Hitchhiking — generosity and adventure from Amsterdam to San Sebastian PART ONE ¨Leaving and The Wolf-dogs¨
What´s it like to leave a home away from home? A home away from home away from the first home in fact. It is like the wind picking up in the sails again after a year of Amsterdam calm (ironic considering Amsterdam is the windiest place I´ve known). I wasn´t in fact anchored at all, the sea was merely calm and I floated there steadily for a blissful year in which I grew more than imaginable. Now who knows where the winds will take me. Forecasts are only rough — south — and disappear into the distance…
I went to leave Amsterdam Thursday the 15th of October. By my calculations, exactly one year to the day since Binna and I arrived on our bicycles, exhausted after riding 120 km´s in a day from Breda. The symmetry was nice. But as I made it to my hitchhiking spot at 12:30 pm, I didn´t feel the excitement of the infinites beyond. I wasn´t full of energy ready to seduce drivers to take me with them. I was tired. It was late. The seed of the idea was planted in my head — to return home for one more night and enjoy the surprise on the faces of Anita, Gerda, Jess and Will. Thus I gladly ambled back, visiting a new friend for lunch on the way, and the look on Anita´s face as I appeared in the lounge had me bent over laughing. Amsterdam held on to me one more beautiful day with my family of friends. I was worried it would do the same the next day, but as the story goes, she had to let me go. And with such love the rest of the world caught and carried me.
My first ride away from Amsterdam was with a young surgeon in training — I can´t remember his name. He took me from my starting place at the service station near Amstel station on his way to lunch with a friend somewhere near Utrecht. We chatted happily about surgery. He specialises in the gastro-intestinal system and I said ¨Ah yes, my mother is a stomal therapy nurse. I know about that.¨
¨Have you ever heard of STI´s in Stomas?¨ he asks. I mishear at first. Then I get it, and gasp. He drops me off at a service station near Utrecht. The meager and important amount of coins I have in my pocket fall out in his car and I forget to get them.
Jaap picks me up next. Jaap is a successful dutch businessman, whose company does the connections when customers change electricity providers. He buys a cheese sandwich and a bottle of water for me, and we chat a lot as he takes me with him all the way towards Eindhoven. ¨I have to have a personal connection with the people I do business with,¨ he says. ¨If it doesn´t feel right, if I can´t be myself — friendly, talkative, a human with emotions not a ´business man´ made from stone — then I don´t want to do business with you.¨ He wonders aloud if he is in the wrong industry, so sociable as he is, but then he gauges that he must be doing something right based on the success of his company. He tells me how he owns a lot — cars and a motorbike — and that he lets his friends use them whenever they want. Reflections of my own attitude towards sharing possessions (although I have no desire to earn, own or buy so much). Interesting to meet such a sharing, caring, sensitive man, high up in the chain.
A stressed looking family man invites me into his car next. He is travelling in convoy with his wife, a brother, two kids, two parents and lots of luggage in two small cars. I asked the brother if I could get a lift and he kind of ignored me, then this man asks where I am going and offers to take me with. We squash all my luggage in the back and I sit in the middle, next to their young son Sascha. The grandmother in front. The father was an adventurer himself and has been overland across Eurasia. They don´t take me far, but far enough! Nearly, nearly was I out of the Netherlands.
At the next service station I talk to a man with whispy white hair and perhaps his grand-daughter. We are getting on well I think, and it turns out he is going the same direction as me. I ask him if I could go with him and he says ¨I don´t take trampers¨. As he begins to walk away I exclaim ¨I´m not a tramper, I´m Andrew!¨ Can´t you see beyond your own labels? He leaves. Then I see a car pull-up that reminds me of the car a nice Belgian chap had given me a lift out of Berlin in once before. A sweet looking girl gets out and I fantasise where this could go as soon as I see her. I approach her friendlily. We consult the map to see if our directions align, and she says I can join her. She is alone so I think this is pretty cool of her — I don´t usually expect single women to take me and often don´t bother to ask them. ¨I hope you like dogs,¨ she says. On the back seat is an adorable young dog, like a fox with Asiatic eyes, a specialist breed. Jim is his name. And behind him, in a separate area, caged off, is a huge Wolf-dog — Jack. Vronie is the girls name, from Germany, and she´s on her way to a weekend retreat for her and her dogs, and a group of Dutch/German Wolf-dog owners in the Ardennes in Belgium.
