It’s an eerie feeling flying into a foreign port when you’re trying to get home. True, this option was 30 euros cheaper than Schiphol. The extra 400 kilometres hitching home seemed such a small price to pay.

We walk out of the airport. Where to now? Our only option is through the parking lot. We wind our way down. Outside, our road is blocked by the toll gate: only cars go through. After a brief lunch and a few failed attempts with our sign, we shrug our shoulders, hoist our bags and simply walk through our obstacle. Strange stares, no one bothers. After a little walk, we end up in an awkward curve in the road, just before the motorway entrance, with a petrol station on the other side. People can go literally in any direction. I push aside the gloom, take a deep breath and head towards the station.


Not going there.”

Terribly sorry, we’re full.”

There’s a petrol station on the M25 just south of London, could you maybe…”

Sorry mate.”

An hour or two goes by. I look across the street to Diny. No luck either.

What am I doing here?

A red car stops. I don’t want to get too excited.

Where do you need to go?” The man has a peaceful complexion, calming me down a bit.

To Holland. But there’s a petrol station on the M25…”

Well, I’m a cab driver actually, I’m working right now.”

Ah, I see…”

A pause. I look away, towards the motorway in distance.

But I could bring you there.”

As…. hitchhikers?”

No problem.”

Thank you!”


We eagerly pile into the car. The man calmly drives us onto the motorway we are so desperate to get on. Though nearly inaudible, he speaks with an un-British accent.

Are you from London?”

“Well, I have lived here for twenty years, but I’m not from here.”

Where are you from?”




World’s Desire

We cross the border neatly in line: car, car, car, two hitchhikers, car. The customs officer’s face betrays amusement but communicates sternness: “the visa office is right over there.”

At the petrol station, our mother tongue comes in handy again. We have already seen many Dutch Turks along the way, and we’re curious to know what they think.

“Will Istanbul be safe after what happened?”

“Don’t believe what the media says!” the man immediately answers. He is probably in his fifties, three kids in the back of a shiny black Volkswagen, eager to return to the motherland. “They always try to vilify our country and our president. Turkey is safe, thanks to him. You’ll find no trouble.”

Ahmet’s smiles say everything our language barrier can’t. With great hospitality, the truck driver gives us drinks, food, and even his bunk bed for me to rest in. Our scant communication is in German.

“Deine Familie?” I point to the picture on the dashboard.

“Ja. Mutter…Vater…Bruder…”Ahmet displays a warm smile and a pair of longing eyes.

Then the news. “Ich kann nicht… Istanbul Brücke…” I am trying to follow him, but for some reason he can’t take us into the city. He promptly stops at the next opportunity and frantically starts asking around, until he finds someone to bring us into the city. “Sure… no problem…”, our new ride stammers, trying to comprehend what had just happened, while we wave lovely Ahmet goodbye.

Within half an hour, we finally get a panoramic view over our final destination. Istanbul’s mega sprawl reaches as far as meets the eye. As does the mega traffic jam: “trucks and lorries are not allowed to cross into Anatolia, because of the heavy traffic”, our driver explains. It takes another two hours to reach our destination. We decide to skip going to the centre and go straight to Şişli, to the relief of our driver.

We step into a clean, tidy, and austere apartment. The empty glass coffee table in front of a flatscreen TV features a single bag of Dutch syrup waffles. Arhan is as hospitable as he is punctual. “I will be out everyday around 07:30. You can come in and go out as you like,” he assures us as he hands us the keys. But showing us around is not included: Arhan works full-time at a bank, his vacation long gone.

With only four days left of our trip, we plunge into the city’s vast riches. In hilly Şişli, people mind their day-to-day business, breakfast restaurants serve olives and cheese while next-door stores sell everything from mangoes to smartphones. In Karaköy, young hipsters hang around coffee shops, art boutiques and mural paintings. Across the Golden Horn, we get lost in the Grand Bazaar and enjoy the view from the gorgeous Topkapı Palace. In Kadıköy, the little alleyways and countless shops keep us busy for hours: we sit down for shisha and tea as Beşiktaş supporters stream into the area to watch tonight’s match. We take countless ferry rides over the Bosphorus and metro commutes: in order to shore up public support (as well as turnout at the daily pro-Erdoğan rallies) all public transport in the city is completely free of charge. We profit shamelessly: having just hopped off a ferry, a traveller informs us the outerlying Adalar islands are also reachable by ferry. Without a second thought, we jump right back on. The failed coup attempt two weeks ago also means a near total absence of tourists in the city. The famous Ayasofya, normally packed with tourists after nine in the morning, is now fully accessible to lazy people. As a consequence, we casually show up at two; within five minutes we are inside, appreciating a solitary spirituality not seen since Byzantine times.

