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.

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