Hitchin' a Ride 

Drunken bets put Tony Hawks in the doghouse ... and in Transnistria.

When Tony Hawks raised his glass while toasting his host family on his second night in Moldova, he exclaimed, "Prost!"

Hawks was confident that the expression was "widely used everywhere east of Strasbourg." The family, which had taken this stranger into their home just hours before, greeted the toast with dead silence.

In Moldova, prost means "stupid."

Naroc means "cheers."

Of all the embarrassments the comedian-turned-travel-author endured during the journeys that led to his books Round Ireland with a Fridge and Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, that was the worst. But as you might guess from the titles alone, Hawks is not easily embarrassed. On the contrary, he relishes putting himself into situations that would make your typical travel writer run away screaming. As for the most prideworthy moment in either of these two journeys, it did not, Hawks says, come during any of his victorious tennis matches against every single member of the Moldovan national soccer squad. He's prouder of taking a small refrigerator surfing off the northwestern coast of Ireland.

Well-known in Britain as a radio/TV guest and host of BBC Radio 4's Tony Hawks' Lost Weekends, Hawks had no intention of writing a travel book when he made a drunken bet with a friend a few years back whose stakes involved hitchhiking around the circumference of Ireland while hauling a refrigerator. One night, Hawks was being greeted personally by Prince Charles after a royal gala show; two days later he was standing by the side of the road in a small village outside Dublin, lugging a fridge. It was raining.

"The fridge journey was done as a genuine act of lunacy and with no book deal in place," concedes Hawks, who has family in the Bay Area. There was no guarantee that the Irish would in turn be lunatic enough to give the visitor and his cargo lifts. But, as Hawks points out, "The interesting thing about having a task or quest is that it forces you into situations that you would never normally be in. You have no choice but to have new experiences which enable you to make interesting observations about a people, a country, and its culture."

So it was that Hawks found himself competing in a "bachelor festival," having a one-night stand in a hostel's doghouse, and calling the Irish minister of defense to ask for a helicopter that could airlift him and his fridge to a tiny island. And then there was that surfing incident. As it turned out, he got plenty of rides, particularly as his whereabouts were publicized almost daily by a popular Dublin radio host.

Funny things happen to funny people all over the place, but few are able to write about it with both dead-on humor and genuine insight. In a somewhat lighter and droller manner than that other British comedian-turned-travel-author, Monty Python's Michael Palin, Hawks pulls off this difficult balancing act, maintaining a persona that, for all its quixotic pluck, feels absolutely authentic.

"I didn't want to become too preachy or serious," he emphasizes. In Ireland, hitching around the country with a fridge "meant that the people took me to their hearts, because they love an 'eejit.' " Striving to win that bet, he couldn't help but see that something bigger was happening at the same time. As the story unfolded, he says now, "I knew I had to have a go at writing something."

A later bet, the loser of which would have to sing naked in public, spawned Hawks' second book. Not long after setting up contacts in the Eastern European republic of Moldova via -- no kidding -- a Moldovan band of Beatles imitators whom he met in Liverpool, Hawks was off to a country that sees virtually no tourists, and that few from the West could to this day even find on a map. One would think that going there with no purpose other than challenging every member of the national soccer team to a tennis match would be welcomed with guffaws, if not open arms.

But Hawks found a country that saw life as a task to be endured, not an adventure to be enjoyed. Initial queries met not with laughter or even derision but indifference. At one point the usually jovial Hawks felt real fear when a gangster-type mogul started strong-arming him to direct English tourists to a luxury motel in the foreboding Transnistria region. Hawks had almost abandoned his mission in despair before matches with the Moldovan soccer players began falling into place. He would have to catch up with a few of them in Northern Ireland, and then Israel, before finishing off every last one.

But Playing the Moldovans at Tennis is not so much about settling a bizarre wager against soccer pros who turned out to be fairly inept on the tennis court. It's a study of a country where fatalism prevails, doctors sometimes have to get paid under the table with fish rather than currency, and the capital's unlit streets are riddled with manholes whose covers have long since been stolen.

"In Moldova, the daftness wasn't necessarily an advantage," concedes Hawks. "But it meant that I had a goal."

Which was?

"To try and convince people that life didn't have to be taken too seriously."

Due out this summer from Britain's Ebury Press, Hawks' latest book is an account of his around-the-world attempt to score a top ten hit -- somewhere, anywhere. His novelty number "Stutter Rap" hit number four on the British charts in '88. One Hit Wonderland will reveal whether or not he was, in fact, able to follow it up with "You Broke My Heart Like a Bird's Egg (But Now the Yolk's on You)."

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