June 19, 2012: Aachen
Only the street juggler with the Polish name is awake as I prepare to leave the forest squat this morning. We having some coffee and bread together by the fire. “Your leaving”, he says upon noticing my backpack resting on a nearby table. He offers a hug with sad eyes, saying he’ll stay here till August then go on a bicycle tour with a group of jugglers, which is how he makes his living.
The nearest big city that seems likely to have passport services is Brussels, some couple hundred kilometers to the east. I walk out of the woods and back onto the highways for some hours as the sky gets slowly darker. Mist is just starting to fall when a train station appears. No longer do I have any reservations about riding the trains for free. What can they do? And my excuse is the best….no money and rain. Even if the police were called, the most that would happen is a checking of my passport.
Germany is a strange state indeed when it comes to the police, invading privacy without just cause, but never using handcuffs or holding anyone for more than an hour or two unless they absolutely have to. If this were New Orleans and and a foreigner with no money was caught on public transportation they would have a mandatory jail sentence of 30 days for trespassing. I once met someone there who was thrown in jail for plugging a cell phone into a power outlet by a sidewalk, charged with “larceny”, and many people who spent a month in jail just for being caught asleep on the street. And by all accounts the New Orleans jail is like that of a third-world country, with broken windows covered by blankets and numerous beatings by guards. The jail in Cologne was ultra relaxed with big windows in the cell.
But let’s keep something in mind…..when police deal with an American tourist abroad who protests invasion of privacy and profiling, it is no excuse to say, “Well you do that in your country every day.” No I don’t do anything. Never assume that the average American or the average Whateverican supports the policies of the Corporatocacies and Defacto Dictatorships that they just so happen to come from. Nobody had a choice where they were born.
Mostly all of us, Americans or otherwise, love the actual physical landscapes and familiar cultures that we came from, but we hate what our nation states have become. If we’re to have hope for the future it is necessary to move beyond this “Well in your country…..” attitude, and to see ourselves as One Human Race. If there is a long-term future then it will not be one of nation states nor will it be One World Government. Both ideas are doomed with total implosion.
In less than an hour the train arrives to Aachen, a big border city with a huge cathedral on a hill at the center. The tourist district is swarming with thousands of people consuming all types of wonderful smelling food that I can’t have. The three cans I collected 4 days ago are still in my bag, enough for a single loaf of cheap bread. The grocery store is so small that it doesn’t have an automated machine to process the recyclables, instead just throwing them in huge boxes at the front of the store. My whole bread loaf is consumed shortly.
The rain has stopped for now. I pursue a big downtown green spot on the map, looking for a campsite. It’s actually a steep hill, both complicating the search and simplifying it at the same time. Let me explain…..flat downtown parks in big cities are nice because it’s easy to walk around and search for a hidden spot to lay down, but you have to search for a very long time because there are few hidden spots. Steep hilly downtown parks are a pain to search, and it’s hard to sleep on uneven surfaces, but you are likely to find many more hidden spots than in a flat park. If you’re going to be homeless for an extended period of time in a city with a hilly downtown park then you can develop yourself a very convenient little piece of real estate. This is what Sarah and did last year at Elysian Park in Los Angeles. (photo). But be careful, some metropolitan parks are full of used condoms.
Tonight my spot is not so terribly uneven and there’s a soft layer of ivy, but a light steady mist returns sometime shortly after midnight. I move the tarp from underneath me to on top, hoping for no downpour.
June 20, 2012: Netherlands AND Belgium
My sleeping bag’s name is Samuel L. Jackson for no particular reason. The title of my first book may be “My Sleeping Bag Has a Name”. As for the names of future sleeping bags, I’m considering using the US National Weather Service’s hurricane naming system, starting with the letter “T”.
The continued mist gets me up earlier than usual. Ground under the trees is still perfectly dry, but Sam was getting slowly soaked with no leaf cover directly above. At the top of the hill is a lawn containing a dozen great pillars and a baptism pool. Near the pool is a chest-high water basin where a faucet perpetually drips. A big sign underneath the basin states many words I don’t understand and two that are familiar, “Hounde” and “wasser”, dog water.