Out on the streets, Istanbul seems to be in a strange state of calmness. Rarely any police and not a single soldier is seen; residents casually go by their daily errands, seemingly relaxed. At Atatürk Airport, no extra security is to be seen. The only visible hints are an overabundance of Turkish flags and nationalist advertising. In the metro, I see an ad depicting a giant Turkish flag on a pole, which slowly comes crashing down. From all corners, people young and old gather to create a human tower to prevent the flag from falling down. With utmost effort and teamwork, they just about manage, with everyone breaking out in cheers. I lean my head backwards, completely exhausted. My head is glowing as shivers run all over my body. I close my eyes and rest my tired feet.

On our final day, Diny is out with a guy from our hostel. I return to the garde next to Topkapı, my head in the grass, my eyes to the right. Through the trees, the Bosphorus is blinking in the sun. A deep sigh. The clear view over the strait fills with haze. I want to look further away, across its waters, over the Anatolian plains. Beyond lie the mountains and deserts of Persia, further still the Indus river, and ultimately the mountains of the Himalaya. Up its mighty peaks and into the skies, the moon beckons. I felt a driving restlessness. The dreams were many, only a plan was needed…

I snap back. The sturdy grass tickles my feet in the lazy afternoon sun. The huge pines sway in the gentle sea breeze. Children play as their families picknick. The smell of nearby latrines mingles with the sea. I stand up. Having arrived, I have nowhere to go.

This is where you wanted to be. A hitchhiker’s dream. What were you expecting?

In the City of the World’s Desire, I wanna go home.


Through Bulgaria

Our tour of Sofia consists of visiting the never-ending ring road and the sprawling Soviet-style suburbs. Being dropped off on one of its large avenues going into the city, we look for something to eat. A Chinese establishment catches my attention. “Hello, do you speak English?” A stare and some Bulgarian words in return. I stare back, thinking. Suddenly I remember spending half a year abroad in China, some four years earlier. I take a deep breath. After three minutes, she finally notices I am trying to utter Chinese. I end up ordering drab noodles, in stumbling Chinese, in a Sofia suburb.

Travelling for nearly an hour by metro, we come upon our hitching spot, a massive stretch of asphalt with cars regularly attempting to break their individual speed record. On the upside, there’s plenty of room to stop; hitchwiki knows what it’s doing.

Within 15 minutes, a lone man in his Volvo sedan picks us up. “No problem, I’ll bring you right to the front door. Don’t you like my car? It’s super speedy.” A mysterious, dreamy smile on his face. “I work in the Bulgarian military.” For all his friendliness, there is an eerie tension in the air. “Let me show you what I mean by speedy.” he gently pushes his car faster, well over the 200 mark. Diny doesn’t like it; the man smiles ever so serenely. Five minutes later, he brings the speed down, guides his steed to the emergency lane and stops. “It’s not healthy driving without a stop. I need to take a nap. Won’t take long.” And we stand there, on a quiet highway in the gentle afternoon sun.

The hostel is right as we had hoped: smack in the middle of historic Plovdiv, in a cute cobblestone alleyway, run by volunteers. The two massive fig trees are impressive; the rooms are very hot. In our room we meet some Dutch travellers; needless to say, they’re also from Utrecht. To complete the picture, the hostel also contains two lovely Bulgarian hosts, a Jordanian-Bulgarian volunteer with rastas who is continuously complaining about other staff members not doing their work, a motor group touring the world, and an Indian guy studying in Bulgaria. “Do you know how expensive Western Europe is?” In the morning, I find him studiously behind his computer. “I teach yoga classes around the world”, he explains with a playful grin. “Especially Americans pay well. I also teach here though, whoever wants to.” He shows me some pictures. I can’t help but notice a suspiciously high proportion of attractive female backpackers among his pupils. “Because who doesn’t want a good looking Indian guy as their yoga teacher, eh?” He wiggles his head sideways as he purposely thickens his Indian accent. We are laughing and joking within five minutes.

