THERE COMES A POINT in every young man’s life when his trust fund manager goes on holiday. It is fitting that what follows occurred during International Poverty & Homelessness Awareness Week and, certainly, I hope that my experience will raise awareness among the demographics concerned as to how they should conduct themselves.
Let me tell you about poverty: there is poverty, there is urban poverty, and there is urbane poverty. The story of my rapid regression through these strata starts in the billionaire’s playground that is Forte dei Marmi. I had already accepted the invitation when I realised I had blown my last €30 on a bottle of Frescobaldi (I’m not a wine snob, but I only buy from friends). We had arrived in Vieri’s 1988 Posche 911 and being a Friday night in early August, Mina’s Bussola club was chocked to the gunnels with a vast array of Eurotrash. There were refugees from Biarritz, Ibiza clubbers who got rich, Moscow clubbers who fell out with Putin, abstract artists, Botox-pumped bankers wives and industrialists’ daughters from Munich and Frankfurt, all vamped up on HRT, champagne, and Prozac. It was as raucous as the bombing of Dresden, and nearly as fun. Imagine someone had pumped laughing gas into the celebrity arrivals gate at Heathrow, and you’ll get the picture.
At first, the lack of money didn’t prove problematic. They were all knocking back elaborate pastel-coloured cocktails while I subsisted on the free Veuve Cliquot that was doing the rounds. My poverty was merely comparative and I couldn’t really see what the Third World were complaining about. But then, emerging from the Olympian debauchery like a desert rose in Syria, I recognised a porcelain beauty from South Tyrol, complete with tiara and gloriously svelte bright silk dress. I had last seen her a few months previously under a mantilla; in the somber robes worn by women on the Order of Malta’s pilgrimage to Lourdes. A patrician grace shone through each incarnation. Her name had more barrels than a Gatling-gun. Her hair had been expensively highlighted and quaffed like a sort of a wind-swept Aspen. She possessed the rare and intoxicatingly feminine quality of being softly spoken in German. And it was only then, alas, that I suddenly realised I had lost my single competitive advantage with women: being able to buy the next drink. She was lead aside by one of Napoleon VI’s great nephews. The party was over for me here and, as we roared back to Florence under a topaz sky, I decided that it was time to go back to England.
A few hours later, I stood in the blazing sun at a remote junction on the A1 autostrada just north of Florence, with two small suitcases at my feet. As I held out an arm, it occurred to me that I had absolutely no option but to succeed. The situation had been creeping up on me for some weeks — I simply hadn’t noticed the extent of my monetary depletion until a few days beforehand, by which time it was too late to do anything about it. My job had ceased to exist, I had handed over the keys to my flat, it was 10:00am on Saturday morning and I had just promised my grandmother I would be in London on Tuesday evening (insinuating, of course, that I had an aeroplane ticket). Looking through neglected pockets, down the back of the sofa and through old drawers, I had scraped together a final €20 in small change, which would have to do for the 2000km that lay ahead. This was to be a bit of a new experience for me — one of life’s seasoned failures — and, like any risky undertaking attempted for the first time, I considered it to my advantage that I was still mildly intoxicated from the night before.
The lay-by I had chosen was obviously a dead drop for the Gypsy beggars who blight the city of Florence. Every now and again a rusty old Ford Transit would rumble to a halt, eject a pile of suitcases into a ditch, u-turn, and head back into the city. Then, after about ten minutes of listening to cicadas grinding, punctured by the occasional roar of a motorbike or car zooming past (and ignoring me), a very slick looking Mercedes with Romanian number plates would purr up; two skin-headed oiks in Tracksuits would get out, grab the suitcases, shove them in the boot, and accelerate off towards Emilia-Romagna. This routine was repeated twice before a bricklayer in his mid thirties (himself a Romanian), picked me up and took me as far as a service station outside Bologna.
I asked among the northbound drivers at the petrol pumps whether any of them were heading north — and did they by any chance have a spare seat? Eventually a municipal police car pulled in. Remembering how, in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, I had traveled from Guantanamo to Las Tunas in a truck belonging to some collective or another, I wondered if Italy too might have some law obliging publicly owned vehicles to give free rides. The Italians seem quite Cuban, after all. The policewoman was friendly and quite pretty, telling me what I was doing was absolutely illegal and very dangerous and I might have a better chance of catching a ride if I asked the people over at the bar, while wishing me good luck. Quite soon, I was heading to Piedmont with a doctor returning from his holiday in the South. Owing to the Party at Forte dei Marmi and the hours spent pacing around the service station in the glaring Reggio Emilian sun (it was now about 14:00), I was asleep before we left the Bologna ring-road.
When I awoke, the light was crisper and paler; the landscape greener. We were skirting round Milan, heading up to Lake Como. The doctor was in his mid-thirties and spoke no English. We mostly discussed the varying standards of medical education across Europe (I had held a brief interest in this subject years ago after I noticed my Austrian friends were heading into the former eastern-bloc countries to find places in medical schools).
