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Hitchhiking from England to France

Before I hitchhiked to India with no money, I made a stab at getting to Morocco on the same terms. I headed out of Brighton in the middle of March with 20 pounds, the price of the boat ticket to Morocco and back.

Before I hitchhiked to India with no money, I made a stab at getting to Morocco on the same terms. I headed out of Brighton in the middle of March with 20 pounds, the price of the boat ticket to Morocco and back.

By mid morning I arrived at Newhaven and realised at once my mistake: the ferry from here to France took 4 and a half hours as opposed to an hour and a half from Dover. I was fucked. No one was going to invite me for a journey that long.

I sat down to eat my packed lunch and left my cardboard sign reading: “FRANCE PLEASE” in front of me.

Before I could finish my first sandwich though a big camper van pulled up and a gruff looking chap with an orange beard called me over.

“Get in then.” He said by way of greeting.

His story was a touching one. He’d been happily living at home on the dole for the last ten years until his mother had died and he’d decided to get on the road.

“You felt like it was time for a change?” I asked, imagining he wanted to put the past behind him.

“Well, once I inherited the house the government said they wouldn’t give me any more dole cheques.” He explained.

I was in my Buddhist faze and was determined to find the divine in everyone. But man, did I have my work cut out with this guy. For the next 35 hours we drove down to the south of France and not once did I hear him say a positive work about anyone or anything. He hated England, he hated France. He hated the roads, he hated the signs.

“They don’t point straight.” He complained, “How are you supposed to know where to go?”

When we got lost trying to avoid the peage toll roads around Paris he threatened to throw me out of the van if I got the directions wrong. Still, he let me sleep in the van on the spare bunk and every now and then he’d pass me a pot of instant noodles without a word. At night he proudly pulled open a drawer from the closet in the back of the van. There were piles of foreign currency.

“There!” He announced, “Francs, pesetas, escudos – I went round and asked all my friends for their left over holiday money. Bet you didn’t think of that, did you?”

I had to admit that I hadn’t and changing the subject I asked him about the lumps of plasticine I saw lying around on the table. He looked guarded for a moment and the told me.

“It’s therapeutic. I make things out of it. Then I can flog them at the campsite in Portugal, see?”

He was beginning to tire of my company too and was just waiting for a chance to dig in somehow. In the afternoon of the second day he observed me massaging my knee which was going a little numb from sitting still.

“What are you doing?” He demanded to know.

“Oh, it’s shiatsu.” I explained, knowing I was making a mistake. “It’s to get the blood moving around the joint.”

“Oh!” He chuckled grimly. “Yes, spirituality is a wonderful thing. Oh, yes. Self-deception is a marvellous thing!” He threw me a contemptuous glance and continued: “So, what is it, rheumatism?”

“No, it’s just an ache. Rheumatism is a disease.” I couldn’t help adding, determined to stand up for myself. He fumed silently for a minute and then came back:

“Yes, you’re right, it’s a probably a disease and you’re riddled with it!”

We didn’t speak much for the next hour or so and I checked that my bags were at hand as I expected him to throw me out at any minute. We were winding through the Loire Valley and though the landscape was far more lush and scenic than anything I had expected of France, it occurred to me that for as far as the eye could see you’d be able to hear the traffic on the highway.

“That’s the second dead cat I’ve seen by the side of the road.” He announced, apparently unable to keep quiet, no matter how much he hated his passenger. “I had a cat once.” He mused.

This was too much! This fucked-up miser had a little pussy cat that he stroked and loved and fed from the hand? Well, not quite.

“Trained him, I did.” He recalled proudly, “People say you can’t train cats but I did. He’d fetch things and lie down and everything.”

Shortly after that he stopped for gas and returning from the living compartment behind, he thrust a chocolate bar at me defensively. I thanked him from the bottom of my heart and he nodded gruffly.

It wasn’t long after that that we arrived in Biarritz where I planned to get off. Even Buddha couldn’t have taken any more, I reasoned. I hoisted my things out of the van and he shrugged.

“See you, then.” He shrugged, returning towards the van.

But I wasn’t leaving it at that. Now that I was free again my spirit of universal love came back to me and I put my hand on my heart and told him:

“Hey, thank you so much for all you did for me. For the food and the shelter, that was really a great ride for me, it really helped a lot. I hope things go really well for you in Portugal.”

He looked at me in utter surprise and for a moment I thought he was going to smile. Instead he nodded and climbed back into the van and drove away.

It occurred to me then that in the day and half we’d spent together we didn’t even find out each other’s names.