Wednesday, 30 April 2008

It is the evening before the day after. I stumble my way out of my student bolthole, my cavernous rucksack barely squeezing through the door frame, and waddle my way to the train station. As I sit on the train to Oxford, my spinal column somewhat the worse for wear, I make a mental inventory of all the things I probably should have packed but haven't. Oh well, it's too late now. And anyway, this is a journey into the soul itself. We will most likely be divesting ourselves of material possessions as we progress, because

a) things are heavy, and we'll get sick of carrying them, and
b) we will be brimming with spirituality by the time we reach fair Morocco, and hence we will have no need of consumer durables. I'd like to keep hold of the toothpaste though. If I'm going to radiate holiness and attract a band of followers, I want to make sure my gnashers sparkle.

Sofia picks me up at the station, and drives me to her palatial family pile. The whole interior is immeasurably Swedish, the airy minimalism vandalised by Sofia in her bid to make it feel "homely". The fridge has been splattered with magnetic coloured spots, and a sign above the toilet helps you identity how dehydrated you are from the hue of your urine. Sofia's mother implores me to take good care of her, which I promise to do. Thankfully she didn't get that in writing though. I'm under no contractual obligations to return her in one piece.

We pack and re-pack our bags and try and ready ourselves for our quest. Next stop, Morocco!

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Life’s a hitch, and then you die...

After a good sleep and a hearty breakfast, The Road is beckoning. We both rattle around hyperactively, my innards fluttering with butterflies - part excitement, part nervousness. Having done no real preparation for the trip, we decide now might be the time to unfurl our road map of Europe and plan our route. Hitchhiking by its very nature requires a degree of spontaneity and luck, and a constant reworking of plans, but our basic route is established: we will make our way down the spine of France to Bordeaux, then on to Barcelona and follow the autoroute that runs westward along the south coast of Spain to Algeciras, where the ferry to Morocco departs from.

Like a balloonist casting off ballast, I throw items out of my rucksack until it is light enough to be carried comfortably, and we are ready for the road. We are to be dropped at a service station south of Oxford. On the way we glide past nuclear power cooling stations which, once the apogee of the futuristic, now look like relics of an ancient civilisation. Sofia and I chatter nervously, unsure of what to expect. What exactly have we got ourselves into here? It is too late for doubts now though, and the only way is onwards.

We arrive at the service station and set about getting a lift. Being rank novices, we are totally ignorant as to methodology. We try lounging about outside the service station with our signs, hoping to entice a sated customer into giving us a lift. We then resort to waving our signs frantically at passing cars. There is much talk of tactics, of finding the mathematical ‘sweet spot’ where we are most likely to ensnare a lift. Sofia at this stage confides that she is “not sure how comfortable I am with asking people for lifts”. I smile balefully and allow my head to sink into my hands.

Initially we are hopelessly diffident about approaching people, but coldness and impatience soon overrides our hesitancy and we start to approach lorry drivers individually. We are knocked back a few times before, wandering back to the car park approach road, a car stops. Our first lift! The driver is a “development officer” for the Royal Yachting Association, with a ‘silly man’ voice. He tells us that he has been to Marrakech, and that whilst we are young and will want to “investigate the culture”, he wanted out after a few days. In spite of the complete lack of poetry in this man’s soul, my heart sings with gratitude to him for getting us underway.

The man gives us several options as to where we want to be deposited, the best of which is a Tescos. After filling up on snacks, we go and tout our wares on at least five different roads. There are no takers. Eventually an altruistic, muddle-headed Frenchman picks us up, his car full of walking paraphernalia and shopping. As soon as I see the Guardian on the backseat, I know we are going to be okay. His initial aim is simply to drop us off at a better road, but his destination continually recedes since there is, apparently, "nowhere to stop".

The Frenchman's plan was to deposit us at the side of a busier road, but this soon becomes the slip-road to the motorway to Portsmouth. Then half way to Portsmouth. Then to Portsmouth itself. Finally our driver gives up trying to fight against the tide, and takes us all the way to the docks. Having made it to our first port of call, we inhale a lungful of sea air in triumph. As we toddle to the ferry terminal, we bump into two working class women huddled together and smoking on their break. They offer us cigarettes and wish us luck on our voyage.

