Hitchhiker’s Guide to France

I started my day with Tom and Gabriel, made it through breakfast, and left with instructions on how to get to the place where the truck drivers stopped (there I might be able to find a ride all the way to Paris on a delivery truck or something). I walked out onto the street for my next adventure armed with nothing but the stuff in my bag, a baguette, and a sign that said “Aix-en-Provence -> Lyon -> Paris.” The bus was incredibly, impossibly crowded. I’ve never seen so many people shoved into a single vehicle before. I also have a confession… I’ve stolen about €60 worth of public transport in Nice. It costs €1.50 for every ride you take on the train, bus, or tram, but ain’t nobody got time for that. I just took the rides. But I’m sure I wasn’t the only person doing it, and I didn’t know how they would ever enforce something like that with a ticket system, so… Yeah. I saved a bunch of money. Yay! 
The bus took me to the airport (where it wasn’t supposed to take me…) after an hour of hot, sweaty madness with a hundred other people. At that point, since the bus had gone and stopped somewhere I hadn’t expected, I was lost again. I asked a few Romanians who were headed some random direction if I could walk with them and we went as far as the information center. There, I met a Spanish woman and her Portuguese sister-in-law. Finally! Someone I could talk to! Her name was Violeta and she was from Sevilla, and she pointed me in the right direction for the roundabout. That’s something to know about Europe: there are very few stoplights anywhere near highways or where several roads connect. They’re almost always roundabouts with all the exits very well organized and labeled. On my way to the roundabout I found a homeless person’s home:
That’s actually my bread and sign. Nice view of the water, at any rate.
On my way to the roundabout I stopped two people to make sure I was going the right direction (the walk was a few kilometers long) and both of them propositioned me for sex. I’m not even making that up. 
“Excusez-moi, ce direction pour aller a roundpoint?”
“Cherchez-vous sex?” 
“No, je cherche le roundpoint.”
“O, oui. Seulement un proposition.”
That basically sums that up. Anyway, I made it to the roundabout and held up my sign for about three minutes before a guy stopped and yelled something in French at me that sounded positive but then drove off. I could have sworn he said to go some direction to meet him because he couldn’t of stop there, so I started walking in the direction he went, but couldn’t find him. After five minutes I gave up and walked back to the roundabout and then continued on to the highway, holding my sign and thumb up the whole way. As luck would have it, he was taking that exit and saw me on his way back. He stopped his car quickly and rolled down his window. 
“Qu’est-ce que tu fais? Entrez!” (Also for anyone who speaks French and is reading this and cringing, I don’t remember how to write it. I just write what I hear…) 
I threw my bag in as quick as I could (we’re basically blocking the exit at this point) and jumped in the front seat. 
“Bonjour, je m’appelle Brandon! Et vous?”
“Roman!”
Roman was probably one of the most hospitable people I’ve met my whole life. He didn’t speak English so it was a lot of fun trying to communicate, but I think we did an alright job. He grew up in Lyon but it was making him depressed, so he left two years ago to live in Valence, which is about an hour south of Lyon and would be the place where he dropped me off. His dream is to open a bar and an auberge anywhere close to the sea to house people like he and I, who traveled to new places to learn other languages and cultures. He has traveled extensively: Florida, Australia, China, parts of South America and basically all of Europe, mostly with his brother. We talked about our similar philosophies; humanity is generally good and the thing that really matters is your relationships with other people, secondary to material goods and a home. He talked also about how he had CouchSurfed in almost all the places he had traveled, and that travel was the only thing he did on vacances/vacation because you don’t learn anything at home in front of a television. I liked Roma lot already.  We stopped at a has station about half of the way to Valence to get food and stuff. 

He absolutely insisted on paying for my stuff and gave me a bunch of food. I also mentioned that I’d never had a Mars bar (and I don’t think you can get them in the states any more, right??) so he got one of those too. All in all, he gave me an extra water bottle “because waiting for stop (hitchhiking) can take a long time and you’ll get thirsty,” two sandwiches, a pizza quiche, the mars bar, and a bar of ‘Nougat’ which is the specialty of the region. That was to be a gift for my next driver. 

Be jealous.

He found this on the floorboards of his car after listening to how much I loved Nutella and how expensive it was in the states. 

While we talked about our aspirations and traveling experiences, and watched the French ‘campagne’ speed by, he contacted one of his old roommates, Ilia, who was also a CouchSurfer and who lived in Lyon and might be able to host me that night. 

Finally we made it to Valence and he dropped me off at a roundabout not half a kilometer from the nearest toll station, and left me with his and Ilia’s numbers, the address of a hostel in Lyon, and all that food. 

Toll stations are really the way to hitchhike in France. They are called péages, and you have to pass through several of them on any given highway between major cities. They’re very expensive to use, but really are the only way to get around long distances. Since everyone has to stop there to pay and funnel into the next stretch of road, you can hold your sign up for everyone to read and anyone going in that direction can drive over to you and let you in. 
Un péage 
I met a couple from Slovakia who were also hitchhiking all the way back home from western France. They took the are after the péage, and I the area immediately before. I was more lucky, because I was picked up by a guy my age who was going back to Lyon to go to school. I didn’t get a picture with him and we didn’t have as much fun as I did with Roman, but it was still pleasant. Unfortunately I don’t remember his name, either… But, I made it to Lyon! 

