Banská Bystrica, SK (July 26-28)

Usually we travel from A to B in as straight a line as can be managed, but what if we don’t know where B is? What if B is just something hoped for but beyond the horizons of planning? Or maybe, in Nino’s and my case, what if B is unknown simply because we don’t feel like planning? Planning is one of the ways we can lie ourselves into a sense of security, hitchhiking isn’t particularly guaranteed, ergo we sometimes don’t feel like lying. We decided to see more of Slovakia than just Bratislava, and not fully knowing where to go we embarked on what became autostop sans plans, which for Nino and me was a glimpse of the ideal hitchhike, in which the destination is determined by the drivers who pick us up, not by our own wills. Our weekend in Central Slovakia let us briefly don the hat of platonic wanderer.

The Tatras Mountains come in two varieties. The Low Tatras are similar to the Appalachians (so similar as to be uncanny) and the High Tatras are the highest peaks of the Carpathian Mountain Range, bald crags jutting out of dense forests. A valley separates the Low from the High. We stayed in Banská Bystrica, a small city in the foothills of the Low Tatras which we were told many times isn’t a good place for mountains (it’s not), but that’s where the couchsurfing host was. Two cars and we were in Banská, the hardest part of the hike being the temperature on the highway which fluctuated between 46 and 48 degrees Celsius (115 and 118 Fahrenheit).

Hitchhiking worked in our favor more than just as transportation. Our couchsurfing host accepted our request primarily because we identify as hitchhikers. The following week she would invite us to a concert and outdoor movie in Bratislava. Later she would arrange a week of couchsurfing with one of her friends in the city after Nino and I decided to be homeless rather than pay rent. She hitchhikes with a sign, we without, and between the three of us the travel stories are legion.

The first evening in Banská, we went with her into the city center and watched the impromptu circles of break-dancers, which was part of an international break-dance competition being held that weekend. In our minds, of course, Banská Bystrica is a hotspot of international breakdancing because that’s our lasting impression of the place. Travel is full of false but lasting impressions.

Not having a destination for the day we spent seeking mountains, answering drivers’ questions about where we were going was like trying to answer that pesky question about what I’m going to do with my liberal arts degrees (incidentally, the answer to both is “Mountains”). We had some town names that put us in the general direction, but mostly (and it was mostly Nino speaking Russian) we pushed this idea that we were going to the mountains and just hoped it would be the best thing ever, since that is really all hope is. We were assisted by an Italian, a couple going to a waterpark, some people in a Land Rover, a middle-aged man going about his Saturday business, some guys in a BMW (who dropped us off at one of Slovakia’s folk villages), two guys in a red car who actually told us were to go in the mountains, and a couple who drove us up into those mountains. Somehow we ended up in one of the most popular places in the whole High Tatras, Štrbské Pleso. We hiked to and back from a mountain lake, ate some haluški and ice-cream, and hitchhiked back in just three cars and half the time it took us to get there. The first driver had been drinking non-alcoholic beer next to us at the outdoor cafe where we ate the haluški. Before our second driver picked us up, a rather grizzled man on a bicycle stopped on the other side of the road to tell us we might get fined for hitchhiking too close to the highway. He sang ‘Georgia on My Mind’ in a surprisingly good voice and took a picture of us (I think mostly of Nino) with his mobile phone. Our third driver had just dropped his wife and son off for a week at the grandparents. He was on a music fast (to help him listen better to himself), so picking us up was a way to help against the radio’s temptation. As it was raining, he took us just about to where we were staying. In all, it was a ten-car hitchhike day.

Through our host, we (mostly Nino) managed to get an invitation to a Slovak wedding, getting in on a loophole that allows for uninvited guests to join after midnight. We napped for a few hours after our hike, woke up at 11:30, and headed to the wedding. The novel feeling that we were crashing faded when actual wedding crashers, a Polish breakdance troupe, showed up around 2 a.m. After twirling around on the floor for a bit, the bride’s mother told them they could eat and drink as much as they wanted as long as they danced again. Their second dance was to James Brown’s ‘Sex Machine’, slightly ironic and tragi-comic as the groom was passed out drunk somewhere (he revived for a few hours later), which made for what seems a common theme of traditional weddings the world over: The bride and groom rarely get the benefit of James Brown’s profound and funky words on so special a night. According to the guests from Eastern Slovakia, however, it’s not even a wedding unless the groom is passed out drunk.

It wasn’t just a wedding – it was also a full tour of Czechoslovak spirits and viniculture. Education with slightly too much praxis. We were quite the scene: Stumbling home as the sun rose over the Lower Tatras, the end to a very unexpected day, we two stupidly grinning about how ridiculous it all was.

Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Banská Bystrica

1st Car: Bratislava to Nitra – Highway Shoulder; WT:  20 minutes; Driver: Slovak

2nd Car: Nitra to Banská – Onramp; WT:  20 minutes; Driver: Slovak

Total Time / Distance: 2½ hours / 196 km (122 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Banská to Bratislava

1st Car: Banská to Bratislava; Shoulder; WT: 4 minutes; Driver: Slovak

Total Time / Distance: 1¾ hours / 211 km (131 miles)

Tatras Mountains Outbound: Hitchhiking – Banská to Štrbské Pleso

1st Car: Banská to Ulanka; Shoulder; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Italian

2nd Car: Ulanka to Liptovský Michal; Shoulder; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Couple going to a waterpark (Slovak)

3rd Car: Liptovský Michal to Liptovský Mikuláš; Shoulder; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Some people in a Land Rover (Slovak)

4th Car: Liptovský Mikuláš to Liptovský Hrádok; Side the road; WT:  5 minutes; Driver: Middle-aged man going about his Saturday business (Slovak)

5th Car: Liptovský Hrádok to Východná; Side of the road; WT: 25 minutes; Driver: Some guys in a BMW (Slovak)

6th Car: Východná to Tatranská Štrba; Side of the road; WT: 1 minutes; Driver: Two guys in a red car (Slovak)

7th Car: Tatranská Štrba to Štrbské Pleso; Side of the road; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Couple who drove us into the mountains (Slovak)

Total Time / Distance: 4 hours / 128 km (80 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Štrbské Pleso to Banská

1st Car: Štrbské Pleso to Liptovský Mikuláš; Side of the road; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: Slovak

2nd Car: Liptovský Mikuláš to Ružomberok Michal; Onramp; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Slovak

3rd Car: Ružomberok to Banská; Side of the road; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Slovak

Tips:

  • It’s very easy to hitchhike aimlessly in Central Slovakia. The people are nicer than Bratislavians.
  • The whole of Slovakia returns to Bratislava on Sunday evenings. We didn’t start hitchhiking until 8 p.m. and only waited about 4 minutes before a car stopped and drove us all the way to our front door. I’ve heard this is normal for Sunday evening hitchhiking.
  • If we had planned this weekend, we would have missed out on all the good parts. A word to the wise.
  • Before judging a country’s people, spend some time in its villages. Not only did my view of Slovaks improve, but I can now speak more intelligently about how Bratislavians need to just get over themselves and chill out.
  • Slovak town names are difficult. A few times when cars would stop, I’d run up and then have to yell back to Nino to ask where we were going. This is easier when you don’t know where you’re going.

Šumperk, CZ (July 19-21)

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Friendship and old cities resist the decay of time. Six years ago, I interned for a summer in Prague and was witness to the beginning of a love story between a fellow intern and a musician. After six years, and nearing their fourth wedding anniversary, Nino and I decided to head to Šumperk, a small town in central Czech Republic to visit them. Most of the memories of the place had decayed; my two friends had not.

Heading north from Bratislava isn’t easy, so we did the illegal thing and thumbed by the highway, the first of four or five times that day. The first driver picked us because he didn’t think we were safe; the second because he was just a nice guy (Aside: He also picked up two Swedish hitchhikers who were by the same spot as us. He dropped us all off in Malacky, SK, which isn’t much of a place. They chose to hitch from the onramp, and we the highway. We were picked up in less than a minute, and for all we know they might still be standing there, holding up their sign for Brno, waiting, forever waiting.). Our third driver commutes to Bratislava from Brno every day and his passenger has five kids and no plans to start planning. Good guys both. In Brno, we were picked up by a VW van driven by a man listening to cassettes of pirated ‘80s rock. He respected our “true hitchhiking,” as he called it. When he was younger, he’d thumbed across Europe and elsewhere, and for almost an hour we shared hitchhiking and travel stories. Turns out he’s a judge in Brno, and I would imagine a very hip judge.

Hitchhiking creates a fleeting form of friendship, fleeting because you’ll never see that person again, and friendship in that it’s artificial but sometimes feels real in the moment. Hitchhiking – possibly in a similar fashion to couchsurfing, travel, and to a much lesser (superficial?) sense hostels – teases you with friendship, but far more often than not, drops you off by the side of the road, waves goodbye, and is gone. Out of sight, out of mind, out of your life forever. Hitchhiking gives you a glimpse of humanity, of something deep, of something beautiful; but it’s a lousy place to make friends (Note: A lousy place does not mean an impossible place, as will be seen shortly.). Travel shakes up the normal give-and-take of time; access to timeless places comes with the cost of temporary relationships. Good people make good memories, but good luck trying to develop permanence with someone you met travelling.

This isn’t being negative; rather, it’s an observation, take it or leave it. It seems more correct for me to say, “I know a guy in Istanbul” than “I have a friend in Istanbul.” Wishful thinking and a more inclusive definition of friendship won’t hide the fact that the guy in Istanbul and myself don’t have a shared existence. I would like him to be my friend, perhaps, but that was long ago and just for a short time. Still, he’s my guy in Istanbul. He’d help me if I needed it, and I’d help him. Because we’re humans, because we spent two days hanging out, because we shared a meal of stewed chicken stomach and tea. It doesn’t take much to know a guy in Istanbul (or anywhere in the world). But he’s not my friend in any meaningful sense of the word.

