by: James Stevenson
After my trip to Bristol, I wanted to curl up in my bed and never leave it. I definitely didn’t want to get back on the road again. But nicolas cage damn it, I’d started some stupid “Notes from the Road” series thing, and there was no turning back. And anyway, I wasn’t fooling myself. I still had restless feet. Grabbing funemployment by the horns, I wanted to hitchhike again, but I didn’t know where. But lo, a wild invitation appeared!
Wow! This guy from the internet was going to let me come hang out with him, and even better, we were going to play cube!
Two weeks passed, my cat woke me up at 6:30 in the morning, then my alarm went off at 7 and I jumped out of bed. I was excited, it felt like Christmas! I rammed a cup of coffee down my throat, shoved some juggling balls and douchey sunglasses into my backpack and strode boldly out the door, forgetting to bring my trades, my towel or clothes to sleep in. No matter! I knew I had my passport and wallet, everything else was just luxury.
I headed out on the train, watching the Shard and the Cheese Grater shrink in the distance. I didn’t have to mention the Cheesegrater, but I wanted to show off:
I’d just like to point out the top of the Gherkin there on the left, and then I’ll say no more. These pictures are supposed to be under wraps.
I abandoned the train in Sidcup, a town on the outskirts of the city, and trudged over towards the motorway. There’s a good spot here to hitch to Dover.
Bristol had taught me an important lesson about being outside: it’s really cold. This time I was prepared, wearing a wife-beater, a tshirt, two jumpers, a hat, a scarf, knee socks, leather gloves, and the most dilapidated shoes I’ve ever owned. The holes in the heels are so big you could smuggle immigrants in across borders in them. So naturally I was nice and toasty except for my hands. What the hell.
I held up my sign and smiled at the drivers blowing by me. As usual I got a lot of funny looks, and at least one guy slowed down to take a picture of me with his iPhone. That’s a new one. It didn’t take too long before someone flashed their lights at me and picked me up. I jumped in his car and we sped away.
“I work in a bank,” he told me. “So I’m responsible for all the world’s problems.”
I laughed and agreed. He was a interest swap salesman for Societe General. I showed a lot of interest in his work and he seemed to be really surprised. I don’t think he saw anything interesting in it at all.
After driving for five minutes he let me out at a motorway intersection. I was probably better off waiting in Sidcup, but at least I could look at the gloom of the sky, feel the rain waft apathetically against my face, admire the gray death of the road, sigh and laugh and say “ah, England” affectionately.
It didn’t take long until I was picked up by a car mechanic. He’d grown up in Zimbabwe, in the typical walled white-people compound, away from the blacks. He did not like the blacks.
“When I was growing up,” he said, “you know, if I came home with a Black girl, I’d be disowned. That was how I was raised. I try to be a bit more lenient on my own kids, but you know, that’s still what I think. You know, when I was raised we had discipline. These days, you know, you get your belt out on your kid and social services are gunna take ‘em away.”
“Yeah it’s absurd,” I said, “I mean, as long as you’re not beating the shit out of yours kids, a little discipline is important.”
“There’s no hope for this country,” he lamented. “If they can’t fix the immigration nothing is going to improve. You know people just camp in Calais until they can get onto a ship. If they’re caught they just send them back, you know? And then they just do it again. If they make it to England they pay people off to get papers and get work.”
“And you know, the other thing is the social services. People are taking advantage of them. I saw something on TV about a woman living in a 7-bedroom house that she pays for with unemployment! She has six kids or something, and she won’t get a job! I tell ya, this country’s fucked.”
He let me out by a motorway entrance, where I held up my Dover sign once more.
About twenty minutes passed and he reappeared again, in another car.
“I’ll just take you a bit further, to the services. That’ll be better for ya!”
I thanked him heartily. What a dude!
It was a good sized service station, with lots of people going in and out. Of course, half the people were going the other way, back towards London. I even met several people that were coming from Belgium. I took up a spot outside the shop and started asking people if they could give me a lift.
Pretty soon an Irish man walked past me and said something completely unintelligible. Assuming he was turning me down, I replied “Ah, don’t worry, I’ll find someone.”
He turned around.
“Where you headed?”
“I’ll give you a lift to Dover, just give me a minute.”
A minute later he returned.
