GOTHENBURG, Sweden – I’d been warned that hitchhiking in Scandinavia would be no picnic. Despite expensive buses and trains, wide roads with plenty of traffic and lots of empty cars it’s simply not in the culture for people to solicit rides from strangers. In Denmark it had been relatively easy to hitchhike with a (partially disassembled) bicycle in tow and that emboldened me to try and make a run up to Oslo and back.
After stashing the bike with some generous CouchSurfing hosts near the southern city of Lund, I began my attempt to work my way up the E6 that connects some of Sweden’s largest cities with Norway’s capital. An early lift with a Swede of Persian extraction gave me a moral boost – but when he left me on a lonely junction with hardly any traffic, that’s when I began to realize it’d be a long haul. There were smiles, shrugs and other gestures from drivers indicating their sympathy but few seemed willing to actually stop to offer a lift. Add to the fact that there’s rarely much shoulder so that when cars would stop they’d nearly cause a four-vehicle pile up.
Eventually after several small lifts to equally quiet junctions I began to lose patience. The coffee and novelty was wearing off and I’d barely made it 100 miles and half the day had passed. Eventually a string of luck – an engineer who said he was developing an economically feasible battery for electric cars, a courier who let me help him deliver hot food to an office in Gothenburg and a Finn who I helped prep for his job interview in Norway, helped me reach Oslo in time for some revelry with friends.
But these friendly faces seemed a rare exception compared to the cold indifference most drivers seemed to give to scruffy vagabonds holding cardboard signs by the roadside. So it was with some trepidation that I set off three days later for the return journey. On the southern edge of Oslo I stood with my “GBG (S)” sign (Gothenburg – Sweden) with what I imagined to be quiet dignity that would make me an attractive passenger in one of the many empty Volvos and Saabs that accelerated onto the highway.
I began to wonder whether a trick of the light had rendered me invisible as most Norwegian motorists didn’t even acknowledge my presence on the onramp to the E6 highway. More than an hour passed with only two offers of lifts going barely 30 kilometers – both of which I’d refused lest I be stuck again on some lonely junction with surly local traffic.
After just shy of 90 minutes and aged Volvo stopped. Its equally aged driver who spoke a clipped English he’d cultivated from several years in the UK told me he was on his way to give a lecture on the Kabbalah. But upon questioning he admitted he couldn’t read Hebrew and my my attempts to pull some of the finer details of these mystical texts led him to change the subject to lighter topics. As it became clear that 5,000 years of mystical tradition and ritual magic wasn’t going to be revealed in the time it took to drive 30km, I went along and talked about the weather.
He left me at a fuel station with a healthy amount of car and truck traffic. A long semi-truck pulled up with a blonde middle-aged woman driver. Female truck drivers aren’t uncommon in Scandinavia, I’d noted. I flashed my sign and was given the sign to climb aboard. The first question was whether I was Polish. This surprised me, but not as much as the fact that the woman was one of only a handful of commercial truck drivers from Poland.
The driver, Barbara, told me in her clear German that she’d been driving for seven years and I was only the second hitcher she’d taken. She said when she read the sign she felt like giving me a ride, even though as a woman alone she’s usually wary of strangers. We covered the usual topics – job, family, traveling, the idiocy of other drivers; she had two sons in their early 20s, one of which drove a truck as well.
At the Swedish frontier we stopped to file paperwork with customs and drink the free coffee. A clerical error delayed us a couple of hours but we finally got it sorted and were back motoring down the road at 80 km/h (50 mph). She kindly dropped me in Gothenburg where a friendly gas station attendant gave me a free map and thorough directions so that I reached my destination with minimal fuss.
Now what was I complaining about again?