Hitchhiking to the Promised Land
and an Introduction to Chicken Rustling

part two of two

Unlike the US where hitchhiking is considered a dangerous and low-brow form of travel, in Europe in the seventies, it was perfectly acceptable and reasonably safe. Even then, as we traveled the scenic coastal road we had our share of dubious encounters. Drivers would stop but they wanted to take Lise Lotte only. She was blonde, with long flowing hair and large blue eyes; it's easy to understand why, less easy to accept. Unleashing a string of Anglo-Saxon invective would cause them to take off with tires squeeling.

When the driver of a truck we were riding in managed to cross the center divider after boasting what a molto buono draivaire he was, we were involved in a head on collision. Driving in the fast lane but in the WRONG direction. All we could do was watch the terrified eyes of the driver of the other car as he desperately tried to stop before impact. Luckily we were safely sitting high up in the cab and escaped unhurt. The other driver evidently also survived. But our driver would have had a lot of explaining to do, including our presence, so we walked away and caught another ride.

We even rode with a self described gangstair who showed us his arsenal of revolvers in his glove compartment; some complete with silencers. The gangstair was going to a casino in Monte Carlo, presumably to spend his blood money. We still had a bottle of duty-free Bacardi with us from the flight and the gangstair bought it from us for a good price. We were glad to have at least some cash in our pockets.

But nobody harmed us or came close to harming us.

The days of being able to stay in inexpensive bed and breakfast places were now a distant memory, and we took to sleeping on the beaches. There were showers and restrooms; we had sleeping bags and the weather was generally benign.
But instead of real rain, local authorities in Nice sprayed the beaches with water cannons mounted on huge trucks. To be woken up at 3 am with a drenching blast from a water cannon was very unpleasant.

As we got to the Italian-French border I was denied entry into France as I did not have a visa. This meant traveling back to Genoa, locating a French Consulate and applying for a visa there. At this point we had no money at all, and the visa fee was about $20 in today's dollars. But we were lucky. An elderly woman paid the fee for us at the consulate when she saw how desperate we were. It was too late to travel to the border that day, so we stayed in the center of Genoa. This was an industrial port town and there were no beaches to sleep on. Somehow we befriended some local street musicians and helped them to make a bit of money by passing a collection plate in restaurants as they strummed their guitars and sang. They shared everything with us equally, but they were clearly dangerous and violence was never far from the surface.

Crossing into France from Italy was rather uneventful. We made our way along the Côte d' Azur coastline; Menton, Monaco, Cannes. We stayed in Cannes for a few days mostly because the beach was nice and clean. Our diet consisted almost exclusively of rottisserie chickens. The French delis, clearly ignoring any health considerations, had a habit of hanging the freshly roasted chickens outside the storefront. Karel the Master Pilferer devised a system to obtain these chickens that was breathtaking in it's simplicity. Wearing a bright colored shirt and a small shoulder bag, I'd mosey up to the chicken rack, grab a chicken and quickly shove it into the shoulder bag. Then I'd briskly walk away, taking off my bright shirt as I was breaking into an effortless run. Within seconds I melted into the crowd of shoppers. Lise Lotte would be waiting for me at a pre-arranged spot. But a steady diet of poultry soon became boring, so some nights we'd find a busy restaurant, have a simple dinner, paella maybe, and then walk out without paying. We had no idea that often it is the server who has to cover the losses.

Gradually we made our way to the French - Spanish border. Through the ancient town of Avignon, through Perpignan and Narbonne to the last town on the French side, Cerbere. There the gentle seaside and sandy beaches gave way to steep cliffs as the Pyrenees met the Mediterranean Sea. The border post was high up on these spectacular cliffs, about 3 miles along a windy mountain road. Again I presented my Czechoslovak passport, and again I was told that I needed a visa to enter Spain. This time, it meant a trip to Paris - several hundred miles to the North. Lise Lotte and I sat dejectedly on the French side trying to figure out what to do when we got into a conversation with a couple of German guys who were evidently waiting for someone and smoking a lot of weed to pass the time. They had a solution to our predicament and another harebrained scheme was quickly hatched.

