Hitching

Near the end of my next to last year at school, aged sixteen still, having through an unfortunate mixture of stupidity and inexperience lost my delightful English girlfriend, I was lucky enough (I think through the good offices of friends) to meet Cecile on the top deck of a bus from Tunbridge Wells. She was an elfin wisp of a thing on an exchange visit with the grammar school. In addition to a pretty face, a mischievous smile and an airy summer dress she had an enchanting French accent and came from St Tropez, which I happened to remember was where Brigitte Bardot lived. What could be more tantalisingly romantic? Unfortunately she was due to go back to her French home almost immediately so we were unable to take things any further but she gave me her address and I promised to write and to come and see her.

I’m not sure I ever wrote to her and it wasn’t until the summer after, the summer before uni, that I managed to undertake the journey. I didn’t have much money of course so I had to hitch-hike. In those days of course it was an almost universally accepted practice among the young, especially students; we felt it was part of our rights as young people and often that it had a socialist force to it, a logical, fair sharing of resources, which was easy to feel when almost none of us had cars or even enough money to travel far by train. Of course we inevitably came across drivers who were helping us out against the opposing strong beliefs that we were freeloaders and ought to pay for our travel by working.

In those days I believe it cost two pounds as a pedestrian on the Dover Calais ferry. I bought a return ticket, which everyone said was prudent, for obvious reasons, though there was no saving involved. I planned to travel via Paris, keeping to the largest routes. My parents had arranged for me to travel with the son of friend of a friend of about my age on the first part of the journey. We must have been a bit of a contrast as he was much taller than me and strongly built and I was ridiculously thin at the time. We didn’t know each other at all really but found that together we made rather a hit with the French girls, which only amounted to a lot of smiling, friendly service in boulangeries, bars and hostels and some harmless flirtation; it made a cheerful introduction to France. We split up pretty quickly, in part due to the vagaries of hitch-hiking, but I had a different aim and valued my independence anyway.

Luck becomes a matter of supreme importance in hitch-hiking. It is always possible to get picked up first thing and whisked hundreds of miles to your destination in luxury, possibly even by a friendly, interesting and generous driver. On the other hand you can spend the whole day or several days trying not to give way to despair as thousands of vehicles pass you by without a glance or the slightest variation in speed.

My journey through northern France did not start well. As darkness fell around nine thirty I was stuck in rural Normandy with hundreds of miles to go, it was rather cold and it was raining. I had had a lift in a lorry which had turned off the main road in this rather remote area given over to wheat and probably other cereal crops. I was miles away from any town with a hostel and was in any case very short of money. I would have to find shelter somewhere before it got completely dark but there were no buildings in sight so I investigated the rows of stooks of wheat stood up against each other in the huge field to my right. When I got close to them I realised they were about as tall as me, mostly stacked in pairs. I found a three group and managed, with difficulty, to move one around a little so there were three walls together with an opening on only one side. It was still raining but luckily there was very little wind so in the shelter of the sheaves I was reasonably snug. They proved to be fairly waterproof too, allowing the occasional drops through but no more and I managed to get some itchy sleep.

I woke to a chill, grey dawn, brushed the straw out of my hair and clothes and made off quickly through the giant stooks to the empty, straight, undulating, tree-lined road before some irate French farmer spotted me. I was so early that there was no traffic about for ages and I walked a fair distance before I got my first lift. I cannot imagine that my appearance was much of a help.

It was growing late and the light was fading. I had been standing on the edge of the slip road to the motorway for ages. I had been warned about going onto the motorway itself by the police. A stream of huge lorries had been hurtling along the nearside slow lane very few private cars were in this lane as they were busy passing the lorries. Then I realised that one of the leviathans had stopped almost a hundred yards further on. I ran down the road, though I wasn’t sure the driver had stopped for me, but when I got there the door opened and I climbed up into the high cab. The driver was very small, dwarfed by the size of the vehicle and even by the seats and steering wheel, but also dark-complexioned, hairy and smoking a Gauloise cigarette. It was cosy in the cab; the radio was playing a popular French song, something was blasting out warm air and the seat was springy and comfortable.

The driver spoke to me. I assumed he was asking where I was going but I found it difficult to understand him; his voice was a low growl and he had a thick regional accent. I managed to recognise the word Marseilles and nodded vigorously and said that was fine in French. I didn’t actually want to go all the way there but hoped I could get him to drop me off at a junction before it.

