Appendix A: Wheels of Steel
This is a book about hitch-hiking I guess. But of course I didn't always hitch-hike. In fact when I first attacked Europe in '91 I bought a three month rail pass. I'd graduated a few years earlier, worked a while and had some money in my pockets. Eurail was, realistically the only option, besides which, hitch-hiking had never entered my mind! I was after all not a hitch-hiker ... This is the story of my transition from wheels of steel to those of rubber.
I bought what was at the time called a Eurail Flexi-pass, allowing 15 days of travel in three months. This was beyond any doubt one of the greatest rail deals in the history of time. So much so, that three months later I bought another. It cost about as much as a single train ticket Berlin-Lisbon, maybe a little more, but for that price you could essentially ride all the trains of Western Europe (with the notable exception of Britain) for free.
Well, there were conditions attached of course. You received a fancy rail pass with a start date and end date on it (three months apart) and 15 little boxes you had to fill in every day you chose to ride. You wrote the day's date in the little box, and when the conductor came around you'd get a hole punched through this box, as did every other ticket. When your fifteen boxes were full, the ticket was used up. But ... well it wasn't quite that simple, and I've little doubt that's why they withdrew this system a few years later.
Fifteen days in three months works out to one ride every six days. In practice, touring Europe for the first time you might average one every three days, so it wasn't really enough. But of course it was a rare Eurailer that wasn't taking the European railways for a ride. The first trick would be not to fill the box in. Technically, this was illegal, and if a conductor came around they were authorised to fine you and/or confiscate the ticket. Big risk really. Of course conductors didn't always come around and if they did, the old "Oops, I forgot", followed by a quick fill-in, was generally effective.
But of course if you weren't so game, the next best trick was to pick your days of travel well, and over-write a box. Say you rode on the 1st, you'd leave on the 4th, a fairly easy change to make. The vast majority of punches used by conductors didn't have a date on them, and as long as you weren't leaving first thing you could, it was plausibly a stamp from an earlier ride that day. That's if it was stamped at all, which it often wasn't.
But even if the days weren't so convenient, it was no big drama to write the first date small and light, and a second one larger and heavier over the top of it, even a third if you could. Some people were riding around with erasable ink pens, it was of course mandatory to use a pen and not a pencil.
So in effect you could ride as much as you wanted for three months! And to make it fun, you had this interesting game to see how often you could use the one box and get away with it, or how many empty boxes you could leave on your pass by the time it expired three months later. Eurailers would exchange scam stories on the trains, so widespread was the practice.
I bought a second Eurail pass after the first expired. My first pass still had several days unchecked on it. Seemed a shame to toss it so I doctored the two passes a bit. They were printed on two pages of paper a cover sheet which had the dates of validity on it and a backing sheet with the fifteen boxes on it. As time went on the two pages fell apart anyhow and it wasn't unusual to present them that way. Mine had. So I tore the front sheet of my new pass and tacked it onto the backing sheet of the first. It was all a game really, I didn't need the extra boxes did I? I'd have as many spare on the second pass. But as I said, there was a certain temptation to see just how far you could stretch them, there was a kind of challenge involved.
I did this on a night train to Paris, and it was the very first time in three months of night trains and borders that the conductor collected our passports and tickets before we retired to sleep. A nice touch in a way, usually they'd just wake us all up at the border check our passports and let the groggy victims drift back to sleep. Of course in this instance, it had the unfortunate side effect that the conductor had all night with nothing much to do but look at tickets, long and hard. In three months very few conductors had cast more than a passing glance at the front page of this pass if at all. But this one, had time ...
Sure enough, he knocks on the door, middle of the night (couldn't even wait till morning), and presents me with the conflict of pages, with no doubt the smug feeling of having caught one of these Eurail scammers in the act -- if indeed the conductors even suspected just how common it was to scam the system.
"What? You can't do that?", I offered, "I bought 30 days of train travel in six months didn't I?"
Well, he could have fined my heavily, and confiscated my brand new unused pass. This detail was written all over the pass itself to make sure would-be scammers were aware of it. But he had a heart, fined me all of DM10 and made me fill in the first box of my new pass, which I kept.
By the time my first pass expired I was already regularly hitching. So much so I'd considered carrying on without the trains. My habits were changing notably.