In Šumperk, we found two levels of friendship. The first was with our couchsurf host, who was a really good host and traveler, the kind of person worth emulating on many levels. A good friend for the weekend. We introduced him to the second level of friendship, to my friends from that summer six years prior.  We came for the real friendship, and it was still there. Walking though the countryside picking cherries and catching up on life, recalling stories from six years ago, sitting down and making music together, still feeling that connection, sharing existence with each other for a short time. Friendship is has too many layers and is too human to put easily into words. How much of your life has to overlap with some else’s to say truthfully “We’re friends”? Hard to say, but we know when it’s happened. We don’t hitchhike to make friends, but it was nice to hitchhike to see friends.

We took the train twice. The first time it was getting too dark to hitchhike from the highway and a driver took us to a train station in Červenka, a village 30 kilometers south of Šumperk. We didn’t have any Czech korunas, only euros, so I spent forty-five minutes running to the nearest ATM and back. The locals told me it was only two kilometers away, but it was maybe two miles or more. The next day in Šumperk we played soccer with some kids (Nino impressed everyone with her skills), which meant more running. It was good to get in all my running for the year in just two days. The second train was when we left Šumperk, both because we would get to a better hitchhiking spot and so we could spend another fifteen minutes with our friends.

Though it took eight cars, returning to Bratislava wasn’t difficult. Among the highlights (by which I mean the people who spoke English), we rode with the coach of the Czech national biathlon team who decided to accost strangers for us at a service station. The first people he asked, a mother and daughter heading home from a tennis tournament, drove us to Brno. From Brno heading south to Bratislava, one driver took us two kilometers and the next one just sixteen – but in that time she told us the story of a Iranian dissident she once loved who she may or may not be visiting in Oregon, USA this month after twenty-three years apart. They’ve each had their lives, but what would it be like seeing each other after all those years? What would change and what would be the same twenty-three years later? The only way to find out what was permanent would be to go, but she wasn’t sure if she would. She dropped us off and drove away, and we’ll never know the next part of the story.

It happened so quickly after we stuck out our thumbs by the highway that we didn’t even realize the car had stopped. Our driver used to live in the same building as us, but for free (a good story in itself); now he lives on the other side of the hill. We talked the whole ride until he dropped us off at our doorstep. I met up with him again last week and shared stories for as many hours as beers. Hopefully we’ll meet again before we leave Bratislava, but I don’t know. Maybe he’ll visit Georgia someday and we can host him. Again, I don’t know. Of all the cars we’ve ridden in, and barring the unlikely event of getting picked up twice by the same car (rare, surprising, possible), if we ever see any of our drivers again (out of what is now hundreds), it could only be the couple from Poland who we spent two days with in Croatia and our new friend in Bratislava. The chances are very slim that we’ll ever hitchhike to wherever either of them are in six years, but it could happen. Friendship isn’t part of hitchhiking, but it’s not fully impossible.

Hitchhiking and picking up hitchhikers has many risks, the lesser of which prevent most people from trying it (and possibly keep my dear mother awake at night as Nino and I head out each weekend), the best of which hold the possibility of deeper levels of humanity, of something more than just a ride, whether it be a good story, friendship, or some other form of transcendence. Risk isn’t itself a negative word – hitchhiking is a good risk, like love or red wine or God.

Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Červenka; Train – Červenka to Šumperk, CZ

1st Car: Bratislava to Malacky – Highway Shoulder; WT:  5 minutes; Driver: Slovak

2nd Car: Malacky to Brno, CZ – Highway Shoulder; WT:  2 minutes; Driver: Czech

3rd Car: Brno to Olomouc – Highway Shoulder; WT:  20 minutes; Driver: Czech

4th Car: Olomouc to Břuchotín – Highway Shoulder; WT:  15 minutes; Driver: Czech

5th Car: Břuchotín to Červenka – Service Station; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: Czech

Train (because it got dark): Červenka to Šumperk – Train Station; WT: 1½ hours; Driver: Czech (assumed)

Total Time / Distance: 6½ hours  / 260 km (161 miles)

Return: Train – Šumperk to Zábřeh; Hitchhiking – Zábřeh to Bratislava

Train: Šumperk to Zábřeh; Train Station; WT: 15 minutes; Driver: Czech (assumed)

1st Car: Zábřeh to Mohelnice; Shoulder; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Czech

2nd Car: Mohelnice to Litovel; Bus Stop; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Czech

3rd Car: Litovel to Olomouc; Shoulder; WT: 15 minutes; Driver: Czech

4th Car: Olomouc to Brodek u Prostějova; Highway Shoulder; WT:  20 minutes; Driver: Czech

5th Car: Brodek u P. to Brno; Service Station; WT: 0 minutes; Driver: Czech

6th Car: Brno to South. Brno; Onramp; WT: 25 minutes; Driver: Czech

7th Car: S. Brno to Hustopece; Onramp; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Czech

8th Car: Hustopece to Bratislava; Highway Shoulder; WT:  1 second; Driver: Slovak

Total Time / Distance: 6 hours / 260 km (161 miles)

Tips:

  • The Czech train system is efficient and punctual. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, but still isn’t very expensive at all. Plus, it’s fun to ride trains.
  • South of Brno next to the IKEA / Avion Shopping Center is the perfect service station to hitch towards Bratislava. Both local and non-local traffic.
  • Mid-July is cherry season in the Czech Republic.

