My baptism as an independent traveller began, aged 18, in July 2007 with a 36-hour train journey from London to Budapest. I left with three friends and, flanked by dozens of other school leavers, travelled across the continent with the help of the few hundred quid we had saved and an Interrail youth pass.
This week, this beloved rite of passage – a month of almost unrestricted train travel around Europe for a bargain £326 – was sucked into the muck of the EU referendum debate. Nicky Morgan (AKA the most down-with-the-kidz Tory currently available for media events) argued that leaving the EU would mean denying young people the chance to Interrail safely and easily around Europe. One of these reasons, according to Morgan, is that Brexit would mean travellers would no longer be covered by European health insurance.
I wish I’d known this back in 2007, when we hopped on a train to Serbia (not, I repeat, NOT an EU country) to go to the Exit festival. Whether or not our health cards would be valid there didn’t factor in our decision to travel to a non-EU, non-EEA country and get trashed on cheap vodka and dodgy drugs, stumbling around a giant castle listening to techno in the company of thousands of huge men in vests and a lot of terrifying Serbian police officers. In fact, although I didn’t know this at the time, many non-EU countries, including Serbia, have reciprocal health agreements with the UK. Also, we had travel insurance. So … whatevs.
In any case, the Interrail project transcends the EU. The UK became an Interrail country when the programme launched in 1972, a year before we joined the union. In addition to Serbia, many non-EU countries accept the pass, such as Turkey, Norway, Macedonia and Montenegro. While the EU has descended into a self-interested two-tier economic face-off, Interrail remains true to its original unifying ideals, providing an affordable, accessible mechanism for cultural exchange among Europeans.
This is why Interrail retains its appeal more than four decades on. Concerns about safety are unlikely to deter the youth of Europe from embarking on a train-powered adventure across the continent, just as our parents did before us. It was always the slight recklessness of the journey – getting drunk, losing passports, causing moderate amounts of trouble and having no idea which country we would travel to next – that made it so much fun.
That trip provided me with some of my favourite memories of travelling. Brexit can never take that away from us – but, whatever the outcome of the referendum, it’s unlikely to be something that is spoiled for future generations either.