We were 18 years old, my buddy Thomas and I, and during the summer holidays we had nothing to do and too much time on our hands. Our budget was almost non-existent and beers and cigarettes were expensive, in Belgium anyway. We came up with a plan: the next morning we stood at the access ramp of the Antwerp ring road, in order to hitchhike towards Germany. Our goal? To buy cheap cigarettes in the Czech Republic. We spent the night in the house of anarchists, we were robbed, we were passengers on a horse tram and we met the nicest people. On The Road like Kerouac, but in Germany.
We had put on a scouting uniform, we hoped that this small form of fraud would make it easier for us to hitch a ride. In our backpack we put some clothes, a road atlas (smartphones didn’t exist yet), a cooking fire, cutlery, a game, laundry and a tent. It’s all and more than one needs on a road trip. We also had a digital camera and mobile phones, but they wouldn’t make it to the end of the journey.
Hitchhiking, for those who have never done it before, is an emotional roller coaster: there’s the feeling of despair when you’ve been shivering for two hours in the cold and then there’s the pure joy when a car stops. When you are hitchhiking, you only meet sympathetic people; the assholes don’t pull over, so you won’t have to see eye to eye with them. But the heroes who pick you up always have stories to tell. The amazing people who offer you a ride at dusk are the people who will help you find a place to sleep. One of these people were a nice German couple, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Our first ride was a horse-drawn carriage. The coachman took us to a better access ramp, where we were picked up by a young mother who transported us to Geel. We pulled our cooking stove from our backpacks and started cooking ravioli from cans in the grass in front of an industrial estate. A tin food meal tastes epic when you heat it up during a great adventure. We were 18 years old and we had never felt so grown up.
Another ride took us to Liège, where we were picked up by a chubby German couple who, while they were eating an ice cream, let their parental feelings speak. We were allowed to set up our tent in their garden in Prüm, and we met the son of the house: Speckie.
Speckie’s nickname had been given to him by his friends. He had inherited the genes from his parents: the poor boy was not gifted with a narrow body size. Together with his friends we gathered under a big shelter and drank some pints, then we went to the local café. Unexpected evenings and unfamiliar destinations: hitchhiking is a wonderful experience.
Using our backpack as a pillow while we were lying in the loading area of a pick-up truck, we enjoyed the freedom and the sun. In Gerolstein, a businessman with a jaguar picked us up. We drove through half of Germany, took a short ride in an empty coach and ended up in Nuremberg.
It was raining. It was cold. We were in a bad place. We had been keeping up our thumb for two and a half hours. Our morale was low. Lights were being turned on in the desolate skyscrapers as darkness descended. We drove out hunger with a McDonald’s hamburger, a haute-cuisine campingaz-meal on the side of the road wasn’t possible with this weather.
I forgot his name, but let’s call him Fritz. Fritz was a young and trendy guy. He felt sorry for us and picked us up. “Where do you sleep tonight?” He asked. This was our chance: “Ehm, we haven’t really thought about that yet. We will set up our tent in the rain.” Fritz replied: “Wait, I’ll call my parents.” One hour later we had an entire cellar studio at our disposal. In times of despair, the sympathetic people are always there to help poor souls.
We were overconfident. A week to hitchhike all the way to the Czech Republic and back to Belgium is not enough. We realised this about 70km from the Czech border. On Friday night we had to be in Belgium: unfortunately, planned activities were given priority and we had to go back to our place of birth.
From a car on the motorway we stared at the strange eastern European skyscrapers. The beautiful green Germany was occasionally interrupted by socialist industry. The Wall had fallen 16 years ago, but the influence of years of poverty and communism cannot easily be erased from the landscape. Later it became clear to us that not only the landscape, but the people too still carried the past with them.
Erfurt, former GDR. We made a spaghetti-based meal on the parking lot of the Aldi where we bought our ingredients. On a bench at the bus stop we drank our cheap sangria. The desolate town didn’t have much to offer, but we still felt free and happy.
The local youth in Erfurt were divided into two groups: the neo-Nazis and the left-wing anarchists. I’m not a fan of Nazis, so when the anarchist youngsters asked us if we were going to sit with them at the bus stop (their meeting place), we didn’t hesitate for long. It was fun: some friendly guys and girls shared cans of beer and other alcohol. We talked about the present, the past, the difference between Germany and Belgium, the East and the West. It was a diverse group and we should have known then that not all of them could be trusted, but naivety can only be resolved by experiencing stuff.
It was late and we wanted to set up our tent in the park. The group did not agree and we were taken to the apartment of one of the punks. We spent the night with a ridiculous amount of people in the small apartment, which was an example of sad GDR architecture.