Vronie tells me about the Wolf-dogs, dogs with varying per cent of pure wolf in them. Hers is twenty per cent. Different to normal dogs in their behaviour, they form unique bonds with their owners and since she has had hers five years ago, Vronie said she herself was barely recognisable — she had changed so much through their relationship. We chat about our lives, about travelling and she says ¨I would like to travel with my dogs and my horse. But my horse can´t travel in trailers.¨
¨You will have to leave from your home then¨ I say, ¨like all the best adventures¨. The thought of a girl setting off on horseback with her two dogs across Europe is amazing.
Vronie doesn´t like the thought of me sleeping in my tent along the highway tonight. I personally don´t mind, Í have a great sleeping bag, I am prepared. ¨You could set up tent at the house, I´m sure that would be okay with the others,¨ she says. As we talk more and get more familiar she adds ¨Or you can probably sleep on the couch.¨ We are approaching the point where we have to part if I don´t go with her and I don´t know what to do. On the one hand the chance to stay a night in comfort with a pack of wolves(dogs) is an intriguing start to the adventure. But I also want to go further and am not tired yet (I had stopped fantasising about a romantic encounter by this point). We stop at the service station for me to decide what to do. Go with her to her weekend retreat with her other wolf-dog owners, or continue into the unknown? The offer is so generous I want to accept, but I am hesitant of choosing comfort over the unknown. Comfort — that entity we often mistake for happiness, for life. I decide to join her. The adventure of this hospitality is too good. I shouldn´t rush, I have one month to get to Morocco, and who knows how this choice will pan out.
We drive off the freeway into the Ardennes countryside and find the holiday home. A dutch woman with two Wolf-dogs is already there and we walk inside to a lot of barking and scampering feet. ¨Don´t look him in the eyes,¨ the woman says to me. (And later on, ¨Don´t come in my room or he will kill you.¨) This woman is flabbergasted that young Vronie has taken a strange man in her car, alone. Nothing could be more shocking it seems. ¨Excuse me, no offense to you I am sure you are a nice man,¨ she says to me before exclaiming ¨Are you stupid?!¨ to Vronie. No exclamation of how wonderful and kind this young woman is. ¨Yes he can stay,¨ she reluctantly agrees. She would have gladly said no had I not already been standing there. She is not used to hospitality. I later learn she is going through her own shit which maybe somewhat explained her attitude. However she also says she is a police officer high up in the federal police, and I imagine that kind of institutional job requires rigidity and mistrust — antagonistic to hitchhiking.
The other Wolf-dog owners arrive with their Wolf-dogs (and one meager Jack Russel). I learn that you can´t have two boys together or two girls because they will fight (but boys fight for show whereas the girls will fight to kill). We have a quiet night, eating pre-made lasagna and playing UNO. I notice Vronie really begin to lose confidence in her decision to bring me home with her, all the Wolf-dog owners find it very strange, but I think it is good for them all to witness her kindness. They have a spare bedroom so I sleep in unexpected comfort.
The next day Vronie and her friend drive me to the freeway entrance. I know it will be tough to get a lift from here — a quiet on-ramp on the highway 100 km´s to Luxembourg — but I don´t want to impose on Vronie anymore, to take me to the service station on the highway. She drops me off and I give her a note saying how grateful I am and how beautiful it is that she picked me up. That the world needs generous and trusting acts like this More not Less. Thank you. Then I wait in the cold, by the on-ramp at this random place in Belgium.
Two cars go past in ten minutes (not much!) and it is cold and I am not angry or sad but I am well aware that it will be a bloody relief to get away from here. I walk to the on-ramp going in the opposite direction and I notice a car park and a car with lights on. I walk over and start talking to the man and very luckily he is heading towards Luxembourg and can take me with him. He is waiting for his ex-wife to drop off the kids from the other direction. His ex-wife rocks up and — thinking I am a friend of his — she greets me with kisses whilst me and the ex-husband kind-of smirk as he tells her I am a hitchhiker. This window of opportunity to get away from this location must have been tiny! I just squeezed through a comfy little porthole into the infinity. I am so grateful.
