Sunday, 8 September. Day of the Open Monument. Today they are open, the castles and cloisters, buildings and bunkers that are usually hidden from the people. You’ve got to use that opportunity, I think. Scrolling through the program, I am assembling a route with as many monuments as possible.
“No way,” says my friend.
It’s only once a year, I think. But I want no quarrel. Even less so as she makes a better suggestion: “Let’s go hitchhiking to Liège!”
We are in Aachen, I should mention that. Not a bad city, but the best thing about it is the location. As soon as you leave town, you step into Belgium.
We only have one day. I don’t like going to bigger cities for a day. After all, Liège is no boring hamlet, there is quite a bit to explore there. Then, I’d rather not go at all. Or only once I will have four or five days.
We come to an agreement, without any quarrel. To the border, we’ll take the car. Because the friend actually owns one. But she wants to know what my vagabond life looks like. We both want to know whether it will work, who will give us a ride, how long we have to wait. A scientific experiment in a way.
Once in Belgium, we start hitchhiking. We’ve seen a blue bench there, a “hitchhiking bench”. You stand there – or sit when tired -, put out your thumb or not, and swoosh, a car stops. In theory. Today, we are running a field test.
For those interested: the bench is in front of a café. The café is directly at the border. It’s called Kuklux or Kukuruza or something. In Eupener Strasse anyway. If Eupen-Malmedy doesn’t want to join Germany, then we’ll come to Eupen.
We look friendly. We smile, although we can’t recognize anything behind the windscreens. Some drivers wave at us. Stopping for us would be better. Well, some cars are already full to the brim. Quite a lot of traffic for a Sunday morning. Good that the borders are open in Europe.
Maybe ten minutes until the first car stops. German license plate, Dutch driver, going to Belgium for shopping. And to have the car washed. “You get a car wash for 10 € here. By hand! That’s not even allowed anymore in Germany.”
“I like your music,” says the friend, to change the subject.
“But soon they will start singing,” the driver warns.
“Hopefully nothing as heavy as Wagner,” I interject. If it was Wagner, the mood in the car would be kaput. If someone is kind to hitchhikers, he doesn’t want them to dictate the radio program.
“Oh no, that would be too much so early in the morning,” the flying Dutchman soothes my concerns. “But you are from down there, aren’t you?” He means Bayreuth.
“From Bavaria, yes,” I concede. A Dutchman, a Georgian woman and a German are speaking German, but the German has the strongest accent. Depressing.
A golf course flies by on the right hand side. The driver and the friend talk about joint acquaintances in the club. That’s not my world. I feel excluded.
That would be a good time to sleep. But we’re already there. Not in Eupen, but in Eynatten, half the way. “The family is waiting for breakfast, I am sorry. Otherwise, I would have loved to drive you all the way to Eupen.” Even in Eynatten, the friendly gentleman goes farther than he would need to. He wants to put us on the right road to Eupen.
He hasn’t even asked us why we are standing by the side of the road. But if someone recommends car washes and golf courses, he probably doesn’t think of us as a poor carless couple.
So now we are in Eynatten. Without a blue bench. Or we can’t find it. Again smiling, thumbs, waving. “You should try it,” I encourage the friend, “maybe that will get someone to stop.” She is rather attractive.
Eight times, ten times, twelve times she sticks out the pretty thumb. But nobody stops. “Oh damn it, I am no good at this,” she gives up, unnerved. “You go for it again!”
We change positions. I stick out my thumb. The first car stops.
The driver is still on the phone. He gestures that we should get into the car.
We don’t even speak about the destination. “Where else than Eupen would they want to go?” he thinks. “Surely, he is going to Eupen,” I think. “Andreas surely knows what he is doing,” the friend thinks. She doesn’t know me very well yet.
The chauffeur is a relaxed dude. His right hand rests in the pocket of his pants. Also while he is driving. Very cool. From the rear-view mirror, there hangs a wooden Orthodox cross. His T-shirt is splattered with paint.
“You are a painter?” I ask.
“We have just moved. New house with six rooms. I’ve got to paint them all.” He sounds proud, but exhausted. Now he would have enough space for relatives to visit, “but my wife is not to keen on that idea.” Maybe she would prefer to fill the additional rooms with babies.
The conversation somehow comes to where we come from. The friend is from Georgia, I think I already mentioned that. The driver is from Armenia. What a Caucasian coincidence on the Belgian road. Both of them speak a bit of Russian with each other. Only to test how rusty it has become.
An Armenian and an Azeri in the same car would be worse. Or an Abkhaz and a Georgian. But even here, I sense some tension. Georgians have an inferiority complex towards Armenians. Because Armenians have better cognac. And cleverer chess players. Even a peaceful revolution now.
“Andreas has been to Armenia,” the friend says. She seems to read my blog. Not all friends do that.
