"Western Africa 2012" story # 3

Voiron, France           April 26, 2012

On a morning when snowflakes the size of gnats fell amongst the dirty and sculpted, old facades of Brno, I departed from the Czech Republic. It was April 8th. Spring.
     Spring was unfortunately not one of my three favorite seasons. In my hometown of Michigan, it was a time of rain. A time of mud. A time when the days were sometimes warm, but the nights were almost always cold. A friend of mine once told me: “Any month that has an “r” in its name is a bad time to be sleeping on the ground.” And I would be sleeping outside this aprrril, as I hitchhiked westward and southward towards unexplored territories: Morocco.
     To make matters worse, I would be hitchhiking through Europe – a place that wasn´t new to me. “Hitchhike somewhere new” was one of my favorite things to do. But, to “hitchhike somewhere old” was kind of a drag. And, wasn’t I getting a little old for this, myself? Nevertheless, my optimism was still youthful!
     Wisdom was, however, useful. I was going to have to keep in mind that the key to enjoying such a trip was to be patient: to stop and do the things I needed to do, when I felt I needed to do them. For example:
     1. write a Modern Oddyseus story
     2. write in my journal in Arabic
     3. wash myself
     4. wash my clothes
     5. shave
     6. find a beautiful girl to talk to, dance with her if I was lucky, and hopefully get even luckier
     Unfortunately for me, this had been and was continuing to be a cold year in Europe. My first four days on the road included a cold day, two windy days, and a rainy day. Actually, they were all cold. I was in a lakeside town in Austria, and I could barely make use of its picnic tables to write. At night in my tent, I wore all my clothes at once and barely stayed warm. I adorned my swimsuit once to bathe myself in the lake, but I wasn´t brave enough to jump in.
     I went in a public restroom to shave. Looking in the mirror, I saw that I looked at least 46 years old. My goatee hair was so white, it appeared I had a baby fur seal on my face. It looked like I had no hair on half my head. I had a red, sunburnt beak nose. And there was a black cut on my lip, where it had gotten windburnt. Oh, my. I quickly shaved off the fur seal and continued on my way.
     I walked several kilometers inland, through a field full of jackrabbits and deer, to an expressway. I climbed a tall fence then timidly crossed the busy expressway. I wondered how a poor animal could get from one side to the other? In a rest area, I found a ride with a Slovakian couple to Germany.
     The young man, Jan, announced his hatred for capitalism. It surprised me then to hear that he was going to Paris where he studied in Europe´s best business school. He disliked the other students there. He said he and the business students would like me, though, as I was outside of “the game” to make a lot of money.
     He hated “the game” and “the system”. His plan? To use the system to make a lot of money so that he would have the power to change the system. I, however, felt that one had to be outside the system to change it. If one needed the system, it meant he was less powerful than the system, and therefore how could he change it?
     Before dropping me off, Jan and Anna gave me chocolate, a fish spread for bread, and a jar of their grandma´s red-pepper-green-pepper sauce. And Jan tried convincing me I should sell my books for 5000 Euros apiece.
     It had been nice riding with intelligent Jan. But, the crowded expressways that cut through Europe were so ugly and boring. I felt bad for the people – such as truck-drivers – who spent large percentages of their lives there.
     Soon, I was in France. And I moved temporarily to the small highways, where I traveled slowly and saw more.
     I went for walks in: bright green forests carpeted with ivy leaves, with tiny blue and purple flowers here and there, which led uphill to grassy mounds concealing subterranean fortresses from the 30 Years´ War; towns whose rows of buildings wiggled and meandered, closing in on the streets with their brown-mortar or powdery-stone facades; and mossy dead forests, surrounding the Cascades du Herisson where 200-ft. waterfalls poured over rounded rock and resembled big layered wedding cakes. It was all very gentle – like France´s people and its language. I was happy to be here again.
     But, it was raining in the bright green forests. It was raining in the towns. It was raining in the mossy dead forests. And it was raining at the border, when I was denied entry to Switzerland.
     I´d been in Europe 98 days, or eight days too long. So, the Swiss sent me back to France. Darn, I hated laws and the people who enforced them! I thought. I´d show them. I´d sneak in!
     Their borders were probably just like their cheese, I thought. Full of holes.
     Several days later, I was on my way to sneak into Switzerland. I hitchhiked to within thirty kilometers of the border. I hoped to hitchhike a bit further, then cross the Jura Mountains by foot and make my descent into Switzerland.