According to the Germans, all I needed to do was to cross into Spain by climbing over a small hill. The road on the other side apparently hugged the mountain with a tight 180 degree switchback. I waited until dark, around 10 pm, and walked a couple of hundred yards away from the border post then resolutely stepped off the road in preparation to climb the hill into Spain. Instead I fell into a drainage well about 8 feet deep. Bruised and a bit panicked, I managed to climb out and continued scrambling up the hill. As luck would have it, a storm hit about that time and visibility dropped to a few yards. I made it safely to the top of the hill, but I could see nothing; not the road, not the border post below or Port Bou, the first town on the Spanish side. I stumbled down the hill in the darkness and fog tumbling several times, into cacti. I was scared and miserable. I walked for hours through the Pyrenees hills until suddenly street lights appeared below me. It was Port Bou and I was in Spain. At 2 am I found myself in the deserted town square and took stock. First I reached into my back pocket to check my passport – IT WAS GONE! I must have lost it while falling about in the hills. My situation was very grim and I had visions of the Spanish Inquisition and of medieval Spanish prisons. I sat in the dusty town square on a park bench, having no idea what to do next.

Earlier, Lise Lotte attempted to cross the border the legitimate way and told the Spanish border patrol that she was quite happy to walk the few miles into Port Bou. Cavalier and gentlemanly that the Spanish are, they refused to let her through and promised to drive her as soon as their shift ended at 3 am. So Lise Lotte waited wondering what had happened to me.

Meanwhile, I made what I considered an honorable decision. Being without any form of ID in Generalissimo Franco's Spain was not a good idea; I'd walk back the the border post and give myself up. I heaved my backpack and started walking back to France. Along the way, a few cars passed and unbeknownst to me one of them contained Lise Lotte, who saw me but obviously could not ask the Spanish border patrol to stop.

It was early morning when I reached the border post. Using several languages and gestures I tried to explain to the Spanish officers that I crossed into Spain earlier, lost my passport and needed to get back into France. This was a quite a nut for them to crack. They argued among themselves and eventually, with evident frustration, simply pushed me over the line into France. I was not their problem anymore.

On the French side a couple of Gendarmes waited for me, and without further ado locked me up in a small office at the border post. The Gendarmes are a quasi-military force similar to the U.S. State Police. The Gendarmerie Commandant appeared in a few hours and without a word drove me to Cerbere to the Gendarmerie station. In an office that resembled the set from Barney Miller, he attempted to interrogate me. Not an easy task since my French was as nonexistent as his English. Finally we found a language we had in common. He spoke Russian, a language that was compulsory in all Czechoslovak schools.

So there we were, a long haired Czechoslovak emigre bum from Great Britain and a French Gendarmarie Officer chatting together in halting Russian. Communication obstacles overcome, the officer indicated that he would let me go. But there was a limit to his patience. When I told him about Lise Lotte, who's whereabouts were unknown, he read me the riot act:
" Monsieur Kriz, you have no money, you have no job, and you have no place of residence. You are a vagabond, and if you do not leave the Department within 24 hours, I will arrest you." I did not bother to ask on what charge...

I spent the next 24 hours at the border post waiting for Lise Lotte, nursing my wounds and picking cactus needles from my buttocks. She did not appear and I had no idea where she was so I made my way slowly North, to Paris. Paris was impenetrable and I slept for two nights in the park under Sacre Coeur in Montmartre. Times were tough. Eventually I made my way out of Paris and to Calais where some kind soul paid ferry to Dover, England for me, In Dover, Her Majesty's Customs officers kept me for a couple of hours while they confirmed my status with the Home Office. After that I went back to London and another fresh start.

I found out much later what happened to Lise Lotte. She managed to get to our intended destination, Lloret de Mar, some 60 miles down the spanish Coast. There she waited for me in vain with her friends. From there she tried to get back to London. It must have been tough going for a cute Swedish girl all by herself, but she made it as far as Paris where her resolve disintegrated and Lise Lotte went to the Swedish Embassy and asked that they fly her home to Eskilstuna. Without any questions, the embassy staff arranged for her ticket and she flew home the next day.

Nine months later, Lise Lotte was on a ferry from Sweden to England. Her Majesty's Customs stopped her when she disembarked in Harwich. She could not prove that she had any means of financial support. A Customs officer called me at my job, the Great American Success Restaurant (see "The Worst Job I 'Ever 'ad"). After a few questions he determined that, as a lowly cook, I lacked the resources to support her. Customs promptly put her on the ferry back to Sweden. I saw Lise Lotte again some two years later when we met by chance in London. By then I was living another life and we parted amiably. I have not seen her since.

An Important Footnote:
I do not condone criminal activity, not even the petty kind described in this story. In fact I am embarassed by my behavior that cannot be simply excused as youthful stupidity. If there was a way to individually apologize to those businesses we stole from, I would gladly do so. About a year after I returned to the UK, I voluntarily spent a few hours in a Glasgow jail cell after my girlfriend's mother kicked me out and I had nowhere to go. The Glasgow Constabulary kindly offered me the cell for the night. More importantly, these ghastly few hours of incarceration, albeit voluntary, meant that I never commited another criminal act again. And I never will.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions