Two friends, two cameras, two thousand miles: Abby and I take the train through Europe.
Featuring twilight in Paris, a late night sleeper train, a terrible ticket mishap, homelessness in Vienna, and sneaking into the Belvedere - plus, a perfect transatlantic coincidence.
London → Paris
"Whose crazy-ass idea was this?" Abby asks. We're on a train somewhere between King's Lynn and King's Cross, using our backpacks as pillows as the sun comes up slowly over the fields. The landscape is washed-out at this hour, faded like an old blanket, and Abby's bright cheerleader's bow flares like a sun. Her grin flickers between what the hell are we doing and are we nearly there yet?
When we first made plans for her to visit England this summer, I'd suggested she come work my wedding season as a second. Somewhere in our late-night videocalls and mid-class messaging, "visiting England" became "visiting Europe", weddings took a back seat to wanderings, and the Great Interrail Adventure was born.
So now here we are, on the first of many trains, headed for London in the hope of following the route of the mythical Orient Express. Our journey will take us across the continent, from Paris to Vienna via Munich, then to Budapest, and finally on to Istanbul. It's a daring expedition. A great adventure. And otherwise known as a crazy-ass idea.
Abby hasn't been to London before. I feel a little cruel, hastening her out of the station for her only view of the Big Smoke. I point out the black cabs and red double-deckers waiting on the forecourt as we cross the road to St Pancras. Inside, there's a man playing one of the upright pianos in the departure's hall. It's nice to be back.
Immigration officers want to see both our passports, but only Abby gets a stamp. A cute Italian barista serves me coffee in the Eurostar lounge, but when I return Abby points out a mouse snuffling around under the seats. Swings and roundabouts. We board the train, head through the tunnel, and arrive for our 24 hours in Paris.
Our hostel is out in the 15th arrondissement, so we take the metro towards Saint-Lambert. We use a couple of tickets I find left over from my last trip here; I lived up in the 5th, near the Jardin du Luxembourg, for a fortnight during a summer school a few weeks ago.
Returning to the city is like showing up at a friend's birthday drinks just in time to see the postgrad you were flirting with in a bar the night before. Oh shit, you think, I was great last night. I was smart and gorgeous and fun, and generally less sober. I think I even quoted Foucault at one point and made sense, just before I stumbled into the taxi. But now things are slightly more fancy, and the stakes are higher. You're probably going to have to remind him your name, and he's going to ask you what you do for a living. And whatever you say, it's not going to quite tally up with fun-hot-surprisingly-intellectual you from the night before.
For example, I get us both stuck in the metro turnstiles at Gare du Nord.
At the hostel we squeeze ourselves and our backpacks into a tiny elevator and ride to le cinq étage. Our dorm is almost as small, and in a scene of pure slapstick comedy we unintentionally wake the girl who occupies the lower bunk. She's a little bemused. It's odd to me that Abby and I have travelled 400 miles since we got up this morning.
Whoever's crazy-ass idea this was only granted us 24 hours in Europe's City of Light. We dump our bags and head for the door.
I want to spend the whole week here with Abby, but as we only have the afternoon we settle for a walking tour of picture-postcard highlights. We catch the metro to the Champs-Élysées, and walk up its neat, tree-lined avenue towards the Arc de Triomphe. There's Ladurée, selling tiny beautiful macaroons in pastel colours, and long lines for lunch at Fouquet's. Saudi money is parked ostentatiously outside Louis Vuitton. Johnny Depp has an apartment around here, someone once told me.
There's a crowd at the Arc de Triomphe, where a military ceremony is taking place. I translate a bit for Abby, but mostly it's a lot of trumpets. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier burns peacefully, and around the front the crowds thin where France is still calling forth her people.
We duck under the roundabout and wander down the Champs again, towards the Place de la Concorde. The gold-hatted obelisk glints in the low sun, and we buy ice creams from a vendor in its long shadow. Tourists consult maps and kids play in the fountains. I think about the crowds in front of the guillotine here, two hundred years ago.
