In August I travelled to Europe for the first time, and hitchhiked from Munich to Berlin. This is my journey, lift by lift…
Lift 1 – Benedikt is 19. He joined me on the road as he was hitching to Leipzig to see his girlfriend. He’s an interesting guy.
As we drove through small country towns just outside of Munich to avoid a big traffic jam on the highway, he told me that he went to a school that runs for 13 years instead of 12, and allows the students to pretty much do what they want, which means they get to CHOOSE what they want.
He’s been to Kenya on a volunteering mission, and hitch-hiked through a lot of Europe. His last trip was to Greece, but he and his girlfriend got stuck without lifts so they ended up spending time in Croatia.
Benedikt has a neat plan, and it goes like this: Sign up to University (he wants to study Mathematics and Physical Education), but only go to class three or four times for the first year. By signing up he gets a government grant of €200 per month, which he is saving to use to go to South America at the end of the year. He says lots of young Germans do this, it’s legal, but his parents and older Germans don’t like it. He’s had many talks with his father about it, but he’s doing it anyway. When he starts working one day, he’ll have to pay half of it back.
Benedikt and I made a good team on the road. With our first lift he did the talking with two young climbers who don’t speak English, and on the second I did the talking while he chilled in the backseat. We parted at a petrol station about 20kms outside of Nuremberg. I’ll never see him again, but I’m pretty sure he’s with his love in Leipzig.
Hotel strange, Nürnberg.
Lift 2 – Hitch-hiking is a great way to understand people, and yourself. When I first met Markus he told me he was out of work, and then started talking about corruption in the government. Suddenly ‘Hitler’ was mentioned, and I thought ‘oh no, the guy’s gone racist he’s so resentful’. But it wasn’t so. I was projecting, you see.
For 100km Markus let his thoughts flow, broken by beautiful pauses where he stopped to search for the English word, gunning his strange old Porsche caddy to 170km p/h on the Autobahn.
He’s a technical man, interested in technical things. Did you know that you can’t buy the Tesla battery bank in Europe, because it doesn’t conform to European standards, so Elon Musk has chosen one or two European companies to manufacture it locally? Or that in Germany you have to have photovoltaic cells (solar panels - Markus says photovoltaic) on your roof, because a certain amount of your power must come from renewables? Or that there are five private power providers in Germany, and they hoodwink you into using their service because they make the receiver box in your home specific to them, so either you pay to have a different box put in if you want to change providers, or you’re stuck.
‘I will rather not pay the money to change the box,’ says Markus, ‘I will rather keep the money and create my own power.’
What really showed me Markus’ character, and mine, was this: ‘I went to South Africa in the 90s,’ he said. ‘I would not want to live there.’
I stiffened inside, expecting him to say ‘I don’t want to live with blacks.’ Instead he said ‘I could not live behind those high walls, with the sharp fences.’
Markus laughs a lot. Whatever the baggage of someone who picks me up, I always think they’re special to have said yes to the adventure of letting a stranger into their car.
The old rally grounds, Nürnberg.
Lift 3 – Ellen and Braam are Dutch, on their way home to Holland from a holiday in the Austrian Alps. Hiking up there Ellen hurt her hand. At first they thought it was broken, but later discovered it’s just badly bruised.
‘The doctor says she must take three weeks to heal,’ said Braam.
‘I think I will take two days,’ said Ellen, flashing him a smile.
They told me I’m their first hitch-hiker (they offered Benedikt a lift - he was working the parking lot, but he’s going in a different direction), and I told them they’re my first Dutch lift.
We didn’t have much time together, only 20 kms or so, but I can say this. Hitch-hiking in Germany is easy, and weird. It’s not that people aren’t going to your town, or in your direction, they’re going to a whole different country. ‘Sorry friend, I’m going to Sweden,’ says the Spanish truck driver. ‘We cannot, we are on our way to Poland,’ says the Czech couple. All of these places are closer than Beaufort-West to Cape Town. Cities thousands of years old, all just there in the Karoo.
They dropped me off in the centre of Nuremberg just as the rain started falling. There was a Chinese restaurant there, so I had a hot and sour soup.
Following Mark, Munich
Lift 4 - Tiiimo! After taking the train for 30 minutes, getting lost so walking for five ks, finally getting to the hitching spot which turns out to be the spot I was at yesterday, and standing there for five hours, I meet Timo. He’s going to Bamberg, a town not in the direction of Berlin, but I don’t care because let’s get out of here.
Timo’s on his way to meet his father who has driven through from Stuttgart (where Timo grew up), to visit an old friend (who Timo hasn’t met).
He tells me he’s got some buddies that live in a trailer park. His one buddy works only one 24 hour day a week, as a frail care giver. He’s converted an old six horse truck to live in. The night Timo met him they were at a concert and decided to go back to his place because he had a bar there. So the crowd went, but it was Winter which means snow and around -5 C.
‘…and when we opened the door, the temperature inside was the same outside. We couldn’t even make the drinks, everything was frozen!’ Timo laughs, driving slow because he’s talking while sleek rides zoom past us left and right. ‘He doesn’t even have power. He has connected his wires to the neighbours…’ Timo holds up his hand, showing me it all, ‘…wire, wire, wire. So when it is wet…’ He flicks his fingers like a light going on and off - ‘Shoov, shoov, there is nothing!’ He bounces in his seat as he laughs, crinkling his happy face for his crazy, happy-go-lucky friend.
