Guest post: Moving house from Kraków to Montpellier in a two-and-a-half day solo hitchhiking journey – by Maria Dybicz

In this week’s guest post we join Maria, a Polish-born English teacher, who sets off on her solo hitch-hiking journey across Europe in order to start a new life in France.
A life-changing decision preceded by an epic journey…

I guess I should start with telling you a few words about the background of the story. I’m Maria, a Polish, 31-year-old woman who’s been dreaming of moving to France for a few years. There were always some issues holding me back, but this year I finally (almost) resolved them and I am now free to go. I decided to hitch-hike – even though I’m generally not a fan of this means of transport – for a few reasons. Firstly, because of the aforementioned issues I couldn’t pre-plan the date of my departure and book any tickets in advance. Secondly, my budget is tight – I have no job in France yet and I prefer to keep my savings for paying my first months’ rent. Thirdly, I read (on some Internet forums Ania had directed me to) that hitch-hiking through Germany and France is easy and I know it’s doable in Poland too. You may also like to know that I’m not a very experienced hitch-hiker – previously I had only hitch-hiked occasionally and on short distances (with the exception of a 600-km route across Poland which I did twice in July 2012, going on holiday to Masuria and back to Krakow), never across different countries. Also, I hardly have any driving experience, so I’m often unsure where I should stand and wave my hand to make it convenient (and legal) for drivers to stop for me.

The actual story (of my journey) started on Monday at 8 am in Krakow. I set off with a sign saying “Wroclaw” and a backpack containing a laptop I was afraid I’d lose on the way, a sleeping bag, a few clothes and shoes and some photocopied teaching materials (I’m an English teacher) whose weight was going to amaze my drivers. I reached the edge of the city, chose a spot and… was repeatedly redirected to another by well-wishing pedestrians, who had very different ideas about the best route for hitch-hiking to Wroclaw. After 45 minutes of walking back and forth and occasionally stretching out my arm a car stopped. A very kind mature couple took me all the way to Wroclaw, complaining all the way – about the queues on the motorways, the country’s economy, bad government etc. – just like the Polish always do (and that’s one of the reasons why I’m emigrating). They left me on a fuel station near Wroclaw, where I found another piece of carton in a rubbish container, carefully drew “Dresden” on it and started testing my luck again on a parking bay behind the station.

A truck stopped after 5 minutes. The driver said he had decided to stop because it was just starting to rain and that he could take me to Chemnitz (further than Dresden). He turned out to be a computer geek who had a Mac laptop with wi-fi Internet in his cab. He was a very kind guy who told me some amazing stories about truck drivers’ work, for example how they find illegal immigrants at the back of their lorries. The protagonists of those stories included a pregnant woman with two little children and a guy who suddenly got out of the lorry after cutting the tilt from the inside with his knife. Or about “by-passes” – a way of stealing fuel, which is about thieves quietly attaching their pipes to the petrol tanks after you park your lorry for the night. He said he once attacked one of such thieves and was arrested for it, but the charges were dropped since no-one could find the victim. After that incident he had to undergo some psychiatric tests to check how regular his tendency to be aggressive can be. “So I was talking about myself and the shrink kept muttering under her breath. It was so annoying! I wanted to hit her to shut her up, but fortunately the test ended quickly with a ‘you’re just overworked’ diagnosis”, he said.

After a few hours we had to stop for a rest on a lorry park around Dresden. There was a woman smoking a cigarette next to her car there. My lorry driver got out of the cab, went straight to her and asked:
“Where are you going?”
“Frankfurt”, she answered.
“Maria! Do you want to go to Frankfurt?” he shouted. I initially didn’t, as my plan was to go via Nuremberg, but you’ve got to be flexible when you’re hitchhiking and he managed to convince me that Frankfurt being, as it is, in the west of Germany is good enough. I agreed.

The smoking woman turned out to be a refrigerator truck driver (she stopped on the lorry park out of a habit, even though this time she was travelling for personal purposes in a small car). She was also a very direct butch woman who was shamelessly flirting with “my” driver while swearing repeatedly.
“Will you take her?” he asked her, pointing at me.
She checked me out carefully and eventually decided:
“You don’t look like a slapper. Jump in.”

The journey with Lady Refrigerator (as I called her in my thoughts) was less pleasant, as she kept smoking her cigarettes while driving without opening a window, a practice which gave me a significant headache in the end. I think Lady Refrigerator was also disappointed with me, as she was fascinated with cars and commented enthusiastically on each one which was overtaking us (it must’ve been a good one, since she was driving 150 km/h on average on those German motorways) – and I could say nothing about the makes, engines, acceleration or other automotive subjects. But thanks to her I got to Frankfurt (which is about 1000 km away from Krakow) in the evening of the same day. She dropped me on a fuel station outside the city. We both assumed I’d easily get a lift to the centre (it was about 2-km distance, but I couldn’t walk along a motorway). We would probably have been right – if she had dropped me on the right side of this motorway… I realised the mistake after she had already left. A minute later I also realised that crossing a German motorway after dark is virtually impossible.