Chop chop. The light slices bronze through the trees in the Jardin des Tuileries, where we finish our ice creams and consider the French attitude to PDA. (I admit, it is a particularly beautiful place to wile away an afternoon, entwined on a bench with your lover.)
Déjà vu. We come to the other Arc, the Triomphe's smaller sister, and a pyramid which - unlike the Luxor Obelisk - wasn't nicked from the Egyptians. It's late and there are few tourists, so we take a look around at the marble reliefs which show Napoleon in various stages of victory. Here he is entering Munich, and again, arriving in Vienna. The path we are taking across the continent has been the route of many before us. Peace rides in a triumphal chariot, looking out over the Louvre.
This city has seen many battles. I know it is a sense of palpable history that draws my American friends to "Europe"; the ancient pressed up against the now, the pulse of memory beneath the pavement. I am used to this, in a way that is deep-set and sure. My red passport, embossed with a lion and a unicorn, and my surname ending eaux, hold me to a history that is bloody and long. It is a different kind of heritage to that of my American friends; especially those who are the children of immigrants. I have always been encouraged to look over my shoulder. What I find there resonates down sonorous centuries, resting like an anchor, heavy as marble, in me.
This evening there is a gentle breeze around the Arc. Peace rides triumphant, optimistic, facing away from the sun setting in the west. The light is good for photographs, until we get tired and move on to the Louvre.
It's too late for us to go in, and the Louvre is a cavernous place - too labyrinthian for just an hour or two. Plus, €15 is a steep price for a selfie with the Mona Lisa. We take a look at the palace architecture outside instead, admiring Louis' taste, and the bright spark who, during the Revolution, decided this would be a great place to house the nation's masterpieces.
We cross the Seine and set out along the left bank. It's mid-summer and, like a scene by Seurat, everyone is enjoying the evening sun on their way to dinner. The bouquinistes have closed up for the night, but I try and explain to Abby why this is known as the river that run between two bookshelves, and how the second-hand booksellers that traditionally traded on these banks were another symbol of subtle resistance.
The Latin Quarter is loud with wine and the warm evening. The medieval streets are crammed - even more so than I remember. I spent evenings in bars and restaurants here, and after dinner I drag Abby all the way up Boulevard Saint-Michel to see the Foyer International de Étudients where I lived. It's thoroughly underwhelming, even with an enthusiastic insider's account, so we wander back to the river where we can find something considerably more impressive.
The sun sets pink and gold over the bridges, the clouds overhead rippling like the calm water. When it's thoroughly dark we head underground to the metro, and the 15th, and our home for the night.
Paris → Vienna
Our roommates leave for Rome at 5am. I have hosteled before, but the slick advertising campaigns for millennial backpackers do a sterling job of glossing over this part of the experience. "Oops," Viviana says without a trace of regret when she realises her packing has woken us up. I sense retribution for yesterday's Chaplin-styled introduction.
We snooze, defiantly, and then enjoy croissants for breakfast in the lounge downstairs after another round of backpacks vs tiny elevator. Our train to Munich leaves in the early afternoon, but there is just time to visit one last favourite. We squeeze onto the metro in the morning rush, and find ourselves - along with all our worldly possessions - at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
Our bags make good benches while we eat lunch crêpes. We watch the other tourists pulling poses and forcing grins. It's a bizarre ritual. A Chinese family ask, through gestures, if we'll take their photo, and when I'm done one-two-threeing they offer to repay the favour. Rather than use my camera, though, they seem to want to take the picture on their own phones, and then wave goodbye happily with a bow of thanks. (Somewhere in China an extended family is being shown photos from a cousin's trip to Europe. "Ah yes," the cousin says, "These are those nice girls who took those photos of us in front of the Eiffel Tower." And there we are, bemused, grinning.)
We watch a young model school, all frills and pouts, perform for a camera on the other side of the lawn, and eventually I find someone to take a shot of the two of us - and our backpacks - before we head for the Gare de l'Est.
