My first time hitchhiking was quick and easy. On paper at least. Antwerp to Amsterdam, a short blast along the highway of 150 kilometres. But as I would quickly learn, hitchhiking was rarely straightforward.
I stood at the highway onramp, clutching the sign made by Lore, who’d painstakingly drawn “AMSTERDAM” on it the night before. Then I waited. And waited. And waited and waited. Two hours passed. I was ready to give up when a white van stopped and threw open its door.
And so my hitchhiking adventures began, an odyssey that would take me across Europe, into the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union.
Eddie was the van’s driver, a messy vehicle crammed full of painting supplies. As we chatted, it dawned on me that the hitchhiker’s role is to sit and listen. On this occasion, Eddie told me all about Antwerp’s red light district, “you should go there man!”
I simply laughed and nodded, the first of many times I’d do this while listening to a driver’s racist or politically incorrect views, a quasi-hostage in the conversation.
Eddie deposited me at the Dutch border, where I anticipated another torturous wait. But five minutes later I was in a car with a chap called Rodrick, on his way home to Utrecht after cycling in the French Alps.
Like me, Rodrick had studied history. He told me about a documentary he’d made where he’d interviewed children of Nazi collaborators who’d endured terrible lives all because of their parents’ crimes.
Rodrick dropped me at a service station, where I caught a ride with a businessman the rest of the way to Amsterdam. My time in the Dutch capital came and went, with Munster in west Germany my next destination.
My hitchhiking attempt started early on a Friday morning. Rodrick had offered me a lift to the German border if I could meet him in Utrecht. So after standing in the Amsterdam rain for an hour, I was picked up by Stijn, a guy in his thirties.
“I used to be a wanderer too,” he told me, “I never expected to get married and have children, but I did, and now I’m so happy.” Stijn made a detour to drop me off in central Utrecht, a beautiful city with a towering Gothic bell tower.
I met Rodrick at Utrecht’s main station, and then he took me as far as Enschede. I was so grateful for this help, and was sad to see him go. After two hours of standing in the pouring rain I found my next ride with a Syrian man in a red hatch-back.
We didn’t go far. My lasting memory of this interaction is the vehicle stopped in the outside lane of the autobahn, the driver blathering about Aramaic while lorries swerved around us. I cut the conversation short by saying thank you and jumping out of the car, afraid for my life.
I spent the next hour traipsing through the German countryside, as I’d hopped out in an area with little traffic passing through. By some miracle I was collected by an electrician who picked me up in his battered van. He spoke little English, but all was going well, right up until he took an abrupt diversion off the autobahn.
We drove through a picturesque village, before turning down a driveway and stopping at a large shed, a black Audi parked outside. “Oh Christ,” I thought to myself.
The electrician looked at me and smiled, “change car,” he said. There was nothing sinister about it. We were soon bombing along in his Audi as he went to visit his Aunt. “There’s my sister,” he yelled excitedly, waving at a car going the opposite direction.
I got out in Coesfeld, where I was picked up by an older fellow in a Porsche Cayenne. He took it up to 180 kph while rattling off the demographics, GDP and m2 values of the surrounding villages in his strong German accent. It was wonderfully clichéd.
But I didn’t mind. Eleven hours after leaving Amsterdam, I finally arrived in Munster. It would be another month before I hitchhiked again — this time through Sweden.