Hitchhiking — generosity and adventure from Amsterdam to San Sebastian PART THREE ¨Escape from the Mall and pied a tierre¨
Bertrand drops me at a huge mall. I decide to buy some food from the Hyper-Marche monstrosity, which, although ginormous, is pretty hard to find within this horrible mall. With relief I find a trolley to put my heavy bag and guitar in as I explore the ´hyper´ market. I´m anxious, night is approaching, I have to get to the peage, I´m hungry, I´m in this Fucking Horrible Mall! At the boulangerie section I find a garbage bag with old bread inside which I know they are going to throw out. Like a rat I tear a hole in the bag and take some loaves. Approaching the checkout with some carrots, peanuts, a can of chickpeas and the two loaves, I know that they are going to try and charge me for the loaves, so I try to hide them under my backpack in the trolley. But I also know they will probably look in my trolley and if they see them hidden they will think I´m stealing them — which I am but I am kind of comfortable with this because I think I can explain that they were in the rubbish. But at the same time I don´t want to hide them and be caught stealing. So I half-hide them (useless?) hoping the checkout lady won´t look. The checkout woman (with her Miserable Life and not speaking English) looks in the trolley and sees them and not speaking English and me only knowing hitchhikers French there is no way she can understand. I don´t want to kick up a fuss. She charges me for them, but that´s all. No more trouble. Are my values against food waste strong enough that I will pay the same price for old, chewy bread when I could´ve had crisp fresh baguette? Well that´s what I dealt myself today. Things definitely could have been worse, I know. Oh the atmosphere in this place is hell.
I´m stuck at some mall, far from anywhere I know and where I want to be. Am I afraid? A little. I consolidate myself — I have a tent, a sleeping bag, and food. I will be sheltered and warm and fed, even if I have to sleep by the freeway, or in a car park. What else do I need? I want to be on the path to get where I am going, but that is a desire. And that is my work as a hitchhiker, life-rider. All these kilometers aren´t for free. I exchange them for my stories, for my smiles, and for a willingness to do away with the luxury of certainty. It is night. Well, am I afraid of the dark? No. I am just anxious of it being more difficult to engage with people at night time, who can take me to a service station to continue. I´m sitting in the food court, chewing peanuts and a carrot and I log in to the WIFI to consult Hitchwiki on how to get out of this situation. I find a map and see directions to walk half an hour to get to the huge peage heading south and then west. I´m feeling more calm now I have some food in my belly, and a plan. There is nothing else to be done, I will just have to walk to the peage. This will be tough with this bloody heavy bag but I will survive. I am healthy. There are no pains besides this weight. What a blessing! I am alive and healthy, young and free and not afraid.
I leave the mall to walk to the peage and realise there is a big service station — the gasoline goitre of the hypermarket inside. I am confused which way I have to walk and I decide to try asking people at the station for a ride although I am not too hopeful. It is well lit though so I don´t feel threatening. After only five minutes a man answers my rough French in his decidedly comforting, English accent, ¨You can speak English (with me), where do you want to go?¨
I tell him,´The peage.¨
¨I can take you to the peage, I just need to get something from the hardware store first,¨ he says. Yippee!!!! What are the odds? Once again I am epically grateful for this chance encounter. Turns out this chap is called Andrew too, is a project manager at an aerospace company nearby, and gets guitar lessons at work as part of the French social something or other system. He´s also the only person I get a ride with who doesn´t answer his phone whilst driving (let alone txting or showing me photos). Andrew has hitchhiked before and is sympathetic to my cause. He even takes me to a service station along the freeway exactly where I need to go, missing his exit by 500 m to drop me there. It seems since I was abandoned by Bjorn things haven´t been too bad at all. What were the chances of meeting Andrew then and there? What would´ve happened otherwise? An exhausting walk? An exhausting time hitching at the peage? But I would have made it too. Thank you mother fate for caressing after the scold, and for scolding as well so that I know that I´ll never know.
Wowah today! Thanks to Andrew I wake relaxed and well-rested at a great position to continue my journey. I slept in the field behind the service station and as I wake up and stretch I search around for apple trees or grapes left on the vines. I find none and cheerily make my way to the service station. I know a coffee is a necessary indulgence after the cloudiness of a caffeine-free day yesterday, so I buy one and wait outside. A single man in a van is at the pumps and I approach him with my ¨je australie¨ routine and he says, ¨I am going towards Tarbes, in fact to Pau,¨ (the destination I could´ve been at by 4 pm yesterday!) Excitedly I ask to join.¨Sure thing!¨ he says and perhaps this is the start of a great friendship.