We're nice and early at the station. This is good, because truth be told I'm a bundle of nerves about this whole trip, and missing one of our specifically-timed trains is top of my anxiety list. There's a guy playing a piano in the airy waiting hall, which reminds me of St Pancras, and Abby and I settle on our bags under the departures board. We have about an hour until our train to Munich.
We have to fill in our Interrail Passes - the special tickets that allow us to travel on any train on the continent. I leave Abby to work out how to complete the forms, and head off to get some food for the journey. The guy on the piano is pretty good. I help an elderly nun down the escalator, and get blessed. When I get back to our little backpack-nest Abby's figured out how to use her Pass. "There's just one things that's confusing me, though," she says as I sit down with our sandwiches. "Why is your ticket dated for July, not August?"
Listen, it's not like I only had one job when we were organising this trip. I planned the itinerary. I booked the hostels. I sorted the currency and wrote the packing lists and read a whole bunch of literature, so that when someone accused me of proposing a crazy-ass idea I'd be able to say: no. This is an entirely reasonable venture, and I am absolutely capable of undertaking it. In fact, there is no one - no one - more prepared to set out across Europe right now than me.
This had been how I was feeling two minutes ago, back when I was getting blessed by a nun on an escalator. But now it turned out I'd managed to muck up pretty much the most straightforward part of the process. "When's your trip?" the Interrail booking form had asked and, confidently, I'd selected: July.
I look at Abby. Abby looks at me. I'm holding a £200 train ticket that should have been used last month. Our ride to Munich leaves in forty-five minutes.
I need two things, stat: excellent wifi, and a helpful TGV employee. Neither is forthcoming. The guy at the information kiosk looks like he's having trouble understanding my garbled Franglais, even though I'm peppering my limited vocabulary with universal expletives. "This pass is no good," he keeps telling me, like that had escaped my notice.
"Oui! Je comprends... J'ai écrit la date incorrecte. The date is wrong, I have to change it. Aidez-moi, please? S'il vous plaît?"
He gives me a long stare. "This pass is no good."
"I know! I know! But I don't have two hundred pounds for a new one, and we have to go to Munich!"
"You have to go to Munich?"
"Yes! In half an hour! Bientôt!"
"Then you must get another ticket."
"Please," I say, "I can't afford another ticket. I didn't use this one, I just need you to change the date on it."
There's a queue forming behind me. I am a frantic English girl who should definitely not be trusted to leave home by herself, let alone try and travel two thousand miles by train. We barely made it across the channel, I think miserably, I don't even have a ticket to get us home.
The kiosk man narrows his eyes a bit. "Wait here," he says. When he comes back, there's another man with him. He's older, with a grey beard and a little TGV hat. I'm about to start my spiel again when he takes up my stupid useless ticket and gives a curt nod.
"Ok, no problem," he says, and disappears again like a little hatted angel sent from heaven.
The kiosk man waves me to one side. I hover while he serves the next customer, feeling like the beneficiary of a miracle that hasn't quite transpired yet. Abby arrives with wifi. "I got service! But it doesn't say what to do if you get the date wrong and don't realise for, like, a month."
"A man with a cap took my ticket," I tell her, and explain.
The man with the cap comes back. "Ok, here is your new ticket. Here is your old ticket. You have to pay for the new ticket, and then send this one back for a refund when you get home," he says. This sounds straightforward, except for the paying for a new ticket part. "Perhaps your friend has some money?" the man with the cap volunteers, helpfully.
Abby looks at me, and then at the two tickets, and then at the departures board where our train is due on platform two. Then she sighs. "You take American Express, right?"
Our journey to Munich takes about six hours. We edit photos together, and Abby starts her journal with the paper souvenirs we've collected. The TGV train is busy but quiet, and we take a route that winds through forested hills and crisp mountain passes. As the sun sets in Germany we pass through quiet villages surrounded by woodland, and push on through the gathering night in a strange hush. Abby sleeps. The train announcements change to German first, then French, then English.
