France: Hitchhiking Across the English Channel from Paris to London with Beth


I find of all the names of all the people I have met on my travels, the most sturdy and reliable one would have to be Beth.

Beth is a no-nonese sort of title, not too flamboyant, not to trendy, it rolls nicely off the tongue and you are unlikely to have some weird variation of spelling of it.

Back some 18, almost 19 years ago now, though this depends on when you are ready this, if you are reading this some time in the distant future (that’s from my perspective of course – from yours you’ll just think it is the present) then this might be the hieroglyphs on the walls of ancient Egyptian tombs. I doubt you future people will read this though because I assume that I will be dead by then/now so my web hosting payment has likely expired and they no longer publish my material. Still I digress, back to Beth.

I met Beth at a meditation centre in a little place in Champignelles about 170 kms south of Paris. It was mid-September and some of the nice summer days still lingered. She was was from England, a little place that is off the coast of France where they tend to use less garlic and don’t let toddlers drink wine. We had both been helping out at the centre, which hosts 10-day silent ‘vipassana’ meditation courses, mainly preparing the meals for the meditators. We were able to talk ourselves, though we were evidently meant to keep it down a bit, a point that was made by this rather irate American meditation teacher who stormed into the kitchen one day when Beth and I were talking loudly, laughing and peeling potatoes at the same time and said, “you need to keep your voices down, this is a meditation centre!” After that, I kind of thought he needed to chill a bit – maybe go meditate a bit himself, rather than running around like a hamster interrupting Beth and my conversations. Anyway I was glad when the first course I helped out on, which he was teaching on, finished and a new teacher arrived for the next one. He was Swiss and brought lots of Lindt chocolate along for us kitchen helpers to eat.

Anyway after the first course had finished Beth decided she should take the course herself – noting at this point that all of us who had served in the kitchen had completed at least one 10-day course ourselves. Given these course are silent for the next ten days I only managed to get a glimpse of Beth when she entered the meditation hall for the group meditations that occurred 3 times daily. She looked angelic, a little dishevelled, but always deep in concentration, cocooned  in her own inner universe.

For me the next ten days were fairly uneventful, expect that I ate too much chocolate and it made me all hyperactive one night which meant I couldn’t go to sleep so I had to go have a cool shower to settle myself down – and I met an actress named Elina who had been in Shindler’s List and in an episode of the TV services Seinfeld. Elina is a name that lends itself more to these glamorous types of pursuits. Given my previous chastisement for being too loud in the kitchen I didn’t chat too much with Elina at the time but I got her address and we remained pen pals for several years afterwards. But that is perhaps another story in itself.

It was now October and the frosts settled into the shadows and beyond for almost the entire day. On the ninth day of the course I was able to sneak off from my kitchen duties one afternoon and just sat in the forest for an hour and a half watching he leaves fall from the trees and the mushrooms growing in the fields. Had the American teacher been there I’m sure he would have thought I was skylarking and that I shouldn’t spend time admiring this external ethereal world, but I would have happily received a chew out from him had he been there.

On the last day of the course Beth and I were able to catch up again, the meditation teachers aren’t so anal about the chit-chat on these days when the vow of silence is broken so everyone is a bit more boisterous. For some reason we ended up also talking to a young French woman who lived in Paris, she had just come out of a marathon meditation stint, having completed an extra long course 20-days long. Beth and I talked about heading back to England and we decided to head over there together.

The French woman offered us a lift to Paris, and the three of us chatted non-stop about the mysterious of the universe, as you do when you’ve just completed a meditation course, as we drank tea at the woman’s tiny Parisian flat and then as we walked along the Seine and visited the Louvre, before Beth and I decided we needed to find some lodgings for the evening before journeying back to London the next day.

For me I was heading back to Australia, for Beth it was heading home. I should mention at this point that I had just a few hundred French Francs and maybe 100 English pounds to get me there. But, accompanying the phenomenon of constant cosmic chatting that follows participation in one of these courses  is a ‘go with the flow’ type of attitude that makes you feel like your just part of a river going out to the sea and that you don’t really need to have ‘money’ and ‘plans’ and ‘responsibilities’ and all that bourgeoisie stressful type of stuff that you usually have in your life.

“How are we going to get back to London?” Beth asked me nonchalantly.

“Let’s hitch.” I said.

“Okay”, said Beth.

“Where are we going to sleep?” I asked.

“There’s this Shakespeare bookshop where I hear you can crash on the couch”.

We headed to the Shakespeare bookshop.

“All le couches are taken”, said the man with a raised eyebrow, so we headed elsewhere, finding a place called the Californian Hotel. Having just been to a meditation course I felt sexy things should be off the agenda, so when we booked in I enquired: “Do you have a single room with two separate beds” – I did still want to chat with Beth but didn’t want to have it go any further than that. Unfortunately they didn’t have such a room so we spent the night in separate male/ female dorms just as we had done at the meditation centre.

