Gwen Davies

Hitchhiking around Europe in the 1970s was a large public party

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There’s the usual crush of early-morning hitchers lined up. The sun is already relentless along the treeless roadside.

“Maybe we should walk a ways and get past all these people,” Emily suggests, soothing her hot shoulders with her hands. A car stops. “Oh shit man, that’s an Audi,” Chris whistles as it pulls up. “Brand new, it must be a 1964.” The driver points to them.

“Hey chick, that flag works,” George laughs as they toss their pack into the trunk. She notices the country plate: CH – Switzerland. Emily has first turn in front.

“I am – no, I wish to practice – you say practice?” Emily nods. “I wish to practice English and discover about Canada,” the driver says.

“And I will learn about Switzerland,” Emily says settling into the leather seat.
From “No Endings” in Facing the Other Way.

Through the late sixties, early seventies the roads in much of Europe were awash with hitchhikers. There were lineups to get onto the highways. Americans, particularly guys, loved to find a Canadian sporting a maple leaf flag to travel with. There was much love for Canadians – left from the war, and their quieter public habits. There were “ugly American” tourists who showed up talking loudly in Cathedrals and other public spaces, not respecting local customs who gave other Americans a bad name.

Youth hostels across the continent were filled with young people from everywhere around the globe. I talked to a couple from Ecuador one night in a hostel in Ireland and it turns out they were doing the same dropping out, smoking dope and making music in public places as I was doing in Kitchener, Ontario. There was usually someone with a guitar and people gathered to sing, play chess, read. Hostels sometimes had movie projectors and some old movies someone could thread through them for everyone to watch. In the morning, you did your chore before you left the premises.

In 1968, Canada had a postal strike as I was hitching around the continent. I had plane tickets that I left for my folks to put in the mail, so that I could cash them in if I ran short of money. That’s where they stayed. The hostel in Athens allowed many of us to stay for free until we could sort our money out. The Canadian Embassy sent my parents a telegram: “Daughter Gwen stranded in Athens Greece please wire one hundred dollars immediately.” First they had heard from me in weeks. I learned to love plain, goat yogurt with Greek honey while I waited.

You watched the country plates to see where people were from. British couples on holiday picked up young women, fed them, took them home if they had a holiday house in Europe somewhere. Each country was a rich cultural discovery when you travelled among the people by thumb. Yes there were risks, but they were few and somehow most of us sorted them out. If I slept in the open, it was among friends with my backback inside the bottom of my sleeping bag. There was a comradery, a giant community of younger people on the move, learning and exploring. It was vastly different from hitching rides in North America.

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One Comment so far:

  1. Margie Macdonald says:

    Gwen – this brings back so many memories. Many thanks. I’m going to buy your book today!

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