Refusing to be ill and sit home, I did what you are never supposed to do: hitchhike while feeling poorly. Probably a fluke that the third lift I got after leaving Paris was one straight from somewhere in Southern Germany all the way to Slovakia. Feverish, I rode these 100s of kilometres, lapsing in and out of sleep. The last thing I remembered in Bavaria was a radio announcement that deer were on the motorway, then I snoozed all through Austria and when I was finally shaken awake, it was to the familiar hiss and lilt of a Slavic language.
I couldn't resist and celebrated the arrival in the new country with some zmrzlina quickly snaffled from the roadhouse café. A great word for a great thing: Zmrzlina means ice-cream. Listening closer to the language spoken around me, intelligible tatters of speech wafted over to my ears, some of them sounding like archaisms to the Russian-speaker's ear.
I was on the northern fringes of the continuum of mostly southern Slavic languages whose conspicuous absence of vowels inspired a nineties Onion article about Bill Clinton airlifting A's,I's and E's to the area since they were obviously in dire need of them. In reality, it is the letters "R" and "L", semi-vowels in English, which function as full ones here, I was told. That's how you get people with names like Vlk Trlin, which I would like to pretend was the name of my next driver, but that would be taking too much literary licence.
It took me three rides to get across the country, lengthwise. Each driver turned out more forthcoming than the precedent one. The first one bought me coffee, the second one bought me lunch, the third one dinner and drove a 80 km detour to drop me off at the border. Some 20 kilometers before it we sailed past a war monument. A first sign of the real East. "Russia is not very far from here", the locals said when we chatted with them at the garage where we stopped for tea. It was not without a certain degree of pride that my driver, a very knowledgeable man, sub rosa informed me that the country's actual name was now "Ukraine".
The penultimate small town before the border was called Lúcky. And, notwithstanding the errant accent, that's how I felt.