It was hot and sultry and I was standing by a dual carriageway. Car after car sped past me under flat, white skies. I’d been there since before noon, facing the oncoming traffic, standing hopefully upstream from a lay-by. My rucksack was parked discreetly on the verge. I didn’t want to look like a bulky passenger.
It was a Saturday in September, 1976. That morning, I’d had one ride from south of Clermont Ferrand to a roundabout outside Riom. A journey of perhaps 15 minutes. Paris was still over 400 kilometres away. The train to the Calais ferry from the Gard Du Nord was booked for noon on Sunday. Anxiety gnawed away as minutes became hours. Comfortably fed French drivers buzzed past, heading home or out shopping, blind to a hitchhiker during their precious weekends.
For ten days, two school friends and I had walked around the volcanic landscape of the Puy-de-Dôme. Starting in high summer, our westward march towards Mont-Dore had been magnificent. As we began to circle back, the season tipped; skies were painted a deeper, technicolour hue and heavier dews drenched the grass outside my tent. Autumn beckoned, but the heat held.
My companions, Mike and Tim, were both 16. I was a year younger. Hitchhiking as a trio was a non-starter, with three large rucksacks. For our journey back to Paris, we decided to split and I would go solo. The theory was that I spoke better French. Standing in the headachy light, my stomach a washing machine of worry, any confidence ebbed steadily into the grass. I told myself I’d wait until 4pm and then get to a train station, heading for a bigger town north and better hitching conditions.
I played games in my head. In the next fifty cars, one would stop. It would be the third red car. Or the seventh white one. It would be a couple. A family. It would have a roof rack… Not one of the bets paid off. Slightly numb, I stopped looking into each windscreen and kept my thumb out.
There was a creak. A metallic sigh. Coming to, I looked at the lay-by behind me. A dark, battered Renault 4 had braked and pulled in. The overshoot suggested it hadn’t stopped for me. I stared, blankly.
An owlish, bespectacled head manoeuvred its way out of the driver’s window and peered back. The passenger door opened, and a woman leaned out. Her hair was in a bun. They beckoned me to join them. I trotted up. In amongst a torrent of ‘Merci’s’, I mumbled “Montlucon?”, “Bourges?” and, chancing my luck, “Orléans?”, with what I hoped was polite intonation. They simply indicated that I should get in.
Vaguely but charmingly, the couple said they were heading north. They must have been in their late sixties. She was very neatly presented, he a caricature presentation of French dressing. A moustache. Slightly unkempt hair. A dark blue serge shirt with an even darker, shapeless waistcoat. We drove on while I explained myself, what I had been doing and the plan to get to Paris to go on home. My school term was waiting. After as full a description as my schoolboy language skills could furnish, the conversation petered out. We kept driving.
A wave of relief to be on the move engulfed me. I was glad the interrogation had stopped. For the moment, I didn’t want to contemplate the next step. Ahead lay the ladder of lifts required to reach Paris and its inner city ‘camping’. (In the Seventies, the campsite was a celebrated heart, revered amongst the itinerant tribes of student travellers coursing round the Republic’s arteries.) I closed my eyes and drifted. Vividly, to this day, I can remember hearing the neat, precise woman murmuring clearly to her husband, “He’s very young. He’s been in the sun all day long.”
I woke some time later as we stopped to get petrol, somewhere near Orléans. The car had been travelling for two hours. Awkwardly, I apologised for having been asleep for so long, but the apologies were brushed off. They gave me sweet biscuits from a packet with a smear of jam in their centre, and we drank water.
They told me they would take me all the way to Paris.
I spluttered my thanks, amazed. The drive went on for hours more, streams of traffic cloying to thick rivers in the closing stages. The city was in full rentre mode, as holidaying Parisians returned from the south. Against the dying sunset, the distant skyline took on the painted qualities of Disney’s The Aristocats. A quiet, excited satisfaction about re-meeting my companions began to grow. I was still unsure of how to get to the Paris campsite and nervous at the prospect of spending the night there alone if they’d failed to make it. School abounded with tales of druggie hippies and campsite thefts. Mobile phones were still, effectively, twenty years off. There were plenty of reasons to remain anxious.
The couple were called Slobojanski. We chatted on and off on the trip, but they didn’t go in to their past in any detail. To my ear, they sounded emphatically French but they told me their family came from Poland. As we headed inside the Périphérique, it was after 10pm. At that point, Mme Slobojanski insisted, politely but firmly, that I would spend the night with them at their apartment. Overwhelmed, I was reduced to another torrent of thanks and then, swiftly, mute gratitude.
Their flat was somewhere in the north of Paris, a single room with a bathroom off it. Their bed was in an alcove curtained off from the main living space and kitchen. I think we ate bread and cheese. I was exhausted. They pulled the curtain across and I slept on cushions on the floor. The following morning, Mme Slobojanski produced milky coffee and a tartine, before Monsieur proudly took me down to the basement car park to show off his motorbike. I knew – and know – as much about engines as a baguette, but his eyes gleamed as he talked through the pistons and sprockets. The bike had the same, petrolly smell as my father’s Atco lawnmower and looked of similar, antiquated vintage. My host’s reverence for the machine was palpable, a passion buried all the time he’d been driving the day before.
Mr Slobojanski drove me to the Gard du Nord after I said my effusive goodbyes to Madame. They flatly refused any offer of money. Instead, Monsieur dropped me off with a smile but little ceremony, and within two minutes, I spotted Tim and Mike making their way into the front of the station. Our return to England was uneventful. From home, I wrote to thank my special French Polish hosts again.
Years later, I look back at what happened and realise the true meaning of the word, ‘generosity’. Helping without fuss, the Slobojanskis were clearly neither wealthy, nor ostentatious. They showed immense, unquestioning kindness. My lucky encounter embedded a belief that only by keeping your heart, mind and – especially these days – borders open, will you benefit from anything approaching the best in life.