We're hurtling down the autobahn at a cool 180 km/h, driven by two gruff Belgian men we'd met half an hour ago, when suddenly I'm assailed by a distinct whiff of rum from the front seat. My heart takes a lengthy pause. Could it be that European liberalism had reached such extremes that it was now acceptable to drink spirits on the goddamn Autobahn?
But we can't see either of the men actually drinking, so we hope that it's just a novel Belgian cologne and hold on for dear life all the way to the German border. This was about halfway through our hitchhike from Glasgow to Prague, which we participated in as part of the St Andrews Race2 campaign: an annual expedition undertaken by hundreds of St. Andrews students who endeavour (in teams of two or three) to thumb it across Europe while raising money for charity.
As it turns out, that incident was one of the only times we ever felt mildly unsafe. For the most part, given that we were hitchhiking across vast swathes of frozen land, I had a blast. We encountered a few other teams along the way who were bona fide purists — determined not to spend any money, sleeping outside service stations and presumably eating rats to survive. While we admired their dedication, we saw no reason to martyr ourselves in the European winter and stayed in cheap hostels twice, even showering; we travelled at a fairly leisurely pace, imbibing a lot of tea and using our phones to map out our journey.
But I was determined to make it a little uncomfortable. My companions were about as different as possible: Joey, from the Highlands, about as stoic and deliberate as your average jungle sloth, and Jess, from the south of England, bubbly and bouncing off walls. Oh yeah, and they're a couple.
At first I felt weird about approaching strangers to ask for rides, but desperation and cold will convert even the staunchest introvert. A third of the way into the trip, I just turned into the peppiest little go-getter you've ever seen on a cheerleading squad. Little old ladies, middle-aged men, single mums, truckers with a homicidal gleam in their eye, possible drug traffickers — I waltzed right up to all of them with the same nauseatingly friendly grin. "Bonjour, allez-vous vers Allemange?" "Entshuldigung, gehst du nach Prague?"
The situation changes significantly from Britain once we were in Europe, where people were much more receptive to picking up students. I attribute this to the fact that I was dressed like I was going to a cocktail bar instead of hitchhiking, but we'll never know. We whizzed across Belgium in a few hours thanks to a teacher and a few ski enthusiasts. We faffed about in Cologne for far too long, and then, like a flash of lightning in a full-body Adidas tracksuit, a young Romanian man named Robert drove us across the entirety of Germany, into Nuremberg.
And man, what a character he was — and what a fascinating array of life experiences, opinions and personalities we saw, not just in Robert but throughout the trip! Nurses, educators, rock climbers, software engineers, figure skaters, professional clowns and prostitutes, drug dealers and disdainful waiters; a meticulously detailed tapestry of human lives whizzed by us at breakneck speed and we only had time to glean the basics.
And then, finally, Prague.
It's a city of cultural conflict, and you can definitely see that at night, when the darker face of the city comes to the fore: the main tourist thoroughfare turns into a red-light district, and groups of people stand huddled in the semi-darkness murmuring to each other in Czech. The city fascinated me, and I was delighted to wander around the Jewish quarter, the castle, the John Lennon wall, a sex museum, and partake in cheap Czech beer. Alcohol and art — my kind of country.
My prevailing feeling throughout the trip, though, was something akin to nostalgia. Not in reference to my own memory, but a nostalgia in the collective memory of Western society: it felt like we were experiencing the end of an era. When we told people we were hitchhiking, they often reacted with surprise, bemusement or concern, but many also reminisced about their memories of thumbing it along the open road as students themselves. They simultaneously expressed fear for our well-being and envy for our journey. You could tell some of the drivers — even the well-established middle-class ones — felt some long-dormant twinge of adventure, the contagious effect of that fading spirit of communal humanity.
Once upon a time, an outstretched thumb along a highway was a common sight — Kerouac's On the Road is the quintessential expression of that era — but that particular brand of romantic wandering is all but extinct outside music festivals and hippie communes. Now, the geopolitical landscape is contracting, pitted with closed borders and restricted movement; recent events point to a deep-rooted mistrust of strangers and particularly foreigners. Hitchhiking across the continent, particularly as a visible minority, felt like the last gasp of European humanism and globalization. In ten years' time, if the world continues along its current trajectory, I have to wonder: would it be wise — or even possible — to do so?
Scot Topic is culture-at-large editor Richard Joseph's contribution to The Gazette. He's currently doing an exchange year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.