I was spending my junior year in England. I made plans to meet a friend in Rome, then my roommate from England in Fez. I was hitchhiking, using my aunt and uncle’s home in Paris as a launch.
There were adventures getting to Rome involving an Iranian man who would buy BMWs in Germany and sell them for a profit in Tehran. Revolution had killed his market. When his car died just as we crossed into Switzerland. I moved on.
I met my friend in Rome, We looked over maps to find the best route to Fez. The safest was back up the Italian coast, through France, and then down the Spanish coast. Or we could head south to Sicily, take a ferry to Tunis, and then head across Algeria. He decided to accompany me, and we hitchhiked off.
We spent several days sleeping in an orange grove in Trapani, home town of the man who wrote Pinocchio, then ferried across the Mediterranean and got a cheap hotel in the Tunisian casbah. After going to the U.S. Embassy to arrange visas across Algeria, then considered a war zone, Mitch decided to head back to Rome. I lent him the last of my money after a secretary at the embassy assured me that a loan could be arranged for me to continue my trip.
Mitch left. I didn’t get the loan and set off for Fez with about a dollar in my pocket, following a map I copied in pencil from the embassy wall.
It wasn’t quite right. Near the Tunisian/Algerian border military men took me aside and put me in a cell. Oh, shit, I thought. I’ve done it this time. But the next morning they let me know it was for my own safety. Bandits. Then they took me to the border itself, where the road I was on turned into a goat track.
I rode 60 kilometers on a back of a tractor. I traveled for three days with a Belgian archeologist visiting Roman ruins in the low Atlas, getting put up in new Soviet-style hotels. I ran from a car of Tunisians when they realized one of their passports was missing and all broke into frightened tears. I missed my friend in Fez and spent several days sleeping on a roof in the ancient royal city of Meknes.
All along the way I had a story for people. My wallet had been stolen in the previous town, I’d say. I was making my way to family in Paris. Everyone was incredibly kind.
Mind you, this was all before cell phones or Internet. We communicated by post card. The best I got was from my parents, in Fez. “Heard it was unsafe to send money,” it read. “Good luck.”
When I finally made it to my relatives in Paris I told my story. They laughed, and asked me what I had said in French. “J’oublerais mon chapeau dans la prochaine ville. Je fait le dodo a Paris.”
They laughed even louder.
“I will forget my hat in the next town” was the actual translation of what I’d been saying across North Africa. Plus some gibberish my nephew said basically was “I make childlike beddy-bye in Paris.”
Oh well. Mistakes happen.
Read more installments of Village Voices by Paul Smart.