The summer after I graduated college I embarked on a backpacking trip around Europe and the UK: Five countries with two of my best girlfriends, a week with an ex-fling, a few weeks alone, and a week with Matt, my close friend brother-type with whom I share an astrological fire sign and many years of growing up. Up until meeting Matt in Paris, where he was interning at a photography studio, I had marveled at many wonders already: the antiquity of the Berlin Wall, the sudden loss of modesty while disrobing on a Crete beach, surfing in the North Sea, feeling far too many feelings and other people’s breath in the Sistine Chapel, the list goes on. All my adventures had been somewhat planned and safely executed, not necessarily characteristic of my personality. I was ready for fear, pain, or some sort of high. Taking risks while abroad really does help intensify the experience.
After a few days in Paris, I had exhausted my feet at the Louvre, had laid flat on the sandy gravel underneath the Eiffel Tower for hours, photographing and consuming the accents, feeling as an ant might. I had also bicycled very scary Parisian streets- -it seemed the drivers knew I was American and wanted to throttle my nerves. One evening while gobbling down delicious Indian food (best-tasting bargain in Paris), Matt didn’t even try to broach the subject; he told me we would be hitchhiking to Barcelona and that I had no option but to join him.
I didn’t hesitate much, my U-Rail pass was waning and this was the kind of thing people make documentaries about. We set off, each with a small backpack, to the unofficial hitchers “depot” in Paris right near the highways leading elsewhere. Two Eastern European girls were nervously scanning every car, one thumb up each, bandanas blowing in the afternoon breeze. A scruffy Parisian man seemed at his leisure- -perhaps a monthly activity he enacted upon. A young backpacker guy seemed a bit desperate to get on the road, possibly fleeing the girl who stalked him since that hostel in Rome. It was Every Man for Himself. I was clad in a tight long burgundy dress, comfortable yet slightly sexy. Matt’s bush growing on his chin and cheeks suited him. We were a good pair with his pretty up-to-par French skills and my blonde locks and cheery, American accent. Our goal was to arrive in Nantes that night, as we had a place to stay.
After what may have been the duration of Pride & Prejudice, we were picked up for a ride. We exchanged courteous small talk and smiles and headed south towards Bordeaux. While we were rounding some particularly beautiful tree-lines roads, he suddenly demanded we exit his vehicle. Surprised, as we had not done anything to offend him, unless he was offended by a smile given to a rear-view mirror glance, we reluctantly got out as he pulled over, tumbling out of the car as he sped off. Flummoxed, we hiked a little in the forested area towards south. Not too many cars were passing. Luck didn’t seem to be smiling at us so far.
The next thing we knew, a giant van that looked like it did construction pulled over and men barked at us in French to get in the back. Our eyes grew two sizes as Matt asked questions. Apparently it was illegal to hitch on the sides of roads; legal depots were gas stations and tollbooths. We obliged and plopped onto the floor, surrounded by bright orange cones. We drove for some time, rumbling with the cones, shaking our heads at each other while both giggling and grinding the molars of our teeth. The smell of clean plastic was abundant as our bums bounced. We were left at a gas station after warm merci boucoups; they had saved us. Luck had begun tap dancing at the corners of the country.
Along came truckers. One of us would cram into “cab” sections directly behind the driver where you can’t sit it’s so small so either of us would curl up in the fetal position, under a tarp, as this, too, was illegal. The other would sit shotgun and sometimes try and converse with the driver, who would most of the time be smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, hopefully with a window ajar. Truckers never really spoke much, just enjoyed the variation in their day of commuting. I would practice my tumbling French but mostly make gestures at good songs on the radio or interesting hay piles or sunflower fields we passed. I believe we brought forty thousand tomatoes to a small town closer to our destination for that night.
After arriving in Nantes past midnight, the last ride being a discomforting misogynist whom I stopped conversing with after I felt guilty for the ninth time we had elected Bush, we found a friend of Matt’s- Sylvie- and her apartment; falling into her world with appreciation. As the fastest of moving clouds containing cargos of compassion, we let her feed us bread and cheese and apples. We let her serenade us her latest folk song with her guitar. We allowed ourselves to wash our own feet however, Sylvie the Savoir probably would have.
After a couple more chain-smoking truck drivers who spoke not a vowel of English, an eager young man whose wireless internet astonishingly worked in the southwestern fields of Not a Sign In Fifty Kilometres, the congenial mother who was interested in our whereabouts and American pop culture, and the slightly intoxicated couples’ live-in-hippy-van (it was so comfortable in the tapestry-draped sleeping area that we chose to not notice the shifty driving skills), we arrived in Barcelona. And although we slept on disgruntled hardwood floors in a small apartment while smells of urine, trash and tobacco continually wafted in the always open window, we were so damned content. Relief and appreciation stretched their limbs towards what we felt, relying on others’ hospitality once again.
Barcelona was eclectic, beautiful, and strange. Children ran about at three a.m. with not a parent in sight; bagpipers were everywhere, taking shifts between smoking grass and playing their pipes. Sangria was awful; Catholics and Gays got along copacetically. Sculptures of horses were climbable and my Spanish translated into Catalan dialect. So many shades of inspiration for novels, films and paintings. The antiquity and heart of the city had a way of keeping all the noise and parties at a certain ease. I loved everything about it but mostly, I will always treasure standing in the hailing rain, cardboard sign above my head, rickety thumb pointing north, determined to go south.