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“I don’t think anyone will stop. COVID-19 is still around, you know?”
“That will never work, and you’ll end up having to take the train.”
“There are no hitchhikers anymore.”
“Is that even legal?”
Thus sounded the skeptical voices as I announced my plan to hitchhike from Ammerthal to Vienna, a distance of more than 500 km.
Ammerthal is a small village in Bavaria, far away from all arteries of domestic and international traffic. Those who built their houses here and are preparing an extensive weekend breakfast at this very moment are happy about the tranquility. Those, like me, who like to venture into the wide world are suffering from its remoteness. How am I supposed to get to Timbuktu, Tbilisi or Tiraspol if the roads here lead to places like Götzendorf or Weiherzant?
And today is even more tranquil than normal because it’s Saturday. Saturday morning at 8:00. And not just any Saturday, but Assumption Day. In the morning, I read a very blathering newspaper interview with a pastor who tried to interpret Mary’s assumption as “the victory of individualization over all attempts of de-individualization”.
The people who fail to stop on the road to Ursensollen, where a highway promises the connection to the outside world, seem to have taken the idea of individualization too seriously. Or they misunderstood it completely. For more than half an hour, I am standing in the village where evil fate has dropped me, and nobody stops. Some drivers wave at me. Some act as if they are so blind that their driving licence should be revoked.
“What will you do if nobody stops?” hitchhikers are sometimes asked. The standard answer is, “Eventually, someone will stop.” I would manage to get away from Ammerthal too, I’m sure. But the highway is only 6 km away, so I might as well walk. Of course, I always stick my thumb out for any passing car, but high Christian holidays don’t seem to encourage the helpfulness of the predominantly Catholic rural population.
Even in the rain, nobody helps. As I walk through a village called Kotzheim (literally: Puke Home), I feel exactly like that. The travel day doesn’t start too well.
On the B299, the cars going towards Kastl or Neumarkt are not stopping either. Only the Polish drivers slow down and point apologetically to the back seats filled with children and travel bags. I wave back, filled with gratitude. Nobody has any obligation to stop for me, I am aware of that. But some communication from human being to human being, that goes a long way. Much better than all those drivers who stubbornly look straight ahead as if they don’t see me. These are the kind of people who probably walk past homeless people or run over cats.
A young woman drives by without stopping. That I understand perfectly. I do know women who hitchhike alone, but one shouldn’t minimize the additional dangers they face. This is especially true in Amberg and the surrounding area, where the murder of hitchhiker Sophia Lösche in 2018 is still on people’s minds.
But then, something unusual happens: the young woman who just passed by has turned around and came back. “Excuse me, but I was so surprised that I couldn’t pull to a stop immediately.” I actually concede that a lot of drivers might be nice, but just don’t react quickly enough. Another reason for lower speed limits.
And since hitchhiking is not so common anymore, drivers simply don’t think about the possibility of a guy with a backpack suddenly standing by the side of the road. “You are the first hitchhiker I’ve ever seen,” the young woman says, still surprised.
She is an editor with the local television station Oberpfalz TV and is driving to Neumarkt, where I hope to get on the Autobahn A3. She sees the positive side of the Corona virus, because the journalists can finally set their own topics instead of chasing after appointments and invitations and events. More reports, more background stories, fewer press conferences. “But now that everything is loosening up again, I realize that we are already falling back into the old routines. Sadly.” This seems to happen to a lot of people, both professionally and personally. I almost wish for a really long and severe pandemic, for a chance of a real rethink. Away from consumption, away from speed, towards a more conscious life.
In Neumarkt, she takes me to the gas station in Berg, which is located just before the access ramp to the Autobahn, one of Germany’s (in)famous interstate highways without a speed limit. It was a detour for her, but a great help for me. After the depressing morning, I am now in good spirits for the rest of the day. One successful, friendly ride changes everything. Even the rain has stopped. And if one day you will watch a report about hitchhiking on Oberpfalz-TV, you know who sparked the idea.
I unpack the sign, which I have prepared so professionally and artistically, and position myself by the exit of the gas station. (The Ö is not some shocked face, but the first letter of Österreich, the German name of Austria.) It’s quite busy here, at least compared to the dirt roads trying, unsuccessfully, to connect my village with civilization.
