A French Funeral – January 3, 1969
I’d spent the night before in an empty boxcar in the rail yards of Genoa. I had hopped a train from Florence, hiding from the conductor force, moving surruptitiously from car to car, hunkering
down in the toilets.
After a successful bluff of an angry ticket puncher, claiming in broken spanish that acute stomach “issues” were keeping me on the commode, I had made it from Pisa and slipped off into the dark maze of trains.
It always takes a long time to get from the center of a city to the highways and it was midday before i reached the end of the Ligurian Sea and approached the french border.
Memorably I had been picked up in Citroen 2CV DeuxChevaux …a front wheel drive, air-cooled, 600cc beast whose name 2CV meant 2 Steam Horses, whatever that meant (BTW, looking up tax horsepower on wiki will introduce you to a vast bureaucratic heaven!). The 2CV driver figured himself a mustang wrangler as he whipped the little beastie at breakneck speed around the lorries on the 2 lane road between Savona and Cannes. I still don’t know if he was drunk or just had a death wish. He was a youngish Italian guy whipping a french mini – I thought it a bit odd and prayed for my life. Dropped alive outside the Cote d’Azur, a truck took me on to the outskirts of Aix en Provence by late afternoon.
I walked through the lovely town, its pruned plane trees lining the main street, shading the shop lights coming on in the mid-winter twilight. In 1969 ’twas still barely out of the 19th century.
With only a little over ten dollars and at least 2 or 3 weeks travel in front of me there was no budget to eat. I was on my way from Rome to Morocco in pursuit of some hashish which I expected to find cheap and plentiful in Marrakech and intended to sell at the Club Voltaire in Frankfurt-a-M. I had left Rome a few days after Christmas, ridden my Suzuki 250cc motorbike to Florence, left it with my younger sister Meg who was going to Gonzaga there, and headed out the day after a two day New Years Eve blowout in the bar of the youth hostel. I had my sleeping bag, canvas pack, Acme boots and a sheepskin lined leather jacket and didn’t expect to need much money for food and none for rooms as I banked on a 4 or 5 day trip which should put me in the medina. This was the day of “Europe on a Dollar a Day”, and that was living large at that, anyway I expected to be moving most of the nights and catnapping under overpasses if it rained. So it was about 7 pm on January 3rd 1969 as I left the Centre Ville and stuck my thumb out.
Ten in the evening had come and gone and I was still standing in that Aix scruffy patch between a ditch and the highway towards Montpellier. No one had even slowed down let alone asked where I was headed. I was getting discouraged – the temperature was dropping, wind starting to blow, my unlined leather gloves were pretty useless. There was barely a strip of shoulder where interested drivers could safely pull over. No stoplights and only dim streetlights. A very poor spot to hitch.
Guys have different approaches to thumbing a ride. In the 60’s no one used “destination signs”. It was a clever idea until bums ruined it with beggar signs; but no one ever had good, clean, “folded shirt” laundry cardboard much less a thick felt-tip … they hadn’t been invented yet. Some just stand there with a listless thumb hanging, others move the arm and thumb in sweeping gestures or jigging for fish motions. Some look the driver in the face, others pay little attention.
Years earlier I was hitching with John Farnan and another fellow, maybe Gibby, from South Lake Tahoe up north to Stateline after a mighty snow storm. The three of us coordinated a “Pips” like dance move. It’s real hard for more than one guy to get a ride – even that creative move failed and we had to split up. I always stayed active and alert – trying to look as legit as possible. I always try to look in the car as it approaches – scoping out the drivers and passengers. Soft eye contact is good. Obviously your chances are 100 times better with a male driver and maybe one passenger. Once hitch hiking home from high school, about 25 miles, a friend and I got picked up by two really, really drunk sailors. Before we got out of Williamsburg we conveniently remembered we had left a wallet back in school and asked them to let us out. Perhaps we recalled the three poor sailors who had died when their car swerved off the road and into the trees by Matoaka Lake. I cannot remember ever getting picked up by a lone woman and I have hitched several thousands of miles, coast to coast as well as up and down the eastern and western seaboards. Once, when hitching with a girl friend thru Andalusia a truck driver stopped and offer to take her but leave me in the dust – we declined. A guitar is always good; a dog will leave you hanging out for days.
Guys also have different approaches when a car slows down & begins to pull over. I think it is imperative to pick up your pack or guitar and start making a move. You want to set the hook – they need to realize some responsibility for getting your hopes up. This is the best way to nullify second thoughts or the complaints of the wifey (“ Andre, what the hell are you doing? I hope you are not going to pick up that guy!”). If you stand and wait for a waving invitation it’s most likely it won’t come and if your jeans are dirty it will scare the ride off.
So the hours ticked by and a deep darkness came down on the surrounding trees. As the winds turned chilly my spirits were sinking. Eight turned into nine turned into ten. Traffic thinned out. I began to wish for my beat up Suzuki. There were no freeways outside of Germany and the traveling mode was probably going to be catching rides from one town to the next. So I was thinking about getting to Arles, then Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan, Barcelona, Valencia, Murcia, etc etc until getting to the ferry from Algeciras to Maroc. I had to cover 4 or 5 legs a day, each two or three hours driving, to make it to Marrakech in 4 or 5 days and I was stuck in my first leg in France with the middle of the night approaching..
