From Green to Goodbye Blues

So on my last evening in Dublin, with the sun making its ever so gradual descent over the city, I met Matt at my hostel and he helped me collect my things and check out. I still had one more night there, but after the dreadful sleep I’d had last night and the rude awakening from the trains that morning, I was more than happy to forfeit my bed and take Matt up on a better offer. We were going to catch a train a little way down south to where Matt’s Garda friend – the one who had driven us home with sirens blaring on my first night in Dublin – lived, and we were going to stay with him that night, and he had offered to drive me to the airport the following morning. Since I had arrived by boat, I wasn’t even 100% sure where Dublin airport was, but since Matt himself wasn’t in possession of a drivers licence, my only other option would have been catching a bus (or an expensive taxi, I suppose), so I took them up on the generous offer.

That last night was an emotional night. I had spent quite a lot of time with Matt over the last several days, and we’d gotten to know quite a lot about each other in our conversations, jokes, stories, and general cross-cultural and personal education about each others lives. We’d also grown remarkably close for two people who had just met – although I suppose that is often the case with such whirlwind romances where the expiry date has already been set before the affair has even begun. There was an element of déjà vu for me – during my travels I’d left behind a handful of short-term romances with some truly incredibly people, from London to Berlin and even Vietnam – but while I felt there had definitely been strong and real connections with all of those people, in the end our farewells had been a few blinked back tears and a resigned smile, accepting our meeting as a beautiful but brief moment in time. Matt was different, though, and I began to learn that for every charming and endearing typical Irish trait that was winning me over, there was, somehow, something about me that was doing the same to him twofold. And somehow, that made him even more special.

The three of us ordered pizza and drank a lot of wine, and there was a lot of laughing and joking about, having a lot of fun. But as the wine flowed freely, so did the feelings, and there suddenly came a point in the night where the very real fact that I was leaving tomorrow hit everyone, especially Matt, like a tonne of bricks. He’d hate me for saying so, but he cried that night.
“Ah, look what you’ve done to me,” he said with a laugh, trying to shake off the very obvious feelings that he was trying his best to suppress. “I don’t cry. I never cry!” But from the sound of his sniffles, and the wetness I could feel on his face as it was pressed against my own, I could tell he was definitely shedding a few tears. “Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I did… When me… when me dad passed away last year… not even then! I didn’t even cry then. But for some reason, I’ve known you all of five days, and look at me! Big, blubbering mess, I am!” Matt held me in his arms, and I held him back, at a loss of any words to actually say that could possibly mean more than what he had just told me.
And I cried too.

***

The following morning was a cloaked with a mood that was almost melancholy, as we stood around the kitchen sipping our cups of coffee and nursing our hangovers. The several bottles of wine had somewhat heightened our emotions the previous evening, and in the morning gloom the words we’d said felt like an elephant in the room. We stood there in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and was scared that almost anything I did say would trigger more of last nights sentiments, and Matt already looked a little worse for wear. So we all eventually piled into the car, and Matt’s friend drove us to the airport. We encountered a little bit of traffic and were running only fractionally late, but when I arrived I was ushered to the front of the check-in queue, while the other two waited behind the crowds. And that’s when the morning took a turn from depressing to stressing.

I thought I had planned the whole thing out pretty well, to be honest, but then I’m no travel agent. When checking in for an important international flight, there is nothing worse than hearing the phrase: “There seems to be a problem with your booking.”
My stomach dropped, but I instantly flipped back to being optimistic. There’s all kinds of tiny little glitches that can happen, they probably just need some extra information or something, I assured myself.
“Your ESTA visa waiver for the United States lets you remain in the country for a period of up to 90 days,” the woman behind the counter said to me. “But according to your itinerary here, you’re going to be there for a period longer than 90 days.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Oh! Yeah, that’s because I plan to go to Canada. I’m going to get the train up to Montreal for a week, then come back.”
“Oh… have you got the ticket for that?”
“Not yet,” I said, a little more uneasily this time. “I’m not sure exactly when I’ll go, so I couldn’t book the tickets. But I’m planning on going before the first 90 days.”
The expression on the her face was still rather unimpressed. “Give me one moment,” she said as she furrowed her brow, and moved away to make a phone call. There was a couple of other staff around us, as I’d been moved to the late check-in counter, and I could detect an annoying vibe of curiosity from them.

