Location: Paris, FRANCE
When you travel like this, you must have faith in the goodness of others. You must trust that a stranger is merely a stranger, and not some diabolical con artist.
Consider the magnitude of downright good luck required to begin your day in the middle of bumfuck Normandy and arrive in the center of Paris in a mere three lifts. Luckier things have happened, but still…
If you’re thinking it isn’t that difficult, consider how big Paris is. 10 million people in the metropolitan area. 20 miles of suburbs in all directions. Traffic. Lots of it. And headaches. And pollution. And stress! (Most travelers like yourself are in agreement: smaller cities are preferable; this has less to do with what a city actually has to offer, and far more to do with the stress of entering and exiting it.)
You need to arrive at your host’s flat by 7:00pm.
Stick out your thumb.
Your first hurdle is to get from the countryside to the motorway, which requires a town-by-town leap frog. People see your sign and think you might be going to the center. But no. You need the other side of town. The road out!
You need an unambiguous stretch of highway on which people would have to be “selfish assholes” not to help two pretty young backpackers out.
You are packed into vehicles driven by women–vehicles with too little space, but great ambition. Ambition enough to squeeze you in and take you out of the way, a few kilometers, to an optimal waiting point. If your drivers do no such thing, you lose an hour walking the difference.
And it adds up.
At last, the motorway toll booth. One vehicle–one more acceptable inconvenience from one more driver–stands between you and hundreds of kilometers of fast motorway progress.
Only before anyone is persuaded to stop, a road service agent approaches. You bristle, prepared for a fight, because for the first time ever, you are being approached, and yet you have done nothing illegal.
You are surprised when he encourages you to stand directly at the ticket booth.
“Then the drivers must slow down. And then you can talk to them,” he explains.
Front row seats!
The spot is atrocious, considering how little traffic heads east. You suspect a few liars. But after a 45-minute wait, a man finally stops. He can take you all the way to Paris, because he must travel much further east than that.
This man, Evan, is someone you trust to help you. To drop you in a convenient location without overly inconveniencing himself.
Hitch hiking requires some skill and some luck–and a lot of non-intrusive persuasion. You know this from years of experience, successes, and failures. You now do things you hadn’t considered in the past because you hadn’t, at the time, understood their importance in persuading someone to go out of their way.
After all, picking up a hitch hiker isn’t just about letting someone in and out of your car so long as you don’t have to veer off course.
Picking up a hitch hiker is taking responsibility for someone’s successful travel.
And as a hitch hiker, to facilitate your own successful travel, you pay great attention to:
- Appearance – This matters the most. It determines how many people will actually stop. It isn’t just about being female; you know more boys who hitch hike than girls, and they do just fine. It’s about looking clean; looking the part; looking safe and non-threatening; looking like someone who does not alienate others. Treat hitch hiking a bit like a job interview.
- Their intention – This comes first. Find out where the driver is going. It would be idiocy to climb into a car with someone who was never going your way in the first place. Or it just ends up being a joy ride.
- Your intention – Are you trying to get from A to B on time? Do you have a loose itinerary? Do you go where the wind blows? Do you have a strategy? Knowing your plan is one thing; executing it is another. You must jump on the first available (and polite) second to state your intention–where you are really trying to go (if your sign suggests something ambiguous). This gives your driver the most possible time to deliberate on how much he is willing to inconvenience himself on your behalf as you…
- Cultivate your opportunity – In other words, “make your driver like you.” If someone likes you, he’ll do you a favor.
When Evan suggests he drop you approximately 30 kilometers from where you really needed to be, you feel only generally satisfied. He is getting you from Laval to the Paris outer ring road, which is 280 kilometers already. If he drops you at a service station on the motorway, it will be only a matter of time before someone else takes you nearer to the city center.
There are, however, 20 miles of suburbs in all directions, and the mere inner ring of Paris is still over 10km across. Anyone can be going to any neighborhood. Unlike leap-frogging from the outskirts of one little town to the outskirts of another, during which your drivers almost certainly inconvenience themselves a few kilometers, asking a Parisian driver to drop you in a specific location is asking him to:
- Drive as much as 20km out of his way
- Lose at least 45 minutes of his time
- Fight Paris traffic (in rush hour!)
