Moving to another country is a concept that Flemish people don't understand- I, "a child of my environment", shared that view and spent the first 26 years of my life in the closeby areas of Gent and Evergem. 20th of March 2003 I moved to Finland to live with my girlfriend. That same day the war in Iraq commenced. Gent suddenly seemed like an occupied city. Spontanous demonstrations of high school students turned the city centre into a maddening chaos and with all my goods packed in the car it looked as if I was fleeing the country to seek safer areas.
The articles I have written so far are, I wouldn't say inspired by the "northern existence", but have flown out of me as a result of my wide eyed sense of marvel for the finland experience.

I am no tourist.

Short article in Finland's English language magazine Six Degrees: Rrroyal mistakes .
If you would like to publish an English or Finnish translation of my articles, it can be arranged.

For further information contact me via email .

Hitchhiking story

This is a story about hitch hiking and more precisely about my hitch hiking experience last summer when I traveled from Belgium to Finland (distance: about 2000 km or euhm.. 1200 miles).

I was up until last summer quite a virgin hitch hiker. The furthest I ever hitch hiked was about 3 km when I was too cheap to pay the extra bus fare to go home. So you can image I was a bit nervous when my girlfriend suggested to thumb our way up north. She, a veteran hitchhiker, had done the distance already several times and always got pretty good rides. Going together would be a blast I thought and why the hell not? I would meet all sorts of people, walk in the sunshine and all those romantic ideas. Above all, I would save a lot of money.

If you go from Belgium to Finland you have two possible routes. Either you take the Eastern European tour through Germany, Poland and Estonia (remember to skip the Russian between Poland and Estonia because you need a visa for that). In Tallinn, Estonia, you can simply take the ferry and hopsakee you’re in Helsinki. We, however decided on the more conventional Scandinavian route that would take us through Denmark and Sweden.

18th of July I worked my last day at the office until 6 pm at which point my mommy would pick me and Hanna up and drop us off at the nearest highway gas station, namely the one in Gierle on the E313.

We didn’t even have to wait long before we could get a ride with a Polish trucker who would take us until Venlo, just before the German border. The place in Venlo turned out to be a resting area for truckers. So of the nearly hundred hairy-back men we asked almost all had to go “schlaffen.” I also discovered there that my German skills suck (which is not a surprise since I never took any classes in german and the few words I know I have picked up from watching Der Alte, Derrick and Schumanski) “Wir gehen to Finland” is about as far as it gets with me. Luckily I also discovered there that Hanna has followed two years of German. Handy.

Anyway, after a lot of asking around, I managed to hook us up with a ride. A friendly Belgian trucker didn’t mind taking us to Hamburg. That was also the last time I personally helped getting a ride (after that, Hanna and her charms usually had to do the trick). The trucker said he usually doesn’t take any hitch hikers but he thought I looked like a decent guy. In any case, it was four in the morning and we had traveled already 700 km. Looking good.

To explain a few things about hitch hiking, if you just stand alongside the road with your thumb in the air and hope that somebody will be courteous enough to stop, you will probably not get really far. This tactic has lost its’ effect in this era of car jacking, East-European mafia and urban legends. It’s a lot more effective to step up to a person at a gas station and ask face to face if you could possible have a lift. This way people sometimes take strangers in their cars. Especially truck drivers, who are used to spending long hours alone on the road, will be more interested in taking hitch hikers.

So we were somewhere in the north of Germany at four o’clock in the morning on the parking of a gas station. Since we were not sure of getting a direct lift to Sweden, we were quite happy with this strange Danish trucker who agreed to take us to Arhus. Normally Denmark is a three hour lasting car rally between two ferry harbors with no piss or pit stops. But with this guy we kind of took the prolonged route. I had no idea what our driver was talking about but he seemed jolly companionship and blew his car horn every time he passed a caravan of sleeping trucks at the gas station.

During the remaining 280 km to Frederikshavn (DK) I experienced for the first time that it does not always run so smoothly when you try hitch hiking your way to Finland. It took more than 7 different rides filled with embarrassing moments (as in, an old couple wanted to drop us off “at a good spot” but then they kind of got lost and argued and then everyone was quiet in the car for an excruciating ten minutes), misunderstandings (“yeah, we will drop you off at a gas station”, not knowing we would prefer a gas station at the high way and not in the middle of nowhere) and desolate hitch hiking spots. At one point we were so desperate we wanted to start hitch hiking on the highway so that the police would come and pick us up and drop us off at the nearest parking lot). Well, to cut that story short, it was already 6 pm the next day (hey! Already 24 hours on the road with no sleep) when we arrived in Goteborg, Sweden. The next target was Stockholm, 500 km east. We were running late a bit but no sweat we were happy that we finished our falafel just when the rainshowers stopped.

It’s never easy to get on foot from the center of a city to the highway. Luckily in Goteborg we somehow got easy hitch hiking access to the first gas station. However, what we did not know was that we were on the wrong expressway. Sure, it looked allright to us, since all the roadsigns gave the distance to Stockholm (500km and counting…). Our route stopped being a highway after about 20 km and then just continued as a normal twolane road. When we arrived at Skara the hitch hiking possibilities dried up. The clock showed 10 pm and the sun was setting. We were stuck in the middle of Sweden.

