interrail-social

The EU has struck back at Brexit with a feel good surprise of its own. It is offering a free Inter Rail card to over 15,000 people next month. to explore the continent and ‘foster a European identity’. Eventually, up to 30,000 teenagers could benefit.

When I heard the news the memories came flooding back. I also thought what a clever idea by some Eurocrat for if there was ever one single object which unified the European experience and broke down barriers, it was the Interrail pass.

On a single pass, you could roam all over 21 countries – now 30 – by ferry but mainly by train, many of them still old and clunking trains and never losing their traveller’s magic – or their sleeping (and partying) opportunities !

Like so many of us, I was an Interrailer back in the early 1980s at the tender age of 19 and I had a wonderful time. So good that, in an era before laminated passes and intense security, I was able to simply alter my card’s duration with a pen and I got another month. Cheeky. Please don’t tell Interrail or the European Commission. And current card holders should not try this (away from) home !

The Interrail is valid for Europe, and includes Scandinavia and Morocco. On my own journey, I drank wine with gypsies in Milan station, met Soviet soldiers in Bulgaria and made many eccentric and interesting foreign friends. For a young Irish lad or lassie, it was a great broadening of horizons.

This time the Eurocrats want to see evidence of the journey. Applicants need to visit at least one European Cultural Heritage site and report their experiences on social media as well as make photos available for a DiscoverEU exhibition at the European Parliament. There’s always a catch with Brussels.

‘There is more to this proposal than free train tickets’, according to Manfred Weber, Chairman of the European People’s Party.

‘Europe is all about you; it’s about the people who are so different and yet so similar,” said Mr Weber, needlessly. ‘That’s why Interrail is great. You get to travel all around Europe and find out how beautiful our continent is.’

In fairness, this is not just opportunistic hyperbole by the European Commission. In fact, Herr Weber could have gone further and said that actually the Interrail Card was originally envisaged precisely to break down barriers – of the Cold War. The idea was that young Westerners like myself could go wast and travel untroubled through Eastern Bloc countries.

True to what became the proper EU spirit (in my opinion and one that they should crow about more) young travellers could traverse their divided continent and get to know each other despite their vast political differences.

It was a journey I will not forget. Its hard to explain to younger people just what it was like to have half of Europe under totalitarian Communist rule. Behind the Iron Curtain, our own continent was as strange and alien as anything you’d ever find now in deepest Asia or Africa, precisely because it was so close to home – and other. I felt that I had gone into another timezone, or a parallel world where things appeared to have stood still – or even gone backwards.

Granted, Hungary was already softening, and had a sort of mixed economy – this was 1981- but Bulgaria and more especially Romania were like something from another age, with long queues for food, pollution, bad clothes and endless propaganda portraits of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, who was eventually executed. Clearly, Communism was a sham and I was surprised the authorities let us in to witness it.

In the end, Communism collapsed not through the military confrontation of the US and NATO, and the US, but largely through the economic example of the EU itself. Later the EU even absorbed these countries, admittedly with some problems of late, but at least it was always better than forced Warsaw Pact misery. So Brussels is entitled to feel good about giving out a few free Interrail passes to celebrate.

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