Backpacking Europe is pretty much a rite of passage for young Aussies. Straight after finishing high school or university, you take a “gap year” – delay so-called “real life” and head off on an overseas adventure. The saga usually begins with a couple of months hard labour, working every shift offered to you in hospitality or retail (double shifts, fourteen hours days) to save as much money as you can, and ends with you arriving back in Oz some months later, almost broke, with your ass hanging out of the rip in your jeans. Or maybe some of you bought new jeans before you returned home. I did not.
This us was back in 2006 – over ten years ago now that the husband and I went slopping around Europe from country to country on a Eurail pass. Fed up from three years toiling at university and jealous of rich friends flitting off overseas for summer vacation, I decided that it was time for a break. So, I submitted a leave of absence form, got a job at the Botanical Gardens Tearooms in Melbourne, and settled in to make as much cash as I possibly could for the 4 months before I was planning to leave.
Going to Europe from Australia (or anywhere overseas really, other than Thailand or Bali) is a big deal. For one, it takes a massive amount of time to get there. And because of this, airfares are always more expensive. So when you go to the effort of travelling overseas, you want to make sure that you spend as much time away as possible. For us as students, this also meant seeing as much as we possibly could as cheaply as possible. Even if this meant staying in shitty hostels where breakfast was rationed to one stale bread roll, or where doors on showers were apparently not a necessity. Or sharing rooms with strangers who would return drunk after midnight and start having sex in the adjacent bunk bed, before pissing all over the floor. The last was definitely a highlight.
Present day – for this latest trip, the husband and I decided to do a mini-revisit of those younger backpacking days. Without the more undesirable elements of backpacking, that is. A type of “glam-packing” perhaps. No more hostels, and definitely no need to go hungry, but we did take backpacks and travelled on trains, simply because it’s an easier way to get around. Particularly in Europe. Towns, cities, are generally well-connected. Of course there are some places where it might be more convenient to access with a car, but in this case, we simply modified our trip. Same as 2006 – if we couldn’t get there via train, it would just have to wait until next time.
Ten years on from our last backpacking jaunt and I’m happy to say that we have learned a few things since that first epic trip. 1. Your backpack doesn’t need to be huge. Ten years ago, I lumbered around train stations and towns with a 90 Litre capacity pack. This trip, we managed easily on 38 Litres (NOT 60 Litres as previously written – thanks to the husband for correcting me on that!) and by the end, with a few souvenirs thrown in, the weight maxed out at 9 kilos. No wonder my feet and shoulders were in pain 10 years ago when I lugged around 15 kilos. 2. You don’t need nearly as much stuff as you think you do. Three weeks, and I got by with two pairs of shorts. And two pairs of shoes is absolutely sufficient. 3. Put your heavy stuff at that bottom of the pack where it’s closer to your butt. This was something we actually figured out pretty early on our backpacking stint – after becoming perplexed as to why I suddenly felt like I was being pulled backwards from the shoulders.
Before we moved to this island, for a time I used to commute an hour to work in the city every day. Arriving on the train in my corporate-wear, rushing towards my office with all the other suits, in amongst it all I would spot a backpacker or two, usually with ridiculously oversized packs, wearing dirty pants, looking lost. And it fondly reminded me of the not so glamorous aspects of backpacking: the dodgy hostels, the necessity of cheap food, the pain of the pack. But only a second later, nostalgia would engulf me – followed by envy. The best thing about backpacking is the freedom that comes with it. It is travelling at its most expansive; it is accompanied by a stretch of time, endless choice and infinite discovery. Problem-solving becomes part of your daily routine – when trains are cancelled, or tourist attractions are closed, or there is no supermarket in sight. These are the things about travelling that I love. And carrying only the bare essentials on your back, with a train timetable in front of you, only makes it sweeter.