Travelling back in time: Memories of my interrailing youth

In 1991, having just turned 20, I headed off around Europe on the adventure of a lifetime

Camping (without a tent!) in Greece

Camping (without a tent!) in Greece

 

In 1991, having just turned 20, I rolled several months’ worth of clothes into my backpack, double checked that my passport, travellers cheques, InterRail ticket and credit card were in order, and clipped my trusty bum-bag around my waist – I was off for the adventure of a lifetime.

This summer, give or take a few minor details, many young people the same age as I was then are doing the same thing, enjoying their first taste of freedom and exploring the world on their own.

While the destinations might be similar and the fashions have probably come full circle again, there are some details which are wildly different. And it wasn’t until I found my travel diary last week that I realised how much has changed for backpackers today.

Arlene Harris in Rome
Arlene Harris in Rome

Back in my day, when you made the decision to head off into the blue yonder, there was no TripAdvisor or Booking.com to research accommodation or reserve a reputable room in advance. Instead, you got on the train and it was only when you disembarked at the other end that you sorted yourself out with a place to stay. In today’s world, this would seem like a wildly adventurous (and possibly foolhardy) thing to do, but not so long ago, it was the norm.

We had a big fat book of train timetables which became our bible for those carefree months of schlepping around Europe and North Africa. Its well-thumbed pages were the sum total of information on the times and destination of various trains, and we would often flick it open and chose a destination at random.

A hostel “room” on a rooftop in Greece.
A hostel “room” on a rooftop in Greece.
Arlene Harris in Venice
Arlene Harris in Venice

I remember the weighty tome and the exhilaration (and frequent frustration at the rows and rows of numbers) it brought, but I had forgotten what happened when we arrived in the next destination until reading my diary and the words I wrote almost three decades ago.

My hurried scrawl reminded me how, when we disembarked, we would scour the station for notices with telephone numbers of available accommodation, or better still, try and chat to departing backpackers who would give us their recommendations.

Then we would find the nearest bank. As the trains often arrived early in the morning, we would congregate with other travellers on the pavement outside, waiting for the doors to open so we could withdraw some local currency, or cash in our travellers’ cheques.

Arlene Harris with a friend in Rome
Arlene Harris with a friend in Rome

With the minimum funds to see us through our intended stay (no-one wanted to be stuck with a glut of Yugoslavian Dinars or Moroccan Dirhams, particularly as the local banks had the tendency to feign ignorance when we wanted to change currency back into pounds or dollars), the next task was to find the nearest phone box so we could ring around to find an available room.

Vague arrangements

Seeing the words on the page brought it all back, and I remembered how we would spend hours each day just sorting the basics – usually in the sweltering sunshine and always with a heavy bag on our backs and a “day bag” strapped to the front as we hiked across cities looking for a room (or a floor, or even a rooftop in some cases) for the night.

Plans often went awry. On one occasion, we had been hanging around with some like-minded explorers in Berlin and agreed to meet them a few days later in Prague. They had been before, and told us to wait for them beside the “big clock” in the centre.

We arrived in the city, accepted an offer of a room from a woman touting at the station, and after leaving our luggage there, went out to meet our friends. But without Google maps or mobile phones, we waited at what we thought was the designated clock for a couple of hours, before admitting defeat and going home. The following day we discovered several big clocks in the vicinity; with such vague arrangements we didn’t have a hope.

I still haven’t been cured of the travel bug, I revel in exploring new places, particularly with the help of modern technology

We did have one very successful rendezvous. Before leaving London – where I was living at the time – we made a plan to meet up with friends halfway through our travels. Knowing we wouldn’t have any means of communication once we set off, we selected a random Greek island, and figuring that every main town would have some sort of police station, we agreed to meet outside there on a certain date in three months’ time.

On the allotted day, my travel companion and I sat under the shade of an olive tree and waited – and waited – until finally we saw the first of our friends arrive. Within hours there were 10 of us, all having travelled from different parts of Europe to convene on this prearranged date in an obscure village in middle of the Ionian Sea.

Seeing our plans come to fruition was such a wonderful feeling. Today, with instant communication and information at our fingertips, it seems almost inconceivable that a group of people could successfully hook up without out texting, calling or messaging 100 times in advance to confirm.

Of course, now that my own children are grown up enough to be travelling on their own, I rest easy in the knowledge that I can make contact with them wherever they are – knowing that should they get into trouble, financial or otherwise, help is just a phone call or a WhatsApp message away.

By the same token, as I still haven’t been cured of the travel bug, I revel in exploring new places, particularly with the help of modern technology.

But looking back on my old diary, I am really glad I had the chance for a truly off-grid experience. And who knows, one day maybe I’ll be brave enough to head off again with just a diary and a credit card for company.

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