stranger things: the hitchhiker’s guide to the auvergne

It’s a dreary early-spring day in the Auvergne region in France. At some unknown stretch along the highway, I sit at a rest-stop cafeteria table eating bad baguette sandwiches with two strangers.

We sit and chew hard bread and wilted lettuce in companionable quiet. Cold rain splats against the windows and I shiver in my damp jacket and jeans.

I have no idea where we are. I wonder what I would do in the event of separation: just me and my purse and my portable that is dead.

But I am unaffected. I am bold.

(Really, I’m desperate).

I’m a BlaBlaCar rider.

Much like raw milk cheese, BlaBlaCar is a French invention unlikely to appear in the United States. Less delicious than Mont d’Or but certainly more practical, BlaBlaCar is a service that connects riders with drivers in a searchable and safe incarnation of hitchhiking. BlaBlaCar meets a real need as a cost-effective way to travel long distances, say one to ten hours of routemont-dor

The website and app are available for free. Drivers set the price per journey, which includes one seat in the vehicle, and BlaBlaCar takes about a 12% cut. BlaBlaCar now has a presence in 18 countries, but the US is not one of them. As a Business Insider article explains, BlaBlaCar’s effectiveness depends upon a strong public transport infrastructure, making it a brilliant fit for France and Germany, while hypothetically leaving American users stranded.

Unlike Uber, which has exploded in American cities, BlaBlaCar doesn’t work like a taxi service. Drivers input their routes, say, from Paris to Lyon, and mark four or five stops they could make along the way. Rarely do they stray from meeting points, which could include a major train station in each city they pass through. Users can take a bus, tram, or metro to meet the driver and then to hop to their final destination.

This wouldn’t work well in the US, where the meeting point could be miles away from where you are; the drop-off point miles from where you want to be.

Living, as I do at the time, in a quiet corner of the already-quiet center of France, I use BlaBlaCar to fill the gaps in train schedules. Montluçon is already under-serviced in terms of transportation, and I’ve watched resentfully over the year as routes to and from major cities have simultaneously decreased in availability and risen in price.

Today, I’m using BlaBlaCar to get home from Lyon. The rest-stop sandwiches mark the halfway point.

In the morning, I sent my mom to the airport and headed with my bags to the Croix-Rousse. Traditionally the silk workers’ neighborhood, it offers a nice view of the rest of the city–or it does when it’s not pouring buckets. After several metro changes, my wet hair plastered to my face, I drag my suitcases into an old-fashioned belle-époque café where everyone knows each other, even the dogs in their raincoats, and the day’s newspaper is thrown around with cheerful abandon.

Cyril, who I know by first name and through a few staticky phone conversations, told me to meet him around the mairie of the 6 arrondissement. A BlaBlaCar truth: he who possesses the vehicle shall make the rules. Instead of meeting him at the Part-Dieu, Lyon’s major train station which is conveniently located just down the street from my hotel, I lug my bags through metro stations, across a halfhearted market, and up a hill. There it is, the city hall: I think. I inhale a couple of cappuccinos and try to warm up.

Cyril is late. He calls me every twenty minutes with updates–something about a bouchon. Finally, he arrives, driving a sinister and decidedly un-French white van. He is thirtyish with a lumberjack beard and cold-weather gear. He helps me with my bags. From the outside, it seems I’ll have plenty of room to stretch out and sleep during the trip. But when Cyril opens the door, I see that there are only three seats in the cab. As the latest addition to the van of strangers, I am relegated to the middle, feet necessarily perched on the raised platform, knees practically to my nose.

Cyril’s van and his route are highly in-demand. As we drive, Cyril makes and answers phone calls and negotiates exact pick-up times with other riders. We let a girl out in a Flunch restaurant parking lot and pick up one guy on the side of a highway.

I am still in the middle feeling like an oversized child, but I am just glad to be going home and saving fifty euros doing it. I don’t exactly have money to burn. Today’s ride was a third of the cost of the only train that would get me from Lyon to Montluçon.

Road trips are good for thinking. One thing I think about: I am not used to depending on strangers. That’s what I think, anyway, before I realize that is a totally false impression cultivated from an American sense of possibility and individualism. I am not used to depending on strangers–overtly. Really, other people make my coffee and grow my tomatoes and fix my car, yet I still maintain a sense of independence that has been stripped away while I live in France. I become very quickly aware of how often my well-being depends on the kindness of a bus driver or waiter, a random dog walker or fellow diner. And when it comes to travel, I now depend on this updated, tech-based version of hitchhiking.

I’ve ridden with Cyril, Dominic, Valérie, Fred, Karim, Arthur…sometimes Mary and I ride together and we talk about our plans as if these people are our friends. Wanna stop for espresso? Dominic’s running late. The fact that we know them only by first name points to the strange intimacy of road tripping with strangers.