“But only in Yerevan and in Dilijan,” I admit the limits of my experience. Maybe he is from one of them. No. He is from Karabakh. I haven’t been there yet.
Where in Eupen we want to go, the Karabakhi asks. We don’t really know. He recommends a walk along the Weser river dam. He would love to take us there, but he has to pick up his wife from the flea market.
Flea market? We are happy to join him. After all, we have wanted a spontaneous day, so the unspontaneous plan.
We never would have spotted the market on our own. It’s hidden in a multi-storey car park. And the stuff they have there! Records, video cameras, books, lots of tableware. And war paraphernalia. Iron Crosses, swastikas, maybe even something from the crusades. And next to it a T-Shirt that shows Micky Mouse and Minnie Mouse kissing.
The Armenian finds his wife, plods around the market behind her. He finally wants lunch, and then to the dam for a walk with the dog. But his wife needs to decorate six rooms. He introduces us. The Armenian lady is not too excited about her husband having picked up a young Georgian lady. Proselytize she wants, though: “Do you already know the Orthodox church in Eupen?” But the friend is an Atheist. Old Soviet school. She would rather blow up all churches.
We say good-bye.
“Did you see that he didn’t have a right hand?” the friend asks as soon as we have left. She has studied anatomy, so she knows about such things. I wouldn’t even have noticed it. I look more at people’s inner qualities. So the hand which I presumed in the pocket of the pants, really lies on some battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh. An armless Armenian, I think, for alliteration’s sake.
Eupen could be interesting. But today it’s cold and grey. Even the Museum for Contemporary Art is grey, at least from the outside. A concrete block like high schools and student dormitories built in the 1970s. Between a tanning saloon and a supermarket.
A stray dog leads us to Eupen’s most beautiful house. Unclear if anybody still lives there.
Some festival is camping in town. The park is full of tents. A girl brushes her teeth by the river. Many people with rucksacks and sleeping bags. A Belgian Woodstock. But none of them is hitchhiking. Only we are cool enough.
Back on the road. A small car stops. The driver is smoking. Actually, the whole car seems to smoke. We are not opposed to tobacco, quite the contrary, so we get in. The driver offers me a cigarette. I offer him a cigar. We both decline. That’s the ritual.
The driver looks Ottoman-Babylonian, but he speaks French. So, we have crossed the Germanic-Francophone language border. He too proudly speaks of having bought a house. The economy seems to be booming.
Without asking where we want to go, he takes us to the town square. Because that’s where his new house is. Would we like to rent an apartment? No, thanks. Or the store on the ground floor? Rather not. He is disappointed.
I would like to rent one of the jeeps, though, that are left from World War II.
But the jeeps have to drive towards the front. Wrong direction. We want the castle of Limburg, not the battle of the Bulge. So we have to continue as infantry. But first, let’s fill up our energy at the chip shop. Good food can be so simple.
This Limburg is really impressive, the friend was right after all. Situated on top of a hill, completely surrounded by city walls. Medieval. Uneven cobblestones. Houses entwined with plants. The church thrones over a scarp. No new or ugly buildings. Perfect for Robin Hood movies.
From one of the houses, a choir sounds. About as askew as the front of the house. But it lures us into the witch’s cottage. Once beyond the threshold, I notice it’s more of an embassy building than a witch’s house. Mirrors and paintings on the walls. Soft carpet. Chandeliers. A piano. And tables full of Limburger cheese.
Nobody offers us cheese. Only two glasses of wine. And a lecture. A Dutch lady explains the history of Limburg, of the house, her own role, and many other things. So fast that I don’t understand everything. But the three Limburgs seem to be connected, were all part of the same duchy once. This castle was the center of power and representation. Even the bishop of Liège lived here. Now it is a cultural center for Belgian-Dutch-German friendship. In the spirit of the Duchy of Limburg, but without the war of succession, hopefully.
Our heads are spinning, both from the explanations and from the wine. In the garden, we find a quiet corner behind rose bushes and ivy vines. The friend throws the content of her glass into the hedgerow. “They could have offered us better wine.” Georgians are somewhat snobbish about wine, believing that they invented it.
The lady in the duke’s house said something about a hiking trail, the “Chemin des Ducs de Limbourg”. 140 kilometers through the beautiful autumn scenery. I find that enticing. The friend thinks it’s a bullshit idea.
But I manage to convince her to visit the church for a short visit. It’s a huge thingy, like in Paris or so! But empty, as if the Vikings just passed through. The paint is coming off, the floor is riddled with dangerous holes, mold covers the walls. It’s so bad, even praying won’t work anymore.
This Day of the Open Monument can be quite interesting, I was right after all.
But sooner or later, we have to leave the Middle Ages for modernity again. From the market square with blacksmiths to the highway with truckers. One stupid thing about hitchhiking is this: almost always, you have to walk to the edge of town. Nobody gives you a lift in the center of the city. It’s only one or two kilometers, piece of cake. But for the friend, it feels like a crusade to Canossa. “I need to go to the loo.” “I am cold.” “I have no energy left.” “I miss my cute little car.”
