Thumbs Down: Jostein Sand Nilsen Writes

By: Bernd Wechner
© October 1, 1998

Thumbs Down: Jostein Sand Nilsen Writes

Thumbs Down: Jostein Sand Nilsen Writes

Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: October 1, 1998

Jostein Sand Nilsen thumbed Europe for a month this year and came back with a pile of mixed impressions he was keen to share. What follows is a remarkably fine summary of the feelings that hitch-hiking can evoke in a person from one extreme to the other. Behold ...

Why I Gave Up

At first I loved thumb-waving, I enjoyed every minute of this uncertain and dangerous (so they told me) way of travelling. In the end I couldn't get home quickly enough. What had happened?

I think it has something to do with the reasons behind hitch-hiking, with what makes us - even though I don't look at myself as a hitch-hiker anymore - choose this way of travel over, say, the safe, boring, dull train. Having hitched for six weeks, I know now why I set out on my journey, and I think I know why hitching is not my cup of tea. Let me try to explain.

My official reason for choosing to hitch rather than inter-rail this summer was that I couldn't afford anything else. I had to tourist my way down south, away from Norway of course, nothing else to do; but I already knew what life was like when inter-railing, I had to do something else.

The unofficial reasons are always the more interesting though. What I really wanted to do was to force myself to be social, to throw myself off a cliff without knowing if I would fly or die with a thump. To get to know all kinds of people, in particular the kind of people I usually never talk to, or even look twice at. So I couldn't inter-rail. It wouldn't have had the same intimacy, the same obligation to talk about the weather. And at first, I loved thumb-waving.

I liked the way I waited for hours, not knowing whether I would get a lift in one minute or five hours (as long as it was warm, that is - I absolutely detested standing for three hours just north of Göteborg, but only because of the cold rain and the wind turning my ears into crispy chips). I enjoyed talking to everyone of those who stopped, even if the conversation from time to time was terrifyingly unintelligent - once, just after my three-hour-wait, and still in Sweden, it went like this:

Me: ... Are you from Norway?
He: Yes, I'm originally from Halden, but now I'm a student in Oslo.
Me: So you walked from Halden yesterday?

Yes, he said walked; and afterwards he kept the conversation alive by pointing at a Norwegian car, a German car, a Danish car, and look, a Swedish car!

I didnt mind, not a bit, I didn't sit there waiting for the car to stop and me to get out. I viewed life from a touristy point of view, talking to anyone and everyone giving me a lift. And it was great.

A month later I was fed up. I behaved almost rudely, I was not at all interested in the drivers and their thoughts, I just wanted to get from A to B. Hopeless. Still, it wasn't because I had been hitching too much, or because I was exhausted from not eating enough. It was, I believe, because hitching per se had been demasked.

Hmm. OK, my official reasons were my sandals, which I never managed to wash well enough (they were a bit smelly after a month of walking in hot weather), my rudeness towards the drivers (although I didn't intend to be rude, I never do, I nevertheless was looked upon as somewhat ungrateful), my lack of money (not quite true, although I did not have enough to act as a real tourist), and my homesick self.

I didn't want to disappoint those stopping by acting like someone hitching just to get somewhere, not caring a monkey's about the lift itself, and so, when I got to Paris, I suddenly wanted to get back home as fast as possible. To think things over, perhaps.

And the unofficial reasons? What does hitch-hiking demasked look like?

Well. These are my personal judgements, they are probably neither well enough written to be understood properly or well enough thought through to be shared by more experienced travellers. Still, I'll try to explain myself. A self always in need of explanations...

Yes, my official reasons were also part of my decision to re-Norwegianize. I didn't want to hitch when behaving badly (I never farted, my badly-behaving-ness was far more subtle, but still anyone with social antennas easily sensed the «bad vibrations») - but there were other and more fundamental reasons behind my rudeness. I mean, my behaviour didn't just fall down from a cloud, one never finds Hamletian melancholy just by turning a few stones on the ground. But I'm rambling ...

It's the very idea of standing there on your knees and laying your near future in the hands of someone else. It's how you are obliged to listen to all kinds of extremely unlistenable music - and loud! - while talking about the driver's grandmother's dog's toothache. Don't get me wrong, I'm not judging and calling French accordion-music crap, by no means, it can be wonderful; but I'm saying that this non-rigid-ization of the self is beyond my ability, beyond my desire.

In an earlier article here, hitch-hiking was suggested as being maturing; by hitching you are forced to cope with all kinds of people and to have conversations with every stupid Swede who lets you into his car. But why should that be something worth looking for? Why should you be happy when you have managed to shut up while listening to a racist? That's what hitching teaches you: the ability to get along with all kinds of people, be it for a two-hour lift or for the rest of your life - and I find that a very good thing indeed, to realise that every human being is a real human being, with much the same dreams and hopes and life, really, as yourself.

But still, one doesn't need a lifetime to reach that conclusion, even though one maybe needs two lifetimes to really realise it; and after a month I'm no longer able to stand the exaggerated humility needed. Every time a car stops one is supposed to be grateful.

Every time the driver tells a joke is supposed to laugh a bit. Nod when he looks at you for a response. Honesty is not the main virtue, is it?

It's a question of mentality, I guess. Yes, I've matured during my hitching adventure, very much so - but I don't want to mature beyond reasonable limits. I dont want to stand by the road and look at each and every one going by with "please" written all over my eyes; I don't want to muscle my way into cars at petrol stations by asking ever so politely; I don't want to be in the position of accepting almost anyone and anything just to get to my destination; I don't want to force my life into the lives of others, its too big; I don't want to be stared at by passing passengers with eyes the size of Japanese camera lenses; I dont want to hitch-hike.

At first I loved hitch-hiking. In the end I couldn't get home quickly enough.

Editor's Comments

I think Jostein has put his finger on some fine points here, better than I ever could have. He's grown understandably tired of humility and headed home, feeling his identity a little cramped or challenged. I think of the older hitchers I know and I can't help but think they found a compromise that Jostein didn't. They maintain a little humility and their identity at the same time. They don't have to get on with everyone, but do a good job of getting on with most - and yet, not everyone becomes an old hitch-hiker, in fact very very few people do, and it's not because their all knocked off, but because they give up hitching. If Jostein hasn't presented enough reasons here, I'll make a concerted effort to treat others in future articles. There are after all, many good reasons not to hitch-hike, many more I think, than there are reasons to hitch-hike.

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