The Adventure Begins: London to Ljubljana

13th November (Day 1): London – Brunssum
Countries: 4
kms: 533
Lifts: 4

I give Pete a tight squeeze goodbye at his parent’s house in North London and make my way with David to the metro station, with heavy backpack and a heavy heart. I have no idea when I might see Pete again and it’s all I can do to keep from running back.

We’re in Very-Very-North London – near the top of the M25 – and thanks to line closures it takes almost five hours to make our way by underground, overground, bus and a walk down to Clacket Lane Services, at the bottom of the M25. We are saved a few hundred metres of the walk by our first lift – I always walk with my thumb out.

Clacket Lane is good for hitching and it’s not long before we find a lift to Maidstone Services, halfway to Dover. The man turns out to be an RAF fighter pilot who flies a Harrier Jet. He tells us all about the marvelous precision of Smart Bombs, the trigger-happy Americans in Iraq – which he can understand because “they [Iraqis] are always changing. One minute they love the British and the next they’re trying to shoot you and stealing your weapons.” It’s because they are “such simple people”, apparently. Our friend is an angry man. He hates Bush (at least we agree on something!) and is particularly enraged by the cuts in military spending, which he puts down to all the billions we apprently give in third world aid. “Charity should start at home”, he says. Military industrial complexes as the new Oxfam: an interesting perspective.

“Well, it takes allsorts!” David says as we wave goodbye to the fighter pilot. Our next lift is an older French couple, driving all the way to Paris. They offer a lift to Dover and I convince them to get us added to their ferry ticket, assuring them it will be free – it is. We now have a lift to Dunkirk – or Paris if we don’t get a better offer on the boat. These two aren’t in the military, but the man is a pilot. He’s head of a pivate pilots club and shows us a recording on his phone of a 14 year old nephew flying his helicoptor.

Knowing we already have a sure lift to Paris means we can take it easy on the ferry. We have a bite to eat and coffee while watching Dover recede through the spray-splattered plastic window, before asking where people are driving to. The second man I ask offers a lift to Brunssum, in the southernmost tip of The Netherlands. This in itself is tempting, and a slightly better offer than Paris, but he finishes it off by inviting us to spend the night in his two spare bedrooms and drop us off at a petrol station in the morning. Sold – to two scruffy travelers!

We sit and chat with him for an hour or so and are not far from port when he mentions he works for NATO. Oh..really…?

From then on conversation goes from bad to worse – on the ferry, down to the car and for the whole of the three hour jouney to Brunssum. He begins by telling David, who lives in and grew up in Scotland, that he finds Scottish people rather amusing… “Scotland only has a population of 7,000,000 people – less than Greater London – I just can’t understand why anyone would want to bother making a country with so few people…”

I spend half the journey feigning sleep while David attempts to hold down a political debate in the front. Every now and then I’m roused into saying something, but mostly I try to stay quiet, certain that if I begin speaking it will all end with us both being kicked out of the car in the middle of the night. I am such a sell-out.

“Most people in my experience don’t really want a lot of freedom…80% of people just want to be led, they don’t need University degrees at all…Someone’s got to cut your grass and someone’s got to flip your burgers…I’m not advocating it’s right or anything, but that’s just the way it is, it’s evolution and it’s ugly…The real problem is there’s just too many people in this world and everybody’s afraid to say it…Global warming is almost certainly happening, whether it’s us or not I jut don’t know…I’ve been to Israel. The Israeli’s all try to overcharge you and the Palestinians all try to steal from you…”

NATO Man's House

We arrive at his house – one of his four houses actually, (“you just tend to acquire them as you get older”) – and I go straight to bed, while David stays up long enough to drink a cup of tea and hear our increasingly fascist friend’s theories about Social Darwinism. “Don’t mind the stuff in the bedroom”, NATO-Man says as he goes to bed. The “stuff” turns out to be a flak jacket, helmet and machete. What would anyone do in this situation? Prance about the room in their underpants wearing the flak jacket and helmet while weilding the machete, surely. David has never felt more manly.

14th November (Day 2): Brunssum – Stuttgart
Countries: 2
kms: 533
Lifts: 3

We are awoken with military precision at the crack of dawn. Today NATO-Man will be attending a Rememberance Sunday march and curry (“curry is the most English thing imaginable The English invented the curry…”), for which he has yet to decide if he will wear his uniform: a swanky dark green affair with a small yet promising array of badges on the left breast. This we noted last night as he pointedly removed it from the back seat of his car in order to give us a little more room. After a quick tea and breakfast we are bustled out the door and driven to a less-than promising looking petrol station. David and I exchange glances, but what can we say? This evil man has been more than kind to us. We get out and thank him. He gives us a declassified NATO map of The Netherlands to help us find our way.

The garage is indeed less than promising and entails a long wait and a lot of asking bemused locals if they might perhaps be driving in the direction of Germany? They are not. We take turns standing on the road outside in the hope of attracting more traffic. We each get an offer of a lift, for one, but at different times and have to turn them both down. Eventually we’re taken pity on by a nice man into 80’s hair metal, who asks me to translate the lyrics of the song we’re listening to: “I hear you calling and it’s needles and pins (And pins!)…”

Two more lifts and we’re dropped in Stuttgart by a very nice German couple. The man works for Mercedes Benz and we note the big shining Mercedes symbol twirling away on top of the train station – the very station waiting to be extended to include another platform, destroying a local park and a lot of trees in the process. Actually, that’s why we’re here. There has been a strong local campaign and the park’s been occupied in opposition to the development. This protest recently attracted a lot of attention since the police used water-cannons on a crowd of demonstrators and quite literally blew a man’s eyes out.  We don’t tell this to our lift though. We have already heard they are in favour of the development, so we say goodbye and go off in search of the “friends” we will stay with.