Ljubljana / Bled / Maribor, Slovenia (July 12-14)

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Hitchhiking often feels like an attempt to answer the question “How to get a car to stop?” as if it is all about how can I get a ride or about having the power to make a car stop. There’s different ways to go about this: Signs or thumbs, or accosting people at service stations (which always seems rude, but most people are nice enough to answer smiling). Really though, getting a car to stop is beyond the hitchhiker’s power. Some small things that may help – such as looking like a normal person, hitchhiking as a couple, standing at a spot with lots of room to pull over, etc. – but these are about as much as we can do. People aren’t driving along hoping they’ll get to stop for hitchhikers. They have reasons for going wherever they’re headed, and the majority of drivers will drive on past hitchhikers, signs or thumbs or not. As hitchhikers, all we can do is stick out our thumbs and put ourselves at their mercy.

The question “How to get a car to stop?” is only answered in retrospect. A driver didn’t stop because Nino and I were standing there looking normal and slightly lost with our thumbs out; no, a driver stops for his or her own reasons – maybe he or she hitchhikes, or a friend or brother or niece does, or they stopped out of boredom or kindness, or because they are from a country where stopping is more expected (or maybe they have to stop, such as in Cuba). And typically we don’t become privy to these reasons. Hitchhikers don’t stop cars; drivers stop cars. We merely get it and see what happens.

More time was spent during our trip to Slovenia hitchhiking than actually being anywhere (assuming hitchhiking itself doesn’t have actually place). It was refreshing. Hitchhike there, hitchhike a little more, and then hitchhike back. What follows is a brief glance at the fifteen drivers (with nicknames) who stopped those fifteen cars for us during our weekend of thumbing, walking, and general enjoyment of crisscrossing the lovely little country of Slovenia.

1. The Old Slovak: We’d almost given up when he offered to drive us from Bratislava towards Graz, Austria. He drove along back roads through precisely designed vineyards and Austrian villages. More of the image of an older Central Europe – late 60s, not well-to-do, a Russian speaker – his type are prone to stop, but usually aren’t the quickest of drivers.

2. The Cool Dad: He’d never picked up hitchhikers with any of his kids in the car, but on this occasion one of his daughters and her friend were in the back seat. They’d just spent the day swimming at a lake and were heading home. He looked like he was in his early twenties but is actually forty-one. Nino made him show us his ID to prove it. He is a middle-school computer and sports teacher with a really soft smile and general air of contentment about life. He asked why we hitchhiked, and after we talked about it, decided that we do it “as a philosophy”. Well said.

3. The Smiling Austrian: We’d slept in someone’s yard in the village of Laa and spent a very pleasant morning walking through some Austrian villages before we were picked up. She didn’t say much but when she did, she seemed very happy to say it. She only drove us a short distance, but dropped us off at a service station and very happily went on along her way.

4. The Clueless Austrians: After trying for forty minutes to get a ride, we talked two guys into taking us to Maribor, which was only twenty kilometers away, but they didn’t know that until we showed them on a map. They also didn’t know English. At one point, the driver asked me if I was Edward Snowden. They were going to Croatia but seemed to pin Croatia’s existence on their GPS. They dropped us off a little bit south of the highway we needed, but I really hope they found their way to wherever they were going and safely back home.

5. The Loquacious Slovenian: Slovenia is very small and beautiful, and our first driver told us all about it, talking almost nonstop for the twenty-five kilometers he drove us. He told us about how everyone used to hitchhike but now no one does, which is something we would hear a number of times that weekend. He dropped us off and promised that he’d drive by again in an hour and pick us up if we were still there. Turns out it’s quite easy to hitchhike in Slovenia, but expect drivers to talk about Slovenia the whole time.

6. The Serbian Who Didn’t Like Me: He was mostly punk rock and a little bit scary. He kept asking me in Serbian if I was American and then had this look on his face that wasn’t very accommodating. At one point he asked me how much my wedding ring cost (or something like that). It was weird. We were glad to get out of that car.

7. The Girls Going To Bled: Bled is a beautiful lake north of Ljubljana in the Slovenian Alps. We didn’t know this, so when they said we could come with them, we said yes then thought about it and said no. They also talked about Slovenia and also told us that not many people hitchhiked anymore, giving cheap car-sharing as the reason. Both girls were wearing those big trendy sunglasses, so I can’t say what they looked like. It always slightly difficult to talk to someone when you can’t see their eyes. They dropped us off in Ljubljana approximately twenty hours after we left Bratislava, a journey that normally takes four hours by car.

