On taking the slip road to the freeway today, I noticed a hitch-hiker with a sign for London held out. I thought for a second and decided to stop in a safe place – its a busy slip road – and stopped. He obviously didn’t see me, because he continued to try to flag down cars. Eventually, he realised I had stopped and headed down to the road. I popped the boot and he approached my window. I told him to put his backpack in the boot and he did so and jumped in the car, telling me excitedly his name was Pieter and he had just come from Germany.
I turned off my four-way indicators and proceeded to hit the freeway. Eventually, I found out he was from Slovakia, but had been working in Oxford for the last two years . He had been travelling through Europe with his girlfriend from Canada for 50 days: backpacking and couch surfing or sleeping in the “million star hotel”. He had been to some wonderful places and met some wonderful people. It was great to listen to an adventurous traveller again.
We chatted for the entire trip and I began to realise how much of my life was affected by living in a community of people who backpacked, or travelled cheaply, meeting locals and getting under the culture of the places they visited. Pieter and I discussed languages – his English was better than most who were native speakers – and the importance of immersion when learning. His girlfriend is from Quebec, but he intends to learn Italian first, then French, then Russian and I am sure he will speak those languages as beautifully as he does English, with a flair for expression.
To meet someone who knows how to live, to have faith in the kindness of strangers, willing to share their stories and entertain in exchange for a small service – a lift in a car to the next stop; a home cooked meal; a place to sleep for a night – was enriching. It certainly enlivened my mundane life for a while.
I know it may seem strange that a woman travelling alone should pick up a hitch-hiking guy, but when I saw him on the side of the road, I recognised a friendly soul, and my gut feeling was justified. What was surprising was Pieter told me he had met single women who hitch-hiked through Europe at a hitch-hiking gathering when he was away. I told him I would not have though it as safe. Pieter had also met a man in his 60s, who had spent his life travelling the world with no money, by walking everywhere. He had walked practially everywhere and certainly had stories to tell. If only I did not have to go to work, I would have loved to heard the tales of that man from Pieter.
I took Pieter to the tube station when we got to London and sent him on his way to his new employer and new job, as a supervisor in a restaurant in Wimbledon. I wish him well and thank him for the time he spent talking to me.
I will always hesitate to pick up hitch-hikers – this was the first time – but today I was glad I stopped.