For the moment, hitchhiking is pretty much suspended. But this story of a trip across central Europe, from Belgium to Bavaria, offers interesting encounters, practical tips and grounds for dreaming about the time hereafter.
Den deutschsprachigen Lesern empfehle ich die deutsche Originalfassung.
I have hitched rides a few times already, but merely short distances. Usually on the way back from hiking in the mountains when I didn’t feel like stumbling through the night any longer. But even my hitchhiking record so far was less than 50 km.
For a long time, I have wanted to take up serious hitchhiking and cover longer distances that way, but I have never dared to. And I don’t mean that I have been afraid of getting into cars of strangers or of getting killed. I am just not as spontaneous as I would like to be. Not knowing where I am going to spend the next night, that thought bothers me a bit. I always had excuses: too cold, too much luggage, I have to be somewhere on time.
And then, one Saturday afternoon in February, the university field trip to Ypres is over. I haven’t got a bus or train ticket, and I decide, quite spontaneously, that I shall attempt to hitchhike home to Bavaria. (The train was a bit expensive, and I can’t really endure 12 hours on a bus.) No round-the-world trip, but still quite a trip. From the west of Belgium to the south-east of Germany.
I am excited.
Actually, I start by cheating a bit. A fellow student lives in Ghent and I ask her if she could take me there. Why should I stand next to World-War-I trenches for a few hours, holding up a sign, if I can ask someone? And compared with the whole distance, the way to Ghent is really just a tiny bit.
“Of course,” she says. Once in the car, she recounts stories of when she was hitchhiking all over Europe. In the good old real-adventure times before the internet and Google Maps. For her retirement, she is planning to drive a truck to Tajikistan.
Lesson 1: The real adventurers are often the quiet people who don’t make any fuss about their experience, nor annoy the world with their blogs and Instagraph photos.
When she points to a village next to the highway, saying “this is where I live”, I realize that she wouldn’t really need to drive all the way to Ghent. But she takes me directly to South Park, where the cars get onto the highway. “Here is a parking lane, cars can easily stop. Up there, you see the traffic lights, so the cars will come to a stop there, too. The highway from here goes to different directions, so it’s better to use a sign. If you want to go to Germany, just write ‘Aken’, that’s Dutch for Aachen/Aix-la-Chapelle.”
The wealth of professional advice is both calming and motivating at the same time. “Do you want to take some food?”, she asks and I am overwhelmed by her caring helpfulness. I decline the offer, which I shall soon regret.
Lesson 2: Being too timid is always a mistake.
The spot seems rather perfect to me, too. I hold up my sign, put on a friendly smile, and stand there for half an hour. The cyclists turn around to read my sign, but they can’t help me. A car with “AC” on the German license plate shows up and I am already celebrating. But the driver winds down the window and apologizes. He is going in the other direction, unfortunately. No one else stops.
I change the waiting spot, from Jules de Bruyckerdreef to Franklin Rooseveltlaan, just across the street. After less than five minutes, a BMW station wagon sounds the horn from afar and signals with the lights that my waiting has come to an end.
Lesson 3: If nobody stops, it’s usually the fault of the location, not your fault. The best spot is one where you can be seen from afar and where drivers can stop without blocking the traffic. Set yourself a time limit, after which you change the location.
The driver is a friendly and distinguished gentleman who looks the way I would look if I was still working as a lawyer: white-blue-checkered shirt, burgundy sweater and glasses.
He is going to Eindhoven. That’s in the Netherlands, where I don’t really want to go. “Well, it’s somehow in the direction of Germany,” he insists and it’s obvious that he is very keen on taking a hitchhiker. Okay, after all, Maastricht is on the way to Aachen, I remember. The main goal is going east for now, I can always turn south later.
He tells me that he used to hitchhike a lot when he was younger and laments that there are far fewer hitchhikers around today. And it would be so good for the environment to share a car, he adds. But an environmentalist he is not. For that, he is too critical of restrictions, like the prohibition of diesel cars in some areas or the speed limit. And he deems it disappointing that teenagers nowadays don’t drink as much alcohol anymore. “My teenage children don’t even know what it feels like to be drunk. What kind of life is that?” In his view, the obsession with health has replaced the church, which also operated with the fear of the unknown. It used to be the devil, now it’s diabetes.