Thinking that it must be tap water coming out of the pipe, I let my bottles slowly fill under the drip. It’s just too much trouble to ask people for water, and this stuff only has a slight taste, or it might just be my imagination. I drink it slowly, though, remembering how sick Sarah got one night after drinking water we collected from a pipe by a railroad track. But now my tester has gone away.
It’s only a couple miles walk to the Netherlands border city of Vaals. The spot that used to contain the old pre-EU border checkpoint is now just an empty lot by the side of the road, replaced by a little blue sign displaying the EU gold stars and the word “Netherlands”. I think to myself as always on great journeys, ‘Wow, I’m supposed to be excited now’, then continue moving on.
The town of Vaals looks just the same as Germany except for the flags. Germans, like many nationalities, usually display their flag not as a simple patriotic symbol but rather in support of the national soccer team. Germans are obsessive about this. The first house in Vaals is covered with such German flags, apparently somebody’s idea of teasing. After that the German flag mostly disappears except for one passing car that is covered with them. Germans even commonly put special socks with the national stripes on their car door mirrors, meaning that they can no longer see out of them.
At the west side of Vaals is a traffic circle, from which the next big city is 25 miles. The traffic must go very slowly around the circle, a very good place to hitchhike. There are many cars and the second one stops, packed full of high school-aged kids way too eager to pick me up. Anyway, where would the backpack and I sit, the trunk? They’re only going a couple miles and seem disappointed I won’t get in the car. “OK, it’s easier with a sign”, they say, handing me a piece of cardboard. A few minutes later they drive back by honking.
I write “Maasright” on the cardboard. Multiple people on bicycles point to their rear rack, laughing. If this was China then that would not be a joke. I once saw five people on a bike in Beijing. A young woman walking a dog stops and turns around after she’s past, “The bus is right there and it’s only 5 Euros to Maasright. People are very reserved here, so I don’t think you’ll be lucky in an hour, but you might be lucky in six hours.”
“Thanks, I’ll try for a while and see what happens.”
“OK, but I don’t think you’ll be lucky.”
Luck comes in 20 minutes. He’s Robin who works in the medical equipment sales industry. He used to have a US wife from the East Coast and lived there for some years. Perfect English. What could have been a full day’s walk is over in a half hour. Maasricht is much bigger than anticipated taking a few hours to walk out of. There’s no use trying to hitch inside cities. Maybe I’d get lucky in six hours.
Now some big differences from Germany start to show. The streets and properties on the edge of Maasricht are no longer so meticulously clean, upkept and organized. That’s what I always liked most about Germany.
In the late afternoon I cross a large modern bridge with an impressive cement amphitheater below the far side of it. I’m exhausted from no food today and only bread yesterday, so two hours of deep sleep is required on a wooded hillside by the bridge. At 7PM I consider whether to continue walking or to call it a day. Going back to sleep would surely mean lot of dead time, eventually just laying here in the middle of the night unable to sleep anymore.
I write “Brussels” on the other side of the “Massright” sign and walk on, keeping the sign held behind me. This area just doesn’t feel “lucky” enough to stand in one place, so this is a compromise. At least I’ll get somewhere either way, and not be so bored. I now walk into Belgium according to GPS, but see no little blue sign. The southeastern border of the Netherlands contains a heel, which is what I just passed through today.
Hitchhiking luck comes within the hour. People almost never stop for hitchhikers who are not facing them. A black car slows down and turns around, approaching slowly as the driver ponders me. He’s on the other side of the road and he looks away as I walk by. ‘I look somewhat ragged and sunburned. He’s not going to stop.’, I think to myself, but he does.
“I can get you to the motorway up ahead. Then you’ll find somebody going to Brussels.”
The apparent “normalcy” of the 2 drivers who’ve stopped today is notable. Hitchhiking is usually a non-stop string of eccentricities, not medical equipment salespeople and this smooth guy in his clean black car.
“There are some hotels just up ahead if you don’t get a ride tonight”, he tells me at the motorway junction.
They don’t have a clue.
The trend continues, a young lady by herself, with an empty child seat in the back of the van. Never has a young woman picked me up alone before when I was hitchhiking by myself. Actually only one woman ever picked me up at all when I was alone, a middle-aged nun in Saint Louis, Missouri.
“So, where are you going to stay tonight?”, she asks.