The port is teeming with fellow hitchers, many who have congregated in an alcove by the cafe. Ferry ports being closed economies, we purchase some astronomically-priced school canteen-style grub and wait for our vessel.

Monday, 28 April 2008

We ship anchor at eleven. After surveying the front-of-ship sleeping quarters, we take a stroll on deck. There is always the same childish thrill as the ferry pulls out of the harbour, and civilisation slowly fades from view. The sea is almost preternaturally calm, although the stars are blotted out by some wispy grey clouds, and the whole scene feels very soothing.

We head up onto the top deck and set up our speakers, twisting to some 50s rock n’ roll. The music somehow seems fantastically apposite. We decide it's time to hunker down for the night as we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, but I am starting to regret not paying for a cabin. The clammy hand of illness rests upon my shoulder, and the thought of a night on the floor or in a tilting chair is not what my body is clammering for. After a few aborted attempts at sleep, I take to exploring the decks. I read, bleary-eyed, in a cafe for a while before finally hunkering down on one of the pew-like benches in the bar on top deck.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

We arrive in Le Havre, the town that inspired Mersault’s despair in Sartre’s La Nausee. I can see his point. The town is a grey monstrosity, the temperature is sub-arctic, and the sleepless night has left me feeling distinctly unwell. This is not an auspicious start. Since the ferry was packed with hitchers, they now line the roadside, so we take the executive decision to walk as far as we can out of the town centre.

We begin flaunting our assets at a set of three petrol stations. As we arrive at the first one, we see a group of hitchers getting a lift, but as they bundle in they tell us they have been here since yesterday. The omens do not bode well. Nevertheless, we must try. We begin a little half-heartedly, but it is interesting how quickly your reserve melts in the face of coldness. We add several layers of clothing, and after much intense eye contact with the passing traffic, we snare a lift. The man is excitable, drives like a maniac, and is listening to pumping house music, which he whistles along to volubly. At one stage he takes a short cut through a French chocolate box town at great speed, as if auditioning for a part as the driver in a Renault advert. I am euphoric, if a little frightened.

He lets us out at the side of a small road in the middle of nowhere, but which is actually a direct road to the autoroute we want to get onto. Everything passing by here is going our direction. Et viola, before we even have time to put our bags down, a car pulls up and beckons us over. We’re on the road again! A short hop (and a bit of Franglais) later, and we’re left a toll-booth on the autoroute. We are in the highest of spirits, the sun is shining and even though there's a severe wind-chill factor, we’ve heard that toll-booths are perfectly hitching spots. The story of my life will thus be entitled Pain at the Payage. After three hours of working the passing cars without a bite, we head into the roadside cafeteria for an edible bite instead, then it’s back to our cold, desolate signing.

After what seems like centuries, a man takes pity on us, and offers us a lift to Caen. However, on realizing that it was slightly out of our way, our saviour takes a colossal detour to deposit us back near the Autoroute. It is only near the end of journey that he confides that he was meant to be meeting a client in one minute: “I will tell them I have been with my English friends though!” The countryside zips passed, and he points it out with pride. Despatched at a toll-booth, we set to getting a lift with maximum zeal. The gendarmes eye us suspiciously, but after some frantic sign waving, we incite the curiosity of a trucker who is intrigued we are heading to Morocco, and we clamber in.

Our driver is the laidback type - he looks Dutch – which suits us perfectly; we need some R&R after our ordeal at the payage. The lift is perfect, but for the dropping off point – the Motorway Service Station From Hell. After going at some fruit like a scurvy-infested pirate in a bid to drown my cold in vitamin C, we start to pester truckers. One kindly man seems about to offer a lift, before he is put off by another trucker, a hard-bitten biker, who tells us that most lorry drivers now have contracts forbidding them from picking up hitchers, limiting the number of people allowed in the cab. Goddamn red-tape. It’s dusk, and there’s a beautiful pink sunset, which casts a glow over the lines of trucks. The whole scene looks like a postcard of sixties Americana.

