It was a dark and stormy night. Okay, so it was morning and it wasn’t stormy, but “strong wind” sets more of a flatulent tone than I’m going for here. So: Dark. Stormy. Cold. I’m shivering outside the Nantes train station just before dawn, waiting for Marc to show up and wondering whether he looks anything like his picture.
If you’re thinking, “That sounds like a super murder-y time of day to meet a guy you found on the Internet,” you’re right. Except it wasn’t a date. Marc had, without ever having met me, agreed to drive me from Nantes to Paris.
It was my first ride-share.
Lots of people have done this before me. Hitchhikers (like my own parents in the 1970s) have been standing at the side of the road hoping for a free ride in the right direction since before anyone knew how to pronounce “quinoa.”
MIT has records of people ride-sharing as early as 1914, when private automobile owners started picking up passengers and charging the same five-cent fare as the streetcars for a faster, more direct ride. The trend was known as the “jitney craze” (“jitney” was slang for a nickel), and was so widespread that it was even featured in a Charlie Chaplin movie in 1915, called “A Jitney Elopement.”
In keeping with my own generation’s obsession with the Internet, I booked my ride-share online. On BlaBlaCar.fr, I’d found drivers who shared a similar destination, gone through their profiles and reviews, chosen Marc and pitched in 29 euros (compared to the 80-euro last-minute train fare) to guarantee my seat in his dark grey Rover.
While I was excited to join the generations of broke travelers who had come before me, my anxiety level as I stood waiting in the dark for a total stranger to let me into his car was about the same as if I’d just been handed an adorable Golden Lab puppy that might have rabies.
Yes, Marc had been reviewed more than 30 times and smiled reassuringly in his profile photo, but did that mean he wasn’t a tourist-kidnapping sociopath?
I tucked my passport and credit card into the front of my pants to ensure that they’d survive the impact if I had to tuck and roll out of the moving vehicle. My cousin accompanied me to the station, which was also reassuring: he’s an aikido-trained Mensa guy, so I figured he could physically and intellectually fight his way out of virtually any situation. I armed every Spidey-sense in my body. We waited.
The dark grey sedan pulled up to the curb.
Marc, who turned out to be a cheerful ginger-bearded guy in a white knit sweater, bounced out of the car like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh (“Tigrou,” in French) and popped the trunk, which was notably devoid of rope, duct tape and/or zap straps. A tall smiling guy standing near us introduced himself as my fellow passenger, Mohsab. He folded his long legs into the back seat so that I could ride up front.
Over the next four hours, I was treated to a gorgeous sunrise and the company of two of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.
Marc, far from being a threatening stranger (well, let’s wait until his daughter is old enough to start dating), was a documentary filmmaker and father of two, well traveled and politically aware. Mohsab was writing a stage play about the life of Leopold Weiss, and working with a non-profit organization called Al-Kawakibi. The NPO, created in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, hopes to undermine violent extremism by organizing a world forum on Islamic reform in 2016, focusing on the more intellectual, peaceful and community-building interpretations of the religion.
By the time we reached Paris, we had talked about everything from how much you should spend on a wedding (consensus: less is more) to traditional Indonesian architecture, and I was sold. Not into some shady human trafficking ring like I originally feared, but on the whole concept of ride-sharing. For a fraction of the price of a train ticket, I rode in total comfort. Instead of staring blankly out a window, I got to chat the whole way. And at the end of the ride, I felt like I had made new friends, which is pretty much the reason I travel at all.
I stepped out of the car into a bright and breezy morning.