The best way to begin to tell this story is from its ending, with a broken rule.
Emma and I have split up, something which we promised never to do. As is often the case, taking a journey has helped us to undo our own convictions. It is too easy to remain stubborn in our own views; too easy to distrust strangers and cross our own borders in their company in these times of fear, hate and xenophobia.
We had been repeatedly warned off of hitchhiking in the current political climate, repeatedly warned that we will be harmed by immigrants, refugees and migrants, with all of these terms being used as catch-alls, interchangably and with no distinction in their meaning. What we have been warned of is the other: the other people who will harm us, who will block our way, who will hinder our progress.
And with shame I admit to buying into these fears, to propagating them even, to the extent that I suggested to Emma at the beginning of this trip that we should not cross the channel to Calais- to the Jungle- but to Dunkirk. Over the course of the next few weeks, as we hitchhiked from London to Bulgaria, I would find my own fears and preconceptions challenged and undone, as is so often the case when I actually travel to places.
But now to the end, with the broken rule.
We had awoken that morning at a service station in Croatia, about 80 kilometres from Zagreb. The previous day we had seen the first evidence of the refugee crisis: a roadside motel repurposed as a temporary base for families fleeing war in Syria. It was about 30 kilometres from the Serbian/Croatian border. Our driver, a Slovenian trucker, had dropped us off three km from the border, instructing us not to trust Turkish drivers.
“They are fucking mental. They are dangerous drivers. Do not get in with them.” He said, mirroring sentiments shared by a number of other people we had encountered on this trip.
We walked the three kilometres to the border, along a queue of truck drivers waiting to pass through their controls- a wait that we would later find out to take about nine hours. As we trudged alongside the stationary trucks we hopscotched around the roadside detritus of truckers left to wait, day after day, year after year: plastic bottles, animal bones, toilet paper, human shit. Despite all of this, it was clearly a well-trodden path which many people had recently taken by foot. Cut fences and trampled grass showed the signs of mass movement toward the border.
At the border checks we queued behind the cars, there being no area for pedestrian crossings between the countries.
“Where have you come from?” Asked the Croatian police official at their side of the border.
“And how did you get here?” She eyed us with disgust.
“Well, you cannot hitchhike here, you’ll have to walk far down the road.”
A little way down the road a sign informed us that we could not walk any further, so we stuck out our thumbs. Within about thirty seconds an eldery man stopped to pick us up.
“You’re not Syrian?” He asked.
“You have your papers?”
Despite his concerns and questions he had already begun driving. Repeatedly over the course of this trip we would find ourselves turning from people of suspicion- possible immigrants- to English guests. In fact it happened almost immediately after the man dropped us off. He left us in a terrible hitchhiking spot at the opening of the road into a true motorway.
“There’s a motel a kilometre up the road, you can hitch from there.”
We were nervous. We could see an armed Creation border guard on a bridge just behind us, and loudly rushing traffic headed west. But this was not safe. A flashy black car with Zagreb plates pulled promptly off a slip road and stopped a few meters in front of us. As we approached I held up our Zagreb sign. We needed to get away from where we were. The passenger left the car. He was a young man with close-cropped hair and wearing pretty run-of-the-mill casual clothing. A black jacket and light coloured tee-shirt with a generic print, beige chinos and brown sneakers. Standard issue non-uniformed police.
He flashed us his badge and asked what we were doing here. His boss sat sternly in the car, not looking at us. We explained our situation and he asked to see our documents. Throughout the exchange he was courteous but very serious. We were being viewed as potential illegals. But as soon as he saw our British passports we became guests in their country and they drove us up the road at illegal speed to the nearest service station.
From there we were picked up quickly by a man on his way from a football match in Bosnia, travelling back to Switzerland. We passed the journey quietly. Freddy dropped us off at another service station where we decided to pitch our tent. Exhausted, we quickly fell into a deep sleep. About two hours later someone started to unzip our tent.
“Police,” called a flat, stern voice. “Police.”
After asking if they spoke English we apologised, crawled out of our warm sleeping bags and stumbled out into the frigid evening. A mist had enveloped the service station. The tall floodlights illuminating the mist, the hulking trucks barely visible, the stillness, all gave the place a feeling of a settlement on some other world. One of the policeman showed us his badge.
“We’re hitchhiking.” Emma said.
“Yes, we saw your sign.” We’d accidentally left our “Ljubljana” sign outside the tent. “And we’ll need to see your documents, please.”
