Letter #2. Roadside Life

Hello! It's me, Vladimir.

I'm still traveling around Europe, but switched from trains to hitchhiking. It saves money, but takes a lot of time. It took six rides to get from Berlin to Rugen Island in Prussia. At first I simply waited on the road shoulder for someone to pick me up. Now I know there are more effective methods.

Rugen is one of the most remote places in Germany, but it has a network of excellent highways, and local schoolgirls drive expensive cars (in 1992 Russia, a car was a luxury very few families could afford - V.D.). Jasmund National Park has some beautiful forest and 100 m-high chalk cliffs. It was very warm there, but rainy. There were no visitors in the park, so I spent the night in a closed cafe on top of the highest cliff. At night the chalkstone seemed to glow in the moonlight. Fallow deer came out of the forest to lick sea salt on the beach.

Both Czech and Germany have much more wildlife than any place in the USSR. Red and roe deer graze in open fields, suburbs are full of foxes and pheasants, and in city parks you can see owls and martens at night.

From Rugen I got a ride to Rostok. The driver happened to be a homosexual. I realized it when he took me to a restaurant for a free lunch. He didn't speak English, and I only knew a few words in German. The only phrase I was able to compose to explain why I didn't want to go to his place was "Ich Bin Orthodoxal Christian". He was so impressed that he drove me to Rostok in total silence. After waiting for two hours on a highway intersection I got a ride to Leipzig. Amazingly, this driver was also a homosexual! I used the same idiotic phrase, and he asked me to have sex with him for ten deutschemarks. Deeply offended by the price, I got out of his car at the next junction. Another hour of waiting, and I was picked up by the police. They spent forty minutes trying to verify my visa (as if a holographic picture could be a fake), and then informed me that hitchhiking on autobahns was illegal.

That's why only homosexuals were willing to stop! Now I invented a more advanced technique. I wait at gas stations, and choose drivers myself. Addressing them in English immediately shows young girls (the type of drivers I choose most often) that I am not a criminal and not a refugee, from whom you could get something infectious.

Roads are full of hitchhikers from all over Europe, but they use different tactics. They wait at highway entrances, holding signs with the name of the city they need to get to. My method is many times more effective, but the locals are either not creative or not bold enough to use it. As soon as I figured it all out I could move very fast. I was near Broken Mountain in Thuringen by nightfall, and in Frankfurt by dawn.

Frankfurt is a charming city, very quiet, especially in early hours, when there's nobody in the streets, except for Vietnamese janitors and African drug dealers. But Cologne is even better. It was built by Caesar, and although the emperor was in a hurry, some original walls and towers are still there. It is a popular tourist destination, and under every ancient arch someone is snoring in a sleeping bag. Even local burgers look a bit like hippies. The city is cozy and warm, like Tbilisi. Walking down the streets, you see steel plaques on the pavement, and each of these plaques has a city map stamped on it, with your location marked with a bronze rivet. There are twelve major cathedrals in the city, including The Dome, and I spent Sunday trying to see all of them. Seven are in Roman style, and five are Gothic. Local sex shops are the best monument to human creativity I've ever seen.

Most train stations are closed for cleaning for two hours each night. Numerous Arabs, Poles, and other visitors from less fortunate countries who sleep there have to spend these two hours out in the cold. I found a cathedral with unlocked gates, and slept in a confessional, like Chicot (jester of Louis XIV - V.D.), but unlike him didn't hear anything interesting.

At city edge there are always many gas stations, but drivers planning to go far tend to use only one. In every city you have to find out which gas station is the best to get a ride in your direction. You can ask a taxi driver, but you have to make sure that the driver speaks good English, and understands that you are just asking, not going there in his car. Otherwise he'd tell you it takes a week to get there.

I crossed into Netherlands. Compared to Germany, the birthplace of capitalism looks very lighthearted. My first stop was in Utrecht, a town obviously built for gnomes and elves, not for people. Walking through its streets, you keep laughing all the time. Some streets are difficult to squeeze through with a backpack. A toy-like truck patrols the city, collecting illegally parked bicycles. Church bells constantly play Mozart. It was so painful to think about you and all other people forever stuck in our frozen can of worms called Russia. I felt like drowning myself in a canal, but in Utrecht they are so narrow that you can jump across, and people navigate them in tiny boats.

The Sexual Revolution was defeated in the United States, but it still holds its ground in Amsterdam. In the Pink Quarter, prostitutes (old European and young Asian) wait for customers in huge glass windows. When they saw me passing by, they started laughing. I don't know why. There was a long queue of European tourists at Rembrandt Museum, and an even longer one of American, Polish, and Soviet tourists at the Museum of Sex.

I met Anatoly S. in the city (a guy I went to university with - V.D.) He used to get beaten up for stealing money from the locker room. Now he is a "new Russian" businessman, and imports cars to Russia.

