Why I’m still a lucky hitchhiker and other stories.

I was busy having fun in Croatia and Montenegro the last few days, but do let me tell you the tale of how I got here.

Remember, I was in Trieste, the only part of Italy that geographically can be counted into the Balkan area.

My aim was to reach Dubrovnik by night, 700 odd kilometres and four border crossings away. 

Leaving Trieste, I had to properly open the hitchhiker’s toolbox for the first time during my trip. First step: consult the eternal wisdom of hitchwiki.org, and find some good spots outside the city. Second step: get to that spot (I managed eventually, but got off the bus too late and had to get back to the still-Italian-but-not-quite-so village I wanted to leave from). Third step: plant yourself next to the road, in a place in which cars can conceivably stop to pick you up. Fourth step: make a sign and stick out your thumb.

 Fifth step: wait.

Arghh. Arghh. (That’s the sound of watching unhelpful cars go by). The whole trip, I’d only been on service stations, asking people directly. This, of course, also has the difficulty of plucking up the courage of asking strangers for a favour, but that’s something that usually gets easier over time (unless I’m super tired), while staring at cars driving by does. not. get any easier. Also, it’s less likely to succeed (there’s been studies done on that, but I don’t have a link right now). And you have all the time in the world to multiply the gloominess of your thoughs. And no-one stops to say “I’m not going your way, but I wish you luck”. You just see people stare at you and imagine that they all have no understanding of what you’re doing and that they despise you as a person and… it’s also a good way of learning how not to do that. And how to deal with the uncertainty that someone might pick you up in a minute, but that it could also take hours (or days, when you’re as patient as my friend Julian or other people). Or how to deal with the stare of others, and not conform nor feel bad for that, but smile at them in return.

Even more disappointing that I had no long hours in front of me, but just enough time to think these thoughts, until an Italian civil servant stopped after 39 minutes of waiting and brought me through Slovenia into Croatia.

Time for some stats!

On my whole journey, from Brittany through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and again Croatia, I had 14 stops, of which all but two were on service areas next to the motorway. I waited for just under 18 minutes on average.

If you don’t have a sense of how phenomenal that is, imagine that this means that there were times when I literally didn’t wait at all and that 10 minutes were usually what I had to expect! 10 minutes! That’s less than what I usually plan for changing buses! It was only a few stops that increased this mean, like the one time I had to wait for about one hour. So that’s why I’m a lucky hitchhiker.

Doesn’t mean that this is what I or anyone should expect when hitching, but it does mean that I reached Dubrovnik in time to have dinner with my friends.

Some cool other people I met that day were an Austrian couple in their fifties or early sixties, who looked like unusual suspects – they were driving a big BMW, and he was on the phone for business reasons, wearing a shirt that dazzled me in its whiteness (and that’s what he wore on a holiday!)… and then, I didn’t even have to ask them, but they asked me if I needed a lift, and I loved the daily dose of anti-prejudice training. 

Another was a Swiss-Croatian girl who’d also just finished University and who thanked me for driving with her (Me: “…euhh? Thank you?” She: “no, seriously, I wish you’d continue my way, it’s so much more fun to have someoneto chat to!”).

And the Croatian health and safety inspector who brought me through the bit of Bosnia (or probably rather Hercegowina) that separates the two parts of Croatia, and who turned out to be a hobby-historian furnishing me with knowledge about the former Venezian and Dubrovnian republics, and who’d have been able to teach me much more had it not been for language barriers.

Anyway – thanks to all who made my trip so awesome, and thanks to you who were following my stories! It’s been great, and I hope life will continue to be interesting enough to be talked about ūüôā

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Part 3: Crossing Italy

Hitchlog: 761km, 9h30 total, 2h waiting, 25min pause

Haven’t read Part 1 and Part 2 of the journey yet?

part 3 Ronja

I started off with the small frustration of being on a relatively quiet station where everyone went off the mountains and¬†not¬†to Italy. I say small, because the first people going to Italy, a young couple from southern France, promptly took me on board. And when I looked at the time, I couldn’t believe that I’d only spent about 10 minutes trying anyway! If I continue being that lucky, I definitely won’t work on my patience, which was one of the initial attractions of hitchhiking. But I won’t complain! One thing I did work on that day, however, was renunciation. That’s something I do relatively often, half-voluntarily, since I rarely take a lot of food with me. I always tell myself “oh, in the worst case, I can buy something on the way”, which is something I never end up doing, because somehow I’m never hungry enough to pay 3.50‚ā¨ for a packet of crisps. For the two days on the road, I had: 200g of walnuts and 2 fruit bars (still from my gran at home), a few slices of bread, and two oranges. The bread and one orange, as well as some nuts were gone the previous day, so I had the other orange in the morning and decided to savour every bite from then on. Which was totally fine.