Do you sit in the front or the back? Should you sleep or maintain polite conversation? How likely is it that you and your conducteur will be belting out show tunes and exchanging emails by the end of the ride?

The answer to these questions is not évident. An easy way to start a conversation is by asking about the driver’s motivation. Sometimes it’s simply money; a way to help them justify the expense of weekend trips to see a boyfriend. Sometimes it’s company, a way to spice up an eight-hour drive.

Company comes at a cost: it’s both good and awkward. There’s a strange self-consciousness that comes from the fact that the rider and driver will be publicly rating and reviewing each other after the trip. Sometimes when I scatter croissant crumbs on the seat or fail to really engage with the driver, I scramble to atone for what could be perceived as poor company. No one wants to lose at this game of Rent-a-Friend. BlaBlaCar feels a lot more personal than Uber and other comparable services.

As such, BlaBlaCar does its small part to prepare users for possible personality differences. When users create a profile, they are urged to designate their preferred level of chatter: from Bla to BlaBlaBla, or, it might be stated, the likelihood that you will annoy the person sitting next to you.

Your rating on the website could prove important: drivers can reject ride requests, and some days there might be but a single BlaBlaCar leaving from your location. There’s a small element of personal marketing when you’re competing against others for transportation rights.

Ooh, he’s cute. Mary and I discuss potential drivers (which fully illustrates the lack of thrilling activities available in our town. We joke that we’ve become really boring). Why did they reject me?!” Personal.

I wonder how often two people have met and fallen in love over the course of a BlaBlaCar ride share. It would make a lot of sense, I think. People have clicked for less than similar music tastes.

I certainly did not find love. I did, however, find a not-so-secret admirer, a good fifteen years my senior, who wrote me a review on the site. In it, he praised our belle and enrichissante conversation. I was a person both interesting and sympathique (to borrow the French syntax). And he wanted to get dinner sometime.

When I saw it, I snorted. Beautiful and enriching? He must’ve been talking about the sound of my snoring. The car was crammed with four twenty-something girls, and, sitting in the back, I could barely hear his eager questions. He tried to make eye contact in the mirror, not paying as much attention to the road as I would prefer, so I decided to feign sleep until Lyon. Still, and much to the annoyance of the very-awake Mary beside me, he wasn’t deterred. Is Jessica cold? Does she mind if I smoke? Does she have enough room back there? 

She’s asleep, came the flat response.

You won’t always click with your BlaBlaCar driver. You probably won’t find love.

But for the frequent, tired traveller, the service offers an element of humanity unmatched by the TGV. With a ride-share, you will not be spit out on the train tracks in an unknown city. You will have a chance to hear someone’s story, learn about a new region, get advice and restaurant recommendations. Unless they would rather shut up and drive. And that works too.

In a time when technology has the troublesome side effect of isolating humans into tiny virtual worlds of our own creation, I am cheered by this opportunity to, quite simply, talk to strangers. It meets a real transportation need, and a subtler need too: the need to connect with people. As a lonely American transplant, I appreciated these miscellaneous encounters.

Sometimes they were awkward or embarrassing. They were boring, or else really pleasant. They were human.

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rainy colors: a weekend in Strasbourg

Last weekend I traveled to Strasbourg alone. I am head-over-heels for this Alsatian city: its bright buildings that remind me of a child’s drawings, its lovely street art, its warm, filling comfort food, cobbled streets, and abundance of bicycles.img_7721

I got in around four p.m. and had time to drop off my things and walk through the storybook scene that is Strasbourg’s riverbanks before the sun went down. It was entirely freeing to stroll in the sun with no bags in hand; to compress after a stressful day of travel.  img_7763

From Montluçon I had taken a train to Bourges, then another to Paris Est. From there I took the metro to Paris Austerlitz, then took the TGV to Strasbourg. It wouldn’t have been bad at all (I had snacks, water, a good book, and leftover metro tickets), except that I almost missed my first train. I’ve never felt adrenaline like that as I realized my train, the one I had to take to catch the other two that I had already paid for, was about to leave and that I was, as they say, on the wrong side of the tracks. I waved to the conductor from fifty feet away, desperate and unashamed, and then I flew down the concrete steps at a speed unprecedented by my heeled ankle boots and suitcase. I came to a fork in the road and looked up one direction hopelessly, knowing if I chose wrong I was out of luck. Luckily I saw a train attendent’s face peering down from the top of the stairs. C’est bien par là, mademoiselle ! I raced up the steps and into the train and sat huffing for all of thirty seconds before the doors closed and we sped away quietly.