I had no particular plan for this journey other than to head north as fast as possible, staying East of the Rhine. The most direct route would have taken me up through France but, for reasons which may already be becoming clear to the reader, I am at war with France. The French haven’t apologised to me for their revolution and occupation of Europe and, moreover, for the aspects of their Kultur and Politik which have metastasised into British suburban thinking, further advancing my own inexorable march towards the guillotine. I don’t speak French (don’t and can’t), and couldn’t possibly imagine driving through their territory except perhaps in a tank. My intention, therefore, was to attempt to cross the Channel from the Hook of Holland (quite how I had no idea, because I wouldn’t be able to afford the ticket, but I decided to cross that bridge when I came to it).
At the next service station, the first car I encountered was a Renault 5 with Liechtensteinian number plates, surrounded by a handful of scruffy looking students smoking rollups. As far as the likelihood of being picked up was concerned, this was a very hopeful demographic. Theoretically, I reasoned, pressing on from Liechtenstein should be easy. Northbound traffic from Vaduz was likely to consist of Ossies (people who have been culturally conditioned in Communist East Germany), returning from holiday. Ossies are a very distinctive social archetype (I’ve known a few), and are, I’m sure, much more likely to give lifts than the straight-laced West Germans or the Swiss — whose roads are convoluted, narrow, and unlikely to handle much through-traffic in any case. As I was debating whether or not to approach, I suddenly noticed that the car next-door, a Mulberry Audi SUV with Slovakian number plates, had a cross of the Order of Malta pinned up in the back windscreen. Gold dust! Even if I had never met these people, they would certainly know friends in Vienna or Budapest. I approached the Knight, a powerfully built man in his sixties with the sort of goatee which would look odd on anyone but for a member of the Central European intelligentsia. I was sure I recognised him from the Bohemian delegation at Lourdes, and we quickly established that we had indeed been working together in the same hospital earlier that year. His wife, however, was very agitated. I asked if something was the matter.
“Everything is gone!” he exclaimed. “Telephones, cash, passports, everything!” The couple had just been robbed. I called the Caribinieri and we were soon rewarded with the arrival of two cops from the traffic police, who assessed the situation while inviting an interested six-year-old spectator to play with the transceiver radio in their car. Soon, we were all led in convoy to a police station in the beautiful Alpine town of Como, where we spent an hour or so filling in forms — me translating for the knight while local ne’er-do-wells and police officials milled around the gloomy marble lobby. Outside, the Audi’s colossal V8 engine purred over on half a tank of fuel. Even the electronic car key had been stolen, so my impromptu hosts would be completely stuck if they turned off the engine. Our sense of urgency, therefore, was rather greater than that of the beleaguered young Capo whose misfortune it was to be on duty that Saturday evening. His relief was as great as mine as we handed back the finished papers and he drew himself upright to deliver his valedictory spiel.
“Bene! We shall endeavour to find the culprits and be in contact with you soon… Furthermore,” he continued, drawing himself up even higher under massive granite Questura eagles, flanked by vast, limp flags – Italian and European — “we shall enter your data into the European Union’s Schengen Information System, so that every police force in Europe is on to the case!”
I relayed this slightly fatuous sentiment in English.
“Ja?” said the Czechoslovak knight, with the nonplussed brow of one who knew about heavy bureaucratic supranational co-operation. “Thank you.” The charismatic words had seemed as hollow to me as the stock letters I used to send out to troubled constituents while working for politicians, name dropping the Ministers of state who would be informed of their problems and whose vast, offices would themselves issue pre-formatted letters of support, and even the Prime Minister would stare earnestly across the dispatch box and somehow find the words to avoid the awful admission that nobody can and nobody will do anything.
We stepped back out on to Via Roosevelt. The sun had set and, alas, I was still in Italy.
The knight turned to me. “Now, our grandchildren are in Zürich, so we are going North. Does that help?”
The Audi purred higher and higher up the steep mountainside. Far below, along the base of the dark Alpine valley, Lake Como reflected the darkening sky with a deep cobalt lustre. I could just make out pale sandstone towns, their Baroque spires rising along the water’s edge. Starlings swarmed above, and then they swarmed beneath. The cypresses turned to pines and the land became less and less cultivated as we headed skywards. Then we reached the top of the ridge — the Swiss border — and entered a new world all together.
Having climbed for so long, it seemed strange that we were again on the flat bottom of wide gorge. I had never been to Switzerland before and had expected that my excitement at having made it onto their free soil would cause me to behave foolishly. But, somehow, I was moved to silent awe by something completely unexpected. Our car was a lonely speck, speeding across a vast boggy stretch of grassland embraced on each side by soaring black cliffs crowned with a deep red Alpenglow. I felt terribly sorry for my Slovak hosts, who had so much pressing on their minds. Whereas I’d been out of the EU for less than ten minutes and was already enjoying some kind of a temporal awakening, they fiddled with the GPS and fretted about the best route to take. A freight train clanked along beside us, the spotless coaches emblazoned in the national red with big white crosses. The ancient locomotive was spotless, beautiful, and sported the national coat of arms on its gleaming vanguard: a great cross of silver polished to a mirror-like sheen and flashing in the moonlight between the tungsten headlights. Man’s every object in this primordial scene seemed to belong to a toy set.