Wednesday – Morning
Guten Morgen, wie kan Ich Ihnen helfen?
The police station reminded me of a Stasi prison, but the voice on the other side of the intercom was surprisingly friendly.
“We are Tourists, everything was stolen from us.”
The buzzer buzzed and we were let in. The older agents did not speak English, they had only learned German and Russian at school in the GDR. My German was not exactly perfect. We were instructed to wait for an interpreter. Thomas cursed again, and I shrugged my shoulders.
We were questioned separately. Calmly, I told our story. About how we were hitchhiking through Germany in search of cheap cigarettes, about how we had drunk a few pints the night before with the local youth, about how we found a place to sleep at the flat of one of those guests. I told him that there were a lot of people in that apartment. That we woke up in the morning without a camera, without mobile phones, without money in our wallet. Fortunately, they had not stolen our bank card and id-card.
“Were there drugs present?” – “I don’t know, I certainly have not used any.”
“Why do you stay with strangers?” – “We are young and broke and they seemed to be nice people. We did not know what would happen.”
“What was the address?” I gave him the paper on which we had written the address.
“Dude, these are not petty thiefs. We have already found a lot of illegal things at that address.”
In a strange way, I found it amusing to experience such an adventure; I thought I was a film star, but Thomas found no pleasure our preficament. It was his camera that was stolen and he wanted to go home, but no rides presented themselves. For some strange reason the locals didn’t trust young people. We stood on the side of the road for two hours and my mood had also dropped to a low point. We gave up and went to the train station.
Wednesday – Afternoon
The last 80 euros on our account went to the train tickets. The train was not going to take us to Belgium, that was too expensive, but Frankfurt was just within budget. We didn’t know what to do in Frankfurt; we didn’t have any money left for an overnight stay and setting up a tent in such a big city wouldn’t be appreciated. It was ironic: two depressed kids in a train who only two days before were on top of the world. In reality, travelling around the world as a bohemian turned out to be a lot more difficult than expected.
We started talking to Victoria. She was a 20-year-old girl who studied in Frankfurt and shared a studio with her boyfriend. She was a vegetarian (“I don’t eat jelly beans either, they’re made from bones”) and she only ever ate eggs from ‘happy chickens’. For the umpteenth time on this journey, someone felt sorry for us. Victoria took us home with her on the S-Bahn, introduced us to her boyfriend and cooked us a delicious vegetarian meal. The hot shower was blissful, and the homely feeling and generosity made us forget the misery of the morning.
Victoria was fantastic. She arranged a ride to Prüm (Speckie’s village) through mitfahrzentrale (the German nillies-equivalent of BlaBlaCar), borrowed us money to eat something and pay for the ride and showed us the city. It is indescribable how fantastic people can be towards strangers. We said goodbye, wrote down her bank account number and promised to pay her back.
The Volkswagen van that transported us had a fine crew: two young hippies, one accountancy student and two robbed Belgians. The hippie couple were on their way to Barcelona and to save money they took other travellers with them. When we told the story of what we had experienced the week before, we received astonishment and amazement, and secretly we were proud.
“Drug control!” The policeman talked through the lowered window on the highway rest stop. We were taken apart, the driver had to undergo a urine test.
“Belgians? What are you doing in this German car?” – “We are hitchhiking through Europe.”
“Do you have drugs with you? Cannabis?” – “No, Sir, we are two innocent Belgians. We would never dare to do that. Bring your sniffing dogs if you don’t believe us!We’re just trying to get home tonight.”
Our driver came back with a sad face, his urine came back positive. The night before, he had smoked a joint. Quietly, the officers started talking among themselves. The situation did not look good. Would we be stranded on a German Rastplatz? An agent came to us.
“In principle, we should forbid you to drive, but you have hitchhikers who want to get home, so you can leave. It is possible that you will be fined later on.” We drove away, towards freedom and the setting sun. Our hippie driver opened his glove box and showed the huge bag of marijuana in it: “Luckily, they didn’t bring any dogs!”
We woke up in the tent in Speckie’s garden. It was no problem to spend the night there, it seems hospitality is a trait of the inhabitants of the Eiffel. We had gone to a free village festival with Speckie’s friends and it hadn’t been an early night.
We had eggs for breakfast, and my dear father, who we had called the day before using a telephone box, arrived to pick us up. In the end, we had a weekend with friends planned starting that the evening. In the car we told about our adventures, our setbacks and the good moments. We passed by a bank to wire the money we had borrowed from Victoria back to her and left for the Ardennes.
13 years later
I still think back with warm feelings to that one week. Everything went wrong, and everything went right. I occasionally think of this lyric I once heard: “We were young, and the world, it belonged to us”.