The Worst Day of My Life...
The Worst Day of My Life...
Author: Bernd Wechner
Published on: July 1, 1998
What follows is an uncharacteristically lengthy piece for Suite 101, but I feel compelled to stretch the column a little this month on account of a story begging to be told. It is riddled with so many of the themes that bind this corner. One of its central themes is fatigue, and of course it can't help but be a little long, on account of that alone, to mention nothing of the array of events that come together to convey such feelings and provoke such thoughts as they must. If the casual reader should prefer a shorter piece, I'm sure there are back articles as yet unread.
Let the story unfold ....
The worst day of my life started rather innocently, with a hint of suspense and challenge in the air. I'd just spent a long week-end in Hamburg with my partner, sorted a few things out, shed a few tears, and was due back in Geneva on the morrow to start work again.
The week before I'd been in Stuttgart on a business trip, had hitched north in my business suit, and now had a return flight from Stuttgart to Geneva in my hand. It was cheaper at the time to buy return than one way, so it was kind of gratis. Still it conjured romantic images in my mind somehow, to think of hitching from Hamburg to Stuttgart just in time for my six o'clock flight, so that's what I set out to do.
I was already running a little late for comfort by the time we drove past the big sign on the A7 that said Stuttgart. There were two ways from he A7 to Stuttgart, one over the A3, the other over the A6, and I'd just missed the sign-posted route having gambled on the other. We pulled in to the last services before the A6. Things were about to get interesting.
I asked around politely but no one was turning onto the A6, they were all carrying right on through towards Munich or the Alps. No one, that is except for the odd businessman. But every single last one (headed for Stuttgart as often as not) couldn't take me along for insurance reasons - or so the story rang.
For seven years I'd been riding with businessmen that didn't give a flying f*%k about the insurance rules, but today I had to find the longest run of them I'd ever likely encounter. Every single one of them, going to Stuttgart, expressed the deepest desire to take me along, but an insurance prohibition. Needless to say I saw my flight pass away without me and was committed to the hitch all the way to Geneva as a result.
I was loaded with a little too much luggage, an extra bag on top of what I normally carry, full of computer gear and other heavy professional stuff and personal belongings. It was a pain to carry so I set it down somewhere where I could keep an eye on it while I continued my attempts to find a driver turning onto the A6 - to Switzerland now, not Stuttgart. I was carried away a while chatting to an Englishman with car troubles, and sometime drew my eye back to my second bag. It was gone!
The words that ran through my mind were caustic, as was the blood that pulsed through my veins, the hormones that charged it, the pounding of my heart, the internal systems screaming with a pain, a disbelief, all those incredible feelings that strike you down when you're at your weakest and have just lost many thousands of dollars of professional equipment, personal gear, irreplaceable data, photos, gifts, on your first professional trip for a new company and the imminent need to explain to the boss "well - I was hitching home from ... when ... I was so f*%king stupid to put my bag down and ...." Real professional. The blood was burning inside of me, drumming the message home.
I'd been on the road for the better part of seven years. I'd heard all the stories, met countless people robbed of their every belonging as they slept or stood next to them, or were chained to them, all to their dumbfounded disbelief. But it had never hit me, and I'd got lax, too lax, far too lax!
Here I was, seven at night, had to work at eight in the morning, some 600 kilometres to hitch, faced with a corner no-one would take, having lost everything but my clothes, papers and money ("at least that," you say? believe me, it was small consolation, I didn't even have any German marks on me).
To spend hundreds of words here trying to get across the pain of this situation would be to waste them; things were to sink some yet. I ultimately saw a car from Kirchberg in Austria, which is behind Bregenz, which wasn't on my way at all, but I could conceivably hitch from Bregenz to Geneva, the full length of Switzerland. It was worth a try. I'd been here three hours already and things weren't getting any better looking at the hollow spot where my bag was. The blood in my veins had turned to numbing me with resignation ... I had trouble feeling anything anymore.
I laid the deal on the driver and his partner. I'd be tempted to come along, but only, I repeat only, if they can put me somewhere sensible in Bregenz. The border crossing maybe, the St. Margarethen services five or ten kilometres across the border into Switzerland, but not in town, not on the motorway whizzing by on the Austrian side of town. Attuned to my pitiful condition and demeanour he said "sure, come along ..."