Drivers from Romania and Turkey stop to tell me that, unfortunately, they are going in the wrong direction. A family from Poland stops to tell me that, unfortunately, their car is full. It is jam-packed indeed. An attractive lady from the UK stops and is visibly disappointed that I am heading south-east instead of north-west. (Next plan after the Corona crisis: hitchhiking without a fixed destination.)
Soon, a young couple stops. The passenger rolls down the window: “You want to go to Austria? So do we. Jump on in!”
What a coincidence! First, nobody stops for one and a half hours, and then someone comes along who is also going on holiday to our friendly neighboring country and can take me all the way. Jule and Chrissi are going to a place whose name I have already forgotten, but I don’t know where it is anyway. Shockingly, I know less about Austrian than about Australian geography. No idea where places like Innerschmirn or Sellrain are.
“And where do you have to go?”
“To Linz.” Well, actually to Vienna, but a Dutch couple from Linz, readers of my blog, wrote me and invited me to spend a few days with them. There are some really good and selfless people in this world.
“Where is that?”
“Roughly between Passau and Vienna. I think we’ll go past there. Once we’re in Austria, we can check the map.”
Luckily, Jule doesn’t take geography so lightly and checks the map immediately. To the horror of all those who have so far dismissed Austria as a small and compact country, Austria is – even after the Treaty of Saint Germain – still quite large and confusing. Linz is not at all in the direction of the Brenner Pass where they have to go. Instead, the motorways that make respective sense for us already split in Regensburg, so they drop me off at a service station in Parsberg.
Uff, that was close. I almost went as wrong as someone who wants to go to Bayreuth and ends up in Beirut.
In Parsberg there is less traffic, but the atmosphere is more relaxed. People are slowly waking up. A motorcyclist stops and asks if I have a helmet with me. Unfortunately not. A truck driver takes a photo of me for the Truckers’ Instagraph. The police drive by without arresting me. (Just as being male reduces the risk of being murdered or raped while hitchhiking, white skin color reduces the risk of being shot by the police. It doesn’t hurt to make oneself aware of such privileges).
Two Indian ladies with a car full of children stop and offer to take me as far as Regensburg. Because I am worried about getting stranded in the city, instead hoping for a ride at least as far as Passau, I decline gratefully.
The moment they drive off, I already regret it. This was the mistake of the day.
Foregoing the ride in an Indian car just because I was hoping for something more convenient, that should not have happened! Especially not to someone writing about the journey. I am still angry with myself that I have prevented you from engaging in this cultural contact.
And I’ll remain angry for quite a while. Because from that moment on, as if to punish me, nobody stops. Will Parsberg turn out to be a similar provincial black hole as Ammerthal, from which there is no way out? I have been on the road for three hours already, yet I am only in the next county.
It takes a full 20 minutes until a young man stops, who insists on addressing me as Sir, although I tell him that there is really no need to do so. He will leave the Autobahn before Regensburg, but he can drop me off at a parking place along the motorway. There is no gas station, so there is not so much going on here, but you can talk to people while they are performing stretching exercises or when they come back from the restroom.
But as you know, I’m very shy. So I stand next to the parking cars with my sign, not daring to disturb anyone. I am looking at the license plates, one is from Passau. That’s exactly on the way and would take me right to the border. The driver sees me, gets out and calls over to me:
“Where do you want to go?”
“Passau would be perfect.”
“Well, then get on in.”
That’s how easy it is.
The elderly woman is on her way back from Metz in Lorraine, where her French husband lives. Sometimes the couple lives there, sometimes in Passau, sometimes they allow each other some time off, and once a year they go on holiday to Italy, always in the same hotel, for 20 years already. “Not living together all the time makes marriage bearable,” she passes on an important piece of advice to me and you.
It’s noon as we are going past Regensburg, about 70 km from the place I left at 8 o’clock. “You haven’t really gotten very far today,” the woman points out without mercy. But now we are making good progress, always along the Danube, which is an ambivalent river for the lady from Passau. There, the three rivers Danube, Inn and Ilz meet, which regularly leads to flooding.
“2013 was the worst,” she recounts almost with pride. “The ground floor was completely flooded, and on the top floor the water was six feet high. The books were stuck together like concrete, absolutely unusable. I could only salvage the records. I dried them, and they still work.”
The car radio is playing “Life is live”. She turns up the volume and taps the beat with her hands on the steering wheel.
