Five strangers squished into Victor’s Citroen C4. Silvia’s jean-clad leg pressed squarely against mine, ankle to hip. Kiko pushed in next to her, leaning on us as he shut the door. Jason took the front seat because of his long legs. “I’m small,” Silvia said, “but I’m wide. I’m a Mediterranean woman.” Victor pulled his car into Lisbon’s afternoon traffic and we were off, winding through Portuguese and Spanish landscapes on our way to Seville.
When we changed our travel route from Lisbon to Seville (rather than Lisbon to Madrid) we found ourselves with few travel options. We could take an overnight bus, or spend 7 hours on an expensive plane flight. Frustrated, I typed our travel plans into “Rome2Rio”, one of my go-to travel sites, and saw that they recommended something called BlaBlaCar.
Intrigued, I started my research. BlaBlaCar is a rideshare website that connects drivers with people seeking rides in European cities. Started ten years ago, the site now claims that 500,000 people use the service each month. Drivers and passengers create profiles (one “blah” means you’re less talkative, and three means you won’t shut up) with information about themselves. Other passengers can review the drivers, and drivers can also review passengers. And the rides are cheap – they usually cost somewhere between 20 and 40 euro, depending on the distance. After a lot of research, I found Victor’s profile on BlaBlaCar. He was driving to Seville on the day we needed a ride. Feeling brave, I signed up.
Rideshare companies like BlaBlaCar are becoming increasingly popular in Europe. A quick Google search yields results of over 20 difference rideshare companies and websites for European countries. This puzzles me. When Jason and I decided to to use BlaBlaCar – admittedly because we wanted to save money and time – we thought we might be putting our lives on the line. Who gets into a car with a random Spanish man and hopes for the best? We did, and apparently thousands of Europeans do as well. Americans, on the other hand, have only two companies that offer rides like this.
During our drive, I ask Silvia why she thought BlaBlaCar was popular in Europe and not in America. She didn’t answer directly, but said that she was afraid to travel to America because anyone can buy guns in our country. She’s traveled the world, but America scares her. She doesn’t trust it. Sadly, I’m not sure many Americans trust each other, either.
Silvia is originally from Milan, although she’s lived all over the world and speaks five languages. She worked as a television producer in Spain for many years, then moved to the UK to work at a bookstore. She’s tiny, with a pointed nose that makes her look like an inquisitive fox. Her bright red coat reaches her knees and her greying hair is cut short. Kiko, her husband, has a red beard and a kind, quiet demeanor. During our drive, Silvia talked enough for the both of them, rarely allowing for silence. Kiko had just finished his PhD in Medieval History, she told us, and they were living in Lisbon while he completed a post-doc fellowship at a large university. Silvia was well educated, too – several bachelors degrees, a masters and an in-progress PhD about Spanish history, specifically focusing on the cultural art of bullfighting.
Victor, our driver, spoke almost no English, so Silvia translated. Victor is an architect, commuting to Lisbon every week for work and Portuguese language classes. He’s also an architecture professor in Seville, and drove immediately to the local university after dropping us off at our hostel. He’d been married three times, he said.
Later, Jason laughingly said that Victor should have had his own soap opera. He certainly looked the part. I also decided part way through the trip that Victor used BlaBla car to abate the creeping loneliness that must have plagued him during his twice weekly drives from Lisbon to Seville. He appreciatively listened to Silvia as she talked his ear off about cultural differences, Spanish landscapes, food, bull fighting, and whatever else struck her fancy.
Four hours later, Jason and I found ourselves in metal chairs at a Spanish rest stop outside of Seville, eating jamon and bread while our travel companions drank their third coffees of the trip and chain smoked cigarettes. Silvia bought a bag of Spanish goodies for her in-laws. She and Kiko were traveling to his hometown of Seville to see the dentist – she pointed to her crooked, yellow-brown teeth when she said that – and to see his family. She seemed apprehensive about both, although the dentist worried her more. As we sat at the rest stop, watching cars enter and exit the parking lot, I had one of those, “How did I end up here?” moments. Those moments, deeply puzzling and exhilarating, give me faith in my ability to navigate the world and faith in other people, too. Those moments are the reason I travel.