11. A Language Adventure. Hitchhiking in Europe
I am sure I hitchhiked tens of thousands of miles in those years, criss-crossing Europe from Spain to Sweden to Italy through Germany and all countries in between. There was no better way to explore the history and geography, to meet people and practice languages. Unfortunately hitchhiking is no longer as easy as it used to be.
My accommodation varied a great deal. Mostly I stayed in youth hostels, which were great places to meet up with travelers from other countries. Often I met these same travelers standing on the roads leading out of town with their thumbs out, large rucksacks hidden beside the platane trees, as we all tried to hitch a ride to our next destination.
I have lain awake frozen on a windswept mountain side on the Route Napoleon on my way from the French Alps to the Mediterranean, before being able to warm myself the next day by napping in the gentle sun of the lavender fields of Grasse just before reaching
the sea at Nice. I have slept in parks, in ditches, on beaches and in hotels of every description. On two occasions, once in Boeblingen, Germany and once in Perpignan, France I checked into the local jail, where I was kindly accommodated until the morning. I had not committed a crime, but it was late and raining. The police seemed happy to have the company. I was the only guest in both establishments, which were basic but clean.
My usual routes took me through southern France, the Midi, with its quaint stone villages, dry Mediterranean vegetation, Roman ruins, historical cities like Avignon, Nimes and Arles and old men playing boules on the sandy town squares. The temperature could easily exceed forty degrees Celsius in the summer.
From there I would continue into Franco’s Spain, a favorite holiday hitchhiking destination for me in the early 1960s. Spanish vocabulary and grammar is similar to French, since both languages can be considered dialects of Latin. With a little bit of study and reading in Spanish, and daily conversation with the friendly and talkative Spaniards, I was able to bring my Spanish up to an acceptable level. On my first visit to Barcelona, as I climbed aboard a crowded city bus, I was overwhelmed by the friendliness of the people. They helped me on with my rucksack, made sure I knew where the Youth Hostel was located, and then invited me for a drink at the local bar. We all drank out of a communal wine pitcher with a long spout which was held at arm’s length so a long stream of wine could flow into your mouth.