“Who had the idea to build a city in a place like this?” I wonder, but she doesn’t know it either. It seems as defiant a project as Manaus on the Amazon. A wooden cross from Altötting is dangling from the rear-view mirror. Perhaps all unfounded hope rests on that.
She drops me off at the Danube Valley rest area, which thankfully is not flooded at the moment. Here I have to change my sign, turning the unspecific “Ö” into the more specific “LINZ”. Just as I am about to start this work, a man in tattered clothes and with a big shopping bag filled with a few empty bottles walks up to me. He asks if I could give him one euro.
“Look at me, I’m all tattered,” he says, as if I could have missed that. He is working in the parking lot all day, but has only collected six bottles so far. (Or maybe he has already deposited part of the loot in his car.)
I open the wallet, which only holds 2-euro coins, which seems a bit much for a donation.
“That’s alright. Two euros are the customary amount,” he says cleverly and as confidently as if somewhere on a tree nearby, a statute with his fees was affixed.
“I don’t have too much myself,” I say. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be hitchhiking.”
“You certainly have more than me,” he replies, rightfully angry about a clean-shaven hack pretending to be penniless in order to collect material for a story, while he is collecting bottles for survival.
“You are probably right,” I confess, considering whether I should reward him with two euros for the absolutely appropriate rebuke.
But his thoughts are already elsewhere: “Where do you need to go?”
“There, the young guy in the red car, he is going to Linz. I am sure he will give you a ride.”
I walk up to the young man in the red car, an old Opel Corsa or something like that.
“Are you going to Linz?”
“Could you take me with you?”
“Yes, of course.”
I still want to thank the helpful bottle collector, but he has already moved on and is speaking to new customers.
“Why doesn’t he get a job?” many people will think when they see a man in a yellow T-shirt with plenty of holes, reaching deep into garbage cans. But his recycling, conversation and referral services are more valuable than the so-called work of marketing key account executive assistants or of fingernail designers.
The young man, on the other hand, who travels from Bonn to visit his girlfriend somewhere in Austria, no longer has to worry about anyone underestimating the importance of his work since the explosion in the port of Beirut. He studied chemistry and is now doing research and a doctorate on detection methods for dangerous substances in shipping containers.
It’s nice to encounter a scientist who is as skeptical as I am about technical solutions to humanity’s problems, from energy to climate change.
Twice, some fat SUV almost rams the little red car from behind, as if they suspect that we are mocking the naivety of those who believe that an electric engine or a hypocritical hybrid would change the energy inefficiency of using a 2-tonne vehicle to carry a person weighing 80 kg.
By the way, people with a small car without air conditioning, where the windows steam up during the rain because there is a leak somewhere, take hitchhikers much more willingly than people in SUVs, who regard everything outside their tin tank as a hostile world to be rolled over like the trenches on the Somme or the Marne.
I am almost sad to arrive at the rest stop in Ansfelden, south of Linz, because it was such an interesting conversation, covering everything from recycling to right-wing extremism, from greenhouse gases to genocide. I completely forgot to ask for the name of the young man who is making our seaports safer and our roads more pleasant.
In Ansfelden, I only have to wait 5 minutes until two students take me the remaining 10 km to the center of Linz. They are going to the apartment of their holidaying grandmother to water the plants. It’s a pity that not more people know that there are professionals like me to do this tough work, so that the grandchildren could prepare for their school-leaving exams instead.
Louise and Luuk, the two Dutch people who invited me to Linz, had also offered to pick me up on the way. They were a bit skeptical about hitchhiking too. But they are not skeptical at all about hospitality. Although they only knew a few of my articles, they invite me to their house, spend the weekend with me, provide me with a private room with a separate bathroom, and even cook from morning to night.
And they actually would have enough to do, because they too are authors and translators. Luuk drew and wrote, or rather extracted from original documents of soldiers, the graphic novel “Elke Dag Sterven” about World War One. Louise translated it into German. They both write and edit the pages www.HoeVrouwenDenken.nl and www.HoeMannenDenken.nl. On top of that, the whole house is full of self-made art.
“Isn’t that weird, just showing up at at the house of strangers?” I’m sometimes asked. Theoretically it could be, but after a few minutes, the inexplicable feeling of having known each other forever sets in. Some hosts have a talent for this. And so we sit in the garden for long evenings, talking, smoking, and in my case getting a heavy headache from too much chili liquor. I also put on a few kilos, because Louise not only cooks well and plentiful, but also insists on me taking the leftovers for the remainder of the journey.
