Today is Midsummer. Here in the States we think of it as just the longest day of the year and the beginning of summer. But people who live much nearer the Arctic Circle celebrate this day with gusto. After all, on the opposite side of the calendar they have to endure a dark day.
Forty-one years ago I was hitchhiking from West Berlin to Malmö, Sweden. There I would meet my friend and we would travel north to celebrate Midsummer with her friends. On June 17, 1974 I stood at the border of the city and the DDR (East Germany) with my sign. I had to get a ride all the way through East Germany; hitchhiking in the DDR was illegal. A Mercedes stopped to pick me up on Highway 5 at the border between West Berlin and the East German state of Brandenburg. The driver was a psychiatrist. But he spoke no English (I found that odd) so our conversation steered clear of Freud. Although, I could have held my own with Nietzsche since he was required reading in my college German class —in Deutsch!.
He was going to Hamburg and nicely let me off at a place where I would most likely get a ride north. I got to Lübeck but got stuck just outside the city. June 17th was a national holiday in West Germany, commemorating the 1953 workers’ uprising in the East. Holidays were bad days for hitchhiking: cars full of families.
This was the third time I’d ever stuck out my thumb for a ride. The first had come just weeks before when my Dutch friend dropped me off at the German border. I was a little nervous. By the early 1970s hitchhiking in the States seemed too dangerous and, well, I didn’t need to. But this was my odyssey and a budget one at that. My thumb was out and cars were passing me by. Then, one driver pointed his index finger down. I thought it was the European version of the bird and I was only too happy to return the favor. Only later, a more experienced and wiser freeloader, I discovered that was the handsignal that meant, “I’m not driving very far.” I’d just finished Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. And, indeed I was.
So, I was stranded on a forest road just outside Lübeck. Suddenly, I saw a VW bus coming my way and, yes, I could see it: U.S. military plates! I got out the small American flag I’d packed just for this reason. I was new at hitchhiking and didn’t want to overdo it so I stood there holding it just below my face. Waving it around seemed like overkill and who knew what terrorists lurked in those forests (yes, for those with short memories, America wasn’t very loved, even in the ’70s). The van stopped. Two American servicemen were on their way to the Arctic Circle to celebrate Midsummer.
They were only going to Copenhagen that night. But they agreed to drop me off at the dock so I could catch a ferry to Malmö. (They’ve now built at bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö and the last ferry sailed in 2000.) We arrived just in time for me to catch the last crossing in a hydrofoil. I arrived in Sweden at 12:30 a.m., the sun just above the horizon.
A few days later I was hitchhiking north again, this time with my friend. It was 2 a.m. The sun was up and we had no problem catching a ride.