He takes me to a truckers restaurant/stop a bit off the highway but with enough traffic passing through. A man in a funny jumper takes a drag of his cigarette then gives me the rest (no filter) and motions for me to join him for a drink (at 10:30 am). The restaurant was warm which was a relief as my shoes I had decided to leave with — now a year old and well worn — seem to leak from the bottom up and my feet are beginning to freeze. I talk to as many people as possible but not much luck, then I head towards the service station and after not too long find a couple heading towards Saarbrucken, Germany and they can take me to a big service station the other side of Luxembourg. The man is a beautiful French caricature with a Pinocchio nose and red eyes.
The couple drop me at a huge service station. It´s Saturday, the beginning of the school holidays and abuzz with traffic. I buy a double espresso, the first money I have spent — besides losing the coins in the doctors car. With the caffeine coursing through me, I chat to everyone to find a ride. ¨Bon Jour Moinseur? Sa va? Bien merci. Es possible allez voux a direccion Nancy? Je autostop de Amsterdam a Barcelona. Oui Oui Oui (I know it is far — Ha! Ha! Ha!) No? Pap Problem! Bon voyage!¨ the conversations go. I smile and glitter about. I chat in Dutch to the yellow number-plated Dutchies, in German to the Germans, French, English, Spanish! No luck but a lot of fun- coffee is the hitch-hikers friend. I begin to run out of energy and am about to get out my guitar and just chill and start playing and let the people come to me, when a man says to me, ¨I´m going to Burgundy, you can come with me and stay at my place and tomorrow I´ll drop you at the freeway on your way to Lyon.¨
¨Wow, excellent!¨. We walk towards his car and he explains, ¨When I was young and hitchhiking through France, the same happened to me and now I can return the favour — complete the cycle.¨ Amazing. He is straight away so friendly and genuine, before we even get to his car he tells me about the wine cellar in the village where his holiday house is, where we can drink a wine or two and catch up on the village gossip when we arrive. This is Bart, from the Netherlands. My first new friend on the road.
For four hundred odd kilometers we share the voyage. We share our stories, we smoke cigarettes and we drive towards the sun. At 46, Bart has been on a varied path. He tells me how he built a hotel, went bankrupt, studied French, married, divorced because his wife went for S & M as he went for Tantra. How, with the newfound independence he moved to Romania and experienced the adventure of life anew and now is back in Amsterdam studying and teaching Dutch grammar, though he plans to move back to Romania. He listens intently to my story of leaving Australia, of beginning Guerilla Kitchen, my philosophies and my lifestyle, and he is inspired and encouraging. We eventually arrive in the small village and head straight to the cellar where we are inundated with generous tasters of numerous Burgundy wines and exquisite chevre and saucisson. The village gossip is that a father murdered his child. Mmmm the world is still a fucked up place.
Bart takes me out for dinner, we indulge in a Pernod aperitif and wine, and then we arrive at the cottage. He puts on Barbara and I glow with unknown nostalgia and joy as I hear the music and submerge in this beautiful, unexpected, French occasion. I get the fire going — Australian Blokey Pride at stake — and the wine and words continue to flow, the details emerge, the stitching and the intricacies between the seams. I pull out the guitar and play, then Bart plays a beautiful classical song and I am not-surprised but completely thrilled at the amount of musicians in the world, behind so many doors. At 2 am, liters of wine later, we retire.
Hungover I arise the next day and explore around the gorgeous cottage, looking out onto the rolling Burgundy hills. I can´t stop beaming at this random, delightful existence as I walk to the village to buy bread and pastries from the boulangerie (bakery). I discover an apple tree laden with ripe fruit along the way and take some of them. Back at the cottage, the sun is shining and me and Bart spend the afternoon cleaning the garden. I mow the lawns and help fix a tile on the roof, a pleasurable exchange for all the hospitality.
Bart generously takes me out to dinner again. (¨It will be just pre-fab meals the rest of my time here,¨ he says — although judging on the way he talked about a ´great´ restaurant in town, I doubt that.) We eat one of the richest meals of my life. A huge steak with a big lump of garlic butter on top, fries and a minuscule salad. Later, I struggle to sleep with such an unaccustomed amount of meat and fat in my belly.
The richness of the food and wine is nothing compared to the richness of generosity and surprise that the world indulged me with. A new friend was made and he gave me valuable encouragement to continue on my path, and importantly to share the experiences I have and the wisdom I may gain.