Saturday, 13 June 2015

Basel-Peckham (1000ish km)

I'm dedicating this post to Ule whom I met when I left Basel. The friendly skating guitarist hitcher who tried to get us both a lift to Berlin before I told him to abandon me and take the seat that was offered him. He emailed to say he made it to Norway with the help of a sushi delivery van so all's well ends well.
EDIT: Also I realise my first driver didn't make the cut. Milaim, I hope your sister lends you that audi again. Sun sun sun on the autobahn, the music of Kosovo and the blur of cars. I think perhaps you had to drive that fast in order for us to break the membrane of regular reality and re-enter the luck rhizome. It definitely worked and I am forever grateful.

 Sleeping in the trees in a black forest service station. Hearing the night people (mice? birds?) run around the bushes, waking up to a cool dappled morning and snail slime on my jumper. Packed up the sleeping bag, rollmat, tarp and my cardboard mattress made of tomorrow's signs.
Dropped off there the night before by a Czech cycling trainer on his way back from a competition, van full of bikes and good stories about divorce and medals as we wended through the evening's hills. Gave him a wooden spoon and hopped the fence for some sleep.
Despite the early vantage point it took a while to get out of the black forest but I managed it with 'smokeshow' Udo, a man whose car was ominously painted with clouds of smoke. This omen was to be safely disregarded and we had a good three hour journey together, talking about the state of cargo shipping, typewriter repair and how owning a car is like owning a barrel without a bung.
Two hours in Köln where the truckers were lunching. Eventually a lift from a Romanian driver on his way to France via Belgium. Nice lift and a good chat about language learning and how his young son refuses to leave him for even a moment when they're together. Even if he goes to the toilet for a minute the boy starts crying apparently. Frustratingly this truck didn't have a passenger seatbelt, didn't bother me at first but as we got into one of the most monitored (and also accident-ridden) stretches of the road I recalled both the price of the fine and the nagging feeling that it was an unnecessary level of risk. 
Sure it's only perception-based, I was once travelling with an ex-paramedic German truck driver who doesn't wear his seatbelt because he's been to too many truck crashes where the driver was left crushed and in a state of life he personally didn't wish to survive. I'm inclined to agree with his position, but he was stopped and fined that day (by two policemen, one was checking him and the other was confiding to me about his disappointment at the state of English fish and chips). Anyway, this seatbelt thing obviously seems to be a nagging point with me still, but I went with my gut, thanked the driver and got dropped off in some tiny little toilet stop.
Not remembering where I was exactly, I wrote a mix of English and German in order to get a lift to the next petrol station. Siegbert the Austrian engineer came through for me and told me about his son's job in Warwick, working in a factory with a process to get the air bubbles out of glass.
Dropped at a big petrol station somewhere in Flanders, instantly met by a tall, thin, bristled and smiling French hitchhiker with whom I swapped few words but a lot of good will and cardboard for his next sign. I saw him again 5 minutes later waving and grinning furiously as he passed in the passenger seat of a white car rejoining the motorway. I was picked up by Jean Francis, who lived in Belgium but worked in a prison in France as a tutor for school exams. Great music and slow roads, and a hopeful conversation about growing public awareness of the correlations between literacy, dyslexia and the prison system. He intended to get me to a famous petrol station for hitchhikers called Courtrijk. I arrived there with a sense of deja vu and found my name on a lamppost. Good to put a name to the place, last year I got to Dover from the same spot in one lift.
Brief and funny interaction with an energetic and helpful man, bald, moustache, thick gold hoop earrings, purple silk shirt and gesticulating wildly with a sandwich. He tried at first to speak to me in Belgian, but then broke into English.
 "Good luck, but to be honest why don't you wait closer to the entrance than the exit? Why not be rational? Haha!"
I thanked him for the suggestion and with a roll of his eyes and a broad smile he replied:"Oh that's just me, I help anyone I can!" I followed his instructions and after a 5 second introduction to a newly arrived French hitcher I was off with Kenneth the lifeguard towards Dunquerque (him and a friend had a creepy lift going through Poland, involved them jumping off the back of a tractor in the middle of the night on some country road). Dropped in a service station next to two ducks, an approaching storm and a man cleaning out a car with a UK licence plate. The ducks were waddling towards Belgium so I asked the English guy instead.
A lot of hitchers swear by approaching people and directly asking for lifts but this is something I've never done before*. I said as much to Chris and he kindly said "Well yeah, my plan is to sleep in my car tonight but if you can fit in you can have the front seats, better than being out in this storm."
He was meant to be off to the UK the following day but decided he was up for trying to get an earlier ferry so we drove off to Dunquerque, getting a bit lost on the way. It was a fortuitous meeting given we both seem to have sprawled our lives across Europe a bit. Chris had been working in Austria, was about to go back, had just bought an old French house in creaky disrepair and had to go and see some family in the UK. If over-organisation precipitates entropy (as someone said) than I hope the opposite holds true and Chris'll go on for a few hundred years as haphazard and affable as he is now. He couldn't change his ticket at the ferry port, and I couldn't get a foot passenger ticket, so we slept in the car and in the morning he insisted on driving me to the foot-passenger ferry port in Calais, a good few km away. I think the reason I'm dwelling on Chris is it just made me think of the balance met between tight schedules and random acts of kindness. No conclusions to draw as so many examples contradict each other (I remember gasping open mouthed when a speeding ford screeched to a halt, the driver barked at me to get in or he'd miss his ferry, and I was sped down the road by a friendly fisherman who'd previously made an oath never to drive past a hitchhiker) but there's some sort of fulcrum in there.
At the ferry port I gave Chris a wooden spoon and promptly bumped into and broke bread with a man hitching back to Bradford from Belarus, carrying a big brass begging bowl and a lot of weariness....gave him a wooden spoon too actually.
Ferry uneventful except for loud announcements about binge drinking from the guys running the cafe. Lift out of Dover with a GP trying to alleviate the burden of the elderly on the NHS (in his words), got me to Folkestone services where I waited 5 hours last year. 5 minutes this time and had a lift with an HGV driver with a dirty laugh and tons of good hitching and travelling stories about the UK and Mexico in the 90's. Last drop at a service station near Heathrow, where I was driven into Peckham by a young couple on their way back from the airport in a gleaming mercedes (they had it on courtesy after their car packed in the week before). Greg runs an adventure travel business and Ann is an academic working in Media and Middle Eastern studies. That lift was one of the smoothest homecomings so far, riding around in a mercedes discussing media saturation, universities as employers, the value of long distance walking, desert festivals...we got onto Marxism and then Greg reminded us what we were driving and we put our heads down in shame.
Jumped out in sunny Peckham, folded and binned my 'London' and ran off into a very dreamlike week of a much-meandering mental pollen reconnaisance.

*This is a point of ongoing debate. I think I understand the pros of asking people for lifts but for me personally I prefer to stand around looking like a patient and friendly hyperlink. Just different ways really. For me the paradox has been that if you look patient you can end up getting offered lifts much faster than if you're trying to get a lift to be on time, and I'd consider asking people something that happens more when you're short of time (although it might not be).
The other factor is that the time spent standing at the roadside waiting and smiling is some of the richest thinking time I know. Perhaps the closest socially widespread version of it is the appreciation people have of fishing as a leisure activity (regardless of the catch). It also overlays well with the idea of creative activity as a form of mental or spiritual fishing. If there's not much to see outside you try inside and vice versa, and whatever else happens you are contributing to the stockpile of accumulated time in strange places and a wordless sense of pattern about these talking mammals who fill metal boxes with anaerobic dino-slime and invite you to share their world for a couple of hours.

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