8. The Woman Who Wanted To Help More But Mostly Drove Us To A Better Spot: We decided to go to Bled after looking at pictures online and after our host told us we were stupid for not going. We walked to the highway, Nino stuck out her thumb, and the next second a driver stopped. She drove us to a better spot about two minutes away and apologized that she wasn’t going farther. Not very much to say about her, only that she was very kind.

9. The Generous, Negative Slovenian: He was actually quite nice in his own way. A freelance IT guy, he talked about the lousy politics in Slovenia, the low wages, and about Slovenia in general. He lived in Bled and the ride was either silence or him pointing out different mountains and objects-of-interest as we drove along. Slovenia has it all – mountains, beaches, culture, history, problems, etc. – but always in small amounts.

10. The Old Slovenian: We’d walked around Lake Bled, with its castle, island church, and stunning mountain views, and once again were picked us to be taken to a better spot. He lived in a town nearby and looked like a young Santa Claus. Need I say more?

11. The Biologist: She’s in a graduate program in Canada, organizes blues festivals in Ljubljana, was once married to a Botswanan (and still married to him, legally, in Botswana), and I think used to play cello. More talk about Slovenia and how no one hitchhikes any more.

12. The Grandpa Truck Driver: After one of our longest waits ever, he finally stopped. He spoke a sort of Russified Slovenian with Nino, and for the hour and a half we were in his truck he had this grandfatherly glow about him. He tried to give us €10 for coffee or beer when he was dropping us off in Maribor, which was twenty-five kilometers out of his way. We politely declined and thanked him for the ride.

13. The Young Engineer: Nino and I had a bet for how long it would take from a rather poor spot. She said more than half an hour, a car stopped after twenty-eight minutes, and so I won. He didn’t drive us far, just to a better spot. His English wasn’t very good, and all I know about him is that he is involved with engineering in some way. Not much of a story here.

14. The Guy Who Always Picks Up Hitchhikers: Every morning, many Slovenians drive to Austria for work. Every evening, they drive home. Sometimes they drive there in the afternoon, as our next driver was. We asked him at a service station and he said yes as if it was the most natural and expected thing for us to want a ride and he to drive us. He wasn’t a hitchhiker, but he said he always picks up people if he can. He talked and laughed the whole thirty kilometers we were in his car.

15. The Slovak Couple with Two Dogs: It was hot, we’d been having no luck at a service station, and they both had a Bratislava license plate and two dogs. We made friends with the dogs first and then asked the humans, who seemed a bit reluctant, but mostly because they were in a hurry to get back. After a few minutes on the road and once we made the small world (though very common in Slovakia) connection that we currently live in the same building where they fell in love a decade ago, they were much more amiable. We sped down the highway at 160 kph (99 mph), our driver rushing to catch a late evening flight to Moscow.

Waiting for a car to stop always feels longer than it is. You begin to forget what it’s like for one to stop and sometimes start wondering what you’re even doing. Your right shoulder gets tired. If it’s your first spot, you begin thinking about what you’ll do at home if no one stops. But then a car slows down and pulls over to the shoulder, and the wait and everything vanishes as you run over to give the spiel about where you’re headed.

Once you’re in, you also feel like the person who stopped is definitely the type of person who would stop to pick up hitchhikers. I think there’s a type of person who stops for hitchhikers, but I don’t think I could make any rigorous claims about it. We’ve never been picked up by someone who doesn’t pick up hitchhikers (though we’ve been the first ever for a number of people). I don’t know how to get cars to stop or know why they stop, but we’re glad they do.

Outbound, Day 1: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Ljubljana, SL

1st Car: Bratislava to Großwilfersdorf, AT – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 50 minutes; Driver: The Old Slovak

2nd Car: Großwilfersdorf to Unterpremstätten – Onramp; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: The Cool Dad (Austrian)

Day 2:

1st Car: Unterpremstätten to Gralla – Onramp; WT: 15 minutes (after two hours of another spot and walking); Driver:  The Smiling Austrian

2nd Car: Gralla to Orehova vas, SL – Service Station; WT: 40 minutes; Driver: The Clueless Austrians

3rd Car: Slivnica pri Mariboru to Tepanje – Service Station; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Loquacious Slovenia

4th Car: Tepanje to Mala Pirešica – Onramp; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Serbian Who Didn’t Like Me

5th Car: Mala Pirešica to Ljubljana – Onramp; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: The Girls Going To Bled (Slovenian)

Total Time / Distance: 20 hours / 417 km (259 miles)

Lake Bled, Outbound: Hitchhiking – Ljubljana to Bled

1st Car: Dunajska cesta, Ljubljana to Celovška cesta, Ljubljana – Onramp; WT: 2 seconds; Driver: The Woman Who Wanted To Help More But Mostly Drove Us To A Better Spot (Slovenian)

2nd Car: Celovška cesta, Ljubljana to Bled – Onramp; WT: 5 minutes; Driver: The Generous, Negative Slovenian

Total Time / Distance: 40 minutes / 53 km (33 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Bled to Ljubljana