München Hauptbahnhof is bright and alert. We have a couple of hours to wait before our train to Vienna, but it's very late and most of the shops are closed. Abby finds wifi by one of the shuttered stalls, so we make our rucksack-nest on the floor and use my high school German to get online. I'm finding it hard to read the signs around the station. A creeping sense of unease settles in my stomach; for the first time since we left home, I feel lost. I leave Abby to Facebook and seek out a station conductor in a Deutsch Bahn uniform, who assures me der Zug nach Wien will leave from platform four at 11.36pm.
It's a sleeper, of course - the first I've ever been on. A conductor checks our passes and asks what we'd like for breakfast before waving us on board. Our cabin feels like a safe cocoon in a strange and frightening night.
The night is soft as we pull out of the station. There's a family in the cabin next to us, and the conductor drops in to take our passports and set up the top bunk. I ask Abby to teach me how to shoot video, and spend a happy hour learning something new with a camera.
This is where I like to go when I am fearful. The trip-up with my ticket in Paris has shaken me, in a moment where my surest safeguard is my confident belief that I am at ease in the unknown. I have Abby, and a valid ticket, and my backpack, and my camera. I am going to be just fine. Even so, I barely sleep.
What I cannot know yet is that our train follows a route that is about to become one of the most well-travelled in Europe. My petty fear lays the tracks for tens of thousands who will come, in carriages packed to suffocation, in the opposite direction. This exodus will begin in two weeks, by which time I will be home, watching the desperation from my laptop screen. Refugees - Syrians, mostly - who have passed their children through train windows at Keleti station, will journey our route in reverse: from Budapest to Vienna, and on to Munich, in the hope of a world safe from death and war.
I have Abby, and a valid ticket, and my backpack, and my camera. I have a soft bed. I have safe passage. But I lie awake in the dark, listening to the train's strange hush, waiting and waiting and waiting to arrive.
Day 3 & 4
It is very early in the morning, and this Vienna suburb is overcast and quiet. Our hostel is an Airbnb-type place, not far from the Westbahnhof, and we follow Abby's hastily-copied map to a large apartment building on an empty street. The elevator here is sensibly-sized, with an iron grill, and we ride to the fifth floor where a sign welcomes us to our home in the city.
Our host is due to arrive at 6am. We rest on the staircase - the building's once-grand and now scuffed spine - and eat the breakfast we were offered on the train. I snooze, at last, while Abby reads our guidebook. Slowly the building begins to wake up, and then our host arrives.
She is expecting two girls and we are here, but it soon becomes apparent that things are not quite what they seem. We are not the two girls on the list for this apartment, and our names aren't on the lists for any of the other apartments, either. I am really very exhausted of being wrong, but she is adamant that the email I show her was not confirmation of a booking, and that the money I paid wasn't a deposit.
Someone has screwed up and I really need for it not to be me. There is a room open in an apartment the company owns across the road, which we can probably have tonight. We take it.
I sleep for a few hours in our big white double bed. It turns out most everything in this apartment is big and white: the owners have gone all-in for a modern minimalist theme. When the morning sun slants through the windows, I almost believe I'm living in a Silicon Valley start-up - a fantasy encouraged by the fact there are about eight of us sharing a living space the size of a postage stamp.
"Good morning," Abby says brightly, "I have two pieces of good news. Firstly, the showers here are excellent. And also, Jade's in Europe. Jade from my cheerleading team."
Europe is a really big place, I tell her. "Yep," Abby says, "But I think she said she's in Austria! So maybe we can stay with her?"
Austria is a big place too, and I want a shower before we start the long slog of finding somewhere new to live. Vienna's opera, art, and imperial history will have to wait. It's the height of the tourist season - how many vacancies will there be in the city at such short notice? The idea there would be a group of Aggies on study abroad here, now, at just the moment we need them...
"I was right!" Abby shouts through the bathroom door, "They're here! And they're living one block away!"
We meet Jade at the tram stop outside. She's on her way to class, backpack-clad, and already fearless at fare-dodging on the public transport system. We are totally welcome to crash at the UCD place.