We handed them over. One of the officers quietly flicked through their pages. I wondered what you can really tell from the destinations someone has travelled to.
“You’ll need to wait here. We’re going to check your documents. We will take them to the car and you must wait here. Do not move.”
I often feel uncomfortable when I’m separated from my passport. And I often, out of years of anxious habit, reduce every situation, in my mind, to the worst possible outcome. If they drove off, we’d be fucked. As we waited in the cold I thought about the privilege of a British passport- an EU passport. I wondered how many people the police stopped with non-EU passports, with no passports at all. I wondered how many other people from other places these police had stopped at this place as they tried to pass to where they wanted to be, away from where they didn’t. People who would have felt the cold as keenly as us then, who would have cast shadows the same as we did then, who would function exactly as we all do: blood and bones, worries, hopes. I felt worried and I hoped they’d not move us on. It would be a pain in the ass to have to hitch at that time of night, in that kind of cold.
“We’ll be fine.” Emma said, catching my feelings.
One of the officers came back over, handed over our passports and wished us a good night.
I lay awake a while longer, struggling to get warm after that wait in the cold. I was so relieved to have not been told to pack up and move on, or even worse go with them. I hoped that no one else would disturb us that night. Those were my worries and my hopes. With our passports tucked safely in the inside pocket of my sleeping bag I wondered what it must be like to have no passport, or to have the wrong one. I wondered what it felt like to flee from violence, leaving everything behind to be destroyed and turned to ashes.
Some nights I’d resent having to trudge a little way into the shadows of the service stations we slept at. We’d get wet feet, insects would get into our bags and on our clothes, there’d be human shit and the strong smell of ammonia. It was getting cold, dropping below freezing at night. What would this journey feel like without a good, expensive sleeping bag and thermal layers? What would it feel like with the risk of getting caught being far more serious than just a passport check? What would it feel like as an object of hate- objectified, dehumanised and imprinted in headlines across the world, marked indelibly in peoples’ minds as something to be scared of: terrorists, trouble-makers, thieves, dirty, lazy, dangerous, job stealing. What would this journey feel like if I had nowhere comfortable to go to at its end? No certainty or safety or hope of legally finding work, let alone stealing it.
Despite all of this, I fell asleep deeply. What else was there to do? We had ground to make home.
We awoke at five-thirty the next morning, packed our belongings into our backpacks and stumbled out into a bitterly cold morning. As we packed down our tent, small pieces of ice slid off the outer layer, numbing our fingers.
We waited on a small traffic island at the exit of the service station. This way it’s possible to pick up all traffic leaving for the motorway. Our backpacks were on the asphalt, so as to keep them dry. We danced and jumped to try and keep ourselves warm. We tucked our hands under our arm-pits. It was still dark and for an hour or so no one stopped to pick us up. A Turkish truck driver started his engine and the vehicle rumbled in the morning cold, enveloped in mist and orange-yellow light. He pulled slowly up next to us, motioning strongly with his hand.
We thought his manorisms angry and aggressive, so we moved our bags.
“Jeez, what a dick. They’re hardly in the way.”
After we’d moved our bags he carried on motioning, pointing vigourously west. He was asking us if we wanted a ride. We’d misinterpreted his meaning- so easily done between our different cultures.
Though he spoke barely any English and us almost literally no Turkish, we managed to communicate in the lovely way that is so much fun and surprisingly effective if you really want to underastand each other. Hand gestures, drawings, laughing. I often wonder how many times we missed the point on this trip, completely misinterpreting what people tried to say to us. What you can be basically sure of is that if someone has let you into your vehicle- you, a stranger- they are trying to help you.
He told us that he had seen us in the cold of the morning. That he had seen our tent in the night. That he felt sorry for us. He warmed his hands over the truck’s air conditioning, showing us that he wanted us to be warm, to gather around his fire and to hear whatever of his story we could. He had children and a wife. He missed them as he drove long distances, back and forth across Europe, from Turkey to wherever he was sent. His name was Kamal, I think. He stopped to buy us each a coffee, making clear that he didn’t want any money from us, that he wanted to buy it for us, to help us on our way. He checked regularly that we were warm enough. He asked us questions that we tried to answer. Were we married? Where had we been? Where were we going?
He drove with great care. He’d slept well. He was courteous to other road users. He was the perfect repudiation of everything we had heard about Turkish drivers.