The guy gets sick on the way, with something he's not describing and I'm not probing into. His wife takes the wheel, and they get to Bregenz and dump me in the middle of town!
"Where's the border?"
"About 8 km down there," pointing to the left.
It was after eleven at night now and I had barely the energy or emotion left in me to slide out onto the street without a complaint and a pleasant "thanks for the trouble" smile ... picking myself up out of the gutter I waved a senseless thumb at all the local traffic passing these lights in the direction of that border, a mere two hours walk away in my condition. I might have shed a tear at the thought of it all if my heart weren't full of numb and possibly still murderous intent towards the thief with my bag and the need to explain it all in about nine hours time. I'd been hitching 14 hours already and had still a good 300 km to cover from a suburban road in Bregenz in the pitch of the night.
I gave up and walked. I scratched "CH" on a scrap piece of card and walked waving it at passing traffic. I must have made it half way to the border, not more, before a car actually pulls up! There are angels!
He was an ex-hitcher on his way home from Munich to near Zurich. He knew the perfect place to drop me, he knew this road and the traffic conditions like the back of his hand and there was this one service station, not the last one before his turnoff, a bit earlier, but it was the one with traffic. He figured no one else was going to stop for me at this time and he knew what it was like (ex-hitchers do, active hitchers even more so!).
On the way we saw as many cars as a hand has fingers. No threat of a traffic jam anyhows.
He pulled into the services. They were dead. So dead you wouldn't believe you were in a civilised country. Not a car in sight and barely enough light read the prices on the bowsers by. He just couldn't do that to me so he drove on out and figured he'd have to drop me at the last services before his turn off. "It's just too late," he mutters all the way, "it's just not a good time to be crossing Switzerland by thumb. Just too late." Mutter, mutter, mutter.
Next services, same story. He was torn. He really cared. There wasn't so much as the smell of a recently passed car here, let alone anything on wheels. But he wasn't going any further. Man, was I an obvious thorn in his side, or what? See what happens when you try to help someone out? You get wrapped in their problems!
I said, "Don't worry about it man, don't make my problems yours, I'm glad you got me here, it's no worse than some dumpy suburban road in Bregenz!" But no, he couldn't do it to me. He decided to carry on and try the next services.
Same story. He mulled over the problem again. He wouldn't let it go. Ideas flowed. But he couldn't do this to me! I repeated, "Don't worry about it man, don't make my problems yours, I'm glad you got me here, it's no worse than some dumpy suburban road in Bregenz!" But no, he couldn't do it to me. He decided to carry on and try the next services.
Same story. Repeat scene.
He's taking a sizeable detour now, but isn't completely off his route yet. He's gotta be home by midnight, his wife was expecting him. Then he remembers an all night services just this side of Zurich! "That'll do the trick, you'll get a ride from there!"
Well, there were cars here! It was happening! We parted ways, I, eternally grateful in my dry mood of baglessness and impending professional doomsdayness, he, quietly grateful to be rid of my problems.
It looked good. But it wasn't all milk and honey. Firstly, the cafe which was open was on the wrong side of the motorway, headed back my way. To be sure cars going my way could pull in, over a bridge, we did, but it wasn't all that likely. To add to the joy it started raining buckets, and I without umbrella (in a bag I lost!) was trapped in the restaurant marvelling at its convenient construction.
There was an entry with no awning or eaves. Step out the door and you're getting wet. So why step out the door? Because it's a summery night and the dolts in this restaurant think they're running a sauna. So I stand inside till you're swimming in sweat, step out for a shower, in again to drip dry and sweat, out again to shower, all the while asking passers-by if they're not happening my way ... Look at the bright side, I still had seven or eight hours before I had to work (who needs sleep ?) and I didn't have to carry around an over heavy bag while moving in and out after all!
Take a train? We thought about it. The people were great. I mean there was a share of wonder at my situation, but a lot of people had time to hear it out and talk options. But they were all going the other way, all of them that is except those heading into Zurich! Not much good to me unless there's a train, and no-one seems to think there will be at this time of night. One guy even phones the station for info, but they've shut down! Standing at a shut station, with rain pissing all round and no train to get me to Geneva before 8 a.m. wasn't a very useful option really, in spite of its attraction somehow.
