Thursday, June 27, 2013

Hitchhiking in Zurich and a crisis of self-image

In the first three weeks of this trip, Flounder and I hitchhiked exactly one day. I was too ashamed to write about it until now.

I was ashamed of this fact because, as Flounder can attest to, I threw a fit before the start of the trip about how important it is to me that we hitchhike and Couchsurf and camp and keep our travel plans open. I was clear that one of my favorite parts of traveling is that nervous pit of energy in my stomach in the morning, not knowing where I would go that day or where I would sleep that night.

But I found myself, after three days in Zurich, waking up with a knot in my stomach the size of a small child and this time I didn’t like it. I found myself making excuses for why we shouldn’t hitch. It was cold. It was rainy. I’d heard that hitching was difficult in Switzerland. Flounder was not excited about the prospect of standing on the side of a road with our thumbs out or soliciting rides from strangers at petrol stations, but bless his heart, he said we should go for it.
Packing up and getting ready to leave
So we took the train about 15 kilometers to a petrol station on the main highway toward Austria and Germany. Never mind that the ride cost about $15. As most hitchers will tell you, hitching out of a city is difficult; you need to get into the outskirts to have much luck at all.

We walked in the cold and the threatening rain with our heavy packs, walked into the petrol station lot, and immediately felt like bums. We were disheveled, walked with lumbering strides, and I was wearing about all the clothing I had brought, including a pair of Flounder’s jeans, in an (ineffectual) attempt to keep warm.
Streamlined cars in Zurich
We made our sign (AUT or DEU) and stood next to the ramp where cars would drive onto the fast, sleek expressway. We tried not to feel so terribly, terribly out of place, but surrounded by streamlined black cars and people in all black attire, we didn't succeed. In fact, the longer we stood there, the more sheepish we felt.
Feeling sheepish
We tried to keep our spirits up. I tried to distract Flounder with stories of past hitchhiking foibles and successes and with a game of 20 questions, but he became dispirited, especially after we had waited for 45 minutes with no luck. My personal longest waiting time in all my months and countries of hitchhiking till that point was about half an hour.

‘But I never hitched in Western Europe,’ I assured him. ‘It’s much harder here. The roads are so big and so fast that we can only wait in petrol stations, we can only get dropped in petrol stations, too.’
We hoped these two dogs driving their RV would stop for us, but even they refused
What I didn’t tell him was that I could understand why people were hesitant to take us. I’m not sure I would have wanted to pick us up. I, especially, looked like a ragamuffin (I hope that’s not one of those obscure formerly racist terms that now seems quaint until you read about its horrible, degrading history of usage…). I was wearing Flounder’s jeans, which are too big for me (as I put them on for the first time I had a horrifying vision of not being able to zip them up, so I was relieved and then ashamed of myself for feeling relief when they were much too big), as well as his olive green windbreaker (again, too big). My gender was barely distinguishable beneath my dress-up clothing.

An aside about hitchhiking: being female helps. Not just in attracting the pervs who will try to have sex with you in exchange for the ride, but also in comforting those drivers who worry that hitchhikers are serial killers.

Instead of comforting and/or attracting potential rides, I looked like a small, lumpy man.

After a little more than an hour of waiting (a short time, I know) the wind began to pick up, the clouds threatened more rain, and we were damn cold. Flounder, bless his heart again, was willing to stay out there as long as I wanted to. So it was I—adventurous, unflappable, unthwartable Sarah—who threw in the towel. Faced with waiting hours at petrol stations for rides that may or may not come and faced with cold and rainy weather, I threw in the towel.

We took the train to Munich. It cost about $200.
Flounder giving me his version of my patented 'the look' on the train to Munich
The bigger cost was my confidence in my self-image. I was used to being that adventurous, unflappable, unthwartable Sarah. If I wasn’t her, then who was I?

The short answer to that is: I am a bit softer now and a bit more desirous of comfort. But successful hitchhiking in Serbia, Romania, and now Armenia, along with Couchsurfing in Switzerland, Germany, and Slovakia have reassured me that I still love this type of travel.

The long answer to that question—‘who am I?’—well that’s a lifetime project, isn’t it? But traveling is a great way to figure it out.


  1. Nice remarks Sarah. But remember that all, even the most adventourous HHkers have such days!
    And since I had a pleasure to HH with you for couple of days I am sure that you are one of the most adventureous HHkers inon this earth!
    Good luck!!

  2. Sarah you rock. So glad I'm getting to know you through blogging. You're an awesome writer and your humility and honesty are so refreshing.

    This is a great post and I wanna make sure Vince reads it. He's spoken with Flounder and is like "hey would you ever want to do a trip like that?!" and I'm like "My heart says yes... but... my 31 year old spoiled body would like to know that there's a reservation with a soft bed somewhere."

    Anyway - Flounder looks cute giving you 'the look.' I am a fan. :)

    1. Ali, it is possible to have something between the two extremes of types of travel. In 2011 my 6 week (seemed long then!) trip around the Baltics was a bit of both, I always had my reservation or my friend's couch lined up a few days in advance and I almost always took mass transit (researched somewhat beforehand). That allowed me some flexibility but with the peace of mind of knowing where I'd be sleeping the next night. It also meant I could go to fun off the grid places that I heard about on my travels or extend a stay somewhere (Hvar, Croatia!) when I wanted to.

      As I told Vince, cruises seem nice (I've never been on one but I can understand the idea, it seems appealing to be pampered and not have to make too many decisions), but you can do that even when your 81 year old body definitely requires it, but traveling like we are doing gets harder as you get much older. You should try it, it is a good kind of pushing yourself. Sarah is way more hardcore than me, but we strike a nice balance I think. Your honeymoon though, will be amazing and comfortable and stress free! :)


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