The Strangers Who Invited Us Home

Continued

Thousands of Reasons to Love Leiden

So… yeah, with asking around in gas stations, being sociable and some luck, we got smoothly from Maastricht to Leiden. We stayed in the house of my friend Erik and Cesar.

Erik was not home, which was not surprising, because he was almost never home anymore. He now traveled and worked. Yes, he had an IT job and it was possible to work remotely. Erik was the soul of Leiden Couchsurfing community. We had countless parties in his house. I remember every piece of the wall. WOWO! Often, Erik had the habit of starting a sentence with ‘When I was in X country ……’ X can be any of the 100 countries he had visited.

His housemate Cesar was a Mexican who had been living in the Netherlands for years. He quit his IT job a couple of years ago and started a business project — to build an escape room! So he was always at home, working on the details of the escape room.

I LOVED and still LOVE Leiden, where I probably spent the best years of my life. It was a city of only about 120 000 people. It looks much like Amsterdam, with its canals, old Dutch houses and thousands of bicycles. However, it is smaller, equally beautiful and much less touristic. Amsterdam is too dynamic for anybody to feel belonging there, while in Leiden, after living here for a couple of years, one easily feels she/he is a real Leidenaar (Dutch for someone of Leiden). It is a university town, with the oldest university of the country. There are young people everywhere and small as it is, there are about 100 locations for going out to eat, drink, party and dance. No, one does not get bored in Leiden. It is the birth place of Rembrandt and one of the windmills in the city center actually had belonged to the grandma of Rembrandt……

There are really thousands of reasons to love Leiden. 🙂

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Another thing to make Leiden a great place is the boekenzolder, where everybody can go to pick up 10 books a day FOR FREE! It is run by some volunteers who collect books people don’t want anymore. They sort the books out and put them on shelves so they can be used again. They are awesome people! To me, they are real heroes! All you need is to give some voluntary donations. I LOVE books and I love boekenzolder. I know, you are going to tell me that in many other cities they have similar projects, like a telephone booth where everybody can leave books and everybody can pick up books. I also have seen them, in La Rochelle, Poitiers, Berlin, Hanover, Baltimore etc.. Almost every city has something like that. However, they are never as big or organized as boekenzolder. It is a treasure horde. I could spend hours there, walking from one shelf to another, from the 1st floor to the 2nd floor, smelling the ink and paper.

I picked up a book about the history of South America and another one about Belarus while Vicky picked many literature books. At about 4 PM we left for Berlin.

You know, since yesterday we had such smooth hitches even we started late, we really thought this time things would work out fine also. We could reach Hanover, or even Berlin, at least to reach the German border. We already found a couchsurfing host in Hanover, which was about 400 km away from Leiden.

It was windy, very windy. We arrived at Willem de Zwijgerlaan, where there was a small gas station. I put down my backpack and started thumbing up on the roadside. The wind was so strong that it almost blew away my backpack…… and myself…… I knew, it was a sign to me that I should gain some weight!

Map Leiden to Hanover

People were friendly to us but none of them were going eastwards. Most of them were simply going home in Leiden after work. After half an hour I realized that today the luck would be different from yesterday.

To increase our chances, while Vicky stood on the roadside, thumbing up with our sign ‘Amsterdam’, I went to ask around in the gas station.

A car stopped. The driver was a young nurse who just came back from a meeting.

She: Come on in!
I: Are you going to Amsterdam direction?
Vicky: We are actually not going to Amsterdam proper. We are going to Germany.
She: Come on in and we will talk.

We got in and the car drove away.
She: I am not going to Amsterdam actually. I am just going to a village near Leiden. I live there. I stopped just because I want to help you.

We started talking about traveling and hitchhiking. We got along so well that before realizing it, she already drove past her village.
She: I will just drive you to the turn to the east, where you can easily find a ride to Germany direction.

I love the Netherlands!

She eventually dropped us at a big gas station. We repeated the strategy of yesterday, asking in gas stations, appearing as positive people with smiles. No, we did not look like serial killers. 😀

Nope, within 15 minutes we were told more than once that we were on the wrong side of the highway…… OK. That was disturbing. A Turkish guy offered to drive us to Amsterdam train station and buy us train tickets to Berlin but we kindly refused.

We were hitchhiking not just to save money or take advantage of people. We were there more for the experience and spreading good energy. The journey is not a destination, but an experience.

