walk from my own front door. Such irritation can so easily become a habit and a habit that's so hard to break.
Worrying, too, can become a habit. A few weeks after leaving Cologne I was sleeping out by a fjord. Within a minute of waking the next morning I was back by the roadside, ready to go... but something niggled. I'd forgotten something. Yes, I'd forgotten something... but what? The worry grew as I worked and worked at it, then a thought popped into focus - "Did you remember to turn off the gas?" Anxiety turned to laughter. It so typified the worries of the every day, some stray thought setting in motion an avalanche of concerns of my own creation when there'd been no problem at all.
But, for all the excitement, I couldn't always escape that old home part of me with its need for routines, familiarity, security. Loneliness was the worst after months among strangers, the nearest thing to an old friend a face familiar from a mere few days' acquaintance. There were times I wanted to share more of myself than the surface veneer of a wandering Englishman. Then there was exhaustion. There's nothing that makes standing at a deserted roadside in a thunderstorm more distressing than having lost three consecutive nights' sleep previously. Then, home would be a distant and unattainable heaven with its luxuries of bath and bed. Yes, there were lows... but they never lingered. They were always dispelled by the next ray of sunshine, the next lift, the next stranger's tales, the next night's sleep - the next miracle.