A nun, a pimp and a Mexican walk into a bar… No, this is not the beginning of an awful joke. This is the story of my hitchhiking adventure to France – a story of how I got tracked by MI6 in Paris, beaten with a packet of brioches at a deserted roundabout and driven across the English Channel in a brand new Jaguar. Just your average trip, you know.
Prudence is not my strongest suit. When the occasion calls for it I can conduct myself with surprising caution, but usually I opt for a standard fare of youthful folly and recklessness. Having said that, I debated whether I should write about my hitchhiking trip to France on here for a long time. “Isn’t it just too crazy, even for me?” I wondered. Well, I have finally realised that yes, it is too crazy… which is exactly why I need to share the story with you!
It all began on a cold February afternoon in my first year of university. I was walking home from a lecture, a throbbing chorus of songs from last night still playing in my bowed head. “Take this flier!” someone shouted into my ear. Technically I am certain they weren’t shouting, but my hungover mind almost shattered at the sound. I readied myself to hurl the paper back at them, but not before giving it a brief glance first – I’m a die-hard optimist and what if I’d just been handed a winning lottery ticket? You never know. “Jailbreak 2012!” it read. “Hitchhiking for charity. Get as far from the UCL quad as possible without spending a penny – all in 36 hours.”
When I got to my dorm room, I began typing as fast as my snow-encrusted fingers allowed and reading up on Jailbreak. I quickly realised two things: a) it sounded insane and b) I had to do it. It only took a few messages to convince my two equally deranged adventurous friends, Tom and Jack, to get on board.Unfazed by safety concerns, our main worry was how we would dress. Donning fancy dress – or costumes, if you’re not one for anglicisms – is extremely popular among British students, so it was a no-brainer. The real issue was settling on a theme. Would we dress as the three musketeers? Giant babies? Prison escapees?
A quick look at the price tags in our local fancy dress shop left us with a thoroughly incoherent ensemble of clothes, which leads me back to the beginning of my story – a nun, a pimp and a Mexican walk into a bar… Here is a short documentary of what happened next!
We all realised it’d be far from smooth sailing shortly after setting out from my university’s main quad. “My feet hurt,” I whined after running for less than a hundred metres, the straps of my backpack digging into my nun’s habit like raven claws. “What’s wrong?” Tom asked me hesitantly. “Nothing, it’s just… it’s hard… running in heels…” I panted. At first they looked at me as if I’d gone completely mad. “You’re wearing heels?” they repeated. “I don’t… I don’t own any other shoes.”
It was true, but try not to judge me too much. I was 18 and I wanted to impress the world. I wanted to impress you, darling. Luckily for me the boys convinced a friend of ours to part with her light blue sneakers for a few days and, with my new footwear and a big delay, we set out again.
Running toward King’s Cross, I felt like someone had lit a fuse in my lungs but I persevered – I had to prove myself a worthy travel companion after the whole high heel fiasco. In a sense we were lucky to be among the last to arrive to the station, because the controller had already been informed about Jailbreak and he let us pass through for free with a silent smile.
We were lagging behind the other teams, but that did not stop us from posing for a quick photo with him. Back in 2012 selfies weren’t a thing yet, so we actually had to ask another human being to take twenty seconds out of their life to snap the beauty above. How odd it all seems now!
In less than two hours we were sitting on a train headed to Dover in southern England, the best place to cross the channel to Europe. We were sane enough to eliminate swimming from our “possible mode of transport” list – see, I told you I can be prudent when necessary! – which left us with few options. We figured crossing on a ferry would be easiest since people are charged per car, not per passenger – if drivers had already paid, why should it matter if there were three ridiculously-clad students in their car? Right?
After an hour of waving our poorly-written cardboard signs up and down, a brand new Jaguar stopped next to us. “Bonjour!” its young, attractive driver greeted us with a wide smile. We tried to communicate with him in our broken French and were told that his name was Jul, that non, he was not a serial killer and oui, this ferry would drop us off in Calais from where we could make our way further south. Jolly good!
Our ferry ride was spent resting (for the boys) and frantically scribbling names of cities on pieces of cardboard (for me). I tried to convince all the truck drivers on board to drive us somewhere, anywhere, but all I got were amused stares. Had they never seen a hitchhiking nun before? We shall never know.
The night fell as our boat pulled into the port and we stumbled outside, wondering where to go from Calais. Calais, Calais, Calais – we were just so happy to be in Calais! Whilst jumping for joy, we almost crashed into a signpost in the middle of the road. “Bienvenue à Dunkerque. Welcome to Dunkirk.” As reality cast a shadow over our hopeful hearts, there was a rumbling in the distance. It may have been echoes of the battle of Dunkirk, an approaching storm or my empty stomach, but it chilled me to the bone. The fact that it was the last week of February did not help either.
After a brief episode of terror and despair, we concluded that it didn’t really matter where we were – after all, our only aim was to get as far away as possible, one of the few rules outlined by the organisers. Spurred on by this epiphany, we skipped toward the highway and danced around for close to an hour before someone finally agreed to drive us to the train station. Now, I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic but the entire ride was a near-death experience.
The car doors were defunct, so whenever the car swerved to the side – which was all the time – Tom almost flew out of the car, taking me with him. Meanwhile, Jack was sitting in the front listening to ABBA on full blast while the man pushed the pedal to the floor. When he dropped us off at the train station, I gave him a giant hug because I was so grateful to him for not killing us. Is there a hitchhiking equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome? If so, I’m pretty sure that fits the definition.