Suddenly, Matt appeared beside me. “Everything alright?”
“Ahh… I think… I’m not sure…” Then the woman behind the desk moved over to speak to me.
“I’ve just been informed that travelling to both Canada and Mexico does not reset the 90 day count from having entered the country. As a condition of entry you must have proof that you are going to leave the North American continent within 90 days.” My stomach dropped again, and this time I was out of reach of any optimism to cling to. This could not be happening.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have have that proof then I can’t let you through, otherwise you’re only going to get turned away from pre-clearance customs downstairs.” When flying to the US from Dublin with Aer Lingus, all passengers went through a security and customs clearance at the airport in Ireland, meaning they could land in the domestic terminal in the US and not have to worry about it over there. But wait: it gets better (well, worse).
“Unfortunately, since boarding is about to close, you’re not going to make it on this flight.” Well, she didn’t beat around the bush. The words came down on me like a tonne of bricks, and it was clear that I had screwed up. I stood there in shock, trying to hold my disappointment together and blinking back rising tears.
“However, we do have another flight leaving for New York this afternoon that is not full yet. If you can come back to me with tickets as proof of departure before 90 days, we may be able to get you on that flight. What would you like to do?”
“I… I… ah… I need to think about it for a couple of minutes,” I said, and she nodded as Matt steered me away from the desk.

What followed was a lot of swearing to and at myself, and a racking of both my brain and my contact list for a solution. I called my mum back at home – luckily the time difference meant that it wasn’t the middle of the night – and I frantically explained the situation. Like any good mother, she remained calm in a crisis.
“Well, what do you want to do?” she simply said to me in a steady voice that was the absolute contrast of mine at that moment.
“Uh, well coming back earlier seems to be the most obvious thing?” Although I already had my flights booked from LA to Hawaii to Sydney, so that would involve rebooking two flights instead of one. My mother seemed to have similar train of thought.
“Well you’re over there, you might as well stay over there,” she said with a sigh. “Is there anywhere else you want to go? How about Costa Rica again?” she asked, referring to the trip I had made there a couple of years ago.
“Mum, I can’t afford another international flight!”
“Look, don’t worry about that. We can sort it out later.” I was incredibly lucky for such an amazing woman to have my back. “Is there anywhere else? Anyone in South America you know?” That last question triggered something in my mind.
“Brazil!”
“Brazil?” she replied, sounding a little confused. “Okay… that’s a big country. What city? Rio?”
“Um… I have no idea. Let me call you back.” And so using the airport wifi I logged onto Facebook to look up Fausto, who I had met in Barcelona. Turns out he lived in São Paulo, and so I called my mum back straight away, as she had since been liaising with my travel agent.

“Mum? São Paulo!” I said as soon as she answered. I quickly scanned my brain through all the rough, tentative plans I had for while I was on the east coast of the US, and I figured out a period of a couple of weeks were I could head to Brazil and then return to the US that would effectively navigate around the laws of the ESTA visa waiver.
“Okay, São Paulo.” I still had no idea if Fausto was even going to be in Brazil at the time, but it was the best shot I had. I made a mental note to send him a message ASAP. “And you want to fly back to New York?”
“No! New Orleans!” It was a spur of the moment decision, but in the end I had my reasons.
“New Orleans? Okay, well, let me see what we can do.” She hung up to call my travel agent, at which point I collapsed into Matt’s embrace. He had been sitting with me this whole time, trying to calm me down and keep me from hyperventilating. And I thought he was doing rather well, knowing how sad he must of felt over the fact that I was still, despite the complications, leaving.
“It’s almost like a sign,” he said with a smile. “Maybe you were just meant to stay in Ireland.” I laughed, and gave him another squeeze, though I could somehow sense that he was only half joking.

