I heartily supported the Catalonian referendum on secession even though I was almost arrested the only time I visited Barcelona.
I hit Spain as the next-to-last country in a 5000-mile hitchhiking jaunt in the summer of 1977. Within 10 minutes of getting dropped off south of the French border, I realized that my two years of Spanish classes in Warren County High School were not worth a busted piñata. (Admittedly, I was the worst student in the class.) Barcelonans spoke so quickly while thrashing the air with their hands that I could only nod or sigh. Seven hundred words a minute was brisker than I had heard growing up in the Appalachian Mountains.
I spent four pleasant days roaming Barcelona while staying in a dirt cheap pension where I was the only guest without a thunderous TB-cough. Spain was definitely the most backward country I visited (dictator Francisco Franco had died only two years earlier). The clearest proof it was still in the Dark Ages: hitchhiking was illegal. But I tried not to let that bias me against Spaniards. I viewed such prohibitions simply as transaction costs, the 1970s equivalent of traffic speed cameras.
When time came to head back north, I staked out a spot on the last street before the Autopista (motorway) entrance. Traffic was light and relatively slow so my thumb posed no safety hazard to drivers.
No luck in the first hour. Then I got more fraternizing than I wanted. A finger-wagging policeman with the glummest face I saw all summer descended on me. I reached deep within and retrieved my entire Spanish vocabulary – Lo siento (I’m sorry), No comprendo, and Que lastima (That’s too bad). I didn’t know enough Spanish to ask him if he got his job ‘cause he was a pal of Franco. But by the time he walked away, it was clear that I understood I’d be jailed if he caught me out there again. And from my prior experience in the U.S., I knew that regulation-size handcuffs fit poorly on my large wrists.
I respectfully waited two minutes after he vanished before resuming hitchhiking.
Half an hour later, I glanced up and saw the same cop a block away, closing fast, and looking too irate for his own good.
In the nick of time, a sickly orange British car (with a wrong-side steering wheel) pulled over and the driver signaled me to hop in. His vehicle could have fit in the trunk of a Lincoln Continental. I jammed my pack into his back seat and had 15 seconds to spare before I got busted.
As we sped away, the pasty, tussle-headed driver announced: “I’m not going very far tonight. I’m really tired.”
“Is that because you’ve been working hard?” I asked.
“No, I’ve been drinking for three days.”
That explained the empty liquor bottles on the back seat. Unfortunately, the car was heading up the Pyrenees Mountains – not the easiest stretch of driving on the continent.
Twenty miles later, I was still comparing the risks of riding with a besotted driver versus being gamahooched in a Spanish slammer when the Brit announced: “TEA TIME!” He pulled off the road, stepped out of the car, and fetched out a large plastic cup. He retrieved a fifth of gin from under the seat, poured eight ounces into the cup, and topped if off with two ounces of orange juice – “to make sure I get my Vitamin C,” he explained.
“Would you like a sip?” he jovially offered.
He slugged it down, smacked his lips, and proclaimed it was time to forge on to France. As we ascended steep mountains, he was driving in the right lane much slower than most of the other traffic. I kept leaning in his direction, ready to seize the steering wheel if he lost control. But he had plenty experience driving smashed.
I kept the conversation rattling along to keep him alert. He told me that his family remained at their home on the Isle of Wight while he vacationed in Spain. He explained that he drank too much because he was having a very rough time letting his college-aged kids leave home and go their own way. Or at least that was the excuse this 45-year-old guy offered for not weaning himself from a bottle. I eventually persuaded him to pull off the road so we could get some beer and chips.
After we entered a roadside bistro, an 18-year-old British lad came over to our table and was instantly bosom buddies with the driver. The driver was a Conservative Party member and the young guy supported the Liberal Party but the two agreed that England was the greatest, freest nation and that everybody in the world learned democracy from Britain. The only thing necessary to transform one’s country into utopia is to leave it briefly and drink heavily. The young guy related how Bobbies in his hometown used their nightsticks to pummel teenage miscreants and he and the driver agreed that was a good thing because the boys usually deserved it. I was mystified that anyone would idealize official beatings.
The dipsomaniac launched into an anti-Teutonic tirade, swearing that the only good German was a dead German. He declared that he’d fight any German in the room. But he didn’t say it very loud, so I didn’t have to dissuade anyone from stomping him. When he wasn’t slurping down ale or boasting about his homeland, his eyes radiated a desperate fear that he had failed in life. (An Englishman later told me that the Isle of Wight was known as “80,000 drunks on a rock.”)
As the evening ended and we went our separate ways, I noticed the young Brit had no knapsack. I asked about that and he declared that he didn’t want to be bogged down carrying a lot of things. He slept on a concrete slab at a closed gas station that night. I felt like I was traveling first class because, after finding a nook in nearby woods, my knapsack was as comfy as the best pillow in a four-star European hotel.
Forty years down the road, I’m still waiting for the United Nations to recognize anti-hitchhiker bias as a human rights violation.
This article is adapted from James Bovard’s book Public Hooligan.