I was motivated to hitch primarily because of the enthusiastic insistence of an uncle's friend in a bar one night in Innsbruck. I started to hitch though for more practical reasons. As interesting as it was to cheat on the Eurail pass, there was always the risk of being caught, and it would cost you a box and maybe some money if not the whole ticket. Now the pass had cost some $500 (Australian) to buy and with 15 days, that worked out to about $35 a day. Which meant if your regular train ticket for the day cost less than $35 you were in fact throwing money away to use this pass (legitimately). You were in fact, better off to buy an ordinary train ticket and keep your precious boxes for long distance, expensive trips.
Instead of buying the ordinary ticket, as often as not, I'd try my hand at hitching. As I got better at it and more confident, I slowly indulged more and more, until, by the time three months had passed, I was already hitching longer stretches just for the thrill of it. I hitched Hamburg to Copenhagen for no reason other than wanting to. I hitched across Lapland, partly because there weren't any trains any more, the busses were notoriously expensive, and everyone swore it couldn't be done. I like a challenge I guess.
But we were talking about trains, not hitching. It wasn't that I didn't appreciate the trains, they were wonderful. Most often I'd take night trains. As the travel guides took pains to explain, this had numerous benefits. Perhaps most importantly, by sleeping on the trains you'd kill two birds with the one stone. You got from A to B and you also found a bed for the night. In as much as the trains offered a bed for nothing. You could of course pay a surcharge as much or more than a youth hostel charged in order to get a real bed on the train (in a cabin with three or five others).
In '91 most of the trains were still built with a walkway down one side and a series of cabins down the other, each of which held one three seater bench on each side, seating six people in all. These were wonderful, and there disappearance is berued by Europeans all over the continent. They thrust people into small groups and almost invited if not forced the occasional conversation and human contact. Increasingly they have been replaced by aeroplane style seating which is decidedly less inviting.
One of the major benefits of these cabins was that you could generally rearrange two opposing seats in such a way as to produce a single bed across the cabin. You would pull the base of the seat out and the back of the seat would fall flat behind it. If you did this with two opposing seats, the bases would meet in the middle and you'd have a bed. Thus you could build three beds. In fact with all three beds pulled out like this you had a kind of big triple bed that filled the whole cabin. Which was wonderful if you were with friends of course.
Because these beds for the night were essentially free to rail-pass holders, they were also very popular among the chronically broke. It was not a rarity to find some people sleeping every night on a train like this. If you wanted to see say Paris and Berlin three days a piece, you could bounce back and forth like a pendulum, one night on the train one day in Berlin, one night on the train, one night in Paris, one night on the train, one night in Berlin. This was a hard was to travel, showers weren't common at the train stations, and sleep wasn't always great on the trains. Still there were places where it was excellent ... The ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki was on the Eurail scheme and you got a proper bed in cabin as well (with 5 others of course). Still the ferry had shops, restaurants, a casino, a night-club, and a buffet breakfast thrown in! All for free. Needless to say there were people bouncing back and forth between Stockholm and Helsinki a few times. Not only did they save the cost of a bed, they had a fine trip, and a breakfast smorgasbord from which they could pack the following lunch and dinner as well so it kept them fed. I only took this ferry the once, I was in a rush rather to reach the far north of Finland. But I did pack two days worth of sandwiches from the breakfast buffet ...
Back to the trains though. If more than three people were in one of these cabins, as was very often the case, there was a problem in making the three beds. Basically you'd have to sleep sitting.
I'd read several guide books before leaving home, most every naive young would-be world traveller does, and rightly so. There's this phase you go through in the months leading up to the trip, where you think about little else but the trip. You buy books and read them, you go to travel stores and are seduced by the plethora of little gadgets designed to make life easy on the road. You give thought to you backpack, to your tent and sleeping bag and ground mat: if you want them, if so which ones. You read the books all sharing their wisdom on the necessity of this that or the other. All of them of course agreeing that nobody, ever left home with too few things.
Precisely because during these lead up months you have nothing much to do but think about the trip, try and cater for every little possibility, fall victim to the seductive call of all these little gadgets in the travel shops, and worry what you'll do if you don't have X on you when you need it. Of course in Europe, you'd just buy X wouldn't you, but that's too easy a solution in those lead up months, there'd be little left to think and worry about, so you don't dwell on it.
Thus it is, that most of us leave home laden with too many things, including strange ideas ...
One of the things many of these travel guides provided is wonderful advice on how to secure a bed on a night train! They pointed out that there are six seats and three beds, and the consensus seemed to be that you ought really arrive very early before, get on the train first, find a cabin that's free and then proceed to do everything you can to dissuade others from choosing your cabin for the night. As long as your cabin accumulated a maximum of three people, there'd a bed for all.
The advice varied from the expected, like just shutting the door, drawing the curtains, hanging smelly socks around, playing loud party music to the downright esoteric, like shaving your head and meditating to a loud chant for example.