That little adventure had me sweating all the way to Bourges. I took out my notebook and wrote my latest travel tipassume nothing. Check everything. Ask questions at the first sign of a problem. The problem: I thought I was taking an autobus to Paris, on the opposite side of the station. It wasn’t until I was about to board the autobus, four minutes before it was set to leave, that I decided to ask other travelers in line. I only asked because I noticed, finally, that the bus didn’t match the number printed on my ticket. Luckily, one man was an off-duty SNCF employee who called someone, typed in a door code to get me to the other side of the station faster, and helped me wave down the conductor, then yelled after me that they were waiting. That was the hope propelling me as I flew down those steps. Lesson: learned.

Just when I was breathing normally (a good hour later), we stopped in Bourges and I noticed everyone and their warmly-dressed dog getting off the train. This was supposed to be a direct trip to Paris, so I had nothing to worry about. I sat back and closed my eyes. Yet, a worry tugged at me and, so, having learned from the near-disaster not an hour before, I asked one of the last passengers leaving the train, a portly older man with a friendly face. “Excuse me, I’m going to Paris,” I said. “Do we…have to get off?” My ticket indicated nothing about what I should do. “Yes!” He told me. My heart hammered. That was close. “Well, uh. Was that written somewhere? I didn’t see it.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he said. Naturally. “Follow me.” We boarded another train, this one old-fashioned with skinny corridors and close-together seats set in individual cars with overhead baggage storage and curtains for privacy.

I could finally relax. Travel tipif everyone is getting off the train, get off the train. Or perhaps: pay attention to your surroundings. If I hadn’t trusted my gut, I have no idea where I would have ended up. Certainly not Paris.

I needed to decompress, and a walk around Strasbourg in the cool air and bright sun was the way to do that. After the river, I walked to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Strasbourg. It’s one of my favorites, jaw-dropping in its enormity, gorgeous in shades of orange and teal. It’s the sixth-tallest church in the world, described by Victor Hugo as a “prodige du gigantesque et du délicat.img_7715

In the next few days I climbed the 332 steps to the top twice, the view was so nice, and each time I could hear the cellist who often plays in front of the cathedral.

I stayed in an Airbnb studio apartment on Place Gutenberg, a famous square that was familiar from when I visited Strasbourg for the first time with Mary in December. We were there for the Marché du Noël, and this same Place was then home to the Portuguese section of the Christmas market. There I discovered pastéis de nata–sweet custard tarts with flaky shells–and hot orange juice, and went back for seconds…and thirds… The city was gorgeous, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but I loved it just as much here in February. What it missed in Christmas decorations it more than made up for in lack of tourists.img_7555

The apartment was charming. I could see the building when I stood on the cathedral’s platform, and I could see the cathedral from the front door of the building: it was a thirty-second walk away. I heard the bells chime from my balcony. Travel tip: when finding lodging, prize location. It was quite cold when the sun went down and the wind (which terrorized most of France this weekend) ripped through, but my uber-central location made it easy and enjoyable to get dinner or drinks every night, and I would have easily traded amenities for the treat of having the cathedral practically on my doorstep.

Strasbourg’s German history makes this city unique, and unlike anywhere else I’ve traveled in France, in Strasbourg I heard German spoken all the time, saw it on signs, et cetera.

As a linguistics nerd, I also find the Alsatian dialect really interesting. The French spoken in Strasbourg shows phonological differences from standard French but is particularly interesting in its lexical variety.

I was surprised to hear my Alsatian dinner date speaking conversational German with the server at a traditional restaurant we went to. “Everyone knows some German here,” he said shrugging. C’est normal.

I had munstiflette for dinner, the dish that may have been partly responsible for my return to Strasbourg. Who knew that munster cheese is not necessarily a lifeless orange block from the grocery store? Not I, until I visited Strasbourg. Other French-German specialities include choucroute (sauerkraut) served warm with sausages; schnitzel, Alsace wine, pretzels, apple strudel, and tarte flambée. Basically a thin-crust pizza with cream, onions, and lardons, tarte flambée is like other French foods in that, if you try one at an average restaurant, you’re likely to be unimpressed and wondering what all the fuss is about. If you find the real thing though…you will wonder how such a simple combination of ingredients leads to something so incredibly delicious.

Eating out was also a treat because of the service. Everywhere I went, people treated me with surprising warmth and familiarity. I’ve heard that Northerners are known for their friendliness, and based on my first encounters, I’d have to agree.

Strasbourg (or Alsace) seems like a good place to live, and it might be even be a reality. With the program I’m currently here teaching with, I have the option to request a contract renewal, and I have one choice for place preference. We’ll see if this gets my vote!

For now, I’m glad to have traveled alone like this. I never have before, unless you count taking a few flights and being picked up at the airport. The sense of independence it affords is exhilarating. Until the next, Strasbourg!