The farther I wandered into the French countryside, the less English I could speak with my drivers. But the thumb worked, so I kept going. I landed in Burgundy by evening, when many workers were heading home from the vineyards. I hopped on board with a few of them—including a jovial guy in a wine truck eating an ice cream cone— and arrived in the village of Paris l’hopital (population 300) in time for dinner with my couchsurfing host and her family. I spent the next couple of days wading through the sea of grape vines that wash over the gently curving landscape.
I then hitched a ride to Auxerre, a mid-sized town located two hours away that took twice as long to reach after my Russian driver and I completely missed the exit signs while grooving to his deep house music. He sheepishly dropped me off at a nearly deserted rest stop after overshooting Auxerre by 100 km. I personally approached every driver who pulled into the parking lot rather than use my thumb, eventually securing a spot in a van with a group of Parisian college students on holiday.
After two days in Auxerre, I set my sights on the French Riviera, where I would be meeting my friend Nomi and catching a ferry to Corsica for a week-long music festival. I gave myself two days to cover the 500-mile segment, which seemed ample considering that I traveled the same distance in 10 hours during my first day of hitchhiking. Posting up just inside Auxerre city center around noon, I was picked after about 15 minutes up by a young girl whom I saw drive past me minutes earlier. During the ride, she confessed that she turned around after balking on the first go-around. I appreciated her honesty and willingness to go for it (picking up a hitchhiker can be just as daunting as hitchhiking)! She dropped me off at the highway entrance, where two Frenchmen were already waiting for a ride down the same stretch of road. These were the first of several hitchhikers I encountered at French tolls, which are the best places to find rides in the country. Interactions with these folk were invariably pleasant, conducted with tacit acknowledgment and support of our respective journeys. I gave the Frenchmen a couple sips of my water, and they handed me some cherries.
I stood at this toll booth baking in the heat for what seemed like ages, but no one pulled over. This became a recurring theme over the course of the next two days, as I soon learned that hitchhiking in France is substantially more difficult than other countries, perhaps the result of a certain brand of provincialism (i.e. a lack of openness to strangers and other cultures) that also explains why English is not more broadly spoken in the country. Before I cast too wide a net, I will admit that my drivers in France were among the most memorable of the trip. But I will also include a caveat that about half were either first or second-generation immigrants who—though proud Frenchmen—identified at least partly with other cultures. The rest were just cool people, who exist everywhere.
At the end of what turned out to be the most difficult day of the trip, I found myself somewhere outside Valence erecting my tent on the side of a highway running parallel to the one I actually wanted to be on, trying to figure out how bad I smelled. I was tired, but the sky was pink, and I was alive—was there really any better place to be? I woke up early the next morning and set off (illegally) walking down the highway in search of an exit. My salvation came in the form of Kari, who pulled up next to me even though I didn’t have my thumb raised! He bought me breakfast at a local bakery and drove me 50 km. to a toll booth on the appropriate highway.
From there, it was smooth sailing (albeit in scorching heat) to Nice, where I arrived by early afternoon. I had reached the last stop of my first hitchhiking adventure, buoyed by the energy of my drivers and the beauty of my surroundings. What I found on the road was not enlightenment, but a strength that had lain dormant in my mind, stymied by the terrifying notion of embodying my authentic self. Amidst constant scrutiny and rejection, I learned simply how to care less, because I know who I am and what I can do. And I see that people appreciate me doing my own thing, which helps them feel comfortable doing their own thing, the synergistic effect being a universe exploding with balanced energy. The road continues as the levels rise, but I pause to smile and be here now.