Seven months on the road as of today.
Greetings from Switzerland where I am visiting old friends, all of whom I met in Asia while traveling. Every time I visit friends in Switzerland or most anywhere in Europe but acutely so here, it feels like a seminar in how to live. Most everyone I know has a life to be emulated: the way they eat, the use of their free time, their progressive attitudes that inform their actions and a long list of small day-to-day things that appear insignificant on the surface but aren’t in my eyes. Traveling is hardly conducive to any of it.
I have always had pretty good luck hitchhiking in Switzerland, though this headline I saw yesterday gave me pause for thought: “Two men arrested over Yverdon hitchhiker death”. Gulp.
Hitchwiki, the information exchange board for places to start hitchhiking, has too many entries for Switzerland that start with something like, “Technically it’s an illegal spot, but if the police don’t see you…” No way. I have been hounded by Swiss police too many times. There is no crime in ultra-rich Switzerland (other than the usual FIFA-style white collar crime and the occasional hitchhiker slaying) so the police have nothing better to do than check up on us. Once in Liechtenstein next door I had a police car make a hard stop and two guys burst out of the car demanding to see my passport. When I reached for my pocket, they flinched, and their hands moved towards their guns. When they inspected the passport, looking back and forth between it and my face, one finally said to the other, “It’s not him,” and they sped off.
The water in Switzerland is hard, so I have to use lotion after showering or my legs look like the California desert. Sometimes in places with not much traffic I get out my lotion and quickly try and use it before the next car is in sight, otherwise it must look strange to oncoming motorists. I always try and imagine the conversations in cars when they see me, usually between the man driving and the woman in the passenger seat:
Man: What the hell is that guy doing?
Woman: Moisturizing! Let’s pick him up.
Man: Hell no! Americans are such freaks.
About 30km outside of Basel I had a too-short ride with a fascinating guy, a heavily tattooed, burly ox with a neck as thick as my thighs. He described himself in German as a professional soldier, a mercenary. He was an ethnic Albanian, the third time in three days an Albanian picked me up. (They are always male drivers and when I tell them the only Albanian word I know is “shpirtim” (my sweetheart), there is always an awkward two seconds.)
He had fought in Iraq, which he said was a picnic compared to Afghanistan. He had been to Afghanistan three times during the worst of the war, fighting the Taliban from five meters away in Tora Bora. (He said the Taliban will never disappear unless you nuke all of them at once; they are so dedicated and fervent in their ideology that there will always be replacements for any that are killed.)
He made $1300 a day, money too good to pass up for a guy made homeless and penniless by the Kosovo war. He had survived it all, now living the good life in Switzerland. He supported his entire extended family and was now bored, but with a wife and kids, his fighting days were behind him.
He had fought along side the French Legionnaires, too. I asked him what percent of the Legionnaires are French, and he guessed two percent. Many come from Eastern Europe, a surprising amount come from Vietnam, Nepal and other impoverished countries, and everyone seemed to get paid on a sliding scale depending on how prosperous or poor your country was.
He saw horrific things, as one would guess. I didn’t prod him for war stories, but he was adamant that the media grossly under-reported American casualties in Afghanistan.
In Europe I almost always hitchhike with an American flag on my backpack for the novelty value. There are very few hitchhikers these days, and just about zero American hitchhikers. Sometimes drivers tell me they pick me up for that reason, such as the guy near Berlin who was wearing a University of Georgia cap. In spite of this, usually drivers don’t put one and one together and are surprised when I tell them I am Californian. I would hitchhike with a California flag if I thought it was recognizable.
I should add this nugget of info on Hitchwiki: if you want to hitchhike north out of Bern, go to the Wankdorf Stadium with tram 9, walk north to the highway entrance another 100-200 meters and it’s golden. The second vehicle stopped for me, a Berliner in a camper van. (A few days later I found myself at the same spot—in the rain—and I got a ride in 10-15 minutes.) Almost any ride will be good as the Grauholz highway gas station is only about 5km away.
BlaBlaCar is still the way to go if you want to try rideshare in Central Europe—and there is no reason not to try rideshare. Switzerland is stratospherically expensive. The train to get out of the city center to the closest highway to hitchhike can be more expensive than a rideshare between towns.
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