Feeling slightly melancholy about the UK’s recent exit from the E.U., I’ve been thinking a bit about my travels on, and my relationship with, the rest of the continent. Growing up in the South East of England, Calais was always closer than Manchester or Newcastle, and several childhood holidays were spent driving to the west coast of France or the flat countryside of Belgium. Since then, I’ve been lucky enough to visit friends completing Erasmus study years in Stockholm and Madrid, and undertaken countless further European trips, from Andalucia to the Alps, Kraków to Syracuse. One trip, however, still overshadows all others; interrailing around Europe when I was 18.
For many young adults, both in the UK and the rest of Europe, Interrailing is a formative experience, often undertaken in the heady days between finishing one set of studies and embarking on the next steps in life. It’s a chance to whizz from world leading city to city, meet new people and generally have a good time, all from the seat of a train carriage. The EU even recently launched a scheme to offer thousands of free Interrail passes to 18 years olds across the continent.
After months of plotting the perfectly spaced trip and saving up from our various Saturday jobs, myself and four other school friends headed off from St Pancras one balmy July morning. We scuttled like turtles under the weight of rucksacks crammed with Topshop vests, buzzing with anticipation at the idea of two weeks of independence.
Spending two to three nights in each city, our route cut a gentle curve around Central Europe; London – Paris – Amsterdam – Berlin – Prague – Budapest – Vienna and then home. The thrill of speeding from one city to the next was a novelty, though one which rapidly faded after spending a journey sitting underneath a seat on a delayed and overcrowded Deutschbahn train. This was a time before Air Bnb was so ubiquitous, and we stayed in Hostels of varying quality. Some were slick, with photo booths and happy hours, others were rickety building sites.
It was the first time where we could all drink as much as we liked, and we embarked on an organised bar crawl in Prague (this now makes me cringe, though i do still have the t-shirt), stayed out all night in Berlin, and explored Budapest’s Ruin Bar scene. There were also brief holiday flings – none for me, though there was the experience of being serenaded by an overly enthusiastic Argentinian man in a hostel. Most of this was delightful experimentation, though some took a darker turn as we learned the shifting power dynamics of getting older men to stop pestering us in a bar, and the seedy underbelly of doormen plying us with free prosecco to stop us leaving their shitty club.
There was culture too. We visited the Berlin Wall, Vienna’s Museums and, inexplicably, the ‘Perfume Museum’ in Paris. We bathed in Budapest’s thermal waters, picnicked by the Eiffel Tower and spent many hours walking, cycling and in the case of Amsterdam, boating, around the different cities.
We ate steak frites in Paris, pancakes in Amsterdam and life changing kebabs in Berlin. But mostly we ate crisps in train carriages. And some McDonalds too. The first fight of the holiday occurred in Paris after half the group had bought Big Macs, whilst the others purchased a bottle of red, baguette and camembert and were making everyone march to a suitably scenic spot to eat. Team McDonalds just wanted to eat before their food got cold, leading to frayed tempers and tears.
There were other fights, mostly ridiculous and the kind that only occur after a toxic combination of no personal space, no sleep and not enough food. Tensions over silly things like texting boyfriends and exam worries fizzed over in exasperation, but were quickly forgotten.
We were naïve and blind to wider issues, such as unsustainably high levels of tourism and drunk travellers being a general nuisance for local residents. Since our trip, several of the cities we visited have clamped down on over-tourism in general and anti-social tourism in particular; Amsterdam have stopped advertising themselves as a major tourist destination and Prague has appointed a ‘Nightlife Mayor’ to help crackdown on antisocial drunkenness.
But for me, the trip is still strewn with completely perfect memories – a golden evening spent dangling our legs over the Seine, consuming takeaway pizza and 2 euro bottles of wine (the evening’s entertainment provided by one of my friends being shat on by a bird which, yes, we still tease her for today). Nights spent dancing until dawn to see in the sunrise. Stupid in-jokes which still make us double over with laughing, even years later.
Ultimately, a few key memories from the trip stick with me. The first is the feelings of ecstasy and freedom, experienced as a continent and my life simultaneously unfurled at my feet. One night in Berlin, after being rejected from the techno behemoth Berghain (for being too young and too uncool), myself and another friend decided to go out for a cycle at 3am, just because we could. We cycled along the Berlin wall as the sun rose, singing along to David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ and felt completely alive.
The other is the acceptance and kindness of strangers towards five teenage girls muddling their way around Europe. For example, the waiter who, when we asked for his cheapest wine, took pity on us and upgraded us to a nicer bottle for the same price. Or the man in Berlin who could see that we were lost and offered us directions and local tips. Whichever way the U.K. decides to navigate its uncertain post-Brexit future, i hope its one where British travellers can still move from city to city, meeting new people, with as much ease as we did.
The high we returned on wasn’t even dampened by the realisation that numerous others our age had undertaken the exact same ‘special and unique’ route that we had. Since then, I’ve travelled on two long distance European train trips (once to Spain, and more recently to France and Germany with my boyfriend), but nothing has reached the high of that first trip. We even received a gift after we returned; an Interrailing towel. Mine swiftly ended up in the bin after someone in my Uni halls copiously vomited down it.