I decided to speak to drivers coming to my “wrong” fuel station. The second person decided to take me to the suburbs of Frankfurt. Later I took a train to the centre where I could start looking for a hostel I had some directions to. I had neither a map of the city I hadn’t intended to visit nor a smartphone. The search involved talking to two Vietnamese students I met in the street – one of them spoke English, the other spoke German. So I talked English with the first one, she translated to Vietnamese, then the second guy asked some locals the way in German. We eventually succeeded.

…. only to find out that apparently there was a famous car fair in Frankfurt at the time (how could I know with my lack of interest in the automotive industry?) so all the affordable hotels and hostels were fully booked. Here I’d like to say hello to those charming Indian receptionists in one of the hotels I went to that night who supported me greatly saying things like: “Oh yeah, it’s the same every year… People who didn’t book two years in advance (!) come here crying and begging us for a bed, but we can’t help them… You won’t find a place to stay for tonight better than a train station… And if you walk around with your backpack and looking so lost, someone will surely mug you… Or a taxi-driver will kidnap you to a brothel…”

Dear guys, you were wrong. I walked back to one of the hostels where I was previously ejected and asked the receptionists there (whose attitude was different) if I could just sit in their living room till the morning. The head of the shift refused at first (“It’s not allowed. It’s Germany. We have rules.”) but when she realized I couldn’t afford a taxi to get to another hotel (but hey, all the hotels were fully booked and taxi-drivers are kidnappers ,so what’s the big deal?) she sighed, said something in German to her colleagues and pointed at some chairs on the corridor.

The night turned out to be very pleasant. I walked around this huge hostel, found out that showers were on the corridors and not locked, so I took a shower and felt much better. Further exploration of the premises revealed that there’s a little, quiet, dark staircase which led to a conference room. The latter was locked, but in front of it there was a 1,5m2 x 1,5m2 square of the floor and a window with a wonderful view of lit up bridges over the River Main. And this is where I slept. Very well.

Too well, actually. I woke up far too late in the morning. Checking Hitchwiki advice, breakfast, finding some new carton, buying a pen at a train station (did I mention I’m not a professional hitch-hiker?), preparing a “Karslruhe” sign, asking the way and getting to the spot Hitchwiki recommends took another 2 hours… But in spite of the pessimistic predictions I read in Hitchwiki (“the rate of picking up there is extremely slow”) a car stopped after 5 minutes. A lovely middle-aged German engineer took me to a parking bay on a motorway near Karslruhe, bought me a burger and left. I started catching… before the parking bay (where cars enter it, with high-speed). No-one stopped for 15 minutes, so I realized I was doing something wrong (it isn’t normal for me to wait that long) and walked back to the bay. There someone approached me and explained gently how silly of me it was to stand there, how dangerous and illegal too. I should’ve been standing behind the rest area (where cars leave it). OK, you learn through experience. Then the carrying guy offered to take me to Strasbourg. Fine.

We stopped on a fuel station on the way. Then a bizarre thing happened – someone from a Polish Job Office called me. On the phone! I find it weird because those guys are usually citizen-unfriendly and communicate with you through registered letters, written in legal jargon you don’t understand. It turned out that the caller did me a double favour – not only did she inform me about my administrative situation quickly and in a clear way, but she also secured the rest of my journey. Another driver who was fuelling up on this station heard me speaking Polish on the phone and decided to approach me – he was Polish too. He was transporting some medicines from Germany to Spain in his van. From Germany to Spain through the south of France.

He said he didn’t usually take hitch-hikers because his cargo was very valuable but there was something about me (and my silliness of trying to catch a lift on a motorway – yes, he had seen me there too) that he decided to make an exception. Perhaps, as Lady Refrigerator put it, I look like “an innocent, helpless kid” – so drivers are not afraid of me, they rather take pity on me and I hardly ever wait for a lift for longer than 10 minutes. And this is why I hitch-hike (otherwise I wouldn’t, patience is not my greatest virtue).