The knight dropped me a few miles outside of Zürich and gave me ten Swiss francs for the use of my telephone, which I accepted, as the GPS function is very expensive. They had also run the battery flat. We wished each other luck and said our goodbyes, unsure as to quite who owed the other the first pint on next year’s pilgrimage. The roadside McDonalds was closing for the night, and one of the staff offered me a lift down the mountain into the city. I explained that I was waiting for a car, and had to stay here. They presented me with a surplus Big Mac. I don’t think I had eaten at the premises of Mr. MacDonald before but I felt that, as it was a gift, this was the occasion on which it would be appropriate to do so. It was good — like everything in that country.
I wandered into an extremely dilapidated barn on a steep pasture nearby and lay on a haystack. The English vicar of Florence, a former army chaplain, had lent me his British Army sleeping bag, which had gone through the Afghanistan campaign. And Iraq. And Oman. At such short notice, and with a dead phone, I wouldn’t call on the people known to me in Switzerland, but I did think about them as their largest city glowed at the bottom of the valley like the embers in an ashbed: an astrophysicist, a seminarian, a handful of aspiring diplomats and lawyers, an art dealer — each holding very little in common with the next. The national character of Switzerland is so strong, yet there seems not an individual painter, writer, composer, language, nor even personal trait which expresses any significant part of it. What is it to be Swiss? I never usually have any trouble characterising a people bound by a nation, but the more I thought about the neat, softly spoken children of these soaring peaks and plunging valleys, the more I came up blank. It troubled me.
Such were my thoughts as I looked up through the rafters at the meandering silver of the Milky Way. Outside, I could hear the soft ‘clonk, clonk, clonk’ of cowbells in the darkness.
The next morning was dreadful. Church bells rang up from Zürich on the grey mist. It was Sunday and progress towards the City of Basel was incredibly slow. I owe most of the distance covered to a single, young, haggard, tattooed manual worker whose red van was also his home. We drove through a terrific thunderstorm, curtains of rain lashing the rolling hills of Aargau as he told me the sad story of his upbringing after his father had abandoned the home. He left the motorway at a very minor junction — thankfully the rain had stopped by then — and he pointed me down a footpath in the direction of the next service station.
The path took me through some woods alongside a river for a while, the sun shining through the thick foliage and lifting thin wisps of steam off the water. Everything glistened after the rainstorm. I hummed the Schweizerpsalm; the anthem of this — the last free country in western Europe — and somehow my mind wandered from the verdant surroundings to a grey committee room in Brussels.
“Nationalism is the only ideology which divides European nations today!” spat Martin Schultz, the president of the rubber-stamp European Parliament, to great applause from the assembled apperatchiki of the Commission. The diktats of their supreme government of the Europeans swings like a wrecking ball from the Atlantic to the Bosporus, enslaving economies, paralysing trade, smothering the individual expression of all our nations, apart from here — in Switzerland. It seemed such an existential achievement to have hit the buffers in a place like this. I lashed out at a tree with a great big stick, imagining it was Manuel Barroso — the slightly hunched Commission president — who I once saw through the drizzle outside the Berlaymont. He walked with the gait of an old woman under a black folding umbrella and suddenly struck me, as had the corpse of Lenin under Red Square, as being surprisingly diminutive for a man who commanded such power. I loved the idea that I might fail to get north and be stuck on free territory — in a country which defied Barroso with its independence and prosperity. What are you going to do about it, Herr Schutz? You can’t stop me from being happy here! There is nothing you can do! Alexander 1: European Project 0.
Soon I was singing out loud:
Heil dir, Helvetia!
Hast noch der Söhne ja,
Wie sie Sankt Jakob sah,
Freudvoll zum Streit!
I reached the northern city of Basel in a Maserati at about teatime discussing with my driver, Rolf, the trade benefits of Switzerland’s isolation from Brussels. The port of Basel is the hub of Switzerland’s ocean-going merchant navy. A million tonnes of Swiss shipping returns here on the Rhine, from Panama, Hong Kong, India and New York, greeted in the foothills of the Alps by the colourful wooden shutters, fluttering Baselstab, and the fifteenth-century Holy Roman façades.
I walked into the northern suburbs along a maple-lined boulevard. The street name, ‘Schwartzwaldallee’ (‘Black Forest Way’), and dark granite neoclassical railway station staffed by officials in Deutsche Bahn livery were a sure indication that I was nearing the border. (I now learn that Basel Badischer Bahnhof is the first and only German administrated railway station outside of Germany since the mid-1940s). Eventually I saw a vast road sign looming ahead: ‘DEUTSCHLAND,’ stamped white on a blue background and encircled with the twelve yellow stars. A little to the side of the official crossing, I pushed down a flimsy cord of barbed wire, swung my leg over, and stepped back in to the European Union.
It is said that only a Hungarian can enter a revolving door behind and come out ahead. Thanks to the Slovaks, I had achieved an even more unlikely contradiction — I was leaving Switzerland with more money than I had entered. I had €22 and barely seven-hundred miles left to go. Then it occurred to me that, somehow, I had never visited Germany before either.
