Hitching to London

 

I was leaving Matala with Anne and Thomas, the dedicated communist German from Ulm, who owned the French Peugot which elevated and lowered its suspension at the flick of a switch. He and I had argued about communism and democracy for a week every night in the taverna. My strongest argument, the one which he couldn=t answer, was to ask him where all the communist travellers were? Why was he the only one from a communist country who was free to travel where he liked, do what he wanted?

Thomas= idealism was admirable. We agreed, at least, that the rich, communist or capitalist, were still screwing the poor. He owned a car and offered me a free ride to Iraklion when he learned I was leaving.

Anne was leaving Greece, too. She was from England, I was heading for London. She had seen me around Matala, decided to accompany me.

I collected the drachma which were saved for me by my boss, Costa, the young, local godfather in Matala. He gave me an allowance each week, kept back a portion of my pay. I worked on various construction jobs he had, was hardened, tanned and strong when he paid me off.

 

He held back a bit for himself, just to make sure everyone knew who was the boss. If he hadn=t saved some of my pay for me, we both knew I would have blown it all.

The ferry from Iraklion to Piraeus was boring and uneventful. Just as well. After living for six months in Matala, on the southern coast of Crete, never leaving, it was a slow emergence into the outside world.

One of the most embarrassing occasions in my life occurred just then. I had the crabs. I got them in Matala and was at the stage of exterminating them which required sexual abstinence. There was to be no carnal contact, not even snuggling, in case of infection of another and a rebirth of the cursed bugs. But I was ashamed. I was too embarrassed to tell Anne.

God knows what she thought.

Anne had lived in Matala long enough to know that I wasn=t gay. She was attractive enough, the ex girlfriend of a guy who was the grandson of Robert Graves, the poet.

But I passed up perfect opportunities and situations which thrust us together. You don=t get much closer together than when you hitchike together. I had recently been through hell, living in my makeshift tent in the campground, scratching at myself. I wouldn=t have wished it on anyone. But I couldn=t bring myself to tell her.

It was bad enough telling Costas and the boys in Matala. They all took a step away from me.

Costas wrinkled his nose when he asked why I didn=t tell him sooner. Later, he admitted that when he got them, he separated himself from his family home and friends until he got rid of them.

 

After a few smog filled days in Athens during which we were treated as fair game, ripped off everywhere we turned, we concluded that the air fare to Britain was too costly. There was an election on in Greece, something catastrophic was happening in Northern Europe, living in Athens, even on our skimpy budget, was too expensive. Reaching London could be done, cheaper, by hitching most of the way.

Anne was fighting with her parents, proving her independence. She could easily get the required air fare home but refused to make the call, thereby signalling to her family that she was dependent upon them.

I thought she was crazy.

A guy seemed to meet us in Brindisi, when we landed in Italy. He appeared, smiling like a long lost brother, gave us pizza and a room for the night, ostensibly, for free. He finally demanded payment in sexual favours, from Anne, but too late. By the time he sneaked away from his wife, it was morning and we fled.

On the motorway, heading north, it was easy to see why veteran travellers advised always to hitch with a woman in Europe. Even eighteen wheelers with full loads stopped for women.

The first big rig which came by, skidded to a fishtailing halt, up the highway. The driver didn=t care about the truck, the load or the other high speed traffic.

We had travelled most of the day when he caught me dozing, told me to climb into the bed behind us. Everything looked fine. I gratefully passed out in the bunk after Anne and I oohed and ahhed over the pictures of the driver=s family.

I wasn=t expecting to be awoken by Anne=s kicks as she scrunched herself up against the passenger door and yelled at the driver. We were shocked that the friendly family man was so intent on groping Anne that he nearly ran the big Volvo off the road.

We got him to pull over and let us out.

 

The next driver who picked us up in a big rig on the freeway which runs up the spine of Italy, showed us his automatic revolver which he pulled from under his seat.

We were thinking furiously, Anne prodding me in the side, our eyes glued to the weapon as he casually handled the pistol while driving. He explained, near the turnoff to Milan, that every truck driver who stopped in Milan carried a weapon to defend against hijackers.

He smiled, checked out Anne=s body openly, when he let us off at a truck stop. We clambered down from the cab, grateful for the lift, glad to be getting away from his aura of danger.

Anne and I finally separated in a train station in Switzerland. By this time we were barely speaking. I was irritated at her stubborness. She was frustrated at our slow progress.

I didn=t have anything to prove to anyone so she seemed, to me, to be involved in a frivolous game. I had given up hope that she=d call home for money enough for two flights back to England. The Greek bread had hardened in our packs. We could barely afford coffee and chocolate bars.

The tension between us grew every hour.

We stopped, at night, in the little station where we got some sleep on benches, warm and dry.        When we awoke, we were greeted by backpackers with English accents who got along famously with Anne and onto whom she latched. She went their way and I went mine. We were glad to part.

I headed for Shaffhausen, on the German border. In Matala, some of the German visitors had given me addresses and phone numbers for places to stay and jobs. If I could get into Germany, it seemed worth checking out. My resolve to reach London didn=t waver, but I took a detour. It seemed logical that I should see a little of Germany while I was so close. Some of the jobs were even on Canadian bases.

