Hitching Onto A French Fling

A welcoming smile and curious eyes locked on to me from across the second story living room, the adjacent fan lightly blew her hair astray into the warm night. A half an hour ago I was wandering the Marseille streets unsure if I'd even have a place to stay at all; now I'd become enchanted.

Ophelia had reached out to me some days ago when I'd posted on the hospitality site that I'd be traveling through the city on my way towards Italy. I'd already made my way from London into France down the west to Barcelona; it had taken me a slow couple days to hitch from there to southern France with a little less than a month until visas and flights would dictate that I make my way up to Denmark.

Being that I was only staying for the night she took me back to the streets to show me around the city a bit, landing us eventually at a bar in a sort of alley atmosphere. Her English was good enough to go back and forth, mostly, but there were plenty of laughs on the words she had to look up as we tried to get more complex ideas across.

Ophelia was slender, she had a golden bundle of lengthy hair highlighted with a single dread in the back that one might miss depending on how she styled it at the particular moment. She sipped her beer with peach syrup squirted in so she could tolerate it, we continued bantering back and forth with each other and passerbys in the bar.

Marseille was different than the other French cities I'd been to, it had New York City's gritty side to it set in the steep and narrow streets that was anything but New York. Only a gambler would guess the difference between the homeless, bored, drunk and comfortable.

An inescapably flirtatious night continued back to her apartment; we stayed up fairly late trading videos, translations and sharing the same humor for the bizarre. At last, though, she set up a bed for me in the living room and gave the European cheek-kisses goodnight, leaving me to lie with a wandering mind trying to tire myself out.

As a fairly strict rule I'd avoided engaging with any of my female hosts on Couchsurfing, there have been very few exceptions over the years. As one might expect in a decade of constantly meeting like-minded characters there's bound to be a fling or romance of some kind every once in a while.

The hospitality network is built on trust, yet there's certainly an underlying worry, especially for females, of guys who take advantage of the system to find hook-ups. Perhaps at times I've overcompensated and missed opportunities by intentionally not being "that guy", but leaning in that direction seemed far better than ever crossing the line in the other direction mistakenly.

Ophelia made crepes and coffee in the morning as I debated the best spot to hitchhike eastbound to Nice, feeling somewhat smitten and even reckless for leaving so quickly. This was, however, the pattern of life I'd adhered to for better or best.

She thought for a second and realized that her and her dad were heading east just a bit to go swimming and could give me a ride. She paused another moment thinking, "You want to swim?", she invited.

I didn't hesitate to accept, and soon enough her dad came along and we made the drive to a rocky coastline area they'd swam in before. I spent the afternoon snorkeling around beside them, watching them make deep free dives to the bottom as we encountered bright fish and even an octopus.

We laid on the rocks in the sun afterward; nearly half asleep I felt that butterfly feeling and knew I was completely gone for this girl. This was mentally problematic, particularly since the very next thing I planned to do was hitchhike in the opposite direction where I assumed she'd linger in my mind until the road beat it back out of me with whatever was around the next bend.

Before they dropped me off I remembered about the Hitch Gathering. Every summer in Europe a bunch of hitchhikers would chaotically decide upon a place on the continent and upwards of a hundred people would hitchhike there, camp, share stories and hang out for a few days or even a few weeks.

Coincidentally this year, and now only a week away, it was being held in France just a couple hundred kilometers north of Marseille. Originally I'd thought of going, but was instead being drawn to skip it in favor of getting south into Italy for the first time. Now, suddenly, it seemed like the perfect move again.

I told Ophelia about it, she actually had known about the event as well, so right as I was hopping out of their car I suggested meeting up again and hitching there together. She couldn't have been more excited in the moment; she smiled and waved as they drove away leaving me feeling ripe with anticipation, rather than regret and judicious introspection.

I hitched a half dozen rides to Nice in the blissful wake, meeting my host there I'd already arranged when I'd originally been planning on Italy. Those Italian days would have to be pushed back, cut short or perhaps nixed altogether.

My host in Nice was spiritual, artistic and easy to get into philosophical conversation with. I spent the one full day there wandering through the city and playing on the beach a bit, meeting her and her friends there the second night to play board games with and later get taken around to the older part of the city.

I left the city on foot feeling no hurry, aiming for a town near Toulon (halfway back to Marseille) where I'd stay a night before rendezvousing back with Ophelia. It took me four rides and a bit of toll booth confusion to make the hitch, but well before sunset I was meeting a young couple, again from Couchsurfing, who'd be hosting me for the night.

They turned out to be great; he was from the north of France and she was from a small African island, Mauritius. They cooked up a good dinner and we later went to a remote little beach for beer and dessert. In the morning they took me hiking around some beautiful cliffs and beaches before dropping me off right back in Marseille.

