28 September 2012

Book Review: "Inter Rail"

Traveling by train in Europe is an incredibly unique experience. Inside these comfortable steel tubes speeding through the countryside, the outside world becomes vague and blurred as it rushes past the windows. Whether lost in a book, or in good conversation, time takes on a different form while on a train and journeys of several hours and hundreds of miles can pass by in matter of moments. Most often however, this small bubble in the time-space continuum is shared with a complete stranger. This forced intimacy can easily be ignored with the help of ipods, books, computers, etc. or it can be embraced as an opportunity to get to know a random stranger.

But what kind of relationships can be formed from the crossing paths of random strangers? Francesco, the main protagonist in the book “Inter Rail”, by Alessandro Gallenzi, discovers just this when he boldly buys himself a rail pass to travel Europe.
“Inter-rail” refers to the open rail pass you can buy to travel across Europe for a specified number of days without having to buy separate tickets. This is a fantastic way to travel for the free-spirited, let life take you where it will type of person, like Francesco.

His adventures start right away as he bids farewell to his disapproving father (for a young Italian that has never left home, such an outrageously bold move could risk years of silence for so blatantly disregarding his parents--you know, for preferring the company of strangers over that of his parents) and leaves Rome’s Termini station to make his way up to Germany. Unfortunately, poor Francesco’s trip gets off to a rough start when he is pushed off the train by a mob of people and falls to the platform flat on his face. Fortunately, he gets a helping hand from Pierre, the larger than life character that will last throughout the story and wind up teaching Francesco some of his biggest lessons in life.

Silly shenanigans last through the night in Munich and Pierre gives innocent Francesco his first lesson in money and ‘working the system’. The next morning, it was back to the train station as Pierre was off to his home in Cologne. With a moments notice, Francesco decides to jump off the train to stay as Pierre’s guest. This is the beauty of an inter rail pass! Pierre generously provided Francesco with a private apartment within his villa, but it was no match for the strange dealings he was getting pulled into; beginning with an odd night-time visit from Pierre’s wife. Her request to deliver a secret package in Amsterdam was the first sign of shady dealings. But one thing was clear—something strange was brewing at Pierre’s luxurious home and it was time to leave. With a lightening fast ride to the train station in Pierre’s red Maserati, Francesco bid farewell and was off for Berlin.

After a long day of sightseeing in Berlin and a failed attempt to meet up with a girl he met on the train, Francesco was exhausted as he faced the inevitable dilemma of traveling without plans:

When he came out of the pizzeria, he didn’t know which way to go – right or left, north or south. He didn’t even have a place to sleep, and it was too late now to go looking for a youth hostel. Then he had an idea…

…There was a train to Prague at a quarter to one, and a train to Lund, in Sweden, at a quarter past eleven – so he had just a few minutes to make up his mind. He would have liked to have gone to Prague, but the thought of having to spend another hour and a half in the waiting room and another 5 hours on the train, was not appealing. The journey to Lund was longer, and certainly no less tiring, but at least he could get onto the train straight away and, if he was lucky, snatch a few hours’ rest.” (pg 47)

This ride turned out to be the most colourful of all. Between the stern Parisian woman, the Swedish college students and the Russian black-market passport salesman, there was no time for sleeping. He got on quite well with the Swedes, who wound up inviting him to stay at their flat in Lund. This is one point in the book where the story is a bit dated, as there is much discussion about needing a visa to enter Sweden, or to have a Swedish travel companion for entry. This is no longer necessary for travel within the EEA (European Economic Area).

For me, one of the best aspects of travel is the people you encounter and the possible relationships that can be made. During Francesco’s stay in Lund, he met many students and made many friends, one of which was Kyle, an Irish girl studying at Oxford, who became a special friend. This, of course, tacked on a new location to his itinerary.

With a travel companion from Lund, Francesco travelled to Stockholm, Elsinore, Copenhagen and Amsterdam. After arriving in Amsterdam, Francesco and his new friend stopped at a local “coffee shoppe” and before parting ways, his friend insisted on eating a local specialty called “Space cake”. Poor Francesco had no idea what kind of trouble he was headed into, but after a few cakes, he was off to deliver that mysterious package from Pierre’s wife. Along the way, strange, psychotropic visions altered Francesco’s reality and he wound up awakening in a hospital with a bandaged head and zero recollection of how he got there and if the package was ever delivered. This, and his subsequent investigation led to a series of events that turn the story away from his simple rail travels and into a strange, murky adventure with Pierre. Together, they experienced glamorous evenings in London, a secret rendezvous in a Paris cemetery, hitting the casino in Monaco and being chased by goons in Rome!

I have to admit that once the story took a turn away from his rail travel, I found myself a bit disappointed because I longed for more rail stories. This book is marketed as an Inter rail story and I was expecting only that. While his adventure with crazy Pierre was certainly exciting and the story left me guessing at every turn who the bad guy really was—I wasn’t prepared for such change of direction.

That being said, knowing now that the story is more about Francesco’s journey into manhood and the people and lessons he learns along the way, than it is about travelling Europe by rail pass, makes the story much more enjoyable. The bizarre things he witnessed and the lessons he was taught by Pierre were more valuable to him than a hundred more days on the train. And with his final parting from the story, Pierre left one last  “piece of advice” that inspired Francesco: “Do something with your life.”

Inter Rail is an exciting read and the audacity of Pierre will often leave you shaking your head. Right from wrong will be challenged and a world of ‘grey area’ will prevail. But of all the adventures, small and grand, my absolute favourite part of the book is the epilogue. It shows us Francesco, 20 years later, when he happens upon his rail pass in the back of a drawer. He thinks back to Pierre, reflects on that wild journey and what it did for his life. He wonders what Pierre would think of him and if he would approve of what did with his life.

Like beautiful gift-wrap, the epilogue ties everything together and wraps up the loose ends. It’s reflective and inspiring and it touched on a lot of my own thoughts and feelings. This momentary memoir completes the story of his life and describes what every dreamer and intrepid traveler hopes their life will become. As a fellow free spirit, I resonate with Francesco’s story as I try to live my own adventure and struggle to strike a balance between my desire to establish a life and my mortal fear of settling into a mundane existence. When I put the book down, I was filled with a sense of yearning and longing to have a similar satisfaction when looking back on my own life. 

If you like travel stories and adventures in Europe, Inter Rail is a great read.

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