We ride the metro to the city centre with her, grateful for a guide, and suddenly arrive on a platform surrounded by American voices. Despite knowing no one in this motley band of Juniors, it feels like a surreal homecoming. The Davis kids have been here for weeks already and know the city well, holding themselves with a native ease. Attention is focused on everyday worries - homework assignments, project deadlines, the broken laundry facilities in their apartment basement. They are no longer tourists.
Class today is a trip to the Belvedere: a palace complex on the edge of the city which is home, now, to Austria's greatest art collection. I remember something about there being lots of famous Klimt. "Professor O is giving the tour today," someone tells me, "She's great."
I don't need much encouragement. "Do you think we could... come?"
Gatecrashing proves tricky, but with the help of the class and their professor, and a stern rebuff to the man counting heads at the door, Abby and I find ourselves playing honorary Aggies for the afternoon. Professor O seems happy to have us along, but the tour is a kind of rigorous bootcamp for Viennese newbies. By now the class are well-versed in Austrian history and politics, the complexities of royal lineage, and the whose-who of classical Vienna's art and music scene. Abby and I are tripping to catch up as we follow along through the ballrooms and exhibition rooms, but Jade and the others provide a helpful cross-commentary in whispers under Professor O.
We bump into Napoleon again, red and gold and windswept and commanding, on the back of a rearing horse in the Alps. (One of five versions of this painting, Professor O tells us; he'd have liked taking selfies in burst mode to get the right one for instagram.) The Messerschmidt heads are here too, grotesque, heavily guarded by the exhibition staff against photos. We pull faces. And there's the Klimt, glittering, set against black walls for full effect. The Kiss is great, but Judith is my favourite.
Inevitably, the more we're introduced to our new crew the more we realise we're with friends-of-friends. The time difference between Vienna and San Francisco, nine hours behind us, means those keeping up with our travels in CA haven't heard about our Viennese adventures this morning: our homelessness, and the familiar faces bailing us out, serendipitously, in the middle of this new city.
It's a fun surprise to share. We've paid for a night in the big white apartment and a long sleep in its big white bed, but for now we head back with the others. They are living in a student complex a block from our place, and Jade and her roommates are right at the top. Someone's suggested drinks at the karaoke bar they frequent, which sounds like exactly how we ought to spent our first night after meeting Davis kids in Vienna and sneaking into the Belvedere.
We watch the sunset on the apartment rooftop among the solar panels, and then meet the others at the metro station. The cocktails are cheap, the place is packed, and by the time it starts to pour with rain we've moved from the patio to the bar, pitchers aloft, convinced beyond doubt that we can all sing German pop hits.
As it turns out, my snapstory the next morning will demonstrate otherwise.
We arrive at the Davis house earlier than welcome, backpacks in tow. Most people are cutting class this morning, it seems, but we tiptoe up to the attic apartment to drop our bags. Today is our only full day in the city, and we have a lot to see.
Our first stop is an unassuming apartment building in Vienna's Old Town, not far from St Stephen's Cathedral. I fancy there will be a big sign, but in fact we walk right past and have to double back along the cobbled street. In the late 1700s this place would have been filled with horses and carts and calls and clatter, I guess - and, just perhaps, the odd soft phrase, played lightly on a piano, from an open window somewhere up there. This is where Mozart rented rooms, when he was just a little older than us.
The buildings here stand mostly four or five storeys tall, and at this time of day the sun cuts a wedge between the narrow passageways. He'd have preferred an apartment at the top, right? Above the noise and the smell, where he could work later in the day without burning candles. He wrote The Marriage of Figaro here. His place must have been pretty swanky.
I'd like to go into the museum, but we're on a shoestring budget and a breakneck timetable. Instead, we amble back through the picturesque streets and garden courtyards towards the Stephansdom.
The Stephansdom - St Stephen's Cathedral - sits heavily in the centre of the cobbled square. For a sombre Catholic church, I'm surprised by its cheerily-coloured chevron-tiled roof.