He praises the Trappist beer of Westvleteren. When I tell him that I have tried it, he doesn’t believe me at first, until I describe the bottle and the process of purchasing it. But Jan, the Couchsurfing host in Ypres, had kept calling the Abbey of Saint Sixtus until he was finally allowed to pick up two crates of the beer, which has been voted the best in the world several times. The bottles have no label, and you can only get two crates per quarter, if at all. Resale is prohibited.
“Wow, that must have been a really nice guy that he presented that beer to you,” the driver is visibly amazed. And jealous, it seems. He himself has been applying for one crate, but hasn’t received anything for over two years. We come to the agreement that Belgium has far better beer than Germany. He explains that it’s due to the German “Reinheitsgebot”, another one of those stupid restrictions.
I talk a bit about my trip to Ypres, which he knows quite well from cycling tours. As he talks about the tough ascent of Kemmel Mountain, I can even give him a new tip for his next trip there: the former Belgian Military Command Bunker deep inside the mountain, which is now a museum and quite interesting.
The driver is indeed a lawyer too, but now working as a banker and in real-estate, building shopping malls from Bucharest to Moscow. From millionaire to student, we are having an excellent conversation. Maybe he is generally a nice and open guy, maybe it’s because of a similar habitus. And then he already has to drop me off at a highway intersection. He has to visit his parents in the countryside and a few bottles of red wine.
Lesson 4: Some people give hitchhikers a ride because it reminds them of their own lighthearted youth, I believe.
I have no idea where I am. But the afternoon sun is shining with verve and beauty, allowing me to get my bearings towards east. That’s where I need to go and I position myself on the ramp leading onto the highway in that direction. It’s not a good spot, the cars are coming around the bend fast, and there is not much space to stop. I guess I should find a better position.
But there already stops a car with “four intellectual women”, as they introduce themselves. They are psychologists or something like that. The two in the backseat squeeze together to make room for me and my backpack, and one of them tells the story of having hitchhiked from Spain through France to Belgium, just recently.
Lesson 5: Everyone says they don’s see hitchhikers anymore. But when you ask around, quite a number of people practice it. Maybe you never spot them because they rarely have to wait that long?
The driver introduces the lady in the passenger seat as the singer of the band Smooth Wing. They are on the way to a party party in Eindhoven, but today only as guests, not as musicians. Hence they have enough time to take me to the highway towards Maastricht, dropping me off at a service station, although it means a huge detour for them and there is already a little bit of grumbling in the car. They are quite worried how I am going to survive the storm Dennis. Because I have been on a trip with university, I hadn’t found time to read the newspaper all week and thus learned nothing of the impeding end of the world. Damn. Or thankfully. Because had I known, I probably would have used it as yet another excuse to cancel the hitchhiking plan.
As we say goodbye, they ask me to tell the world that four Belgian – not Dutch – girls have helped me out, because they want to fight the alleged stereotype of Belgians being unfriendly. I have to say, I know Belgium quite a bit and I have found people very friendly everywhere. Okay, the thing in the Congo was not quite correct, but that’s not really the fault of contemporary Belgians, is it?
So now I am at Haasje service station on the highway A2. It’s getting darker quickly, not because of the storm, but because night is falling on this February day. I can still use the sign “Aken – Germany”, which shows that I haven’t come very far. I place myself under the light of a lamppost and smile. For at least an hour.
I remember lesson 3 and walk closer to the gas station, where the cars have to slow down. An elderly gentleman stops, only to tell me that he will leave the highway at the next exit. He is so sorry. Other than that, nobody stops.
Well, I guess I finally have to do what I loathe: walk up to strangers and talk to them. In the parking bay, there is a car with a Swiss license plate and an Asian boy sitting in the passenger seat. The driver, another Asian boy, is just walking out of the gas station. That’s my chance.
“Excuse me, are you going to Switzerland?”
“Could you give me a ride to Germany?”
And he invites me to get into the car. No questions asked who I am, where I want to go, and not a second of hesitation. He doesn’t even ask his friend. It soon turns out that they both live in Sankt Gallen, so we can even converse in German.
Lesson 6: If I hadn’t addressed the driver, he would have walked past me. But he was absolutely willing to help. Often, even the most helpful drivers won’t initiate the contact.
But we aren’t talking much, because the two boys are driving back from Amsterdam, are still in party mood and are listening to very loud and terrible music. Hip Hop, Macarena and such things. I should have bought a CD from the Smooth Wing ladies. The two are talking with each other in some Tibeto-Burman language and don’t pay any attention to me.
