Publicity Stunt

By Richard Barr

Reading time 5 mins

It had been 4 hours now in that one spot and we were starting to wonder if we were going to be stranded here forever with our thumbs pointed toward the sky. Maybe we would become local celebrities and some 14-year-old would create a Facebook page dedicated to us featuring blurry images ripped from Google Streetview.

It was Easter 2013, and my friend Martin and I had decided to spend the holiday hitch-hiking across the continent to visit a friend in Berlin. So far we’d made it to the beautiful French town of Lille, and we were now hoping to get a lift over to Belgium.

We had started the day in high spirits, but it seemed that luck was not on our side that day, and it was late afternoon by the time our ride showed up. It’s always a strange feeling when a car does finally stop for you after you’ve been waiting for a really long time: a mixture of relief, excitement and apprehension. But something felt different about this one.

For a start, there was the vehicle itself. Our rides so far had been cute little Nissans with manual wind-up windows and biscuit crumbs in the seats, or nondescript silver estates, chosen for their modest fuel consumption by the polite Dads who would pick us up to liven up the long commute. This one was a fancy BMW with a matte black finish and wheels with little stripes of blue inside the rims.

Two men hopped out, which was also weird – this was the first time we’d been picked up by more than one person. After all, the main incentive for the drivers usually seemed to be boredom. If you’re already riding with a friend, why bother picking up strangers? One of them was wearing a pair of aviators and alot of hair gel, the other a skin-tight black V-Neck with the words EMPORIO ARMANI stretching from one nipple to the other. They didn’t seem all that friendly, barely introducing themselves before grabbing our stuff with their (admittedly impressive) arms and unceremoniously dunking it in the boot.

We had obviously talked about the risks we were taking every time we got into a stranger’s car, but we shared the same hunch that the perceived dangers of hitch-hiking were just wild exaggerations, and that behind the urban myths were thousands of unremarkable rides shared by normal people. Our decision to do this trip was partly a way to test that hunch, to put our trust in the great general public of Europe. I caught Martin’s eye and I could tell he was also feeling weird about the situation, but we weren’t about to turn down our only chance of getting away before nightfall. So we clambered onto the deluxe back-seats and took in the new-car smell mixed with Calvin Klein aftershave.

The driver wasted no time getting back on the road and the two men muttered to each other in a language I didn’t understand. I wondered what the rush was all about, but I relaxed when the passenger eventually turned to us and introduced himself with a smile. After a brief exchange he started grabbing at the little box above our heads where they put the light-switches and pulled out a small plastic bag. A new aroma permeated the air and the guy giggled as he held out his hand. “Smoke weed?” We laughed nervously as he began rolling a joint. Martin seemed pleased with this development. I was starting to wonder what I had got myself into. Would it be rude to not smoke this man’s weed? The guys asked us more questions in broken English while Martin happily smoked out of the window. Maybe I just needed to chill. Maybe this was the last car I would ever sit in. Only time would tell

A few minutes later we pulled into a service station. This was another first – none of our lifts so far had involved any breaks, and we’d only been on the road for ten minutes. The men headed into the shop to get cigarettes and Red Bull. At the till, the driver casually peeled off notes from a big roll of cash. I noticed Martin watching this and looking slightly pale. Then they got back into the car on opposite sides, which seemed pretty bizarre. I was about to make a joke when I realized they were bowing their heads in prayer.

The driver accelerated as we rejoined the motorway. And then he kept accelerating. We were now going very, very fast. I was squinting, trying to make out the speed on the dashboard. We were weaving in and out of cars at such speed that the other cars look like they’re barely moving. We overtook a lorry by steering into the exit lane and then swerving back onto the motorway just in time. We were cheerfully instructed to “look out for police!”

If I was apprehensive before, I don’t know what to feel now. The driver kept taking one hand off the wheel to sip from his can of Red Bull. At least now it was all starting to make sense: the swapping seats, the praying. I was reminded of a documentary I’d seen about some guys in Spain who dive off huge cliffs for money, and always go to a special booth to pray before they jump because there is a strong possibility that they might die.

The one riding shotgun turned around to ask us if we know Fast and Furious. Yes, we know Fast and Furious. He grinned and started pointing to his friend, exclaiming that he was a driver in the Fast and Furious movies. Of course he was. I mean, this dude is an actual nutcase and insanely good at driving. Why would he not drive cars in a multi-million dollar action movie franchise?

The two of them are loving this. They clearly do this every day, and it must get boring. Now they have a captive audience of two skinny English boys to impress and terrify.

Eventually we came into some traffic, but we barely slowed down. Instead we were aggressively running up behind other cars, forcing them to speed up. If they didn’t our man would find impossibly tiny gaps and squeeze around them. Every time he did this I would wince and close my eyes, bracing my body for the inevitable impact. Miraculously it never came. Every other car on the road hated us. But this guy was a total genius. He was transcending the laws of physics through sheer skill and an irrational, but deeply felt, desire to never, ever slow down.

At last we pulled into another service station. By now the atmosphere between the four of us was one of camaraderie and elation. I was relieved that the ordeal seemed to finally be over and buzzing from the adrenaline. I’d been too busy fearing for my life to think about how much distance we’d covered, but I would soon learn that we’d made it to Brussels, 120km from Lille, in half an hour.

Our death-defying friends wished us well on our onward journey. As we said our goodbyes, they urged us to spread the word about what we’d witnessed that day. They were really adamant about this and repeated it several times. As survivors it was our duty to cement the myth and legend of the fastest hitch-hiking ride in European history. I gave them my word.

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