This summer, I reached a crucial milestone in my adulthood. The group made it not only out of the group chat, but also out of the country. We had spent months painstakingly planning out a perfect interrailing tour and had spent an equal amount of time fantasising about it.
Though Oxford was cold and damp (alas, it was April), we were warmed from the inside out by dreams of skipping through golden fields somewhere in the idyll of the Tuscan countryside, or partying deep into the night in a supremely cool Hungarian disco known only to the locals.
This summer was the first without any real COVID restrictions, and the sudden boom in internet trends like ‘Euro girl summer’, ‘Europecore’ and ‘tomato girl summer’ was a clear indication that everyone was rushing to broaden their horizons again.
Looking through my explore page, there was an aesthetic formula underlying each post: think off-white linens, backyard dinner parties, prosecco paired with flowing charcuterie boards, sunset cruises and strappy evening dresses on the Amalfi coast. 2023 was the year of the Euro summer.
“This is going to be the best three weeks of our lives” we told each other relentlessly. And it truly was!
But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to gloss over the grittier reality of student travelling when I could exploit it for comedic effect instead. Because as picturesque and perfect a Euro summer in the prime of your youth may sound, it’s not exactly like you’d imagine it.
The first and most obvious problem with travelling of any sort – and life in general – is money. In more ways than one.
The first is that as a group of twenty-year-olds with no steady form of income and massive student debts we didn’t really have a lot of it going spare. We had already crunched numbers ad infinitum to find the cheapest combination of dates for flights, trains and accommodation.
As it turns out, we may have cheaped out a bit too much on that last one, but I’ll come to that later.
What Instagram influencers fail to tell you is how expensive Europe can be. When you start adding up food, transportation and activity costs, sadly, it becomes something you have to think about frequently. Meals out every night were not an option, and trying to cook in budget hostel kitchens led to more than one mishap.
Pot noodles were a regular feature for all of us when we had neither the time, energy, or desire to find something with any nutritional value. Lidl quickly became another staple – their bakery sections abroad are so much better than they are here. It’s probably not what anyone wants to hear, but in Italy I ate more mediocre pasta (of our own making) than I did the tastebud-tingling authentic stuff.
The most frustrating experience was, however, our first night in Zagreb.
Exhausted and a little grumpy, we went into a tiny convenience store on the lookout for a box of pasta and a bottle of readymade sauce. The former we found easily enough but the latter proved to be a challenge.
Finally, we found a jar of some red liquid that could have been sauce but had a label neither we nor Google Translate could comprehend.
We took it to the lady behind the till. She didn’t speak a word of English and we didn’t speak a word of Croatian. What followed was a complicated game of charades which concluded in us deciding we had no better options.
It was not sauce. It was soup. Not that it tasted of anything. But from its consistency, it was clear that we had messed up. Though it makes a funny story now, at a time when we wanted nothing more than a satisfying meal, a shower, and a bed without bed bugs in, it felt like the end of the world.
We had to learn to live with another disappointment: even on this ‘once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity’ kind of trip, we simply could not afford to take up every opportunity that presented itself.
There were some non-negotiables: Sam’s sunset cruise (read: ferry) down the Danube, Nat’s Florentine opera evening, James’ thermal baths in Budapest, Miles’ abbreviated food bucket list and my Colosseum visit.
We also took advantage of the free walking tours and the random days in Italy when important museums are free to the public – we completely lucked out when we turned up to the Uffizi, expecting to pay the €22 entry fee, and discovered that it was free on that particular day.
By no means did we have any shortage of things to do, see, or eat, but in every city there were a myriad of places it would have been nice to try out. The Alphonse Mucha Museum was a heartbreaking miss but at a cool £13 each it wouldn’t really have been worth the four gelatos that were its financial equivalent. €80 per person for half an hour on a Venetian gondola was regrettably also out of the question. We still had an incredible time, but it would be a lie if I said we didn’t all feel that little twinge of longing for what we couldn’t have.
