How Not To Hitchhike In Germany

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On the morning we left Munich, we got up quietly so as not to wake our hosts.  They’d left some lye pretzels and bread on the table for us, so we wrote a thank you note and left it with the key.  We jumped on the 6 line to Studentenstadt and walked ten or fifteen minutes to the autobahn.  We’d woken up a little later than we’d planned, and it was already almost noon.  The drive from Munich to Berlin was about 600 km, so we were hoping to make the entire trip in under 8 hours.  When we got to the A9, we found an on-ramp which was less than perfect, but the best we were going to get.  We stood there for half an hour, when somebody pulled over.  It was a single man, which it almost always is.

We’d hitched from Brussels to Munich a week earlier, making a few stops on the way, and it had been incredibly simple, so we figured Munich to Berlin wouldn’t be too difficult.  We threw our bags into the back and climbed in.  He said he could only take us about 50 km, but we were just happy to get off the on-ramp.  He was a hunter from Friesing who was on his way home.  I chatted with him about his favourite Bavarian beers until we had to pull over.  He dropped us at a large service station on a parallel road.  It wasn’t ideal, since most of the traffic was heading back into Munich, but Anna wandered around with a sign, asking drivers first if they spoke English, then if they were heading North.  We had no luck here and eventually decided to walk back to the A9.  Unfortunately this involved us climbing through mud and jumping a fence, but we eventually got there.

We stood in the emergency lane feeling like fools with our “BERLIN” sign.  We were already starting to think we might not make it.  After about five minutes, somebody pulled over about 100 meters up the road and waved us over.  We jogged up to the car.  “I go to Ingolstadt.  80 km.  Yes?”  We were really hoping to get further, as it was already becoming darker and colder, but it was better than nothing.  “Perfect.  Thanks.”  We learnt that the driver was Turkish, and he had just spent the week with his mother in Izmir. He offered a smoke and off we went.  We stopped just before the turn-off to Ingolstadt.  We got out and walked 50 meters up the road after the autobahn exit.

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We took a moment to eat a late lunch.  I swear, nothing in the world beats a genuine Bayern-made pretzel when you’re hungry on the side of the road.   A small hatchback sped past us and pulled over into the breakdown lane.  We started jogging up when we heard sirens behind us.  “Oh no.”  A police car drove up beside us and the passenger wound down his window.  “Deutsche?” He asked.  “No, sorry, only English.” “Ah, okay.  Well are you aware that you’re on the autobahn and it is illegal to stand?” “Oh, sorry, we didn’t realise,” I told him.  “Well, is that car stopped for you?”  “Uh, I’m not sure.”  “Well, go, but don’t try it again,” he said. “Thanks, have great day.”  The police car pulled off and we ran to the car, which was thankfully still there.  A man in an army uniform opened the door and laughed, “I can take you to Nürnberg.”

He was an army engineer returning from work in Munich.  We told him we hoped to get to Berlin by nightfall, and he told us it was almost impossible.  We didn’t say anything else on the matter; we just chatted about his work until we arrived.  He pulled over at a service station, this time heading in the right direction.  We put our bags against the wall and began wandering around.  I was self-conscious about asking people directly whether they could take us, especially since we didn’t speak the language.  But we were still several hundred kilometers away. We decided to walk up the autobahn a little and hold out our sign, since this is what had worked in Cologne and Frankfurt.

We’d just put our stuff down when we heard sirens again. “Oh no…”  They reversed back into the station with us.  When we got into the car park, they asked for our passports.  We handed them over, and one of them began taking down our details.  The driver climbed out and asked how our day was.  I told him it had been okay, but we were trying to get to Berlin and weren’t sure we’d make it.  “Are we in trouble?” I asked.  “From us?  No!” He laughed, as if the question was absurd.  “But you shouldn’t do it again.  Germany is one of the last countries with unlimited speeds, and we want things to stay this way, so we don’t want anybody getting hurt on the side of the road.”  “Yeah, I get that.  Sorry, officer,” I said.  “Look, you’re going to have more luck if you walk down past those trucks and ask some of them.  Good luck.”  We shook hands and they gave our passports back.  As they drove off, Anna and I just looked at each other and laughed.  Perhaps we were used to police from… ahem… some other countries, because we were in shock.  They had been so nice.

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We were worried about the time though – it was almost 4 pm and the sun was starting to set.  We wandered up and down the car park, asking truck drivers where they were headed.  Unfortunately most of them were using the place a resting stop and wouldn’t be leaving until the morning.  There was a hotel by the station, and Anna went to check the prices as a last resort.  It was 50 Euro for a room, which was more the train ride from Munich to Berlin would’ve been.   Three hours had passed, and we’d seen two other hikers come and go, and only one car heading towards Berlin.  It was about 4 degrees Celsius and dropping fast.

A pair of truck drivers walked past and said something in German.  “Sorry, I don’t speak Deutsche,” I told them.  “Ein, ein,” one of them kept saying.  I thought he was saying he could only take one of us, so I shook my head and said danke schoen.  It turns out what he meant was that he could take us in one hour.  So an hour later, to our surprise, he ushered us over to his truck and we climbed in.  The driver, an Italian who had driven all the way from Bologna with his partner, told us he could take us 200 km North.  The interior was pristine red leather, and Anna and I both fell asleep in the cab.   When we pulled up at the next stop, he told us if we were still there in the morning, he could take us the rest of the way.

 It was 10 pm and I’d pretty much admitted defeat, so I went into the service station to buy a well-deserved beer.  I took a bottle up the counter but was stopped by Anna running inside almost crying, “Michael! Michael! We have a lift!” Sure enough, outside was a black Jaguar with Berlin plates.  The man opened the door and told me, “Come on! I’ll take you to Berlin!”  “Thank you!  Danke schoen!  Thank you!” I beamed.  We got in and off we went, listening to German electro and making small-talk all the way to big grey Berlin.

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