It was so long ago but I can still recall every detail. I was quite mature and grown up by then, safe in the knowledge that I had just reached the legal age to drink beer. T’was a time when I never cared much for settling down and living a normal life, which meant conforming and being boring by being bogged down in one place. I expected more from life: at school I loved geography. I was a self-taught map-reader – at home, a map of Europe blazoned my bedroom wall. Other mates from college had posters of Francis Rossi’s Quo and Eddie Van Halen’s dashing guitar or George Best’s best goal, but not me. I had atlases, a globe and tourist guide-books of umpteen places including my prized, ‘a picture book of the rivers under the Sahara’. I knew the height of the far, distant and white Kilimanjaro, the population of those exotic Maldives and the name of that pretty, petite, elusive isle just 25 miles north-north-west of Christmas Island. Besides being my hobby, this was my life.
I had travelled through Europe before, and by then, I was through with my O-levels, through with England and was longing for my next adventure abroad. Summer had ended and I had to decide my immediate plans – whether to find a job, like possibly everyone else, or hit the road, possibly like, well… no-one else. There was only one choice. The urge to decorate my passport even more with colourful custom-control stamps and visas filled me and thrilled me with the joy young boys often got collecting football cards. The time was perfect to sling my rucksack over my back, stash my £200 sin my top pocket and head for the motorway.
Late October it was, late morning and overcast with some drizzle, like they always tell you on the weather forecast. My dad called me a bird-brain, he was wrong… I was independent, determined and alive. When I explained to him my immediate ambition to simply hitch-hike from the cosy comfort zone of Blackpool to that very cold war country, Hungary, he was astonished. ‘Bloody marvellous’ he still chuckles in his humble Hungarian accent. ‘What for, you banana? Get yourself a trade, boy’.
But that’s not me, so my journey got underway.
Then, the M55 started at Peel Corner, only fifteen hundred miles to bee-line in a south-easterly direction. I pointed my thumb in the direction of the oncoming drivers and within minutes a faded blue and very old Vauxhall Cavalier pulled up right next to me. I hurled my gear in the back and my new adventure was now happily underway. Feeling buoyant and excited I was heading south across the green of rural England juxtaposed by the grey streamlined tarmac of the M6, the M1 and the Dover road.
Here is something philosophical: the distinct contrast between mother-nature and father-science is distinctly fascinating and I believe we need them both.
The busy, busy motorways can be lonely places. Exit 31 then Exit 30. Big blue and white signs close in on the drivers as they reach the high speeds. They display the distances of our destinations. Exit 21. Fall to sleep and wake again – Exit 17. That’s how it is travelling by road. Birmingham and London and service stations, Hilton Park and Watford Gap, and lines and lines of loaded HGV’s. Hold-ups, agitated, impatient drivers in the oblivious cars. Oblivious to each other, these people focus only on their own lives. They dream and daydream from behind the steering-wheels, where the wipers wipe the wet windscreens with a perfect, monotonous, mechanical movement in an arc shape, like a tennis ball being whipped over and over and over that net. Didn’t mean much to me anyway, I was already on my way. Young, bright-eyed and brave, I was on my own. No dad to buy me lunch, no mum to make my bed and no brother to football with, just my passport, my wits and this unbridled energy I possessed. Once my expectations had been unleashed, there was no reigning them back.
The journey down to the port of Dover was uneventful, but in an attempt to save my pounds to exchange for Francs and Marks, Schillings and Forints, I craftily sneaked onto the midnight sailing to Ostend. At this time of the day, and of the year, The White Cliffs are not white. They are a dull-grey but their size and presence overwhelm you and conjures a sense of romance. They are monuments to the island we live on; symbolic to sailors, to England and are famous to most citizens of the world. So, after admiring this colossal, environmental landmark on earth I had to search for somewhere to sleep. Oozing with self-satisfaction, I snuggled up on an expensive Spanish-styled sofa and snoozed, until the booming foghorn signalled that we were about to dock.
This is the point where England geographically, physically and metaphorically meets Europe. As it turns out, Belgium in the misty morning resembles England as the flocks of seagulls announce the dawn. Only when the mist begins to lift do you appreciate the differences. The natives smile and greet ‘Bonjour’. However, I did spot one signpost I understood ‘Please drive on the right’.
The coffee smells different on the continent, it tastes different, too. It’s true. It has texture and aroma and body and retailing rhetoric and all those other refreshing attributes they advertise on their TV. You could write a whole book about the culture, but for the moment that can wait – I’m a traveller, an upbeat Englishman abroad, an Alan Wicker without glasses or moustaches. So, I sample that coffee and practice that Francais. Garcon! Monseur! Un café, si vous plais….Je ma’pel Julian. No, once more… jeu.. m..’aaa. pell…
After asking the Toutes Directiones to the E40 (that’s the motorway that stretches across Belgium via Brussels) I learned that it was just around the corner. A slick-looking gentleman in a cool, cream-coloured cabriolet came to my rescue. This Belgian stereotype, in the car you would possibly envisage in the ‘sunshine state’ of California, was only going as far as Bruges, still, I appreciated the ride, and an hour later my first lift in Le Belgique was over.
