What are you more comfortable with — routine and planning, or laissez-faire spontaneity?
It’s the autumn of 1982.I’m 20 years old. I’m on the dole and a bit depressed. I’ve dropped out of university and am smoking far too much dope.The days are endlessly seaming into one long smoke and I need a change of gear. A few months prior, I had met up with a young french guy named Alain, who was hitching around Europe. We hung out for ten days at a time when I should have been prepping for my exams. We had a great time.I failed the exams, refused the resit option and became an official dropout (see pic below), much to the chagrin of my parents.
The exhilaration of ‘sticking it to the man’ had worn off by now and the quiet summer of the university town of Aberystwyth was wearing a bit thin. I cashed my dole cheque at the post office in town and headed for The Angel for a pint of Guinness and a catch up with the dole crew. Everyone was in the Angel. Time to catch up, buy some Nepalese and while away the day. I discovered that a couple of mates were playing a gig later that day and thought I’d pop along and catch up with them.
I was also beginning to hatch a plan. Two weeks dole money would get me to France if I was careful and as a postal recipient of the cheque, I could nominate someone to cash mine whilst I was away so there’d be money to come back to. That’d give me a month for walkabout.
I headed for the bar where the gig was to be to grab a bit of the soundcheck. Halfway through the second number the guitar amp blew. A discussion ensued as to who might know who, who might know someone with a spare. The barman said there was one for sale in the music shop as he’d been in that morning for a set of strings for his own guitar. A bargain at £40.
“Anyone got any money?”
I had £50 in my pocket but I was going to France and the little devil on my right shoulder assured me that silence was not the same as lying. My better nature, the angel on my left, took us both by surprise and I watched myself count out the four tenners and place them in my friends hand.
“Nice one Paul”
So I was down to a single tenner. Bollocks. I watched the gig in a state of half interest as the angel and the devil squared up to each other either side of my head. A few pints of Guinness later, on the house for helping the show to go on ( as it must of course),and I was convinced by the angel that my act of giving was like a karmic bank deposit and that if I went to France anyway, all would be well. I looked across at the devil, who had his head in his hands. He’d seen that look on my face before.
The following morning at about 8am, a Sunday as I recall, I was stood on the A487 south of Aberystwyth with my left thumb in the air, hair blowing in the not so gentle and chilly wind,rucksack packed with a change of clothes, a writing journal, a road map of France (left for me by Alain, just in case), a chunk of bread and some cheese,a sleeping bag and a full water bottle. Destination today? Dover. I had heard from many a traveler’s tale that free passage with a lorry was a piece of cake to Calais and I figured that I had enough food and tobacco to get me that far today. Then we’d see.
It was along day, but in hitch-hiking terms an absolute belter. Aberyswyth to Dover, just as night was falling. Monstrous. Even back then when you could be in a queue at certain roundabouts or motorway services waiting for a lift, because of it’s popularity as a mode of getting from a to b, post dark lifts were very very rare and usually meant a night under the stars.
So I was in Dover. I had a plan.(Go to France with two weeks dole money)The plan got changed (Spend dole money on guitar amp) I went anyway. The angel was right. Karmic bank account’s were cool. I headed down to the terminal to secure myself passage to France. It appears that most of the travelers I had spoken with were in fact accomplices of the devil. No such lifts were forthcoming and I had to make another choice. Buy a ticket for £7, leaving me with £3 or turn back. The great adventure snubbed out in it’s infancy. I decided to sleep on it. On the white cliffs of Dover.
I awoke with a sense of determination and because I was bloody freezing.Pride forced me on. I could not return to Wales 48 hours after proclaiming I was off ‘on the road’ a la Kerouac.
I tried once more to cadge a lift but to no avail. I bought the ticket, after trying to convince the ticket seller that I deserved free passage due to the heroic nature of my journey thus far. She looked at me as if I were a troll from middle earth before taking my last tenner and giving me the £3 in change.