All of a sudden a big wide body Citroen sedan began to slow in front of me. I was stunned to dimly make out a fully loaded car. Not only did the car have at least 4 people in it but it looked like they were all women. WHAT THE HECK??? I naturally assumed they were pulling over for some reason other than me so, contrary to my normal sprint to the car door, I slowed down to a walk. The shotgun door opened and a mature woman in a dress suit stepped out and waved me to come forward. Hmmmm….as I covered the 30 feet to the waiting gal I could see sure enough that the car was full of women but then I realized there was a man driving. Well that was a positive move for my chances. The back door opened as well and another women climbed out. They both seemed to be in their mid thirties, medium tall, well dressed.
One asked me where I was going.
I replied to Spain.
The gal from the front said “Ok, if you’d like, get in the back”.
I handed her my pack as I climbed into the back seat.
I looked at the driver as I moved towards the middle and he uttered a greeting.
Then as I settled I greeted the other passenger, sitting at the left rear door. … “Well what to my wondering eyes should appear?”
On my left sat a senior woman of at least fifty-five or sixty years. She was dressed rather severely in a black outfit. Here hair was conservatively cut and she had a pleasant face as she looked frankly at me and gave me a small smile. The doors closed and we pulled out off the shoulder and into the french night. As the car picked up speed we began a round of introductions. The 40 something man behind the wheel turned out to be the husband of the first woman who rode shotgun. On my right in the back was her sister. On my left was their mother. I was mystified – what was a sober, middle aged family of obviously conventional, bourgeois women doing picking up a young, somewhat tattered, long haired bohemian in the middle of a dark and windy night out in the empty fields of Provence?
a short detour….. I always get a bit pissed off when people complain about how rude the French are. Sure, they usually are talking about some Parisian waiter who done ‘em wrong, but they seem duty bound to generalize. Invariably they spent only a few days in some big city. On that first trip to Europe in 1968-1969 I spent 15 months in nine countries and only this one night in France.
But I have since then, altogether, spent probably at least 120 days over some 30 trips in France and the only rudeness that comes easily to mind was a late night argument with a Paris cab driver outside Lucas Carton over who was going to sit in the front seat of his taxi – me or his dog!
I lost that argument and had to find another way back to the hotel. One just has to make a fair effort at speaking their language. Even just a couple of “bon jours” and “comment ca va’s” IF delivered with a bit of music and a roughly approximate pass at a reasonable accent will start you off on the right foot. I don’t speak french well even after six years study – that was 7th through 12th grade. If Madame Ringold hadn’t scared me off and forced me to switch to German in college I would be able now to get fluent after a few weeks. But on that winter’s night in the luxurious back seat of the hydropneumatic, self leveling suspended, big, old, four door sedan I had only been out of french class 6 years and could cobble together a conversation pretty well. So here’s what happened.
The mother began to talk to me in mixed French-English. They were from Perpignan. A small city at the foot of the Pyrenees and only 20 miles from Spain. They were on their way home from somewhere near Nice after burying Henri (fictitious name), her husband and the girls father. She told me she’d said to her family just a short time before “ You know, I’d like to do something special for Henri, something different, spontaneous, and unexpected; something kind” No sooner had she’d said that than she saw me with my thumb out on the side of the road. So at a point when my morale was approaching its nadir here came this streaking, good luck wagon. Not only was it a ride , it was a full nights drive essentially all the way across southern France.
We settled back into the warm corduroy of the sumptuous back seat. Snuggling between the two fair smelling ladies I felt like a teddy bear. So we began the leisurely chat of travelers. Where were we from, where are we going. What we thought of this place or that. What were our favorite foods. Which of course led to maman suggesting to the front seat daughter that she break out some food and drink. We drove on through the winter night with baguettes carved up into sandwiches with jambon and brie cheese and glasses of fresh wine. Fresh fruits and dried ones. Delicious cookies or perhaps cakes. I was in heaven. The chatting continued. How was I to survived? Was I alone in Europe? What siblings I had. What our home towns were like. What she planned to do now as a widow. What my parents did. Which jobs their families had. What our plans for the future were.
As the evening passed on the daughters quieted down, the son-in-law concentrated on the road. As we moved through the flat plains of Lanquedoc the clear night sky showed lots of stars and our rambling turned to that master of the night and Antoine Saint-Exupery and “Le Petit Prince”. We agreed that it was a wonderful book and one of our favorites and talked about our favorite parts – the hat, the rose, the snake, the astroids. It reminded me of home and Margo Peter and Margo Mullen and Cheryl Lirette, all friends from Mme Ringold’s french class at Walsingham. With those bittersweet thoughts I too dozed off.
I awoke as our driver pulled to the gravel shoulder. “Here we are in Perpignan” he announced. It was about 4 am – we’d been traveling about 6 hours. They asked if I would like to come home with them for some breakfast. I declined politely since I still had all of Spain, the Straits of Gibraltar, and most of Morocco to go. With hugs and handshakes they let me go. I walked a bit until I found a field. I walked in it a few hundred feet, unrolled my old army issue down sleeping bag and promptly fell into a deep sleep. As the Med sun climbed into morning and warmed my bag and me I sat up to see a field of green speckled here and there with some flower. It was good to be moving south. I got up, packet the bag away, walked to the road and put my thumb out as the first car sped by.
So I had spent less than a day in France out of 15 months – 5 or 6 hours with a french family, and as I mentioned I would not return to France for a decade. But when I hear people crabbing about French rudeness I always recall that lovely evening and have never forgot their generosity, kindness, and a bit of courage too. My sweet wife Margo had a similar experience while hitch hiking around Ireland, being picked up and squired through the country side by a fellow named Patrick Keane – you never forget those offerings. So 2 nights later I had hit the Costa del Sol and was on the ferry to Africa. And a day after that later we killed a guy which you can read about in my post dated Dec 8, 2011 called “Marrakech Express”