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  • Colleen Foye Bollen

When magic happens

The spring after I graduated from college, my friend, Lisa Jones, and I began our European adventure. With 40-pound backpacks strapped on our backs we stood on the edge of London’s M20 motorway. Three lanes of traffic going in each direction whizzed by at 70 mph. The gusts of wind coming off of passing diesel trucks were so strong we wobbled each time one passed.

We had a folded-up map of Europe, but no itinerary. Our plan was simple: to travel until our money ran out. To help stretch our dollars, we decided to cut out the expense of train tickets and travel by thumb. Like thousands of young travelers, we planned to hitchhike across Europe.

Back in the states when we hitchhiked through California and Oregon, our luck was pretty good. But there were a few rides that freaked us out. Once we got into the backseat of a car and found no handles on the passenger doors. Another time the driver sped down a mountain road with such wild abandon, we exchanged emergency contact information, just in case one of us lived through the experience.

Now we were headed to other countries with our pocket-sized translation dictionaries and a hope that we’d met people who spoke a bit of English. Our larger worries were thieves and sexual perverts. We had gotten many warnings about what could happen to women hitchhiking in Europe. Thinking about the “what ifs” created anxiety and made my chest tighten with fear.

Our first destination was France via the Dover ferry, about 60 miles outside of London. Not knowing how long it will take to travel via hitchhiking, we decided to start with a short hop.

After about a half-hour of standing with our thumbs out, a 20-something-year-old with long hair and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, stopped to give us our first ride. He got a bit handsy, brushing up against Lisa in inappropriate ways when he reached into the glove box for more cigarettes. Lisa fledged car sickness and we exited his car.

That left us standing away from any motorway entrances, on the side of the road, hoping a driver would stop on the shoulder of the road. The exhaust smell of hundreds of cars zooming by us was nauseating.

Finally, our second ride stopped. This time it was a clean-cut man in his 30s driving a tan Mercedes. He introduced himself as William and said he was going directly to the Dover Ferry. Although that sounded good, and he seemed friendly, we were leery about his intentions. At one point he reached his hand toward my leg. I jumped toward the door and he pulled his hand back. It turns out he only wanted some gum from his bag on the floor.

Once we pulled onto the ferry William said we could keep our backpacks in his car and continue riding with him once we landed in France. Leave our backpacks! Lisa and I looked at each other and you could almost see the thought bubble above our heads reading – Not Bloody Likely. Our brand-new backpacks were stuffed with all of our earthly possessions. Which was not much, but we didn’t want to risk losing them. We took our backpacks with us, telling him we needed to get things out of them; not that we thought he might rob us.

Just before we reached Frances, we returned to William’s car and repacked backpacks in his trunk. As we drove off the ferry, William reconfirmed that he could drive us to Lillie, France, about an hour away.

We were on the road for a short time, when William asked if he could practice for an opera, he was performing that evening in Berlin. We enthusiastically said, “Yes”.

He slipped a tape into his cassette deck.

Suddenly the back speakers, right behind my head, poured out an ensemble of violins, flutes, cellos and percussion instruments, that blended with the reverberation of William’s deep baritone voice. I leaned back into the soft leather interior. My ears, my skin, my whole being was marinating in the music. I gazed out the windows at the French countryside scrolling past us; miles of green open fields, a sprinkle with trees just thinking about flowering. The opera was a comfort to my soul. A day that started with anxiety and fear had magically transformed into one of my favorite days – ever.


Even now, more than four decades later, my first day hitchhiking in Europe is one of my most treasured memories. If I had dreamed up the perfect day, I would not have had the imagination to envision what unfolded.

Do you remember situations where you thought your day, or maybe your life, was going down the flusher, only to discover things turned out better than you ever expected? There generally four explanations for these positive shifts: our life spontaneously takes a turn for the better; we make a deliberate change that alters the trajectory of our life; we change the way we look at things and the things we look at change; or magic happens. It is never too late for the storyline for our day, year or life to change.

“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” - C.S. Lewis

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