Having no visa to the Netherlands, I couldn't risk spending night at a train station, so I stayed at a youth hostel for $15. I couldn't afford such expenses, and decided never to do it again. It made no sense anyway, because I spent most of the night exploring this beautiful city.

Next morning I made an important discovery. I had a bag of various Soviet coins, and tested vending machines in every country. Here they accepted 20-kopek coins for 5 guilders, and even gave me change. I filled my backpack with bananas, pineapples and other exotic fruit, and earned ten guilders for a train to the Hague. Fields along the route were full of wintering geese, including some rare ones from the High Arctic.

Traveling around Europe, you almost never see a plant or a factory. I can't understand it: where does everything come from? Or, to put it in a different way, where does everything disappear in Russia, which often looks like one huge industrial zone?

In slightly criminal-looking Amsterdam the most impressive stores were the ones selling flowers. In quiet Hague the ones selling weapons were the most interesting. For one month' salary of an average Dutch citizen you can arm a small private army to seize power in a place like Tuva or Ingushetia. As my former boss used to say, "people of peaceful professions tend to be extremely fierce." If I had a few more pounds of Russian coins, I would get myself a crossbow with explosive arrowheads - what a beauty!

Belgian border was almost invisible. Antwerpen is much like Amsterdam, but more uptight. Then I got a ride to Brussels in a very old car with Arab driver. The headlights didn't work, so we hurried to make it to Brussels before nightfall. There is only one place in Europe where they have a street light on a freeway, and it is just before Brussels. Here we discovered that the starter didn't work, either. We rolled the car off the road, and tried to stop someone. I thought we'd have to wait all night, but in less than five minutes another Arab car stopped, and gave us a jump. We Muslims are all brothers.

Brussels looks like a chocolate cake with Manhattan-like business district stuck in the middle. At midnight I dragged my fruit-filled backpack out of the city, and got a ride to Lille. The guys were carrying drugs from Netherlands to France, so they tried to cross the border by some backroads, which was very good for me. But we got lost, and it was 2 am when they dropped me at Lille turnoff, with a "gas station 10 km" sign. Scaring away herds of wild rabbits and hiding in the bushes every time a police car showed up, I walked to the station, constantly chewing fruits to make my backpack less heavy. Two hours later I entered Paris in a tractor trunk, still eating a pineapple.

For all of us, Paris is an epitome of Western culture, so I was very disappointed. Streets were dirty, nobody could speak English (apparently many people couldn't speak French, either). Amsterdam was more interesting, and Prague more beautiful. Streets of Paris all look alike, and there are few really beautiful places: Ile de la Cite, Monmartre, Versailles. Besides, modern architecture is awful, and they put it in the most inappropriate sites, as if trying to make the city as ugly as possible. This destruction apparently started with Eiffel Tower, and the most recent monstrosities were Centre Pompidou and a huge glass pyramid in Louvres. Louvres was crowded by thousands of people racing in all directions in search of Mona Lisa, as if there was nothing else to look at.

I found a place to stay for free at Plaza Bastille. (When my mother read this she thought I meant a huge wooden elephant, in which Gavroche used to live according to Les Miserables. But the elephant had been destroyed a very long time ago. I slept in one of Paris' famous underground sewage collectors - V.D.)

After five days in Paris I took a train out of the city (Paris is too large to walk out of it), and then hitchhiked to Strasbourg via Reims, Troyes, Nancy, and Metz. Small towns are much more clean, pretty, and interesting than Paris. I liked Metz the most: it has a splendid medieval castle on an island in a small lake, beautifully illuminated at night.

In Strasbourg I got a ticket to the next station southward, and boarded a train to Switzerland. Swiss border was said to be difficult, but I was lucky: it was Friday night, and the train was full of tourists going to ski resorts. I found a dark compartment with sleeping tourists, put on my skiing hat, and hid in the darkest corner. The border guards didn't bother to wake us up.

Next morning I looked out of the compartment and saw a conductor giving a lecture to some guy caught with no ticket. "You should be ashamed, young man!" - I told the guy, passing by them toward the exit. I found myself on a small station, and it took me a while to realize I was already in Switzerland. You can't just approach someone and ask "Excuse me, what country is this?"

Switzerland was cold and expensive, but hitchhiking was easy. I visited Basel, Solothurn, Lausanne, Neuchatel, Bern, Zurich, and Fribourg, the most beautiful of them all. Now I'm planning to go to Italy. I hope it is cheaper and warmer. I'll have to send this letter by mail - hope it doesn't get stolen.

New Vipers village, Ryazan Province, Russia

(I put this return address on the envelope to prevent Russian postal workers from stealing the letter in hope of finding foreign currency inside. It worked - V.D.)

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