We take a few days to hang out in the ancient town. At the 11 o’ clock backpackers tour (you know the thing) we visit an amphitheatre with a busy road roaring underneath. “One resident started digging in his garden to uproot some plants”, the local guide tells us. “When he started digging up white stones, the municipality took over and relocated the poor man. There’s a local saying: better not dig too deep in Plovdiv….” The heat is becoming unbearable; the guide’s voice slowly takes a back seat. I blink; then grope for something to hold on to. Back in the hostel, we book an extra night. I sink in a chair next to the counter; the heaviness overtakes my legs and head.

Still worth it though, Plovdiv…

On our last morning the volunteers invite me to harvest some figs myself. I wander through its branches like a hungry monkey, finding sweet treasures high above the roof of the hostel. We pick up our bags and get our signs ready. I look back once more. The cute ramshackle wooden front door; The Indian guy still sleeping in the shade; the giant old fig trees standing quiet and unchanged…

Time to move on.

Instinctively, we opt to walk instead of taking a taxi out of town. It takes a bit longer than expected, and the heat of the day is already creeping up our legs, onto our bags. Alas, the indicated spot on Hitchwiki does not pay up: we decide to walk the extra mile, over the bridge, to get to a petrol station. We toil over it’s broken surface as the sun continues to rise. At the station, there is still little traffic; we take turns standing at the roadside in the already intense heat.

You’re doing fine. This is worth it. The prize is near.

A lorry picks us up. We figure out he can drop us off at the highway entrance, a little further ahead. The man talks but I look forward. At the highway entrance there is no shade and few cars; only a waysign protects us from burning up altogether. A Turkish car approaches: we light up, but it passes by. Suddenly, the car retracks in reverse: “I can bring you to the border. I’m picking up a friend.” Into the damn car. The hell out of here.


Like a gigantic old turtle

Sarajevo has an awkward mix of so many things to see and absolutely nothing to do. For this reason, I adore the place. I simply always come back.

At the regular 11 o’clock backpackers’ guided tour (you know the thing), we meet a talkative Belgian girl and an East-Asian looking dude who keeps smiling. We cross our fingers.

“Where you from?”
A bright smile. “Uh, Korea…”

We both go ‘YESSSS’ inside (we simply love Koreans; there’s absolutely no reason for it). But we can’t really conceal our delight: Sanghyun feels our vibe troughout the tour and keeps smiling and laughing with us in uncontrollable chuckles. We end up on the Yellow Bastion for sunset with him and the Belgian. It is instantly agreed that somehow, sometime, Sanghyun and the girl come visit us while hitching from Belgium. The city’s many minarets light up green for sundown prayer as soon as the sun moves behind the mountains.
Getting into Serbia from this side can be hard. From Višegrad onwards, the roads are small and empty; last year’s hitching from there to Montenegro was a pain. We set the day’s goal on the southern city of Niš, but I know we could end up not a 100 k into the country. We’re on a good spot in the curve of the road leading out of Sarajevo, but not many cars pass by. It’s getting hot already. This could get tough.

Within ten minutes, a German car stops.
“Wohin gehen Sie?”
We check the map. It’s at least 200 k into Serbia.
“Können wir villeicht mitf…”
“Ja, klar! Komm rein!”

“What are you gonna do in Čačak?”
“I’m gonna see some old friends there. I haven’t seen them for thirty years or so.”
“Wow, that must be special.”
“Definitely…” A deep sigh.
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from Tuzla but I went to Germany during the war. In Tuzla I had many different friends. Catholic friends. Muslim friends. Then in the war I was told I had to fight those friends. What sense does that make? I never understood it.”

He generously drops us off on a petrol station past the city. The air is thick with heat; cars occasionally pass by. Locals drink a beer on the station terrace. Our big bags make their heads turn.

After half an hour sun-roasting with our sign up, a big rusty truck stops. “Yes, Kruševac.” No German or English, just some words and many gestures.
“You go…. Kruševac?”
“I… go… Makedonia.”

