“WHORE!” a man yells out of his car window at Nicol, as she stands at the side of the road with a sign for the next town. She screams something back at him in Italian. “Welcome to Italy,” I think to myself. Chris has joined us on our roadtrip. Unfortunately for him, both Nicol and I are in foul moods. Nicol’s got mixed feelings about returning to her home country, and I’m sulking because we have left friendly France, where people are softly spoken and rational (women are not conditioned to be scared of hitchhikers) and we have entered paranoid Italy, where we are only taken by male drivers who talk non-stop and tell us that the world is full of dangerous people.
But maybe I’m being too harsh on Italy. After all, I’ve been hosted in drivers’ houses four times on my previous visits, more than the France that I’m pining for. And hitchhiking as a three is proving to be surprisingly easy here.
Sure enough, a driver called Carmine takes the three of us all the way from southern France to northern Italy. He then checks us into a hotel room, which he pays for, and then takes us all out to his favourite pizza restaurant (and doesn’t get offended when we order cheeseless pizzas!) He’s a friendly man with a huge smile, and really talkative. He tells us about his job as a lawyer and his dreams of retiring and travelling the world.
We’re in Italy because we are going to visit Nicol’s family in a village in the northern Italian mountains. As we drive up, up, up the twisting, turning mountain road, me and Chris feel nauseous as we are suddenly transported to over 1000m high.
The visit is difficult for Nicol. She’s excited to see her family, but now that she’s returned home, they want her to stay there permanently with them, and they find it difficult to understand her lifestyle choices. Italian village life comes as a shock to me. Everyone knows each other’s business, and people gossip about the clothes Nicol wears and the fact that she has hitchhiked here. Still, it’s beautiful to see the place where one of my close friends grew up.
Chris has never been to Venice. “You have to see Venice!” I say. So off we go to Venice, hugging Nicol goodbye with the intention of meeting each other again in a few days for the hitchhike home to England. But, of course, life never goes according to plan, and when we say goodbye to Nicol, little do we know that she won’t be joining us for the hitchhike home…
Chris loves Venice. We wander the narrow alleys and he is pleasantly shocked by the crumbling buildings and the activist graffiti all over the city.
We move eastwards towards the Alps, and to save time, we decide to hitch the motorways, rather than the country roads. I have been hitchhiking for many years now, and I have grown sick of hitching on motorways. I try to take the slower, scenic route whenever I have the time. Almost everyone driving on the motorway, in every country, is miserable. And it’s no surprise why: after all, the whole experience of driving in a metal box at about 150km per hour for hours on end, completely disconnected from nature, is really miserable! And the only break from the monotony of it all is a shitty service station with sugary, crappy fast food, which will only make you more miserable if you put it in your body!
Italy’s got to be one of the worst countries for hitchhiking on the motorways. We stand at the Autogrill (Italy’s brand of service station) and Chris tries to politely explain to drivers in Italian that we are hitchhiking. But whenever he says hello, people deliberately blank him, or give him a hostile response. This is poor Chris’s first experience of people being so rude to him whilst hitchhiking, and instead of getting upset, he laughs lightheartedly at the absurdity of this paranoid, fearful society. Chris is a breath of fresh air when I need it most, and I am thankful that he’s on this journey with me.
We laugh at how all of the men in Italy aspire to look like the below picture. Absolutely everyone is wearing the same jacket, along with aviator sunglasses.
Eventually, we get a lift with two friendly men, and the Into The Wild soundtrack plays on their car stereo. My god, we couldn’t be further from the Alaskan wilderness that Chris McCandless explored, I laugh to myself.
And then it’s another shitty service station, and more hostility awaits us. But then Chris gets us a lift with a 6’4″ man with huge muscles from the USA.
“Shit! He’s military!” I whisper to Chris as the man puts our luggage in his car. “Don’t say anything!” I warn Chris cautiously.
We’re anti-militarist activists, and I worry about how this journey is going to go. Inside the car is the soldier’s beautiful young wife and their baby. The soldier tells us about his life in Italy, and I find it tragic when he explains that he gets discount petrol in Italy when he shows his NATO pass to petrol station staff. Oh, can’t he see the irony? I wonder to myself. A military force, murdering for oil, getting cheap petrol. As I sit there in silence, I wonder why I have accepted a lift with this man. After all, if a truck driver transporting animals to be killed offered me a lift, I would refuse it. Surely there’s not too much difference. This man, if not directly a killer, is contributing to the killing of our brother and sister humans.
“Stay safe,” the soldier says in a cliché, macho way, as we get out of his car. Can’t he see the irony of that comment? I wonder yet again.
Chris would have liked to have talked to him about his job – after all, it’s possibly the only time he’ll be in the car of a NATO soldier. I am annoyed with myself: I sat in silence so that I could selfishly get a lift 100km further. I should have either refused the lift or engaged in a conversation about this guy’s ‘job’.
Of course, hitchhiking the Italian motorways isn’t completely doom and gloom, and we do meet a few friendly people and get lifts with lovely drivers, including a car full of actors who are touring the country, performing a play.
Our last stop in Italy is the Susa valley, close to the French border in the Alps. We’re here because we want to visit the area where the high-speed train track (Treno Alta Velocità, TAV) is going to be built – mostly for freight trains – with tunnels being bored through the Alps to neighbouring France. The No Tav activist campaign against the destruction of the valley has been going for two whole decades.
Chris and I are only about 15km from France. We decide that the border really can’t be far away, and that we’re going to walk it. Of course, we’re ill-prepared, without a hiking map. All we know is that France is somewhere west, over the insanely snowy Alps. I take my compass out of my pocket, and we start walking in a westward direction. Surely it’ll be easy…
After about six kilometres of hiking, we run into a group of activists.
“You can’t go this way!” they say. “It’s too dangerous!”
They explain to us that we’re about 1km away from the site where the tunnel is being bored through the mountain. There’s army protecting it absolutely everywhere, and apparently they’re quite pissed off with activists today.
The No Tav activists are friendly, welcoming people, and they invite us to their resistance house, give us dinner, and let us stay for the night. They tell us about two decades of struggle, and they talk about the environmental hazards of the TAV project. The mountains contain uranium and asbestos, which will be released as the tunnel is dug. Spending time with these inspirational, courageous activists is the perfect way to end our time in Italy.