Blog posts about emotional break downs, sexual harassment, and other sensational topics are a cheap way of getting attention. You’d like to dedicate this post to the utterly amazing luck you had, to serve as a reminder for how many awesome opportunities and acts of kindness travel truly affords.
It was your last day of hitch hiking—the last day of this particular seven-week solo couch-surfing stint. Two weeks ago, after your meltdown in Sofia, you realized you had reached a turning point: your energy had waned, and you could easily have ended your trip then. But two long weeks loomed ahead, and you were agonizing over whether you would manage to reach Zadar, all the way in Croatia, in time to catch a plane to Dublin, which only departed twice per week.
Last day. You woke early, to ensure that nothing would cause you—such as a delayed departure from your host’s home—to fail to reach Zadar. You hopped onto a tram, took it to the edge of the city, and began to beat a precarious path along a busy highway, for which there was absolutely no shoulder. Just a narrow curb, hugged by mud, just one foot from the guard rail. You walked for quite some time, legitimately concerned—for the first time ever—of being struck down by a car.
You were more concerned—irrationally so—about the prospect of no one stopping for you; you began your day with a bizarre fantasy that the Thumbing Fates would conspire against you, not allow a timely return home. And if that happened? If you missed your flight? What would you do? Suffer, cry, throw a tantrum, throw money—a lot of money—at your problem, and scratch and claw your way to Ireland.
Of course someone stopped. His name was slur-blurb-ch-ske-something-or-other, but his nickname was Sunny. He was a good talker and a nice listener. He was driving perhaps 40 minutes your way, before he would eventually peel off in another direction, to his home in the mountains.
“How about a coffee?” he said, as he pulled into a large service station on the side of the motorway.
“Sure.” After all, you wanted a proper coffee, and you didn’t have any more money to get one later.
Over coffee, he talked about himself, his work in film studies, his world travels, his cultural study on Japan, and how the world could really benefit from following the Japanese ethic. You talked to him about your travels, your most recent horrible day of hitch hiking, and the guy who wanted a blow job. He told you about Zadar, what you should see if you had the time. Finally…
“Question,” he said. “If you could have three wishes, what would they be.”
It wasn’t difficult to answer. “I would wish that when I die, I will feel that I have had a happy and fulfilling life. I would wish a happy and fulfilling life to all my friends and loved ones. And… I would wish for sound lifelong health.”
Sunny seemed to really like you, though you weren’t sure if he was so easy-going with everyone.
“What kind of food do you eat?”
You warned him not to get you started talking about food. You tried to summarize.
“How about I take you down the road, but then we get off and drive 20 kilometers into the mountains to my house. I will make you a delicious, healthy, vegetarian meal, and we can pick some greens in the forest. When we’re done, I’ll bring you to another benzine station on the road directly going to Zadar at 4 o’clock. No blow job.”
You laughed. You felt easy. The day was still very young. Why not?
Sunny was an incredible host, and did everything he said he would. He had traveled all over the world, received so much kindness from others, that he was merely paying it forward. He was a bachelor, and seemed to have every intention of remaining one. He did not feel lonely, never got bored, and simply enjoyed sharing time and his passions with others.
What you loved most was that he was a foodie. Everything in his kitchen—every ingredient—was of gourmet quality. You stared in awe as he unpacked a trunk load of fresh, delicious food into his refrigerator, and went about preparing figs, olives, and glasses of local brandies for you.
“You can take a shower, go in the sauna if you want,” he offered. But you were perfectly content to grill him (pun intended) about his relationship with food and his travel stories, one of which was unbearably poetic.
Growing up in Communist Croatia, Sunny read Kerouac and decided at 14 that he wanted to travel. He was a good student and a good worker, and picked up a job to earn some cash. When his summer vacation came, he began hitch hiking around Europe and eventually landed in Paris, penniless. He curled up with his rucksack in the train station and tried to catch a few hours of sleep. When he awakened, it seemed as though someone had been going through his bag, rearranging things.
