I dream of a female friend with cancer, who shrinks and shrivels to a few centimetres wide. I pick her up and carry her around, weightless. It takes over a week to realise this is a dream about Dad.
Secretly, I shorten my plan further: just use the Iranian visa already in my passport, then head back overland to Dad. I could be two months, three max.
15th October, 2011
It’s 6:30pm and growing dark rapidly by the time I leave Brighton with “M25 East” scribbled on a piece of white cardboard. Still, Pawel has stopped before I’ve even reached my hitchhiking spot. He’s from Czech Republic and has hitched a lot himself, but he’s pretty impressed when I tell him I’m on my way to Iran. He takes me past his turning and drops me on a big lay-by on the A23. It’s now pitch black other than a barrage of white headlights rushing toward and past me. I try to adjust my facial expression from pure fear into happy hitchhiker.
Two lifts later I’m with a family. She used to hitch around Devon a lot; he’s travelled North Africa. We’re miles out of their way, but they insist on taking me all the way to Clacket Lane Services, where I arrive two hours early.
Finally, Lisa appears, grinning, wearing that silk scarf the woman gave her in Izmir what seems like aeons ago. She’s hitched down from Occupy London, just beginning today. “Why are we leaving now? It’s just starting to get interesting here!” she says as we march to the petrol station across the forecourt. Two huge trucks with IR number-plates grind to a halt in front of us: our lift has arrived. The rear truck’s door swings open and a man climbs down to hug Lisa. This is Peter, and this is the fourth time he’s taken Lisa over the Channel. Peter’s friend is John, another Irish trucker. The guys banter as they boil a kettle and make us tea. We get talked through an Irish sitcom – “Dya see that ther’? Thaht’s just exahctly what it’s loike in Ireland!” – while waiting to board the train.
At the Tunnel the little bus comes to collect us from the big train where we parked the trucks to the much smaller passenger carriage at the front. There are precisely three women on the train, including Lisa and myself.
Now in France, our eyes are drooping. Lisa and I climb up to the bed above the window and try to catch naps in the pauses between jolts and the radio banter between Peter and John.
We wake up in Belgium. We drink nuclear coffee from plastic cups in a service station disguised as a spaceship, mostly empty. Our heads nod involuntarily to 80s synth’ pop. Everything is surreal at 5am.
The sun lifts lazily from the horizon, perhaps as tired as me. Still nobody going our way. We have befriended an unlucky Bulgarian with a broken-down car. He’s been here all night too. We help push his car, but the ignition just won’t catch. It’s Sunday, everything’s closed and he’s skint. The woman working the counter is lovely. She traipses the aisles looking for out-of-date food to give us and calls her mechanic friend to help the Bulgarian. He’s having a bad week. He tells me he moved to Hannover in search of work, but like everywhere these days, there’s none to be found. He met a man who said he was also from Bulgaria and persuaded him to do a job: take four men over the Channel into England – only they weren’t really from Bulgaria, but Albania. Their ID was faked. He was charged with trafficking and spent twenty-four hours in jail. Eventually they released him, but without payment for the job he can’t afford to get home.
The cashier woman’s friend gets the car started and now the Bulgarian just needs petrol money. Our choice is this: leave him here, donate some money, or go with him to Hannover and loan the cash until we get there, when his friend can pay us back.
It’s early afternoon when we reach Hannover. We wait a long time for the friend, but finally a cheeky young chap with an East-European swagger arrives and climbs in the front of the car – his car, actually. He hands me two €20 notes as he gets in: my loan repaid. We drive to meet more men with similar swaggers. One with a green-black tear-drop tattoo under his left eye smiles at us. “Zdrastei!” I tell them: my only Bulgarian – unless you count political slogans. They buy us coffee in a bar. “The car is broken-broken”, our friend tells us, “or I would drive you to Bulgaria.” Damn. They drive us to a service station on the road to Magdeburg instead. We’re going a very different route than expected.
Lisa and I have asked a lot of people where they’re going. As is frequent in service stations, a coach has arrived, making our task slightly more difficult. We ask two guys who say they’re going to Magdeburg, but have to speak to their driver. We watch them join the crowd outside the coach and sigh, but then they wave us over. Outside the coach, we’re surrounded by a small crowd. We feel a little like zoo exhibits, but climb onboard and accept bottles of beer, settling down to watch the surreal in-coach movie in German. “So, who are you people?” I ask the man. “We are like a choir”, he says, “but not exactly like a choir.” “Oh.”