The first ride I got, from the border to the first service station, was from two students who had were returning after a weekend basking (or should I say burning), in comparatively liberal Swiss marijuana laws. Then, as evening drew in, I was picked up by Gunther — a motor enthusiast from Karlsruhe and, having been in Germany for less than an hour, was bombing up the Autobahn in his 1955 Porsche Roadster — Rhine on the left, Black Forest to the right.
‘Thank you, God,’ I thought, ‘for choosing my side.’
That evening, I had hoped to reach Frankfurt and, having preserved the creases in my trousers rather well, wander into a vast American hotel and somehow go to ground there, staying completely free of charge. This plan had developed from an incident in Bucharest in 2008, when my bank card was cancelled by the slightly overzealous RBS fraud protection team. I very nearly became the first person on the planet to starve to death in a four-star hotel. My room was already covered but not my food, so I leant upon the resources that the colossal, impersonal, environment had to offer — gate-crashing other people’s conferences and subsisting of their revolting Balkan canapés. I stole a packet of shortbread from a cleaner’s trolley and wolfed pickled eggs at a Macedonian diplomatic conference — one of the dignitaries glaring at me across the table (a few years later, I saw him again over a table of rather superior canapés in the Palace of Westminster. It was he that was scoffing this time — flecks of quiche pastry cascading down the gold frogging on his uniform as he tried desperately to explain his wavering international agenda to anyone who would listen).
But it was not to be. The light had all but gone by the time Gunther dropped me at a small service station in the forest outside Baden-Baden. A couple of dozen long-haul truck drivers from eastern Europe had pulled in for the night, parked up in muddy lay-bys under the trees. I had set off with a baseless theory that most people, even in the itinerant and anonymous world I had landed in, are basically good eggs. As far back as Bologna I further developed a bigoted assumption that, as a trend, eastern European truckies were the best of the lot. The last 700 miles had only reinforced my prejudice. A quick examination of their behaviour towards one another would quickly disabuse anyone of any preconception about axe murderers and perverts. As a pack, they were so trusting of one another that one of this group had even brought his son (a child of about twelve) with him. The two were preparing supper. While the man was slicing up paprika peppers, the boy climbed down from the cabin, opened the bonnet, reached back behind the scorching pig-iron radiator and pulled out their potatoes which had been baking in the engine.
In scenes bizarrely reminiscent of wagon trains in old Westerns, electrical cables were flung from lorry to lorry, collapsible tables were being erected, generators started, DVDs swapped, washing hung out over cooling engines, and greasy machine parts being hastily laid out, checked and fixed on canvas tarpaulins.
Nobody was going any further tonight — that was plain to see — so, rather than attempt to reach the Ruhr after dark, I wandered along a tiny lane, past a farm and into a grove of old agricultural machinery, the rusty tractors and wood-chippers still just discernible among the trees in the twilight. There I found a tiny shack containing fire wood, where I dropped my larger suitcase before heading back to the service station to find supper.
Obviously, my monetary situation precluded the procurement of my preferred staples, so I had to psyche myself up to do something absolutely unspeakable: steal smoked-salmon sandwiches.
Three weeks previously, I had been sailing with friends in Croatia. With sixteen people aboard — nobody as old as thirty — and ten nationalities, it was the Hungarians who demonstrated to us how best to subsist on thin air. We couldn’t afford to dock in ports, so we would enter harbours at full throttle, dash in to town, raiding, plundering, looting and, then, leaning on the throttle, break for open water again under a hail of Serbo-Croat expletives from the harbourmasters’ boats. Juli, a 24-year-old doctor and member of the Hungarian Triathlon swimming team, cooked for all of us on a single gas ring. Her husband, Balacs, a 25-year-old surgeon, raided islands for wild rosemary and, on one occasion, entered a castle on Hvar to find an empty open-air cinema and a half finished banquet laid out in an anteroom. It was like a C. S. Lewis novel, we just sat down and tucked in. We spent virtually nothing all week. It was this spirit, glamourised by its high-flying practitioners, that I mustered once more as I found the crate behind the service station that contained the day’s unsold packaged food, and tipped the contents into my suitcase.
Returning to the shack, enveloped by the smell of damp earth, I listened to the night birds and far off blast of a train horn. I was as far from the Rhine as the river is wide, and I imagined the vast expanse of dark, heavy water flowing silently through the night somewhere off to my left — its fathoms separating me; its history dividing me; its spirits protecting me from the onion munching horror of the opposite bank.
Then I heard a crack and thud much closer to hand, and froze.
“Wer ist da?” I demanded into the darkness. Silence.
Now I really was worried. I was sure that, at least in England, there existed a certain bourgeois preconception about the sorts of people who hang out in woodland behind motorways at midnight and I suffer from extreme homophobia (a constituent of the apparently tiny minority of straight people who do so, according to the aspiring psychoanalysts in my high school’s 1st XV rugby team). Thus, in order to stay in the grove, I had to reason with myself. I reasoned that gays probably don’t chose Sunday nights for rumpy-pumpy and that most gays in woods behind motorways are still human beings of average intelligence who would not try to bother a stranger who strayed into their midst. Even if they did, surely only a tiny proportion of them were the violent axe-murdering types. Liberal Democrats, perhaps, but certainly not rapists.
These were my thoughts as I lay, probably completely alone, in the dark grove in Baden-Württemberg.
