What was one of the first things your parents told you when you went outside to play? I can imagine it was either “Don’t talk to strangers” or “Don’t get into a car with a stranger”. Well, now you’re older, you can be a little more flexible with that advice. If you’re on a trip at home or abroad alone and make a spontaneous decision to travel somewhere else located a few hours away, chances are that you will pay a pricey fee for a last-minute train. Buses may not run regularly and will take a long time, whilst planes can be an expensive hassle. So why not share a lift with someone? A stranger, that is.
I first became introduced to carpooling when I was in Germany. Help-exchanging at the home of a teacher in Hamburg for a week, I then had to make my way to a village in the Rhineland-Palatinate. As I searched for trains on my host’s laptop one evening, she suggested I try ‘Mitfahrgelegenheit’. I looked at her blankly. Advertising lifts was something that I hadn’t even heard of in my own country – hitch-hiking yes, but not organised car share. My host proceeded to show me a website where drivers offered space in their car to travellers heading in the same direction, in return for a contribution towards fuel costs. Drivers were asked to state details including whether or not they smoked, the make of their car, their mobile number and a copy of ID. I was open-minded about travelling with a man, however my host, perhaps feeling responsible for my welfare, was insistent that I travel with a female. We soon found a lady heading in the same direction as me.
At this time my German was pretty minimal. I began writing an email to this lady, in which essentially only the first and last couple of sentences were written in German. Her reply was written in good English. (It ended with the line: “I’m sorry, I know that my English is not good. I hope you can understand me.”) The lady asked for 27 Euros for this journey – about 50 Euros less than what a train would have cost. She gave me her vehicle registration number and asked to meet outside Hamburg’s Hauptbahnhof.
On a rainy Wednesday morning, I made my way to the parking lot outside the main station. I was quite excited for this new experience, but a little nervous too. What if the lady didn’t show up? What if she was a terrible driver? What if her car broke down and we were left stranded somewhere on the autobahn? What I didn’t worry about however was whether she would turn out to be different from her profile. The media will often feature horror stories of women being kidnapped by strangers posing as someone else, but I’ve had enough positive experiences to have faith in the kindness of strangers.
The street was bustling with chanting protesters. Police officers in smart blue uniforms formed barricades as they came closer to the station. I approached one officer to ask him what was going on and was told that it was a protest against a neo-Nazi demonstration.
I wandered along the pavement, feeling very conspicuous with my big rucksack as I scanned the cars parked along the side of the road. Suddenly I spotted a navy blue Renault Clio with the registration number I was looking for. Beside it watching the protest stood a rather large woman with a pixie haircut and scruffy trainers. I introduced myself and she shook my hand with a shy smile. There was little room in the boot and so I sheepishly squeezed my backpack onto the backseat amongst her own things before sitting down in the back. A few minutes later, I heard a backpack being thrown in the boot behind me and then the passenger door in front of me opened. The smell of thick smoke, body odour (as well as a slight whiff of urine) swept through the vehicle as in jumped a male skinhead dressed in black, looking like he’d just run away from the police monitoring the protest. He turned to shake my hand and say hello with his stale breath. “Ich komme aus England,” I stated, trying not to wrinkle my nose. He nodded with an “Oh” and said no more.
As we set off, I had to bite my lip to stop myself laughing at the thought of what we must have looked like to other drivers – a bizarre combination of a rather butch-looking woman with short hair, an emo-type guy with no hair, and a standard girl with long bright blonde hair. A painfully awkward silence suffocated the car. Eventually the two Germans started to chat briefly whilst I stared out of the window, trying and failing to understand them. However, their conversation soon ran out of steam and as we joined the autobahn, the driver turned on the radio, flicking between radio stations sporadically as if realising that there was unlikely to be one which we would all enjoy. Smelly-skinhead-guy reclined his seat backwards so that his smell lingered closer and I became even more cramped. Desperate to avoid any awkward speech, I remained with my legs jammed tightly together to one side, wishing I could jam my nostrils shut too. Two hours later my driver turned off and I looked up disorientated. “We will stop here for 10 minutes,” she said to me slowly. While the guy lit a cigarette with jittery hands outside the car, I followed her into the service station to use the bathroom. One had to pay 90 cents to use the facilities. “You can use the ticket for food,” she explained again simply, pointing out a sign which showed a 50 cent discount on confectionary.
Smelly-skinhead-guy would leave us at Frankfurt airport, where he was evidently flying to South America. I didn’t probe on his motives, only pitied the passengers who would be sitting near him. I jumped into the front seat and wound the window down with relief to remove his musty smell. I hoped that the driver and I would be able to speak more now. However, as is common with languages, the lady was less confident at speaking English than writing it. Carefully-phrased questions by myself in English would receive stammered and uncertain responses from her, upon which I would attempt the question in German, with no further success as I struggled to make myself clear. It became a rather frustrating process, until eventually the conversation fizzled out helplessly. In defeat, I turned to look out of the window at the wind turbines on the side of the autobahn, before we entered rural land and the views were replaced with fields lined with vines and Church steeples poking up out of small villages. I felt bad, wishing my German was better so that I could make the experience more interesting for both of us. At the same time, my driver said apologetically, “Normally there would be more speaking.” She dropped me off on the street of my next location and I handed her the money, thanking her for the helpful lift. Then she wished me a pleasant stay and I in turn wished her a safe onward journey, before we said goodbye with an awkward wave.
The experience was a reminder of the social restrictions that a language barrier can bring, particularly in such an intimate environment as a car. Now my German is so much better that, had I the opportunity to do it again, I would have got so much more from the journey. Nevertheless, whilst conversation between the three of us was limited, it was rare that I would find myself in that context with such different characters very often. It’s a story that I can look back on and chuckle over. Carpooling in general is something I would highly recommend. It might not be the most comfortable form of travel, but it depends on your priorities; some people want luxury, others just want to get from A to B for as cheap as possible. By choosing the latter option, one has more money to spend on the more important things! One is essentially taking the same journey as one would on a train or bus, albeit for less money and with fewer people, in a more close-knit setting. Perhaps it’s because participants are more expected to talk with other unfamiliar people that they might be put off by this travel option…
Whilst I didn’t have much luck with this myself on this occasion, ride-sharing provides an opportunity to make interesting contacts, and the act of doing a favour for a stranger is a nice, refreshing prospect. As much as I like to joke about how suspicious the guy in the car seemed, carpooling is an experience which reinforces that strangers are not to be fundamentally suspected or feared. I also wanted to mention the neo-Nazi demonstrations to highlight the importance of not letting hate fuel hate, and not letting the actions of a few people influence your opinion about an entire nation collectively.
I would definitely consider using carpooling on future travels around Europe, and I’d hope other travellers would too. Something that can be regarded in this technological age as the modern version of hitch-hiking, carpooling is cheap, convenient and certified. Maybe just bring an air freshener with you as an advance gesture of gratitude…
Would you ever consider car-pooling? Have you any weird and wonderful carpooling experiences to share?