He looked around, confused, and finally spotted a group of young men watching him. They admitted that it had been they who’d searched his bag, looking for something to steal, but had found nothing. Realizing that he was just another vagabond, they offered to let him join their group, which was in fact a gang of pickpocketers. For a month, Sunny ran with this crew, learning how to steal, but never doing so.
At some point, the boys were invited to a party chalk full of showgirls and prostitutes. Sunny sat about and sipped a mint-flavored, sweet non-alcoholic drink. A prostitute named Denise approached him and asked what he was doing hanging around that lot. He couldn’t sufficiently answer. She invited him to come back with her to her flat—said he could sleep there because she worked nights anyway.
In the morning, when she returned, she gave him 50 francs and told him to busy himself during the day while she slept, but that he could come back at night. Every day, for several weeks, it was the same. In the morning, she would return from work and hand him 50 francs. Sunny spent much of his time wandering the city, hanging around Notre Dame, but usually remained in the cinema and watched hours of silent films. This, he said, was the time when he became interested in film.
One night, Denise came home and said that she didn’t have to work. She took him out to a posh restaurant instead and got him drunk for the first time of his life. “Have you ever been with a woman?” she asked. He admitted, at 14, with a whispy little mustache, that he had never gone beyond the point of kissing a girl and touching her breasts above the clothes. Denise led him home and educated him. It only happened that one night.
As the summer drew to a close, he told Denise that he would have to leave in just a few days to return home and continue with school. She admonished him—told him it was too soon to stop traveling, and that he should at least see London.
She took him to the road, solicited a lift for him, and bade him farewell. Sunny went to the London train station, put his bag in a locker, and then reached into the pocket of his coat. In it was 5,000 Francs.
Over the years, he returned to Paris several times. He found many of the other women who had worked in his neighborhood, but no one had heard anything from Denise since that particular summer.
Transfixed by his story, you head heavy with so much brandy and raki (from his neighbors, who also gave you a small bottle of their homemade product to take to Ireland), you couldn’t think of how to respond. On the one hand, it was beautiful, fascinating, and the stuff that movies are made of (he was a professor of film studies, wasn’t he?). On the other, you felt envious; you didn’t have such a life-defining story from your travels.
Or maybe you did. To be fair, the impressions of a fourteen-year-old are quite different from the impressions of a twenty-something. Before a plate of soft, buttery greens and potatoes, you related to him a few of your own stories from travel—the ones you’ve never blogged about, or at least obscured—the poignant and impactful moments, the poetic melancholy. He listened, attentive.
The clock was ticking, and you realized that it was almost 4 o’clock and you were nowhere near the motorway. Anxiety and irrational fear churned in your stomach. You lost your appetite. Though you intimated to Sunny that you were anxious to get on your way and reach Zadar before the sun went down, he didn’t seem pressed to jump into the car and drive you straight away.
“We’ll eat first. You mustn’t go hungry.”
What would otherwise have been a sensational gastronomic experience was dulled by mild nausea. Outright rejection of food. You tired to distract yourself by talking about lessons you’d learned traveling, but your emotions reigned supreme; the anxiety of missing your flight, feeling out of control, of being deep in the mountains far from Zadar eclipsed common sense. You shoveled the food down your gullet and twitched impatiently as he washed dishes, drank his beer, smoked a cigarette.
It all worked out in the end. He drove you straight to the station he had mentioned. During the ride, you apologized for feeling so anxious—worrying ran in your family.
“Fear is always about one of three things: fear of pain, fear of death, or fear of loneliness,” he said. “But I think fear is irrational.”
You didn’t care if it was rational or not. Fear sucks. And you were definitely in the third category. Fear of missing your flight was truly a fear of loneliness. What if! What if you couldn’t get to Zadar, couldn’t get the bus, couldn’t find the airport, slept in, or—worse–the flight was canceled! The past two weeks of consideration, preparation, articulation of fatigue, and finalization of your journey would be… for nothing! And you would be stuck. Alone.