Just to clarify: I don’t do these kinds of things for any aww-my-gawd-I-needa-lose-weight reason. I kind of hesitated writing about food (and lack thereof) because it’s a touchy topic for many people, and I know very few people who have an entirely healthy relation to what they eat and what their body looks like. Well, I think I’ve grown to develop a liking of my body and don’t see at all why I’d want to torture it to fit a certain, mainstream accepted, look (if I wanted to do that, I’d start by shaving my legs). Experiments like this one are more in line with staying up the whole night to do parkour, and, in this case, err on the side of the spiritual journey. Y’know, like Indian monks wandering around, depending on the charity of others (“only take what is given”) and not craving for more than that. Already, hitchhiking really helps developing that kind of modesty and gratitude and non-attachment (to the extent that now, I really don’t care anymore if someone could actually take me but doesn’t want to, and can ungrudgingly wish them a nice journey). The food-scarcity is something of a bonus, also because only eating walnuts is a bit boring, and breaks the craving for special tastes or whatever. And I felt truly like that kind of nomad when sometimes I got offered a biscuit or a handful of almonds.

Anyway, after I got through all of Italy fine, I arrived at my friend’s place in Trieste where home-cooked pasta was waiting for me, eheh.

Some more fun on the way included seeing lots of middle-aged men in big cars, smoking and looking so clich√©d Italian that I couldn’t help but find it hilarious, landscapes changing sooo quickly. I also got ciao-bella’d (pff) and met more cool people… but to be honest, now I’ve written a lot and would prefer going out to see Trieste!

Rendez-vous in Croatia ūüėČ

 

Three Euros, 840km, and, er, a couple of hours.

Oh, I forgot to mention fences. Like those around the service area on the motorway. Our friends at hitchwiki had left us clues on how to leave Bologna, so we took a bus out of town, investing all our remaining money spare 30 cents or so. What we didn’t know was that the area was under construction, so a lot had changed, and¬†we couldn’t see a¬†(legal) way of getting into the rest area. Also, it was hot. And our backpacks heavy. And then, a car came out the gate and its driver told us he’d call the police if he caught us entering.

We backed off and he followed us in his car, gosh.

– “Where are you, going, anyway?”

– “We want to get towards Modena, then Milan”

– “Ah, well, then you’re on the wrong side anyway, this one goes to Florence. If you want to get to Modena, take this underpass, walk around the fence, and there’ll be an entrance”

– “…Okay…”

He was right. We didn’t quite believe it, the way all around the fence was long, we nearly gave up – but we had a ukulele and could sing and hope we’d see some figs on the way and ultimately, we slipped through a gap right into a super-busy service station.

By that time, it was already 5pm, also¬†because we’d spent all morning cooking up random leftover food in the hostel kitchen (you have to eat, right?). After some starting difficulties, we got a ride by a Neapolitan lorry driver, then by a guy driving Italian branded goods over to rich people in Switzerland, who got us up to the Swiss border. We watched all the full cars (“I mean, it’s okay that people want children, but why do they also have to take them on holiday??”) and the sunset and thought about where to put up our tent. Before we had to, however, we met a young German couple coming back from Rimini. We spent most of the night together, until they left us about 70km before our final destination. It was something inhumane like 4am, but we quickly found a really sweet Turkish-born truck driver who brought us closer still. Still in darkness, we asked¬†in a car that turned out to be¬†going to a games convention.

Since my house wasn’t exactly on their way, they dropped us off in another suburb and we had a lovely sunrise walk to then join (or rather: wake up) my family for breakfast.

That journey is over, and incredibly, this part of summer, too. I’ll be back in Oxford in a week or so and there will be no time for travels for the whole year,¬†until that degree’s done. Well… I don’t really believe it (yet).

