Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Thumbing It

In North America, hitchhikers are one of three types: (1) Psycho-killers, (2) Soon-to-be victims of psycho-killers, or (3) Foreigners unaware of types one and two. But in Estonia, hitchhiking is not only safe, it’s pleasurable, and it’s one of the best ways for a foreigner to experience the countryside’s natural beauty, as well as to meet colorful locals.

True, between the continents technique differs slightly. In America, the hitchhiker attempts to convey insouciance, even ennui. He stands one leg bent, gazing into the middle distance, thumb slightly off the hip, pointing in the vague proximity of the desired direction of travel. In Estonia, a more formal stance is customary: legs locked straight, eyes directed to oncoming traffic, arm extended in a gesture crossing a Heil Hitler salute with what is used to hail a taxi in New York.

In the early 1990s, I used the American style, until a friend explained that country folk might think I was sunning myself by the side of the road. Adopting the local technique helped somewhat, but so did waving a small Canadian flag, the international symbol of harmlessness. After that, I never stood long on the roadside.

Once I was picked up by a UAZ truck, its windshield shattered in a spider-web pattern. A couple of holes caused it to behave like a lung, expanding and contracting at regular intervals. “I can’t go faster than forty,” the driver explained. “Otherwise it’ll cave in and cut your face.” He had a beard like Rasputin, rotted teeth, and breath like a dragon. “Mind if I stop?” he asked. Who was I to mind? He pulled over at a kiosk and returned with three bottles of vodka that he rolled under the seat with a wink.

I never got picked up by hot, lonely women (as in the popular commercial for an allergy remedy). Most who offered a ride were truck drivers or pensioners. Both made for lively conversation and quick improvement in my language.

Several years later when I had a car, I tried to return the favor, and I picked up hitchhikers wherever they appeared. One cold winter’s day, I picked up a young Russian woman near the Latvian border. She wore a light dress and no coat. “Don’t you get cold?” I asked, eager to practice my poor Russian. “No,” she said, “I’m fine.” We drove a kilometer in silence until she finally spoke several long, complicated sentences.

“I have to say I didn’t understand a single word you just said,” I confessed.

She laughed, understanding that I was not Estonian. So she rephrased, making it simple: “Seks, ne nado?”

I felt immediately guilty that my minimal Russian skills had forced her into such coarse language. Surely, her original proposition had been as eloquent as a poem by Pushkin. “Ne nado,” I replied, but thanked her profusely for her kind offer. She indicated an area where I should pull off the road, and I watched in my rear-view mirror as she stepped across the highway to work a line of parked lorries.

I imagined her knocking on a trucker’s door and afterwards relating to him the anecdote about the foreigner who picked her up because he thought she was cold. Laughter would ring from the column of trucks into the still winter air. Undiscouraged, the foreigner drove on, eyes peeled for another hitchhiker.

Read it in Estonian in Eesti Ekspress.