“I just went inside and I thought how terribly rude of me, to be drinking a coffee in front of you and not offer you one. Can I get you anything?”
I gladly accepted, and a few minutes later I was in his car, warming my hands on a latte. We shook hands and exchanged names, then off we zoomed towards the sea! He was a lovely chap, on his way to referee a rugby match in Dover. We shot the bull for an hour and it was very pleasant. I can’t for the life of me remember what we talked about or what his name was.
“(Insert correct name here), right?” I asked as we parted, making sure to remember his name.
“Aye, that’s right,” he said, and off he drove.
I pointed my feet towards the ferry landing and smiled at the sound of seagulls. I love reaching the sea, I love the sea air, I love the horizon. But it’s always the sound of seagulls that makes me happy. I grew up on the coast of New Jersey, so it takes me back a little.
It should be easy to get a ride onto the ship here, since it doesn’t cost people any more money to have extra passengers. You need to hang around the ticket office and talk to people as they go in. There wasn’t much traffic at the office, but plenty of people were driving straight to the ship, having already reserved. I stood by that road and held up a thumb, walking to the ticket office now and then to ask people for rides.
Two Asian kids from the London School of Economics turned up wearing ridiculous onesies. They were holding one sign saying “PARIS” and another saying “4 CHARITY”. I put my douche glasses on and we stood smiling at drivers as they blew past us. I’m fairly certain nobody knew we would be free to take.
An hour or two passed before anyone pulled over. He was sending a text and ignored us completely. I don’t even think he noticed us. The Asian girl ran over to him and asked if he would take us. Completely apathetic either way, he sent the girl inside to confirm that it didn’t cost him any money. She ran back in a couple minutes and we all piled into the car.
My attention was immediately caught by some RnB music video playing on the navigation screen in the dashboard. Our driver must have done some crazy wizard hacker shit so he could play this stuff while he drove.
“Cool,” I said, pointing at the screen.
We rolled through three passport checks with R. Kelly preaching romance and champagne at us, and somehow managed to hear “Happy People” three times in a row. Our driver, Jan, was a good looking black dude heading home to Amsterdam. He wore a Gucci coat with the biggest fur hood I have ever seen, G-Star jeans and an assortment of fly looking accessories. On the ship he sat by himself, brooding over some game on his phone while I hung out with the Asians.
Their names were Danny and Ying, they’d never hitch hiked before, and they didn’t have much idea about what they were going to do that night. They were doing jailbreak, meaning they had 36 hours to get as far from their university as possible without spending any money, so they couldn’t even pay for a place to stay. We asked Jan if he would take us all to Antwerp, and he didn’t mind at all.
The bathrooms on the ship had some really good life advice:
We got back in the car with Jan and started into the music videos again. I had big questions on my mind. Where the hell is Sean Paul from? Is he white? Does that count as singing? How does the channel tunnel work? How DO magnets work? If a libertarian falls in a forest and nobody hears, does CML rant about it?
Jan took us all the way to Antwerp and went on his way, leaving an aura of romance and money is his wake. He’d hardly a word the entire time. I texted Jason where I was and the LSE kids went off to find a hostel. As it turned out they hid in the basement and made it to Brussels the next day.
I waited in the dark for my host. It was around 9pm now, the sun was long gone and a dreary mist was drifting from the sky. Here I was, about to meet this man from the internet, this gracious stranger who was not really a stranger at all. What would he be like? Which of us was the greater nerd? Would we just talk about magic for two days? Would he like me? Would he like the tokens I made him? Nicolas Cage I hope he likes the tokens I made him.
“James!” I heard from behind me. I turned, and there he stood in the gray, a majestic figure. His shining steed stood by, stayed under his touch. “You made it,” he said. “I’ve got you a city bike pass so we can rent bikes to get around.”
“Wow your voice is a lot deeper than I imagined,” I said.
“Ah, I guess you haven’t listened to the chatcast then.”
“Oh no, I haven’t!” I was genuinely shocked at myself. How could I not have listened to the chatcast? How rude of me!
“Let’s go to my house, we can talk more there. It’s best not to talk while cycling. Oh by the way, I, uh, don’t really obey the traffic laws. I hope that’s ok with you.”
“Awesome, me neither,” I grinned. I’m the one that ran a red light in front of a cop the other day. He had pulled me over and explained the function and usage of handlebars, while I pretended to be surprised and interested.
