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)
- 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.