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European Tour Part One

Little-Britain

According to E.M. Forster every upper class male had two class duties to perform. Firstly, he should have a dalliance with another man and; secondly, he should embark on a European tour. Luckily times have moved on: gay people have rescued homosexuality from the posh aesthetes and Ryan Air has made continental Europe more accessible and cheaper to get to than Scotland. The grand tour nowadays has been replaced with the euro pass tour, a dull round of trains and youth hostels charging 15 quid a night. Back in the early 90`s things were a little more open to possibility. It was only a few years since the Berlin Wall had fallen and half of Europe had become available for exploration. So my brother and I took a leaf out of Foster`s book (minus the batty parts) and determined to undertake our own European Tour. The time seemed ripe for an extended hitch-hike – Eastern Europe was still reeling from the poverty and mismanagement of Soviet rule, the Euro was still the perverse dream of German and French bankers and the Americans had yet to buy up Prague and Budapest.

We prepared meticulously for the journey. We pulled out all our camping equipment, bought a quarter of hash each and found a map of southern and eastern Europe in a Sunday magazine. As luck would have it we had a mate who was taking his car to France on the ferry (this is pre-Chunnel days) and so everything was set.

So in May of 1994 my brother and I were dropped off in the country side just south of Paris. We consulted our compass to find south and stood by the side of the motorway, thumbs extended. We had both foolishly imagined that hitching in France would be a doddle and at first it did seem that way. Within an hour we were on our way. A father and his son picked us up and took us 100kms in the right direction. Out of the four of us in the car it transpired that I was the most bi-lingual, and so it fell on me to brutalize the French language. This was our first pre-conception about the French shattered – we thought it was only the English who couldn`t converse in a foreign tongue.

When we were dropped off near a trucking transit point for vehicles heading to the Pyrenees we were full of good cheer; the sun was shining and the adventure had left the starting blocks. We blithely located the truck stop and ensconced ourselves at the southern exit. Two hours later and with night fast approaching our second pre-conception of the French was cruelly de-bunked: they aren`t like the English; they rarely give lifts to scruffy youngsters. Not to be discouraged by minor setbacks we climbed up a grassy embankment pulled out our stove and had some packet noodles before getting out our plastic sheeting, bivouac bags and sleeping bags for a night`s road side slumber.

The next morning we hiked into town and bought some baguettes and laughing cow cheese. After the repast we decided to buy some miles of progress and took a bus 50 miles south to another town. Standing on the edge of town we slowly grew disillusioned by the lack of lifts. It also started raining heavily. By lunch time we gave up and hauled our wet equipment back into the centre of town. Fortunately it had stopped raining. We had a fag and quickly decided to explore other transport options. I accosted a French man playing with his daughter on the street and asked about cheap buses. He said no such thing existed in France but why don`t we come back to his apartment for lunch. How could we refuse such a kind offer? I felt like Frankenstein`s monster sitting in their airy front room all body odour and scraggly beard. I was unfit for polite society. Nevertheless, the couple seemed interested in our ambitious plans to see Europe and climb mountains and luckily the young daughter didn`t burst into tears.

With great reluctance we said adieu to our French hosts and hit the streets. It had started raining again. I had heard about people who had got away without paying on French trains so we decided to give it a go. We boarded a train heading for Marseille. It wasn`t for a good thirty minutes before the conductor asked us for tickets. We pretended to have lost them and to be without passports. We were duly told to vacate the train at the next stop. After repeating the same routine three times we had made it for zero Francs to Marseille. What a shithole that train station was! We hung around the station watching the immigrants with nowhere to go and the French in tracksuits chain smoking with Gallic flare, ditching the butts on the floor next to the ash tray. Added to the mix were winos and prostitutes. This was not a shanty place to kip for the night. In the end we found a deserted platform away from the predatory glare of down and outs and took turns sleeping.

Marseille Train Station

It was an awful night and the next morning we were determined to quickly put distance between us and Marseille, and so we cashed a travelers` cheque and bought tickets on a slow train to the ski resort of Chamonix. The train was warm and deserted and within twenty minutes we were snoring away.