1st Car: Bled to Radovljica – Onramp; WT: 7 minutes; Driver: The Old Slovenian

2nd Car:  Radovljica to Ljubljana – Service Station; WT: 2 minutes; Driver: The Biologist (Slovenian)

Total Time / Distance:  1 hour / 53 km (33 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Ljubljana to Bratislava

1st Car: Ljubljana to Maribor – Onramp, ; WT: 30 minutes (after almost 3 1/2 hours of three other spots and walking); Driver: The Grandpa Truck Driver (Slovenian)

2nd Car: Maribor to Pesnica pri Mariboru – Onramp; WT: 28 minutes; Driver: The Young Engineer (Slovenian)

3rd Car: Pesnica pri Mariboru to Gralla – Service Station; WT: 10 minutes; Driver: The Guy Who Always Picks Up Hitchhikers (Slovenian)

4th Car: Gralla to Bratislava – Service Station; WT: 1 1/2 hours; Driver: The Slovak Couple with Two Dogs

Total Time / Distance: 12 hours / 437 km (272 miles)

Tips:

  • Slovenian’s love to talk about Slovenia. This is a good thing.
  • Hitchhiking is a mystery, but it works. This too is a good thing.
  • There’s a 50 km deadzone around Graz, Austria. Try to get through it as quickly and nimbly as possible.

Budapest (July 5-7)

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Central Europe in July is sunflowers and wheat fields. To get to our hitchhiking spot on the south side of Bratislava, we walk along a road lined by a green strip of trees that runs between two yellow fields, sticks in hand ready to scare off any snakes while on our way to accosted people at a service station next to the highway. On this day, we’re going to Budapest. The early evening is full of color.

We weren’t successful at first, so we ate a sandwich. Shortly after, as we readied to continue accosting strangers, Nino had a moment of hitchhiker intuition and stated matter-of-factly that a car that had just pulled up to a pump was “The Car”. She walked over and asked if this was true, and the driver replied that it was true. Nino called it. This doesn’t happen very often (or ever). It was rare, it was funny, and it was going to get us to Budapest. Nino apparently has some meta-level gift for selecting cars. Or at least she did that one time. Or maybe it was the sandwich. Hitchhiking involves too much faith to not included some amount of superstition.

Two other hitchhikers who had been there before us and would still be there after us came over to talk. They were Polish and also headed to Budapest, having taken the grassy spot near the service station’s exit onto the highway. They looked like hitchhikers, with a sign and big backpacks, and likely they had been there for hours. We talked for about five seconds as I awkwardly explained that we had to go because we’d found our car. The driver came back from paying for the gas, we got in, and the lame comment about hoping to see them in Budapest ceased to matter as we drove south through the sunflowers and wheat fields. I always feel a little bit bad about getting cars before other hitchhikers, but not enough to stop getting cars first. On this occasion, I don’t feel like we breached hitchhiking etiquette, which isn’t always entirely the case.

The ride down was very similar to the ride back up – loud pop music and small talk as we glided through rolling yellow fields. Our driver on the way down was a Slovak on his way to see friends; our rides up were with a Hungarian driving to southern Spain and a Romanian driving to Germany. We set a nice personal record of four one-car hitchhikes in a row before two-car’ing it back to Bratislava. The Hungarian picked us up at a spot north of Budapest where the people are rumored to dislike hitchhikers. As we were there for less that five minutes, we didn’t get to find out if this is true or not. Our driver didn’t speak English, so he and I created a German/Spanish/sign-language pidgin that we build up to a fifty word vocabulary by the end of the drive. Most of this ride was spent looking at the seas of sunflowers on either side of the highway. The Hungarian dropped us off a gas station a few miles south of the border, and a few minutes later we ate another sandwich.

Before we found our second driver, the Romanian, we thought we had a ride, but they wanted €10 for about twenty minutes of road from northern Hungary to Bratislava. What a joke. They wasted about five minutes of our time, which was suddenly monetized by their greed. No, we want our free ride. €10 isn’t free. Keep driving and I hope you enjoy Plzen and the rest of your greedy lives. I kept repeating “€10” over and over to myself and to Nino until the annoyance wore off. Yes, there’s something slightly hypocritical about what we do, but it’s the principle of the thing. A few minutes later we found our driver who breached the stereotype for Romanians and didn’t ask us to pay (Hitchhikers typically pay in Romania, though I’ve heard foreigners can get out of it.). He dropped us off near downtown Bratislava, and I muttered “€10” a few more times to myself, now more of as a joke, before we headed home.

Cities in Central Europe have distinct boundaries. Years ago I spent a summer memorizing Prague. At its boundaries, the city stops rather than fades away via suburbs before becoming countryside. Standing on its edge, you look one direction and see fields and rolling hills; look the other way and there is Prague. This is Central Europe – rolling fields sparsely scattered with villages until suddenly you’re in a city. On our hitch south, the sun was setting as the fields ceased and Budapest began. Our driver dropped us off on the Pest side by the river, in an area full of golden city lights and tourists. We got out, breathed deeply, and were instantly in love.