I walked through the streets to find Ophelia nearing the end of her shift at the grocery store where she worked, she beamed at me smiling reminding me why I'd come back. She snuck me a beer that I took to the square to sip on while I waited for her to finish up.

She finally popped up out of nowhere to join me on my park bench a while later, eager to hang out. There were a couple beer bars I'd marked down, she happily kicked along to both with me as I failed to find a single beer she could tolerate. Nobody's perfect, I suppose, but in the days to come I'd be determined to find the one beer the non-beer drinking French girl could enjoy.

Once at her apartment we found ourselves once again on her couch laughing, flirting and flipping between music and translations. I finally hit the breaking point where the only thing to do was clear, a moment arrived and I leaned in and kissed her briefly before pulling back slightly. She kissed me back and we carried on for a minute or less before pulling back again.

"That's all for tonight," she smiled coyly, "I just break up," she asserted, referring to a recent ex-boyfriend.

"Fair enough," I smiled in throws of it. Somehow without an awkward beat we got right back to tossing music back and forth and carrying on just as we had been, only sitting closer now and brushing up on each other a bit more as the night carried on until we were nearly wrapped up together, still laughing and exchanging non-sense.

"What's the opposite of 'strong'?" she asked later, going right along with the informal English lesson that had been taking place since we met.

"Weak," I replied, waiting to see what sentence she was aiming to put together.

"You make me feel weak," she grinned soft and devious, pulling me in to kiss again.

The next day bopped along between her apartment and a run to town for groceries, as well as a friend's to borrow a tent for the gathering. Flirtatious suspense was now replaced with a comfortable bliss between us.

What got me was her similar freestyling approach to travel (when she could between school and working), she also a natural confidence and a humor for both the subtle and outrageous. Without a firm grip each other's native tongue it was all the more striking that we were catching each other's minor jokes, quips and emotions.

A feigned condescending laugh from me was my response to her mispronouncing or misusing an English word, this was part of our playful dynamic. She'd then squint her eyes with a smirking frown as she rephrased her English sentence, then jab back at me for butchering the only dozen French words I knew. I really had no ground to stand on, which is the most entertaining time to try and stand.

She made tarts that night and I tried to counter with the best sandwich I knew how to make to represent the USA in some way: peanut butter, bacon, banana, honey and cinnamon. She feigned disgust before, during and after. Again, nobody's perfect. Side note: legit bacon is not easy to find in France.

The next day was spent lazily and lustfully in the airy euphoria of her dimly lit bedroom as the hours began to slip away; we had to start making moves towards the road before it got away from us altogether.

We walked our way through the city to a spot that wasn't quite ideal for hitchhiking, but still managed to get a ride that at least propelled us out of the metro area and onto the highway where I found a fifty Euro bill on the ground right before we caught the next ride.

Hitching with Ophelia was breezy, it's always nice to have someone to laugh with in between rides and not sweat the waits between. She had a nice camera usually at the ready as well.

"There's no pictures of you," she insisted, "I'll make some."

She'd looked through a bunch of my travel photos and it was true; I see my face whenever I pass by a mirror and rarely think to point a camera at myself, my photographic interests are usually that of scenery and beer documentation.

After the first couple rides we got just a couple more to the exit towards the country town near the gathering, then just one last final ride from a local who took us to the dirt road entrance to the gathering.

We walked in just coming on dark as the big group applauded (standard Hitch Gathering entrance) and we began making some introductions to the dozens of other hitchhikers who'd thumbed their way in for the event as well.

We spent a few days in the sun swimming in the river or sitting by the shore, meeting handfuls of other travelers and swapping stories. A few time there were impromptu circles formed to talk about specific topics, the largest of which was when the girls got together alone to talk about female-specific hitchhiking issues before later inviting the rest of us to join and get their perspective.

The takeaway from that was most agreeing that hitching in a pair posed very few problems, while hitching as a solo female had opinions ranging from no problems, to occasional awkwardness, to frequent awkwardness all the way to those who would never attempt it or at least carry a constant fear along with them due to perceptions or an actual bad experience they had.

After one last morning dipping in the river Ophelia and I made our way through the field back to the road, aiming back for Marseille finally. It took much longer to get back to Marseille than it did getting out, but after a long day and a half dozen rides through town, from toll booths and rest areas we at last made it back to her apartment in the city.

I spent the next day again with her there, reveling in the moments laying next to her in the morning as we plotted out a big meal. That night, using the 50 Euro note I'd found, we cooked up big burgers, duck, reblochon (her favorite cheese) and potatoes to feast together. While out shopping I'd angled us into a beer shop and now had a bottle to pop open that she'd finally like (or at least tolerated). Lindeman's Pecheresse was the winner, a sweet peach lambic.

The next morning Ophelia was up before me to get ready for work, she left with some final kisses and was out the door. An hour later I was out as well, backpack on back, Italy bound and eventually to Denmark perhaps never to see Ophelia again. This was just how it was, how it is. Circumstances being good, great, amazing or sub-par and moving onward was always the outcome.