- Cover the fuel it took to do it
No easy decision to make.
You set hard at work in conversation, telling Evan everything about yourself and Katie; the two of you have been working on a horse farm in Normandy, doing some carpentry in exchange for room and board. You tell him all about wwoofing, workaway, and couchsurfing, and how a few months back the two of you decided to quit your jobs and begin a two-year-journey of the world–possibly longer. You explain your lifestyle, your principles, your ethics, and your motivations. You tell stories, highlighting specifically a few troubles you have had with men.
In due time, you ask all about him, and learn that he had been an accountant for 15 years before making a career change five years ago, just before the financial meltdown. It’s tough being a plasterer in these times. He explains how he’d never had the opportunity to travel when he was younger. He’d gotten married, had thee children, and was simply doing everything he could to make sure his children would have a good life, and that they would not have to grow up dependent on him, or he dependent on them.
“It is the best gift I can give them,” he says in French.
You say the best thing he can do–especially as a former accountant–is set them up to understand how money works, so that they learn to manage it effectively, and learn that opportunities are everywhere.
“They must learn not to waste their resources,” you say.
Evan is in agreement. He has a chip on his shoulder about the Baby Boomer population, and their ethic which paved the road to the current world economy.
You push the conversation onward, into subject matter that animates you. And before there is time to back out, you are stumbling in French, trying to convey…
“We must learn to economize. To share. To value private ownership a little less, but still protect it–for that is what gives incentive to develop. But we must trust each other more. Rely on each other as humans a little more. We do not only need to economize in our wallets, but in our culture.”
This second-language philosophical struggle leads Katie to snort in the back seat. She knows no French, but understands very well what you are blathering on about.
Evan finally cracks a smile. Says, “We must pause our philosophical discussion for a moment while I pay the toll, and then we will find a spot to discuss the map.”
Behold the map!
yellow star = where he wanted to drop you
red star = where you needed to be
blue star = where he decided to drop you
purple arrows = Evan’s inbound and outbound directions.
The big, hairy, messy Paris area. A hitch hiker’s nightmare. Few cities are as formidable as Paris.
The topic is back on the table: where to drop the girls.
You insist that where he wants to drop you, while a high inbound traffic area, is not ideal for you. You say you would prefer that he literally dump you as he heads outbound, and that you can walk the rest of the distance as the crow flies, if need be.
(Of course you know that there are few, if any, dropping points in a road system like that. That dumping you really means dumping you. You’ve been dropped on motorways, ramps, bridges, and all manner of dodgy dangerous places, mostly by old ladies who don’t give a damn or know any better).
- Know your roads – While it is generally good to trust the locals for advice, hitch hiking road advice is seldom one of those features (unless the local is a truck driver). If you are confident in your study of entry and exit points, roadways, and strategy, do not take the advice of your drivers, unless they have a shoved a GPS under your nose. The reason is simple: drivers think like drivers, not like hitch hikers. Hitch hiking requires walking stamina. Also, most drivers drive by familiar route memory, and less often by knowledge of roadways.
Roads high in traffic might be totally inappropriate for obtaining a lift, and hence, it is better to simply end up within walking distance (or cheap subway distance) of your destination than 30 kilometers from the center. One guarantees a timely arrival, with possibly greater effort; the other leaves a little too much to chance.
No phone. No GPS. No detailed maps.
Evan has them all. He consults them for about 10 minutes.
As you are suggesting he drop you around Creteil, which would not really inconvenience him at all, and would leave you within walking distance of your host’s flat–a distance you could manage to cover before 7pm–he silences you.
…and he deliberates.
Then punches in the blue star location.
“I will take you to this port, here. It’s not so difficult.”
You beam at him gratefully, for this is unexpected. But not surprising. You have nurtured your relationship with Evan for 3 hours.
But he is wrong about the difficulty. His sweet gesture is about to cost him over an hour of his time, even after he’d stated multiple times how he hated cities, how the traffic really stressed him out, and how the pollution was oppressive.
He drops you at the best possible location, just short of your doorstep.
Faith in others! That if you establish a great rapport with them, they will be kind in turn. You and Katie are tickled to arrive in Paris in such a timely fashion. Only one thing stands between you and success: the notion that your host is a real person.
Remember that bit about being a diabolical con artist!