We didn’t go to the baths; nor did we catch sight of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson who was there shooting a film . We hung out with our Couchsurf host, an American teaching English, and his amazing dog Tupac; and we walked the city. We hadn’t been there long when Nino suggested we add Budapest to the list of places we should live at some point. We spend a few hours building this castle in the clouds. The main thing is that we’d need to work somewhere else for a time (since wages in Hungary are low) and then live like royalty for a time (since living in Hungary, if you have the right currency, is cheap).

The day after our arrival the city was cut in half by a gay parade. The parade’s route and the two blocks on either side were shut down by the police and metal fences to make sure the parade went by without incident.  We managed to accidentally find the group of people the police were “protecting the homosexuals from”.  Leaving that spot and skirting the blockade, we tried but weren’t allowed in, though we did manage to watch the parade from a few blocks away. Human sexuallity shut down a major European city for a few hours, which is cool in a way. Some people, like us, just wanted to watch, some were there to hate, and, because of the barricade, no one was able to participate except the paraders walking an empty avenue to the very loud music of  Queen, Prince, and Barbra Streisand

Budapest is rare and patient. The city feels a bit like Prague and a bit like Istanbul, and neither of these bits are nearly the same (if that makes sense); and neither is Budapest the same. Someday we hope it will be more than just a great weekend jaunt.

Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Budapest, HU

1st Car: Bratislava to Budapest – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Slovak

Total Time / Distance: 2 hours / 192 km (119 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking – Budapest to Bratislava

1st Car: Budaest to Mosonmagyaróvár – Service Station (M1/M7); WT: 2 minutes; Driver: Hungarian

2nd Car: Mosonmagyaróvár to Bratislava – Service Station (E60/E65/E70/M1); WT: 25 minutes; Driver: Romanian

Total Time / Distance: 3 hour / 198 km (123 miles)

Tips:

  • If you’re hitchhiking to Budapest, hold out for a ride into the city center, as it’s easier than being dropped off on the highway that circles the city and trying to find your way in.
  • In the summer months, trailers aren’t allowed to drive on Saturdays or Sundays, except for those carrying food. In Hungary, there still seem to be quite alot on the roads on the weekends, so that could be an option.
  • Budapest is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It’s just a fact.
  • €10 is way too much to be driven anywhere if your hitchhiking. If you’re asked to pay and you aren’t in Romania, refuse. Paying is lazy, paying is giving up, paying is no longer hitchhiking.

Vienna (June 29-July 1)

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Bratislava sits in the middle of the three most important cities of a former empire – Prague to the northwest, Budapest to the southeast, and Vienna, the nearest of the three, to the west (and slightly north). A few times a week I get couchsurf requests from people traveling to Bratislava to see the city, meet locals, and experience Slovak food and culture. Every traveler who’s ever gone anywhere expects food and culture. It’s one of the givens of travel. Well, in Bratislava…welcome to the Empire. The food is Austro/Hungarian/Western Slavic, as is the culture. And the locals are ornery. Not necessarily a bad thing, but don’t expect much to be uniquely Slovak (because there isn’t much). Bratislava, however, is a great central location from which to see beautiful cities.

We were planning a weekend in Budapest, but unable to leave early enough, we decided on Vienna, which is only 70 kilometers away. While walking to the same service station south of Bratislava, Nino had the idea of defending ourselves with sticks against the local snake population. We walked the last bit armed, striking the ground and high grass with our sticks. We may have looked like idiots, but we felt very, very safe. We discarded our weapons as we arrived at the service station and the great dance of being polite to strangers in exchange for a free ride began. After thumbing for a few minutes, we grew impatient and walked over to the pumps to ask people directly, but everyone was going to Budapest. We returned to the grassy island near the exit and thumbed for about a minute, grew impatient again, and walked back towards the pumps. On our way, Nino stuck out her thumb and a passing car stopped. The dance lasted around twenty minutes, but it felt far longer. Patience and success are not always bedfellows. Our driver was going north of Vienna, but, more importantly (at least to me), he was the flesh and blood of the Empire.

His father is Hungarian, his mother Slovak, and, having lived in Austria since he was six, he is, in sum, the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. By trade, he is a dentist. A dentist from a dental empire of sorts. His father, grandfather, his sister’s husband, her brother-in-law and her father-in-law are all dentists. And he had a very loud laugh. He told us about his motorcycle trip to Norway last summer and how he gets, at thirty years old, four months of vacation a year. And then he laughed. He told us about how his girlfriend is training to become a gynecologist, and how they should offer package deals on births and dental care. She helps get the kids out, and he helps them smile. More huge laughter. He wants to visit the US, but doesn’t want to pay the $10 processing fee to get the travel visa, not because of the money but because of ‘the principle of the thing’. Again huge laughter. It was a good ride. He had studied to be an architect, but, two exams shy of the degree, he decided to stick with the family trade. He said the only way in which architecture and dentistry overlap is they both require a precise geospatial imagination. The best part of his job was that first smile by a patient who had been too embarrassed of his or her teeth to smile. He told this in a very animated way followed by the laugh. The moment felt deeply human.