For now, a song including the line¬†“This is how the summer ends”. Not quite coincidentally also the song we sang during that last Italian sunset.

Beautiful Bologna.

Lina and me started off profiting from the cheap Italian trains again (after, of course, having another ice-cream in Jesi for breakfast) and arrived in Bologna in the afternoon. As those things go, it was evening by the time we had visited the city and felt like we could move on, and, you might guess, we realised that it was getting kind of too late* to hitch out. Since it was our last evening in Italy, we felt like we should treat ourselves to something, and, more importantly, finally try that street music thing. Bologna is fantastic in terms of acoustic, since all the sound bounces off the arcades you find everywhere in the city centre. We had fun, and some other people seemed to enjoy it, too, some even put some coins in our orange hat.

After a short while, we realised that we might want to find a place to sleep (before one of the single men about could offer to, ugh, host us), but that was no trouble, since we had money and internet and felt like filthy rich kids. We went to a hostel and got the offer of taking a private two-bed room for only 2 Euros more than what we’d pay for two dorm beds. We opened our wallets wide and pulled out the 50‚ā¨ he was asking for – we had just about enough. Then, he asked for just one Euro more, taxes. We looked at the heap of coins in front of us, and at our empty purses. After a moment, Lina opened her bag and fumbled around until she produced a certain hat still containing the circa 4‚ā¨ we’d collected before. Hah!

We felt less rich, but daring (since we knew we wouldn’t take out any more money before reaching home). Moreover, we took a thorough shower and stained the brilliant white towels with our dirty feet.

____

*Okay, it’s never too late for anything. But standing on a road for the whole night is decidedly less fun than sleeping.

Hillside.idyll

photo 3 (1)

We arrived by train in a town called Jesi. It was a hungry Sunday, since we didn’t realise how serious Italians can be about public holidays. Lina chatted to a woman who brought us to the only open spot in town, doubling as the best gelateria and quasi cultural heritage museum. We ate a sandwich, I had my first Italian cappucino (and couldn’t believe that is was half the price of cappucino in England), all rounded off with copious ice cream and clotted cream (“Foreigners never eat their ice with cream, but you really have to try!”).

photo 2 (1)

Our next stop was a little village up the hill, Santa Maria Nuova, where we had found a Couchsurfing host, so we walked until the road and stuck out our thumbs (no buses on Sundays anyway). A man just a bit over our age and decorated with Indian pearls stopped, invited us to a drink – Lina had to try milk with mint sirup since she didn’t want coffee – and took us to the village. He was used to travelling and hosting people in his place, also through Couchsurfing, and immediately invited us to stop there next.

Just after he dropped us off at the Santa Maria’s main square, we noticed lots of well-dressed people and so stayed on to wait for the newly married couple, welcomed pompuously with heart-shaped confetti.

In this surrounding of mild hills, small villages, sunshine, and the smell of food in preparation, we exhaled deeply, looked at each other, and realised that this was where the actual Italy started.

We walked out of the village until our hosts’ house and garden. Misericordia and Jeronimo are Catalan in origin and speak just like Lina does when she mixes up her Italian with the Spanish she learnt in her gap year. They are artists, new age musicians, hosts for volunteers who want to work in the garden or help with the house that was still uninhabitable a year ago. They could also be my grandparents, but only if my grandparents were small and skinny and yoga teachers. The calm of the place makes us feel that we finally arrived at our destination. These one and a half days are the summit of our travel – we’ve finally stopped moving more South, and are in an agreeable state of equilibrium.

We’ll be leaving tomorrow (the 16th), which will give us three days to get back to Mannheim, after which Lina will move on to Amsterdam and Denmark on her own. Strange that our journey took up all that time, it seems that we’re now in the spirit of valuing processes, not outcomes. Still, I am pleased by the outcome, very much so. When we left Bielefeld exactly a week ago, Italy seemed really far away. Now, it feels like a dream – it’s the summer that didn’t quite happen throughout my time in Oxford, Edinburgh, France, Amsterdam, or Germany. It will not be easy to head North tomorrow.

Oh so Rimini

Leaving Modena, we expierenced a first day of so-called bad luck. That is, it took us three hours to get out of town, and I felt slightly delirious because of the sun and limited water supplies.