I get an umbrella as a consolation prize from someone who cared a lot but was going the other way, like most everyone.
Another hitcher turns up! Egads! He's come from Lyon. An Austrian fellow headed home to Vienna. We were crossing paths, and he was on the right side of the road. Everyone I'd asked was going his way. Still he couldn't find anyone going his way ... told me they were all going my way? One of us was doing something badly wrong. No one parked their car or walked past without us seeing it. There were cars, but I wouldn't have based a collection on the holdings here. I never did work our paradox out, as far as I could tell everyone was going his way in the direction of Vienna, as far as this other guy could tell they were all going in the direction of Geneva.
We got to talking with a Polish guy who was waiting for a friend driving in from Poland to give him a ride into Zurich. Something of an odd, organised hitch if ever I'd seen one. He'd been waiting there for hours as I had, we saw one another as I arrived. It seemed all the hitchers in Switzerland were uniting at this one services after midnight ...
Ah, at least it was warm, and in time it stopped raining. I walked over the bridge to the bowsers on my side of the road, but it wasn't a happening scene really. Traffic zero, would be one way of putting it. A car did pass, though, with Solothurn plates! The other side of Zurich and then some! He pulled into the restaurant. I trundled the 500 metres back to the restaurant, over the bridge and down the hill. He was already eating, drinking, pissing or whatever he'd stopped for by the time I got there because the car was parked and empty.
I was chatting to the Viennese hitcher when he came out and went to the car. I approached him politely and asked if I might pose a question. I'd been doing this all night after all. He grunts "No," turns, hastily gets in and drives off! The one guy to pass my way has to be the rudest son of bitch I'd met all night. My mind cast back to where I lost my bag, and all those businessmen going my way and no-one else. Someone up there had decided this was my day. I wasn't capable of much emotion anymore, but if I had been they wouldn't have been constructive at this stage. Might have been the kind of emotions that drive people to throw bricks through windscreens. Good thing I wasn't feeling them, would have been one more internal battle to cope with. Everything has its benefits I guess, even numbness. The three of us end up talking to a security guard that keeps chasing cars out of the disabled zone, probably to pass the time. A small truck pulls in, a friend of the guard’s it seems, they hoe into their best Swiss German and the guard says to me "now if my friend here were headed out to St. Gallen, he'd be happy to take you." "But I'm not going to St. Gallen, just come from there," I correct him, "I'm headed for Geneva".
Ha! It was 1 a.m. and I had a ride the 20 kilometres to the other side of Zurich. Things were looking rosy after all (read with irony). Well, there was a big services on the other side of town, which I was sure was also open all night and drew good traffic, traffic coming out of Zurich in my direction, not the other one! So it was a definite leap forwards, if only 20 kilometres in space.
This truckie drives like lightning, taking freeway bends at speeds leaving me with dire concerns for my life. Ordinarily I weather this kind of driving quite well with thoughts like "He drives like this all the time I'm sure, and he's not going to get us both killed just today." Today, though, I was thinking something more like "If I'm going to get killed on the road in someone else's car, then tonight was the night, the one last thing the heavens could throw at me."
We pull in. Oops, if ever I was ever mistaken, this was it. Granted it was a huge services, but it was as dead as any I'd ever seen. Not a car to be seen. Nothing doing. My driver has a delivery at the next exit. We look at one another, and gulp, "shit." I thank him for trying, and he wishes me all the best.
It's raining again (though I have an umbrella now) and in spite of the summery air there's a cold wind screaming through these services on account of a huge bridge full of shops which channels the wind under it - a veritable wind tunnel. I was doomed to stand behind a bowser for shelter. I put on what clothes I had, including my only jacket, rather formal for this time of night in a wind blown deserted petrol station on the outskirts of Zurich.
Time passed, and I moved to the motorway to try and flag something down. There was after all only one car passing every minute or so, and if all I stopped were a police car, I'd have stopped something.
A car with Bernese plates pulled in for gas. Was pulling out at the next exit. Another. same story. One or two pulled in and drove on through. Maybe, in spite of my business suit, or because of it, a lonely stranger walking around a deserted services in the rain at 3 a.m. frightens people?
