So like most of you, I have birthdays. Generally about one per year. Most of these birthdays have been pleasant, but fairly unremarkable. A couple of them have been truly special. One of them had pirates. But amongst the numerous anniversaries of my nativity, there is one that I fear will never be topped. It involved a cement truck.
I was at a truck stop in southern Britain, trying to hitch-hike to Dover, and from Dover to Amsterdam, because, like, where else do you go in Europe as an 18-year-old boy? How I got to the truck stop is a whole other story, a story that is the rough British equivalent of “The Hills Have Eyes.” Let’s focus on one thing at a time, though. I know you are a product of the internet generation, but calm the fuck down.
So it was night time, and this truck stop was dead. Nobody was going the way I wanted to go, and hardly anybody was there at all. I was exhausted, and a little demoralized. Tomorrow was my birthday, and I was going to spend it miles from anybody who gave a shit if I lived or died. But at least I was on an adventure. Anyway, there was no time to mope. It was starting to rain, and I needed a place to sleep. There was a hotel, but I was being willfully poor and so didn’t have money for a room. What I did have was a tent. As rain began to fall, I searched for a plot of grass to pitch my tent on.
I found the perfect place – an out-of-the-way little plot under some trees. But apparently someone else had had the same idea as me. As I approached, I saw six tents already pitched on the grass, and a couple of men standing amongst them, smoking. I approached them to see what was up. When they saw me, they smiled.
“Romani?” said one, hopefully.
I shook my head, confused.
“Parlez vous Frances?” he said.
I shook my head.
“No,” I said.
He sighed, “English?”
“English,” I agreed.
He nodded gamely and rubbed his head, trying to get his English thoughts in order.
“We … gypsies,” he said.
“Gypsies?” I said, “Actual gypsies?”
“Gypsies! Yes! Gypsies! From Romania! You?”
“Ha HA! American! Why you here?”
“Uhh … Hitch-hiking.”
“Auto-stop. To Dover. Can I pitch my tent here?”
“Ha HA! Autostop!” He motioned to the others in the camp, and a whole family began to gather around me.
“Can I … can I camp? With you?” I tried again.
“Yes! Yes! Camp here with us! Where in America you live?”
“California,” I said.
“California!” he said, “They let you camp in California? In a car?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “Maybe. Probably.”
“How much the food?” he said.
“About like here,” I said.
“Lemme see you passport,” he said. I was now surrounded by ten or twelve gypsies, all following the conversation as best they could. The oldest of them was probably in his seventies. The youngest couldn’t have been older than five or six.
“My passport?” I said, suddenly suspicious.
“Passport! Yes! We trade. I show you Romania passport, you show me America passport.”
This seemed like a reasonable deal, so I dug out my passport and exchanged it for his. I immediately realized I’d gotten the short end of the stick. Picture an American driver’s license, but printed on cheap cardstock using a terminally ill printer and then laminated by a half-blind chimpanzee. Meanwhile, the gypsy family was oohing and awing over my embarassingly ostentatious passport, with its amber waves of grain and its purple mountain majesties and its inspirational quotes from American culture heroes. Each page they turned sent them into fits of laughter. Finally, they arrived at the page with my name and picture on it.
“Hey!” said the leader, “Hey! Hey! Your birthday tomorrow!”
“Yeah,” I said, handing back his passport. He gave me mine.
“Happy birthday!” he said. “You want wine? food?”
I wasn’t sure he would understand “Hell yes,” so I just nodded super hard.
What followed was a god-damn feast. Chicken cooked on a grill in the back of one of their piled-high sedans, a soup that was approximately 50% rosemary, bread to soak it up, and as much wine as I could drink. I juggled for the amusement of the children, and when I finally set up my tent, the oldest member of the caravan tried to trade me a gold ring for it. I respectfully declined.
It rained like a shower of dead birds all night, and in the morning I awoke to the leader slapping the side of my tent.
“Hey, hey, get up!” he yelled.
I crawled out of my tent and was greeted by the beaming leader, holding out a glass bottle of Coca Cola.
“Here! Happy birthday!” he said. I took it and drank, to much rejoicing all around.
“Here,” he said, giving me a battered map of the United Kingdom. “Here,” he said, giving me a woolen cap with ear-flaps. “Happy birthday! Happy birthday!”
Breakfast was the same as dinner: chicken, soup, and bread. The children ran circles around me, all smiles, while the adults packed their belongings tetris-style into their cars. The leader wished me good luck, and I marched across the truck stop to the parking lot, to see what Gypsy luck really was.
The Coke was half empty when they gave it to me. The map was practically confetti, and I was on my way to the Netherlands. The hat served me well, but itched terribly and vanished overnight a month later under mysterious circumstances. It was, after all, a gypsy hat. But I had spent the night with a family that was willing to adopt me for a few hours – to show me that, even though I was alone on the road, there were other people alone with me. My dad used to say that whether you celebrate your birthday doesn’t matter. What matters is that you pay attention to what you do on your birthday, and use that as a representative sample of what your life is like at that point. Judging by my 19th birthday, my life was a fucking fairytale.
Oh, what’s that you say? I never mentioned any cement truck? Well I suppose you’ll have to come back next week to hear about that bit, as well as the strangest transaction I’ve ever witnessed.