Calm down. If that happens, you aren’t going to die.
But that was just it. It wasn’t fear of death or pain. It was fear of crushing disappointment from being unable to reconnect with your folks at home. You have not felt so much anxiety since (barring any of your bad come-downs) your freshman year in high school, before basketball games, when you were fearful of humiliation and bullying from an older girl (Yes, you were bullied! And Gloria, if you’re reading this, you are forgiven).
It was nearly 5 o’clock, the sky was dark and overcast, a light rain sprinkled, and you fretted. Sunny waited coolly with you until you got a lift from a man who appeared very apprehensive about taking a hitch hiker, but who was driving directly to Zadar and had no sufficient excuse to refuse you.
“But I… no speak English.”
“That’s okay!” you said, and you could feel the anxiety melting out of your stomach.
You said your goodbyes to Sunny who said that if you return to the area, you should contact him and he will invite you back to his place, show you the mountains, and even take you on a sailing trip in August, if you were up for it.
Your new driver was a 51-year-old divorcee, whose name you couldn’t pronounce, so you settled on calling him Aurelio. He truly had difficulties communicating with you, but within ten minutes, after he learned that you were just a nice little auto-stopper at the end of a 7-week trip, worried about missing your flight—oh, and that despite a week-long attempt to secure a couch in Zadar, no one could host you and so you were intending to camp near the airport—he said, “Maybe I help.”
He made some phone calls, then put you on to one of his friends in Zadar, Demir, who spoke English.
“Hello, Maria. How are you?” The man’s voice sounded like a really tacky Mexican impression.
“I’m tired, but otherwise well, thank you.”
“I think maybe my friend should bring you to my place when you get to Zadar. Maybe we can have a drink or something? I live 5km from Zadar.”
It was a walkable distance, though it would put you, he said, nearly 20km from the airport. “And how will I get to the airport?” you asked.
“Don’t worry. We can talk about that later.”
Once again, you put your fate in the hands of strangers and agreed to go to this man’s house.
Imagine your luck! Never have you had such a rich and fabulous day of hitching. Yes, there have been amazing drivers. There were the two gay guys in France who greeted you just after your escape from Spain, the land of pervy truckers and construction workers; they’d taken you 300km, to their house, given you an authentic French crepe-making demonstration, poured glasses of wine, stuffed cheese into you, and eventually gave you a dance show.
Recently, there was Florin, a 32-year-old doctor with his own business in interior design and a passion for flying airplanes. He drove you several hours, bought you lunch, gushed enthusiastically to you about his business, dropped you straight at the border of Romania and Hungary, and made you accept a bunch of cash—split between Romanian and European currencies—totaling just over 30 Euro. He said that if you came back, he was certainly host you and perhaps give you a tour of the region in his low-flying airplane.
But this! This experience was unlike anything you’ve had hitch hiking, occurring literally back-to-back with Sunny. A real jaw-dropper.
The house was enormous, and situated in one of the most beautiful touristy places you’ve seen in all of Europe. Aurelio pulled through the automatic gate and parked. A garage door opened, revealing a shiny BMW, a Harley Davidson, and a Ducati, plus another covered vehicle. The garage reeked of money.
The house was dripping with it. Beautifully constructed, lavish, and despicably ostentatious—from the bunches of fresh white and red roses positioned throughout the dining room, the to modern 12-foot-long chandelier, to the shining black and silver meat slicer that, presumably, took the role of artwork in his home.
Your host invited you to sit on a black leather sofa, opposite his plush white one, and served you champagne. His English left something to be desired, but you didn’t care. These men had arranged a place for you to sleep, certainly better than your tent. They fed you, filled you with champagne, talked about their divorces (you certainly piqued their interest when you spoke of yours), and eventually called it a night.
You were led upstairs to a private guest room—nothing short of a warm, full-bed hotel room with an attached bath, and assured that you would be driven promptly to the airport the following morning, with plenty of time to catch your flight.
It was the best last-day of travel you’ve ever had.