Goodness. He’s going all the way. We can’t believe our luck.
“Chips?” the driver pulls out a box full of chips bags. “Me…. drive… chips… chipsfabrik Makedonia!” We can have as many as we want.
The man seems to be in no hurry at all, and we soon discover why. On these two lane roads, his creaky truck averagely makes between 40 and 60. Like a gigantic old rusty sea turtle, we hover high above the road, bouncing up and down, spending hours on the 200 k stretch to Niš. Our butts start to hurt; the driver stoically stares ahead, completely accustomed to the rhythm of his ancient companion. The sun slowly starts to wane.

Finally, we hit the Beograd-Niš highway. We wake up from our slumber and stretch our cramped limbs: let’s get some speed in this thing. The driver slowly accelerates until the meter ticks 80. The highway now slightly slopes up. The trucks creaks and whines; the meter goes down to 60. We should’ve known.

At nightfall, we are dropped off at the last station before Niš. The station is busy; packed cars with holidaymakers headed straight for Istanbul. Getting into Bulgaria from here should be no problem at all.

After three hours of asking around, we still have no ride. We could’ve known; everybody is full. There is a large field next to the station. Oh well, we’ve come far enough today; tomorrow morning we’ll be in Bulgaria. We climb a fence and pitch our tents. The air gently cools down as the last rays of light fade. The highway maintains its monotone roaring rhythm.

Not much luck after the Spaniards left. Even the idea of walking after them pops up in my head. But it’s completely ridiculous.

Another car stops right in front of us. Serbian. A guy and a girl. I have a feeling of how this will go…

“Excuse me, are you going to Bulgaria?”
“Yes. We’re going to Sofia.”
“Do you maybe have space for two hitchhikers?”
The two look at each other for a moment.
“Yeah sure, why not?”

That was unexpected.



to Sarajevo

A small red car. Croatian number plate. It already looks a bit packed. What are the chances? We are on a Yugoslav petrol station awash with packed holiday cars. The restaurant bar is plastered with a halo of brightly flashed photos of very similar dishes on offer; meat and fries.
Oh well, asking never hurts.

“Where you from?”
“Ah. Where you going to?”
“We want to get to Sarajevo today.”

It is hard to gauge his attitude. His stern expression and sunglasses are saying ‘tough luck, hitchers’, but there is some curiosity seeping through. If we have any chance at this ride, he will be the link.
“Well, let me ask the others.”
A middle aged man and a younger woman come walking back from the restaurant. The same sunglasses. The same stern look. The man clearly is no fan of the idea: he gestures at the fully packed trunk. Link has another stern look at the trunk. Still, he starts arguing. The girl keeps out. We wait, floating in between. This can go any way.
“Ok, you can come with us.”
Is this really going to fit? We pile in the back seats with our huge bags. The man and he girl get in front. If Link wants to have the hitchers, he can sit with them.

“Where are you driving to?”
“We’re actually going a bit over the border.”
“Ah, so you live in Bosnia?”
“Well, no… I live in Australia. Sydney. I’m visiting my family. My brother and his daughter here just picked me up from the airport.”
I’ve heard about Australian Croats before. In this ethnically mixed region, it never occurred to me that they could also be from ‘Bosnia’.

A long silence. Link stares sternly ahead through his sunglasses.
“How long are you gonna stay in Bosnia?”
“At least a couple of months. It’s been a long time since I’ve been here, you know. I want to get to know my country a bit better.”
Didn’t expect that from a Croat. Or is he actually?  My country.

Another long silence. Link doesn’t look comfortable being pressed against the window. Our legs are killing us.
“You know why I actually took you guys?”
“Tell us.”
“I was a hitcher before. Did all of Yugolavia. I know how it is.” A smile from under the sunglasses.

They drop us off at least 50 kilometres over the border on an intersection with a huge (at least for Bosnian standards) petrol station. It’s three in the afternoon; Sarajevo is 200 kilometres away. This can’t go wrong.

