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.
By Juan Moreno
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.
On the Road
Munich Central Station to Verona Porta Nuova
Departure: 7:38 a.m.
Arrival 1:13 p.m.
The Eurocity creaks and groans as it slowly begins moving, embarking on the five hour and 35 minute trip to Verona. When you do an Interrail month, you quickly realize just how small Europe actually is. Jamie Anderson and Jenny Aczel, both 18-year-olds from Exeter in southwestern England, have been on the road for three weeks and have left Italy for the very end of their trip. Venice is to be the end of the road. Of course Venice. One is tempted to tell them that Venice is an awful, degenerated Italian romantic theme park overrun with tourists. But it is also true that only those who have forgotten what it was like to stand in love on Piazza San Marco for the first time would say something that stupid.
Jamie, with his soft, deep voice, and Jenny, who is a bit more frenetic, are both waiting for the results of their university admissions exams. They are important weeks for both of them, perhaps even vital for the rest of their lives. Will their scores only be good enough for an average English university, which, the past has shown, tends only to pave the way for an average English career? They have decided not to think about it "because it would drive us crazy."
Complaining doesn't get you anywhere, but an Interrail ticket does: Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Brussels, Hamburg, Berlin, Munich, Venice. Sixty euros a day for two has to be enough, and it is. "You have a lot of picnics in parks."
Jamie sees the question coming before I even get around to asking and answers it before we get too far from Munich. This summer, everyone who meets a Brit on the road asks the same thing. "Yes, we voted Remain. And yes, it feels terrible to be out." Jenny says that it was the first real vote she had participated in since turning 18, and then this. "Seriously, I wanted to print a T-shirt for this trip saying that I'm British and that I don't want to leave the EU."
A Crisis of Old People
Politics dominates the first several minutes of our conversation, just like it used to. Interrail has always felt a bit like a diplomatic mission. When you get on the train in a foreign country, it's easy to strike up a conversation with others and you quickly become the expert on political developments back home. Back when compartments were the rule rather than the exception and passengers sat facing each other, such conversations happened much more frequently. In modern trains, with their "leave-me-alone" rows of seats, it has become more difficult.
Jamie, who intends to study geography, didn't sleep on the night of the referendum. He thought about going into politics after all "to reverse the insanity," but he ultimately didn't dare.
He believes it was elderly voters who drove the country out of the EU. Indeed, he sees them as being the problem. "These bitter old people. They really don't care what happens to us. The vote wasn't about the future, it was about what they don't like about today."
It is a sentiment that one hears often from Interrailers this summer: The crisis of Europe is a crisis of old people. Young people, meanwhile, are quite happy with Europe. Eighty percent of British voters between the ages of 18 and 24 didn't want to leave the EU.
But in this respect, the United Kingdom is just like the rest of Europe: The older generations determine where the country is heading. There are more of them. And although they have it much better than their parents ever did, they are extremely angry.
In 1950, 8.2 percent of Europeans were over the age of 64, but by 2050, it will be 28 percent. Advancing age might explain a lot: Why the Continent seems so afraid, for example, and is constantly demanding more fences, more border controls and more police despite being safer than it ever has been. Why it has become so mistrustful, so suspicious of its neighbors and so erratic. This anger, this mood is familiar to us all. You see it sometimes in retirees who become enraged at every piece of garbage they see in the park. Or on the bus, when an old lady wearing a hat unloads her contempt for the world on someone just because they didn't stand up from the disabled seat quickly enough.
That is the mood that Jamie is referring to.
Paris Gare du Nord to London St. Pancras
Departure 3:13 p.m.
Arrival 6:02 p.m.
Amira Erden is a Muslim sociology student from Turkey who is traveling by herself. She began her Interrail trip in Norway and has traveled to London by way of Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Germany and France. A thoughtful, reserved woman with short, brown hair and dark eyes, she has just arrived from Paris and is impressed by the monumental reception hall in St. Pancras Station. Her cousin, who is coming to pick her up, is stuck in traffic, so she has a few minutes to kill.