Only by pointing to the upcoming visit to Mauthausen, where I probably won’t have much appetite, can I avoid packing lasagna, five large bars of chocolate, sandwiches and some freshly roasted souvlaki skewers, complete with fries and salad.
But they insist on driving me to Mauthausen, which, to be honest, I’m quite grateful for, because hitchhiking out of big cities (among which Linz might be counted if we are inclined to be generous) is always the hardest part.
Although this blog does not usually shy away from putting completely unrelated things into a construed context, there is a limit. The visit of the concentration camp memorial in Mauthausen shall therefore remain reserved for a separate, serious article. Here, it must suffice that Louise’s and Luuk’s assessment that one could easily spend half a day at the memorial was absolutely correct. The whole morning was suitably grey and gloomy, and as always at such places, at the same time shocking and illuminating. No matter how much one believes to know, there is still a lot to learn.
The sun only rears its head as I make my way back down to the small town of Mauthausen in the afternoon, but then as strong as if it wants to make up for the missed morning with all its strength. The cyclists overtaking me see my VIENNA sign on the backpack and are wishing me “Good luck!”
The Danube flows right past Mauthausen. As hitchhiking doesn’t seem to pose a challenge anymore, I am thinking of hitching a nautical ride instead. A barge is just turning around the bend. Unfortunately, it is going in the wrong direction, upstream. After that there is a lull in river traffic.
Well, then I’ll have to hitch by the road again. The thermometer outside the pharmacy shows 36º Celsius. The ice cream parlor, where the thermometer would make more sense, is closed. I’m melting as fast as the polar caps, except that you won’t find any mineral resources underneath me.
After about 5 minutes, an older man with glasses and a white short-sleeved shirt, type retired teacher, stops and says: “Oh, young man, here you’ll be standing forever.” He may be right, because Mauthausen is north of the Danube, but the A1 to Vienna runs south of the Danube. “Well, I’d better take you to the highway.”
We talk about where I come from and where I’m going. The gentleman knows Amberg, has been there a few times and praises the big church on the market square. By the way, he didn’t have to go to the motorway at all, and is taking the 40 km detour just for me.
“But now, let’s be honest,” he demands. “You sound like you’ve been to university.” Apparently he is shocked that academics also hitchhike, and I confess that I studied law and philosophy and am currently studying history.
“Law, philosophy and history!” he exclaims with appreciation. “You could be a government minister, you know.”
“I have been waiting for the call all the time,” I pretend, although the phone is actually switched off and in the backpack, because I am not too keen on office and committee work.
“If you are studying history, you will be interested to know where we are. Here, the Romans made a big tactical blunder. In Albing, there was a Roman legion camp and a large fort, from around 170 AD. The Limes, the border of the Roman Empire, ran along the Danube. as you know. And north of it were lurking the Germanic tribes, or the Marcomanni, to be exact. But in the Danube, there is an island at this point, which the Marcomanni secretly penetrated and from there they could attack the Roman camp. A big mistake! The Romans should have secured this island as well.”
His sympathies are clearly on the side of the Italian invaders.
“The Romans finally retreated and built a new site called Lauriacum. Besides Carnuntum, this was the most important Roman settlement in what is now Austria. From that, the city of Enns emerged.”
“This is how Austria and Bavaria were Christianized,” he continues, without allowing me time for more than an acknowledging “oh”. “Christianity came north from Rome, then via Lauriacum to Passau, which was once the largest diocese in the Holy Roman Empire. Even Upper Austria was part of Passau back then.”
When I ask him if he also studied history, he explains: “Not really studied, but I used to travel a lot with my brother. All over Europe,” adding dreamingly: “Oh, there are so many beautiful and interesting places!” And during his travels he always read up on local history.
This describes my modus operandi quite well, except that I don’t have a memory as good as the gentleman scholar’s and quickly forget the details. As I am not taking notes while in someone’s car, the lecture here is also only reproduced in fragments, like the archaeological excavation going on in Enns right now.
“Up ahead you see a beautiful Romanesque church. This is Rems.” He pronounces it like Reims in France.
He takes me directly to the on-ramp of the A1, which leads to Vienna. In Austria, road planning is still oriented towards people, not just cars, and a shoulder provides space for hitchhikers and stopping drivers.