We disembarked early evening. To keep up our spirits we decided to have a beer in a bar before finding a quiet place to camp. That was a mistake. We didn`t know that ski resorts were in the habit of charging quadruple for everything to keep out the likes of my brother and I. Feeling thoroughly ripped off, we plodded to the edge of town, found a path to the bottom of the mountain we intended to climb the following day, pulled out our tent for the first time that trip, had a smoke and quickly fell into a comatose state.

Early the next morning a burly French farmer rudely shook the tent and started on an incomprehensible tirade. He wanted us gone quick smart. We snarled back at him and quickly gathered our stuff together as he glared aggressively at us. We further angered him when we took out our map of the Alps and a compass and proceeded to cross his land not back to the road but further into the wilderness.

It was a mountain over 4000 metres high and the last part was hard going in the snow. We made it to the deserted ski lodge, had a joint and some more noodles and took in the barren beauty of the scenery. While gazing serenely upon our surroundings we spotted some ski sticks in the snow and decided to half inch them, thinking they might raise enough money for a beer back in Chamonix. Using our ice picks to stop us sliding precipitously down the mountain, we made it back down to our former camping spot and then onto town. None of the ski supply shops were interested in the ski sticks so we left them in the arms of a statue of the first dude to conquer Mount Blanc. We then found a small shop and bought some cheap red wine, bread and ham. The food and booze buoyed our spirits and we thought we`d have a go hitching into Italy.

Aiguille du Midi

To our great surprise, we got a lift nearly immediately to the border. Wrongly believing that hitching in France was a lost cause, we hadn`t had time to stash our weed properly, and there we were, at the French side of the border. So after getting out the car, I put my lump in the inner pocket of my combat trousers and my brother put his in the top of his pack. There was a tunnel and a small police hut near the entrance. It only took ten minutes for a French policeman to stroll down the road and herd us into his office. His first and only sentence in English was: “I know you smoke hash.” After that it was down to me to do my best in the French tongue. Naturally we denied his allegation. This prompted them to escort me into a back room where I was ordered to strip. Two officers went through my clothing and shinned a light up my arse while asking me what I did for a job. It took the fuckers a good thirty minutes to find my gear. Obviously because I had dreads and my brother had a skin head they only gave my brother`s bag a cursory glance and decided that they had found all the illicit items in our possession. They took the quarter and started weighing it. They jokingly declared it was a hundred grams. Cheeky fuckers. Most of their conversation I couldn`t fathom with my GCSE French, so I imagined the worst: being raped in a Marseille prison. I almost hoped for deportation and a stamp in my passport barring me from foreign travel. It came as a huge relief when they managed to communicate to me that paying a fine of 300 Francs would suffice. I didn`t have the 300 Francs they were demanding and so one of the officers bundled me into a cop car and drove through the tunnel. Paranoia started to get the better of me again as I began having pictures in my head of being taken to a forest clearing and being summarily raped and executed. It was with no small measure of relief on my part that instead he pulled up at the Italian border and pointed to a bureau de change. After getting their fine I was driven back to the hut where my brother was waiting. They wrote out a receipt for our confiscated hash and told us the best place to hitch a ride to Italy. Ah the Police back in the 90`s – what arseholes. After our brush with the law, we plodded down the road and when we were well out of sight of the pigs we cut into the woods. The first thing we did was make a big joint with my brother`s lump before bivouacing down for the night.

Early the next morning we hurried into town to get on a minibus to cross the Italian border (after showing my face to the Italian border cops in the company of a French pig we thought it imprudent to repeat the previous day`s fiasco). By 10am we were on Italian soil and puzzling away over the tens of thousands of Italian lire that we had obtained. We bought more bread, cheese and wine; filled our water bottles in the public toilets and set about hitching across northern Italy. We had heard stories about mafia types picking up hitchers and robbing them, but we convinced ourselves that such Hollywood Italian behavior was mostly confined to the south.

Within 30 minutes a small dark blue fiat pulled over in front of us. The sole occupant of the car was a slightly overweight man in his 30s. He spoke passable English and seemed happy to give us a lift. We got in and set off. He told us he was a book seller; he then mentioned something about leaving the main highway and taking a more scenic mountain road. This put us on our guards. My brother in the back gripped his ice pick ready for close quarters combat. The man stopped the car and smiled. He reached in his pocket. The moment of tension was excruciating, until he pulled out a pack of zig zags and started making a joint.

