(More pictures here)
Over the past few days I have had some serious doubts about this trip, but they are on their way now. At 5:10 this morning Paddy, Christopher, Sascha, Alex and George were on the train together headed for the first stop of their three-week interrail trip: Venice.
We had something of a crisis on the weekend, when we went with Christopher and Paddy to the train station to buy their interrail passes, and it turned out that Sascha already had his – but starting 24 hours too early. However, we had the amazingly good fortune of finding exactly the right person in the right place at the right time: the young woman working at the information desk at the train station was enthusiastic, helpful, extremely competent, but also with a wonderful sense of humor and an ability to think creatively. That was necessary in our case. On Sunday we went back again to see her, because she had told us when she would be working, and Sascha, Alex and Seth went with us. She managed to change Sascha’s ticket, so that he, Christopher and Patrick would all be leaving on the same day on the same train going to the same place. This was no mean feat. Between Paddy-type mathematical calculations and all the boys trying to talk at the same time and the constant switching of languages, I would not have blamed her at all, if she had run away screaming in despair. Alex waited patiently until everything was sorted, so that he could buy his ticket in the end once we all knew how it was supposed to work. I had the feeling we almost lost the woman then, though, when she had all the forms and all the information and just needed Alex’ passport – and he handed her his British passport. After a few deep breaths, however, she dealt with even that glitch quite capably.
One source of confusion that afternoon was the fifth person in the group. We had explained to the woman from the beginning that there would be five boys traveling together, and there were five boys at the train station Sunday afternoon, but unhappily, Seth was not planning on being part of this trip and the fifth person, George, was unreachable. So every time the number five was mentioned, it set off yet another chorus of lamentations that Seth would not be part of the group and another round of consternation that George had unhelpfully disappeared. In the end, Peter and I just couldn’t live with this situation, so we took Seth aside and asked him whether he might be able to join the group if we bought an interrail pass for him. Unfortunately, he has a summer job that he seriously needs to keep, so he couldn’t just leave for three weeks.
How do five teenage boys prepare for a three-week tour of Europe by train? They spend hours arguing with one another about who has not communicated which information coherently and rejecting advice from concerned meddling parents. Naturally.
Yesterday afternoon, when I found Paddy and Sascha staring blankly at a video game (I think it is one that only Paddy can win, so no one else ever wants to play it with him – Sascha is not usually interested in video games), I could not begin to imagine how this would ever work. Then when they started practicing setting up and taking down their tents in the garden, however, I had the feeling they were actually beginning to look surprisingly competent. After that they started packing rucksacks. Sascha had already packed at home with his real family, who had left that morning for their holiday, so he and Paddy worked together on Paddy’s rucksack, while Christopher attempted to talk his belongings into organizing themselves in the other room. By the time Paddy and Sascha were finished, the total volume of his rucksack appeared to be equal to – if not greater than – the total volume of Paddy himself, just stretched sideways. Nevertheless, Paddy gave us an impressive demonstration of how agilely he could move with this wide load on his back and even did push-ups to prove that he could carry it. Once Christopher had finished negotiating with the limitations of space inside and attached to his rucksack, we all went off to Stern together for a good-bye drink.
When Paddy started fading, he and Sascha decided to go home, while Christopher and I stayed behind to talk a bit. When we got home around eleven, I expected to find Paddy and Sascha sound asleep with their alarm clocks set for 3:30 am. Instead I found them in front of the computer happily planning their trip with Google Earth, Wikipedia, various maps and a guide book to “Europe on a Shoestring”. Better late than never. Five hours before the train leaves is obviously the very best time to plan a detailed itinerary for a three-week tour of Europe.
Actually, it looks like a very good plan, and I am relieved to have a copy of it so that we have some idea of where they are likely to be at various points over the next three weeks. They even promised to stop in Portbou and visit the monument to Walter Benjamin there for me. This plan along with a list of at least my contacts in various cities makes me feel a bit more secure.
Peter was surprisingly cooperative about leaving early for the train station this morning (it is quite clear that this group doesn’t do “last minute rush”), and even though it took some time to get all three rucksacks to fit into the back of the car, we were there almost at the agreed time of 4:30 am in front of the information desk at the train station. That is, Christopher, Paddy, Sascha and Alex were all there, but there was no sign of George, and everyone had given up guessing whether he was actually going to make it or not. We waited for a while and then went to the platform together, and just as the train was announced, who should come strolling down the platform – George made it, at least onto the train.
About two hours after they left, I got a text message from Paddy that he had forgotten to take his braces that he still wears at night, so I checked their list and sent a message back to him that when they get to Barcelona he should call my friend there, whose number is on his list, I would send the braces by express mail to her. Sending the braces by express mail to Barcelona turned out to be staggeringly expensive, but at least we have proved that the plan works. So far.
I don’t think I got enough sleep to feel fully functional now myself, which makes me wonder how the boys are doing with no sleep at all. I still have this odd feeling that something is different, but I haven’t really grasped that they are gone yet. I think I will be glad when they are home again.