It was the stupidest, most brilliant thing I'd ever done. I was barely 20, by all measures still a kid, though I'd have chafed at the term back then. Two weeks before my junior year of college, in the fall of 1990, I'd applied for a one-year leave of absence. That my request was promptly granted, without a demand for explanation, came as a shock; I had no plan but to travel for a year in Europe. Remarkably, there was no qualifying exam—I could just board a plane and be off.
I spent the next 11 months Eurailing across the Continent, tending bar in a London pub, and then backpacking some more. Europe was brimming with hope and chaos then—the Berlin Wall had fallen and the East was fitfully thawing; Ceausescu had been deposed but Milosevic was on the rise; war in the Persian Gulf loomed. Across Central Europe, the second-class trains overflowed with Romanian and Albanian refugees. Each week the newspapers carried accounts of more protests: miners' strikes in Bucharest, independence rallies in Ljubljana, anti-Soviet riots in Vilnius, anti-Bush-the-first demonstrations in Brussels and London and Rome.
For the first time, I felt connected to something larger than a 12 x 8 dorm room. The same was true of everyone I met on the road, and I met more people that year than I had in high school and college combined: North Americans, South Africans, Israelis, and Koreans, to say nothing of Europeans. We were thrown together by hostel managers ("Room 21, upper bunk"), train conductors ("Compartment 43"), and Let's Go blurbs ("Cheap ouzo is the draw at this 18th-century taverna"). Most relationships we formed were like those with the places we saw: immediate, intense, and gone by Tuesday. But David Yocum in London, Fan Bao in Oslo, Catherine Lipsetz in Zurich, Anna Stahl in Seville, Dane Drago in Umbria, Jörg Wevers in Stockholm...these were friends I'd remember, if not keep, for life. Wevers and I locked paths for all of 26 hours, riding from Sweden to Montreux for a Van Morrison show, during which time he tried to teach me his native tongue by translating lyrics from Astral Weeks. I can still sing most of "Sweet Thing" in German.
Along with the instant friendships (add rail pass; stir), it was the impulsiveness of rail travel that thrilled me. The dumb luck of arriving in Madrid, finding no place to stay, and hopping a midnight local to Zaragoza just to catch five hours of sleep...then falling in love with Zaragoza. Or wandering Budapest without a map (they cost 90 forints!) only to stumble upon a jazz club I'm still trying to remember the name of.
Now I'm at an age where every journey is plotted like a corporate takeover. Rarely do I see something without planning to. I found myself missing the wide-open feeling of riding the rails, not just for the places I'd been but for the person I'd been: swooning along the Ku'damm, the Strøget, and the Champs-Élysées, unfettered and alive, as the song goes.
So last spring, I bought myself a Eurailpass. Being way past 26, I was obliged to buy a first-class pass. This was fine by me. I would trade my backpack for a Tumi rollaway, my Smiths T-shirt for a Paul Smith suit, my notepad for a PowerBook. I would forgo hostels for hotels. Otherwise, I would have no firm commitments. But I hoped to check in on some old college friends: the Hungarian National Gallery, the Alpine village of Gimmelwald, the Musée Picasso in Paris, and that park bench in Barcelona where I once spent the night—awake, for nine hours, talking to a sweet-eyed Danish girl.
I also hoped to trace the ways in which Europe and Eurailing have changed. It turned out to be harder to find ways they haven't. Most significantly, in the 5,000 days since my last grand tour, the world has been reduced to ones and zeros. Poste restante mail drops have been replaced by Internet cafés; traveler's checks by ATM's. The entire European train schedule now fits inside a Palm. Postcards seem quaint when you can instantly e-mail a digital photo to everyone back home. As late as 1990, much of the Continent felt like the Third World: provincial and outmoded, like the squat toilets that were all too common in Mediterranean bathrooms. Pay phones carried 11 steps of instructions and never worked anyway. Credit cards were seldom accepted. Exchanging currency involved extortionate rates and fees—and you had to change money at every stop.
Since then, of course, Europe has arguably outpaced the United States in the realms of technology and travel. Mobile phones are far more advanced, Wi-Fi networks are widely available and often free, a pack of gum can be paid for with a Visa card, and trains, as ever, function at an infinitely higher level.
These are a few reasons why riding the rails now appeals to an older generation as well.But some of the intensity has been lost. I loathed those inscrutable Czech pay phones, yet they were the kinds of things that made Europe seem refreshingly foreign. Which it still was, then, at least in parts. Returning to the rails, I realized (with a mixture of envy and disappointment) how seamless and undemanding a Eurail trip could be for today's backpacker.Now she books a hostel on-line, carries one currency through a dozen countries, and dials home on her Treo, all while listening to her 7,000 MP3's.
Then again, some things hadn't changed: the dollar at a record low; Metallica graffiti on every train station wall; and a President Bush terribly unpopular with Europeans.
But was the feeling still the same?I intended to find out.
John Malkovich sat two rows ahead of me in the first-class carrozza of the Eurostar from Rome to Venice. He looked surly but comfortable. As we floated across the countryside I drew up an agenda for Venice. On a breakneck tour it's essential to set manageable goals for each destination, like "Have pint of Budvar in Prague." Travel of this sort is about small yet meaningful connections—the little details that stand in for the whole. My own goals ranged from the sybaritic (sample jamón ibérico in Barcelona) to the pragmatic (buy my wife a pair of Falke tights in Berlin). Anything else would be icing.
I checked into the DD.724, a mod boutique hotel in Dorsoduro. It was a glorious May day. Wisteria hung like laundry from every balcony. Lozenge-green canals sparkled in the sun. Funky Dorsoduro was the perfect antidote to the crush of San Marco: the back streets were blissfully quiet, save for the lapping of canals, the echo of accordion music, and the click of my footsteps. At a café on Santa Margherita Square, I amused myself with people-watching: Gay or Italian (or both)?Hoochie-chic or actual hoochie?When I tired of playing count-the-Barbour-jackets (I was up to 29), I wandered over to the Guggenheim. This was how to do Venice: languorously and without purpose.