Inside there is little gold but beautiful smoky stone, ornately carved. Abby points out the toads and lizards shaped into the pulpit handrail, biting each other's tails. Our guidebook declares this a fight of good against evil, though I'm not sure which is which. There's an organ, but it's quiet today. Mozart and Haydn both married here. It must have sounded good.
It's lunchtime. Our guidebook suggests a trip to Vienna isn't complete without tasting the city's coffeehouse culture. I've been taken by a café-konditorei called Aida, which - according to Lonely Planet - is less traditionally Viennese than retro Austrian. Snooty reviews suggest we would prefer somewhere more authentic, but it's the perfect cake shop for us. Abby plays with the local kids, and I send home snapchats of my chocolate and pistachio slice.
We plan to wander towards the city's outer ring, where I've heard there's a sneaky way to see the sights on the cheap. On our way there, though, we pass by another church - and hear what the Stephansdom was missing. We've stumbled on Peterskirche, one of the city's hidden gems, and we're just in time for an organ recital.
It has an astonishing interior. We sit in the pews and take it in turns to lay our heads in each other's laps in order to look up at the fresco on the dome.
Abby is much better on the bible than me, so when the music is over we try reading the paintings in the small chapels. I like the way the frescos and the stucco - the sculpturing on the walls - intertwine, making the paintings 3-D. I guess this was the VR of the 18th century.
We head to the Ringstraße. Flashy posters in the metro advertise tram tours around the city, but I've heard that you can get the same experience with a tram ticket and a good guidebook. We join the locals and bag a window seat on the ringroad tram, and spend an hour fumbling through my Lonely Planet as the sights pass by. Even so, we manage to catch the Borse Palais and a glimpse of Rathaus, and spend some proper time looking at the Athena Fountain in front of Parliament.
The four figures at Athena's feet represent the four rivers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The true depth of history between this city and the one we will visit next became apparent to me yesterday, talking to the Davis kids about their study here. Austria and Hungary were joined as a multinational state under the Royal House of Habsburgs, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire was a major power until the end of World War I. The Habsburgs lived here in Vienna, but they liked to spend the summer at their residence in Budapest.
After the tour, we take a stroll around Stadtpark in the evening light. It has a very different feel to the Tuileries or the Luxembourg; Parisian amour has been replaced with something that feels more stately. There are small children out for evening walks with their nannies, a baby in a big ornate pram that reminds me of Mary Poppins. The fountains scatter quiet bright sparks in the low evening light. The low rush of the Ringstraße is muffled by the trees.
Later this evening we will have dinner at a tiny beisl, nestled in a lamplit alley, and then wander the city's cobbled streets in search of an auf wiedersehen. We'll stumble on the royal stables, watch the silver heads of the famed lippizaners duck and bow as they feed under the full moon, and then run through the Hofburg Palace with our laughter echoing back from the bright stone. Breathless on the lawns, lost, we'll stop for a moment, and the fine, sharp sound of a soprano voice will glide, gauzy, through the night - Mozart, or perhaps Rossini. We'll follow it awhile, to the edge of the grass and over the road, and then it will be gone. We've found the Museumsquartier. A metro station we know. Home, to the Davis apartment, where I'll stay up late talking to Adrian about everything they've been learning, and of life in another country, far away, where I feel as I do here: open and safe and wide-eyed, and wonderfully, crucially, astray.
Here it is, the fine line - thin as a ridge mark - that defines thrill from fear. This is the kick. This is the thing I chase. The feeling of being somewhere new, and finding my way. It is a personal map-making; one that traces itself in experiences across my understanding of this world and of my capacity in it. I am writing an atlas of myself, expanding it each day on toughening skin; skin that is marked and remarked with the mountains and valleys I discover within. That landscape is carved out of hard moments, forested densely in fear, and soothed by a river that reminds me: but you made it here. One day, I know, my map will lead me to someone strong and brave and precious. She has purpose and integrity, and she travels more courageously, thanks to the map-maker who came before her. My atlas means the voice which asks Can I go there? is answered without hesitation:
Yes, remember? Now work out how.