A bus pulls in. It was from Prague, full of Czechs. I'd had wonderful times with Czechs before. They'd squeezed me into already completely full cars at the joy of helping a stranger. But today was after all the worst day of my life, and if you're not tired by the account of events thus far, believe me, I was ... No room, all full, not even a little floor space, baggage space, whatever, nothing, zippo, zilch, and they were passing Geneva too.
Had the Czechs changed with the influx of the West? No doubt, but today was just the right day to meet the meanest Czechs around anyway, so this wasn't telling much. Everyone else headed my way was the meanest I’d met in a long while. The friendly folk were all going the other way, all day and night thus far. Well, I figured around 5 a.m., in another two hours (having stood here two already) traffic should pick up a little again. That should leave me with just about enough time to get to work and fall dead on the floor. That'd save me needing to explain much in a hurry anyways, they could just marvel at my comatose body on the floor of the office.
I'm thrown out of my melancholic dreams by a car that pulls in, not to fill up, but at my very toes. The window winds down, and who should it be but the truckie that put me here!
"Went home, swapped cars," he said.
"What, where you off to now?" I ask.
"Bern, as far as I care."
"What? On my account?" I offer, puzzled.
"Hop on in!"
So I get in, and we drive to Bern, a mere 100 kilometres towards Geneva. On the way he asks me "how far's Geneva actually?" Just another 160-odd kilometres behind Bern. We come up to the Grauholz services just out of Bern, where I was expecting to get out, and he says "let's just keep going a straight." Grauholz was as dead as all the others ...
His driving hadn't got any better, but we were both living, and he clearly enjoyed the driving. He brought me all the way to my front door in Geneva. It was after 5 in the morning, not much point in sleeping, hadn't eaten two baguettes all day, felt sick, tired, and hollow through, so I invited him in for a beer. What else?
In spite of what AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) will tell you, alcohol does help. I know it. Don't let them tell you otherwise. The trick is in keeping in control of it, and not vice versa, but abstinence is no friend of mine, and at times like these it fills your blood with a sweet forgetting that soothes the soul.
Thomas, my new-found friend, was an Angel that walked in on hell. He drove the almost 300 kilometres back home, alone. To be sure, he enjoyed the driving, he was on night shift and wide awake, but it wasn't without some thought towards a wretched soul in distress that he came to share a beer in my room.
I slept some two hours perhaps and went in to work, to face the music. They took it well. It wasn't the first time something was stolen. Sure I was stupid, and some others hurt at the lost data, the lost mobile, the lost computer, and I had to weave around the specifics of the situation a little for the uninitiated (I wasn't about to menthing the hitch). But I survived. I cancelled the mobile, I reported the insurance details and was just about to file a police report with the German police, when the phone rang.
A guy from Germany. He had my bag! And everything was in it!
If I'd been capable of an emotion after this roller coaster ride, it might have been joy at his stage. As it was, what was there stirred a little in the direction of "better."
It turns out that Amin had pulled in for petrol and seen this bag, seemingly unattended. I was no ten metres away talking to an Englishman, but Amin wasn't thinking "hitch-hiker," he was thinking someone had forgotten it. He was torn for a plan of action, but decided it best to take it along on his motorbike, lest someone steal it. He got my number from the bag, phoned and offered to mail it over.
What was a few hours ago at about 3 a.m. the worst day of my hitching life, and a strong contender for worst day ever (I scan my mind and find no equally strong contenders, though acknowledge the eroding effect of time on the strength of emotion) became one of the better ones.
It was a story that needed telling. It needs no commentary, and will bring different people to different conclusions, will bring them to different feelings, but I expect it will bring most of us to think in some way about what it all could mean. Even, I dare say, if those conclusions pay no real justice to the depth of pain genuinely felt from about 5 p.m. to 3 a.m. with no hint of the future as it would prove to be.
I had never in my life been driven over 250 kilometres by an angel out to lend a hand, never in my life had my luggage stolen, and then from a misguided angel out to protect, and then both hit me on one day, the same day that was the worst day of my life ... Food for thought.
July 1, 1998