After one and a half gruelling hours in the hot sun, we are finally picked up by a white van. The drivers don’t speak any English or German. Instead, they open a can of beer, offer us a can too, ignore the seat belts and hit the gas.
We are dropped off on the side of a quiet road. How will we ever get moving here? After five minutes, the answer stops. “Yes, Zenica! Come!”
Again no German, a bit of broken English and a lot of gesture language. “Oooh, to Sarajevo?” No good. No good.” He moves his hands from up to down, indicating it will soon be dark. “Zenica, good!”
As we approach Zenica, the sun has indeed moved behind the surrounding mountains. Yugoslav factories huddle around the small river going into town. A petrol station looms within sight.
“Ahhh….we….petrol station, ok? Petrol station? Benzin?” I gesture with all my might, moving my hands from Diny and me towards the station, wishing they could just lift us both up and drag us over in the process. Our driver is unfazed.”No, petrol no good. Sarajevo…no.” He smiles as broad as he can. “Zenica, good!” And he exits the motorway into town.

Now we are getting tense. What is the guy’s problem? Why doesn’t he understand?

Ah, you were expecting something?

As we ride about the place, he takes the time to show us his hometown-paradise. “Look, station futbol,” he gestures with some pride to the dilapidated structure. “Nice?”

“Yes, yes…” I mutter.
“Here, post gebau. Nice.”
“Sarajevo, Sarajevo?” Diny demands from the back seat. “Ah, Sarajevo no good,” is the answer, again moving his hands up and down.
“No, no, Sarajevo, Sarajevo!” Diny returns, now angrily. “Autostrada!”
“Yes! Sarajevo! Autostrada!” she gestures wildly towards the motorway.
“Ok, ok…” it comes out surprised. He gives us an indignant look. What’s up with those people?

Within five minutes he drops us off at an intersection next to the motorway entry. The light is fading fast now. We press our sign “SARAJEVO” to the passing cars with all the passion we could muster, begging for a ride. After fifteen minutes, our hope begins to fade. It’s getting dark. We’re not gonna make it.

Thought you were entitled to this? Face it, you’re not. Suck it up.

A ramshackle dark-blue Volkswagen stops right at our feet. A young woman gets out and opens the trunk. “Yes, Sarajevo. Come.”
Not a single word is spoken to us; the two lovers only have an eye for each other, making love with their words, whatever they are saying. They chatter, drink and smoke endlessly as he pushes the battered relic over the brand new stretch of highway; the air is thick with their smoke.
And in the distant dark, a cluster of lights now becomes visible, indicating we are closing in on our salvation. Finally.


This place is becoming more and more damned as the sun continues to climb. The heat is getting intolerable; the holiday cars and forbidding sunglasses even more so.

Suddenly the Spaniards have had it. “We’re off man, we can’t stand this any longer. We’ll try to walk towards Niš. Good luck here.” And off they go, fourteen kilometres to go in the scorching sun, following the highway tracks.




Petrol Stations and Golf Courts

Is it a good idea to take a ride to a big city when you actually want to pass that very same city?

Well, there are two petrol stations perched on the Ljubljana ring road. My map says so. For sure we can find rides onwards from there.

“So, you know the Ljubljana petrol stations, right?”
“Yes, I know one close to Ljubljana. I’ll drop you off there.

So we sit back and enjoy the ride. We won’t get stuck taking this Ljubljana-bound ride. Oh no.

Then the guy takes the ring road eastbound (gosh, how did that happen?) and drops us off the ring road on a station going into the city. With all those years of hitching experience….

So we take a bus into town, look up Hitchwiki in a cute hip not-so-vegan-as-it-seemed coffee bar and find the ring road station we’re aiming for. One bus ride out of town, a bridge over the highway, turn left and that should be it. Oh yes.

Crossing the bridge, a huge golf course blocks our path. It is surrounded by thick thorn bushes; a narrow path through the thorns goes winding steep down. The midday sun is cracking our heads. I look to my companion. She is clearly not going in there.

So we walk around, until we find a narrow ditch apparently bordering the golf course. According to my calculations, it goes straight to the petrol station. All we have to do is follow it. Oh yes.

After 200 meters fighting blackberry bushes, the ditch simply stops. The golf course suddenly surrounds us on all sides; we are sweating all over in the unforgiving heat. What to do? Go back to the main road and try to find another path? Or cross the golf pitch? Already we feel like criminals trespassing someone else’s territory. Although to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad feeling.

So we climb out the ditch and over a fence, hoist our backpacks back on our backs and slither over the vast green plain like commandos on a foreign mission. We quickly advance, anxiously looking out for any living soul that could discover our forbidden escape route. But there is absolutely no-one; the lonely field opens itself up to its only visitors of the day.