Now we’re looking for a lift to Halle. Nobody’s going our way. It’s getting late. “How about if we just go to Berlin, eat Yellow Sunshine burgers and sleep in a proper bed at my friend’s house?” I only understand half of what Lisa just said, but it sounds like heaven. “Err, yeah!?”
Minutes later we’re with Stefan in his car, hurtling down the autobahn in the direction of Germany’s capital. Stefan will quickly become one of my favourite hitching lifts and will join us for dinner at Lisa’s friend’s house the following night. It’s nice to have a pit stop, and Yellow Sunshine burgers are pretty amazing, even if their fries are crappy.
A text message from Gill: Your dad is well, he’s very tired after a weeks’ worth of radiation therapy which is 2 b expected & he has a sore throat, but I don’t know if there is a connection. He has slowed up considerably but is just as belligerent! Will try 2 email u next sat. Take care.
A close friend of Lisa’s in Germany just broke up with her boyfriend. Lisa hitches to the South to be with her, while I carry on towards Turkey. Off-track and alone, my plans are suddenly thrown wide open. I can do anything I like. I decide to go to Prague, I’ve never been there before. I send two couch requests and am stunned to receive a text message an hour later, saying: Of course you can stay. I read your blog. You are my heroine!
Prague. I’m sitting in a main square watching crowds of tourists and horse-drawn carriages weave around one another. Narrow twisting cobbled streets spill off in all directions. Grand Gothic spires rise up behind tall narrow buildings decorated in what looks like gold leaf and cake icing. I sit on a bench beside a wizard and a small boy, not at all surprised to see them there.
Pavel is right about the hitching spot: I get a lift from the motorway slip-road in ten frosty minutes. The man is going to Brno: a great head-start. He doesn’t speak any English, so we mostly sit in silence. He makes one attempt to touch my hands and another my leg, both under the pretext of seeing how cold I am. When I get out he makes kissy-kissy noises as I shut the door in his face. I leave him in the car-park and go in search of Slovakian trucks.
At a service station on the outskirts of Budapest, my phone rings. It’s Gill. “Now, you don’t need to come back, but I thought you ought to know. He’s had another seizure. He’s in hospital. Can you hear me?” I don’t even know where exactly I am. A traffic jam is backing up alongside the service station, blocking off the entrance to all but the most persistent of motorists. A family of Roma musicians are inside eating dinner. They invite me to join them, offer a lift. But I’m going through Serbia, not Romania. I consider turning back. There’s an airport in Budapest – there isn’t one in Novi Sad, where my friend Aleksa lives. I wrap my coat tighter against the wind and peer through darkness at a truck just turning in. As he gets out, I paste a smile on my face – “Excuse me, speak English? Do you go to Szeged?” No, but he can put me on the right road. This guy knows all the back routes. He takes me out of the traffic jam, away down bumpy pot-holed roads.
Aleksa meets me at an abandoned truck stop on the outskirts of Novi Sad. He drives me home to his parents’ house, where I last stayed a year ago. We have plenty to catch up on, but I’ve hitched over 800km in one day, across three national borders. I’m pretty knackered.
My phone beeps in the morning as soon as I turn it on – Please call me urgently. My time with Aleksa largely consists of several hours on his internet hunting for flights.
I get the all-night train from Novi Sad back to Budapest. In my small carriage are a long-ginger-haired Polish guy I met on the platform and a man with small square glasses, light brown skin and a gently impassioned manner in whatever he’s explaining – “tourismy faschismy Serbski schmismay”, is how it sounds to me. There’s a feeling of warmth and intimacy in our carriage as we chug through darkened Serbia. The men quietly discuss and I write, somehow soothed by the incomprehension of their discussion.
In Budapest I take a taxi 22km to the airport. No flights for eight years, then two in a month. This time they have my vegan “meal”.
At Gatwick train station, my visa card declines. I have a spare card to an old account, but the pin eludes me. I call Gill. It’s an extra £50 to pay over the phone, making it £170 total. She says she doesn’t have her card with her. I pay the last of my English money to get to Victoria station, then Euston, messaging friends on the way: I need to find an open bank branch. A friend calls with directions to two. I run through streets, phone to ear – they’re both closed. The train leaves in ten minutes. I peg it through the station to the front of the ticket queue. The cashier tells me to get to the back. “My dad’s dying in Scotland! You have to help me! I have to get on that train!” She won’t let Mango pay over the phone at all – not even for £50 extra. He has to cycle to Manchester station and buy the ticket there under something called a ‘silk arrangement’ before tickets can be issued in London. I miss the train and pay 50p for the privilege of unrestrained sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Back at the queue, I wait for the man to call Manchester and arrange the tickets and realise I’ve left my backpack in the toilet. I run back – past the same people in the same queues, tears streaking my face. It’s still there. Breathe.
