Only once have we used a sign, which was supposed to get us from Lyon to Paris. It didn’t help us get out of Lyon, so we disregarded it and thumbed our way to Paris. Nino and I didn’t hitchhike when we first got together. We started close to the end of the first year, quickly realizing that, being a well dressed, well educated, interracial (only in the sense of origins) couple hitchhiking mostly for fun and almost for leisure rather than economic necessity, we were very good at it. So good, actually, that we’ve realized we don’t even know what we’re doing. No signs, just thumbs and accosting people at service stations. If there’s an art to hitchhiking, we aren’t artists. If it’s all just dumb luck, then yes, we are lucky idiots. People likely hitchhike for a variety of reasons, some sadder, some happier. Personally, I hate buses. Plus it feels good to travel long distances for free. But autostop is more than this. It’s about people, about risking not our wellbeing, but risking being human with another human, with a stranger who stops his or her car to give rides to other strangers. Hitchhiking isn’t an adventure like the running of the bulls at San Fermín is an adventure; but rather, it’s the adventure of encountering other people, who (especially but not necessarily if there’s a shared language) tend to surprise you.
It took us three cars to hitchhike to our wedding. We started later than we wanted and had to find an alternative starting point because of an overzealous policeman. Eventually we found a spot about five kilometers north of where we’d hoped to begin. It wasn’t a good spot, but we didn’t have any other options. Good spots have lots of slow, non-local traffic and plenty of shoulder for stopping. The worse the place, such as where we found ourselves on the north side of Bratislava, the more I tend to talk to the drivers who don’t pick us up, usually in rather harsh language. I also make up songs about them. Waiting for a car to stop always feels longer than it is, as each passing car is a denial and you begin to feel self-conscious that all you can do is stick out a thumb and smile. The first car of a hike, for some unknown cosmic reason, is always the most difficult. After waiting an hour, a woman stopped and offered to take us as far as Malacky, wherever that was. Malacky is, to my knowledge, only an exit and overpass next to some woods. The ideal is to be dropped off either on the far side of a city between you and your destination or at a service station or toll booth. We were dropped off by the side of the highway, which is maybe the only illegal activity hitchhikers can directly engage in in most European countries (except for Italy). Ostensibly this is for safety reasons, but I’ve begun to wonder if whoever made the law realized the difficulty in getting a ride from cars moving past you at 120 kph / 75 mph. It is hard, but we managed it after just fifteen minutes.
In addition to our hitchhiking debt of thousands of miles, we also owe a British fiber-optics company a bottle of Moravian semi-sweet white wine. Our second driver was on his way to Brno after finished some business in Bratislava. He was going to visit his mother before flying back to the UK. My favorite type of driver, he was fluent in English, talkative, well travelled, and open to discuss pretty much any topic. Just before Brno, he stopped at a Tesco to pick up some things for dinner, which he was rather pleased to charge to a company credit card. He bought us a bottle of wine as a wedding present and, after a few more minutes in the car, I asked if he’d also charged it to the company card. Grinning broadly, he confessed he had. Going slightly out of his own way, he dropped us of at a service station on the north side of Brno. Later that night, we drank a toast to British fiber optics.
Hitchhiking is very anti-racist. If we’ve been waiting more than a few minutes, Nino and I will usually start asking where all the Turkish people are (hitchhike in Turkey and you’ll find out why). Those who have hitchhiked, like the driver who bought us the wine or the woman who drove us from Ghent to Bruges last January (but only after having us over for lunch), are more inclined to pick up hitchhikers; same with immigrants and those from developing countries. The car that brought us to Prague was driven by an Albanian who lives in Berlin. He works in the prefabricated buildings business and hates flying. He drives everywhere and in a manner that betrays his love for Germany’s Autobahns. Our average speed from Brno to Prague was around 150 kph (93 mph), twice reaching 200 kph (124 mph), and generally hovering somewhere in the middle. He didn’t speak much English, but enough to tell us how much he hated Czech roads, Czech police, and Czech traffic laws. He dropped us off on the south side of Prague, leaving us to hazard the public transportation system (because of recent floods, some station were closed) which delayed us joining others for our pre-wedding festivities.
Hitchhiking is a form of public nudity, of vulnerability, of beauty – an exercise in hope pitted against the unknown. Standing like an idiot with your thumb out, telling yourself over and over that all it takes is one car – just one car – as traffic passes you. It teaches you that strangers aren’t so strange and yet stranger and more interesting that you could imagine, and that joining them from from Point A to Point B moves one towards a greater understanding of what it is to live with and love one’s neighbor. Also, hitchhiking saves you a lot of money.
Nino and I will talk about how we hitchhiked to our wedding in Prague until we die. We didn’t, unfortunately, hitchhike from our wedding. We left Prague later than planned, and it was raining heavily. As the bus pulled away from Prague, we were met by a storm ahead of us, the city burning away in a brilliant sunset behind us, and the two contrasting scenes stitched together by a double rainbow arching over the highway back to Bratislava.
Outbound: Hitchhiking – Bratislava, SK to Prague, CZ
1st Car: Bratislava to Malacky – Service Station, Bratislava-Lamač (E65/D2); Wait Time: 1 hour; Driver: Slovak
2nd Car: Malacky to Brno, CZ – Side of the highway (E65/D2); WT: 15 minutes; Driver: Slovak
3rd Car: Brno to Prague – Service Station, Brno (E65/E50/1); WT: 10 minutes; Driver: Albanian
Total Time / Distance: 4 hours / 315 km (195 miles)
Return: Bus (due to heavy rain) – Prague to Bratislava
Total Time / Distance: 5 hours / 340 km (211 miles)