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Train-hopping in Europe

French guys 4TH are on a mission to prove that Europe can still be fun.

by Julien Morel and Nicolas Poillot
11 July 2012, 8:00am

The 4TH are four young Parisians convinced that Europe can still be fun. A year and a half ago, they started travelling around the continent using freight trains as their only means of transportation, and they photographed their adventures.

“Procession”, their exhibition at the Flaq gallery in Paris, shows them smoking, tagging and being bored in tiny box cars that smell of soot. While searching for a publisher, they gave us a few snapshots and answered a few questions.

VICE: In the US, freight train hopping is relatively common and associated with hobo culture. Why do you think it’s uncommon in France and Europe?
: I think there have always been travellers and explorers in search of adventure in America's large open spaces. It's also the birthplace of train-hopping, and a lot of other things that influence us every day. Importing this practice – even before we met real hobos – had been on our minds for a while. But here, you have to be more reckless.
Jack: Yeah, here it's very dangerous and almost impossible to know where the train will take you. You have to be prepared to get completely lost.
Woody: In Europe, freight trains circulate mostly on electric tracks. They also go much faster and are less accessible than they are in the US. You have to be careful of the overhead wires, especially when it rains.
Tendo: Here it's more like a commando mission than a ride along with a guitar and a toothpick stuck between your teeth.

So what is 4TH?
: 4TH stands for “The 4th Dimension”. It's our collective. There are four of us: Jack Tezam, Dim Jehosaphaat, Woody Van Tassel and Tendo Chan. We created our own parallel world, a sort of playground where no one can tell us what to do. It's an adventure club, if you will. Travelling inspires us.

Why did you decide to travel on freight trains?
Tendo: It started when I met a group of hobos with tattooed faces in Astoria, Oregon. I asked myself why we didn't do this in Europe. So we thought about it and decided to go for it, and it quickly became an addiction.
Jack: We've been hitch-hiking all over the world for a while now and I remember that Tendo mentioned riding trains once. We were looking for adventure and were also totally broke. So, really, it was a logical progression from the life we had before.
Dim: To be honest, I enjoy urban life too much to ever leave it. But nothing compares to breathing in air full of soot when you're lost on the road. It's something different, at least.

Where do you stop? How long were you travelling?
: In general, we stop in rail yards in the middle of nowhere, in really weird places. We would walk around for a couple of days before taking another freight train. We've been doing this for almost a year and a half, when we have time in between jobs.
Tendo: We got stranded a few times in a fucking rail yard in Belgium, a sort of Bermuda Triangle – it was impossible to get out of. A tough week, but it's also where we found the best abandoned buildings.
Woody: We want to bring this kind of travel to Europe.

Where do you sleep and eat?
: We typically sleep in old wagons, abandoned factories or abandoned houses. When we arrive in a new place, we look for water and a way to get clean.
Tendo: One time, we were sleeping in the cafeteria of a run-down factory and the ceiling of the other room collapsed because of a group of stray cats that were squatting on the floor upstairs.

I'm guessing you met some interesting people along the way.
: Crackheads and other suburban zombies aside, our main concerns were to avoid nuclear power plants and not to run out of peanut butter.
Jack: One time, we hid behind our bags in the corner of a tank car and a guy started hitting us with a stick, thinking we were a pile of trash. When he realised we were people, we took advantage of his state of shock and sprinted out of there.

Are you planning to get back on the road soon?
: As people are reading this, we'll be on a train.

Alright and apart from trains, what else will you be doing in the near future?
: Our collective is growing. We're working on a few different projects that you will discover soon enough on our website. Right now, we have the show at the Flaq gallery, which launched the “Road Dogs” project – a handbook with photos, stories and illustrations. We'd also like to make a short film with footage we shot on the road to go with the book.
Dim: The next step is to find a publisher.
Tendo: Right now, they're all pretty scared of us.