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Around The Sun: Locked In A Car

Steve Harrison goes hitch-hiking in France, his first trip broad.

I had 50 in my pocket. My dad dropped me off near the M1 motorway, I thumbed a ride south to London, then another to Dover. I caught the cross-Channel ferry to Calais, and how I was hitching my way through France, heading for Paris.

What the hell was I doing on my own in France, with just 50, and not a single word of the local lingo!

I recall arriving in Rouen, the Joan of Arc town, exhausted and scared. This was my first time abroad and I had nowhere to stay. I crept into a church building, thinking that one could always seek sanctuary in a church. There I slept like a baby, secure in Jesus's house, to be woken up by an early morning service. I made my excuses, which no one understood, and took my leave.

I headed south now towards Lyon, getting lifts without difficulty. As it began to get dark and cold I worried again at not having anywhere to stay. An old Citroen car showed up, weaving all over the road. I immediately thought the driver must be drunk. He saw me, and after a few more swerves came to a halt. He had gone way past me, and now he started to reverse. I wasn't sure whether to stay where I was or run and hide. He didn't seem to know how to drive in reverse gear. I examined the ditch. Perhaps I could sleep there.

Now the Citroen was alongside me, and the driver spoke. I think he asked me where I was going. I said I was going south. He opened the car door and beckoned me inside.

I wanted to get to Lyon but realised I was still a long way from that city. However the signposts we passed all pointed to Lyon, so I was reasonably happy. The driver talked animatedly. I understood not so much as a word.

Somewhere around 11 pm we turned off the highway. Now we were on a dirt road and seemed to be heading in the opposite direction to that which I wanted to go. I signaled that I wanted him to stop, but if he understood my gestures, he ignored them. I tried to get him to slow down. On he went at the same speed, on and on... By this time I was worried.

The man was drunk. He was driving dangerously.

I wrote a note saying LYON and showed it to him. He nodded. I wrote another note saying STOP. He didn't.

Eventually we pulled up outside what appeared to be n abandoned farmhouse. He jumped out and locked the car doors. To my horror I was unable to find a door handle. I couldn't even find a means of opening a window. My heart was racing. I wanted to grab my bag, get out of the car, and run for it. None of this felt right.

What the hell was I going to do? More importantly, what the hell was he going to do?

He came back to the car, opened my door and helped me out. He seemed warm and friendly. I took up my backpack and followed him into the darkened farmhouse.

Suddenly all the lights went on. People seemed to pop up everywhere. They were singing!

I eventually learned that I had arrived on a night of ritual in that part of France. The night was made lucky if you were able to bring a stranger into your house. It meant a blessing on that season's crops.

I was slapped on the back, plied with beer and delicious hot food. I ended up well and truly drunk, and then slept like a babe. I failed to understand what was being said to me, but already I liked these peculiar French people and their strange customs.

I did end up in the south of France, and the sun did shine, and I enjoyed every minute of it until it was time to go because my money had run out.

I was unsettled and depressed when I got back to England. That was my first overseas journey. I was determined that it would not be my last.


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