Interrail Journey Europe Through the Eyes of the Next Generation
A quarter million young Europeans spent this summer rolling through the Continent on an Interrail ticket. Conversations with the travelers reveal a younger generation that understands the EU better than their elders might think.
Matteo Leone and Simone Bruno may not know it yet, but they are having the best summer of their lives. They've completed their exams and now they're on vacation -- and "you can't spend it better than we are," says Matteo. In the last couple of weeks, they've visited Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin. Last night, they slept in Prague and the train that is just now rolling into Prague Central Station will whisk them off toward Munich. From there, they are planning to head down to Split on Croatia's glittering Adriatic coast.
Matteo and Simone are both 20-year-old architecture students from Florence, and they are both a lot of fun. For the last three weeks, they have been traveling through Europe on an Interrail pass, the European equivalent of the Eurail ticket. Matteo tosses his backpack onto the ground, pleased with himself and his vacation. He has a couple of Internet photos from Croatian inlets he wants to visit on his mobile phone.
"Just look at that blue!" he gushes. He's extremely excited to get to the seaside -- and it really is a beautiful shade of blue.
For the duration of their four-week trip, Europe is a giant playground for these two Italians, a place of adventure that stands open to them, equal parts foreign and familiar. There are no impediments, just opportunities. They can sit in the train as it zips across the Continent and wonder if they perhaps want to live here, or maybe there. And the dream isn't even as absurd as it would have been for their grandparents. It's possible.
It is said that Interrail is not an educational trip because travelers spend most of their time in trains, stations and hostels. Because they just want to party. So I ask Simone and Matteo of Florence: How many Europeans have they met on their journey?
'What a Stupid Question!'
"A lot, a hell of a lot. At least five a day, I'd say, so around 100. But that can't be right -- that's not enough. More, more than 100," says Matteo.
And which nationalities can you simply not stand? Which country shouldn't belong to the EU?
Matteo looks surprised. "None, of course. What a stupid question!"
The Interrail pass has been around for 44 years. The offer -- an idea created by the Austrians, Swiss, Belgians and Dutch -- was presented in 1972 for the 50th anniversary of the International Union of Railways (UIC). The term "flat rate" didn't yet exist, but the offer marked the introduction of what is essentially a flat rate for Europe's train system: a month of freedom in 21 European countries available to everyone aged 21 and under. Almost all connections were included and it could be had for a single price -- or, rather, several different prices at the time: 1,700 shillings, 27.50 pounds or 235 deutsche marks, for example.
The German chancellor at the time was Willy Brandt and, long before Interrail's introduction, he had given voice to a dream: "The day will come when the hate that appears so inevitable in times of war will be overcome. A Europe in which Europeans can live must become a reality."
The train to Munich isn't very full. Matteo and Simone each get a seat along with an extra one for their backpacks so they can lean against them for a bit of sleep. They have been surprised at how little time they are actually spending in trains. European trains no longer bump along like they used to -- instead racing from place to place in the era of high-speed rail. It takes only 2.5 hours to get from Paris to London and the trip from Madrid to Barcelona, fully 600 kilometers, can be covered in just a little over three hours. From Paris to Marseille, it's just three hours and four from Munich to Vienna.
The two nod off, although they should actually be well-rested. One big problem facing Interrailers is that almost all hostels require that guests leave their rooms by 10 a.m. Even in your early 20s, it's not possible to party through the night and get up early for four straight weeks. For Matteo and Simone, being forced to get out by 10 is the height of incivility.
The Morning Routine
So they've come up with a trick: They wake up way too late, well after 10, calmly pack their things and slouch to the reception. That's where they start their show, speaking loudly and passionately, usually both at the same time. There are, after all, clichés about the Italians, and one must do what one can to live up to them. They claim the outlet at their bedside was broken, which is why their phones didn't recharge, which is why their alarm didn't go off, which is why they didn't leave their room until after 10, which is why they aren't to be blamed -- which is why "è assolutamente not okay" to be forced to pay the late-checkout fee.
No hostel employee has either the time or the inclination to check the outlet. And their ruse works nine times out of 10.
Their morning routine continues once they leave the hostel, as they look for a fast-food restaurant, usually a McDonald's or Burger King, for breakfast. "My mother would strangle me if she knew that I was having a hamburger for breakfast every day for a month," says Matteo. But they've each only budgeted 10 euros per day for food. "If you do Interrail, you should like döner and panini. And you shouldn't be afraid of diabetes."
Nobody knew in 1972 that one of Willy Brandt's greatest legacies would turn out to be a train ticket. Since then, more than 8 million Interrail passes have been sold, around 1.5 million of them in Germany alone, more than any other country except Britain. Last year, 250,000 tickets were sold across Europe, the highest number in years.
Interrail quickly turned into a kind of peace movement, an antidote against prejudice and a way to clear away the mental rubble left over from the war. Whereas grandpa may associate France with Verdun, England with nighttime bombing raids and Spain with Franco, granddaughter doesn't care. She rattles unshowered in second class through this beautiful Continent, seducing the boys on the beach at Rimini.
The first years after the introduction of Interrail were a period of consolidation, with the train of progress leading to economic growth and prosperity across Europe. Country after country got on board for the journey. But then, when the train began to slow -- at a time when peace was no longer a goal but reality -- many began yearning for times past, for the era of postwar rubble. Some say we are already there.
Worried about a Crumbling Europe?
Britain doesn't know what it wants, just that it shouldn't be European, and voted in favor of Brexit. Catholic Poland has interpreted solidarity and mercy to mean receiving net payments from Brussels worth around 10 billion euros a year and in return, offering protection to around 400 refugees. Hungary doesn't want to help anyone at all, and to prevent that fact from getting out, it has adopted media laws that would make African despots proud. Finland is considering getting rid of the euro. And France, the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark and Germany all have growing legions of bellyachers who would rather go it alone than continue as a group.
Willy Brandt was wrong. A war isn't necessary to hate Europe.
Are Matteo and Simone, the two Italians lounging in the train to Munich, worried about their futures, about the banking crisis in Italy and about a crumbling Europe? "Yes, of course," Matteo says. "But only in the fall."
"We're optimists," Matteo says, a claim supported by the subject they have chosen to study. They are both students of architecture in Florence, a city where nothing has been built for the last 400 years.
Interrail is the extended break between fun and real life, between school and office. It is a different state of being, and the rules are simple.
Upon arrival, you leave the train station and begin the search for a youth hostel. Once there, you get to know other Interrailers who have just arrived before googling a couple of local sights. Sometimes, you head out for a look and take pictures to send back to your parents, to whom you insisted that such a trip would be educational. Sometimes, though, you just send photos that you found on the Internet, especially when the city has a beach, which are perfect places for a nap. At night, you head out on the town, every evening for four long weeks. A bar, a club, a square where young people gather, a street festival. It really makes no difference, there is always something going on.
"We stay one, two or three days and then catch up on our sleep on the train," says Simone.
"I'll sleep when I get back to Italy," says Matteo. "There is no cheaper vacation available."
The so-called Global Pass costs 479 euros for a month of unlimited travel in 30 countries. Matteo and Simone bought the pass allowing them 15 days of travel in a month for 361 euros, or 24 euros per travel day. It's their summer, their youth, their Continent.