Finally, after some more creek-dodging and fence-climbing, we reach the damn petrol station. We welcome the stink of car exhaust like the smell of heaven. And we aren’t the only hitchers here.

“Hey, where you from?”
“How long’ve you been here?”
“Three hours, man… we’ve had it. We’re taking a break.”

They sit down on a wooden picknick table, take out philosophy books and a harmonica, and leave the place to us. Well, better not get discouraged by another’s bad luck. I mean, we wouldn’t get stuck here three hours after all our hard work, would we?

Oh yes. We would.

After those three hours, I can’t stand the sight of any more Ljubljana cars. We are stuck on some cruel narcissistic ring road content with revolving around its own petty little world.

Is this really worth it? Is this the sort of thing I’m looking for? What did I expect?

Until Diny has three random eye contacts with a particular driver and thinks: what the hell, let’s give it a shot.

“Thanks for taking us!”
“No problem! Always happy to take hitchers. Done it ourselves quite a few times.”
“Where are you going to?”
“We have a piece of land close to here. We’re planning to build a permaculture farm there, but we’re just beginning.”
“Ah, like that…”

A silence. This just has to be it. I can feel it hanging in the small car’s air.

“Yeah, well, uhm… you’re welcome to stay the night there, if you want.”

Oh yes. We want.

And so we spend the night meeting two wonderful permaculture rookies, looking for mushrooms in their little forest, grilling our dinner on a campfire and pitching our tents for the night. Not fifty kilometers from where we started the day. And much further than expected.





We peer inside. The museum has only one room, with not a single soul inside. Except for Miran of course. “Heey! You are the people that contacted me on Facebook? Welcome!” He is probably in his fifties, of average height, with grey pants, a green jacket and a fisherman’s hat. “Are you also budget backpackers?” If you’re in that category, your entrance is free. Otherwise, prepare to pay the full fee of €2,50. “Here is my latest record”, he points to a map of Europe right next to the museum entrance, showing his tour of whoever remembers how many countries in ten days. “The hard part was northern Albania and Montenegro, ohhh…” Miran theatrically throws his hands in the air and puffs out. Being the only visitors to his hitchhiking shrine, there was no escaping the imposed guided tour, but at least there was some drama to make up for it. “When I was crossing into Slovenia, I called my mom. She said, ‘Oh Miran, come home for some food and a rest!’. I said, ‘Mom, you don’t understand; I’m completing a record!’ And in the end, I made it! I haven’t heard of anyone else reaching this milestone.” Satisfied with this conclusion, he guides us to the next stop.

To a degree, it is indeed the hitchhiking museum we were so eager to visit. Above all, it is the Miran museum. Miran is not only an avid hitchhiker, he is also a passionate collector, beerdrinker, football fan, music fan, table tennis player and country-facts-game-geek. His museum is arranged accordingly. Miran leads us along showcases full of old concert tickets, table tennis balls, football shawls, dolls and beercans. We play games arranging beercans in order of country, connecting capitals to their countries, connecting postcards of capitals to their countries, guessing the amount of inhabitants of countries… With relentless enthusiasm, Miran fast-forwards us through his collection. “I think a museum is a lot more fun if you make it interactive, don’t you think?” And we have to concede: we have never seen anything like this. Nor will we ever again.

I am silently hoping for some hitchhikers-wildcamp community to have spontaneously sprung up around the hitchhiking guru’s hall of fame, but that hope is soon crushed. Instead, there is Bled; a lovely, incredibly picturesque mountain town, with a deep-blue lake, a cute island in the lake, and a cute little church on the cute island in the lake. Locals picking us up around the lake complain about the relatively low amount of tourists this year, but we aren’t. In our focus on the museum, we’re not prepared at all for the town’s beauty and that of nearby Bohinj, a stunning lake in the Triglav National Park. The place is a wildcamper’s walhalla: get out of town, find a few trees, pitch your tent and enjoy. One glorious morning, we wake up in the woods where we had pitched our tent; slowly walk down to the lake not fifty meters away; swim in its crisp waters, baby ducks and beautiful mountains all around; slowly get out and prepare a roadside breakfast. And not a worry in the world.

Until Dieke takes out her phone and checks the news.

