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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