22-27th July 2012
Berlin is vegan heaven. Nomadic Pete and I hitchhike there from Cologne and all I can think about the whole way is Yoyo’s pizza, Yellow Sunshine burgers and vegan ice-cream.
On the way we stop at a gas station to hitch another ride. While our driver unloads our bags I approach a man standing by his car – “Excuse me, do you drive towards Berlin?” He does, but he doesn’t have space for us. The back-door of the car bursts open and a familiar face pops out – “Jo!” It’s Theo, from the Hitchgathering in Bulgaria last year – the guy I almost travelled with in Turkey. “He hasn’t got any space because we’re here!” Theo indicates his girlfriend who is sharing the back seat. The driver who has just dropped us off and Theo’s driver are speechless – what are the chances? But it gets better, Theo is on his way to “A Flat”, Lisa and Clemens’ nomad base in Berlin, which is exactly where Pete and I plan on staying.
A nomad base is basically a house or flat that’s open to long-term travellers. They run on voluntary donations, meaning people give what they can, when they can. Everyone is considered a host, nobody a guest. Each should play their part in keeping the house clean, cooking communally and sharing what they can.
On the night we arrive there are 19 people sleeping in the one-bedroom flat. Lisa and Clemens sleep in the bedroom and everyone else sleeps in the lounge, on the small balcony and wherever else they can. Pete, Jasper and I lay out our mats on the kitchen floor. Apparently, this is normal.
Th following day, Pete and I go to visit his old university friend Dominic, who works at The Jewish Museum. He not only gives us his bedroom, moving out that very night to his girlfriend’s place across town, but he also gives us a free, private (anarchist!) tour of the Jewish Museum.
I have another friend in Berlin – Stefan, the guy who gave me and Lisa a lift there last time we hitched together. Stefan is my very favourite hitching ride, the only one I now consider a friend, and certainly the only one to come on a demonstration with me! Of course he is reading this, so I have to get a good word in so he and his lovely friend Klaus will host me again next time I come to Berlin, and Klaus will feed me vegan deliciousness and let me doze on his balcony.
After dropping Pete at his hitching spot away from Berlin I have a very vivid dream while dozing on that balcony:
Pete and I are at the Polish border. It’s very dark. I think Stefan has driven us there. There are these giant steel steam trains and I consider getting on one, but it costs €70. They tell me I can pay €40 and just sit on the girders and hold on to the metal parts of the train, but that it won’t be a very comfortable ride. I decide to hitchhike. Pete and I are going separate ways – he home to Wales, I to Slovakia. We share a goodbye kiss and then I wake up on Klaus’ balcony with the trees rustling and the sunlight.
It feels like a real transition dream, because when I wake up, all of my UK friends have left Berlin and it’s time to think about moving on, and time to be alone again for a while.
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.
I am now ready to write this story. It’s a long story and it’s been a long time coming, so I will blog it in chapters, sifted from diary fragments and memories and a longer piece I am writing, which maybe, someday, I will publish.
It’s early September, a blazing Wednesday in Istanbul. I’ve just come back to the city after a month in Bulgaria spent with activists and hitch-hikers. Now I’m back on course again, heading East. Tomorrow I’ll leave Helene’s cozy flat in the trendy Taxim area and hitch-hike towards Georgia and Armenia, finally on my way to Iran.
One email halts all plans. You know it’s serious when your father’s wife, who hasn’t spoken to you in eight years, and who won’t allow you to meet their other children, emails you from his – your father’s – email account and tells you he is sick – very sick. “You need to prepare yourself”.
My passport is still at the Iranian consulate. The man smiles as he hands it to me, opening the page with my new visa. My own glossy face looks up at me, head-scarfed and serious.
I hadn’t flown in eight years. It takes a few false starts before the ticket is booked, my visa numbers entered and swallowed by the screen. My flight is from Antalya airport in the early hours of Monday morning: the bottom part of Turkey. Now I’m at the top. Perhaps it seems ridiculous to hitch-hike for two days to get to an airport, then another full day from London to Glasgow when I could probably hitch the whole way in a week. I can’t explain it. Some things just feel right.