Desperation made us grow weary and after two hours we finally got a ride from a white Volvo. The young driver looked like your average metalhead with his shaven head and ring beard but basically a goodhearted guy. His English was not so good so Hanna had to use her Swedish again. When he heard we were going to Finland, his face lit up and he switched to Finnish. He turned out to have a Finnish father, an eight year old daughter in Finland and he was more than happy to be able to speak Finnish to somebody. He even wanted to drop us off at Mariestad 50 km further to a good hitch hikerspot although he was only going home 10 km up the road. But first he had to drop something off at home. Since his home was next to the road (finnish flag above the door), that would not take too long. On entering his house I first noticed his campy collection of knives and swords on the wall. On his coffee table remained the leftovers of a party from the night before (half full bottle of white martini, an almost empty wodka bottle, lots of empty cigarettepacks). He offhandedly mentioned that two friends might drop by. Not even one minute later the doorbell rang. Enter a thirty year old blond woman who rattled on and on. Following her was a bit older lean, skinny blond guy type biker. He was the spit image of one of the freak brothers. He remained silent. Almost immediately the woman gave our driver a big wad of money. I thought, that must be the rent or something.

Our friendly driver leaned back in the sofa and got a big black wallet from his back pack from which he fished out a big seringe and than a handful of little plastic bags and then one bigger filled with a white powder. My guess was cocaine. He asked something to Hanna who quickly replied in Finnish. Later she told me that he asked if we had something against drugs. “No! In my circle of friends we do these things more discretely!” (none of her friends do drugs, btw) That dude had only picked us up about five minutes before and apparently thought nothing of it that he was now carefully weighing grams of cocaine in front of these two complete strangers. The long blonde biker guy now also took a big bundle of cash from his pocket and ordered some bags of white powder.

In the meantime that woman next to me kept on babbling and rambling on. Our driver nonetheless stuck to his word and it was not until long that we were again in his car driving towards Mariestad. But, while he was tanking gas, he received a phone call from his girlfriend. He instantly transformed into a badmouthing maniac. He said sorry, I have to return. His girlfriend had done something wrong or so. Fact was, this guy was driving at an incredible speed (150-160 km/h) on the ill lit Swedish roads, passing trucks and cars when it’s not safe. Also the knowledge that he had licked off the teaspoon like that when he was done weighing his drugs, did not help to set my mind at ease. I thought, this is as good a moment to die as any. Even a more depressing feeling came when we were dropped off at the exact same spot where that guy had picked us up one hour earlier.

Here we were, 1am and the traffic had completely died out. It was getting a bit chilly (especially when I have not slept I get cold easily) and since we had no better option we tried to sleep on the floor at the entrance door of a closed motel. Being able to sleep there was out of the question, so we decided to stand again alongside the road and try to catch a ride. It was about half past two when finally a car stopped. Of course, who else could it have been than our coke dealing friend ? In the car were also his girlfriend and this freaky guy on the backseat, holding a crack pipe and trying to communicate with me by writing “hej” on the steamy window. Our Swedish Fin felt so guilty for leaving us there like that, that he offered us to spend the night at his place. There was plenty of food for us as well. He also said that he wanted to take us to Mariestad this time, which was the best news we heard in a long time. But then he said “But first we want to do some drugs”, so we kindly refused his offer. We stood hitch hiking in front of his house, which was quite pathetic because they could see us through the living room window.

From then on things got better. There was an express bus that gave us a lift (in my dazed stupor I asked the driver “Hey, how much do we have to pay?” not realizing he gave two poor hitch hikers a free ride), the sun started shining and warmed our bones and I even got to see my first moose in the Swedish forests. It was a baby moose and didn’t have horns, but hey. This city boy was not complaining.

There was even a friendly fisherman who gave us some coffee. I fell asleep in the car then, which broke the code of conduct. Because normally me and Hanna both try to stay awake when we get a ride and converse with the driver. After all, this person has given us a ride and expects something in return, right? But on this one I skipped the etiquette and slept a blissful two hours. Hanna was a bit pissed at me, though.

Around noon we arrived somewhere in place called Eskilstuna we started poking around what would prices be if we would fly the last part of the trip. Because we were expected at an important family reunion in the north of Finland that weekend. Some prices were ludicrously high (700 euros) but SAS flew directly from Stockholm to Oulu (our destination) and the fare for two persons was only 250 euro. Hooboy, cheap.

We had enough of hitch hiking at this point, so we took the train to Stockholm. However, we still didn’t feel like spending 40 euros on a train ticket. With convincing acting talent Hanna tells the train conductor that in Finland, Belgium and Germany it is the most normal thing to be on a train without ticket. Because in those countries you can pay with visa-electro (proton in Belgium) for your trip. The conductor was not the type who wanted to be confronted with difficult situations. And of course we did not have any Swedish money on us, only one banknote of twenty euros. (the rest of our money we had hidden beforehand carefully so that the conductor would not see we actually had money). The conductor just walks away from us and from our difficult situation. In the end he comes back, sighs and takes our 20 euros. With this money we pay for only one ride but he does not want to have any dealings with us anymore.

An embarrassing moment came when we ran into him at the money exchange office at the railway station in Stockholm. We, coming out with 50 euros worth of Swedish krones; he, coming in with our 20 euro banknote to have it changed into Swedish currency.

Even with the plane ticket to Oulu we had to cheat a bit. The 250 euro price was only for “Youth”, meaning younger than 26. A one-way ticket for me would cost about 500 euro. Again the acting talents of Hanna suffice to get me into the airplane at Youth rate.

And so we landed in Oulu. Our final destination. We have traveled now for about 50 hours non stop, crossed a distance of 2000 km and are now 200 km from the polar circle. It’s quite hot, 28 degrees but I’m dead and dead tired so I hardly notice it.


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Paper Rodeo

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