I only wait about 5 minutes until a couple from Slovakia stops. Marko is a mechanical engineer, he studied in Slovakia and in Germany and was just in Austria for a job interview. For him, it was no question that he would stop for me: “When I studied in Magdeburg, I often hitchhiked there from Slovakia. It usually took me two days.” And, with the precision of an engineer: “In one day, you can make between 350 and 600 km.”
His wife is a lawyer. “But I haven’t worked for the last 6 years because we lived in China.” As I have experienced myself, to my great sorrow, a law degree loses its usefulness immediately upon crossing the border.
The engineer is very enthusiastic about China, about the organization, about the infrastructure. The father of two also believes that the one-child policy makes sense for economic and ecological reasons.
The lawyer, on the other hand, criticizes the lack of freedom and regrets that she could not talk openly with anyone about politics or human rights in China.
He: “But look how efficiently China responded to the Corona virus.”
She: “And they efficiently control any coverage of it.”
He: “Our politicians always talk about human rights and so forth, but first they should build roads and hospitals and airports like in China.” (I personally haven’t noticed any lack of roads on the way.)
She: “Surely, one can build things without imprisoning the Uyghurs.”
He: “That doesn’t bother anyone in China.”
“Yes, that’s how the Chinese are,” the wife says sadly and in an effort to reach some consensus. “The most important thing for them is that the family is doing well and that they earn enough money. They’re not interested in politics at all.”
“But this isn’t specifically Chinese,” I dare to interfere in the argument. “I’ve just been to Mauthausen, and that’s the way Germans and Austrians were thinking 80 years ago. And I’m afraid most would do it again.”
Maybe the problem are human beings, not the Chinese or the Germans.
Thus, I brought the mood in the article and in the car to the freezing point, and because I don’t have any chocolate to hand out, I suggest a radical change of topic: “Marko, did you already know German before you went to study in Magdeburg?”
“No,” he laughs and recounts the story of how he acquired his foreign languages.
“I didn’t know English or German. We were in high school when Czechoslovakia was dissolved and socialism ended. Until then we had learned Russian as a foreign language. After the summer holidays, the Russian teachers were suddenly our English teachers. They had got themselves a book somewhere, maybe a tape, and were now supposed to teach us something they couldn’t speak themselves. They were always just one or two lessons ahead of us in the book.”
“I learned zero English in school, but I knew I would need it. So after high school, I flew to the USA with a classmate where we worked at McDonalds. That’s how we wanted to learn English.”
Oh yes, the wild 1990s!
“We worked the grill, hundreds of hamburgers a day, maybe thousands. And then my friend got promoted to the counter. Oh, I was so jealous, because now he could talk to the customers and improve his English a lot faster.”
“But you know what happened? It didn’t help him at all, because at the cash register you always say the same five sentences: ‘How are you?’ ‘Eat here or take away?’ and so on. You don’t learn anything. But I was at the grill and I didn’t have a Slovakian colleague anymore. So I had to talk to everybody in English, to the Negros, to the Brazilians, to the Mexicans. And that’s why my English is so good now.” He definitely has confidence, although he uses terms which strike me as somewhat outdated.
“And your German?” I ask, because he speaks it really well.
“It was the same with German. The European Union offered scholarships, and I was assigned to Magdeburg. So I took a German course during the summer holidays, but I just couldn’t get my head around the grammar. Really, I understood nothing. I thought to myself, well, in Germany you can probably get by with English, after all, it’s a western country. But Magdeburg had only recently become western. They didn’t know English yet, and I had never really learned Russian. So I went to all the German courses on offer: at the Technical University, at Otto von Guericke University, at the Adult Education Center, I listened to everything three times, and because I read and heard the language everywhere, it slowly caught on.” Now he’s being modest, because apparently his German was good enough for a position at the Fraunhofer Institute within half a year.
As the funny Slovaks drop me off at Perchtoldsdorf station in Vienna, I can hardly believe it myself, but: It worked! I did it!
All the doubters and skeptics who said that you can’t hitchhike during the pandemic, that it won’t work anyway, that nobody hitchhikes anymore or that it’s forbidden, they have to pick something else to doubt or to skepticize. Or simply try it out themselves.
When I told Louise in Linz about hitchhiking, she said: “This sounds like a suitable therapy for people who are afraid. People who read too many scare stories about crime, who believe that humans are inherently evil, and who believe that the world is a dangerous place, they should join you for a day.” An excellent idea!