The next morning, the probable cause of the thud became apparent. I was in an orchard and Crab-apples littered the dewy grass. I added a couple to my food stores, just in case I might find somewhere to cook them (a radiator, for instance).
Soon a very curious man in his sixties, who was heading to Hamburg, picked me up. The first thing he did was to ask if I wouldn’t mind doing the driving, because he was a little tired. I explained to him that I had slept in barns for two nights on the trot, and hadn’t really eaten that much for a couple of days. His eyes narrowed, a grim determination to better my sob story. He was on a spiritual fast and hadn’t eaten a thing for three weeks. I told him I thought I had better take the wheel after all.
Minutes later we were purring along at a good 200kmph as he explained to me that his discipline, based on meditation and fasting, was to channel a kind of spiritual energy out of the air and live on that in stead of normal ‘food.’ Admittedly, he was still in the transitional phase, and still consumed a very weak concentration of fruit juice but, he explained, soon he wouldn’t need any food or water at all.
“Yes,” I thought, “because you’ll be dead.”
He asked me what I was up to, and I explained that I was heading to London by the cheapest means possible. By now I had spent €15 of my original €20, but I was honing my survivalist methods and, I explained to him, I would soon be able to survive without spending any ‘money’ at all. He gave a knowing chuckle. Then I gave a knowing chuckle. I’m not entirely sure who had the knowing chuckle high ground.
The forests gave way to the rugged plains of Hesse and eventually the rolling hills and cornfields of Lower Saxony. Germany’s north-south road infrastructure is very good, but there are very few arterial west-east roads. I decided to head much further North than I had originally planned in order to avoid the chaos of small motorways which connect the German industrial and commercial nexus from Heidelberg to the Ruhr — a curtain of knotted junctions hanging down the west side of the country. I would have to change cars every few miles to cross that.
Whenever we stopped, he would meditate and I would approach the pressurised air and radiator water kiosks. I had ignored the ‘nicht Trinkwasser!’ signs since Zürich — an obvious economic ploy designed to dupe me into buying the bottled Evian in the station, rather than topping up with free tap Evian round the back. At one point I did blow a couple of euros on a slab of plain chocolate which I ate with the crab apples and, after a very near miss, I also decided to invest in a coffee.
Flooring it down an empty stretch of autobahn under the blazing sun, slumped forward with my chin resting on the steering wheel, my mind had wandered to every anecdote, person, or event which linked me in any slight way to this new country — a process which served a deeper purpose than to keep me awake. As a young child in prep school, I developed a trick in order never to feel as if I were away from home: I used to check that the stellar constellations were the same from my dormitory window as they were from my own bedroom. Over time, the process of creating familiar connections became broader, habitual and automatic. This is how, while dozing off somewhere near Kassel, I suddenly heard a voice in my head.
“Nein! Hang on… B-flat is less important. We need G more, for the Wagner…” I was standing outside Florence’s Santa Maria Novella railway station with the Kassel Youth Symphony Orchestra, lining kettle drums up along the pavement in order of their importance to a concert which was due to start in fifteen minutes on the other side of town. Some of these instruments were not going to make it in time. The orchestra spoke no Italian, so they had asked me to telephone for taxis which might be large enough to accommodate the drums. They had come down to Florence without any grown-ups, under the supervision of their lead violinist — a slightly Hebraic looking 19-year-old who stood like a Piero della Francesca countess among the rabble. The blokes in the brass section probably vied to ensure that her every softly spoken instruction was executed to the letter, but their situation still did not inspire confidence.
When at last we reached the Church — St. Marks in Via Maggio — the chaos gradually abated until the only sound under the vaulted Pre-Raphaelite ceiling was the rustling of programs. The first item printed was ‘Das Rheingold – Vorspiel.’ The conductor raised his baton, drawing a slow arc under the dim Venetian lanterns. A subtle convolution went through the Baroque scrolls. Only then, with that concurrent movement, did I realise what this orchestra really was. I felt myself melt, wonderstruck, into my seat as the yawning, fluvial, E-flat harmonic cycles climbed and rocked and climbed. It was a sound that inspired both awe and envy. If I were to rate Christendom’s aesthetic achievements in order of beauty, I would have to put the Kassel Jugendsinfonieorchester’s rendition of the Rheingold overture pretty near the top — just behind the image of the Madonna and Child and certainly well above Giotto’s ‘Last Supper.’ That sound, belonging to them and their country, describes a love affair whose beauty surpasses that of many cities flattened in its name; a spiritual yearning. I belong to a country with a half-baked concept of nationalist romanticism — and there is no feeling worse than being excluded from a prayer.
They left, shouldering their instruments and filing out into the narrow street — blundering, shouting and crashing their way back across the city with all the elegance of a forsaken cavalry detachment retreating from Stalingrad.
Suddenly the car roared as we hit the hard shoulder and I jolted awake, veering back on to the autobahn, the distant echo of Rheingold still ringing in my ears. It’s much easier to set out on a journey like this if, really, you are already at home.
My host suggested that I travel all the way to Hamburg with him and attempt to find a boat from there to England, but I suspected that there would be more going from Holland, so we parted ways at Hannover, and here I ran into some difficulty.
