This time twenty years ago it’s safe to say that I stank.
I was coming to the end of an Interrailing trip around Europe with my friend Paul, a trip so low budget that we only spent three nights in hostels: the rest of the time we slept on overnight trains to save what little money we had. We were like the boxcar hobos crisscrossing America only we actually had tickets. We were effectively temporary tramps.
Paul was from Sheffield and we’d shared a flat in our first year at university. In fact he was the first person I met after I arrived and we became good friends. I’d attempted to buy in to what I thought was the whole student vibe, wearing big black jumpers, listening to Bob Dylan, hanging around the Student Union and pretending I knew who Gramsci was. Paul wore British Knights shellsuits and big clumping trainers with tongues up to his knees, listened to Public Enemy and only got out of bed to watch Neighbours at lunchtime.
We shouldn’t have got on, but we did. So much so that we hatched a plan to travel around Europe in the Easter break of our second year that turned into an exercise in advanced vagrancy. We survived on crisps, milk and cheap pizza slices from dubious roadside vendors. We became adept at getting train compartments to ourselves for the night at first by behaving in an anti-social manner (as students this wasn’t such a great leap of the imagination) and eventually by just smelling really bad. We showered no more than once a week when we’d scrape together our coins and find a cheap hostel somewhere.
It was a terrific trip, although my memories twenty years on are no more than a small collection of incidents of varying importance: Paul somehow resisting my insistence that the four day round trip to Bucharest to see Romania play Latvia at football would be worth it as this was Latvia’s first game as an independent nation. Me getting an hilariously sunburnt face in the Swiss Alps and the chemist barely able to sell me a tin of Nivea cream he was laughing so hard. A woman in the station waiting room at a small town in Italy that I’ve forgotten the name of who looked so old I suspected the station had been built around her.
The old, toothless, hunchbacked waiting room attendant at Prague station who wouldn’t let anyone wait in the waiting room and screamed at us at random intervals as we counted down the hours to a 3am train to Berlin. The dead-of-night drugs raid on the next compartment somewhere in Eastern Europe complete with the thuds of kicks and punches and the screams of the offender and seeing him dragged unconscious and bloody past our compartment by men in uniforms and off into the night.
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I remember the nitty-gritty of the travel far more than the places we saw. We did so much travelling that it’s impossible to remember even half the places in which we ended up by the holistic method of turning up at a station in the evening and seeing where the overnight trains might take us. Nice or Hamburg? Milan or Warsaw? Every night, Europe became ours. I’m sure it was those evening perusals of the departure boards that made me fall in love with our continent and its range of peoples, cultures and places all within a few hours of each other. It was an exciting time to travel: new nations were emerging across Eastern Europe and the continent really felt like it was on the threshold of something.
I kept a diary. So did Paul. It was my first exercise in travel writing and I’d just discovered Bill Bryson. The orange hardbacked WH Smith notebook must be around somewhere, maybe in a box in my parents’ attic, and I’d love to read it now, twenty years later. I can remember being particularly pleased with the phrase, “the Hungarian landscape was flat and uninspiring, the ticket collector was fat and perspiring”, but most of all I remember how both Paul and my accounts slowly deteriorated the longer the trip lasted.
We developed the routine of writing up our diaries at the end of the day and then swapping them to read what the other had said. With each passing day our accounts descended further into a mere catalogue of irritating or stupid things the other had done, just to get a reaction once we’d swapped. Paul walking into a full-length mirror thinking it was an open door in Interlaken was particularly hilarious, especially as it was also witnessed by a room full of backpackers, but mostly we just fell into a daily exchange of random abuse.
I hope I’ve matured a little as a writer since then. I can’t believe it’s now twenty years, though. I still wince with embarrassment about our journey from Rome to Paris and then on to Calais and home. An hour or so out of Rome a young Italian woman got on, slid open our compartment door, smiled at us and sat down. We exchanged cheery smiles and nods, but, after a couple of minutes she stood up, gathered her things, smiled at us apologetically and said what sounded like, ‘a Roma’. Thinking she was asking us if we’d travelled from Rome, we grinned and nodded enthusiastically, giving her the thumbs up and repeating ‘a Roma, a Roma’ back to her. She left the compartment and never returned.
It was only when my mum picked us up at Bromley South station with the welcoming maternal words, “my God, you both stink to high heaven,” that the penny dropped. We’d had three showers in three weeks. We’d slept on trains, wearing the same clothes for days on end. We were, not to put too fine a point on it, ripe.
The lovely smiling woman on the train hadn’t been asking us where we’d come from, she was of course politely telling us that she had to change compartments because she couldn’t stand our ‘aroma’ any longer.
At the time I had no inkling that I’d eventually make a living writing about my travels. Hopefully I smell a bit better these days, but I’ve still made a fool of myself in a range of destinations and written about it with near masochistic honesty.
Sometimes though, I wish Paul was still sitting opposite me scribbling away and finding new ways to call me a f****** useless w*****.