It’s only 3:30pm, amazing! Better yet, it’s 22 degrees and the most beautiful day I’ve seen anywhere in months. We caught up with the weather – woohoo!

We find the park where the camp is and I’m immediately reminded of Gähler Park in Hamburg – decorated trees, banners hung high and a couple of very familiar looking tree platforms…it’s Robin Wood – no wonder it all looks so familiar! We have a look around. I’m expecting to see familiar faces, but am told the few Robin Wood people just stay up in the trees. Down here on the ground there seem to be various factions who keep themselves seperate: a lot of students, some crust punks and some conservative types with a stall.

There’s also a tea and snacks bar, staffed by a man in a fluoro jacket. We tell them we’re going to stay the night and ask where we might find some food. Immediate confusion: “Oh no, you can’t put a tent up, it’s illegal!” one woman informs me. “Well, we’re staying anyway,” I try to explain, “we’ve already spoken to other people and they all said it was fine”. “But it’s illegal!” she repeats. “Yes. Well, I’m not asking permition. I just wanted to know if there’s  food…?” Evidently not. We are permitted a cup of tea each but we have to find our own food. We go on an unsuccessful dumpster-hunt, and I end up buying a cheap Chinese before heading back and putting our tents up near some of the friendlier people, next to the Planetarium. David wonders aloud what it takes to make people do something – if they can blow someone’s eyes out and this is the level of response? It’s a good point.

15-16th November (Day 3 +a bit): Stuttgart – Ljubljana
Countries: 4
kms: 840
Lifts: 4

It’s nice to wake up in a park – even if we are surrounded by a city. Unfortunately the heat is gone and it’s raining.

We walk through drizzle to the Tourist Info Office to ask advice about how to hitch out of the city. The woman is obviously thrilled to be given such a unique and interesting task and sets about googling petrol stations and metro routes for us while I peruse the postcards. She comes up with a route she thinks will work and prints a map for us. What a helpful woman.

David has never jumped a train before, but there’s a first time for everything and we watch the city thin-out on the tram, with ticket collectors nowhere in sight.

The petrol station is hard to find and smaller than it seemed on the map. It’s not exactly a prime location, but after a lot of waiting we find a Kosovan and his friend who are heading our way, a least for a bit. First though they have to find an Esso petrol station and none are in sight. We drive around and around. It has to be Esso apparently, he only gets free fuel there. We are almost out of gas, but just in the nick of time we see one and are on our way again.

The next man isn’t going so far, but promises a lift to a nice big station on his way home to Leggoland. He doesn’t actually live in Leggoland, but he lives very close. Unfortunately we’re so engrossed in conversation he drives right past our service station, but is nice enough to drive off at the next exit and back the way we came, despite being almost out of gas himself.

This station looks excellent, but isn’t the prime location we thought and it gets dark quickly as rush hour traffic dies out. Getting to Ljubljana is looking decreasingly likely. I ask yet another man if he’s driving towards Salzburg – and he says yes! He doesn’t speak English or German, only Turkish. Can he take two of us? Yes! I’m back with the Turkish again!

This is David’s first time in a truck – another for the First Time collection. I practice my ten words of Turkish, much to our drivers delight, and when we arrive at the truck stop in Salzburg he sets us up with a new lift – all the way to Ljubljana! Our luck appears to be turning.

Ersin is driving via Trieste, overnight. Now, the more eagle-eyed reader will have noticed something wrong here. Stuttgart to Ljubljana is actually around 640km, not the 840km you see above on our statistics, and Trieste is most definitely not on the way. I communicate as best I can with our driver that we will get out at Villach. Not Triestse. Villach.

I wake up as we are driving past Villach. “Um…”

“No service here!” he shakes his head forlornly, but I can’t help feeling we’ve been tricked. It’s late and spending a few hours in a truck might be better than behind a service station – but we’re so close to Lubljana and we might get a lift. Still, we have no choice. We drive for hours and are dropped in Trieste at a giant truck stop near the port at 5am. “Shitting fuck”, I say under my breath as I wake up to see a “Turkish Ships” sign above us.

Ersin is going to sleep now. He points to the area where trucks to Slovenia park. Here we find one man awake and about to leave: a Ukranian without a word of English or any other languages I know hitching phrases in. I do my gesturing thing and he gets it. Yep, he’s going to Ljubljana, but he can only take one. Well, it might be like that for everyone – I convince David to go with him. I’ll take the next one.

It’s a long wait that sees daylight crawl out slowly. I buy a coffee from the only woman in the whole place, who speaks to me in Italian. It’s my first time in Italy. This would be exciting if I was supposed to be here. Men are emerging from cabs in various degrees of crabbiness. I am extremely tired and want nothing more than sleep, sleep, sleep. Moody Russians are not helping my mood.Why do they have to be so fucking impolite about it – not even looking at me or just looking disgusted? There’s one Turkish man, who invites me to smoke in his cab with him and is perfectly happy to take me to Turkey, but none of the people going to Slovenia will look me in the eyes.

Now more drivers are getting up and gethering in little groups with coffees and cigarettes. I try to find number plates that are anything but Russian, and to remember who I have already asked. A Serbian truck pulls in “Zdravo!” I say through the window, hoping to impress him with my ecclectic language skills. He’s not leaving for a while – nobody is actually, and he’s the first to mention it. There’s some sort of confusion and they all have to wait hours to get documents looked at. He tells me of another place nearby where I can try to hitch cars. Finally – somebody helpful!

Back on the autoroute I get my last lift with a businessman, all the way to Ljubljana.

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