My wife and I hitchhiked the roads of Central Europe. We learned more about highway systems, traffic patterns, license plates, and certain gas stations than we’d like to admit. We learned that roads are never straight lines, and hitchhiking is never just the raising of thumbs.

Austria

It’s easier to hitchhike in the western part of the country than in the east. The east has two main hindrances: Vienna, because it’s easy to get in and hard to get out, and Graz, which is surrounded by a 25-mile dead-zone of near un-hitchhikable highway. I don’t know why this is, but having spent too many nights camping in fields and too many hours waiting for cars in Graz’ dead-zones, I’m qualified to judge.

Even though there are more Germans (who won’t stop) than in other Central European countries, many Czechs, Poles, and immigrants (who will stop) travel north and south through Austria. The more friendly type of Austrians head east and west. The best strategy if you don’t want to get stuck in Vienna or sleep in a field near Graz is to hold out for a car that will take you far enough to bypass each. Everyone drives fast, so hitchhiking from gas stations and onramps are the only options.

Czech Republic

Whereas most European countries use letters for cities or regions on license plates in a way that makes immediate sense, Czechs don’t. They say they do, but they don’t. The license plate letter for Prague is ‘A’, sometimes ‘S’, and sometimes ‘A’ or ‘S’ followed by another letter. Confusing.

Fortunately, whoever came up with this system didn’t get the privilege of naming the highways — simply the ‘1’, the ‘2’, the ‘5’, ‘8’, and ‘11’ — and all roads lead to Prague or away from it (depending on where you’re going). As Croatia has become a favorite summer destination for Czechs and Poles, this travel corridor — through Czech, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, and into Croatia – has likewise become a main route for hitchhikers.

Slovakia

Bratislava — license plate ‘BA’ and ‘BL’ (easy, yeah?) — is home to all the Slovaks who don’t pick up hitchhikers. The remainder of the country holds those who do. Fortunately, one of the main highways in Central Europe runs through Bratislava and non-Slovaks and nice Slovaks are very willing to pick up hitchhikers. Even though hitchhiking directly from the highway is easy (and necessary in much of the country), Slovak police are evil and will fine you.

Because Bratislava is the central crossroads of Central Europe, it’s a great spot for getting anywhere in the region. If hitchhiking from a gas station, profile potential drivers according to license plates (even Czechs return to the Czech Republic regardless of their lousy plate system). You’ll know who’s going to Budapest because the license plate tells you, and all that’s left is for you to ask and for the driver to say yes. Easy.

Hungary

Of Hungary I know the least. I do know that if you’re going to Budapest, best to get a ride with someone going into the city. If they’re Romanian, Serbian, Bulgarian, or Turkish, they will likely take the bypass around the city, which does you no good.

Within Hungary you get into the realm of ethnicities that may ask you to pay for rides (Romanians, some Hungarians). Don’t pay. As soon as you do you’re no longer hitchhiking. Another driver, maybe the next one or the one after that, will stop and won’t misunderstand life enough to ask for money.

Hungary is beautiful and still as cheap as one would hope for in Central Europe. Its highways run through oceans of sunflower fields in the summer (though I’m not sure what oceans in the other months). Plus, if you’re even slightly Hungarian, you can easily get citizenship along with all its EU travel and residency perks.

Slovenia

Everything in Slovenia is close to everything else, and it has a good highway system. This is a plus. The minus is that you’ll have the same conversation with every driver about how Slovenians used to hitchhike, but don’t anymore because of cheap car-sharing services; how the Slovenian government is the worst thing ever; and how Slovenia is the best thing ever. After these three introductory topics, the conversation does open up. Also, because of a very wise move to unsynchronize television and use subtitles in the early ‘90s, the younger generation watched way too much Cartoon Network and speaks English. Very convenient for me.

Poland

Poland has too many roads. Any one destination can by reached by four or five equally good routes. This makes for more abstract hitchhiking. It also means it’s nearly impossible to get lost. Say you’re heading towards Krakow from the Czech border. You get offered a ride to Katowice, which is slightly out of the way, but you take it, not because you will be any closer to Krakow, but because it gets you closer to a number of options that are better than the ones you have at the Czech-Polish border.

As a general rule, the inhabitants of any given place are worse at geography than you’d expect. In Poland, it doesn’t matter if a driver knows how to get where you’re going as long as it’s in the general direction; disregard the advice of other hitchhikers and even www.hitchwiki.org, the web’s best source on hitchhiking, and simply keep moving. There are more than enough roads, so be persistent and you’ll get to Krakow.

Retrospection and general tips for success

Hitchhikers ask and answer one question: “How do we get a car to stop?” We ask as if we actually have the power to make a car stop. Some use signs, others use thumbs, and others accost people at gas stations. (I avoid the first, love the second, and accept the third). Some small things help — such as smiling, dressing like a normal person, hitchhiking as a couple, standing at a spot with lots of room to pull over, etc. — but these are about as much as we can do. People aren’t driving along hoping they’ll get to stop for hitchhikers.

Only once we’re in a car or truck can we state without a doubt that the person who stopped is the type of person who stops to pick up hitchhikers. After all, we’ve never been picked up by someone who doesn’t pick up hitchhikers. And we’ve never been picked up by anyone who didn’t allow us, even if it’s only in the smallest of ways, to take part in the story of their lives. As hitchhikers, all we can do is stick out our thumbs, feel the music of cars passing, and know that no matter how many cars pick us up, we’ll always come back to the road again.

This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program.

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