In your fatigue and anxiety-soaked thoughts, you play out a scenario in which a guy on the internet baits you from Normandy to Paris with promises of a centrally located flat, one full week of free accommodation, and weekend activities. He gives you his name and address, phone number, and other details about himself readily, and makes you feel happy and easy. He is a good communicator. He replies on time, thoughtfully. His references on Couch Surfing are impeccable.
Sounds like the perfect host.
You do not wonder why you didn’t have an apartment number, or a door code, or even his last name. That is, until the moment comes.
So when you arrive at his apartment 45 minutes early (having failed to find it at first, and suddenly panicking about the prospects of being given a fake address), you realized there is no way into the building. Just a key pad. No further instructions.
Fear, fear, fear!
“Now what?” Katie asks, her voice a little strained. She isn’t used to this.
You explain to her that not having a few seemingly crucial details is more common than thought (but that doesn’t mean you are comfortable with that).
You can either call, or wait in the cold on the stoop for 45 minutes and agonize–grind the gears in your head non-stop–about whether your host is a real person, or simply having a laugh. If he is real and already at home, you have no way of ringing his door bell.
A younger version of Maria would have sat and agonized, too withdrawn to even ask a kind stranger for the use of their phone. She would have sat, rocked, jittered, and worried needlessly for the whole time. She would have wondered if this diabolical con artist would give you a crisis of faith in others. She would have wondered if he would arrive on time, or simply flake out on you, as had happened already in Gent.
But forcing such a thing on Katie is not acceptable. And besides, your French is far better than it had been in the past.
Find some guys–make the call.
Vincent is a real person. He arrives five minutes early, sweet, polite, and welcoming.
And you explain that you didn’t mean to be jumpy or nervous about him not being there–but that the situation with the door code was unusual, and if he hadn’t answered the phone, you would have needed the extra time to swiftly begin arranging a backup plan.
Dear readers, this is not an illegitimate concern, as you would later learn.
While Vincent is the perfect host, and you and Katie are the luckiest guests, some arrangements do not go so well. Even when the circumstances seem perfect, they can go horribly wrong.
Mark, in green, on the right, in a half-sleep, severely jet-lagged (having flown from Canada to London, and then hitched from London to Paris all within the last 48 hours.) And “Caveman” passed out, on the left, having drank too much.
Imagine you are Mark. You have had five hours of sleep since flying from Canada to London, and then hitching from London to Paris. It is 2 o’clock in the morning, and you want nothing more than to go back to your host’s flat and sleep like the dead.
Sleep like the dead.
But you can’t, because your jerky host got too wasted, slurred a whole bunch, passed out while fondling the legs of a 19-year-old Turkish girl. Futhermore, you know that he insists that you move out by noon the next day, because he “likes Saturdays to himself.”
All without sleep.
You beg everyone at the Party to let you crash their flat the next day, but everyone has an excuse. You plead with the party’s host (Maria and Katie’s host) to possibly let you sleep on the living room floor for the afternoon, while Caveman is dead to the world. You eventually fall asleep around 4 or 5 in the morning, unsure of how the next day will go.
And when you wake up the next morning, you learn that Caveman is gone! That he’d literally risen and abandoned you in a flat clear across Paris.
This does happen.
Fortunately for Mark, he had you, Katie, and Vincent for company. You left him your set of keys, your sleeping bag, your laptop, and anything else he might need for a comfortable afternoon of abandonment.
As for Caveman… well. This wasn’t his first offense. A negative reference on his profile declared that two girls had arrived at his flat at 10pm–as scheduled–and knocked and yelled outside his door for two hours. The neighbors finally made them stop. The two girls, defeated, had to sleep on his door step. They eventually heard Caveman moving around his apartment at 7am. He’d been inside the whole time, too drunk and passed out to hear them arriving.
Faith in others to hold up their end of the bargain.
Faith in others not to leave you stranded.
Faith in others to help you out of a bind.
Perhaps your biggest fear is that when the time comes, no one will step up to the plate and you’ll have a crisis of faith (such as when you plead with a restaurant owner to use his toilet due to a feminine emergency, and he turns you away). This is why you must “Always be prepared to be 100% independent of anyone else for food, shelter, and/or transportation at any time.”