Germany’s shared transit a matter of mutual trust

New culture exhilarating for correspondent

New culture ‘exhilarating’ for correspondent

Rita Forbes

It’s not hitchhiking.

Last Friday, I stood outside the main train station in Cologne. The famous cathedral loomed directly overhead, but my gaze was directed elsewhere. As I waited and watched for a red Toyota, driven by a stranger, I thought, “Will this be the day that I am murdered with an ax in Germany?”

“No risk, no fun,” is my motto when traveling. Sure, I could have shelled out 50 euros for a train ticket from Bonn to Bremen, where I’ll spend the next semester studying. But not only is hitching a ride with a stranger cheaper, it’s more interesting. And so I went to the Web site last week. It’s a simple system: I enter my starting point, destination and date of travel, and am presented with a list of people going my way. They typically accept passengers for about 5 euros per 100 kilometers.

Russel was on my short list of potential drivers. He answered his cell phone in a hushed voice, and explained a few moments later that he was in the library. Yes, he was driving to Bremen on Friday; yes, he still had room for me; and yes, I could bring my luggage along.

And just like that, I had established a relationship of trust with a complete stranger. Trust that he really would pick me up, trust that he would drive safely, and trust that he meant me no harm. For his part, Russel was trusting that I would show up at the appointed place and time, that I would cough up 20 euros, and that I wasn’t planning a hijacking caper.

What do you say when you meet someone in this way? Are there polite conventions? When Russel arrived in Cologne, I simply shook his hand and shoved my luggage into the back of his Toyota Corolla. There would be time to talk later.

On the road, we exchanged stories. Our common language, German, was textured with my American and his African accent. Russel is a computer information science student from Cameroon and has spent the last five years in Germany. Learning that I was from America, he punched a few buttons on his CD player, and Dolly Parton began belting out “Harper Valley PTA.” Later, we progressed to German pop and music from South Africa.

I was among Russel’s very first Mitfahrgelegenheit passengers. In the past, he has searched out rides from others, rather than driving himself. It’s cheaper for a student that way. Just last week, however, he had an experience that caused him to rethink using Mitfahrgelegenheit. He was promised a ride by someone who purposely overbooked his vehicle.

“He offered rides to 13 people, even though he only had room for eight,” Russel said. “That is how he makes his money; he tells everyone he has room, just to be sure his car is full and he gets as much money as possible.”

Among five unhappy people suddenly stranded in Paris, Russel was forced to take a bus back to Germany. It cost nearly double what he had anticipated spending. Left with a bitter taste in his mouth, he decided to drive his own car to Bremen today.

As Russel’s story proves, this type of travel does not always work out. It could certainly be dangerous. But it can also be an opportunity to find commonalities with those to whom you have no discernable ties, as well as a source of unexpected encouragement.

When I expressed anxiety about the coming semester, Russel responded with exactly what I needed to hear.

“God takes care of His children,” he said. “You should not forget that. It is important. You don’t have to worry.”

After dropping me off at my front door in Bremen, Russel instructed me to call him if I had any problems.

I don’t have to worry. Indeed.