“You’re going to Greece?” the driver smirked. “I’m only going as far as Lens”
At least that is what I think he said, but since he was still speaking French I wasn’t exactly sure. Without bothering to confirm where he was going I simply replied, “Tres bien”, opened the passenger door and slung my rucksack into the back and got into the car.
One of the rules of hitch-hiking for fun is that it doesn’t really matter where you end up. Sure, I wanted to get to Greece but I didn’t really expect to get there and a trip around France would be just as good. Since I had been waiting for over an hour at this junction, just about anywhere else would be better, it would be a change of scene at least.
The car was an old looking blue Peugeot van which looked a bit scratched and messy both inside and out. The driver was a medium built man with dark short hair and stained teeth from smoking too much, who looked to be in his mid-thirties. He was certainly very friendly and continued to speak to me as we drove off towards the motorway.
It was quite noisy and rattly in the van and he was speaking quite quickly in French, which meant I could hardly understand a word he was saying. I grabbed the French dictionary out of my pocket and began the first of many laboured conversations in broken French. During the hour long journey I managed to find out that he had been working at the port in Calais and was on his way home to Lens, which is a city about 100 km away.
As we drove down the motorway night began to fall.
It had been a long day. I had left my parents’ house in Croydon at about nine in the morning and taken the bus to Bromley and then to Green Street Green near Orpington. I walked along the A21 thumb out, sometimes walking backwards in the hope someone would at least drop me at the motorway. I had ended up walking for over an hour to the M25 and waiting for ages at the junction. By the time I got to the ferry it was already the middle of the afternoon.
Getting to Dover so late meant that the cheaper day trip tickets aimed at Duty Free shoppers were unavailable and I had had to stump up £20 for a single, which represented a considerable percentage of my available funds.
Two days before I had hitched home for the summer from Newcastle, where I was a student at university. On arrival I had found a postcard from Mark, one of my school friends who I was expecting to find in Croydon. According to the postcard he was working as a DJ on the Greek island of Ios. He signed off, “there’s plenty of work here, come and join me” which I thought sounded like more fun than pizza delivery around Croydon, which is what I had done the summer before.
I had checked my bank balance and was pleasantly surprised to find I still had over £150 remaining of my overdraft limit. The problem was that the cheapest single flight to Athens was over £200 and it was even more by train.
I had been hitchhiking regularly since six form. I had recently circumnavigated Britain on a sponsored hitch as part of rag-week, been to Amsterdam with friends and hitched up and down from London to Newcastle at least twice a year. So I figured I’d give it a go as a way to get to Greece.
The driver interrupted my day-dream. “This is Lens, it’s late, shall I take you to a hotel? There’s a cheap F1 Motel just here by the junction.”
I said yes, and he pulled over by the entrance to the motel, I thanked him, and waved goodbye as he drove off.
A sign at the brightly lit entrance advertised rooms from 120FF about £14. I had changed up £20 on the ferry into 180 French Francs, but didn’t want to spend all of this on my first night. It was a dry and not that cold, so I decided to look for somewhere to sleep rough.
The motel was at the edge of the town and I noticed a small wooded area about 200 metres down the road. When I got there I saw it was surrounded by a 6 ft chain link fence. I threw my backpack over the fence and clambered up and dropped down into the little wood.
I ducked under a few branches and pushed my way to about 30m away from the road to what looked like the middle of the wooded patch. The trees were still quite young, but offered just enough cover so I couldn’t be seen from the road. I laid the bin bags out on the ground, took off my shoes, got into my sleeping bag and stretched out using the backpack as a pillow.
I realised I was hungry, I hadn’t eaten since leaving home in the morning. I fished the tin of baked beans out of my pack. I opened it with a pen knife and proceeded to enjoy a meal of cold tinned beans. In my tired hungry state it tasted genuinely delicious.
After eating I lay down and felt a drop of rain on my face. I covered myself with the remaining bin bags.
“What on earth I am doing sleeping rough in the rain in northern France? I’ll go another couple of days and head back home.” I thought to myself as I drifted off to sleep.