Fabrice is from Reunion Island. He was coming from Toulouse where he had been looking at a food truck to buy. He wants to start a pizza truck business here like he used to do on Reunion. However the truck was way too expensive for him. He is in a dilemma now though because his van we are driving in is being sold this Saturday. He has 3 days to find a new vehicle before he is walking. Oh oh! I´m chewing on some of my stale bread and he offers me a bag behind the seats filled with delicious crepe and churros from his girlfriend´s sister´s carnival creperie. I share my story and tell of my planned destinations, visiting friends throughout Spain, and he teaches me the term ¨pied a tierre¨ which means to have a home everywhere. He tells me he plays guitar, and djembe, and we bond over our shared difficulties in singing and playing at the same time.
Fabrice was happy on Reunion and wasn´t really enjoying France. ¨Last Friday,¨ he tells me, ¨I was ready to go back. Then in the afternoon I get a call from the bank saying they approve my request for a loan to get the food truck, and I get a call for a job interview as a social worker.¨ Life turned around. It´s so chill, our voyage together, I am sad it is coming to an end. He tells me I am courageous, living and travelling like this. I say, ¨I´m just doing what I do, how I like to do it. For me there is no choice but to indulge in as much of this vast life as possible.¨ He drops me at a service station at the Pyrenees and as we depart he says I have pied a tierre at his place whenever I want, and I tell him he should come meet me in Morocco. Our pied a tierre interweave.
It´s early in the afternoon, and the sun is still shining — and has been the whole time since I got to Burgundy with Bart. The service station is quiet and there is traffic going in many directions. I don´t have far to go to the Spanish border so I sit on a rock in the sun and get my guitar out, in no rush to harangue the drivers. A woman by herself pulls up and heads towards the shop. I decide to ask her even though — as I´ve said — I don´t expect much from women by themselves. To my surprise she answers in French ¨ bla bla ou eux ou … 10 minutes … bli bla ouuu ¨ and there is not a tone of rejection in her voice. ¨Super!¨ I answer and wait for her to come back. She returns and true enough she is going to take me with her. ¨I speak English,¨ she says as I put my bags in the back of her car.
Meet Sophie. She is all ears listening to my story of leaving Australia, and adventuring through India, Iran, Turkey, Romania and getting to Amsterdam. She is absorbing the details as though making them her own. She wants to live like this. ¨I know there is more to life than this. Just work and then sleep, and being tired all the time. I want adventure! But how do I do that? You are completely out of the system but I am completely in it. How can I leave? Can I leave somewhat or do I have to completely?¨ We ponder her questions together. She has a nine and seven year old daughter who she is going to visit at their grandmothers now. I don´t envy her situation. Parenthood is a prison built of love it seems. Although of course without which I wouldn´t be here. But it makes the escape (out of the routine) so much more complicated and risky — or so we are made to think!
Sophie takes me all the way to the last service station before the border. ¨I remember when I was in my twenties on holiday on the Spanish coast with friends,¨ she tells me.
We were at a bar, drinking til late and I spy a smelly, handsome traveller — like you — in the corner.
(I hope I wasn´t smelly, I had washed in the service station that morning!)
¨We are talking and I´m a bit drunk,¨ she continues, ¨and I invite him to stay at our place with me and my friends. He was German, travelling around — free — like you. We were boyfriend and girlfriend for a time, and were friends for many years.¨ I´m honoured to be a living reflection of her romance from the past, and I am sure our encounter was not insignificant. In a last act of beautiful kindness she says, ¨Come stay at my place in Toulouse whenever you want. I have a beautiful house by the lake¨.
We say goodbye and I marvel at all the good-will and generosity and beautiful people I have encountered since I left Amsterdam. Hitchhiking through Iran and Turkey I experienced amazing hospitality and generosity too, but to know it exists here, in wealthy, bustling Western Europe is a hopeful sign. Most people I meet say they don´t see hitchhikers any more. Not compared to the old days. Like most things, it has been subject to commodification by BlaBlaCar for example. Or was it the fear of strangers that came first? A symptom of the nuclear household? In some ways I think BlaBlacar is good as it allows us to share our resources, such as a car and fuel. But at the same time it means people are less inclined to give rides to strangers for free, or to expect hitchhikers. As there are less people hitchhiking, it becomes less normal, and the values that go with it — sharing, generosity, curiosity — are less abundant. I say we should all hitchhike more! But of course you need time, so we have to quit our jobs and savour that resource that you can never stockpile — time! Although of course hitchhiking takes a long time. But it´s real. Present. And I made it 1800 km´s for the price of a handful of coffees, and a bit of food. €21.40 in total. What an experience for such a bargain.
After all these new encounters I am still thinking about my family of friends back in Amsterdam. I´m not clinging to the thought of them though. I want to share with them what I´ve been through, let them know that the winds were strong and tasty, and adventure is home for me
Pied a tierre.