I never thought I’d attempt hitchhiking. It seemed too Kerouac, and I’ve always been a Fitzgerald. Besides, growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, transportation was never an issue. We practically lived in our cars, eating breakfast, lunch, and sometimes a quick, one-handed dinner behind the wheel, stalled in bumper to bumper traffic on the 405. Still, after eight months in Europe, I was thinking of trying it. Over group dinners, tumbleweed friends told their wild stories of hitching from Paris to Berlin, from Munich to Vienna, from Istanbul to Greece. If travel was free, I could see the world…
I never thought I’d say it, but after six months without so much as visiting the banlieues, Paris had become claustrophobic. Perhaps the small circles of the literary anglophone community had more to do with this than the city itself, but I began to feel the need to leave. Just for a weekend, a day.
The thought itself was sacrilege. Even as I heard myself saying the words in passing, tone tense, and raking a hand through my hair in frustration, part of me remained confused. Paris was thrilling! Architecturally stimulating! The language was a code I was halfway to cracking! Why would I want to a vacation from my home?
Ah. There it is. Home. Paris was my dream, but now it is my everyday reality. While this in itself is an amazing thing, sometimes you get sick of reality and routine no matter where you choose to live. This stir-crazy feeling persisted, increasing, until I woke every morning with feet itching to run, run away, run anywhere.
This brought me to the side of the road, one rainy February morning, with my thumb out. At first I smiled, a wide Americana grin that I thought made me seem wholesome–apple pie and baseball games, watermelon slices and peter pan collars. I quickly realized this was the fastest way to alienate the French. As a waitress, I’d already fielded criticism of my “alarming” tendency to smile too much. If the Parisians were unsettled by their waitress grinning as she served their lunch, they were certainly not going to let a smiling stranger into their car. As the rain began bucketing down, I changed my tack entirely. I was cold. I was wet. My toes were going numb, and I had serious concerns about the health of the paperback novel I’d tucked into one of the outside pockets of my backpack. I let my despair show plainly on my face.
After two hours standing alongside the on-ramp to the Périphérique, I was finally ensconced within the warmth of a beat-up sedan speeding past the city limits. The driver informed me that he was driving to Rotterdam for a party, and could easily drop me off in Brussels on the way. Even the sensation of driving was comfortingly familiar. Rather than the stop and go of taking the bus within the city limits, I relished our pace. We sped along unencumbered, rocketing down the highway to a soundtrack of harsh German techno.
The journey home was more complicated, yet I made good time. In four hours, I’d traveled the 307 kilometers back to Paris in four different cars. I discussed Magritte with a middle-aged business man, Belgian beer and learning French with a woman in her sixties. I dodged talking U.S. politics with a salesman, and pondered the Skull and Bones Society with a French hippie.
It’s an interesting experience to drive long distances with strangers. Some want to talk with you. Others want to talk at you. I imagined their lives based on the contents of their cars. Rubber rain boots crusted with mud, dog leashes and combs, old fast-food wrappers, and stacks of folders hint at a life beyond the journey you’re taking together. Their trust and generosity was touching. They were sharing not only their cars, but often their food and their stories. It was like living within a Post-Secret card, if only for 60 kilometers or so.
Perhaps the golden era of the hitchhiker is long behind us. I cannot claim to be entirely without fear. As a young woman, hitchhiking is tainted by possible rape and kidnapping. I did my research. Reading about Robert Ben Rhoades almost talked me into permanently shelving hitchhiking as a nostalgic Beat Generation dream. Maybe it was the threat of danger that lent hitchhiking its thrill, but I was still willing to give it a shot.
Now, nestled into my tiny attic apartment, I feel a certain sense of satisfaction and accomplishment. Adventure continues to beckon, but when you live in Paris, there’s no place like home.