That was our best lift so far that trip. As we wound our way through the mountains chatting to the good natured Italian and taking in the views we started to feel much more positive. The Italian Alps sparkled with the early summer melt water and good Indian charis put my head on a more even keel. My enthusiasm for a trip that had seemed all hardships and near calamities was returning.

We got dropped off in some town where old men wore shabby tweed and flat caps and decided to try and pull a fast one at the train station. Naturally we had no idea where the station was so I summoned up my best guess and asked some old bloke, “Stationne?” in my best godfather accent. To our pleasant surprise the pensioner seemed to comprehend and pointed off to his right. Shortly afterwards we purchased two tickets for a few hundred grand to a station a few stops along. It was a night train and sure enough after the conductor stamped our tickets he didn`t bother us after we had passed our legal point of disembarkation. Just before the border with Slovenia we thought it prudent to get off the train. There were no barriers or station employees to check our tickets so we walked out of the deserted station into the chilly black night. The first imperative was to find a place to rough it for the night. The station was located in a rural area. There was nothing but a few houses and a quiet road. We walked for a mile or so before crossing a drainage ditch and stepping over a low fence. We made it to a corner of a newly ploughed field, slightly hidden by a row of trees. Without lights we took out our bivouac bags and sleeping bags, made a joint and tried to get some sleep. A light drizzle started. The rain was deceptively light so we didn`t bother getting out our plastic sheeting since a bivouac bag is fairly water resistant. That was a mistake because the drizzle kept up all night. We foolishly attempted to brave it out because neither of us had the energy to unpack the extra equipment, and we both expected it to stop raining any moment. As a result we spent a wet and sleepless night in some unknown field in Italy. It was with no small amount of gratitude that we packed up at first light. As soon as we had finished packing the rain stopped.

A few miles up the road we found a petrol station. We bought some more bread and cheese and prepared to hitch. My brother nipped over the road to take a crafty road side dump. While re-crossing the road he was hit by a car. Quiet marvelously he bounced off the bonnet of the car and landed by the pavement. I was still in a sodden sleep deprived reverie and the whole incident seemed to have a bizarre unreality to it. I stood on the pavement and watched as my brother picked himself up and faced the driver who reluctantly got out of his car. He had his young boy with him who started to cry. He had no concern for my brother`s well being. He just forlornly looked at the dent in his bonnet. The complete lack of shared vocabulary put an end to the confrontation quickly. My brother swore at the driver and no doubt he returned the compliments. In the end he got in his car and drove off.

With such an inauspicious start to the day, we soon abandoned hitching and plodded miserably down the road. As luck would have it we soon got a short ride and found ourselves in the pleasant ski resort of Treviso. My brother was keen on leaving our heavy packs in the station and making the short detour south to Venice. I was just fed up with Western Europe and just wanted to get to the former communist countries where things must surely be cheaper and more relaxed. My brother conceded the point and we picked up a bit of cardboard at a supermarket and made a sign for Slovenia.

For the second time that day we got lucky with lifts, and from the most unlikely of sources too. It was an off-duty police man who kindly took us to the border. We walked into Slovenia and immediately we felt life was much better. All around were fields of drying hay and in the back ground were imposing mountains. The sun blazed down. We walked a few hundred metres to avoid the scrutiny of the border guards and sat in the beautiful countryside and had a joint. In no time at all we had got a couple of lifts off locals and had made it to a fine old city with elegant buildings and inviting cafes. We soon found a camp site. There was a lively festival atmosphere about the place. We passed a big group of Bavarians sporting lederhosen and quaffing huge glasses of lager as they listened to a brass band playing their beloved umpah umpah music. For the first time since setting off from near Paris we could have a shower and wash our clothes. Feeling like recently released prisoners, we strolled down the main promenade by the lake. I snatched salt and pepper pots from a café table and then in a small grocery shop I pinched a mars bar while the old man was busy working the till. I no longer condone theft, but at the time my brother who had just that day been run over after having spent a night shivering in a field deserved a small treat.

Bled