This question instantly leads to many speculations by an experienced hitchhiker. Possibility #1- there are many freaks in the world, both good and bad. Two- this person is curious about the lifestyle. Three- this person is the one-in-a-hundred trusting good Samaritan who lets hitchhikers stay over. Four- all of the above.
My first guess on this furniture sales floor manager is number four because she reminds me of someone. Actually though she turns out to be a three and maybe also a two.
“Because you could probably stay with my parents if you wanted to.”
“Um, sure, I stay with people sometimes. That would be nice if they are comfortable with it.”
“Yes, my parents are very open minded. They have lots of guests.”
Her last statement also leads to many speculations. She calls her father but he’s at a party and can’t understand. He calls back moments later.
“Oh, they will not be back from the party till late tonight. I wish I had a friend you could stay with but all my friends have babies now. It makes things difficult.”
Her father calls back.
“He’s worried about me because I picked you up.”
She drops me off near her destination at an on-ramp to the freeway. I hold the sign till the sun drops below the horizon then camp across the street in a small wooded area surrounding a cell phone tower. Several fat brown slugs crawl onto my blue tarp immediately. These creatures are lately so numerous that all of my belongings are now stained with slug trails. Some of the slugs are thumb-sized, so that’s alot of slug juice.
June 21, 2012: Brussels
The city is less than an hour away. I’m picked up very early by young man headed to work at an IT job, who drops me at a freeway rest area near the outskirts of Brussels. “You were walking by and I was going the same direction”, he responds simply to my thank you. It reminds me of something someone once said to me in Missouri in a similar situation, “You were white and you were walking by.” Comparatively very few people would ever say such a thing here.
An old French-speaking man out stretching his legs at the rest area keeps looking in my direction so I ask for a ride. He speaks only a few words of English but at least understands I’m going to the same place he is.
The car is flawless and he’s utterly composed. Our language barrier means mostly silence. Traffic is bumper-to-bumper, with the next 10 kilometers taking as long as the last 75. The man tries his best to narrate the scenery as we inch through the city. Magnificent old structures rise everywhere among palatial European Union offices and legislative chambers.
Dropped right at the city center, I waste no time beginning to search for the US embassy. I’m going to follow the trail of useful information as quickly as possible then get the hell out of this beautiful city. To be a tourist requires at least that basic needs are met, and I still don’t have a cent.
With my German SIM card no longer transmitting data, searching for anything has suddenly become a much more difficult task. “I have no idea”, a person working at an information counter says flatly, throwing hands in the air with a sigh. For an hour I wander the crowds, looking for people who appear to be holding the information I’m looking for, people dressed for business. Finally a young woman informs that the destination is just blocks away.
On the other side of a vast park is a facade of buildings all flying various foreign flags. I approach a guardshack under the stars and stripes. It’s impossible to just walk into a US embassy without an appointment except in case of emergency, and I don’t even have a working phone. There’s only one way to get past these guards to the information I seek.
“I’m an American citizen that has become homeless here. I want to speak with someone inside the embassy.”
“Do you want to go home now?”
Radios crackle then the guards step aside, pointing me towards the consular building. All of the windows are shattered, looking as if someone ran in with hammer in the middle of the night and smashed everything they could for a few moments before the guards tackled them. A guard emerges from another security checkpoint and I tell him the same thing. Inside it’s airport-level security, shoe scanning included.
I take a number, joining several non-Americans in a waiting room next to five windows with no clerks behind them. I’m called almost immediately to window 7, which is behind a door. A woman asks tonelessly, “You want to go home?”
“Yes, but I don’t think I’m eligible for the repatriation service. I need some information.”
“There are just three requirements for repatriation. One, are you destitute?”
“Yes, I have no money.”
“Two, yes, you are an American citizen. And three, we need the names and phone numbers of some people you know in the United States. We will call them and ask them to buy your ticket, and if they say no then we will give you a loan.”
“That is why I am ineligible. I do not have permission to give you such information. What you could help with is to tell me about services in Brussels that might be able to help me extend my visa, it will expire in two weeks.”
The woman walks out of sight and returns shortly, “So, you don’t have any phone numbers we can call? They told me to ask you again.”
“No numbers, do you have a list of agencies or groups that might be able to help me?”
She returns again with a two page list, pointing to the only service there with an 800 number,, “You can call that one for free from any phone.”