“Uh… it seems… there was a… a coup….in Turkey. Army against Erdoğan.More than a hundred dead.”

The baby ducks hop on land and shake the water our their fluffy feathers in the morning sun.

I check my phone. A friend had texted me: ‘Are you allright? Not already in Istanbul, are you?’

I look around. The mountains stand tranquil against the blue sky. The baby ducks squeeze under their mother’s  wings, warm and safe.

“Uh…. say again?”




At the Bratislava petrol station, almost all cars are Slovakian; no use when trying to get to Budapest. Except for a lone Serbian Mercedes, parked on the very edge of the station. It just feels too good to be true…

“We Serbs, we don’t like the English; they betrayed us twice, during both World Wars. Long story, not interesting…” A casual handwave and a stoical stare. “We like the Irish: first of all, we both like to drink. Second, we both hate the English.” Nenad displays a broad grin as he pushes his Mercedes over the Hungarian highway. “Oh, and the bastards had us too during the sanctions period…”, he reflects thoughtfully behind the steering wheel. “We Serbs had a really difficult time during the sanctions.”
“Sanctions by whom?”
“By the US, UK, the EU, hell, everybody! During the wars in the 90’s.”

Still, Nenad displays a mesmerizing, warm smile as he overlooks the road ahead. It feels contradictory, given the topic of discussion.

“So… how was the sanctions time?”
“Ah, well, of course it was tough, but we had each other. We used to drive to Romania and cross back into Serbia with stacks of cigarettes smuggled under our cars. Back home we only had one type of cigarette. Also, we had only one type on bubblegum. Just one! I was a kid back then. I’ll never forget that bubblegum.”
“And how is Serbia now?”
“Well, its okay… but it’s all corrupt, man. Politicians make sure they have the money. Not many jobs. That’s why many Serbs live in Germany or Austria.”

Hitchhiking through the Balkans, one cannot escape Germany’s tremendous impact on this region.
“Germany is super important for the Balkans, man! Supplies us with the income we need. When the Euro was introduced, a quarter of all German Marks were in the Balkans!”
That’s a bit hard to believe. “But… why would they store so much Marks back home?”
“Because we don’t trust the banks, man. Serbian banks rob the people. We store it at home. Haven’t you heard the story of the Serbian guy who lived in Holland? At some point, Dutch police discovered about half a million Dutch guilders at his home. They asked him: ‘How did you get all this money?’ He said: ‘These are my savings!’ Police started calculating, and turns out that in the 20-odd years he was working in the Netherlands, it would’ve actually been possible.  Just didn’t trust banks.”
Exaggerated perhaps? It was funny as hell. We laughed incredulously.

I ask how on earth the Serbs didn’t manage to qualify for EURO 2016, whilst having so many good players? Nenad throws his hands up in resignation. “Ah, it’s all corruption, man. It’s the Serbian mafia. They have such a strong influence over national football, they just pick and choose whom they want to play. Their personal favourites or something, who don’t make for a good team at all. Great players sometimes just sit on the bench! But hey, what can you do…” He shrugged his shoulders, his face saying ‘whatever, that’s to hell anyways.’

In my memory, Serbs are super passionate about their football. Last year, I visited local side Vojvodina playing European qualification against a Czech team. The Czechs beat them horribly, but the home cheers would only get louder, spurring their side on. The Czech fans, probably anticipating trouble after the match, suddenly drew out a huge banner saying ‘KOSOVO IS SERBIA’, in Serbian. They received a 10 minute standing ovation; the home fans left the stadium with smiles on their faces.
“Well, perhaps we are passionate about football, but what is there to cheer for? Nothing! Last time we could really cheer was when Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup in 1991. Semifinal against Bayern München. Goal in the 90th minute. I was there. The roar, man. The roar.” Nenad points at his arm; he has mega goosebumps all over. “But look at our football now. It’s just sad. I switched to watching basketball, man…”

Nenad’s attitude strikes me familiar with other Serbs I’ve talked to. On the one hand, a permanent frustration with things as they are: the falling apart of their once great country; being Europe’s perennial scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Yugoslavia; the deep corruption within their own country, and the lack of future opportunity. And on the other, a sort of peaceful resignation. The calm smile. The shrugging shoulders. What can you do, man. Whatever.

