Something this trip has consistently given me is experience with novel ways of interacting with strangers. I’d already stayed in the homes of dozens of people I’d never met before, made friends with fellow travelers based solely on a shared language or sometimes not even that, played ukulele and sang on the street with beatboxing waiters, and had countless fellow pedestrians give me not just directions but short personal tours before I went to France.
Every part of my trip has been colored by these brief interactions, but France took them even farther, starting with my first hitchhiking experience and adding to it: A five-minute “flash mob” group freeze with numerous passing tourists stopping to take pictures. Offering free hugs with a group under the Eiffel tower, with responses from passers-by ranging from fear to shyness to laughter to jumping-up-and-down exuberance. Nonverbal jokes with the faces of passing motorists while hitchhiking a second time.
More stuff, too. Let’s skip to the highlights.
– Exploring Paris with my first host there, Ophélie, and her friend, Valérie; going to the ultracreepy underground catacombs, decorated with the bones of over a million people (thanks for the recommendation, Jeff G). Eating strong Camembert with apples.
– Seeing more of Paris including an absinthe tasting at a goth bar with Edouard, my second host. He and I taking part in the Paris flash mob, part of an event in which groups of people in European capital cities throughout the continent froze for five minutes at exactly the same time: full video or fast-track to me and Edouard proposing to a girl together (I didn’t make the video); free hugs; tour of the historic sewers of Paris.
– Staying with Daniel, who barely spoke English but was still hilarious; seeing Grunewald’s brutal Crucifixion.
– Trying hitchhiking to Chamonix, getting two rides to get 1/3 of the way there: one from Henri, a German man in his 70s who was drafted in the war but deserted at age 18 and called me an ubermensch, and one from Michael, a middle-aged Swiss man who kept the baby shoes of his 20-year-old son hanging from the rearview mirror. Getting into Switzerland but no farther, meeting a kid named Colin who showed me the way to the train station, bought me some Swiss chocolate and let me use his phone to message my hosts in Chamonix. Taking the train the rest of the way. Accidentally going to three countries in one day (France, Germany, and Switzerland).
– Staying at the foot of the Alps with Ewelina and Alan, from Poland. Feeling like I’d been punched in the stomach every time I went out the door and saw the mountains. Being physically winded from simply seeing their beauty and size, then being more winded after hiking up them for six hours with Ewelina and Alan and laughing nonstop.
– Eating some of the best pizza of all time — cheeseless and vegan, Alan’s recipe. Trying to go vegan for a day; going seven hours before accidentally eating non-vegan muesli.
– Hitchhiking into Italy.