On the Road

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The German Licence Board

We walked through a tunnel and arrived in a much smaller gas station. This was on the correct side of the highway, but yet, all the cars were just going home to the next village…… When we finally caught a ride, it was already one hour later.

Our driver, whose name was Eduardo, was originally from Colombia but was adopted by Dutch parents and grew up in the Netherlands, so he spoke fluent Dutch, English and Spanish. He was about 25 years old. We were talking about traveling and cultural differences between different countries.

He: Really it’s totally different in Colombia. When I went to Bogota, I stayed in the place of a friend. He lived with his family. At the end of my stay, his father, a 65 years old man told me: ‘so, how are you going to thank me? You have to invite me to dinner!’ Seriously? We don’t say that to each other in the Netherlands! It’s simply shameless!
I: And in Iran it’s totally the opposite!……

We were so excited talking about traveling that he missed his turns several times…. SEVERAL TIMES! 😀 So…… we decided to stop talking for a while and he dropped us at a big gas station outside of Utrecht.

We exchanged contacts and said goodbye.

Half an hour later we finally found a man in his late 40s with a big shinning car who took us to somewhere near Amersfoort. We were talking about traveling. Seriously, the Dutch are such a cool people. Almost all of them are well traveled, open-minded and multilingual. Then a mother with a 4-year old son took us. As I spoke Dutch, I was talking with the kid on the back seats. He insisted on showing me his school notebook. How cute!

When we arrived in Apeldoorn, which was about half way between Leiden and the German border, it was already quite late.

We asked in the Shell gas station. Nope! Nobody was going to Germany. 10 minutes later the dude working there came out and told us that it was not allowed to hitchhike there.

Vicky: So, what should we do?
I: En, let’s go to ask around in the parking lot outside McDonald’s and at the same time let’s start looking for a couchsurfing host in Apeldoorn with your phone.

The sun was setting…… That normally meant the end of one day’s hitchhiking. Damn…… Yesterday we made 200 km in 2.5 hours and today we made 100 km in 3.5 hours……

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Just when we were going to give up, we saw a car passing the gas station, with a German licence board!!! WOWO!

Our hungry eyes followed the car to the parking lot of the McDonald’s and it stopped there! We eagerly ran up there and anxiously waited for the people to emerge from the car.

It was a middle-aged couple. On the back of their car two sport bikes were fastened.

We gingerly approached them.

We: Terribly sorry to trouble you. So, we are trying to get to Germany today. We started from the west of the Netherlands and it has been really difficult. We saw your license board. By any chance, are you going to Germany today?

They looked at each other as they were obviously not the people who regularly took hitchhikers.
They: Eh…… Yeah. Eh…… OK! You can come with us! But first we have to eat! I hope that’s OK,

We were so happy that we could jump 30 meters above sea level with our heavy loads. Mind you, as much of the Netherlands is below the sea level, that would mean 40 meters above the ground. WOWO!

After they took a short meal, we set out.

Then Vicky checked her phone and found out that more than one couchsurfers in Apeldoorn had already replied to our open request and said that they could host us. How lovely! I love couchsurfing! I love those kind people with such big hearts!

It was now totally dark. The couple were both teachers, one taught philosophy and the other math as I recall. They lived in a small town near Ibbenbüren, Germany.

What? You don’t know Ibbenbüren?
It’s near Osnabrück.
What? You don’t know Osnabrück?
It’s not far from Bielefeld.
What? You don’t know Bielefeld?
Come on! It’s the 18th biggest German city by population! You are hopeless!

Just kidding. 😀 It’s really a small place.

They: So now where will you sleep then?
We: Eh…… you can drop us at a gas station near your destination. We will try to reach Hanover. We have a place to stay there.

They were discussing something while I was talking with Vicky.

Minutes later they told us: if you want, you are welcome to stay in our house. We are on holiday, so tomorrow we don’t need to work and can bring you to a gas station, so you can continue hitchhiking. We have two sons but they both moved out, so you can stay in their rooms.

Yes, we were both in tears.

Therefore, we stayed in their big house, each of us with a private room and the next morning when we came downstairs, we saw a huge breakfast on the table, waiting for us.

Don’t you just love people? Don’t you just feel you are melting because all the kindness of strangers? The more I travel, the more I love this world. The more I travel, the stronger I believe the world is going to become better.

To be continued

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