 

The Alps were truly breathtaking. Some of the rides were with young, Swiss natives who pointed out that many of the idyllic scenes in the postcard mountains contained, in reality, many poor people struggling to get by. The underside of Switzerland was obvious to them, never explained to the tourists.

When I arrived, I called the number I had in Shaffhausen, knocked on the door of the address I was given, but there was no response. I stayed around for two more days but never found anyone.

I couldn=t find a youth hostel in Shaffhausen and I couldn=t afford a room so I used the only shelter I could find, a public toilet, in a park. The place was clean. If I laid in a certain position I could manage a few hours of sleep in the glare of the all night lights.

I waited, for two days and nights, walking around, looking at windows full of displays of Swiss chocolate for the tourists, living in the public restroom, eating my loaf of bread with the last of the jam I had carried from Greece.

Finally, I couldn=t wait any longer. I approached the border crossing between Switzerland and Germany. The early morning traffic was travelling slowly, I got a lift with a young businessman who lived in Shaffhausen, crossed the border, every day, for work, in Germany.

The German border guards ordered me out of the car, searched my pack, studied my passport, ordered me to take off my cowboy boots. They studiously examined the Greek sand which fell out, presumably for drugs, counted my little wad of American bills, rejected me.

I had to shoulder my pack and walk back across the border beside the line of cars going to Germany. The Swiss guards shrugged and laughed when they saw.

AGermans@ they said with a gesture that was meant to explain that they were as baffled as I.

I consulted a map, took the rest of the day to hitch to Basel.

 

On the side of the highway, at an intersection, I talked to a hippie looking couple who were hitching in another direction. They said they had slept in a park last night, had awoken to find food and coffee in the grass, beside their sleeping bags.

Through Basel I would get to France, then England. If I had stuck to my original plan, with good luck, I=d probably be there by now.

The day was ending, darkness approaching, the sky spit rain. I stood on the side of the freeway outside of Basel, watched the lights of the comfortable houses, wondered how many cities I=d stood outside of, how many hours I=d spent waiting for lifts on freeways..

Then Bernt stopped.

At first, I thought he was gay, picking up a hitchiker in the dark. But his simple reason for helping me out was that once, on a motorcycle trip around Germany, someone had helped him out. He asked only that I do the same for some other stranger when the opportunity presented itself.

Bernt took me home to his comfortable, modern apartment, let me use his shower and phone.

I called Canada to borrow a little money. It was sent by American Express. It meant nothing in Canada, the world to me.

Bernt and a friend wined and dined me. We ate and drank in the tavern which Hermann Hesse frequented while he wrote Steppenwolf. We ate Swiss rosti, drank wine, tried to remember which parts of the tavern Hesse described in his book. Perhaps from outside the window.

They took off for a weekend, left me with the house after Bernt showed me his copious wine cellar.

 

I used the Basel trams to get my money from the American express office, left Bernt a thank you note, hitched to France.

From Basel I was lucky to get a lift all the way to Strasbourg where I stood on the freeway with my thumb out until a funky looking, old, walk-in van pulled over and picked me up.

The driver was French, returning from Poland where he worked with Solidarity to press for democracy. The paintings and slogans which decorated the van were encouragement to Solidarity and its cause. He had installed a finely tuned, powerful engine in the old van. He laughed at the system the Poles were overthrowing as we sped toward Paris.

When he let me off at the suburban metro station, I consulted my address book, called Frank.

He had given me his number when he visited Matala, insisted that I call him if I ever got to Paris.

I spent the next few days in Frank=s family=s expensive apartment.

Frank, a handsome blond Frenchman, was an expert in judo. He had trained for most of his life, had awards, could truthfully say that it saved him once when he was attacked by a gang in a metro station. He was about to join the French army. Frank had lots of girlfriends.

We sped around Paris in someone=s car, visited expensive restaurants and cafes. Of course, I started out nearly broke and that finished it. I thanked Frank and hitched to Calais.

One way of avoiding the fare from Calais to Dover and London was to get a lift with a trucker. I canvassed the truckers I saw waiting for the ferry. There were dozens of big rigs heading to London. Most of the drivers wouldn=t risk picking up a hitchhiker because of the travelling insurance inspectors. I was looking as desperate as I felt.

Finally, a driver with an English accent told me to wait by the dock, then to get into his truck, quick, while he was loading. That way, he passed the custom inspections before picking me up.

 

Once we rolled onto the motorway, he checked the mirrors, installed me in the cab so that I couldn=t be seen from outside. He told me of his life driving regularly all over Europe. He worked shifts which allowed him some time with his young family in the north of England. He let me off with a cheery AGood luck@ at the southernmost tube station in London.

By the time I reached Rob=s co-op flat in Finsbury Park, I was exhausted. I had been thoroughly shaken out of the dream I had lived beneath the Matala moon.

We sat around his kitchen, drinking tea, reading newspapers, one drizzly morning. That was when I found the article on the shortage of rig workers in Scotland.

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