Hitching lifts seemed so easy, you stand there, raise your thumb like giving the ‘ok’ sign and soon after someone stops. But that is not the rule, just a mere tendency, as I was about to discover about a hundred times. It’s frustrating to stand there limply and smiling, as if posing for a family photo, for three hours in the soft and wet Ardennes drizzle. The rain is gentle, much like an English rain, so I was forced to change my plan. I hopped the turbine freight and succeeded in gobbling up some early European kilometres.
Brussels Central Station reminded me of Euston London, then a modern example of 1970’s state-of-the-arts technology.
Here’s something emotive: railway stations evoke a unique kind of poignancy. The guard blows into his whistle and people wipe away their tears as they wave goodbye. A hot vapour is released and shoots into the cold air as the long blue and black carriages shunt and exit down those black steel lines concluded with the sound of train’s whistle.
Here’s something refreshing: Stella Artois is brewed in Belgium. So what next? Where to go? Where to sleep?
By midnight I had realised that my old school coat and my tangerine-coloured football hat was insufficient. I wanted to keep warm. There are other telling signs too that hit you in the face such as, the chattering of teeth, trembling limbs, and seeing your own breath. I shivered and shivered and kept on shivering until I decided I had seen too many of the ghost-white windows of parked cars
What to do? The Metro, not the hotel but the underground. Surprised, I was happy to find the entrance open, so out of the frosty Belgian night I ambled down the motionless escalator. The platform was dim and eerie. Deserted, no trains, no buffet bar just advertising boards, and as if reserved for me, a steel bench. I was tired, so compromising my rucksack as a pillow I curled up on the nearest bench, hard and uncomfortable I recall.
So good, so far … until…
…When possibly one of the most frightening experiences of my life took place. I was sure it wasn’t a train (it was still night-time) it sounded like a hail of golfballs battering down on the roof of a bus. Eight men, four on either side of the track, charged down the steps creating big, clanging sounds from their clanking combat shoes on tiles, bragging their military attire and brandishing their machine guns and pistols.
Oops! …They were there because of me. This was happening to me, nobody had ever made me feel so important until that moment…I rubbed my eyes, scratched my head and stood like a naughty schoolboy who was due detention. Tinged with panic, I froze with fear. I then raised my pathetic hands above my weary head, like they do in films and mumbled,
‘You woke me up… Me English, I friend’.
One of them snapped angrily, like an irritated Doberman growling at a baddie. I could see his teeth as he snarled something in his own language which he then translated that I was not welcome. Not welcome! A euphemism if ever. Relieved that I was no spy, the ordeal was over in minutes and I was safely marched out from the underground back into the brisk Brussels night.
Morning three: my lift took me to the historical city of Aachen on the Belgium Germany border. This town was the capital of Europe in the 16th Century, but was known by a different name then. It is a special place: narrow streets branch off from the wide avenues, which are lined with bare Beech, Oaks and Ash. The geraniums, gladioli and carnations looked limp and jaded. Delicatessen shops sold cheeses, salami, ham and sausage. The bakers made their breads and cakes and I tucked into as many as I could. The monumental, pointed Gothic Architecture (like giant teeth) captures you too. I spent the whole afternoon there marvelling at being inside a continental paradise of a long-since-passed Time.
Here was something else delicious: the lamb and paprika schnitzels.
On with my journey, on with my story I kind of hop-scotched from one off-set cobblestone to the next until I reached the edge of town, where there were thousands of Mercedes and BMW’s waiting for me – die Autobahn.
But next: a crimson-coloured Citroen Dianne pulled over. Helen, a darling Deutche liebling, was heading home to Bonn.
‘Guten tag’, I learnt at school.
Her English was fluent anyway, articulate, but more thrilling, she invited me back.
‘Ja, your country is wunderbar, sehr gut’, I enthused.
Arriving in her city, she was interested to know whether I was tired. Despite all the ice, the temperature seemed to rise. She showed me to an apartment block in the city centre.
Basking in the satisfaction of monumental achievement, whilst wondering what I’d done to get so lucky, my optimism was suddenly extinguished. The door swung ajar to the luxury flat and we entered. The room was aglow. Red and gold. In the lounge I became unnerved. On one wall there was an oriental alter with flickering candles, reflecting mirrors and dangling chime bells. My new, best friend had brought me to her Japanese friends’ place. She greeted them in what I guessed was their language and bowed, hands together prayer-like, like Japanese do with each other. I came to the hurried conclusion that this was no ordinary situation and Helen was no ordinary German girl. She was a convert to a strange Eastern religion or cult. She then left leaving me with my new hosts, but embarrassingly, I do forget their names. I never saw my old best friend again.