He dropped us at a service station not far from the Slovenian border. He’d changed the complexion of our day from cold and worried to warm and content. To keep the warmth we went inside to the service station cafe, ordered two pastries and ate them as I sent messages to our family to let them know we were safe. Behind us a group of Germans were having their morning coffee. I was sat with my back to them, but Emma saw them clock our “Ljubljana” sign. They smiled at each other. The first I knew of them was when one of them- Claus- pointed out our sign to me.
“You’re going to Ljubijana?” He asked. “Would you like to come with us?”
Once in their hired mini-bus we learned that they were a group of friends who worked together at an organisation where they help people with brain injuries and mental health illnesses to maintain a high quality of life. They had been on a week-long sailing trip together in Croatia and were driving home to Germany. We had a brilliant time, learning about their work and their lives. Eventually they dropped us off in Salzburg, on the Austrian border with Germany.
It was cold and raining and not a good service station to camp at. We decided to hitch out, hoping to make just a little more progress on what had already been a very lucky day. We were making great progress home. The exit of the service station was a few hundred meters from the border. There was not much traffic leaving, but we could see many, many cars approaching the border the other side of a concrete barrier, separating us from the main road. It was illegal for us to hitchhike on the main road, or for people to stop their vehicles there. The queues for the border were long enough and the cars passing slowly enough that people could smile and wave at us, give us the thumbs up sign, laugh and very occasionally swear. The response to our hitchhiking has been overwhelmingly positive. Even when people don’t pick us up they offer us signs of encouragement.
Emma and I started discussing where we might be able to camp that night. It wasn’t ideal with little green space and what little there was barely concealed. We were stood next to a giant motel which was almost certainly a brothel. We’d stopped hitching for a moment as there was no traffic. We were stood idly, Emma swinging the sign around.
“Halllooooo!” Someone called from behind us.
On the roadside, the prohibited side of the conrete barrier, a people carrier had pulled up and a young girl was leaning out the passenger door.
“Munich! We’re going to Munich!”
We ran up as fast as we could and were greeted by an Austrian woman.
“You can put your bags in the back, but on the left as there’s a cake on the right. Nice to meet you, I’m Mary-Pierre.”
We bundled into the back of the vehicle and were welcomed by three more children, the younger brothers of the girl who’d called over to us. This was the first time we’d ever been picked up by a mother and her children, without a man in the car.
Mary-Pierre was an architect. She was driving to a feast which her firm hosts regularly on an urban farm project they’ve developed. Among the attendees at this feast would be refugees from Syria, who live across the road from the project.
“It’s been a real eye-opener, getting to know them. It’s not a good life for them there. They have so little space, not much water, not much food. They’re cramped and uncomfortable. They wouldn’t choose to live like that. They don’t want to. But it is so much worse where they have come from.”
Mary-Pierre drove well out of her way to drop us off on the right part of the autobahn for our onward journey. Anyone who has hitchhiked before will tell you that this is not uncommon but that the gratitude of the hitchhiker will never diminish. If anything, it builds, as stranger after stranger goes off from their course to help you further along your own. In this way our courses become crossed and in this happening we pass through destinations that have nothing to do with and are in fact removed entirely from places.
Once again we walked to a traffic island at the exit of the station. On a sign by this spot many other hitchhikers had left their names, thoughts and marks in pen, with stickers and etched into the metalwork. Even though it was getting dark, this was clearly a good spot. The rain had picked up also.
As we waited two drivers came over to us. They were Polish truck drivers, pausing for the night. They offered us tea, coffee and beer and asked if we wanted to come over to their trucks and into their warmth. We wanted to hitch a couple of hours more, but promised that we would come by afterwards if we didn’t get picked up.They were so kind to us, so keen to help us and so keen to talk that I found myself getting a little frustrated when they wouldn’t leave. A number of cars passed us by, not stopping, in my estimation, because we were now four- and two with beer bottles. I’m embarrassed to admit that and embarrassed that I put concerns of my mileage homewards of their hospitality.
A couple of minutes after they went back to the warmth of their trucks, with the rain coming down a little heavier and the cold closing in, a truck pulled up next to us. The driver lent out of his window. Emma held up our “Stuttgart” sign.
“Nuremberg.” He said, and then he asked whether we were German. From his plates we knew that he was Turkish and from our brief communication we knew that none of us spoke the same language. It had been established already that we were going in different directions, but he wanted to know where we were from anyway.
“English,” we called up. “We’re English.”
“I go to England.” He said.
Emma and I looked at each other, a little dumbfounded.
“We go with you?!” Emma asked.
He hesitated, very briefly, and then waved us up with a full sweep of his arm. His cabin was immaculate, his belongings neatly arranged, no rubbish on the floor. He asked that we take off our shoes. Emma sat on the bed and I took shotgun.
Sometimes, when you cannot speak the same language, communicating whilst hitchhiking can be incredibly awkward. I’ll admit that when he waved us up I was exhausted from the day’s long hitch. We’d woken up in Croatia and we were near Munich already. But sometimes the sheer keenness and energy of the drivers can revive you. Ismail’s bearing was relaxed, interested and kindly concerned. He checked that we were warm enough, that we were comfortable. He asked about our trip and told us about his life. He drives for a large haulage firm, back-and-forth between Istanbul and Coventry, delivering electrical goods that we’ve probably all got in our homes. We asked where we’d be going tonight.
“Belgia, non-stop.” Then, placing his palms together and against his cheek, “Pausa.” He raised his two fore-fingers to signify an eleven hour rest in Belgium, and with a whoosh of his arm and finger into the future he let us know that he would drive onwards to London tomorrow. Over the course of the next few hours Ismail told us about his sons and his wife back home. He asked us whether we were married, a question we’d been asked a lot on this trip.
“Super,” he said, giving us a thumbs up. He told us that him and his wife have a very happy marriage and that they recently celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. He called one of his son’s who spoke English with us. Later on we Skyped with his wife. He was so keen to introduce us to his family, so proud of them. All of them gave off a feeling of strength in love and lots of happiness.
Onward we went through the night, north towards Nuremberg when all along we’d planned to head west through Germany and into France and back to Dunkirk. Emma and I had to adjust ourselves to fit Ismail’s clock. He’d been sleeping up until he picked us up, on his “pause” until EU regulations permitted him to drive again. We had been hitchhiking since before dawn, from freezing Croatia through to rainy Munich. We were exhausted, run through, excited, happy. It is a thrilling feeling to wake up in the morning hoping to get so far and just hours later find yourself conveyed across-continent farther than you ever could have hoped and in the company of a new friend.
Ismail was another incredibly safe Turkish driver. Speeding along the yellow-illuminated black-top of the German autobahn, I felt overwhelmed by the whole situation. Life cannot get any better and yet these moments can be repeated over and again so long as you expose yourself to them. Yes it’s shit being cold and having wet feet and socks that stink to embarrassment, but those things do not matter- or matter all-the-more- in the face of adventure in unexpected directions.
“We’re sorry for our smelly socks.” I said, making the motions to convey this.
“It’s no problem.” Ishmail said, his accent pitch-perfect south-eastern English.
And of course the quiet times came. And as with so much when hitchhiking, everything happens quickly and is amplified. So we found ourselves three, hurtling toward Belgium, London, Home, quietly together in full silence; the comfort of strange friends.
We were at rest. This is what we had been searching for, what we’re always searching for: a space to occupy that is full of the things you believe in. And given over to you by someone you could never imagine you would meet, who happened to be going in the same direction and who happened to be comfortable picking up strangers.
Emma had been sitting cross-legged for hours now. Her knees had begun to ache. In her slightest movement Ismail detected her discomfort.
“Emma.” He said, in that same pitch-perfect English accent. He motioned for her to put her feet up on the dashboard. Over his head he formed with his hands and arms the shape of a roof:
“This is your home.”
Emma turned to me: “My knees had just started to really ache.” She said.
Ismail was driving then whilst typing something into his phone. This had been a fairly common occurence on this journey, and a few times a terrifying experience. We’d nearly been driven off the road a number of times- the closest near-death experiences of my life. But Ismail did not err in the slightest from his course. He handed the phone over to Emma and translated from Turkish to English was his message:
“Feel like my child.” As he handed over the phone he held his palm flat against his heart.
Later that night he motioned to the second bed, a pull-down bunk which was above Emma.
“If you are tired,” he typed. “Go.”
A short while later Emma went up onto the bunk to sleep. Ishmail and I sat quietly for a while. I can’t remember now whether it was using the phone, hand signals, or broken English but Ismail said to me:
“I have two sons. I have never had a daughter.” I remember him then motioning toward Emma sleeping in the bunk. “Now I have a daughter.
I fell asleep too shortly after this, awakening intermittently as the truck lurched westwards across a continent at night. Eventually we arrived in an out-of-the-way industrial estate a short way across the border in Belgium. It was around 05:30. About a dozen other trucks from the same firm as Ismail’s were parked, the driver’s black-out blinds pulled around their windscreens as they slept. Ismail parked up, spoke to the security guard and found a place for us to pitch our tent.
