I’m dropped off near the centre of Ljubljana, Slovenia’s small but elegant capital, and make my way to Ela’s house. Actually it’s Ela’s parent’s flat, but they live in Brussels most of the time now and Ela is staying here for the winter. It’s nice to have a place to relax for a few days, especially with such lovely people as Ela and Casey. Casey is Ela’s boyfriend. After recognising him from a London Climate Camp, I first met him properly in Copenhagen at The Floating City, but have since spent time with him in Scotland and Belgium. His is one of those faces that pops up time and again. One of my favourite things about Casey – apart from the fact that he’s lovely – is that he always holds things in a very precise manner – a teacup will be held midway to his mouth, elbow bent; a plate grasped by both hands around chest height. This may not sound particularly peculiar, but it is, adorably so. Ela is probably the nicest person I have ever met. Actually she’s probably the nicest person anyone could ever hope to meet. She has an amazing warmth and childlike (but not at all child-ish) trust and compassion that rekindles my faith in humanity.
It’s early Tuesday morning and having spent the whole night getting here, David is already asleep on the sofa when I arrive at the flat. The Ukranian trucker that gave him a lift dropped him at the edge of the city and he had to walk in after jumping out on the highway and accidentally breaking the guy’s door-handle. It’s been that kind of a night, for both of us. I have a bite to eat and catch up with Casey and Ela before conking out myself for a couple of hours.
Fotunately, we’ve arrived on the day of the weekly People’s Kitchen in the Infoshop, which turns out to be a delicious three-course vegan meal for a €2 donation: Soup, a Chinese mushroom and tofu dish and cake for dessert. Mmmm…
The Infoshop is in Metelkova – a huge “Autonomous Cultural Zone,” comparative to Christiania in Copenhagen. Now legally occupied, Metelkova was once military barracks – the Slovene headquarters of the Yugoslav National Army. It’ was squatted in 1993 and is now home to art studios, gigs, workshops and theatre events as well as the more political Infoshop, Reading Room and Free Shop. There’s a detailed history of the Metelkova buildings here.
If you were unaware that Metelkova is home to a lot of artist workshops, a quick glance at the buildings will immediately set you straight – only you won’t be able to have a quick glance, because every building is so amazing you can’t help but stare.
It’s Wednesday. A suspisciously furtive-looking man in a hooded grey coat accompanies David and I to the daily market to look for edible unsold food. Actually, it’s Casey in disguise. Ela’s father is very well known and she’s worried that if her boyfriend is seen dumpster-diving, the gossip will quickly get around and it will reflect badly on the family. Casey’s most recogniseable attribute – his enormous mass of wild hair – is safely concealed under the grey hood. The disguise seems to work and we find bags full of lettuce, coriander, broccoli, parsnips, carrots, chestnuts, potatoes and the odd cherry tomato.
We also spot three crusty looking hippies, their dog and utterly adorble puppy. I bet they’re dumpstering too. I go over and ask. “Hey, are you dumpstering?” They are. One of the three girls is from Brighton and another from Scotland, making a quite bizarre coincidence. We spend some time chatting. They are staying at Rog, an enormous squatted ex-bicycle factory, which I also have yet to see. They invite us for tea, which we reluctantly decline as I’ve already offered to cook at home. We will see them tomorrow.
Sadly events conspire against us and we never get to have tea with the hippies. On Friday a recharged David and I set off for Italy – on purpose this time.
(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…