“Bad luck” means that things don’t go to plan, and one of our ideas was to go to Ancona or even further South, in a region where we could see the coast without herds of tourists. We ended up some 25km North of Rimini, the hot spot of Adriatic sunbathing. More precisely, we ended up in a service station surrounded by beach resorts. A really weird person had brought us there, speaking in a version of Italian that none of us could fully understand, seemingly in lack of social contacts and possibly a bit drunk.

photo 1 (1)It was getting dark, the road was straight and fast, stopping people unsympathetic. We stayed for one or two hours while rehearsing some of the songs we’d learnt on the road, until it was fully dark. There wasn’t even a bus to Rimini where we could have gone into a hostel, and wild camping is fined in the coastal area. A bit up the road was a sign for a piadineria, a sort of street restaurant selling typical piadine, a sort of filled, solid-ish pancake. We decided that we might as well eat. The piadineria was still well frequented and we immediately felt comfortable. As we ordered two piadine with cheese and rucola, the man behind the till, Bruno, began chatting to us in his smoky voice. It was easy to see what we were up to, with our backpacks and Lina still absentmindedly holding onto the “Rimini” sign, and he had the air of someone who has dealt with everything back in the day. When we asked whether there was a campeggio nearby that was still open, he very naturally offered us space in the small playground attached to the restaurant. After deliberating over our meal, we accepted the offer and ended up sleeping in the tiny wooden hut designed for children to play in. No way to plan for the unconventional.

The next day, we invested 40 Euros of our shared travel money to take public transport for the next 150km into the mountains behind Ancona, after we were thrown out of the private beach we frequented in the morning. Since I don’t carry a swimsuit, only Lina could experience the mediterranean, but I didn’t feel like missing out. Our next station was going to be much more typical and way less touristic anyway.

 

Breakfast in Italy

I was waking up to mild light reflecting off terra cotta coloured walls under a blue, blue sky. After un momento stupefatto, I grinned an extra large holiday-grin. We actually are in Italy. And it actually feels like Italy. In the course of four days, we came from the plains of norrthern Germany, traversed the hills mounding into the Alps, shivered on Swiss service areas (9¬įC), stayed in the beautiful Ticino (Tessin) area and then, yesterday, crossed the border to Italy.

photo 5

Yesterday was one of those days that seem way too easy and way too good. Not that I’d complain of that. We started off tasting grapes in this quiet stone-built village where we’d spent the night with Lina’s grandmother and the Swiss-Italian family friends she was visiting. We got a first lift out of Valle Maggia (the Maggia valley), until Locarno.

Our first taste of mediterranean generosit√† came in form of a gentleman who drove half an hour more to get us to Lugano. And then, a wonderful encounter happened. We were already in a good mood when we waited in Lugano, since someone who’d seen us from his office block had drawn us a beautiful sign saying “Italy”. After about half an hour in this spot, an Italian lady in her fifties stopped and offered to drive us to Como. During the ride, we shared our excitement about Italy and its warmth, and about tasting true pizza, pasta, and ice cream again. Just before leaving us in Como, this wonderful Emanuela said “Do you have time for some ice cream, your first Italian gelato?”. Of course we did, and she ended up inviting us to both pizza and ice cream and a wonderful afternoon in the outskirts of Como. While eating, she shared her story and how meeting His Holiness the Dalai Lama changed her life. Radiating goodwill, she drove us to our next spot, repeating how happy she was that she had met us and that she’d been able to help. We continued with full stomachs, hearts, and minds.

2016-08-11 route (Valle Maggia-Modena)

Another person that day will certainly make it onto our top-list of cool rides. I spoke to the guy on a station out of Milan and described him to Lina as “the chilled American in the big car who’s going to take a nap now”. We got a lift before he woke up, but met him again on a service area further along the way, where he stopped while we were singing a song in the evening sun.

It turned out that he had been a street musician for ages (playing in front of the Berlin wall a week before it fell), who then went into the film business and now works for James Cameron in New Zealand. For the summer holiday, however, he’d come to Italy to tour street art festivals, doing some stuff on guitars involving drilling machines (I didn’t get that, either). Also, he was Canadian, if you care to know. Anyway, he gave us some tips for our future busking career after we sang and played a song on the ukulele (“Yeah, you’re good, this will work, find yourself a spot with good acoustics”). Now, in Italy, it all seems possible. Perhaps our next challenge will be to finance our own pizza with our music?