I think he offered me a cigarette, a Gaulloise or a Caporal and if he did, I am certain I accepted. He didn’t say anything much , but drove his huge rig on in a morose silence only broken by an occasional deep, guttural grunt.

It had got dark by this time and we were pounding along another long straight stretch of motorway when I suddenly felt something on my left thigh, electrifying as I was wearing shorts. Looking down I saw the driver’s dark and hairy hand, spiderlike. It was quite a long stretch between us, especially for someone so small, so there was no question of accidental contact. While I was still frozen the hand started to travel up my inner thigh. I finally reacted by removing the hand and shifting sideways as far as I could to the other side of the seat.

He didn’t put his hand back on the wheel but merely grunted, left it lying next to me and drove on one-handed. A minute or two later I felt my thigh grabbed again and tightly gripped. Instinctively I pulled the thing off and pushed it away. He swore in French, pressed the brake, pulled up, opened the passenger door and gave me a push, not enough to fling me out but I took the hint and climbed down, glad to be free of an awkward, not to say alarming situation.

But this was bad news. Here I was again in a country area in the dark and no way of knowing if I’d get another lift that day. Lifts were notoriously difficult to get at night.

Luck was with me though. Another behemoth pulled up and the driver, speaking French I could understand, said he would take me as far as a cafe and services for truck drivers. He advised me to talk to some of the other drivers and he was sure I would find one who would take me down to Marseilles. He was a helpful and friendly sort, spoke enough to be reassuring but was sensitive to my rudimentary French and didn’t overwhelm me in a torrent of idiomatic language.

I am ashamed to say that I bottled out of talking to any of the drivers at the cafe. It’s one thing to stand at the side of the road and make a universally recognised gesture of request and quite another to interrupt the conversation of a group of adult men in a foreign language and ask for a favour. Quite apart from that, since I only got myself a sandwich from the barI didn’t even go into the main room for meals and wasn’t even sure where it was.

The result was that I had to go out on the road and hope that somebody in a good mood after a break and a meal would not mind stopping to pick me up just after they’d started off. My previous helpful lift saw me there as he took off in a different direction, rolled down the window and again told me to talk to the drivers.

Quite a few trucks left the service area, ignoring me completely. I decided I wasn’t in a good position and walked down the main road a way to give myself a better chance with the through traffic. After only a short wait a truck pulled up some way past me and I ran down. I stepped up onto the running board, opened the door and climbed into the cab, only to be greeted by a guttural swear word and “Ah non, vous, pas encore” or something like that. He must have stopped at some earlier cafe along the route and taken his time over the meal. Unlucky for both of us.

Eventually I got another lift in the dark but somehow managed to get dropped off in a remote area high up in hills, I think because I had left the main drag to Marseilles and was trying to make my way along the route to Cannes and Nice.

It was a warm night, partly no doubt because I was much further south – and it was dry. I wandered about on the hillside for a bit until I found somewhere more or less flat. It seemed to be partly flat rock and partly tufts of grass or something like that. I must have been exhausted as I slept through until well after first light. When I looked around I was startled by the ruggedness of the terrain. I realise now that I must have been in the foothills of the French Alps. It was a stony, arid area and I had been lucky to find a surface friendly enough for sleep.

In this section of the journey I got lifts mainly from private cars, which made up most of the traffic. It seemed to get more and more difficult the nearer I came to the Southern French resorts, which fitted in with a theory we all held that the better off the area the fewer the lifts. I haven’t abandoned the theory yet, sixty plus years later.

One important rule of our version of hitch-hiking etiquette was not to decline a lift. If the driver had been generous enough to stop for you it was the height of bad manners to refuse – gracious gratitude was the order of the day. There was a subtext to it too – that it was bad luck; the gods of hitch-hiking could well punish you for such hubris.

So when a slow-moving, large, old-fashioned (but well-preserved) car stopped beside me, I opened the door, smiled, and said I was heading for Nice, which was where the main road headed and would do as a destination.