Jason and I zoomed off into the night towards two excellent days of fun. We played just the right amount of magic, ate lots of delicious food, met lots of cool people, and bullshitted about all kinds of stuff. We hit up lots of cool cafes in Antwerp, tried lots of beer and discussed the many women in Jason’s life. I even had the pleasure of seeing Jason’s wife as I emerged one morning, though she wouldn’t make eye contact with me and stormed out pretty quickly.
Jason has two amazing dogs, Brody and Lillaboo. On my last night we slept with them in the bed, and I had the most sublime moment. Lillaboo, a tiny, adorable puggle, was under the covers next to my feet, and I could feel her tongue lapping against my ankle for several minutes. I could just picture her stupid face staring intently into the dark as she licked my foot over and over. The moment was beautiful and absurd, and I had to strain not to burst out laughing and wake Jason.
Jason’s alarm woke us up the next morning with the loudest, most upbeat, most annoying alarm song I’ve ever heard. His reactions were lightning fast, and shut that thing off as quick as he could. We ate a sad final meal and walked out towards the motorway. When we reached the place where our paths diverged we stopped.
“James,” he said, “it’s been real.”
It had been real. It’s a shame you live so far away, Jason, we should hang.
We shook hands and tried to hold back our tears. As I boarded the ship, though, I couldn’t contain my sadness and the tears began to flow. As I stood drifting away on the deck I watched as Jason waved his handkerchief, glowing in the glory of the sunrise. I turned and buried my face in the shoulder of the towering black man next to me at the railing. Would I ever see this man again? This gracious stranger from the internet?
“Come back some time,” he said.
“I hope I do. You’ve got a place to stay in London too, if you ever want.”
I turned and walked away down the street. It was a straight road to the motorway entrance, so naturally I got lost for a whole hour before I found it. When I got there I held up a sign for the E17 and I kid you not, it took less than two minutes before I got picked up.
The road home was easy. My first lift was with an architect heading to Gent. We had a good chat. How I manage to talk to strangers at 8 in the morning always surprises me. In my home all I can say at 8am is “wuuuurg coffee.” My driver said he picks up hitchhikers all the time, since he drives around a lot for his job. He took me to a gas station and let me out. I went inside and had one of the worst cups of coffee I’ve ever had. In the bathroom someone had written “bufallo bufallo kwek kwek kwek”.
I got another quick lift towards Dunkirk. My driver didn’t speak much English so it was a pretty quiet ride. I managed to find out that he was a train driver, and I explained somewhat that I was a worthless middle class mathematics graduate with no job. He let me out in a small gas station near the French border.
There was one other person in the station, a business man with German plates. I approached him and asked, in my best German, if he could give me a lift towards Dunkirk or Calais. As it turned out, he was driving to Glasgow, and agreed to take me through the Eurotunnel and drop me somewhere near London.
We hit the road and started talking awkwardly in English. He seemed to be having trouble switching over to English mode, which I found odd for a guy headed to a meeting in Glasgow. Then again the poor man was heading to Glasgow, famous for having an impenetrable accent (amongst other things, I assume).
It didn’t take long before we switched to German, and once we did this we started getting along brilliantly. He was adamant that I should practise my German, and I wholeheartedly agreed. I remember sitting in the terminal for the Eurotunnel while he asked me questions about London, just to get me speaking. We talked about all kinds of things; art, business, travel, and my favourite topic: food. My driver turned out to be a modular architecture salesman heading to a meeting. He was a good guy and we had a really nice ride.
I really nerded out on the Eurotunnel. That thing is cool.
We reached the outskirts of London and found a train station. We shook hands warmly. “Maybe one day I’ll give you a lift in Belgium again,” he smiled.
I laughed and walked away, smiling to myself. It had been a really fun few days. As I sat on the train watching the buildings rise around me and the CCTV cameras emerge, I hoped I’d be able to write about it without sounding like a pretentious git. The Shard loomed out of the fog, then my beloved Cheese Grater too. I saw some woman fall over while holding a baby and some old guy stoop to help her up. I saw countless tourists looking at random shit, and people going every which way.
The train pulled in at some station from Monopoly and that’s the last remarkable thing from the trip. I didn’t really know what to do so I went home and went back on riptidelab. Sigh. Time to get a job.