There is a bust stop as we leave Limburg. That opens the possibility of a compromise. Maybe the friendship can still be saved. We wait for the bus – it’s due in an hour – and try to stop a car in the meantime. Now, I am the only one smiling. Nobody stops.
But I am prepared for everything. Like a Swiss Army knife. In the backpack, there is cardboard and a black marker. The friend is more artistic than me . So she has to draw: “EUPEN – AACHEN”, in large letters. Anyone leaving Limburg towards the east has to go in that direction. There is no reason not to stop for us.
In debates, the friend usually represents a mild form of capitalism, while I am the socialist. But now, in the cold, she undergoes a quick process of radicalization: “Those bourgeois fat cats in their fat cars would let us freeze to death. You all have plenty of space, we can see it! It won’t hurt you to interrupt your leisurely Sunday drive for a minute, will it?” Being determines consciousness, after all. Marx was right.
On the other side of the road, a small red car stops. A young couple winds down the window. The girl calls over: “Hey, we’ve seen you and turned around. We can take you to Eupen.” Wow. An unknown couple, on a romantic trip, turns around only to help us out. There are some really good people in this world. But first, they need to empty the backseats. Dozens of beer, wine and whiskey bottles get thrown into the boot. Picnic blankets, pillows and backpacks follow. “We have no space,” other drivers would have said. Not these two.
“But of course we would stop,” says the girl. She has just been to Australia. Hitchhiking along the east coast. People there were friendly and helpful. She always got a ride.
They are both having a beer while driving. “Merde, Polizei,” the polyglot boy calls out as a police car pulls in front of us in Eupen. If we got stopped now, that would be a real bummer. Because they are going farther than they actually needed to, just to drop us off by the road to Aachen.
It has become warm and sunny again. People are happy and helpful again. Soon, a friendly lady stops. “Where in Aachen do you need to go?” she asks. “To Café Kukuk,” the friend says because she can remember names better than me. “You are on the wrong road then,” the lady explains. Not only does she offer a ride to strangers, she also corrects their navigational mistakes. Maybe she is a teacher. “This leads to the autobahn to Aachen, but you need the country road.”
So we walk back to the center of Eupen. We could have saved the Australian alcoholics the detour. Lesson: always say exactly where you want to go. Most drivers know the area and will drop you at a convenient location. For a driver, it’s often merely a small detour, but the hitchhiker saves hours of walking or waiting under the scorching sun.
Because of our “AACHEN” sign, we can now stay in the middle of town. Every driver should be able to read. And indeed, just a few minutes pass before a young woman stops. Instead of bottles, she has to clear the backseat of files and piles of work. “I’ve passed you by already, but then I turned around and came back,” she too explains.
And she has a detailed plan: “I am only going to the border, to Kukuk. But there, I will meet up with friends who will then return to Aachen later. They can take you in their car.” Incredible how nice people are! But Kukuk is exactly the place, where the friend’s car is waiting and where our adventurous day will have to come to a sudden end. “Too bad,” I think. “Finally,” the friend is thinking.
When hitchhikers tell non-hitchhikers about hitchhiking, they receive strange questions. About dangers. About mass murderers. (Those who want to mass murder will much rather shoot down a plane on the way to Mallorca or invoke the Second Amendment.) And sometimes, we get accused of being parasites. But that’s not the case. We don’t only take, we give and take. Passengers tell stories, entertain, give travel advice, solve legal questions or simply listen. The driver stays awake and once at home, they have a story to tell. Time flies. Hitchhikers give the driver the feeling of having done something good, maybe something adventurous even. The young woman tells it quite openly: “I have always wanted to give a lift to hitchhikers, but I have never seen any. You are the first ones.” A perfect win-win situation.
One thing we notice that day: Except for the question about our destination, nobody interrogated us. No driver asked why we didn’t take the bus or the train. No driver asked if we were poor. No driver asked what we work, if the dissertation is already finished, whether we have children, how the friend and me know each other, all the stuff you constantly get asked everywhere else. Such a ride with strangers is much more relaxing than most family gatherings.
The evening sun paints the hills, cows and farmhouses of eastern Belgium in soothing warm light. The green is lush, the blue sky strong, the sheep fat and satisfied. Near Hauset, the driver points to Schlemmerstübchen, “the best chip shop in the German Community in Belgium.” Why none of the two ladies wants to stop remains a mystery. But I already know where I will hitchhike to next. Research with practical use for my readers is the top priority of this blog!
And swoosh we are at Café Kukuk, at the Belgian-German border. The end of a fulfilled day. My résumé: “That worked fantastic! I will try this more often, also for longer rides.” The friend’s résumé: “Never again! But,” she concedes that much, “from now on, I will always stop when I see someone by the side of the road.”