We congregate outside the shop, where we are told by several customers that we are on the wrong side of the road for Bourdeaux. We check with the shop owner. We’re on the right side. Eventually a man produces a map in a bid to offer conclusive proof that we are, in fact, on the wrong side. We cross the motorway bridge. By this point hypothermia is setting in, and we huddle in the shop on the other side. A random man comes and spouts routes at us, unhelpfully. Eventually we cave and decide to get the store attendant to order us a taxi. He is singularly, virtuosically unhelpful.

Just as it seems we are about to collapse from cold and fatigue, our guardian angel arrives in the form of a French girl in her early twenties who overhears our plight and sets to, badgering all the drivers in the store. Nothing doing, she sets about her father, who, after a decidedly chilly start, agrees to give us a lift to a hotel in Le Mans. The hotel we opt for is at the top end of budget, but we are hilariously happy to have found shelter, and the room is neat and hospitable. We put on the telly, Sofia showers and I read, my eyes constantly slipping from the page as my sick body nudges me, unrelentingly, into a profound sleep.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

The outskirts of Le Mans look even less glamorous in the daylight, like an out of town shopping nightmare. Having no wish to hang around here any longer than is strictly necessary, we decide to order a taxi at reception, to take us to a motorway service station on the Autoroute. Our taxi driver is a amenable French lesbian whose dashboard is bespangled with 'end animal cruelty' stickers.

The meter continues to rise and there are no motorway service stations in sight. We decide to bail out in what turns out to be no more than a glorified layby. As soon as our taxi scoots off, it feels like a mistake. There are three or four lorries, and maybe three cars. I have visions of our naive hitcher corpses slumped against the public lavatories. By this time my sickliness has developed into flu, and my body swings feverishly between the extremes of hot and cold. Standing in the layby, I feel like my bones have been injected with dry ice. Isicles may soon form on my nether regions.

Fighting off the urge to lie down and die, I am seized by a Joe Simpson-esque Touching The Void moment. I go and stand on the other side of the road and aggressively work my cardboard sign at the lorries at they pass. A minute later and a lorry stops. "Tours?" he asks. Damn right. This lift is near heavenly. The driver is Turkish and his cab is luxurious, fitted out with carpet and Turkish flags and trinkets. Most important of all though, the themostat is turned up to forty-five degrees in a bid to replicate the climatic conditions of his homeland. Layers are removed, flesh is thawed, the sighs of relief are palpable.

Our Turkish benefactor drops us off in the town of Tours and, after a precursory look around, we set about getting to Bordeaux, the image of which now lingers before us like a vision of utopia. The sky is grey and moist, but we quickly procure a lift by a man who fancies some company. We are dropped on a roundabout on the industrial outskirts. We trudge through the 'mean streets', wrapped-up in our waterproofs like human condoms. My walk has now become a zombie-like shuffle - my leg dragging behind me. We board the tram and wind our way to the city centre. Sofia's friend Tom is at work, but we are met by his charming friend, Mel, who takes us back to the flat and warms our cockles with tea. Sofia's flamboyantly gay friend Tom returns, and squeals with delight as he sets eyes on Sofia. We wolf down some pasta and Tom returns to work. We agree to follow later.

The bar is incredible: romantically lit, the stone walls are festooned with paintings, the wall behind the bar lined with rows of bottles in a dizzying array of colours like an apocathery's workshop. The place feels like something conjured up from rustic French fantasies of a London-living, second home-owning bien pensant.

Friday, 25 April 2008

The day of rest. Okay so He waited until the seventh day, and this was only our forth, but frankly he wasn't flu-ridden. Flu probably hadn't even been invented then.

Like blithering idiots, we had planned to hitch today, but after a stroll around the narrow streets of the old city in the sunshine we have both reached the same conclusion. It is time for a hitch sabbatical, a day off. We head to the main boulevard on the riverbank, where we lounge by the enormous river Garonne and discover the mirror d'eau, a huge lattice of marble slabs located in front of the Place de la Bourse, which bubble an inch or two of water.