“What happens if I get stopped by police and they see my expired stamp?”
“They may just give you a letter saying that you have to leave the Brussels territory, or they may put you in the Center for Aliens and Illegals. In that case you would be held until you have travel documents, which you do, so you would be put on the next available flight.”
I find a payphone in the nearby central train station. A frail old male voice answers in French, the primary language spoken here, then switches to very basic English.
“Call back in one hour.”
The hour passes, “Call back in 15 minutes.”
Fifteen minutes passes. The old man connects me with a female social worker, “Wie?”
“Hello, do you speak English?”
“Oh, no, no, no……call…..one….five……o’clock”
“You say call in 15 minutes?”
“Yes, in 15 minutes!”
The fourth call is a young male voice with a deep swinging salesman tones, “Yes, English, no problem. How can I help you?”
I explain what has happened today.
“How long have you been in Brussels?”
“I just hitchhiked here today. I came to Berlin 3 months ago to begin a project but the project fell apart. I had no money left and started walking around Germany. I stayed with people near Frankfurt then stayed with some people near Aachen. My tourist visa stamp is about to expire so came here to the embassy to see if I could get any help. Brussels is the closest embassy to Aachen. They couldn’t help but they gave me this phone number to call you.”
“OK, come here after six o’clock.”
Understanding his directions takes the next five minutes because he has to spell out each street and station name. I even have a hard time understanding the letters he speaks.
The location is only one subway transfer away. I’d been able to walk onto the platform at Central Station without paying, but there are gates blocking the destination station exit. This station is much more clean and modern than the run-down Central Station. Hopping a gate here will likely draw the attention of an employee who’ll want to check tickets.
I check all three potential exits, finding gates at each one. I can’t even get to the other side of the platform and return to Central without going through the gates. I’ll have to go on to the next station, I think to myself, and hope there are no gates there. But what if all the other stations have gates including the last station on the line? But just then I notice what should have been obvious, the people exiting through the gates are not rescanning their tickets. The gates open automatically for everyone exiting. Tickets only have to be scanned when entering!
The destination is a short walk away, a plain flat metal door in an alley, displaying the text “SAMUSOCIAL”. With over an hour remaining before six o’clock I sit nearby on the steps of a small run-down stone building that looks two-hundred years old. There’s a nearly identical little building directly across the street, both of which have people working inside behind a window. The steps and entryways are full of cardboard and blankets, with the people either sleeping or drinking beer. Trams and busses also stop here, with the many waiting passengers trying to avoid eye contact with the homeless and frowning at them disapprovingly behind their backs.
I don’t feel safe here like I did in Germany, and police showing up to check everyone’s ID wouldn’t help. It’s not the homeless, they were even in Berlin, but there’s a quiet sinister vibe here.
An African man at the Samusocial door speaks only French but understands a few English words. He can’t find my name on the wrinkled paper list in his hands, then I notice, “Gatjzv Kieser”.
“I think that’s me.”
He pulls a phone out of his pocket, makes a call then steps aside. There’s a pallet of yogurt mostly blocking the small entryway, then a reception room beyond that. I sit in one of four chairs, facing a Yugoslavian woman who speaks only Germany. Next to her is a man with a thick unibrow and a high-riding black beltpack, his eyes locking into a dead stare at nothing. The whole room smells of overripe cantaloupe, a cart of which is sitting in the corner. Someone wheels the yogurt in next to it, prompting all the workers to grab several containers each. They give me three and I eat them all immediately, cold and wonderful.
A social worker approaches, addressing everyone at once, “Francee blah blah blah”.
“I only speak English.”
“OK, just wait here. I will now talk to everyone else in French.”
She walks off with the unibrowed man. There’s an open door leading to a tiny courtyard nearby, almost completely filled with haphazardly stacked pallets and overturned office furniture. A crack of thunder then a sudden torrent of rain. There’s a sudden commotion, yelling and the front door slams shut. Same sounds moments later, then again. A young African man has successfully fought his way in the front door. He now cowers in a corner of the entryway, shoving away workers trying to drag him out. He cries and screams, dripping wet, “PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE! WHY DO I HAVE TO BE FROM BELGIUM TO COME IN HERE BEFORE 11 O’CLOCK! PEOPLE ARE PEOPLE! THAT IS NOT RIGHT!”