Lesson 7: As a guest in someone’s vehicle, you respect the driver’s rules. If the driver wants to talk, you listen. If they want to listen, you tell them stories. If they are listening to the radio, you shut up.
But the ride is going very well. The young Tibetan is driving one of those 350-horsepower Mercedes cars and is chauffeuring me through Germany at 200 km/h (= 125 mph). And he is a really good driver. Fast, but not aggressive, never insecure. I would really love to fall asleep on the backseat and stay with them all the way to Switzerland.
Lesson 8: Without a fixed destination, hitchhiking is even more fun.
Approaching a service station, the driver asks if I want to stop here. I decline, for I am happy to keep going with them for a while. I won’t progress so fast and in such a relaxed manner in any other car.
He keeps going, asks again at the next service station. “If you don’t mind, I would be happy to go a bit further south,” I try to extend the ride. And thus he keeps speeding across highways that are almost empty by now. I don’t speak Tibetan, but some of the words remind me of Sanskrit, and I seem to understand that the driver is the next Dalai Lama, who has been parked in exile in Switzerland for his own safety. The friend is his bodyguard, who should really be driving, but whom the boss doesn’t allow to take over the wheel.
By now, we are already in Rhineland-Palatinate, and the driver asks again if I want to be dropped off at the next service station. Well, I really shouldn’t overstrain their hospitality. “Oh yes, here it’s perfect,” I reply with typical Asian politeness, although I have no idea where we are. And thus, we all get out of the car at Hunsrück service station. “I need a break too,” the driver explains, “I can’t drive to Switzerland in one go.” And only now do I understand that for about an hour, I have been delaying his rest, thus endangering the safety of us all. Oops. The two boys wish me plenty of luck.
It’s 10 pm, there are fewer and fewer cars, although it’s one of the larger service stations. But I am not panicking yet. I go to the parking bays and address an elderly man, wearing a typical elderly-man hat, who is just about to get into his car, although he is limping so badly that I am not sure he should be driving. “TR” says his license plate, and if that stood for Traunstein, it would be perfect. But it stands for Trier, of which I didn’t even know that people still live there after the retreat of the Romans.
He would like to give me a ride, he says, but he is going to Mainz, which wouldn’t help me. “This will be hard tonight, because it’s the main carnival night,” he explains the meager traffic. Great. For once, I am hitchhiking long distance, and I run into a combination of storm and carnival. And then I miss the few cars because the gentleman with the hat is talking to me for a full hour! He is from the Egerland, which I know quite a bit, and we speak about Marienbad, Prague, Plzen and Cheb, which he insists on calling Eger. He is a scholar of German and linguistics with a particular interest in comparative literature. As the tempest is closing in, we discuss novels in different language families, Finno-Ugric and Baltic languages and the Illyrians. “Oh, now it’s so late, there won’t be any more cars coming by,” he remarks as he finally bids farewell at 11 pm. “If you want to go to Mainz, you are welcome to stay at my house. But I have no electricity and no heating at the moment, because the roof collapsed. Oh, damn it, I don’t really want to go there myself.” I had kind of noticed that already.
Lesson 9: Maybe I should have terminated the conversation, using the time to talk to other drivers. But hey, this is not a race.
I am standing all alone in front of Hunsrück service station. I really wouldn’t have thought that there can be that little traffic in the middle of Germany. At least I am not cold. But a bit bored. If the professor hadn’t alluded to some Pan-Germanic fantasies, I might even have accepted his invitation.
There is only one car stopping in front of the service station. It’s a taxi. That doesn’t help. I am not even withdrawing my thumb from the warm pocket for that futile attempt.
But the taxi driver, who just picked up a cup of coffee, stops right in front of me, rolls down the window and asks: “Can I take you to Frankfurt?”
“Ehm, I can’t really afford the price of a taxi.”
“No, no, I’ll take you for free.”
I am totally perplexed.
He asks me if I wasn’t afraid to get into cars with strangers. He would never dare to do that. I cannot appreciate it enough that he offered me a ride nonetheless. “It’s okay, I still have time. It’ Saturday night, the business in Frankfurt will only start at around 1 in the morning.” He just drove two Spanish women to the airport in Hahn, which calls itself, most deceivingly, Frankfurt-Hahn Airport, and where tourists are then stuck in the middle of the forest. They had to pay 230 € for the taxi. For that money, they might as well have taken the train to Spain.