The young train controller was either sympathetic to our cause or too tired to argue with a nun, so he let us get on the train for free without much hesitation. We got off at the last stop which happened to be Lille – a lovely French town with plenty of students and, according to Jul, great clubs. The boys contemplated paying one of them a visit, but I was adamant – we had a commitment to uphold and I would not stop till we reached Antarctica. Or, you know, at least Paris.
After unsuccessfully begging for tickets at Lille’s train station, we were lucky enough to blag a ride from a Tunisian man driving down to Paris. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” I gloated. Not bothering to wipe the smugness off my face, I fell asleep.
“Where the FUCK are we?” My mouth was dry and my eyes filled with dread. The only thing I could see was a big cornfield and our driver frantically searching for something in the trunk. His face lit up as he pulled out an ominous-looking hydraulic jack whose red paint glistened in the moonlight. “Guys, are we going to die?” I was going to be beaten to death in the middle of a French field, tired and dressed in a nun’s habit. I’d never been more certain of anything in my life.
Luckily, I was wrong. The man wasn’t a murderer – he was just trying to fix his car, which had unexpectedly broken down while I was snoring away in the backseat. In a few minutes, we hopped into a breakdown truck and afterward were picked up by a surprisingly fancy taxi which drove us all the way to Paris. Just like last time, I gave the driver a giant hug because I was so grateful to him for not killing us. To this day, I still can’t tell if that was the right reaction or not.
Voilà, there we were! In less than a day we’d driven from London to Paris without spending a single penny. I should have been excited but all I wanted was a warm bed and food that wasn’t a sandwich smeared with butter and hummus – a revolting concoction I’d prepared for all of us prior to the trip and pretended to enjoy to save face in front of the boys. “Let’s go down to the Eiffel tower and eat our sandwiches there,” someone suggested and we all agreed enthusiastically. We felt so classy, you know?
We wolfed down our sandwiches, broke off a few sqaures of our 20p chocolate bars and got going – we were optimistic we could get a train down to Cannes and spend the rest of the day pretending to be rich and famous. As rich and famous as you can look when dressed as a runaway nun, velvet-loving pimp or cartoonish Mexican, anyway.
To our dismay, we soon found out that Parisians don’t love us. I could be mean about it and say they don’t love anyone but themselves, but I won’t go there – mainly because I’ve written a strongly worded letter about it already. Discouraged and sleepy, we contemplated checking into a hostel and calling it a day.
Suddenly, one of my friend’s phone rang. He lazily answered and nodded several times before hanging up and turning to us, shocked. In order to protect the British secret services’ anonymity, all I will say is that a member of the MI6 known to him called asking why we were waiting for a train in Paris. We were slightly freaked out, but mainly just felt like proper badasses. How many times have you been tracked by the MI6 on your travels? That’s right, mortals – bow down to me and bask in my glory.
We still had a third of our allotted 36 hours left, so we dusted ourselves off and hastily left the station. Sensing our despair as we sat on the side of a busy road, a young French mechanic called Ben agreed to drive us ze halfway to Lyon, as he eagerly explained. We nodded, excited to be underway and thanked him profusely as he dropped us off at a secluded gas station.
Things quickly went downhill from there – we tried to hitchhike on the side of the road, but the police kindly informed us this was too dangerous and ordered us to go away, or else. So we lay low, literally, and begged for a miracle. Unfortunately, not even my nun habit helped matters and our prayers remained unanswered. Four hours passed and we were still lying on asphalt, playing cards and shivering.
Just as we were about to spend the night at a nearby Ikea (who could blame us for testing their mattresses?), a young soldier called Cecil took pity on us and agreed to give us a lift. We didn’t even ask where he was going and jumped in. You’d think we would have learned not to do that, but we were far too exhausted for rational thought.
After twenty minutes of silent driving, Cecil stopped the car at a nondescript roundabout and told us that we could get out now. “Now?!” we all thought, frowning, but complied. He handed us a packet of brioches, a thoughtful parting gift, and sped off into the distance.
The next part of our trip is a blur. The howling of an owl, shadows of wild swine eyeing us from the other side of the road, Jack eating a brioche, Tom lying down by the side of the road, me singing, Jack beating me with a brioche, me not singing, the howling of an owl. The sound of a car braking, three figures shuffling to their feet in the midnight darkness and then, finally, sinking down in its comfortable seats.
Martin, the driver who saved us from being eaten by baby boars, was a kind soul and a die-hard Rihanna fan. I know that, because for an hour we listened to “Pon de Replay” and “Unfaithful” on repeat. The concert was followed by a hefty portion of McDonald’s, which Martin insisted on paying for, and the evening finished up in a mid-range hotel room. If you only read this paragraph, you could assume I was describing a mediocre first date. Oh, how wrong you would be!
The lavish picnic above is actually the last breakfast of our trip – two stale baguettes, 20p chocolate and a large dose of butter in the lovely French town of Bourges. We ran into more trouble at the hotel, but if you’d like to learn about that you will have to watch the full video above. Cliffhanger, I know – at least I learned something in my high school English classes.
When we got back to London we were exhausted but extremely pleased with ourselves. We’d managed to escape from England for free, raise over £200 for charity and, best of all, we survived it all!
Would you ever willingly subject yourself to a trip like this? What do you think about our adventure? What kind of costume would you wear and what would you bring with you?
This post is part of the “Sunday Traveler” series. If you’d like to check out more articles from other talented bloggers, you can have a read about the Makarska Riviera in Croatia, check out some Instagrams from Iceland or find out more about Seoul.