I’m standing on the access road to a German motorway, close to the Polish border. I crossed over about an hour ago by train and a fellow passenger offered to drop me off. It’s absolutely freezing and I reflect on how I’ve misjudged the sting of an early October, Central European winter. Cars are speeding past me and I vaguely recall being told by someone that in Germany hitch-hikers don’t often get lifts. I also realise that I won’t be able to stand around in these low temperatures for much longer!
Another car speeds past and deep in thought, I don’t realise that it has stopped about 200m down the road. Until I hear the parp, parp, paaaarp of its hooter. I grab my overweight backpack and run as fast as my stiff legs will carry me. The possibility of the car driving off as soon as I approach is always a possibility. As I come closer, I notice that it’s an old-style Ford Granada 3.0 litre with flashy alloys. A tall guy with unkempt black hair, wearing faded jeans and a black leather jacket climbs out as I approach on the driver’s side. As he addresses me in German, understanding some Dutch helps me to guess the question and I reply in English that I’m heading towards Frankfurt. The following day, I had to catch a Euro Lines coach from Frankfurt to London. “I am Bogdan,” he offers in a strong Eastern European accent. “OK, we not go Frankfurt, but you come.” As he gestures to load my bag into the car’s boot, I notice a dark figure in the passenger seat. I also notice a pink rug on the dashboard. I rip my Lonely Planet guide from my backpack before the trunk gets slammed shut.
I slide into the back passenger seat, behind the other person who is bald and has a leather skullcap and a black leather jacket to match. When the co-pilot turns slightly and nods, Bogdan introduces him as his brother, Krzystoff. I don’t see any resemblance. Apprehensively, I think to myself that whatever happens, for now this definitely beats getting frostbite by the roadside!
Bogdan pulls off with determination. Krzystoff lights three Polish cigarettes and with a gruff “you smoke!” hands the first one to me. As he turns, I notice the complete lack of hair in his face and on his arms. As if reading my mind, Bogdan offers some information: “Krzystoff he work(ed) close to Chernobyl, so he loose hair”. The cigarette is damn strong, but I appreciate the gesture, since I desperately need the nicotine hit. Polish music starts up as I flip through my guide to find the section on language and translation. I make an attempt at asking simple Polish questions, half of which they understand, but conversation warms up and remarkably, we manage to learn a few things about each other. They are both builders who cross the Polish border once a month to do work on German construction sites. The Deutsch Mark is the strongest currency in the region and the brothers manage to earn five or six times as much as their countrymen back home.
Soon we enter a large village. They have an argument about what seems to be directions, but eventually we enter an industrial area, which is totally deserted. The compound has 12-foot fencing around it and the guard post is empty. I gather that they were supposed to meet a business associate and that we have to wait. For a brief second I experience a realisation that if something had to happen to me over here, no one would ever know. We all climb out to stretch our legs and Krzystoff hands me the fourth ready-lit cigarette.
After about 20 minutes Bogdan kicks in the dust, mumbles something and starts the car. As we head out of town and onto the open road, Krzystoff produces a bottle of vodka-looking liquor with floating gold flakes. He breaks the seal and passes it to me with a “You drink, Jacques – you drink!” The bottle gets passed around and Bogdan informs us that the Autobahn is just ahead. They seem to have been looking forward to this part of the trip.
Our spirits lift and Bogdan asks me to remove a plastic container from behind his seat. It’s packed with Polish sausages, savoury snacks and sandwiches. I happen to glance at the speedometer, which is nudging its way to 190km/h. I think to myself that looks can deceive when it comes to old cars and I try not to think of a possible blow-out at this speed. A half an hour later we wash the last sandwiches down with Polish gold. Bogdan muses over the quality of the liquor and Krzystoff lights up more smokes. Every time they consume something I’m offered some first and it seems to me that to decline would be a major insult.
I watch as the picturesque countryside passes by and suddenly I realize how exhausted I am. I’ve not slept properly for 48 hours. My trip from Poland to Germany was on one of the “normalijne” trains, which get loaded to the brim, and if you board late, you end up sharing standing space in the passage with about 40 others. The night before that, I hung around a Polish train station, since sleeping on benches is prohibited. It was my way of saving a few Zlotys, since I was running out of cash fast.
Bogdan must have noticed that I am exhausted, because he turns around and says in a brotherly manner: “Jean, you sleep! Okay, you sleep!” I wake up two hours later, amazingly well refreshed. The bottle of liquor is empty and the brothers seem unaffected. Krzystoff passes another cigarette and Bogdan informs me that they are prepared to take me all the way to their destination, Stuttgart, from where I could take a train to Frankfurt. My earlier paranoia now suddenly seems distant and must have been induced by fatigue. I accept gladly with a “dziekuje!” – thank you.
We have left the Autobahn and are approaching a quaint village with a stunning mountain range as a backdrop. The brothers have another “bizznizz” meeting lined up and this time the client is waiting at a coffee shop. I am introduced as their friend from “Afrika” and am invited to join the table. After an hour of German shoptalk and politics over coffee and snacks, the wealthy-looking businessman picks up the tab. Bogdan indicates that they want to show me something. We drive to a posh suburb where the brothers point their handiwork out to me. They actually specialise in the fine art of plastering design without using moulds. It entails artistic twirls, patterns and shapes that apparently are in high demand in Germany.
As we continue on the last stretch to Stuttgart, more beautiful scenery complements the trip. Five-hundred-and-something kilometres after Bogdan and Krzystoff offered me a ride, we stop at the entrance to the city’s main train station. Both brothers climb out and I retrieve my bag from the boot. The quieter Krzystoff unexpectedly gives me a hug while slapping me on the back good naturedly, saying: “Jacques! Our brother!” Bogdan shakes my hand and bids me farewell and good luck. He hands me two packets of Polish smokes. I’m at a loss for words, but I get my tongue back and thank them profusely.
Last-minute advice from Bogdan includes boarding the train without a ticket, because they rarely bother checking them on inter-city express trains. Slightly dazed, I lug my backpack into the station hall while increasingly experiencing a dull throbbing in the back of my head. I wonder whether the Lonely Planet guide has included the German word for painkillers.
[Based on an event in 1997, written in 2000]
Text and Photograph by Jean-Jacques @ Gypsy Café
© 2000 – 2008
oh man, this reminds me to Viktor’s brother, Konrad. he used to say all the time “Zoltan, language iz no problem to me”, and he was totally right 🙂 anyways, what did you do in Frankfurt in 97, i don’t get the picture 🙂
😀 I remember Konrad – he never tried to improve his English – he didn’t care. Yeah, I was living in London then (for two years), working in a computer factory and not making much money. Regardless, I decided to go to mainland Europe for the first time, so I planned to visit Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria. I visited friends in Osnabrück and spent some time with their relatives in Berlin. After that travelled to Poland by train – had a great time there and a few challenges too (like buying food or ordering meals and it was impossible to read any signs, except names), because the language barrier was even more profound than the German one – it really “felt” like Eastern Europe – I visited Warsaw, Krakow (+ Auschwitz) and Zakopane but ran out of cash before I could go to Slovakia and had to hitch-hike back to Germany. I spent a couple of nights in train stations and met some interesting Flemish Gypsies from Belgium – could communicate with them in Dutch. Those were the real traveller days…
I still have photo’s in a dusty shoe box somewhere which I might try to dig out – mostly black and white shots – but there might be something to add to the gallery.