“If I had known that I will pick you up, I would have brought you a coffee as well,” the taxi driver apologizes, and I notice that, once again, I have come across an extremely kindhearted human. But the taxi entrepreneur has to get one diatribe off his heart. He rants about Uber, about electric scooters, about the city trains which are even going at night now, and about Frankfurt: “It wants to be a metropolis, but it doesn’t have a single taxi lane.” In the last two years, his revenues have gone down by 50%. He is sorry about the Uber drivers, they are being exploited too, but he cannot understand why a company that keeps breaking laws is allowed to put up its advertising all over the city. “Capitalism has gone too far. Students and pensioners are driving cars, and the corporation isn’t even paying any taxes in Germany. If someone cannot drive anymore, they simply drop him. People are judged only by their productivity nowadays, that’s inhumane.”
“If you need to go towards Bavaria, then it wouldn’t make sense if I take you into Frankfurt, would it? I’ll take you to the other side of Frankfurt then, onto the A3. From there, you will definitely catch a ride to Aschaffenburg, Würzburg, Nuremberg.“ He knows everything without GPS, the Uber drivers can’t match that.
Lesson 10: A paper map is useful. Most people have become such unquestioning believers in their navigation tools, that they have no idea of the general direction of highways and cities.
He asks me where my trip began. I tell him that I have been to Ypres for a seminar about World War I. “And it all began where I come from,” he replies. He is from Bosnia, and from then on we speak about the Yugoslav wars, the clear water of the Drina and the Sava, the political situation in Bosnia and the books by Ivo Andrić. He is so excited to meet a German who knows the Balkans that he misses the first service station after Frankfurt. And he will soon need to start his night shift. In the end, he drives me to Weiskirchen service station near Hanau. 100 kilometers in a taxi, for free, and in likable and intelligent company.
I still can’t believe my luck. Now I am confident that it will continue like this. But Weiskirchen South will be my Bermuda Triangle. To make short what took very long: I’ll be standing in the cold from midnight until 7 o’clock the next morning.
Too late I am thinking of food, Burger King has already closed. I still get one bagel, but it’s lukewarm and tastes like plastic. I could probably just sit down in a corner of the empty restaurant, there are no other guests anyway, but I don’t want to miss any car.
So I stand right next to the petrol pumps, addressing the drivers directly. There aren’t many. Most cars are from Holland and full with children, apparently on the way to a skiing holiday. I always check the license plates and greet the drivers in their language. “Goedemorgen.” “Bună dimineața.” “Good morning, Sir.” The strategy yields no result, but it keeps my brain awake. The Lithuanian driver whom I welcome with “labas rytas” is mightily impressed. But he doesn’t have any space.
Hour after hour passes, very slowly and very boringly. What if nobody will give me a ride? There is no bus or train stopping here either. Could I be stuck at the service station for days? Like Tom Hanks in Terminal? There is a shower here, I already checked that. And food, albeit at inflated prices. And they get the daily newspapers. I guess there are worse places.
Lesson 11: At the end of this adventure, I will have spent zero money on transport. But because I failed to prepare the trip properly, I had to buy drinks and food at the expensive gas-station shops. Always go to the supermarket before!
There are so few cars that I take a book from the backpack and start reading. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. Maybe drivers are more open to accept a hitchhiker who appears to be intellectual, I am hoping. They are not.
Lesson 12: At night, it’s definitely harder than during the day. I guess I should simply have slept and begun the next morning somewhat rested.
From 6:30 on, traffic picks up noticeably. Yoohoo! And it looks like it’s going to be a beautiful, sunny day. At 7:15, I ask the young driver of a stonemason van if he could take me towards Würzburg or Nuremberg.
“If that’s on the way to Hungary, then yes.” It is, and I am relieved. The driver is from Romania, his wife even from Târgu Mureș, where I once lived. He has a stonemason business in Cologne and is on the way to Budapest to pick up a machine which cuts stone, using water and sand. Incredible, this modern technology.
“That’s quite a long way,” I say.
“Oh, that’s nothing. I should be there by 4 in the afternoon, at the latest. I often drive to Romania, that’s even farther. And once, I drove 3000 km in one go, 36 hours, to Turkey.” Because he won’t be able to speed in Austria and Hungary, he wants to win time now. He is getting 150 km/h (= 93 mph) out of the van, even as we go across bridges, where the gale-force winds are hitting hard. During that race against time, he keeps the right hand in his pocket, only taking it out from time to time to show me some videos on his YouTube gadget.
Lesson 13: If technology was really intelligent, so-called smartphones would switch off automatically once the car is moving. One day, this stupid distraction is going to kill somebody.