‘So, where you want to go?’ We blink. We’re in Bamberg, a medieval town on a river. Two hours later I’m at the train station with a ticket to Münchberg, which means going back all the way I’ve come, then around and a little ahead again, back to the A9 highway so that I can hitch some more tomorrow, or even tonight.
Timo is 30 years old. He works as a toy designer in a toy factory (he’s in his work clothes), and has two kids, aged three and one.
Friends for an hour, en route to Münchberg
Lift 5 – Slow rain fell over Germany. I shifted position, noticing that where my feet had been the long grass was dry, that messy tangle of grass that grows next to the tar. Rising up were two towers, one named McDonalds and the other Burger King, and stretching away to the left was wheat.
This place was long and rolling. My sign with the little ‘B’ on it was sagging, as much under the slow rain over Germany as the spiteful little snorts and shakes of the head of the car people, who were warm and didn’t want to get wet. But I didn’t mind. Hitching is like fishing. You take the good with the bad, you eat the quiet of the day and you drink the wind.
And then, just like that, solitude was wiped away when Ang(h)elica pulled off.
‘Oh. Ok. I do not mind.’
She speaks in a soft, sweet voice. She drives carefully but well and she has a long scar on her forearm, the kind that comes from breaking your arm and getting six pins put in as a child.
‘My husband does not like to fly. I cannot visit South Africa. I would like to.’
She got out when she stopped, out into the slow rain, to help me with my bags.
‘It is eight years since I spoke English. I am working it out in my head.’ She laughs gently. ‘It is further than I am going, but I will take you to the gas station. You can better get a lift there.’
Time with Angelica was sweet, like today’s slow rain over Germany. I am 250km from Berlin.
Sleeping rough, Stendal
Lift 6 – The sky is white. The road is grey. On either side the bush is dull green and low, trees tangled with vines. The air is warm and Jörg’s car is humming hard. We spoke years ago, when they stopped for me, back then in that time. I liked him. He’s got bright eyes, ones that look past your face and into your mind, with a smile because he likes humans.
He and his missus are on their way to Poland to surprise their oldest son for his birthday. I’m in the backseat. There’s loads of space in this car, a station wagon, there’s about 5cm between my knee and the back of Jörg’s seat.
‘There’s got to be a lot of interest in this horse,’ I say, regarding the sales girl over the animal’s flank. ‘He seems strong.’ ‘It’s a she,’ she says, ‘we can do 40?’ Numbers start ticking over, a pressure in the mind as I work the currency.
Jörg is looking at me in the rearview mirror. I was asleep, my mouth hanging open. What do I look like asleep with my mouth hanging open? Dead? His eyes flicker back to the road, that smile.
Last night I slept in a field then caught a train at 4.30am, then fell out of it at a little post card town, and walked by window after window, peering in. Two hours ago I met Jörg in a parking lot. He said, ‘alright! Come! Which side do you want to sit on? You choose!’ all the while watching me with those inquisitive green eyes.
I push my stomach out and air floods in through my nose like a clean, cold waterfall. A sign for Berlin flashes by. 63km.
Street-side sight, Munich
Lift 7 – I was only 50kms out of Berlin, standing at another petrol station (you can’t hitch on the Autobahn, you’ll get shredded), when Ingrid took a long walk up to me. She had been in the McDonald’s and was munching on a burger as she covered the 100m of empty tar between us, just strolling. Finally she reached me and stood a moment, looking up at me, checking me out.
‘German, German, German, German.’ She kept looking up at me, still munching, still casual. Nothing she’d said made any sense. ‘German, German, German?’
‘SüdAfrika,’ I said, touching my chest. ‘Englisch. Ich sprechen nicht Deutsch.’
Her eyes opened wide. She hadn’t expected this. It’s the red beard, you see.
‘I… No Englisch!’
She really didn’t. We were in the same boat.
She thought a moment then stuck a stubborn chin out, motioning for me to follow her to her car. So we got going and for the first time on this trip I was forced into a conversation with someone who’s English is as bad as my German. We had fun. A car ahead of us was going slowly. ‘Moof, moof!’ said Ingrid, shoeing the car away, both of us stripped down to big, silly sign language.
‘Slow!’ I say, ‘he is slow!’
‘Slow!’ she shouts at the car, ‘you is slow!’
‘What is slow, German?’
‘Der, auto, ist, langsam!’
And so it goes. Word by word we taught each other. What a pleasure to not have to feel slow, or have the other just switch to English because it’s easier.
‘My, mutter, 99, jahre. I, help, her. Here, Berlin.’
Suddenly we were in the city. She dropped me off at the nearest train station. There she took me by the arm and marched me over to a map of the underground, tracing the line I needed to take to the centre.
‘Vier, stops. Vier.’ She held her hand up, four fingers. ‘Vier. Four.’ We both smile, and hug.
After she’s gone I heave up the backpack and walk down underground. At the entrance to the station is a real map of the city. Jesus. I’ve not ever seen something so big in my life. It’s wider than I’m tall, and longer. I take a picture, honing in on the centre because otherwise it’s too big.
Marius, Braam, Ellen, Benedikt, Angela, Timo, Jörg, Jörg’s Missus