The next morning our esoteric, carefree mood had not subsided significantly and Beth asked over a very early breakfast, perhaps a habit formed through the 4 a.m. starts to the day at the meditation centre, “How are we going to get out of Paris?”

I shrugged my shoulders, “perhaps we’ll ask at reception”.

We were told that to get onto one of the main roads that left Paris for Calais, we’d have to take the Metro to one of the outer suburbs. After breakfast we did just that and found ourselves at about 8.30 a.m. walking on a highway where there was virtually no possibility of a car being able to stop for us.

Having done my share of hitchhiking I realised that we’d have to walk a bit until we found a spot cars could pull over. It was cool enough that the walk on the side of the road with cars racing past wasn’t too draining and there was heaps of junk at the side of the road to look at which was rather interesting – bits of French magazines, cigarette packets and I even picked up a two Franc piece that I retain to this day.

We had to walk about an hour before we came across a petrol station on the outskirts of Paris where cars could at least stop. We camped out at the exit, hoping someone might stop for us as they pulled out. About an hour later Beth had her doubts about whether anyone would stop, she was also getting cold.

“I’m not sure anyone will stop for us”, she said, “and I’m getting a bit cold”. I had a nice tram conductors tailored made woollen coat that an ex tram conductor had given me in Melbourne. He was a Greek guy who I had met at my very first vipassana meditation course held in the Victorian town of Creswick. For some reason I can’t recall, he’d given me the coat, which I later found out had two condoms in it that had come in handy after I’d met a Swiss girl on a train one day who later came back to visit me on the farm I was working on in Nutfield Victoria. Anyway, the coat was obviously destined to not be the property of any one person so I said to Beth, who was wearing only light jacket. “If you have something warm I could swap it for the coat”.

“I’ve got a woollen jumper”, she said.

Okay”, I said.

I wasn’t feeling the cold at that point so I passed over the coat but when she gave me the jumper I just shoved it in my backpack. Having made that transaction I again felt lighter, a bit corny and cliched, but something like a cloud drifting across the sky. I went into the petrol station and spent a few Francs on getting Beth a hot chocolate. On the way back I saw a guy in a black BMW stopping for fuel. Once Beth had her hands cupped around the hot beverage I stepped out and held my thumb up again, as I had done for the last hour and a half. The first car drove past, but then I saw the black BMW and I smiled directly at the guy driving and wiggled my thumb. To Beth (pictured below) and my surprise, he stopped.

Beth Donohoe hitching in France taken by John Atwood

The guy turned out to be a rugby player, he was French, but luckily for Beth and I, who could hardly manage a bonjour between us, he spoke a fair bit of English. I can’t recall much of the conversation except that at some point, travelling around 140 kms an hour he noticed me looking at the speedometer and noted, “‘it is okay ‘ere we can travel up to maybe 150 kms before the police would even notice ‘ow fast you are travelling”. Although my bourgeois tendencies had faded, the car was freakin’ awesome and it barely made a sound as it nudged 150, and just as in the ads you could hear the classical music playing on the radio.

He was able to take us to the turn off for Calais. It was now late afternoon and Beth and I feared we may be stuck on the side of the road cold and miserable for hours on end. But very soon afterwards, in fact it may have even been the first or second vehicle to pass, a lorry pulled over for us and within minutes we were heading to the ferry terminal. On arrival the French terminal staff questioned the presence of Beth and I on the Lorry and insisted that we get out and go by ourselves a ticket. But once they’d moved on to another vehicle they seemed to loose interest and the lorry driver said we shouldn’t about getting ourselves a ticket, so we didn’t, and soon we were on the ferry sitting around on couches. The lorry driver luckily didn’t feel the need for us to all spend too much time together during the crossing, so Beth and I were able to find a quite corner where Beth, snuggled up in the green tram conductors coat, had a nap while I just sat there thinking about nothing in particular, looking down at her head, resting just beside my leg, thinking what a wonderful adventure we had just had.

We arrived in Dover late in the evening and went back to sitting in the lorry’s cabin as we passed through customs and then headed to London. I wanted to make sure Beth was safe, so we agreed before getting back into the lorry that we would both get out at the same spot around London. I don’t know what time it was by the time we got there, I was too tired to remember much at all, but I do recall Beth and I sitting at the Tube station in the dark waiting for trains which were going in separate directions knowing that there was little likelihood of us ever seeing each other again, but perhaps not really even thinking about this or just being okay with the whole thing as we both knew that you can never hold onto to anything in life, so you might as well just let it go. For the last few minutes of our time together we sat in almost total silence, just as the state we had seen each other in three times a day during the group meditation sessions in the meditation hall.

And then Beth’s train, or mine, I have no idea which, arrived, and we took one last look into each other’s eyes, smiled and went our separate ways, perhaps forever.

If you want more French adventures check our the time I went to Paris and walked around trying to find a bar Scarlett Johansson drank at.