04.08.2007 18 °C
Popping your hitch-hiking cherry is, in my opinion, a moment in a travellers life that should be mentally framed and hung in the part of your brain entitled “The Gallery of Momentous Moments.” The fact that such a simple act as standing at the side of a road with your thumb out can have you zipping up and down the emotion scale, from desperation to jubilation, is testament to the significance of it. As such, I’ve decided to share my experience of the day I lost my virginity (the hitching one that is).
I recently finished working on a campsite in the south of France. A beautiful spot in the mountains on the edge of Cévennes national park but quite isolated. The nearest village was 5 kilometres away and the nearest town of considerable size (Millau) was a 30 kilometre trek. Public transport was limited with only two buses passing the campsite (going in opposite directions) per day and it wasn’t unknown for the bus drivers to simply ignore the poor folks standing at the side of the road and drive straight past. Although after 2 months at the campsite I had become quite skilled at managing to get the bus to stop with my “jumping in front of it” technique. Obviously not the safest method but quite effective.
However, on my day of departure from the French mountains there was a timetable change and some confusion as to whether the bus would pass at 7am, 8am or not at all due to the brats being on school holidays. I decided that I wasn’t going to take any chances and I was at the roadside (the D991 if you’ve got a map handy) for 6.45am. The 7am bus never came. I figured that instead of just looking like a roadside feature I should dabble in the ancient art of trying to gain a free ride using the power bestowed in my thumb. I will admit that this was actually the second time I’d tried hitch-hiking. However the first attempt consisted of me sticking out my thumb in the south of Spain to a passing truck, the truck flying straight past and me retiring to the bus station immediately afterwards. Patience is not one of my strong points. This second attempt, however, was without the luxury of a bus station with ample travel options to retire to. So on an extremely breezy morning with the skies threatening to open at any moment I found myself at the whim of the French public.
It was a full 10 minutes before I heard my first passing car approach. As it rounded the corner and headed down the straight towards me a strange battle was raging inside me. One half of my brain was trying to make my body stick my thumb out whilst the other half (the reserved British half) was questioning my very being at the roadside. In a split second the British sensibilities were squished by the realisation that I didn’t really have a choice and like a mechanical toy my arm sprung upwards. The car passed. I felt rejected. I began to question why the driver hadn’t stopped, completely disregarding the fact that as the car had passed I must have looked like a very confused person with a springy arm. In retrospect, I wouldn’t have stopped either. After a few minutes I heard another car approach and I began my preparations to try and look respectable. I flattened my windswept hair, straightened my shirt and fixed a smile. The car passed. OK, so maybe it was the slightly psycho-esque fixed smile this time? Another car quickly followed, I tried the easygoing and not really fussed look. The car passed. More self questioning followed. Five or ten minutes passed with my stationary presence representing the only traffic on the road. It doesn’t sound like a long time but when faced with the possibility of hours on an empty roadside a man quickly falls into despair and, like I say, patience is not one of my strong points.
During this spell of self-doubt, a milk delivery truck approached. It was going slow enough for the driver to have a good look at me but it was also slow enough for me to see the disdainful look the Frenchman behind the wheel gave me. No free ride there either then. Then, out of nowhere, a small, white Peugeot came hurtling around the corner at a speed that suggested the drivers deep love for his accelerator pedal. My springy arm came into its own at this point by thrusting out my thumb before my brain had even fully registered the car. The Peugeot came to a halt almost as quickly as my arm sprung out. I’ll admit, I was quite shocked. However, I hauled my rucksack onto my shoulder and waddled over to the car. Now, an outsider watching the ensuing conversation taking place between myself and the driver would assume that I was fluent in French because of the look of disappointment yet understanding that crossed my face during the drivers lengthy spiel. To me, however, our conversation went as follows,
Driver: Blah, blah, blah….various French words….blah, blah…contorted throat noises…blah, blah…. Le Rozier (nowhere near where I was headed)…blah…désolé(sorry)… Blahdeeblah…
Hitcher: Merci, Aurevoir…
With that, the driver resumed his devotion to the accelerator pedal. Lesson learnt, don’t pick your bag up before finding out if the car’s going your way, it adds to the disappointment as you have to dump it back on the roadside. Despite not actually getting a lift, a small sense of accomplishment grew inside me. Fair enough all I did was stick out my thumb, but I’d proved to myself that I could actually hitch a ride out of the mountains. This in turn led to a greater sense of expectation with each new car that approached. In the half hour following my stopping of the flying Peugeot, only 3 cars passed. With each of them came a sense of expectation, nervousness and self consciousness as it approached and then disappointment as it whizzed by. It was approaching 8am and I had started to pin my hopes on the bus arriving soon. I’d resigned my hitching ambitions, consoling myself with my flying Peugeot moment, and had accepted the need for public transport.