I am terribly sleepy, but luckily, the Romanian likes to talk about his life and even more about his business. Now he is a stonemason, but he used to organize bus transports between Germany and Romania. 80 € door to door, nobody could beat that price and service. And when he went to visit his family in Romania, he announced that on the internet before and delivered parcels and packages from the diaspora to the homeland. He received so many that he had to buy a trailer. After each trip, he sold the trailer in Romania, making yet more of a profit.
Rarely have I met someone with such business acumen. When he was 13, he always took the train from Bistrița to Bucharest, bought clothes there and sold them at his home-town market at a profit. That way, he earned enough to buy a car. Of course he was way too young, so he registered the car in his father’s name and rented it out to teenagers who had just gotten their driving license and who wanted a car to impress girls. The business worked so well that he owned several cars before he could drive himself.
Lesson 14: The guy was unshaved and wearing a tracksuit. Yet, he was probably cleverer than most business consultants with MBAs. There are millions of interesting people whom we would overlook if we judged them on first sight.
But then, the local authorities in Romania wanted too much “profit-sharing” and he moved to Germany. He still can’t quite believe his experience here: “When I go to a government office in Romania, they ask how much I pay before I even know if I receive what I need. When I go to a government office in Germany, they seriously want to help me!”
At the Ludergraben parking area, our ways need to part, because the business mason continues on the A3 to Regensburg, while I need to turn east on the A6 towards Amberg. Unfortunately, this here is only a parking area next to the highway, no gas station, no restaurant. So there is less traffic. There are plenty of trucks parked. Based on their license plates from the Czech Republic, they should all be going east, which is very useful for me. But it’s Sunday, and most truck drivers are forced to take the day off.
After a few minutes of holding up a sign “A6 => Amberg”, I realize that I won’t leave this godforsaken place until I will be more proactive. I walk up to the first parking vehicle. It’s a small car, and in front of it, a Mediterranean-looking young man is engaged in some yoga stretching exercises, enjoying the warm spring day.
“Excuse me, do you happen to go towards Amberg on the A6?”
“That’s perfect! Could you give me a ride?”
“I’d be glad to.”
Lesson 15: It seems people are in a better mood when the weather is nice.
He apologizes that he has an appointment in Cham at 10:30, otherwise he would drive me all the way home. But given his pressing schedule, he has to drop me off at Oberpfälzer Alb service station. That’s actually very helpful, I hadn’t dared to hope for anything else.
He works as a construction draftsman, although he used to be a civil engineer in Syria. But Germany doesn’t recognize his diploma from there, wasting his time and his talents. He is working Saturdays and Sundays, not only to remedy the lack of housing in Germany, but also to collect enough vacation days. He wants to go to Turkey, hoping that his parents and relatives who still live in Syria can also come there to meet. He hasn’t seen them in four years.
“My mother has died in the meantime,” he says and his eyes fill with tears. Mine too.
Saying nothing or talking of trivial things, we reach our destination just before Ursensollen. Once again, the Syrian apologizes that he is pressured for time and therefore unable to drive me to my village.
Lesson 16: You may have noticed that it was mostly people with migration backgrounds who gave me ride. Not only because of that, but because of the conversations I had with them, I realized once again how much poorer Germany would be without immigration.
I know the way from the highway service station to home. I am often going for hikes in this area. It’s a 5-km walk, not a problem really. But, to continue the experiment as long as possible, I stick out the thumb each time a car comes by. Outside of Ritzenfeld, a hunter in his small off-road vehicle stops. He is going home from the hunt, but luckily, there is no bleeding deer in the back of the car, just a well-behaved dog.
He doesn’t actually need to go to Ammerthal, but he takes me all the way home. And at 10:30, the Odyssey is over. For 888 km, it took me 20 hours. If I had been driving myself, I would have needed to sleep at night and would hardly have been any faster. And I wouldn’t have noticed how many good people are out there.
Lesson 17: Even if you are totally broke (like me), you can experience a much more interesting day than you could on any package holiday. And you can start just outside of your house.
Lesson 18: Now that I know how well hitchhiking works, nothing can stop me. Why wouldn’t it be possible to go all the way to India like this, for example?
- This article from Belgium is a good example for what I recommend in lesson 17.
- There is a similar article, but with real adventure, about my hike on Mount Chacaltaya in Bolivia.
- More hitchhiking stories.
- More travel stories.
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