As I walked out of the city and even as I began catching rides Ophelia remained on my mind; the drag of leaving it behind and the fantasy of traveling with her elsewhere one day down the road and the realization that that may never happen. As it would turn out, another run with her was only a week away.

I indeed made to Italy by nightfall, but this came after long day of different rides and dealing with police a couple times. I even paused in Monaco briefly; I tried to pop into the casino but was told to change my shirt. I did this in the bathroom, but next was told I had to check my backpack so I decided to nix the whole ritzy thing. Monte Carlo seemed to have all the glitz and high-end sleaze of Vegas, but without the charm of the derelict debauchery that made it's Nevada counterpart so entertaining.

I walked out of the city, out of the country back into the darkness of the French road and amazingly caught a ride that dropped me over the border into Italy.

At this time I still wasn't expecting that I'd see Ophelia again, but with just over two weeks until my flight out of Denmark I knew that my time in Italy would be limited to a rush through the northern bit. What I didn't necessarily know is that it would mostly beat me down.

I walked and walked through the night, getting just two hours of sleep on a beach before flashlights and other activity spooked me into continuing to walk. Hitching was slow, relatively, and finding Couchsurfing hosts was proving quite difficult (seemed to be mostly male hosts who only hosted females), although I'd eventually find a homebrewer to stay with in Bologna.

Before Bologna, though, I did my share of walking and camping in strange spots. I passed through Pisa in time to see the tower at sunset, but mostly felt like a spec of tourist dirt blowing through. The better photo I got was pointing away from the leaner and towards the people ignoring the sunset while taking cliches perspective photos of them holding up the tower.

A guy I met at street food cart recognized me, he'd passed me earlier when I was hitchhiking in a full car. He gave me the phone number of his friend in Florence where I arrived the next day. I gave his friend a call who told me he could host me for the night, but after a day of checking out the city and later catching up with him, friends and other travelers for a night of drinking, I eventually found myself at 4am in the city center realizing there'd apparently been a miscommunication and that he wasn't actually able to give me a place to sleep that night.

I made due in the nearby train station playing cat and mouse with the police as I tried different corners to nod off in.

At last I got myself to the homebrewer's place in Bologna where I stayed for a couple days. It was here where Ophelia messaged me with determination to see me once more before I left the continent. We settled on Milan as a rendezvous middle ground before I made the big hitch north to Copenhagen.

Suddenly I was reinvigorated. Rushing through Italy had been giving me a shoddy (and likely unfair) impression of a country where, given more time, I'd likely of sauntered south in with less hurry or worry.

I zipped out of Bologna and spent the next couple days hitching over to Venice for a walk around and looping back west towards Milan with over-urgent excitement. Milan itself was nothing more than a familiar city name and now a dot on the map for me, and really it wouldn't earn much more than that in it's own right by the time I left.

I was on the balcony several stories up when I saw Ophelia approach the building; a little ways south of the city center was where I'd managed to find an inexpensive Airbnb spot. I'd given up on Couchsurfing in Italy, and anyway I wasn't interested in entertaining a host, all we needed was a room to ourselves for a few nights.

After a how-do-you-do we headed on foot to the center, getting drinks and food along a canal I'd been to the night before. I'd actually been in the city a couple days before she arrived, crashing on a bunk in a hostel at night and searching for anything worthwhile during the day. The canal and a few interesting buildings had been it thus far.

The next day in fact we hitched out of Milan a short ways to a nearby town called Pavia on someone's recommendation. We found a rocky beach spot to dip into the cold water and made a day of wandering the little city. Back at the Airbnb the owner's mom usurped our pasta cooking session, we let her take over and plotted what we may do with our last full day together.

More city wandering is what it turned into. While we were fully enjoying each other, we were both settling into the understanding that Milan wasn't exactly an exciting city. There was a fairly large international Expo there at the time we got talked into going to, featuring some culture and food from many countries, but even there we managed a quick lap around and were eager to get out.

The canal seemed to be the place to be, so we found ourselves there once again seeking out a big buffet meal on this last night.

We soaked in our final morning together and at last made our way to the subway station where she'd be going one way to meet up with her ride back to France, I'd be going my way to start the hitch towards Denmark.

I kissed her goodbye and we held a long embrace. I remember feeling acutely aware that there was a strong chance I would never see her again. Despite some idle banter about traveling with each other more extensively at some later point, I was far too aware of how these sorts of these things tend to go.

So I held her, I rubbed her back, brushed her hair, squeezed her sides gently and fully took in the moment, making a conscious effort to internalize every curve of her body and essence of her spirit as if attempting to photograph a lightning strike.

Then, in just such a flash, she was gone and I was going, on around the next bend.

July 28, 2015 to August 20, 2015