Another half hour to arrange the tickets. I almost miss another train. They charge Mango even more than the quote at Gatwick. Tanya and Eddie, on holiday on the Isle of Wight, somehow find an open bank branch within minutes and deposit money into my account. My friends are beautiful and I love every one of them. I am going to Glasgow.
The hospital is far. From Glasgow it’s another train on an obscure line, fifty minutes to the next one. My heart beats faster the closer I get to Dad. I get a different train on an adjacent track, jump off and into a taxi over the road. “Please hurry”, I tell him, “my dad is dying.” He nods.
Inverclyde Hospital looms dark on the horizon. It looks more like a Bond villain’s headquarters. Dad is sitting up in bed. “Ohh – you didn’t have to do this!” he says as I drop my pack by the door. Gill sits next to his bed, holding a bloated white hand. I hug my sister, nod at my brother. “Didn’t I?” He’s hooked up to a machine, dripping somebody else’s blood into him. His head looks like a peeled potato with glasses assembled on it by a five-year old. “Your father’s looking a lot better – a lot better – than he did yesterday”, says Gill.
(Continued from the last entry)
After a little sob in the toilets I drag myself out to the road and take up my position with thumb held high. I’m feeling little hope, a lot of sadness, tiredness and perhaps loneliness too, though it’s only been five minutes. An hour ticks by and I’m so deflated I’m actually trying to work out how much a train might cost and feeling like a total sell-out.
Then a van stops with two guys. I get into the third seat and balance my backpack on my lap. It’s another of those “helpful” lifts, giving me a ride to a better spot – only this one really is helpful. They take me past several signs that actually have the names of places on the piece of cardboard I’m carrying strapped to my pack and drop me on the road to Kalatina. This, they say, is the Turkish truck route.
Sure enough, a Turkish trucker stops before I’ve even put my pack down. “Beograd?” I ask. He nods. Great! But it’s better than that. After some introductions I ask where he’s going: “Belgium”!
I tell him I’m on my way back to England. He doesn’t speak any English, but I understand when he says with lot of gesturing that I can ride with him to Belgium, then he can find a colleague to take me to London. I nod furiously. We both smile and shake hands – it’s a deal. This proves my theory: the longer the wait, the better the ride.
Hassan and I don’t speak the same language, but we have plenty in common. We both like Turkish coffee and Turkish music, especially while driving through mountains. We do not like borders or border police – especially not Bulgarian ones who are allegedly the most corrupt in Europe. I see him handing packets of cigarettes and who knows what else over at each of the various checkpoints. A man resembling a bulldog orders me out of the cab and snarls questions at me. “Where are you going? Where have you been? What are you doing with him?” I spiel off a list of countries that spring to mind and tell him I’m a hitchhiker – “autostop” – I mime with my thumb. He nods. “Go!” he tells me. I get back in the truck and wait for the bribery to finish.
Eventually we can cross the border and Hassan tells me to wait. He gets out and I watch fascinated through the drive-side mirror as all the Turkish drivers gather together and drink coffee on a fold-down table on the outside of one of the trucks. After a few minutes Hassan comes back and hands me a coffee, then goes back to finish his. It’s clearly a man’s thing.
Time to go. We both cheer as we pass the “Republic of Serbia” sign. The music is turned up, the windows come down. Serbia – woohoo! Something else we have in common: we both like Serbia.
Hassan asks if I’m hungry. Well, I kind of am. He pulls into a Turkish truckers restaurant. I know the awkward embarrassing part is coming. Never have I valued my Vegan Passport as much as now. I find the Serbian page and hand it to the bemused waiter. His frown deepens with each sentence and by the second paragraph he’s called the chef. Fortunately, the chef speaks English, but they’re still not getting it. He asks twice if I’d like cheese, then comes back out of the kitchen to ask first if I eat onions, then to check about salt. At least they’re taking it seriously. I end up with boiled potatoes, carrots and pasta with raw onion on the side and a tomato and cucumber salad. I’m delighted. They all think I’m crazy, especially Hassan who’s busy reading the Turkish page.