Quaint imagery. I was sucked in. I did these things. Well, some of them. But it didn't take me long to realise it was nonsense. These jokers writing travel guides were clueless. There were basically two things that could happen on a train like this. Either the train was full, or it wasn't. Easy really. If it wasn't full, you could get on late and find a bed anyhow. If it was, people were going to come in and sit next to you anyhow. There was little you could do about, so why bother with all the little games.
Much better was to get on the train last, survey the situation, and then I decide who I was going to spend the night with, not the other way around. Think about it. If I'm already seated, any and every weirdo might sit next to me, and does. What am I gong to do, get up pack my bag and look for another spot? No, not as a rule. But if I get on last, then I'm the weirdo who chooses his neighbours I guess ... and what kind of neighbours would I choose?
You probably guessed right. I'd walk the full length of a train, twice if necessary, check each cabin out (they have windows in the doors, and before departure, everyone is doing just this to find a seat) and after musing on the options, settle for the most attractive. Attractive to me at the time was of course enough space to sleep, but arguably more attractive were young women ...
By the time I'd reached Scandinavia this had become a noticeable habit it seams. At least among other young men, who have an eye for these things. Coming down the coast of Norway variously on trains and boats (I stowed away on the famous postal ship from Tromso to Bodo) I would regularly meet the same trio of guys heading the same way. We weren't travelling together, but somehow the habit of night trains and roughly three days in one spot was a formula that wasn't mine alone.
I've come across this same phenomenon in a number of places, mostly where there are relatively standard routes to follow. Most people are either travelling up or down the coast of Norway for example, and the same is true of Australia and of New Zealand in places. The same faces show up from time to time, by simple virtue of taking the same route and passing roughly the same amount of time before moving on.
In any case, arriving in Oslo, at the end of the Norwegian coastal route, I bumped into these same three guys again. It was early, damned early, something like 5 in the morning. Nothing to do in town, but fortunately an Interail centre in the station where the likes of us (people on Interail and Eurail passes) could just hang out, shower, take tea and breakfast. It wasn't much, just a room with tables and chairs and some bathrooms. But it was appreciated all the same, as we had a few hours to kill before the town woke up.
We sat down, and one of my companions ribbed me a little on account of having seen me three times on the way down the coast, on three different trains, chatting up three different ladies. I had to smile. It surprised me somehow. I hadn't consciously noticed after all. I wasn't really the ladies man, no great seducer of women. I'd made some lovely friends on the way, lost my heart on occasion, but encounters were fleeting, one train ride a piece. I was just doing what came natural I guess, in sitting next to the people whose company looked appealing. That these guys had noticed was almost flattering somehow, and a little amusing.
There were people coming and going, as the mornings trains came and went. Two girls sat down with us, one beside me, another opposite. These fellows were goading me. A nudge, a wink. I couldn't help but tease them a little, so playing up to them, I tried as I could chat up this girl who'd sat down. She was tired after a night on the train, bad sleep and not too conversational somehow. Oh well.
I went to the toilet briefly, and coming back sat myself down beside the other. These guys are smiling, but keeping very much to themselves.
Claudia was much more receptive. We had a nice chat about all those things young backpackers chat about. The wheres and whys of origin and destination and experiences of the trail. I was heading to Bergen on the 7pm train that night. She was heading south that same night. I quite liked Claudia.
Excusing themselves for a moment, they got up for a shower, which was just the break these fellows needed to talk openly about what was going on. I'm not sure who was teasing who here, and I couldn't help but feel a little uncomfortable somehow as I was playing a silly game with these guys. I kind of felt I was driving the situation, forcing it along, with the guys in mind not the girls, which wasn't my style at all basically. But there was a wry amusement in it and Claudia was nice after all.
In time we began to wonder if these girls had washed away in the shower. Time dragged on and the conversation moved to their disappearance. We were kind of concerned in a way, as you would be if a friend went into a shower and hadn't come out some 45 minutes later. You'd be inclined to check if all was OK as we were. But of course we'd only met these girls and there's every chance that our awareness was a little heightened just because they were a central theme. In fact I'm sure these guys were keen to see them back and see how far I'd get. But they never did turn up.
A mystery to be sure. There was only one way out of the place and that was past us, but we didn't notice anything. Still it seemed I'd been stood up. Well and truly. I was nonplussed of course. No goodbye, nothing, just gone -- but my mates here had a field day, if anyone was teasing anyone it was clear now they'd the upper hand, and ribbed me a little about it, consoled me in that facetious way men can.
