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Saturday 22 October 2016

Comment: Why this Australian believes Europe is on the right track with free InterRail plan

Australian Sophie Donaldson hails a €3bn EU proposal to give every 18-year-old a month's free train travel

Sophie Donaldson

Published 09/10/2016 | 02:30

Just the ticket: Sophie (left) pictured with a friend in Ibiza as she took a life-changing trip through Europe
Just the ticket: Sophie (left) pictured with a friend in Ibiza as she took a life-changing trip through Europe

Like the small town equivalent of small man syndrome, I've always considered myself a big smoke kind of gal. I'm exhilarated by vast metropolises and the mass humanity of big cities. Despite this, I hail from a barely-there city myself and so four years on I still find myself surprised to be living in Dublin. The realisation that home may in fact be the last place you envisage is one of the greatest discoveries of travel.

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It's 2011 and I am following love across the globe. After a heady six weeks between London, Dublin, Rome, Berlin, Munich, Dublin again and now Paris, I find myself utterly heartbroken. I'm with my gregarious Bavarian friend Martina staying in the one-room apartment of Swann, a diminutive French artist.

Martina and I go to the Louvre. She drags me to the Mona Lisa who is obscured entirely by an army of smart-phones pointed at the wall. I leave Martina in the fray and find the Napoleon III apartments where I sit for four hours, eyes glazed over with tears, the ornate upholstery blurred to resemble melting Neapolitan ice cream.

Paris is quiet in January, its boulevards beautiful and aloft, its bridges heavy under brass padlocks of love that glint dully in the silver light. If there's anywhere in the world to be heartbroken, the City of Love is it.

Two years later, I've made a home in Dublin and take a trip back to Paris with the person I had cried over in the Louvre. Hearts mended, we stroll hand in hand through the Marais and hole up in a kitsch hotel in the 17th. This time Paris is gold. I can't quite believe where life has delivered me, and it is this very sentiment that is gaining momentum in a campaign to give every 18-year-old a one-month InterRail ticket.

"Imagine it is your 18th birthday and you find a personalised letter from the European commission in your postbox. In it: a voucher to travel Europe. Your life will change."

This comes from the campaign behind the proposal that came before the European Parliament this week. The catch? It's estimated to cost around €3bn.

Despite coming with such a steep price tag, the benefits for Europe could prove priceless. At 18, we are largely unbruised by life, unbiased and unabashed.

Travel builds confidence as we successfully navigate foreign countries and ingrains us with tolerance as we meet people so different from ourselves. It reminds us that we are all foreigners as soon as we leave home.

Giving an 18-year-old a free ticket to mooch around Europe is the very best thing you could do.

What better way to do this than by train? Forget bawdy Topdeck bus tours and imagine four wonderful weeks country-hopping across Europe. With their inward-facing seats that induce conversation, trains are synonymous with romance.

The small confines of a vehicle are the ideal way to form fast friendships.

Young people should learn from the school of life, before they are swallowed by work or university. It's the best education anybody can receive. Such a scheme would give any young person this opportunity, regardless of their financial constraints.

Certainly there will be some questionable decisions made. For me it was that nasty case of bed bugs contracted from that dodgy bedsit in New Orleans, and the misjudged couch surfing host with a 'guest bed' draped in silk sheets. For a friend of mine it was the broccoli tattoo she got on her leg during a raucous week in Budapest.

But there will also be brilliant, life-changing decisions. Introducing yourself to people who become lifelong friends, or even lifelong partners.

Visiting the country you fall in love with and decide to make your home and learning a language that becomes second nature to your tongue.

As an Australian, I've done my share of travelling across the continent. And before you say it, I will. We're irritating. We "go overseas" to fling ourselves around Europe, snaffling all the low bunk beds in hostels.

When we do Europe, we really do it. And perhaps that's the kind of attitude the EU needs to mobilise in its youth.

As often happens we don't explore what is already on our doorstep. What the EU has is a smorgasbord of culture, language and opportunity.

For Europe, the success of such a scheme could secure a united future as the next generation grow up with an intimate understanding of their neighbours, give or take the odd irritating Australian.

Sunday Independent

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