I covered the next 800 km with the medical carrier and really felt a good vibe between the two of us. He is the only driver I’ve met in my hitchhiking experience who could not only speak to me about himself, but also listen attentively to what I had to say. We shared our life stories with each other. For example he told me how his local catholic priest refused to baptise his little daughter after she was born, because she was a proof of sinful non-marital sex. Then the guy asked the priest if his own (the priest’s) two children are baptised (!!). Father kicked him out the presbytery in great anger, but eventually agreed to the baptism. Poland…

On Tuesday evening the driver said he felt too tired to continue driving (no wonder, he had been driving for 12 hours or so) and said that… I could take over the wheel if I wanted to get to Montpellier that day. Hmm… I have a driving licence, but my only driving experience have been the driving course and the tests (yes, I had to take a few before I actually passed one). Secondly, driving a van like that one is different – the car is longer and you can’t use the back mirror. Thirdly, the cargo was precious (and our lives too). So I decided to be the reasonable one among the two of us (you see, dad, I’m not totally insane!) and refused to drive.

In the evening my driver started talking to another one through CB radio and we decided to stop on a fuel station and have coffee all together.
“You don’t sound like a lorry driver”, I said to that other guy after having listen to what he was saying for a few minutes. “You sound like a philosophy student.”
“Sociology perhaps?” he laughed. “And I’m not a student any more. I graduated two years ago.”

I smiled. I myself am going to graduate in sociology in about two weeks (and in order to do that I’ll have to hitchhike back to Krakow and then back to Montpellier…).

Later I agreed to spend the night with the medical carrier as I felt I could trust him. We stopped for the night at a lorry park around Aumont-Aubrac. There were toilets there. The state of those toilets was the scariest thing I saw during this whole journey. I will spare you the details.

The driver slept in the cab, I slept on the back of the van. Next to sixty kilograms of morphine. The man locked me from the outside to keep me and the morphine safe. It was completely dark. The he turned air-conditioning on (the medicine had to be kept in a specific range of temperatures). So I was locked in this darkness, listened to the noise of the air coming inside and couldn’t help imagining that I was locked in a gas chamber and about to die… But after a while I calmed down and managed to fall asleep (I’m a master of falling asleep anywhere, even in gas-chamber-like rooms).

We woke up the next morning and my wonderful driver took me to Saint-Andre-de-Sangonis where he left me in a rest area on a motorway. Within the next 5 minutes a car stopped – a van whose driver informed me that: 1. I couldn’t be there (it’s a motorway) 2. I couldn’t walk away (there was a high fence along this motorway, probably to prevent pedestrian access) 3. he couldn’t take me with him (the reasons not explained). A Greek tragedy indeed.

So I just stayed there, waiting for my miserable end at a police station when another car stopped. It was a French fashion stylist who took me to Clermant-l’Herault and… offered me a job on the way (as her son’s English tutor). Then I took a 1,5 € bus to Montpellier.

For the epilogue: I arrived to Montpellier (on Wednesday around midday), met my Couchsurfing host there and he told me that he had just lost almost 1200 € on booking his this year’s holiday in Krakow (!) with a French travel agency – the deal had turned out to be a scam. And when he was setting off on his last year’s holiday, he missed his flight, because the driver of the bus which he had taken to the airport had lost his way driving in Paris (and most of his unlucky passengers missed their flights that day). And they say hitch-hiking is a risky way of travelling.

written by: Maria Dybicz

Maria, an indecisive and disorganized jack of all trades, recently into teaching English and Latin dances. Born in Poland, but doesn’t feel she belongs there. Has visited most of southern, western and central Europe, as well as a part of the USA, only to conclude that she’d actually prefer to have a boring life with a home, a cat and a washing machine in it. Currently struggling to acquire that in the south of France.

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15 Responses to Guest post: Moving house from Kraków to Montpellier in a two-and-a-half day solo hitchhiking journey – by Maria Dybicz

  1. dormoc says:

    Bardzo ciekawa opowieść. Wyobraziłam sobie siebie w takiej sytuacji. Życzę powodzenia w dalszej podróży przez życie.

    • Maria says:

      Pani Doroto, dziękuję bardzo i pozdrawiam serdecznie! Na następna kawę z Anią w Katowicach wproszę się do Pani, bo chciałabym z Panią też się spotkać!

  2. Paul Moore says:

    A lovely story, Maria … but I would NEVER EVER EVER recommend that a woman hitch-hikes on her own. It’s very stupid and very dangerous (forgive me Maria).

    You may think I’m being very boring and very conservative, but I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’ve hitch-hiked in many parts of the world, run with the bulls in Pamplona (many times!), and slept on countless beaches. But I can handle myself. Hitch-hiking is a wonderful way to get around, but you have to be sensible, alert, aware, observant, street-wise and very very careful. This rule of thumb applies to guys as well as girls.

    Personally, I would NEVER have allowed myself to be locked into a van for the night. I would have slept on the ground next to the van. Never ever allow yourself to be locked in! Also, regardless of how nice a person looks, a woman should never accept a lift from a male driver. In most cases, nothing will happen. But occasionally bad things do happen, and before you know it, you could find yourself being driving off the beaten track by a potential rapist or murderer. Many many many young women have died this way. Don’t take the risk. Don’t become just another statistic.