They caught a train that same morning, and I passed the day alone in Oslo, wondering I guess how I might have spent it if things had turned out differently that morning. It was a kind of dry justice maybe. I was just playing silly games with a group of men, more or less if not directly, at the expense of these ladies. I was into messages from the heavens at the time, not in any religious sense, much rather a Jungian Synchronistic way if that should mean anything to you. But this was to me a sign so to speak, that it just wasn't meant to be. The ingenuine shall not gain I guess ...
Well, I hit the station to catch my 7 p.m. train to Bergen. It was odd to see two trains headed for Bergen, only 5 minutes apart, both around 7 p.m. Both were parked on the platforms, both already had people sitting in them. Not finding any difference, I picked one, found a seat plugged my Walkman in and read something.
There was a wrap on the window.
Imagine my surprise to see Claudia there! The train was about to leave and she wasn't game to get on, so she waved me out. She was so sorry for the morning. They'd had a shower then noticed the time, and remembering an appointment they were suddenly late for raced out the door without so much as a good-bye. But she remembered I was on the 7 O'clock train to Bergen and had come looking for me. Walked up and down two trains looking in the windows until she found me. Gave me her address, told me drop by ... and then my train whistled and pulled on out.
I guess I had the last laugh after all. Or did I? A part of me was wishing these guys were here to witness this. Another part of me thought that if they were, it might not have happened. Maybe it was a deliberate sign form the heavens again, that I was doing all right, but it was my business, not the stuff of bragging or showing off. Who am I to say, but it's a nice idea. Either way I was mighty flattered and had trouble sleeping for the joy of the situation, flooded with that kind of happy, happy, joy, joy.
A part of me was hesitant to write the tale down here, given that view. But there's a message there somehow, and it's an interesting story, that kind of captures this attitude to riding the trains that had captured me. That is, to get on last ... not first; to focus on people not avoid them.
The whole issue reflects for me some of the problems I see in western culture. How we focus more and more on the individual, and on personal gain. Thus it is that we want to be first in line to get the goods, first on the train to get that seat. But there's a certain humanity in being at the end of the line. Someone has to be there, and when you're standing there, you realise one of you're greatest resources is the people at the head of the line. That you're a social being, not an individual. That you have a role among people, not in spite of them.
Poetic idealism perhaps. Don't worry I'm not naive, not that naive in any case. To be at the end will at times mean you miss out, and when missing out might mean life or death, it might pay to avoid the end. Reminds me of the queues for food in Russia around the time the Union collapsed. The bread just ran out at one point and the rest were sent home. But idealism like pragmatism has its place, and it serves to highlight imbalance, by presenting it. In other words, I think in the west we lean much too heavily on individualism at the expense of society. Poetic idealism is one way of painting a picture of alternate benefits.
When my second rail pass expired, after six months of European trains I left them behind me. Not long after, I crossed the 26 year barrier which deprived me of any cheap tickets, including the Eurail passes. There's age discrimination for you. But that wasn't the only reason, I have taken trains after that time, and continue to take them. Expensive or not sometimes they are just convenient. But increasingly I found it difficult to force encounters with interesting people on trains.
Trains are full of travellers, and when I first set out I had much to share with them, stories and advice, we had mutual interests. Increasingly though I was keen to meet the local people, not the travellers. In time you come to realise that the travellers are all German, English, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealanders ... the great backpacker-producing nations of this world. There are a small minority from elsewhere but they are a drop in an ocean.
As I was one of them I enjoyed the conversation immensely, we shared time, stories, advice. In time they went home and I stayed on the road and new ones replaced them. The stories were the same, the advice was the same. My enthusiasm suffered. I turned to more lasting roadies, people who'd been on the road for years, with whom I had more in common, but fundamentally, I turned to the locals. Well I'd always had an eye on them to be fair, but they became my raison d'Ítre so to speak as far as being on the road went. They had lifestyles to share, views, philosophies, experiences, so remote to mine in comparison with those of the fellow backpacker.
You might argue that you meet these kind of people on trains as well, and you'd be right to a degree. But far less than you might think. To begin with there are language problems, and secondly many local train goers are not nearly as receptive as the fellow travellers on those same trains, to an exchange of ideas.
Trains can and do play a role, but there are better ways to meet local people, local people more likely to speak English or at least some other language I master, local people that are open and receptive. I publish elsewhere lists of organisations that help in just that quest. But what is not mentioned on those lists, and a fitting note on which to end this essay, is to note that hitch-hiking is one of those ways ...