I sat on the deck of the ferry in the morning light and felt a sense of exhilaration.This was it. I was off to France.With £3 in my pocket. The exhilaration turned quickly into incredulity. What was I thinking. Even if I got good lifts Alain’s house was probably a 3 day hitch from Calais. It was cold on the deck and I went below which turned out to be a mistake as the smell of fresh coffee assailed my nostrils. I can’t afford to spend a penny of my £3 so I console myself with the last of my bread and cheese.
The angel and the devil spend the whole of the short passage at war with one another which can be neatly summed thus:
“Trust in the process”
The boat docks. I walk down the gangplank and set foot on French soil. I have to celebrate this moment. Screw the money.( This is the foundation for a prevailing attitude towards money that stays with me for the rest of my life) I buy a freshly baked patisserie. It remains to this day the sweetest piece of pastry I ever did eat. I buy more bread and cheese and a little wine too. I now have very little left of my money but I am ‘on the road’I take out the map and look to the region where Alain lives. Long way to go. I need to head towards Paris initially so I am confident that many of my fellow passengers are to be heading that way. I learned French at 16, some 4 years ago but have never spoken it. I proceed to introduce myself with the poorest of pronunciation to everyone I meet, as an Englishwoman.(Anglais/Anglaise) It is not until two days later that a kind soul points out my error.
Paris is attained relatively easily and I have decided not to ‘sightsee’ here. I am ‘on the road, Man’
Had I planned my trip I would have know of the Metro This is a definite downside to spontaneity. Lack of information. So in my ignorance I opt to hitch around Paris along The Boulevard Périphérique, reasoning that it will be much quicker than trying to get through and across Paris. Even to this day the words Boulevard Périphérique send a shiver down my spine and throw up a dark and grimy memory. This is what it looks like on a map. Pretty harmless eh?
So I am coming into the picture bottom left, south west corner and aiming to exit top right, north east corner.
This road is essentially a four lane motorway. No one could stop, even if they wanted to. So I walked around Paris. On my feet. In the rain. Did I mention it was raining by now. No. Ok. It was raining by now. A lot. In French “il pleut beaucoup” In English, “It’s pissing down” I prefer the English. It’s more accurate. There was a constant backdrop of noise, fumes and rain. A dismal combination. Then the rain stopped. The angel on my shoulder whispered ‘Keep the faith’. I stopped under a bridge, ate a little bread and cheese and then made a basic traveler error. I put on my dry set of clothes. I got comfortable and warm. I started to feel good again.As soon as I stepped out from under the bridge it pissed down again.Like a giant bucket of water from the sky. I was drenched in an instant. The devil on my shoulder whispered, ‘You’re a fucking idiot’
For some reason, despite the fact that I knew no one would stop I was still walking with my thumb out. A false sense of hope perhaps. This was a bad day. This was the first day. I had hardly any money, all my clothes were soaked and I was stuck on this infernal hell scape of a road.
I ended up walking the whole way to the north east corner, maybe 17 km. It took a long time.The only plus was that it stopped raining and the clothes I was wearing dried out, kind of. I did manage to get a lift from here to a spot east of Chatres that evening, which was a wonderful thing, apart from finding out that I could have crossed Paris on the Metro for less than the amount of change I had in my pocket. Here I found a small copse by the road and slept a fitful night.
The next morning I awoke. I didn’t feel so good. My bones were cold and my adventurer’s spirit had been dampened, literally. I had consoled myself the previous day with eating and smoking perhaps more than I normally would have and so all that was left was a breakfast sized portion of cheese and bread. Day two of hitching was a bit of a blur. Something inside willed me forward even though I knew deep down it was over. I had run out of food, money and I was not even close to my destination. The lifts were infrequent and short and I ended up veering off course somewhat. I had hoped to head south towards Orleans but my lifts from the east of Chartres actually took me along the route to Le Mans. My lack of French was not helping me with direction giving and so I more often than not had no idea where I was getting taken to. The day was passing me by and I was cold and hungry and wondering if this was the point to turn around and call it a day. My next lift was going to Nantes, he informed me. I checked my map. Off route but a major town connected by a different set of arteries South Easterly to the region I was headed to. Long way round but plausible. I accepted.
I think I must have slept most of the way because I woke up as the car came to a stop. I thanked the driver and as I got out of the car he handed me a 50F note (This was worth about £4 sterling in 1982) and wished me Bon Chance (Good Luck). It was a very kind gesture and one I have never forgotten.