***

So my mother booked the flights for me, and my travel agent emailed the itinerary, but then I had to print it off. There was a police station on the airport grounds, so Matt’s friend was able to print it off for me there.
“So, how the hell did that happen? How did your travel agent not pick up on that?” he’d asked as we wandered back over to the terminal.
“I don’t know” I said with a shrug. “I guess I did have a lot going on in that itinerary.”
“Yeah. But still…” he said, a little disgruntled, probably just because he thought he’d be well on his way out of the airport by now. Matt, on the other hand, was making the most of every final moment we had together.

I went back over to the check-in desk with my documents, and they seemed almost as relieved as I was that I had figured something out.
“Where are you heading off to after the States, then?” one of the guys around the counter said with a smile.
“Brazil,” I said happily, feeling pretty sure that everything was going to be okay from here on out.
“Brazil! Nice! Well, that’s not too bad an outcome now, is it?” he said with a grin, and I couldn’t help but return it. He was right – in a bizarre twist of fate, my own mismanagement of my travels had forced me into a side trip to Brazil. When you put it like that, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The first woman who I had dealt with before seemed satisfied with the itinerary too, so my bag was checked-in, weighed and spirited away on the conveyor belt, and I was handed my boarding pass for the afternoon flight to New York. But as we walked away, I realised that that had all seemed a little too easy.
“So they’re just going to put me on another flight? Just like that? It wasn’t even their fault. I thought I’d have to pay something extra there too.” It seemed odd, but then Matt had a confession.

“Well… There’s usually a fee of €100 for changing a flight.”
“Oh really? Well, that would make sense. Why did they waive it?”
“Well, look… I told the guy at the desk there that I was gonna pay for any extra charges it might’ve been. But when he asked how much you’d spent on the new tickets, and I told him, I think he was a little sympathetic. He’d said you’d spent enough today, and he said they wouldn’t worry about charging you.” Matt was just constantly outdoing himself, and that Irish charm of his seemed to never cease in perform miracles. However, it wasn’t until much later in my trip, after both Matt and the Emerald Isle were far behind me, that I discovered it wasn’t just a €100 fee – it was €100 in addition to the difference of the cost of the ticket you originally bought, and the current price of the one you were switching to. And when I was switching from a ticket that I had booked months in advance (on a flight that had already left) to a ticket that was leaving that afternoon, that was a lot of money. I felt a wave of gratitude to the workers at Aer Lingus, who had taken pity on me and waived such a large fee, but also – and especially – to Matt, who had ridiculously volunteered to pay that sum had they not decided to waive it. And to even do so without telling me! He knew I would never have let him do that if I’d known, which I suppose is why he didn’t tell me, but it was further proof in my mind that the Irish were truly a different, yet beautiful kind of crazy.

We had another couple of hours before I had to begin boarding the afternoon flight, so Matt and his friend hung around with me and waited. The mood was calm and nonchalant on the surface, but I knew Matt was upset – despite all the drama of the morning, I was still leaving.
“Don’t think of it as goodbye,” I said to him, trying my best to not sound like a Hallmark card or a line from a cheesy romantic comedy. “It’s just a, ‘see ya later’, and I’ll see you further down the track. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to Australia?”
“I think I might just have to!” he said, and flashed me that cheeky grin I had grown to love for the final time.
And when the time came for me to board that plane, he hugged me one last time, so hard I thought that he might not even let me go. But he did, and I gave him one last gentle kiss on the lips before turning and heading towards the gate. I looked back a few times, tears in my eyes, and he was still standing there, watching, waving, all the way until I was out of sight.

I felt a little guilty. It was by far the most emotional goodbye I’d had on my journey so far, but I had so many adventures and exciting things waiting for me in New York and beyond. I was sad, but I was also very excited. Matt didn’t have that prospect of adventure to look forward to, and he was returning home to his life that was stained with a mark that I had so deeply, yet unintentionally, left. He was a mess that evening, and on many evenings to come – I know that because he told me so. But of Matt, I will say this: for better or for worse, he made me truly realise how some of the smallest things we do in our own lives can have some of the greatest impacts on other people and in theirs. It’s a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget, just like I’ll never, ever forget him.

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Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.