The next time we stop it’s just outside Belgrade. I get some sly yoga in behind a service station and return to the truck forty-five minutes later as requested. One hour, fifteen minutes and five alarm rings later I’m forced to prod Hassan awake. “Why didn’t you wake me?” is what I know he’s telling me in Turkish. I did! Lots of times! We hit the road again.
Sophia to Brussels is a three day drive. My theory is that if I can get through the first night without any hassle from my driver then I can relax the rest of the time. I ask Hassan where he’ll sleep and when he answers the top bunk I give him a choice: I can sleep on the bottom bunk or I can go outside in my tent. First he wants to share, but I put my foot down and he leaves me be on my bottom bunk where I sleep relatively well despite his snoring.
The border crossings into Croatia and Slovenia are long queues, bribery and lots of paperwork. At each one, the border guard speaks to me in English, I suppose to check my passport is real. “So, this is hitch-hiking?” asks the man in Slovenia. “How did you guess?” I ask with a bemused smile. “Because you are with him,” he laughs and indicates Hassan, who hasn’t a clue what’s going on. “He doesn’t speak English,” I say to explain his confusion, “but we’re getting along just fine.” Getting into Slovenia is a relief. We’re back in the E.U. and now the borders will be open until I cross The Channel – no more bribery and paperwork.
We spend our second night in South Austria. Unfortunatley, the first night lulled me into a false sense of security. “Please Madam, no sex” - he insists he just wants to cuddle and maybe a little kiss. I am firm and state no repeatedly. “I go bottom bunk, you go top.” He puts his arm around me. I remove it. He’s more childishly annoying than physically threatening, but I’m tired and I want to go to bed in peace. I fetch the Turkish-English dictionary we’ve been using to communicate, find a word and point to it: “Respect.” He nods. “No!” I say. He holds up his hands, wishes me goodnight and turns off the light. It seems I said the magic word.
By the third day I’m drinking tea with the men at the little fold-down table. We’ve parked for the night near Wels in South Germany, next to a tiny petrol station near a big freight train depot. The Turkish man operating the gas station gives me the key to the shower, then joins us for breakfast: bread, olives, tomatoes, peppers, onions, plenty of oil, salt, paprika and of course, copious amounts of tea. It’s today Hassan tells me the news: he’s found someone to take me to England. We are to meet him in a service station later. I’m overjoyed, but Hassan seems almost regretful. This means losing his passenger. He seems to have grown quite fond of me and spends our last couple of hours looking forlorn and trying to persuade me to give him a proper kiss goodbye. When it becomes clear that isn’t going to work, he spends the final half hour demanding that I refuse to kiss or have sex with his friend, the new driver. I promise.
I swap trucks somewhere in South Germany. Hassan mimes tears on his face and points to words in his Turkish-English dictionary, like “sentimental”, “affectionate”, “love”, etc. I tell him not to be silly, but of course he doesn’t understand me. I point to the Turkish word for “annoying” and he apologises.
My new driver Bahadir is married and has a three year old son back in Turkey, which pleases me immensely. He points proudly to a picture of a baby just behind his seat. We park for the night near Brussels. He buys us some beers and we listen to music and share photos in the cab. Just one night with this driver and he’s not pushy at all. I feel quite safe and sleep well. He doesn’t even snore.
On our second day we drive through Calais. Guilt seeps through me and I almost panic and open the door. I should get out. I should just get out now. How can I go through Calais and not get out? I decide that if I see a single person I recognise it will be a sign and I’ll just get out. We pass by the dunes where the old Hazara Jungle was. I strain my neck to see. A year since I was last here and now I don’t know where the migrant camps are. I know all the old ones have been destroyed. I don’t know what to say to Bahadir about my obvious discomfort and neck-craning. “Arkadash” I tell him – the Turkish word I learned for friend. “Arkadash?” He’s obviously confused. What, you saw a friend, here?
I see nobody. We drive into the ferry terminal and queue for the boat. Another Turkish driver comes over to say hi while we’re waiting. The past day we’ve seen barely any other Turkish at all – driving in, through and out of many service stations looking in vain for the Turkish plates, eating our lunch alone. Bahadir is an excellent cook. He has a big gas stove, pots, pans and kettles in his side compartment, just like Hassan. All the Turkish truckers have them I think. They each have a box of tea glasses too. Hassan makes tea for us as we wait for the ferry. The kettle is boiled until a faint repetitive chinking begins to gather momentum.