The driver had a face that seemed entirely grey, heavily indented with pockmarks of a darker grey. He drove slumped behind the wheel so it was hard to make out what size or shape he was and he appeared to be wearing a dressing-gown. He didn’t speak or smile but just indicated the seat next to him with a head gesture and set the car cautiously in motion. For about 10 kilometres we rolled along at about fifteen miles an hour, neither of us saying a word. Indeed he didn’t move at all, as if the car was a highly sensitive independent machine and the slightest action by him could disturb it and cause it to malfunction. Then the vehicle gradually slowed and came to a gentle stop at the side of the road. I said thank you, opened the door and got out. I think he may have nodded slightly to me. At the time I came to the conclusion that he was ill and now I think he was probably more ill than I imagined.

Soon I was quite near the coast. I got a lift from a somewhat artificially blonde lady who seemed quite old to me, though she was perhaps still in her thirties. She was heading to Nice itself and spoke excellent English. We chatted happily about this and that. She told me she worked in the film industry, though I don’t remember what she did. She wasn’t an actress I’m fairly sure but her English was important in her work, but more than that I can’t remember. I of course told her I was going to meet my girlfriend. When she heard how brief our meeting had been and how much time had gone by since she laughed at me, not too unkindly. She then, in all seriousness, said I should come with her to Nice and she could get me into films there. She had lots of contacts and it was an exciting world to live in. When I pointed out that I had almost no money and nowhere to live she said she could put me up in a flat of my own. I insisted on getting out at the turn off down to the St Tropez peninsula so that I could see my girl. She was clearly cross and said I was being very stupid but could of course do what I liked. Maybe she was right. Who knows?

I arrived in St Tropez in the evening and found my way to the address, which was inside the old citadel. The door was opened by Celine’s mother and I said good evening and asked for her. She arrived at the door at that moment and I saw her break into an excited smile when she recognised me through the grime and travel stains.

“It’s Andrew, maman, I told you he would come.” (In French of course)

I don’t think her mother was all that pleased to see a stray young Englishman who looked like a rough sleeper on her doorstep but she was warmly hospitable despite that. The food was delicious, the best of Mediterranean home cooking, though I didn’t know it at the time, and they put me up for several days.

Celine took me for walks to the pinetree clad promontory where the cemetery was and in the balmy, scented evening air I made clumsy attempts at love. It was an idyllic interlude but it always had a limited life span. Celine came from a respectable, well-to-do Catholic family in a small provincial French town, already besieged by tourists in the summer. I don’t know what kind of future I imagined for us really; it’s unlikely that I had given it any thought. Celine was certainly pleased to see me and responded to my gauche embraces with enthusiasm, but the spectre of the future was much more real to her I think.

We did have a serious conversation the evening before I left. She pointed out some of the difficulties of her position, with a loving but worried mother and a gossipy small town. There was the problem of when, if ever, we would see each other again. I of course promised I would come back to visit her (I did actually but that is another story) and we took passionate leave of one another.

My return journey was more straightforward but there was one notable lift. About half way up on the road to Paris a large, black car stopped for me. It had a driver with a chauffeur’s cap and an elderly man reclining in the back. He spoke excellent English and introduced himself very much in the “Do you realise who I am?” manner. He was Prince Yusupov, the man who shot Rasputin – or possibly one of the men who shot him. I had at least heard of him as it was the kind of lurid history that stays in the memory. He was returning home to Paris.

He was very affable and we chatted happily. His chauffeur also took part in the conversation and they seemed on friendly terms. I don’t think I did much of the talking, except in answer to questions about myself, as I became increasingly aware of how young and ignorant I was. This was not through any failure on his part to put me at my ease, I think, but just an inevitable result of the great gulf of experience, knowledge and sophistication between us.

The chauffeur and Yusupov had a discussion about their progress and decided it would be a more comfortable journey if they stopped for the night. He then turned to me and said that I was welcome to stay at the hotel at their expense so that I could continue with them the next day. He promised they would drop me off in Paris by lunchtime. I was astonished and for a while refused to take him seriously but he insisted and it was too good an offer to refuse.

It was an old-fashioned establishment, somewhat dark and gloomy but very comfortable. There was some discussion about which room I would be in but it was the chauffeur, who seemed perhaps more like a personal assistant than just a chauffeur, who told me after dinner that I would have a room to myself.

We were not that far from Paris and they dropped me off before midday, well-fed and rested and somewhat dazed by my good fortune. Nothing in the whole experience put me off hitch-hiking and I got home determined to try again as soon as I was free.

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