It wasn't until I watched the sun set in Scotland that I began to rethink my idea of hitch hiking across the United Kingdom. Days ago, down in London I had first stood by an on-ramp hoping to catch a ride. I was an American studying abroad and I had decided to spend my winter break exploring.
What followed was a succession of beautiful days. The weather was excellent-mild for December and clear, and the drivers had all been friendly and responsible. I had a clipboard, thick sheets of paper and a black marker. I can still remember the thrill I felt writing "THE STONES," making each letter big and bold. A little later and without much strain on my patience, I was marveling at Stonehenge.
But now it seemed as if my luck had changed. The last lift I had gotten was from a retired philosophy professor. He smoked a pipe, was hard of hearing, and liked to blast his Beethoven while he warned me not to get overly enamored with the mystical Germans-Kant and Hegel.
He loved the English countryside and acted as if he was doing me a favor when he suddenly pulled over as we approached a roundabout in the middle of nowhere. Then he explained that he was going to Glasgow and that if I wanted to continue north I would need to stand on the other side, where a road peeled off only to vanish into a rise of hills.
That had been hours ago. Now it was dark and as it was December it was starting to get cold. I had a backpack with a bed roll and a sheet. For the first time I regretted having not packed a tent. While it was still light I could not see a building in any direction. There were not even signs indicating roads or destinations.
Soon I had on every stitch of clothes I had brought. It was not that cars were not stopping. It was that there were no cars. Suddenly I found myself furious at my stupid plan to rely on the kindness of strangers. Since when did I see myself as a care free hobo? I knew the answer. Though it was the time of Reagan and Thatcher, my fellow English students had turned out to be fascinated with the idea of America as the land of Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead. To them the USA was still the place where people said things like "far out" and "groovy" and I-the wannabe writer who came to University College London to study English Literature-had fallen into their fantasy, only to end up now a bad parody of Jack Kerouac about to freeze to
death on some abandoned stretch of Scottish road.
As the cold settled in my body, I grew philosophical and amused myself with the question, "If I hitch hiker sleeps beside the road and no one sees him does he really exist?" Just then a small sedan pulled to a halt and a guy jumped out and warmly asked me to hop in the back seat.
A few moments later I was warm in the back of a car. Inexplicably I was suddenly thrown into a bout of pure anxiety. For the first time I was riding with two men. And then there was the story I was hearing. Apparently they were brothers, one had just finished his hitch in the Royal Marines and the other, the driver, had collected him and together they were heading to the little Scottish village they were from in order to surprise their parents. It was Christmas Eve!
As a Jew I had somehow forgotten this fact. In hindsight it explains why there was no traffic. But I was suspicious. Two brothers . . . out on a dark road on Christmas Eve . . . it was already dinner time.
Suddenly my fortune now seemed a little too good to be true. I found myself making up a story about needing to meet a friend in Edinburgh. The brothers listened and suddenly it seemed to them a lovely idea to drive in together in the morning and look at Edinburgh decorated for the New Year. No, they said, without talk between themselves, it was settled-I was spending Christmas with them at their parents'.
In life we often resist the most interesting experiences. Suddenly I was convinced that I was about to find myself in the midst of a bad horror movie. But when the door of the small house opened and I saw their parents clasp their hands in joy, I knew it was I who had almost wrecked what was about to become one of my most cherished memories.
In Scotland, they still honor the tradition of welcoming strangers at the holidays. They call it "first footers." Hosting a stranger is said to bring good luck. That night I learned that in the small villages of Scotland, Christmas is still celebrated as a very intimate affair. The big communal celebration is New Year. Christmas is a time of private celebration.
We sat at the table and while I listened to the story of what it was like to come ashore during the invasion of the Falklands we had freshly cooked carrot and orange soup. I had never had it before. I thought it delicious, much to the amusement of "Mum." It was as if I had marveled over saltines. It was comfort food for them, much as I enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a treat that struck them as strangely American. She apologized for not having made more food. Her boys had truly surprised her and she had only prepared a small roasted turkey for herself and her husband.
She was being modest. There was plenty for all. I kept having to assure her that even though I was Jewish I was happy to eat her food. You often hear people announce that Scots can't cook and that is why they push the liquor on you. This is not true. The food is not heavily seasoned, and it is simple with basic meats and vegetables central to most dishes. Such food can be wonderful, a true reflection of what is best in people. I can still remember carefully cutting that turkey and enjoying each bite, while I sat and talked in a town I could not tell you the name of, even if my life depended on it. The next morning I rode in with the whole family and after looking at the lights, they dropped me off and I have never seen them again. All I can hope is that I-a true first footer-brought them good luck for the new year, 1987.
–Matthew Biberman is a professor of English at the University of Louisville. His memoir, Big Sid's Vincati: A Father, A Son, and the Motorcycle of a Lifetime, was published by NAL (Penguin Group USA) in 2009.
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Causes Matthew Biberman Supports