The next money problem was more logistical – currency and cash. I had the uncharacteristic foresight to open a Monzo account, but my friends on Revolut found themselves unable to transfer money on weekends without incurring huge fees. Thank god for Splitwise.
I found myself in a different pickle, entirely of my own making. In lamentable Gen-Z fashion, I exclusively use ApplePay. Yes, I do have physical cards but I don’t know any of my pins.
So when Monzo’s online banking crashed for three days, I was utterly at the mercy of my friends. Slight exaggeration, but it would have been ridiculous to pay for a postcard with a €20 note (which is all I had left at that point).
Now for currencies. For someone who has only ever done maths expressly against their will, changing currency (Euro, Kuna, Forint, Korona) meant that my brain was working overtime to convert everything back to pounds.
For those who aren’t acquainted with the Forint to pound conversion rate – and who can blame you – it’s 450 HUF to 1 whole GBP. This meant that I was regularly paying in thousands and having to calm down my heart rate after it instinctively skyrocketed every time I saw a receipt.
Additionally, some places try to scam tourists by letting them pay in Euros instead of the local currency. Sounds benevolent enough, but what they fail to mention is that the two prices aren’t even vaguely comparable. Luckily, I was with four STEM students (if you count Medicine) and they pulled me through.
Speaking of friendships though, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that these will be tested to some extent. I still passionately love all the people I went with but in a pressure cooker of stress, lack of sleep, unpredictable mealtimes, no privacy and sheer exhaustion, there were times I could have exploded.
See, when you’re on 4 hours of sleep and you average 37k steps daily while carrying a 15kg backpack, it doesn’t take much for disagreements to break out. A debate about the safety of the Covid vaccine. A tiff about an AITA Reddit post on a man who threw away his girlfriend’s coat. A disagreement about whether anyone knows exactly how they spoke Latin in Ancient Rome. Hilariously, as the resident classicist, I was not involved in that final one. For the record, I think not.
For ambiverts like me, being with people 24/7 is overwhelming. It takes a lot of patience, goodwill and self-awareness, which are qualities that I’m not exactly renowned for. But we muddled through, taking time alone when it was needed, talking when it got slightly ugly and apologising when it was kind of our fault. It has brought us closer in a way only difficulty can, but there were times I thought we might be pushed irretrievably far apart.
Our biggest and most lasting issue, however, was the bedbugs. Even now, I have a constellation of marks all over my body that remind me of how bad it got.
We picked them up in Ljubljana, in a hostel which was really a seventeen person dorm with a singular toilet and a shower. Not ideal, but we decided to put up with it for the two nights we were meant to stay there.
We woke up covered in welts and to our horror, found the critters crawling all over the mattresses, the walls and the people in the room. The next three hours were perhaps the most stressful of the whole trip as we tried to arrange alternative accommodation for that night, get our money back and purge our stuff of the freeloaders we had picked up. We never managed to successfully get rid of them, no matter how much we washed, dried and aired out our clothes.
It was only when I got home and my parents made me strip in the garage, smoke bomb all my stuff and wash it all at the highest temperature the washing machine could manage did I escape the nightmare of itching so much that I was drawing blood constantly. I think my dad still hasn’t taken my passport out of the freezer.
Did I mention that we were blackmailed? The hostel had pre-authorised my card for the first night and when we angrily left some reviews on Tripadvisor that same day, I was sent a poorly veiled threat stating that unless we took these down, they would not issue us the refund they had promised us that morning.
For those wondering, no, we didn’t go to Paris so their bedbug epidemic is not our fault. For those who used the same hostels as us for the rest of our trip, I extend my most sincere and heartfelt apologies.
If having read all this, you too are reconsidering your own carefully curated interrailing plans – don’t! This trip was the greatest thing I have ever done. All the complaints made here have already become hilarious stories for us to tell other people about and to reminisce about with each other. I don’t even wish that someone would’ve warned us – realistically we wouldn’t have done anything differently. It’s just that when I see another photo dump of someone else’s travels in some Edenic country, I know not to react with instinctive jealousy, but with a wry smile and the understanding that I’m probably only seeing the best bits of the full narrative.