From the moment he pulled out of the station car park and stormed mistakenly down a one way street, I knew it wouldn’t be an easy ride.
After several hitchhiking experiences on my trip, I had never been so bemused by a travel partner. And little did I know that within this six hour rideshare to Paris I was about to speak the most French I had ever spoken in my life.
Turns out Jean used to speak perfect English, until he suffered a severe stroke five years ago. Since then he has struggled with short term memory retention and his knowledge of English is limited to just a few phrases. Now fully recovered, despite the memory loss, he is so chirpy and positive about every aspect of his life. As we recklessly darted from one lane to the next on the motorway (four hours and counting) he described how certain memories from his childhood would be clear as day, and yet bafflingly, he had managed to forget an entire language. It’s truly bizarre how our brain works. He proudly told me about his family, beaming at the wheel (cue another jolt and traffic dodge). I now know everything about his four children, their occupations, favourite food and holiday plans. I know he was in a band in his twenties and he worshipped Genesis.
And yet, later on in the journey, he would start repeating conversation topics, questions and jokes we had already covered. It was quite subtle at first and mostly I laughed it off as I did with most of my awkward French comprehension. But it made me a little sad, that of course things weren’t all right with him still, and I was ashamed that I couldn’t translate my sympathy and understanding across to him.
Throughout the journey, awkward silences and mumbling vocabulary failures were dissolved in an eclectic soundtrack of Brian Eno, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Corrs, B52s, Genesis, Pink Floyd, and a further mix of obscure seventies prog rock bands that I shamefully did not know the name of. And yet we were rather surprised when we both started humming the words to random tunes like Angélique Kidjo’s Batonga on the radio. Of all the unusual favourite artists to have in common, I wasn’t expecting that. It was moments like this that aided our gradual progression into breaking through the language barrier.
That god damn language barrier. But it’s what I have loved most (despite my complaints) about my time in France and everywhere else. A six hour conversation, fuelled by patience, laughs and a little Google Translate. After an exhausting month at the school, practising every day, it took this final leg of the trip to feel as if I had really made that breakthrough.
Like most long journeys I’m always a little disenchanted when I reach my destination – in this case, it was Porte d’Orléans with a roar and screech of brakes. And later that evening, with my first long haul Blablacar complete, I sat down on my hostel bed, admittedly with some relief. What a cool guy.
This is for you Jean:
For those who haven’t come across it, Blablacar is a great way to get around by ridesharing, a less daring route than hitchhiking. It’s very common and safe, particularly in rural France, and you’re very likely to meet some interesting characters.