The first truck ground to a halt before I dropped my pack in the dusty lay-by. I noted his Turkish plates and grinned. My last lift, taking me away from a lengthy wait at the outskirts of Sofia, had promised to drop me on the Turkish truck route.
“Beograd?” I asked the driver. He nodded and I climbed in.
A few minutes later, I asked where he was heading with a well-learned combination of facial expressions and mime.
I tried to stop myself whooping. “I go to England!” I told him, wide-eyed.
“Mashallah!” he said, throwing his hands in the air.
Hassan didn’t speak any English, but I understood when he gestured. He would take me to Belgium, then find a colleague to take me to London. I nodded furiously. We smiled at each other and shook hands: deal.
Hassan and I had plenty in common. We both liked Turkish coffee and Turkish music, especially while driving through mountains. We did not like borders or border police – especially Bulgarian ones, infamously the most corrupt in Europe.
At the Serbian border, I watched Hassan shove packets of cigarettes and wads of cash under counters. A man resembling a bulldog ordered me out of the cab and snarled a series of questions. Where are you going? Where have you been? What are you doing with him? He indicated at Hassan, who smiled, oblivious.
I reeled off a list of countries and told him, somewhat naively, that I was a hitchhiker. “Autostop!” I mimed with my thumb.
The guard nodded. “Go!” he commanded.
I climbed back into the truck and waited for the bribery to finish.
Eventually, we crossed the border. Hassan stopped the truck again and told me to wait by using the palms of his hands. I peered through the drive-side mirror, watching all the Turkish drivers gather round a small table that folded out of the truck.
After several minutes, Hassan returned to hand me a steaming, partially melted plastic cup of coffee, then went back to finish his. I decided it must be a man thing.
Hassan and I cheered as we zoomed past the Republic of Serbia sign. The music was turned up, the windows came down, and Hassan’s demeanor softened. Something else we had in common: we both liked Serbia.
Hassan asked if I was hungry, patting his stomach. He pulled into a truck-stop with a Turkish sign above the door. I knew the awkward part was coming. I flipped to the Serbian page of my Vegan Passport and handed it to the bemused waiter, whose frown deepened with every sentence. He called to the chef, who spoke some English. They asked twice if I’d like cheese, then onions, then salt.
I tucked happily into my boiled potatoes, pasta and chopped carrot, with a side of raw onion.
We stopped again just outside Belgrade. I did some yoga hidden behind the service station, returning to the truck forty-five minutes later, as requested. Hassan was snoozing.
An hour and fifteen minutes and five alarm rings later, I prodded him awake for the third time. Hassan rubbed his eyes, hit the dashboard, and began yelling at me in Turkish.
We hit the road again.
Sofia to Brussels is a three-day drive. I figured if we could get through the first night without any hassle, I could relax for the rest of the ride. I mimed sleeping, made a questioning face and pointed to each of the bunks in turn.
He patted the top bunk. I nodded, then pointed to myself and the bottom one.
He pointed to me, then him, then the bottom bunk. No way, dude. I gave him a choice: I can sleep on the bottom bunk or I can go outside in my tent. I made my insistent face. Hassan shrugged, and nodded. He let me be on my bottom bunk, where I slept relatively well despite his snoring.
“So, this is hitchhiking?” asked the guard in Slovenia.
“How did you guess?”
“Because you are with him!” he laughed, indicating at Hassan, who looked at me.
“He doesn’t speak English,” I said, “but we’re getting along just fine.”
We spent our second night in the south of Austria. Unfortunately, the first night had lulled me into a false sense of security.
“Please Madam, no sex,” Hassan implored, insisting he just wanted to cuddle, and maybe a little kiss.
I told him no repeatedly. “I go bottom bunk, you go top!”
He put his arm around me. I removed it.
He was behaving like a sullen child. I was tired. I fetched the Turkish-English dictionary we’d been using to communicate, found a word and pointed to it: respect. He nodded.
“No!” I told him, fixedly.
He held his hands up, defeated. He wished me goodnight and turned off the light. I had said the magic word.
By the third day, I was drinking tea with the men at the little fold-down table. We parked for the night near Wels in south Germany, near a tiny petrol station and a big freight train depot. The Turkish man operating the gas station gave me the key to the shower before joining us for breakfast: bread, olives, tomato, pepper, onion, plenty of oil, and of course, the copious tea.
When I sat down to breakfast with soggy hair, Hassan poured me a thimble of tea before breaking the news: he’d found me a lift to England. We would meet in a service station later that day.
I was overjoyed, but Hassan was sullen. He’d grown quite fond of me and spent our final hours making forlorn faces, attempting to persuade me to give him a proper kiss goodbye. When it became clear his plan was failing, he spent half an hour demanding I refuse to kiss or have sex with his friend, the new driver. I promised.
I swapped trucks somewhere in south Germany. Hassan mimed tears, pointing to words in his dictionary: sentimental, affectionate, love. I told him not to be silly and pointed out the Turkish word for annoying.
My new driver Bahadir was married with a baby back in Turkey. He pointed proudly to a picture just behind his seat. We parked for the night near Brussels and spent an evening drinking beer, listening to music and sharing photos in the cab of the truck. He didn’t even snore.
On our second day together, we drove into Calais, the northern French port town with regular ferries to Dover. Another Turkish driver greeted us while queuing for the boat. Bahadir put the teapot on the stove that he, like all other Turkish drivers I’d seen, carried under his truck. The past days we’d barely seen another – driving in, through and out of many service stations, peering in vain through drizzled windows for the Turkish plates, and eating lunch alone.
Soon, we were on the boat. A clamour of British accents rose to greet me. I was startled to understand what everyone was saying for the first time in almost a year. Everyone was moaning about the weather, the boat, the food, and the staff. I couldn’t stop laughing.
I left Bahadir and the other Turkish driver with our coffees. I wandered around the boat: Excuse me — où allez-vous? Wo wahren Sie? — Can I come with you?
I found my lift just as white cliffs loomed on the horizon.
As the ferry sailed into port, I grabbed my pack from the truck and hugged Bahadir. After a frantic search, I found my lift and crammed into the car with the other passengers, with my backpack on my knee. I chattered as we drove, buzzing from coffee, adrenaline, and the thought of coming home.