I guess that’s how you get on with it.


“Where you from?”
“Ah really? Never met hitchers from there. Where you going?”
“Greece. We’re trying to get to a refugee festival today.”
“Nice! Where do you live in Spain?”
“Well, we don’t really live there… we live in the Netherlands.”
“Really? Whereabouts?”

Yet again, I’m blown away. Two thousand kilometres from home, on a hopeless Serbian petrol station, we meet next-door neighbours. It just works that way.




I lean my head against the window pane, exhausted. Why did we ever fly to London?

“Yes, yes! Brno! Get in!” Petr is a man with a lot of words, little English, a heated character and a big heart. His beat-up red Volkswagen flies over the Czech highway. If nothing funny happens, we will reach Budapest today (the forecast for Slovenia was all rain, so the museum will have to wait). Stopping over in Prague was horrible: 18€ on a dorm bed in a shitty hostel with British kids drinking. If you ever get stuck there, though, here’s a tip. Get on the Charles bridge at 6 am: picture-perfect rich Chinese wedding couples having their cute European wedding pictures taken by professional crews. Priceless.

That is, if nothing funny happens. Suddenly, Petr’s car begins slowing down dramatically. He pulls his little red bundle swiftly over to the side. Is he out of gas? Trucks fly past us; Diny puts up a ‘neeeever gonna get there’ face. But just 20 meters ahead, I notice the emergency strip ending to make way for another highway lane. If we would’ve ended up there… It’s my first time breaking down while hitching, and we’re extremely lucky.

Before 15 minutes, a police car pulls up. Attaching the tow rope to Petr’s car, the police gesture us to get in with them. And so, I make another debut: hitching a police car, whilst towing the guy that gave us a ride.

Two Turkish cars pull up; there’s clearly extra space in both. A shot of hope beams through our bodies like brandy. I suppress it immediately.

“Are you going to Bulgaria or Turkey?”
“Yes…”, the man answers, slightly confused.
“We are two hitchhikers going to Bulgaria. Is it… maybe… possible for you to take us?”
“I… wait… I… ask my wife”, he gestures to the shop.

Two minutes feel like forever. Come ooooon, how hard can it be? Should I already ask the other guy?
There they are.

“I’m sorry, we have no space…”
Is that Turkish for ‘My wife doesn’t want you stinkers’???
“Ok, thank you…” I force a smile.

I race to the other car. “No, going to Macedonia, sorry…”

DAMMIT. That first car should’ve taken us!

What did you expect? Who are you to expect anything?

The road shines ever hotter in the beaming sun.







The Bastard

Getting in through the creaky back door, a girl and three guys in ragged black clothes, piercings and tattoos drink beer round a small table. The interior is plastered with stickers saying “Fuck off”, “Refugees welcome” and “The only solution is Revolution”. A huge relief. Punks! They’ll take you anywhere. The guys hardly look up; hitchhikers, nothing special. The girl is very talkative; another couple sit up front. I am handed a cigarette. “Thanks!”, I guess, and I reach for my lighter. “Noooo!”, is everyone’s response. Perhaps it’s the (admittedly quite serious) risk of fire in the van ? Turns out it’s meant for Gogol, the guy in the back, balancing himself on a creaky wooden chair whilst occasionally being smashed to a side; the driver pushes the Bastard through the curvy mountain roads at top speed. “Ahh, the Czech Republic!”, he shouts. “Nothing but fucking hills!” Taking the cigarette, Gogol sneaks off in what used to be the van’s toilet. Soon, the smell of cigarette smoke fills the van. “Whatt? Is he seriously smoking?”, the driver guy shouts angrily. “Gogoool!” I still can’t help wondering what these punks have against smoking? “The baby”, the others gesture to the front. And now I see the tiny figure, not a month old perhaps, concealed in the arms of the girl up front. I can’t help but notice her extreme beauty, with her slim figure, black dress, long, red dyed hair and delicately placed nose piercing. Holding her child, her hazel eyes reflect in the front mirror; a huge “KAKSCHEISSE” sticker is plastered on it.

We make a short stop. Three dogs come jumping out; they were apparently laying under the table without me noticing. Just before taking off, Gogol and his friend pull out their grass and a small, glass water pipe. They fail to get the thing going in time; the pipe looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in ages.