Friday, January 30, 2015

How to be a hitchhiker - Part One

When I finished my college degree and before starting grad school, I took a semester off to “see the world!”  I was 22, ignorant of many things, but I knew enough to want to experience more.  After saving my money from a summer of hot hard work in the alfalfa fields of the San Joaquin Valley doing mosquito control, I set off on a Greyhound bus to cross the country to New York… from where I found the cheapest way to Europe - on “Icelandic Flugfélag” (they were older planes and probabily the slowest on earth).  Outwardly I attempted to project the image of Mr. Cool but inside I was excited, fearful, and delirious to see everything new.   So I plunked down in Glasgow Scotland (the closest point of landing) and there I was.  Everybody talked with a form of English that I struggled to understand, the money was confusing, and I had to start living by my wits.  ( Is a quid the same as a pound?  How many pence make a shilling )

Often I ended up walking as I waited to get my rides

Throughout  Europe, a system of youth hotels called "youth hostels" exists in most cities and many smaller towns.  Here a traveller like me can find the company of fellow travelers from many lands, a dormitory bed, and an opportunity to share stories and advice, for a very cheap price.  Many ‘hostellers’ travel with someone for a few days and then branch off as destinations change. However hitchhiking with a friend can be difficult because many rides will take only one person but not two.  In most hostels it is expected that each person do a small job each day to help maintain the place– help sweep a room, fold a few blankets… We were also required to leave the hostel grounds by early morning - even if we stayed a few days.

A typical hostel
Each 'moving day' the adventure begins anew when I found my way (using city transit or walked ) to the edge of town and found the open road – there I stand with my thumb in the air.  Europeans were very good at was traditional for young people to travel in this manner.  In England the “lorry” drivers always seemed to enjoy having someone new to talk to.  They frequently insisted on paying for a pastry and coffee or even a meal.   ( In France they ordered "deux café et cognac" when we stopped). A sequence of rides were often required to reach my next destination.... some days were easy others not... I had a Hostel guidebook with addresses of all of the hostels – and it became a matter of asking a lot for questions, walking or using public transit to get where I was going… sounds daunting – but it was usually no big deal … Once I stowed my 35 pound army surplus backpack containing  all my worldly belongings, my newest hostel friends and I would set off to see the sights.  Perhaps I would stay in a location for 2-4 days depending on the city.  

Every hostel has a "common room" where people from many lands gather each evening to share adventures and advice...

(You can explore the vast Hostel website catalogue here – they are called "youth hostels" – but they are open to “former youth” too    They exist throughout the US.  There are several in the Bay Area. Also beware there are many places that call themselves "hostels" not associated with the "international youth hostels".

Traveling in this manner, there are everyday challenges, adventures, and surprises – which of course changed as I went from country to country – language to language.

I will plan to take a couple of blogs to tell you about a few of my many adventures.  This week I can only tell you a few ‘experiences ’ that pop into my mind.

London bridge across the Thames
London was a little formidable for a kid like me from the San Joaquin Valley – just from its size alone.  Finally, after a 'challenging day', I reached the hostel to finds a “Full” sign – I was told that I could reserve a spot for the next few nights – just not that night.  Two ‘blokes’ that I met were in the same  spot - we decided– “No problem” – “we will sleep next door in the Laundromat”.   After fish and chips and a pint – late evening we spread out on the wide empty couch seats in the shop and happily wen’t to sleep…

Big Ben
Everything  was fine, until a short while later when I woke from a tapping on my foot - and there was the tallest British “bobby’ with the tallest black hat I had ever seen – He looked at our papers and asked a few questions – and then he said we were OK – "this was his beat and he would keep an eye on us – but we had to be out by 5:30 in the morning." After that I slept soundly.  Later that day my friend and I found the tower or London where the Queens jewels are stored – One of those guards with a red jacket and a huge bear skin hat was guarding the door – He was involved with tourists and my friend and I marched right in the door, only to realize that somehow we had entered the exit…and walked right in… Not many can say they broke into the Tower of London…  London was filled with endless wonders - so many sights and friendly people.  The hostel was filled every night and noisy conversation went late.

Walking through a central European roadway - sometimes there were few cars...
I travelled across Belgium, France, Germany… so many sights, people, and adventures.  One morning I got a ride in Germany from an ex- Nazi – an Uber lieutenant who assured me (as many Germans did) they "only fought on the eastern front against Russia" – “certainly not against the Americans”… for lunch he took me to his old university  

View from the hills of Heidelberg
Heidelberg – where we feasted on roast chicken (Gebackenes Huhn), a salad, great bread and a nice white wine…Quite a feast for a poor back packer like me!  After showing me the campus, we drove on.   Shortly we left the main road and  drove to a small cemetery where we planted moss on the grave of his father  (a Colonel) who had been killed in the war… his stone said “Alles fur Deutschland” (everything for Germany)… it was a strange memorable day…His English was about as bad as my German but we managed to communicate somehow.

Yugoslav village home

Yugoslav coast
So many images in my head,  memories and adventures… 
My arrival into Greece involved a train rides across then communist Yugoslavia– European trains don't have rows of seats but compartments for 8 people – 4 people facing 4… My companions was very friendly! – people brought baskets of bread, sausage, cheese, fruit to share – wine, home made plum brandy  – there were Yugoslavs, Greeks, Germans, and me… Such fun… 
Campaign graffiti in Greece
When I arrived in Thessaloniki the language barrier was somewhat a challenge –I was confronted with the Greek alphabet!  I had the name of the hostel and somehow found it  and checked in – and decided to stroll through the city –  I wisely thought that I had better write down the name of the street where my hostel has located – but the name was very long, and hard to write,  so I thought I would be OK is I wrote down just the first part: “δρόμος”…After a good long “look around the city” I decided I had better head back to the hostel – and I started looking for my street – What luck – the very first street I came to started with "δρόμος".  Whoops the cross street also has "δρόμος" and the next street….  Only later did I discover that "δρόμος" means “street”.  I was very lucky to find my way home that night…

Mediterranean village street

More next week...