At 8am I heard a loud engine approaching from around the corner. I got myself ready for the bus only to be confronted by yet another small, speeding Peugeot with a distinctly grumbley engine. The springy arm went to work and as before the car came to a halt almost as quickly. It was official, people who have Peugeots are fantastic. I wisely left my rucksack on the roadside, approached the car and discovered it was a French granny behind the wheel. I took this as a sign that either I must have looked very respectable by the roadside for a pensioner to stop for me or that maybe, and possibly more likely, pensioners in France are hard as nails (Nazi occupation will do that to you) and not afraid of a little sissy backpacker. Anyhow, either way I was more than happy to hear a “oui” when I asked if her destination was Millau.
I threw my bag in the boot, with half a thought that she might drive off at that point, and prepared my best French sentence to apologise for my ignorance of her language. I then managed to safely join my luggage inside the car and blurt out in fairly comprehensible French that I was inept in the language sense. I needn’t have worried. The French granny in question turned out to speak fluent English and was somewhat of an international jetsetter. We set off and started some chit chat about the weather etc. Typical small talk. All the time I was thinking about how lucky I am to be an English speaker. The fact that I can jump into a random car in an isolated spot in southern France and still have a conversation in my own language with a stranger, even if it is about the weather, is enough to make me grateful to MTV, McDonalds & other notable English language exporters.
However, the weather talk was quickly brought to a halt. My little granny asked if I was going back to England and I told her I was going home to Scotland. She glanced across at me, ignoring the life-threatening bends in the road and said in a surprised way “You’re Scottish?” I confirmed her suspicions as to my nationality and just like that the weather was dropped from the conversation list and replaced by philosophies on life and lifestyles.
A strange but pivotal moment. Maybe she thought it was too painful for a Scottish person to discuss bad weather, maybe the Scottish enlightenment in the 17th/18th century had a profound and lasting impact in southern France or maybe it was simply the mutual disregard for the English that the French, Scots, Welsh & Irish share that caused this granny to talk frankly and openly with me. Whatever it was, I felt like a better person for our conversation when I got out of the car at Millau bus station and my nodding and agreeing with her philosophies had obviously pleased the granny too as she even acted as my personal interpreter whilst I bought a bus ticket.
We said our farewells and I was left waiting alone in an empty bus shelter. After my mornings ups and downs, waiting on a bus seemed like the most boring thing in the world. There’s just no emotional roller coaster waiting for public transport. However, just as I was beginning to seriously contemplate heading to the edge of town to hitch a ride south, my bus rolled in. I took it as a sign to quit whilst ahead. I hopped on, settled on a seat and mulled over the mornings events. I realised that if I can cover 30k’s for free in France then my thumb could probably pay for the 3000k’s from Darwin to Adelaide when I’m Down Under in December. All of a sudden, crossing a continent seemed easy. The possibilities for hitching in the antipodes played around in my mind for the rest of the day. In fact, two weeks on I’m sitting here still convinced that it’ll be my means of crossing Oz. No doubt another one for "The Gallery of Momentous Moments."