“11 hours,” he signalled, and then whoosh, off to Anglia.
We slept until about 9am, crawled out of the tent, packed up our belongings and sat reading our books. Gradually throughout the day the other truck-drivers woke up, showered, ate breakfast and hung out together. They were clearly all good friends. Emma and I sat quietly by our bags, reading, too nervous to approach them, despite everything. At about midday Ismail woke up, came over, motioned towards his friends and said:
“Total colleague. No problem.”
And with that all of them waved us over, greeted us, asked where we had been, where we were going, offered us coffee and snacks and gave us their seats. They told us that some of them had waited for nine hours for one border crossing, others four days. Having a Bulgarian or Turkish passport can cause problems at borders. As we spoke, Ismail disappeared for a short while before returning.
“Please,” he said, motioning towards his truck.
He had opened the cabinet under the carriage of the truck. In it he had a healthy store of aubergines, tomatoes, bread, tea, coffee, eggs, sausage, cutlery, a gas stove and everything else you need to comfortably prepare food on the road.
“Please,” he said again, motioning toward two small stools he’d placed in front of the fold-down door which doubled as an eating table. He’d already sliced us bread and had filled a plate with cheese, olives and tomatoes. He cooked us an omlette and served us tea.
“Good appetite.” He said.
As we ate the breakfast we gradually figured out that Ismail had arranged for us to travel onward with two of his colleagues. We already knew that it would not be possible for both Emma and I to cross the channel and the border into England in just his truck. Truck drivers are legally allowed to carry just one passenger. Two of the drivers we’d met that morning were to take us.
“Colleagues,” he assured us, “No problem.” Again he held his hand to his heart.
And that’s how Emma and I broke one of our golden hitchhiking rules: to never split up. We were to travel with two different drivers in two different trucks, as part of a four truck convoy headed for Coventry via Dover and London. It was a brilliant feeling, rolling out of that industrial estate in Belgium as part of a convoy of trucks. We drove in close formation all the way to Calais, Emma and I getting to know our drivers with hand gestures, pads, broken language and lots of laughter. My driver, Gurdal, was a Turkish war hero. He had been decorated with two medals from his time as a Lieutenant. He had two bullet wounds to match, which he showed me. One in the arm, a graze, the other in the gut. He had been driving for ten years now, the same route between Istanbul and Coventry. He offered us both safe passage to Istanbul if we should ever want it.
Because we were passengers in a truck we had access to the driver’s lounge on the ferry. Free drinks, free showers, comfortable seats and cheap food. Emma and I were clearly too excited and wide-eyed, as a member of staff came to check that we had driver’s tickets. We spent the crossing drinking coffee, getting to know the other drivers and freshening up with free samples in the shops.
Rolling off the ferry and into the Port of Dover felt similar to when we first saw the green hills of England from sailboat Gertha 4 a few years before. There is something about arriving back home which really stirs me. I realise that I love my country, that I crave the familiarity of it all; the accents, the landscape, the food and drink and the driving on the left-hand-side of the road. It felt particularly special to have been conveyed this final step of the way by too-oft maligned Turkish truck drivers who absolutely repudiate the stereotypes cast on them. Before we could head to London we had to be processed through customs.
Each of the four drivers were so patient with the customs officials, and the strict processes involved in the crossing. The paperwork can take a long time and so we all waited in the driver’s lounge above the customs offices. In that time they showed us photographs of their family members, their homes and their hobbies. They checked with us where we’d like to be dropped off, where would be best with us. We laughed and joked and everything felt so natural and all of the drivers were so kind that to anyone observing we could have been old school friends. I thought about how normal they had made it seem to pick up two unknown foreigners and cross borders with them. We spent about an hour in the driver’s lounge before heading down to finalise the paperwork in the customs office.
“The fuck is this?” Said one of the customs officials, assuming no one spoke English. “Fuckin’ youth club kick-out time or what?” He was a bitter-sounding man with eyes full of contempt. He was sick-to-death of foreigners who couldn’t speak English. No matter that without them so many of the things he uses in his life would not have made it from Europe to his house or place of work.
He snatched away the paperwork from one of the drivers. His colleague, a young woman, clearly rising to his tone, said: “Fuck is going on here? I’ve no idea.”
“Thanks for your help.” Emma said, as we all left together.
This blog post is a snapshot of two days from a hitchhiking trip between London and Bulgaria, and back again. It took us seven days to hitchhike to Bulgaria from London, and four days to return.