After a bit of searching I found the tourist center and they pointed me in the direction of free wifi. With that, I had found that a CouchSurfer had offered to host me that night, but since he didn’t have a phone that called internationally and I only had an Italian SIM card, leaving him my number and then hiking through town without Internet on my phone was pretty useless. I decided to hitchhike until it started getting dark and ran into a lot of people telling me “Bon courage!” and giving me looks like I was crazy. 
Whatever, bitches. I made it halfway across the country with my thumb. Muahaha! Nothing could stop me, except the night. 
Just before dark, a woman signaled for me to get in her car. She informed me she wasn’t going to Paris but was going in that direction and would drop me off. What I didn’t understand at first was that she was only going a few kilometers, so out of the city centers where are the hostels are and into the outskirts of town where it would be difficult to find lodging and people. She was a hoot though. Her enormous German Shepard lay alert in the back seat, a hundred used homemade cigarettes lining the dash board. She gave me her number and said if I ever needed a place to at stay in Lyon other than tonight (she was leaving town in another direction), I was welcome. I love people!

When I got out of the car, it was dark and I had no idea where I was, and it was getting cold, and I was hungry. A student was walking along the road at some point in my random walking and he pointed me in the direction of the city (the opposite direction my travel because I had no idea which direction was north at this point). I found part of the city and someone else pointed me in the direction of ‘Macdo’ (the colloquialism for McD’s) where I could get wifi. Well, I walked for at least a mile and found nothing. A couple was just leaving a restaurant and I asked them where I was and where I could find a Macdo, so they just ushered me into their car and dropped me off there. By this point I had called Ilia to see what I should do. He had no car, but he sent his friends to come pick me up at Macdo and offered to let me spend the night in his apartment, which I accepted without a second thought. Speaking in languages you’re bad at all day is extremely exhausting and I wasn’t about to turn down a free bed out of guilt for being dumb again. 

Lyon at night.

I gave in to the hunger and bought the most ridiculous combo meal of my life. 
Ilia lived in his apartment with one other person, but it was three or four stories tall, beautifully decorated, had three bathrooms, a jacuzzi tub, a completely equipped kitchen and a giant cat named Lulu. Ilia is 23 and learned English by watching different American series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad. How do I keep finding these people?! Not to mention Ilia had been a chef so he cooked us a beautiful meal, none of which I remember the name of, with yogurt and raspberry applesauce for dessert. I am amazed every day at my luck. 

We had fun and talked over dinner with him, his roommate, and two friends from school, Romane and something-or-other. I’m bad with names. I showered in this super fancy stone-lined shower and fell asleep immediately upon hitting my beautiful bed. The next day would be a long one of hitchhiking and probably being lost in Paris for several hours before finding Camille. 
So I forgot my charger at their house, but everything else was in order. I took my sign with me and immediately found a woman named Veronica (maybe 40?) who was the art director for a local business. She took me as far as the next rest stop and explained I would have good luck there. I didn’t. An hour passed and I decided to move along the road to the next péage because it was cold and wet and I needed to move unless I wanted to be sick again. I made a new sign with cardboard from the local gas station that listed a couple more cities in between Lyon and Paris and hoped for the best, walking north along the highway. In France, it’s illegal to walk along the ‘autoroutes’ but I didn’t think I had much of an option, and prayed I wouldn’t run into any police on what I thought were the few kilometers between me and the next péage. 
I walked for another hour before finally someone stopped. His name was Jerôme, and he was missing several teeth, had the strongest stereotypically French accent I’ve ever heard, and had a penis-shaped stuffed animal thing with a happy face hanging from his mirror. He was actually really friendly and not at all creepy. He used to be in the German military and had come back to France because he didn’t like it there. He also wanted to travel but other than Europe, hadn’t had the chance. He or dropped me off at the next péage, which actually turned out to be 35 kilometers from where I was. Boy, was I glad he’d picked me up. 
From there it was a piece of cake. I thumbed at the péage and found another guy from Strasbourg traveling all the way to a town 50 kilometers west of Paris. He got me an expresso (yeah, it’s spelled that way here. What?) when we stopped at a gas station and talked about life, but it was otherwise an uneventful trip. Lots of scenery, but I didn’t get many pictures. He did have a car that could drive itself though, which was pretty cool!
By the time we got to Paris, it was cold and raining, it was rush hour, and all I could see was black umbrellas floating precariously beside the cars huddled in the street and the tall, ominous power lines running between grey buildings.  Basically, the exact opposite of Nice. My driver though was nice enough to drop me off directly in front of Camille’s apartment so I could set the location in my brain for later. I would have to wait several hours before Camille got off work and was able to let me into the apartment, so I found a supermarket and bought a baguette, chocolate mousse pudding cups, and a water bottle in preparation for the day. 

I don’t know what’s going on here but I don’t like it.

A taste of home? 
France took it two steps in crocs too far.
I felt like writing to some people and I didn’t have a French SIM card yet (and in fact I still don’t), so I found a Macdo, put my stuff on the ground next to me, took my iPad out and started catching up.
They serve beer at this Macdo.
A rather loud Asian woman behind me began talking furiously at nothing, so I turned around to see what the problem was. As soon as I had turned back around, my backpack, along with my passport, towel, clothes, toiletries, iPod, proof of insurance, and tent… were gone. 
At first I couldn’t believe it. I kept looking in other directions around me to see if I had missed it. When I finally realized it actually wasn’t there, I asked the loud Asian woman if she’d seen anything. I think she said, “Yeah, he left not long ago with your green backpack.” Heart pounding, muttering “mon dieu” over and over again, I ran outside with my iPad into pouring rain and looked both directions, saw nothing, went sprinting to the right, ran into the nearest metro station… Nothing.

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