“Lift to Greece” read the now crumpled advertisement I held in my hand as we approached the gate.
It opened with a tingling of delicate bells. My friend regarded the grey haired gnome-like man with suspicion. A long boney finger pointed towards the garden bench as the man paced up and down muttering into his mobile. Every now and again, he glanced in our direction making sure we were still there. Eventually he approached, shook hands and enquired in the very best Queen’s English as to the purpose behind my proposed visit to Greece. I explained that I was Greek and was going to visit family whereupon he broke into excellent Greek. That did it. We settled on the price, and I gave him the address where he would pick me up the following morning.
Not long after sun-up I stood waiting anxiously for my lift when out of the early morning Rhine mist a black hearse rolled slowly into view. Tinted windows obscured the occupants and it was with some relief that when the doors finally opened, out spilled the gnome, his wife, two large boisterous dogs, two screeching children and a sour- faced old woman.
The hearse was fitted out like a mini bus. The children scrambled into the car leaving wet foot prints over the seats. They settled in the back with their toys, books and luggage. The old woman and I were loaded next with one of the large dogs, which spent the three days resting her large body on my lap, and finally the garden gnome and his wife. At her feet lay the second big dog sniffing at the packets of food. Packed like sardines, we set off.
The first night’s stop was in Switzerland. No camping allowed except in camp sites. This was a problem as the gnome refused to pay. So we cruised around until dark with two tired children now at each others throats. The dogs stood sniffing the air at the only windows that opened. The old woman shrank deeper into her corner. At last a farm hedge hid the hearse. Packets of broken chips scratched open by the front seat dog were passed around. Then it was time for sleep. Our seats were not built for comfort. My companions snored and the dog twitched on my lap. It was a miserable night.
At the Italian border thousands of cars were waiting. The final of the European Soccer Cup, Germany against Italy, was in Rome. We would be stuck for hours. Suddenly a traffic officer stopped all approaching cars except ours. He waved us through, to the front of the queue and removing his hat bowed his head and crossed himself. Other car occupants did likewise as we sailed by. The black tinted windows hid us from view as our hearse entered Italy with everyone’s blessings.
At the port we were speedily placed on board the ferry boat with more crossings and bowed heads. On the top deck we laid out our sleeping bags. Within minutes the deck was transformed into a dormitory of hippies, families, and our group. Travel gas stoves were lit for supper from where delicious food smells drifted into the night sky.
The sleeping bags next to mine were occupied by pot smoking, beer drinking hippies. They generously offered me a puff which I declined, telling them to go to sleep .I suspect even in their drugged state they heard the voice of authority. They fell asleep muttering, and grinding their teeth.
In Patras we were ushered swiftly through customs and on to Athens. I bade the hearse goodbye outside my parents’ flat. I rang the bell to the third floor flat. Mother appeared at the balcony and the interrogation started. Where was my husband? Why had I not phoned from the airport? How had I got to Greece from Germany?
By this time I was very conscious of all the surrounding flats. The occupants had come out, to water their geraniums and enjoy a free road show.
Eventually much to their sorrow, I managed to get my mother to buzz the bottom door open.
“How old are you?” She asked as I entered the apartment.”
“Sixty last March.”
“You hitch hiked with jeans and a rucksack at your age?” She turned away muttering and crossing herself in disgust.
Thank goodness that with the dreadful driving and traffic in Athens she had not seen me arrive in the hearse.