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Hitchhiking With No Money Through France

Busking in the streets in Biarritz an Algerian and a Frenchman came along and threw me a few coins. In a mixture of broken French and English they laughed to see me with all my bags and asked me where I was going to sleep that night. I suggested that the local park looked a safe place to stay. They laughed uproariously and shook their heads, inviting me to come and eat at their house.

I stayed with them for a few days and then we drove across the south of France to visit their friends in the countryside in a village near Albi. Their friends had a large farm house and were trying to put a band together and the Algerian played the bass.

Somehow they were happy for me to stay with them for a month though I didn’t have a franc to my name and I did my best to give something back by giving shiatsu massages and cooking most days. I passed the days meditating by the river and trying to teach myself French by reading a translation of Siddharta by Herman Hesse.

I can only suppose that I represented some kind of novelty for them, having recently come back from India and with a head full of spiritual ideas. Of course every novelty soon wears off and eventually it was understood that I should hit the road again and, anyhow I was keen to get to Morocco.

I hitched through country lanes, each ride taking me 15 km along to the next village where I’d once again have to walk twenty minutes along to where the road thinned out enough to thumb a lift. No one was going to stop for me in the middle of a shopping street after all.

My shoulders ached from carrying my army surplus sleeping bag and waterproof poncho through the country lanes and I wondered how travellers of old got by. Hitchhiking presumably involved a fair deal of hiking before cars took over the planet; it was heavy enough carrying enough to keep me warm at night, never mind any other possessions.

The sun was going down and as my final lift took me to the town of Carcassonne, I watched the countryside slip by apprehensively and wondered whether I should chance it by looking for a barn somewhere. But I continued to Carcassonne, fancying that maybe someone would take me home again. I had a 20 pound note which I was saving for the boat ride to Morocco but I had a sandwich in my bag so I felt pretty confident.

It didn’t take me long of walking through the darkened streets of Carcassone to understand that I was on my own and it was time to put my sleeping bag to the test. Following my nose, I came upon a little park surrounded by a ring road of traffic. And in the middle of the park was a small lake. In the middle of the lake was a very small island, connected to the mainland by a plank. I walked across it hopefully and found in the middle of the island a little house made from wood. It was about 3 feet high and 5 feet long and I squeezed into it with my guitar as a bed companion.

There followed one of the least comfortable nights I can remember. All night I heard the drunken voices of people returning from bars and clubs as they walked around the park and I was gripped with fear that they were coming my way. Then later, once the voices had died away I kept waking up in semi-fever to see if the morning had arrived and found only a thick mist that obscured everything except my wooden shelter. Alone in the middle of the universe and I couldn’t sleep.

Dawn did eventually turn up and I stumbled out exhausted with craps in all my body. How many more nights like that would I be able to endure? I was losing faith in the path of the vagabond fast. I caught an early lift along to Perpignant and then drew myself a cardboard saying:

BARCELONA – Por favour!

I stood in front of the peage pay tolls all morning and whilst everyone passed me without a glance I kept up my spirit with songs and hitchhiking mantras. Omgivetomalift, Omgivetomalift but even these failsafe charms weren’t helping. I nibbled at my dry loaf of bread, my only remaining source of nourishment and waited helplessly as the sun passed over my head and drifted towards the west. At least he was going somewhere.

It would be wrong to say that the day passed uneventfully though the French police motorbike thoughtfully came over to extend the hand of friendship and warn me that unless I stood on the other side of the peage they’d throw me in jail.

Now I was really fucked. Standing on this side I was facing traffic heading in all possible directions and in fact two cars did stop to offer me rides to Montpellier. The elation I felt when I knew they’d really stopped for me, not just to clean their windscreens, faded each time that I found out they weren’t going my way. What was going on? I thought the Spanish were supposed to be friendly but the only cars that paid me any attention were Catalan families stuffed to bursting point, waving apologetically that they had no room.

By late afternoon I had been standing by the peage for about ten hours and I had finished all my bread and water. I headed wearily off the gas station to fill my water bottle and as I entered the restaurant area I found myself alone in front of a rack of expensive wines, cakes and a large bowl of fruit. No workers were in sight and I was, after all, in a fairly desperate situation. I’ve always considered myself a pretty straight person, honest and trustworthy. And as much as I was trusting in Providence, I gave into temptation. I leaned forwards and stole a kiwi fruit.

Outside, I let the vitamins assuage my guilt and resolved that if I’d resorted to common theft then it was too late to be picky – I would get in the next car that stopped for me no matter where it was going. A ride came long to Toulouse and I jumped in without looking back at the road to Morocco.

The driver was a grinning man in his fifties who handed me an apple with all the gingerness of someone feeding a horse for the first time. Seeing that I received it with such eagerness he fed me another and we chatted away on the hour’s drive to Toulouse. I didn’t know where it was exactly, except that it was the biggest city in the South of France.

Then a flash of intuition struck me – some weeks before I left England an acquaintance had mentioned he had an old friend living in Toulouse but that he didn’t exactly recommend I look her up as she suffered from Alzheimers. In any case he had written her name and address on a piece of paper for me and I wondered where on earth I might have put it. On the off chance I looked in the front pocket of the shirt I was wearing and, like someone pulling out his signature from a magician, I found to my disbelief the same scrap of paper.

The address was barely legible but once dropped off in Toulouse, a city of several million, I set off looking for a small street with no idea where it might be. I showed it to a couple I met in the street and they at once took me back to their apartment, gave me a beer from the fridge and got out their map. Identifying the street, they got me back in the car and drove me across the city in search of Rue de Bouf.

We found the address and an elderly lady came to the door and at once remembered the name of our mutual friend. I waved a warm goodbye to my new French friends and as I stepped into the house I was assailed by a Great Dane and a Jack Russell. I give a lot of credence to the belief that dogs resemble their owners as these two mutts were as excitable and anxious as Annabelle, my new host, who hurried about to rustle me up some food, chattering away in French I hadn’t the slightest hope of understanding.

The poor woman could hardly focus on anything but was clearly a kind soul and as she brought me coffee and blankets, she must have wondered where on earth I had turned up from. As I struggled to communicate in French I had to simultaneously fight off the manic dogs – each time I prevented the Great Dane from licking my face, the Jack Russell jumped at my crotch. As I pushed him off again I had a long pink tongue lunging at my neck.

Anyway, the moral of the story? Annabelle came through with a plate full of chicken, vegetables and rice. So I should have trusted in Providence and not stolen the kiwi.