Conversation usually leads to more miles. In this case, our driver treated us to what became a thirty-minute car tour of Vienna’s city center, complete with historical tidbits and explanations on architectural styles. He dropped us off in the middle of it all and drove off to his next patient. We crisscrossed the center city for a few hours before heading to our host’s apartment. The next day we walked to Schönbrunn, saw Sisi’s extravagant house and gardens, and walked home. The second morning we walked to Zentralfriedhof, the resting place of Beethoven, Schoenberg, and Ligeti (as well as Joe Zawinul of Weather Report) before heading to our hitchhiking spot. Most of my memories of Vienna are from the walks. Streets, houses, trucking distribution centers, the fruit trees that Nino is always getting excited about. There’s no such thing as a bad walk.

Our spot to get out of Vienna was less than ideal. A service station, parking lot, highway entrance and exit, and a McDonalds all build in enough space for just one of these. To get on the highway, cars had to weave through it all and either turn left to enter the highway or turn right and stay local. We didn’t like it, but it was what we had. And despite it all, it only took twenty minutes to get a car. We’re a couple, we dress like normal people, and Nino speak Russian – the three main ingredients to our success. Seeing a car from Poland, Nino talked them into taking us to Bratislava. In contrast to our ride into Vienna, this ride was very quiet. The driver and his passenger were on their way to a cowboy-themed restaurant they own in Poland near Krakow. They gave us business cards. We were dropped off in a good spot in Bratislava near the city center, and we made our way home. It wasn’t nearly as impressive as one-car’ing it from Split to Bratislava, but Nino and I were pleased with the two-car round-trip between Bratislava and Vienna, as easy an accomplishment as this is.

Nino and I aren’t great travelers; we’re just persistent. We travel quietly, spending little money and taking long walks. We rely on the hospitality of people who give us space in their cars and places to sleep in their apartments. Our travel stories are almost too simple to talk about – we went somewhere, it was beautiful (we try to go to beautiful places), we met some people, Nino took pictures, and then we came home. But what really happened, what it was really like – this is ineffable. It’s hard or impossible to share this part. I can’t tell you much about Vienna, because Vienna isn’t a story. It’s a place, vastly complicated like every city, town, or place. I’ve been there (twice), some stories did come out of it, but in large, Vienna is something a person just has to see for themselves in order to (in the vernacular) get it. Why do we travel? Maybe because we want Vienna to be more than just a word or a museum or a three-stage school of music composition (a personal association, of course). Maybe because we want to get it. Maybe travel is a gateway drug that leads for some to finding ways to stretch money as far as possible for the result of more travel. I don’t know. I do know that if we took buses and trains instead of hitchhiked, we’d have seen far less and/or run out of money long ago and never would have made it to Vienna. Hitchhiking is only a story. It’s people put in a small space together for a short time to talk and move along a road. But still, it’s all very fleeting. We’re in someone’s car, they stop to let us out, and then they are gone, out of sight and largely out of mind. The words we shared are most of all that’s left. Stories have to have humans, whether a dentist with a big laugh or Poles who run a cowboy restaurant.

I don’t have much travel advice. I let too many things – buildings, monuments, people, places, opportunities – slip by to think of myself as ‘well-traveled’. My only advice is gleaned, like all advice, empirically and imperfectly: Couchsurf, hitchhike, be persistent, don’t waste money on food / transportation / fleeting comforts / anything that only cost money because tourists are stupid (like churches or trinkets), and so on. But that’s just our way. It won’t work for you. It just won’t. Parts of it might, but not the whole. You do things your way, we’ll do it ours, and when the time is right we’ll get together, pour some wine, and talk about it.

Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava to Vienna, AT

1st Car: Bratislava to Vienna – Service Station, Bratislava-Jarovce; WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Austro-Slovak

Total Time / Distance: 2 hours (including driver’s car tour of Vienna) / 70 km (43 miles)

Return: Hitchhiking

1st Car: Vienna to Bratislava – Service Station (E58/A4); WT: 20 minutes; Driver: Polish

Total Time / Distance: 1 hour / 70 km (43 miles)

Tips:

  • Hitchhiking from Bratislava to Vienna and back is easy and only takes forty minutes plus wait time.
  • Schönbrunn’s gardens are free and very beautiful. Going into the palace costs money and the ticket packages have kitschy names that foreshadow wasting money.
  • Beethoven’s grave is easy to find. From the main entrance, walk straight until you see a sign that says ‘Musiker’. He’s right there. Schoenberg is on the corner straight ahead and to the left, and Legeti is buried a few pathways behind this corner. Schubert is also buried in Zentralfriedhof, but who really cares?
  • Vienna is expensive, but the parts of town with large immigrant populations (such as where we stayed south of the city center) are much less so. Many quality Turkish, Arab, and Balkan restaurants and people.