It was the evening rush hour and I was standing on the Eastern edge of the city attempting to get West. At my junction I met a Dutch hitchhiker, Laurence, who was also trying to get to the Netherlands.
“Join me!” he offered. “It is better to suffer in a group!” Indeed it was. I held his big cardboard sign which simply said ‘WEST,’ and he shared his supper with me (“what kind of an asshole would I be if I ate in front of you!”), but as evening drew in, his enthusiasm waned slightly. Occasionally, his irate Danish girlfriend telephoned him and demanded he get the train to Amsterdam (apparently some people hitch hike for fun) and, gradually, he seemed to warm to the idea.
Eventually, we decided to cross the city and make a ditch effort to leave from the west. When the tram reached the Central railway station, however, he decided to call it a day. We said our goodbyes and he got off. Then, just as the tram doors were about to close, he turned round.
“Here, quick! have my sign, and my pen!” And that was the end of that. He would be in Amsterdam before me, I thought to myself. I was probably right — but only just. The sun was setting, but the day was not to end in disaster.
A little further on, I encountered a young girl hunched up in an underpass with a rug over her knees, a Styrofoam cup of coins and sign that read: ‘ICH HAB HUNGER,’ (she apparently hadn’t noticed the perfectly good source of protein wagging its tail right next to her). As she saw me approaching she looked up at me, eyes brimming. Just what I needed! I stooped politely to address her: “Excuse me, Madam, have you any spare change?” She did, but I wasn’t getting it. We should be taxing these people more.
I reached the western suburb of Jädekamp as the light began to fade. There was a tiny patch of woodland — a triangular depression between an industrial park, the petrol station and the motorway junction. It contained a stagnant black lake with an iridescent black film of oil and was overlooked by a drab ’60s tower block. The Royal Air Force had carried out an exceptionally passionate urban renewal project around here in the 1940s and nowadays Hannover it is very much the concrete world of the motorway — not of men, and not of nature. I simply could not camp here over night.
There were certain things I never did throughout the trip, because I knew it would demoralise me. One was to check the time. But I couldn’t help but notice that this was the time when my shadow was twice as long as I was tall; the point at which cars occasionally had their headlights on; the point at which hitchhikers probably don’t get picked up and are worried if they do. My spirits remained high, however because I knew that, even as my hopes of making any significant progress waned, it would be sufficient to get just a few miles out of town, to open fields. My situation would probably improve by nightfall.
My saviour was a Russian-born Bundeswehr special-ops soldier, Oleg, who was traveling back from his Girlfriend’s house in Hamburg in his shiny black BMW. He told me the story of his arrival in Germany as a small child, his experiences in Afghanistan and his ambition to join a provincial police force. I told him about my trip from Florence so far, as the last evening sun fell on the forested hills of North-Rhine Westphalia. He found my situation so funny that he even phoned one of his friends to tell him:
“Es is unglaublich! Ich hab’ jetzt ein junge Brittischer mann, und er hat extreme out-doors survival in Deutschland gemacht!”
I heard his friend roar with laughter on the other end of the line.
He dropped me at the junction to his home town, Bad Oeynhausen, and telling me how absolutely mad I was to attempt my trip, insisted that he buy me something to eat. I had never expected to get so far this late — and with extra food!
It was now about 9pm. I wanted to update people on my whereabouts, having promised to do so every twenty-four hours. I entered the court of the Burger King in search of a plug socket. The place was so utterly awful that they didn’t even notice me sitting there, charging my phone and eating my own food. If they threw a fit about it, I would have expressed my outrage that their restaurant (which, after all, evokes the grandeur of royalty), didn’t provide table service.
Across the road was an abandoned office building with an open window round the back. I found a dusty sofa on the second storey and dropped my bags among the chipped plaster and empty cans which littered the floor.
A thunder storm was brewing outside and, as I leant on the window sill and considered how lucky I was to have found a solid building to sleep in, I heard a thin buzz in the room. In my tiredness and hunger, I started to worry about the etymology of ‘Mosquito.’ I had always assumed that it was simply a diminutive of ‘Mosque,’ their wings imitating a very small imam’s call to prayer. But now I worried much more. Surely this couldn’t be right? I became so engrossed with this problem that it took me some time to notice two men attempting to bump-start their car, pushing it up and down the Burger King forecourt to no avail. Assuming that, once I had arrived on the Hanseatic coast, it would take most of a day to find a boat to cross the channel, I suddenly saw my opportunity to make it by daybreak and be in London by this time tomorrow. It was an optimistic thought for a penniless traveler holed up in Germany, but now I had run out of money it seemed sensible to travel whenever possible — and to hell with day and night! I grabbed my bags, crept back out of the building and crossed the road to greet the pair. For about fifteen minutes, we pushed the wretched car around, playing with which gear to use and so forth, but I could hear immediately that it wasn’t sparking, so I didn’t hold out much hope. Eventually a Bosnian lorry driver pulled in for water and decided to join us, just for a bit of late night entertainment. When eventually we failed, he offered me a ride with him instead. So, at about midnight, I was on the move once more.