     The day was moist and cloudy. I stood on a hilltop, beside the road, at the edge of a French village 2,300 feet above sea-level. Wind and small raindrops pelted me. Next to me, a stout horse with long blond hair shivered. Few cars drove by. What was I doing? I thought, and I decided to give up and go south to warmer weather. As I walked past this village´s stone church whose bells rang often and with no identifiable pattern, hail fell on me. It felt satisfying to know, at least, that I could´ve gone to Switzerland if I´d really wanted to, and could go at any time regardless of what the border guards said – weather permitting, of course. Ha ha. Screw you, Switzerland!
     The following evening, rain was pouring down from the sky in buckets, or in swimming-pool-sized loads. I was in a car driven by a petite French blonde. I was hoping that, by playing it cool, I could get invited into her home in the student town of Grenoble. But, I would have no such luck. I´d spend another night in my wet tent with slugs hanging off of it. Or maybe they were grubs?
     Alice was studying mechanical engineering and hoped to work for an American tramway company. But, she also said she´d like to have a farm, grow her own food, and find her own way to get water and electricity. I agreed with her here. Escape “the system”.
     She dropped me off in Voiron, a town so beautiful I felt the joy of traveling again – even though it was raining hard and Alice had just driven out of my life.
     A gothic, stone cathedral stood before me. With its tall torpedo-shaped windows and holes between its arches, with its two cony spires surrounded by little cones, the cathedral looked like it had been smooshed between a giant´s two fingers and pulled upwards. Looming over its shoulder was a sprawled-out, snow-buried black mountain. A French Alp.
     To the left of the cathedral, houses connected to one another squeezed their way up a small hill. The buildings, mauve or hot pink or burnt orange or beige or chlorine blue, were so narrow that their window shutters, bright white or scarlet or faded green, took up their whole fronts. White balconies protruded proudly, so short that only boxes of plants could hang from them. And tiny buried windows peaked out of dark attics, amid clay shingled rooftops and beside skinny chimneys with tops like birdhouses. Doves loved these clay roofs.
     A rounded trapezoidal building, with an isosceles-triangle side to its steep black roof that looked British, looked spacious and clean on the cathedral´s right-hand side. Tall windows … a white or gray surface as shiny as marble. From the roof, wide chimneys stuck out violently like knives from a person´s skull. Further to the right, the sun came out over more white-bumpy-topped Alps. A ridge of cliffs arched through the blue sky like a sneering, evil fish.
     Near-naked bearded men, and a few women, poured water out of jugs, on the white vase-like fountain that was at the center of Voiron´s beauty.
     I loved Voiron. I sat under a shop´s awning and ate chocolate spread on bread. It occurred to me that connected houses were much more beautiful than isolated and separate ones. Unfortunately, it was the fashion now in France to buy and build solitary houses in the suburbs. A lot of people were telling me that France was changing; that the people were losing their sense of togetherness.
     After Voiron, I mostly experienced the agony of traveling.
     I had a five-hour wait, a two-hour wait, and a four-hour wait while hitchhiking. My all-chocolate-spread diet made me sick and weak. I got mad at a supermarket and stormed out of it. But, then, I realized I had no choice but to swallow my pride and go back into it, because I needed chocolate spread. And it rained on me some more. Once, there weren´t even clouds in the sky. Maybe I´d begun to have illusions that rain was falling on my forehead? Like Chinese water torture …
     But, there were reasons for optimism, too.
     I began substituting cheese for chocolate spread. Soft brie … hard “tomme” from the Pyrenees … bitter, yellow “comte” from the Jura Mountains … mmm! I braved the cold to bathe myself in the Mediterranean. And I looked in the mirror once, after five days without shaving; and a tan 32-year-old was looking back at me, with hair all over his head, even if a bit patchy in spots.
     Finally, a Spaniard named Karim drove me into his country.
     This twenty-five-year-old drove his delivery truck a lot, because he needed money. He said he wished he could go with his family to live on an island where there was no money. The people would have farms. Some would have eggs. Some would have goats. Some would have tomatoes and carrots. And everyone would just trade, in order to get what she needed.
     Escape “the system”.
     Incidentally, Karim was of Moroccan heritage. Like many other people in France and Spain, he said I was going to love North Africa. Yay!
     But, first, I had a friend in Barcelona to visit. I needed a break …

wishing you money-less communities and blue skies,
the Modern Oddyseus

Thanks to Jirka Vavrousek; Jan & Anna; Marius & Anna; Claire & Leo; Dau, Kim, & Min; Gin & Titu; Jean-Marie; Colette & Justine; Frank, wife, & son; Serge; Jovann Irving; Jacques Piranda; Quentin; Jacques; Sebastien, Anna-elle, & Tom; Alice; Gorys; Shareeb; Simon; Daniel; Karim; and Carme Avellan for rides!
Much thanks to Strndi & Zdenecka; Franz & Pension Leiner; and Dau, Kim, Min, & Titu for places to stay!

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