The way to hitch out of Istanbul is through Gebze, a small city within Istanbul’s suburbs, a train ride away on the Asian side of the city. From there it’s a short hitch on a ferry over the thin wiggly Eastern part of the Marmara Sea to Yalova. First I stop in the Gebze restaurant where Pam and I feasted on our trip to Bursa some months earlier. It’s a large-ish yet quiet restaurant, with an outdoor patio overlooking the Marmara. This is where I choose to sit, heaving the weight of my pack down onto the stone slabs by my table. I have a rusty pan attached to the back, which clangs about.
Men rush to my assistance. I explain in Turkish that I’m vegetarian and that I don’t eat eggs, milk, butter… “Yes, I understand” says a man. He goes off and I sit down, not entirely certain that they will understand, but resigning myself to attempt to eat whatever it is they bring me. Three waiters arrive laden with trays and lay it all out before me: there is roasted aubergine, fried potatoes, chickpeas, green beans, mushrooms, copious rice, a basket of bread, oil, two huge salads… everything seems to be vegan. “Enough!” I tell them, smiling. How can I possibly eat all this? How will I afford it? But I’m hungry, so I tuck in and devour most of everything, taking care to leave a little on each plate lest they bring more. “Kaç para?” I ask the man who brings me tea, but he just waves his hand and disappears. I order a coffee, which I remember was complimentary. After I have finished I’m ready to hear the price. The first man comes back out and asks if I enjoyed the meal – “Oh yes, of course, it was wonderful. Teşekkür ederim.” But how much do I owe? He shakes his head – “Para yok.” No money. I can’t believe it. All the men line up and bow as I leave.
“Babam hasta”, I explain to all my truck drivers, business men and family members on the way to Antalya. “My father is sick, ama döneceğim – but I will return”.
I stop for a night in Eskişehir. I don’t know anyone in Eskişehir and was hoping to get further. I send a barrage of text messages from a ciğ köfte bar, between rolling the spiced bulghur blobs in crisp lettuce leaves and shovelling them into my mouth.
An anarchist I’ve been emailing in Izmir calls me up: pure coincidence. He knew I was travelling today, not that I was here. Eskişehir is his home town. An hour later I’m with his friend and the tiny infant kitten he has adopted, watching him bottle feed it on his sofa and sipping hot sweet tea. Somehow, the universe is looking after me.
Despite an early start, the next day is tough. I argue with road workers, walk miles in the wrong direction and frostily decline a kiss. My heart is heavy.
When I get most frustrated hitch-hiking, when nothing is going right, if I can persuade myself to take a break, everything somehow works out. After a slap-up meal in a roadside diner, a truck driver picks me up from the Highway of Hell and takes me straight to the airport: a four hour drive.
I’ve booked a flight with a package holiday company from one of the most touristic spots in the country. A snaking queue of mostly British voices welcomes me – “If only it were five degrees cooler, it’d be perfect – know wha’ I mean?” – “An’ then ‘e looked at me ‘n’ said alrigh’ darlin’, an’ I just said you’ve gotta be kiddin’!” – “our holiday would’ve been great if it weren’t for all the bloody Russians!”
My first flight in eight years. I wasn’t missing much. I am shepherded, scrutinized, ticked off and stamped. Finally, I’m in my regulatory plastic chair, knees just touching the one in font. Lean back and die, I think to the man sat there.
When it’s time for the individually packaged food portions to come out, the vegan one I ordered over the phone is missing. “Did you have one on your way in?” they ask. “I didn’t have a flight in.” They stare. Nothing can be done – it’s hunger or egg. I choose hunger over egg, but not without regret.
At dawn we soar over a billowing white carpet as specks of pink and then orange appear. As we drop below, everything turns grey and the concrete below glistens. “Not quite what you’re used to”, says the man beside me, whom I’ve not yet spoken to. I peer out the window: Birmingham. I can hardly believe it.
To be continued…