Shoes and socks are removed with indecent haste and we splash around like children. Sofia's robotic slow-mo walk through the water looks incredible. We stop and watch some dancers performing beautiful balletic moves, the water lapping over their toes. Sofia then makes the schoolgirl error of splashing me a bit, so I feign injury and then when she comes over give her a faceful of water, before sprinting to the side and using an elegant French family as a human shield. A truce called, we run into two charming Americans. They give us a lesson in the anxieties of liberal Americans abroad. After apologising for their nationality and assuring us that they aren't 'patriotic' and that they don't worship Dubya or American foreign policy, we have a nice chat. Since they have been speaking French to each other for the last six months, we give them a chance to refresh their native tongue. They are heading to Spain soon. We encourage them to hitchhike, but bus tickets have already been purchased. Shame.

In the evening, burning with a yen for crepes, we take to the streets. After some confused wandering (the randomness of the hitch has sent my usually reliable internal compass into a spin), we alight upon the mother of all crepieres. I have a salmon, asparagus and bernese sauce crepe, which leaves me feeling full for the next 48 hours. Afterwards, we head back to Tom's impossibly glamorous bar. Feeling the urge to satisfy my piratey desires, I demand forceably that he "grog me". This shall serve as a catchphrase for the rest of the trip.

Thursday, 24 April 2008

We rise good and early. Bordeaux has rejuvenated us. No longer am I the living dead. Our eyes are bright (well, they're no longer murky and bloodshot). Our tails are bushy.

We follow the boulevard out of the city centre. The weather is appalling. We bump into another set of hitchers, who look bedraggled and spiritually spent. Having spent the last day and a half living a life of opulence - our own beds in a cosy apartment, chi-chi bars and calorific crepes - we feel smug and self-satisfied. We express our sympathy and wish them luck.

After a bit of to-ing and fro-ing over where to stand, we soon snag a lift with an incredibly cool guy, driving a black Mercedes. In fact, he is perhaps a bit too cool because both of us are too scared to talk to him. I opt for sleep, whilst Sofia rides upfront and squirms with awkwardness. We are dispatched at a service station just outside of Toulouse (or "Tolouse" as our cardboard sign would have it). This is just as well, as my bladder is close to eruption, and I am craving some overpriced food from the estacion de servicio. I prop up our signs on our tables, so that we can be working our pitch whilst we munch and slurp. Soon enough, a Mickey Rooney lookalike (albeit a slightly older version of Mickey Rooney as he was in Rumblefish, when he was glamorously shifty, rather than corpulent and creepy) wanders over and eyes us with curiosity. After a short obervation period, in which we are clearly, he utters the immortal line: "I'll give you a lift, although you're allowed to change your mind once you see my car."

We assure him that we are not pernickey hitchers and that as long as it has wheels and it goes, we'll be content. As it turns out, the winding mechanism on the driver's side window has bust and been replaced on a pro tem basis with gaffa tape and plastic wallets. This makeshift repair did manage to keep the wind out, but had the unfortunate effect of generating a loud noise which drowned out conversation once we reached the Autoroute. Our driver, Jerome, is a Carlos Castenada-reading, jazz-loving customs official who has lived in Blighty for a time.
After some shouted conversation (he tells us a great story about him and his friend wearing shades and pretending they were Miami Vice cops), he takes a shine to us (or decides we are a danger to ourselves) and invites us back to his house to stay with him, his wife and his two children.

Upon arrival Jerome's beautiful (and clearly exhausted) wife Rima thrust the youngest child into his hands. The older child, Victor, age 5, turns out to be a wonderful, vivacious boy who, after exhausting his five English words, quickly coerces Sofia into playing games. N.B. it is a rule that adults are incapable of understanding most games children play, and should be advised that winning in such games is impossible, and maybe even prohibited by law. Emerging from the lavatory to demands from Victor for a display of swordsmanship, it transpired that whilst peeing Jerome had kindly informed his first-born that I was a swordmaster! I stood my ground, brandished the toy sword, before informing Victor that he was too young and that I would return in a couple of years. Phew.

Our hosts filled us with pasta and salad and plied us with alcohol. After asking if I thought the red wine proffered seemed okay (always a daunting question: was it from the family vineyard? Was it from the ancestral wine cellar? Oh God...), Jerome declared me "definitely English". The wine was slightly corked, but as my nose was still ravaged by coldiness, I was none the wiser. Vino was followed by a fantastic French apple liquor which, having been kept frozen, was breath-catchingly cold and so really hit the spot.

We slid into bed, our faith in human nature restored.