I bought a hot sandwich, coffee and cigarettes.I was hungry and in the moment that’s what I wanted. I didn’t plan for the next few days.It left me with little but it was a satisfying meal and the cigarette afterwards was smoked as if it were pure oxygen itself. Every out breath was watched until it dissipated into the evening air before the next inhalation was sucked deep into my lungs.
I was fortified once more and the angel was whispering once more that everything would be OK.I lifted up my rucksack and headed for the outskirts. I would need to find somewhere to sleep tonight and continue onwards in the morning. I passed a catholic shrine dedicated To The Virgin Mary and subconsciously offered a prayer of thanks. I wasn’t a practicing Catholic anymore but had been raised that way. I continued along the path and then stepped into the road to cross over, holding back momentarily as a car full of young men passed on the other side. They passed and I stepped forward. I heard a screech of brakes and the squeal of rubber on tarmac and turned to see what had happened. The car with the young men in had turned a 180 and was heading back in my direction. Fast. Right for me. I hurried across the wide road sensing the approach of the vehicle all the while. Was I going to die here in this place? What was going on.?The car flashed past me, close enough that I could feel the air move and I heard voices shouting and screaming and they were gone into the night. Why? My mind raced. Why now? Why me? The devil on my shoulder had plenty to say about my ‘stupidiy, naivety,irresponsibility and all that faith nonsense’
It had just been a bit of fun perhaps to the boy racers but it shook me up. Quite a lot. I suddenly had a tight knot of fear in my stomach and felt like I didn’t want to be there in this strange City. Alone. This was some kind of personal Hell.
I hurried to the edge of town and was crossing over a bridge when another car stopped alongside of me. A voice called out, “Où allez-vous ?” I carried on walking. I was scared now. The car moved alongside again and this time a door was opened. The same call, “Où allez-vous ?” I looked and saw a young couple, older than me, maybe 25, 26 but young. They were smiling. I answered “Je dirige des sud”
They motioned for me to jump in. I did. They spoke good English and so we were able to converse freely. I told them of my trip thus far and my plan to get to Alain’s and then see what was what. I didn’t tell them I had almost just been run over. Maybe they had seen it. Maybe they just picked up hitch-hikers.They told me they were house sitting for her parents and that I was welcome to stop the night if I wanted. Wow. How could I refuse? We pulled into the drive, yes the drive, and in front of us was what can only be described as a mansion. They opened the front door and invited me in with a sweep of the hand gesture. I stepped inside. In front of me a staircase rose and then divided into two in an elegantly curved Y to meet with a first floor balcony. This was like no house I had ever been in. I took off my bag and we went through to a large kitchen with a giant solid oak table and rustic chairs. As we sat and drank wine and ate bread and cheese that was offered they explained that tonight they had been invited to a party and they were going to go still. It was close friends and so not really cool for me to come. (I think the fact that by now I looked like a Hobo is really the reason)
I could stay in the house. ‘Pas de problem.’ Here is the fridge, help yourself. Here is your room, full of books and fresh clean sheets on the bed. Dry your clothes in here. Here is the bathroom feel free to take a bath. Here is a wine cellar, Drink from here but not from there. Here is a little grass if you like a smoke. We’ll see you in the morning. Then they were gone.
I was astonished. What faith in humanity. What trust. This house was full of expensive art, rugs, books, wine. They just left me to it. I was touched. No one had ever been that kind to me before. I bathed in a hot bath. I ate well and drank some very good wine. I read a little and I wrote in my journal. This was some kind of personal Heaven.
I slept well that night and it was a turning point on the trip which lasted the whole month. In the morning my hosts made me breakfast, filled my bag with food, wine and an extra set of clothes and gave me a lift to a main road heading South. We never exchanged addresses nor phone numbers. I never saw them again, my two french angels, but even now I can feel the sense of gratitude I felt then.
It taught me a valuable life lesson. Heaven and Hell are only moments apart and if you learn to travel with both The Angel and The Devil on your shoulder you’ll be the better for it.
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