"I know that Europe has problems," Amira says. "And I also know that they are the kinds of problems that I would love to have."
Her trip was a spontaneous decision; she just wanted to get out of Istanbul after a professor of hers was arrested. She still doesn't know why he was taken into custody. She only knows that during a recent lecture, he had suggested that the living conditions of Syrian refugees living in Istanbul should be scientifically researched. The Turkish Interior Ministry, though, expressly forbade it. Plus, he had been considered a leftist ever since participating in the anti-government protests three years ago on Taksim Square.
"Interrail makes me sad," she says, saying that talking with other travelers was difficult. They speak of Europe, but they mean the EU. How should you explain to people in Germany or France, particularly young people, that you have to be careful about who you confide in at university? That you can be imprisoned for your thoughts?
Amira has only one problem with Europe, but it is a big one. "You take it all for granted. You should be grateful."
Naiveté and Knowledge
Barcelona Sants Estació to Madrid Atocha
Departure 11 a.m.
Arrival 1:45 p.m.
They just finished renovating the station in Barcelona. It is now very bright, extremely modern and there are way too many shops. One of my first realizations from this Summer 2016 Interrail trip is that European central stations have been transformed into shopping centers with train connections.
It is hardly a surprise that Barcelona is overrun with tourists. And ever since Turkish politicians have decided to do everything in their power to make Turkey an unattractive Mediterranean travel destination, even more are coming.
Felicitas Kern, Lea Meier and Rike Schepers, all of whom just reached the age of majority, are waiting on a bench embracing their backpacks. The fast train is about to leave for Madrid and from there they are planning to continue onward to Lisbon. All three are from Berlin. Felicitas, with blonde hair and beautiful eyes, says: "I had to do it. My parents insisted. They met each other on Interrail."
And? What have you found?
"What should I say? Well, just how amazingly nice the people are."
It sounds so young. So naïve. Felicitas is convinced that this Continent is packed full of friendly people. To prove that Felicitas is right, her friend Rike describes the most typical of all Interrail problems. They encountered it yesterday.
Their train from Marseille only got to Barcelona very late, after 10 p.m., raising an obvious question.
Do you spend the money on a hostel? Or should you see if you can get by without one, since it's only dark for a few hours in summer? With the price of rooms exorbitant in Barcelona in high season, the answer was clear.
"Until about 2 a.m., you think, it's not so bad. But by 4 a.m., you totally regret it. Passersby gave us money because they thought we were homeless. One woman came up to us and asked how she could help."
Times Are Changing
Their parents told them that it used to be possible to sleep in night trains, and sometimes even in train stations. But that's no longer the case. These days, there are a lot fewer night trains and station benches almost all now have armrests, presumably only to keep Interrailers from stretching out across four seats for a bit of shut-eye.
To be completely on the safe side, many train stations are now completely closed up for the night. In some European cities, it seems that the station security guards' only responsibility is that of waking up travelers who have had the presumption to fall asleep.
But it's not just the stations that have changed. Interrail traveling is quite a bit different than it used to be. You used to flip through mountains of timetables to plot the perfect route, only to immediately discard it because you met someone who had an even better plan. Trips were generally made overnight so as to save money on lodging and you shared the jam-packed trains heading south from Northern Europe with immigrant guest-worker families going home for vacation. Your parents only learned how you were doing two weeks after you'd already returned home -- when the postcard you sent from Greece finally arrived.
Today, many Interrail travelers make reservations for all of their overnight stays on the Internet before they leave. You know where you are going to sleep, mom and dad know where you're going to sleep and you can no longer be spontaneous.
Spontaneity has become expensive -- and sometimes impossible, because some European rail carriers require seat reservations and have limited the number of seats made available to those traveling with Interrail passes. In France and Spain, you can't just jump on the next train heading your way. Some older Interrailers will say that it isn't Interrail at all anymore.