Finally we’re on the boat. It’s the English boat and suddenly I’m surrounded by British accents. English – everyone’s speaking English! I can understand what they’re all saying! And my god, how they all moan about everything! I find it hilarious. I leave Bahadir and the other Turkish driver with our coffees and wander round the boat asking everyone where they’re going. I’m holding out for Clacket Lane Services on the M25 – a sure way to get a quick lift home.
I find my lift just as the white cliffs are looming and go out onto the tiny bit of deck you’re allowed on, although the view isn’t so great. Dover. What a sight. It’s been ten and a half months since I saw that view. I’m outrageously excited by it.
I grab my pack from the truck, hug Bahadir and bid him farewell. After a frantic search I find my lift and cram myself in with the others in the car, backpack on knee. I chat excitedly to them as we drive, buzzing from coffee, adrenaline and the old-newness of England. They drop me at Clacket Lane where I position myself by the entrance and ask everyone who passes if they might happen to be going to Brighton? Ten minutes later I’m in a car with a guy about my age who apparently thought hitchers were a myth. He drops me in Brighton and I walk that old familiar journey back to the flat…
How strange to be back in Novi Sad. It’s always strange to return somewhere on this journey, as though the time in-between is wiped out, a dream. Did I really go to Belgrade? Where is Sam?
I arrive at Aleksa’s house around 4pm, sunburnt and exhausted from a stressful journey. The journey itself is a whole other story, involving two kittens. I won’t go into it now, but I am writing the story for publication elsewhere, so maybe I’ll put a link in here later.
I’m greeted by Aleksa’s father, who tells me Aleksa is out for the night, but that I am to make myself at home. I’m looking forward to seeing Aleksa again, but also grateful for some alone time.
The following morning he arrives home and we have a big catch-up chat. We don’t get to hang out as much as last time, but I’m happy to be with a friend and we still get in lots of interesting conversations. It’s impossible not to with Aleksa.
Having already been to Novi Sad I feel less pressure about getting out and seeing things, which means I have time to properly recover from my recent traveling adventures. One thing I do want to do though, is go back to CK13. I see they are showing a film Thursday night: Mozart and the Whale.
I sit at the back and begin speaking with the man next to me, who’s from Montenegro. He’s telling me how much he liked England when he visited Dorset, but then suddenly comes out with loads of extremely racist comments about how we have “a big problem with the Pakis and the Blacks though”. I can’t believe it and can only stare at him, open mouthed. So he starts trying to reassure me, emphasizing that he means “FOREIGNERS, you know, THE BLACKS. Not the British people, they’re lovely.” “You’re really racsist” is all I can think to say, agape. To back up his theory, he goes on to tell me about an English man he met in montenegro who agreed with him and reliably informed him that black people go around in gangs beating people with bottles. I tell him I’m not going to listen to his bullshit anymore. I get up and take my bag over to the bar where I order another cup of tea and tell the guy working there that the man next to me is full of racist bullshit. He tells me he will find me a seat somewhere else. “Well yes, I can do that myself, but don’t you have a safer spaces policy here?” He’s never heard of such a thing, of course. But when I try to explain he just mutters something about freedom of speech. “Freedom of speech? But doesn’t Antifa meet here? What do they think about freedom of speech?” “Yes, this is the Antifa place.” Blimey! Sometimes I miss England, especially The Cowley Club. It’s not like we’d be chasing him out of the door with sticks, but for sure he would have been asked to leave, or at least people would collectively challenge his racism.
On Friday I go to meet up with another Couchsurfer. Mattieu is another nomadic-type from France who’s also bimbling around Eastern Europe. He’s delayed leaving for a day so we can meet up and will hitch to Croatia tomorrow. For once wish I didn’t have my bike with me so we could travel together. I even think about leaving her with Aleksa, but the thought of hitching with my panniers is a bit much. Next time. Mattieu and I swap travel tales and addresses of places we might like to visit. I take him to the vegan cafe and he dumpsters a bag of onions. So it is possible to dumpster dive in Serbia – he has been doing it regularly with some degree of success it seems.
The night before leaving I cook dinner for Aleksa and his dad, who it appears don’t eat so well since Aleksa’s mother moved out. I make them a good hearty English meal of veggie bangers and mash with onion gravy, which they have heard of from the song Gravy Train, but never eaten before. Aleksa says he learned all his English from music, which seems crazy since his English is almost perfect.
He rides out with me some of the way on the day I leave. It’s a sad goodbye, but I’m sure we’ll meet again someday.