I had loved every second of my time in Germany, but the country had one last treat in store for me. At about 1am, the heavens opened in the biggest electrical storm I think I have ever seen. I have seen thunder roll over the Ecuadorian cloud forests, I have been caught in Havana in the wet season, but this was something else. Great forks of lighting arched to the earth, illuminating the dark treetops silver, the wide cabin’s windscreen providing a wrap-around Imax panorama. The Bosnian was only going as far as Osnabrück but in an act of mercy, got on his radio to call the rest of his pack in western Germany. Truckies have a strange, slang-ridden vernacular and, although I don’t speak Bosnian, I understand Slavic languages just enough to know where the reference to myself fell in his sentences. I was called ‘Aristotle.’ I wondered if there were other hitchhiker demographics called ‘Picasso,’ or ‘Che’ or ‘Old Father Time.’ One by one, the answers buzzed back through heavy static, in an array of Slavic languages. It seemed that the plea had been translated by someone to the north and relayed again in Russian. Within about fifteen minutes, our radio-proxy (my invisible benefactor!) confirmed that there was a lorry from Moscow going west, about ten miles behind us. The Bosnian pulled up in a siding and we waited, listening to the steady hiss of rain on the roof. Eventually, the headlights of a second approaching lorry reflected in the mirrors and, breaks howling, it thundered to a halt on asphalt ahead.
“That’s him!” exclaimed the Bosnian. “Go! Go! Quick!” I climbed down from the cabin and ran through the deluge towards the red lights about a hundred yards ahead. It was less like a Cold War spy swap than a hot one. Before I had reached the second lorry, the first had accelerated back onto the Autobahn — so if this was not my lift, I would be standing alone on the hard-shoulder of a Central European motorway, in a forest, with no phone or money, during a deluge, wearing a linen suit, at 2:00am. I had only once been more vulnerable — when I fell asleep on a commuter train outside Budapest and woke up, without any papers, in the Ukraine.
Jumping up in to the cabin of the Russian lorry, my eyes met the driver’s furious stare. He didn’t look happy to have a passenger at all, and I immediately christened him ‘Grumpy.’ In fact, this was his happy face. Grumpy’s cabin was his home. It was very neat — the domain of an older man. He wore a wedding ring. His cigarette glowed the same red as the dials arrayed before him, and the ancient radio readout suspended from the ceiling, which buzzed and hissed with every thunderclap. It was rather like being on the bridge of a submarine and the captain had great style — though he probably didn’t realise it. A pinched, haggard face, swept-back widow’s peak, eyes which spoke of utter fury and an RAF moustache. Radio Ahaus was playing 1950s- 70s pop hits, translated into German, French and other, Slavic, languages.
“Amsterdam?” I ventured.
“Spacebo!” I said, nodding enthusiastically. If he had said he was going to Bucharest I would have taken the lift. The alternative was to stand in a rainstorm.
We pulled out and I fell asleep immediately to Mamas and Papas in Polish.
THE LOW COUNTRIES
Occasionally I woke. I remember once, passing an overhead sign which read ‘AMSTERDAM (200km) and, later: ‘BRUSSELS (100km).’ Later again, I looked at my host, who was swigging from a massive thermos of God-knows-whatever maintained his hawkish gaze down the road ahead when nature most certainly intended him to be fast asleep.
At about 6:00am, we stopped in a muddy lay-by for breakfast. It was drizzling slightly as Grumpy made coffee. He balanced a camping gas hob precariously on the 500l offside fuel tank, lit it, lit our cigarettes from it, and started to boil up a pewter bowl of water. We stood in the cold Hanseatic mist, attempting a little communication in Russian, but his German was better than my Russian — and whenever I successfully communicated something in his language, he would proudly repeat it in Kraut.
He put me out just before the French border, near to Lille and I saw the first morning Eurostar from London to Brussels rocket past. I used to sit on that train, in my suit with my Blackberry, and sometimes I’d look out of the window. It amused me to think I was now a part of that dreary, grey landscape.
The service station where Grumpy had dropped me must be a hitchhiking hot spot, because there were already two other people there with their signs that read ‘BERLIN – PARIS,’ and ‘AMSTERDAM – LONDON.’ I never really immersed myself in the world of hitchhikers — they don’t cut a good image — but there exists an unspoken hierarchy among the demographic who relish being in the shit, and one starts to look down on people who are in less shit than oneself. My trouser creases were getting a little shabby, but I could still pull rank with this lot. Digging into my suitcase, I pulled out Laurence’s pen and sign and wrote ‘FIRENZE – LONDON’ on the converse. Even before I had raised it, however, a black man in a van had pulled up and opened the door. He was going directly to Calais.
I had crossed the Italian Republic, the Swiss Confederation, the Federal Republic of Germany, the kingdoms of the Netherlands and of Belgium. It seemed I had no option now but to pass through a small corner of the entity of France. I do not exaggerate when I say that I speak more Hungarian than I do French, but almost as soon as the Belgian border faded into the distance behind us, we started passing signs with pictograms of cars driving on to boats and trains. A great excitement rose within me. Eventually, at the crest of a small hillock, I saw a wonderful sight: The port was laid out below us, with barbed wire fences, floodlights, cranes and loading towers. Row upon row of marshalling lanes lead cars up to engorge the white ferries, whose towering exhausts sent wisps of black smoke up into the summer air. Far ahead, a bright white margin divided the sea and sky: the White Cliffs of Dover.