    My advice to the ladies: Be sensible! If you want to hitch-hike, find someone to do it with (preferably a guy). I’m not being sexist. I’m just being sensible. Never ever think that nothing will happen to you. Don’t be naive! Don’t be trusting. Bad things happen all the time and many woman disappear without a trace every day of the year. Check the missing persons register at your local police station or with Interpol if you don’t believe me. They leave home in search of a new life, accept a lift from a nice guy, and they are never seen again. End of story! The driver might be good-looking, harmless-looking, well-groomed or very old, but it doesn’t matter.

    Also, keep this in mind:

    Any guy who stops to pick up a woman (or a guy) on their own must be an idiot by default. Why? Because a female hitch-hiker could accuse them of rape (it happens a lot), and a male hitch-hiker could beat them up and rob them (it happens all the time). I’ve even heard of cases where female ‘hitch-hikers’ have over-powered and robbed male drivers. This is just one of the reasons (besides insurance cover) why all companies tell their drivers never to pick up hitch-hikers.

    Some people never stop being naive while others learn quickly from their mistakes and live to tell the tale.

    You lived to tell the tale, Maria, but next time, please take the bus or the train or find someone to hitch-hike with :)

    Get real and get wise!

  3. Maria says:

    Paul, thank you for your opinion. But that’s just your opinion. I’m not as stupid as I may seem. The explanation is different – I’m aware of the risk (though I can’t calculate it in numbers, like the chance of dying during the trip, but can anyone do that?) and I simply agree to take it – for the benefits the experience brings me. I choose to trust my intuition about the people I meet, so far it hasn’t let me down and I’ll continue relying on it. And I have the right to do it. I’m an adult and I don’t hurt anyone by the risks I take.

  4. Paul Moore says:

    Maria … your response to my advice says it all. I just hope that other females will have more sense and think twice before hitch-hiking alone. It really is a very stupid thing to do (whether you agree of not).

  5. annakrahn824028038 says:

    Hey brave and possibly slightly crazy Maria! I’m a Polish-blooded, English 30yr old girl living in Montpellier. How are you finding it? You should get in touch for some polish/english/french chats. I know a couple of other poles here too! X

    • Maria says:

      Hey Anna! I really like Montpel – I was here before and I chose it as the place where I’d like to live on reflection. I have plenty of opportunities for French chats here. And for meeting other Poles – if I needed that and speaking Polish, I’d have stayed in Poland ;) But I’d love to meet you! If you fancy a drink or a walk or something – hit me up on my e-mail: mariady-bicz@tl-en.pl (remove both dashes). Cheers!

  6. Pingback: Solo female hitchhikers: good or bad? | Hitch-Hikers' Handbook

  7. kilaheem says:

    She has 100% support from me, when your numbers up, it’s up, it doesn’t matter what your doing, lights out. Life is dangerous, so dangerous infact NOBODY gets out alive, so why not make the most of it and TRUST in your fellow man. Nobody supported me hitch hiking through Mexico, even my closest friends. You know I fucken did it anyway, and it was the proudest thing I’ve done in my life.
    Respect Maria and HHHB

    • Paul Moore says:

      kilaheem: If you think you have something constructive to say, perhaps you could say it without using bad language! … And if you absolutely ‘have to’ use bad language, at least spell it correctly ;)

    • Thanks a lot for your supportive comment and for taking part in our discussion, kilaheem! How was hitch-hiking in Mexico? We’d love to hear some of your stories!

    • Its nice to hear someone have the same understanding as myself. I too am a lone female hitchhiker, and I believe that when your time is due, there is nothing you can do to get away from it…it is just time! I would also like to point out that we are aware of the risks involved, and don’t need someone like Paul to let us know these things…TRUST US PAUL…WE ARE WOMEN…WHO HAVE GROWN UP KNOWING ABOUT THESE ISSUES, AND ARE MORE AWARE OF THE RISKS THAN YOURSELF, SEEING AS WE ARE THE ONES DEALING WITH IT, NOT YOU!
      Anyway, thanks Kilaheem for the support on female hitchers!

  8. kilaheem says:

    Paul : lighten up dude
    HHHB : Mex was awesome think about it all the time. I’ll read your post on how to contribute as I should have some good stories while attempting to hitch from Eastern Europe to South East Asia before returning to Australia.

  9. kilaheem says:

    Came across http://akilinastravels.wordpress.com/2013/10/27/amsterdam-to-pariswaitbarcelona/
    In my feed, I think it’s pertinent to this post and discussion.

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