The sun and wind hammer our grinning faces as we speed through the tiny village away from the Hitchgathering in an open-topped Cabriolet. I laugh into the pounding wind like a maniac, my hair whipping and whirling.
He drops us on a back road and points to a path. He says it will take us to the back of a péage–French toll gate where all the cars have to stop–on the A7. I’m with a guy called Coen from somewhere in Europe and a girl called Xeniia from Russia. She’s wearing a pink and purple My Little Pony t-shirt and tiny denim shorts, the archetypal image of a female hitchhiker that I didn’t think really existed.
We wander down the path and come out by the péage, where we are sternly ticked off by men in fluorescent yellow tabbards. They tell us to go down to the sliproad and hitchhike there. They command, point, and turn their backs on us. The sliproad has nowhere to stop. We stand on a roundabout in an impossible place, full of frustration. Xeniia raises her thumb. A car stops.
A French man with good English takes us to the next service station, just before Lyon. We’re following a car with a numberplate that shows an L for Luxembourg. Coen is going to Luxembourg. We park next to the car in the service station car park and Coen follows the drivers inside. He comes out grinning. He just got himself a ride to Luxembourg. Unfortunately, there is only space for one.
Now we are two. Xeniia and I wait quite a long time, drinking coffee and checking her emails on her phone between asking drivers. She’s waiting for a response from potential Couchsurfing hosts at her destination in Belgium.
We get a ride with a woman and three guys in their people carrier. They don’t speak much English, but we have a lot of fun using mime to decipher that they are travelling percussionist musicians on their way home from a festival.
The percussionists drop us at another service station. Xeniia discovers that she has a host in Belgium, thanks to the free wifi. Bored of asking people with tight faces for a seat in their car, we head to the motorway sliproad. I wait with a cardboard sign while Xeniia skips off to ask truck drivers.
After five minutes a car rolls towards me with a woman driving and a grinning Xeniia in the passenger seat. “You are going to be very happy about this one!” she tells me as we hoist our backpacks in the boot. We’re dropping Xeniia off on the road to Belgium, and I’ve got a ride all the way to Saint Quentin, 176km from Calais.
Our driver is a lovely middle-aged French woman who clucks away in French. She speaks a bit of English, but is very shy about it, so mostly we use our hands to express what we’re trying to say. After we drop Xeniia off we talk little, but exchange occasional pleasantries and jokes about passing cars. She drops me at a service station, alone in the North of France.
I’m on my way to the sliproad when I see a woman about my age filling up her car at one of the pumps. The numberplate says GB. She has a sleeve tattoo, a septum and lip piercing. She looks like a lot of my friends.
“Excuse me, would you happen to be crossing the Channel?”
“Yeah!” She smiles at me.
“Got a spare seat?”
“Yeah, sure, just give me a minute to pay.”
She comes back from the petrol station and opens the boot for me to toss in my backpack.
“You have to help me stay awake,” she says.
The next four hours are spent engrossed in conversation and punk music. Fiona shares her vegan chocolates with me and tells me all about her road trip around the Balkans. She was in Bosnia during the anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre and talks about what she saw there. The conversation turns to refugees. Fiona works as a Post-Traumatic Stress counsellor and regularly has to visit the Home Office with women who have been trafficked. We share our—quite similar—opinions about the British Home Office.
This is it, I think to myself. This is the perfect ride. I should probably stop hitchhiking now, because it will never be better than this.
The man parked in front of us on the train under the Channel gets chatting to Fiona while they queue for the toilet. She tells him she’s just come back from a Balkan road trip and he tells her he was a Blue Helmet there during Srebrenica. Jesus.
Out of the tunnel we’re on British soil, but nowhere near out of conversation yet. She’s going North and I’m heading to somewhere around London. Since it’s late, I ask her to drop me at a service station on the M25, the big motorway ringroad around London, where I can stay for the night and get coffee and a shower in the morning.
I put my tent up behind Thurrock Services and sleep more or less soundly to the light patter of rain.