A whole crowd of workers in blue “Samusocial de Bruxells” shirts has now arrived to block the entryway. “Sir those are the rules for everyone, not just you. If you don’t have a Belgium ID then you have to come after 11PM. If you have special needs then you must call first and get on the list to be let in earlier. We will have to call the police if you don’t leave.”
“AT LEAST I WILL HAVE SOMETHING TO EAT THEN! CALL THEM!”
Police arrive some minutes later and calmly arrange to take him to another social service.
“He got his taxi ride”, a worker sighs.
I wait in the same chair over 90 minutes. The cast of characters passing through includes limps, hunchbacks, canes, walkers, death coughs, deformities and a composed old woman with brightly colored clothing and makeup. There is no security procedure here except for checking ID at the door. The main surfaces of the building appear to be cleaned daily but there has been no attempt at detailing. Ripped posters and signs hang from walls, cob webs in corners, dirty paint, wall switches and outlets coming loose from the walls.
A pretty young woman leads me through the building, scanning an ID to get us past the common area. She closes her office door.
“OK, how can we help you?”
I explain everything again.
“So, you want to go home?”
“That is not possible so I came here to see about getting help obtaining a visa.”
“There might be an agency that can help you go home……”, she says, then turns to her computer.
“Oh, the United States is not listed on their website as a country they can help with.”
She spends much time explaining a map of the social services in Brussels, which is only printed in French. There’s not much available for free expect for people with Belgium ID.
There are several services that will help anyone, but for small fees. “Most people beg”, she explains, waiting for a response that I don’t give. Her English is quite good but with a limited vocabulary. She asks me for many words and I happily oblige, always happy to teach English. Being “American” is seen abroad as a bad thing, generally, so I’ve learned to latch on hard to the few benefits it does provide. Native English speakers are not common outside their home countries, and everybody wants to learn. At least in my mind, teaching makes up for some of the terrible things that I’ve indirectly helped the Evil Empire to accomplish with my inevitable tax dollars.
The pretty social worker sends me back to the common area, saying that another worker will speak with me in the morning. There’s two small lounge areas, one of which is an open courtyard for smokers. There’s a single American quarter somehow leftover in my backpack. ‘Maybe this is bad luck’, I think bemusedly to myself, ‘I should get rid of it now’. Attempting to trade the quarter for a cigarette is unsuccessful, then I overhear a conversation nearby. A little 18-year-old Belgish kid with a neck brace is speaking with his “girlfriend”, twice his age from Cameroon.
“…yes I am a spy. This is not really a neckbrace. It is from the US military. It records everything you say”.
I walk up, “Agent Smith, you are not supposed to be speaking like that. Take the microchip.”
He and the woman are both speechless, staring at the quarter that’s suddenly appeared in their hands.
“Where did you get this?”
“I brought if from the United States, Agent Smith”
“Don’t you need it anymore?”
“It it’s only a quarter, worth almost nothing here. You can have it.”
The odd couple examines the quarter for a while then the kid asks a string of strange questions, followed by a series of weird statements.
Dinner comes in an even smaller roomed served up slowly by one old man. It’s a heaping plate, so many steaming vegetables and fat meatballs, followed with hot coffee.
The upstairs dormitories are opened at 9:30. I’m handed two stiff sheets and led to room “1.7“, containing one bunk bed and two singles. The kid with the neck brace is also assigned the room, as is a sad-faced young man from Ghana. “You should take a bus”, the kid keeps telling me, not seeming to understand my rebuttal concerning geography.
“You cannot take bus from here to America”, the man from Ghana tells him, “there is an ocean.”
The kids looks offended, “Yes! I mean take bus to London then fly to America! It is cheaper.”
There is a surprising amount of hygienic privacy here, including locking shower rooms and toilet stalls. The only complaints I have so far is not the lack of hot water, but rather the requirement to show ID at the door and that “foreigners” receive lesser help. It is a crime against society to turn anyone away for these reasons, ESPECIALLY when it just because they have a DIFFERENT KIND of ID than someone else. Those needing food or shelter should never be required to provide documentation, and governments should make no such laws. But we must remember that the criminals are the ones making these rules, not the guy with the clipboard at the door