Life

Nuala McCann: Tragically for UK teens, Manfred Weber's Interrail idea is lovely

With Brexit looming, this is the first and last year that teenagers from the UK can apply for a free Interrail pass. The idea is the brainchild of German MEP Manfred Weber whose long-term vision is to offer a free pass to each child in an EU country when they turn 18 as a way of promoting cultural and social ties

This summer, 15,000 European 18-year-olds will get a free Interrail pass that will allow them to travel throughout the continent

IT’S a lovely gesture. Thousands of teenagers from the UK who turn 18 before July are being offered the chance to bid farewell to Europe with free Interrail passes this summer.

With Brexit looming, it is the first and last year that teenagers from the UK can apply.

The idea is the brainchild of German MEP Manfred Weber. His long-term vision is to offer a free pass to each child in an EU country when they turn 18 as a way of promoting cultural and social ties between European citizens.

So farewell to all that. It makes the mourning for what will be lost just a little harder to bear.

Not that you’d get me taking an Interrail pass these days.

“Strictly four star and above” is my motto.

Been there, done that.

We bought our Interrail passes in Hamburg after two months slaving in the pickle factory. It was a canny move – back then, you paid for travel in your country of purchase so, after Germany, we were free all the way back to Ireland.

Straight out of Hamburg whiffing of gherkins and vinegar – after a while you don’t smell it any more, it’s the folks around you who turn up their noses. On we went, on up to Holland to say hello to my cousin and his family and get looked after for a weekend.

The plan was Italy and then Greece.

We had to deliver a letter from my cousin to a nun who lived beside the Spanish steps in Rome. We dallied briefly on the way in Pisa – slanty tower, not much else.

Rome was beautiful but expensive. We didn’t sink as low as to hoke in the Trevi fountain.

We sat on the street corner and ate street pizza and there was a thunderstorm so we jumped on a train south, met a bunch of fellas from Portstewart and quaffed neat vodka as you do when you’re 20 and know no better.

Half way through the night, we realised that this was one of those strange continental trains that splits halfway through the journey... and we were on the wrong half.

Grabbing coats and shoes and plastic cups of drink and big heavy rucksacks, we bombed through the train like a squad of frantic beatles scuttling under the weight of our luggage.

Brindisi was grim. The ferry did not enamour young maidens to sleazy Greek sailors – we passed on the offer of a comfy cabin bed and slept up close to each other for safety on the deck.

Corfu; Piraeus; Paros; Santorini; Ios – the last one was nicknamed Irish Overseas Students – of course we ran into friends from home.

It passed in a haze of Retsina – you needed it to get through nights spent in teeny tents batting off the mosquitoes and the odd stranger who sat at the tent opening at midnight, “just to chat”.

Did I say mosquitoes? There was one morning when we stumbled out of our tent covered in red bites, looking like victims of the bubonic plague.

And now, I look back and think it was so much fun.

Was it a cultural experience?

Chugging on a train through Yugoslavia, hemmed in by women clutching cages of live chickens and big bags of peppers – in the days before Ireland knew what a red pepper was – yes that was strange.

Laughing at the French for actually paying for bottled water – oh, how we mocked their foolish extravagance. Now my kitchen is crammed with the bottled stuff.

Standing at checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, presenting my Irish passport and waiting as the East German guards passed around the photo and shared a hearty laugh – yes, the white T-shirt did indeed make me look topless and the friend who chopped my hair should have been jailed.

Now, my sister texts me from her retirement tour of Greece – it’s all wine, Greek salads and antiquities.

The Acropolis? On Interrail, we struggled up the hill at 12 noon on a blazing hot day, just to say we’d been.

What I remember is the old Greek women, faces like ripe walnuts, all in black coming down to the boats to rent us rooms.

I remember the creamy sweetness of Greek yoghurt doused in honey; the tartness of cheap Retsina on the back of the throat; the clear turquoise blue of a perfect sea.

Every young person should do Interrail. Here’s to you, Herr Weber.

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