I walked into the booking offices to establish which companies charged by the vehicle and which charged by the passenger. Only one operated on the latter basis. I watched one of their customers return to his car — a big black Audi with Slovakian number plates. I had reckoned upon having to ask about fifty people before I got a welcome and this man seemed a little hesitant — as he said it was his friend’s car, but I didn’t ask anyone else. I knew that, when the friend returned, that this would be the car that would take me back to England. I wandered around for ten minutes to take in the view of the distant cliffs through the chicken wire and across the water. Hitler had stood here and dreamed about getting across. Where the entire Wehrmacht had failed for half a decade, I would succeed in half an hour. I simply knew it: I was better than Adolf Hitler.
Presently, the Slovaks beckoned me over, and then I knew for certain that I would sleep in a bed that night. Soon, the afternoon sun beat down on the iron deck, where I sat against a bulkead in my short sleeves. Everyone on board seemed exceptionally happy as they drank draught beer and cider. Children waved at the smaller boats which roared past, their white hulls and orange fenders punching through the deep aquamarine, sending clouds of spray up from their boughs. Ahead, the chalk cliffs got brighter and taller.
An officer of HMRC scowled at the traffic as we filed through corrugated sheds to have our passports checked at the port of Dover. It was then, as I removed said document from its cover that a British £10 fluttered out. I was richer than I thought! I offered it to the Slovaks in lieu of part payment for their crossing in which I had been a one-third beneficiary – even if not a financial burden. They wouldn’t hear of it.
“I don’t care if you’re a millionaire. You’re keeping your tenner and that’s final!”
They dropped me at Guildford — and it was here in the Home Counties commuter belt, that I encountered my first serious crisis of the trip. By this stage I had been on the move for four days and covered 2000kms across seven territories with comparative ease. But nothing could have prepared me for the British. My own people were, I discovered, the only people who would not only refuse to offer an apologetic shrug as they drove by in their large empty cars, but would actually make obscene gestures at me as they went. Perversely, I felt an intense pride in their delinquent behavior. It really is true: the English channel is an ocean and, as the light began to fade, a fourth night under the sky seemed on the cards — just thirty miles from London. Slowly, I walked backwards, my arm out, all the way into Guildford and was eventually picked up by an Indian woman who, as luck would have it, was going past the railway station. I presented myself at the ticket booth with my tenner and asked to go to London.
“Fifteen quid, mate, sorry.”
“Do you take any foreign currencies?”
“Um, I can do… I think… what’ve you got?”
I counted what I had left out of my suitcase and onto his desk: two euros, two Swiss francs and a Danish krone (I know — what the hell?).
“Nah, you’re still a quid short mate. Anything else?” he asked, beginning to see something amusing about my situation. I gave him Oleg’s remaining Swiss chocolate bar and, to my utter amazement, he passed back a ticket that he must have paid for himself. The sun was setting as I changed at Clapham Junction and took a suburban commuter train back towards Chiswick, hopping off at Barnes Bridge and crossing the river on foot.
As I walked back along the Thames towards Chiswick Mall, I realised that this bizarre act of mercy was as British a phenomenon as the two fingers I had received from several drivers back at Guildford. I’d been out of the country for at least six months and seen the best and worst of it within six hours of landfall. I felt a strong attraction to both. We nationalists must admit that we can’t have our nation a la carte.
At about 21:00, I approached the house — the old stones and the smell of the river: home. Pulling out my old set of keys, I crossed the threshold of our Swedish-style hallway. Grandma had left a note out for me: ‘Alexander, hope you had a nice flight. If you’re hungry, there’s food in the fridge.’ I have that to come back to. It is unlikely that anyone else I had encountered on the trip does (well, maybe Gunther and Rolf).
Once I was clean and fed, I opened my window to the night air and watched the top of the vast mulberry tree sway in the breeze outside. Just before I closed my eyes, I thought about Grumpy, who at that moment was probably splashing his face with cold water from a bucket, and setting off back to Moscow from a gloomy depot in a suburb of Paris. It would be deeply hypocritical to take a scrap of admiration for my poverty — the simple result of my own mismanagement.
Out there, beyond the mulberry and the river, across the empire of the blue flag, over the forests, plains and mountain passes, the Grumpys of Europe would be eating from ramshackle camp stoves, fixing their engines, swapping coffee and tobacco with their wrenches, screw drivers and engine parts laid out on greasy tarpaulins – their potatoes and paprika and their bizarre vernacular crackling over the ether. I can never truly hope to attain their dauntingly glamorous isolation. They truly know what it is to be a speck upon the ocean — which might explain why they were so helpful to a stranger. In accepting their hospitality, I was reaping from an environment in which I do not sow and it was really very funny — of course it was — but completely unjustifiable unless, perhaps, I can make some link between their world and my own. Those were my last thoughts as I put out my bedside light and watched the moonlight, reflected in the Thames, ripple across the ceiling of my bedroom.