And of course, you used to spend a lot more time on the train. Forty-eight hours in a packed train from Dortmund to Thessaloniki, most of the time sitting next to a toilet that already began stinking way back in Germany.
Vienna Central Station to Budapest Keleti
Departure 11:42 a.m.
Arrival 2:19 p.m.
The handle-bar-mustachioed racist that the Austrian rail company assigned as conductor on this train is yelling. Half the train can hear him. Why can't this "scum" stay in their "filthy shit country?" he screams. The "scum" he is referring to are two Roma children and their mother and they are on their way to Budapest. They just boarded in Vienna and are sitting on the steps near the toilet. They apparently have incorrect tickets. Calling crying children "scum" is likely only possible when, in place of your heart, you have only a pile of Tyrolean cow shit.
Henry, Jonathan and Leo, whose names were changed for this story, don't hear any of it. They are sitting at a table a few cars away -- and it is immediately obvious that they are Interrailers.
When you buy your ticket, you are given a narrow, yellow-green arm band, and many wear them so they can be recognized.
The three set off from Karlsruhe one week ago and have three weeks of traveling ahead of them. And they're already broke. Jonathan wants to become a doctor, Henry hopes to study business and Leo isn't sure yet but is leaning toward architecture. They are young and this is their first serious trip without their parents -- parents who insisted that their real names not be used in this story.
It all started when the three decided to go "have another drink" in Vienna.
They just graduated from a top-tier German high school and really should have known that a bar with pink neon on the facade and darkened windows -- and with a name like Hot Flamingo's Bar -- isn't just a watering hole. But again, the three are quite young and the three women who welcomed them inside were "totally hot," as Henry describes them.
As was the woman who slowly undressed on stage. At some point, they found themselves sitting at a table with the three women. It was, it seemed, their lucky day, with the women telling them that for three such good looking young men, they were willing to make an exception to the house rule mandating "look but don't touch." First, though, the girls had to drink a bit of liquid courage, in the form of champagne.
"In the end, it cost us over 3,000 euros, pretty much everything we had," says Henry, who still wears braces. And no, insists Jonathan, nothing untoward happened.
Three dumb kids, one might think. Let them out to travel around for just a single week, and they get fleeced in the first strip club they see in Vienna. But then, if you take a bit of time to listen and just let them talk, it's not long before you notice just how refreshing it is to hear about Europe's future from people who will still be around to experience it.
"It's probably not financially viable," says Jonathan, "but it would probably be a good idea to give every European an Interrail ticket for their 18th birthday so they don't believe the crap coming from the AfD." He's referring to the anti-Islamic, right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany that is currently making inroads in the country.
It's not that difficult to come up with a rough estimate of how much it would cost. With 5.5 million 18-year-olds in Europe, the total would be in the neighborhood of 2 billion euros, or around 1.5 percent of the EU budget. The bank bailout was more expensive than that.
Four Weeks Off to Be Free
"And when it comes to the euro," says Leo, "I'm going to be sure to tell everybody that the currency exchange windows at Prague central station charge 19.9 percent to exchange euros for Czech crowns."
In talking to them, it becomes clear that these three young men have taken only these four weeks off to be free. To be young. To screw up in a strip club called Hot Flamingo.
After that, it's back to real life. Jonathan, the future doctor, plans to work in a hospital next month while the other two have internships lined up. They are quite a bit more disciplined than similar young men and women were 30 years ago. None of them will end up staying for 30 semesters at university, as was not uncommon in Germany and other European countries not that long ago. Employers no longer overlook such things. Their parents were of a generation that took things as they came -- and they've raised their children differently.
There are lots of studies showing that Jonathan, Henry and Leo are not exceptions. The young men and women of today are more focused on their careers, more politically aware and more optimistic than the generation that preceded them. They are more likely to get their diploma from a university prep high school, they speak better English, they take the risk of terror seriously but nevertheless believe that it's not therefore necessary to turn Europe into a walled fortress. Didn't it used to be that the young ones were crazy and old ones were thoughtful?