It has often been said that travel broadens the mind, which is one of the many reasons why young people particularly are encouraged to travel. I still remember, in vivid detail, the journey that I took to Germany as an insecure and impressionable thirteen-year-old.
This is one incident from my childhood that I value greatly, and I will always be grateful to my parents for having the wisdom to encourage and to allow me to participate in what was at that time a new and experimental project designed to encourage post-war unity and understanding.
The journey that I experienced was part of a school twinning project, with myself and others from my school living individually with a German family, which we had no prior contact, for two weeks.
One year later, the visit was reciprocated in the UK with our newly acquired German friends staying with us. For myself and many others, the visit was a huge success, and the friendship that I developed with the German boy, whose home I shared during those two weeks, was one that I greatly valued and continue to this day through emails and occasional visits.
I still recall an unpleasant night-time ferry journey from Harwich, a train journey through the Netherlands, fierce Dutch and German security police checking passports and tickets, and a combination of languages, before we finally embarked in a new and strange country that was to be my home for the next two weeks.
Nowadays, this kind of journey seems mild and quite ordinary, but at that time, the entry into post-war Europe was akin to entering an alien and potentially dangerous world. This early experience fed and nurtured my interest in countries, people and languages outside the United Kingdom, and eventually encouraged me to make a new life in another European country.
It taught me much about people from outside the narrow confines of my daily life and routines in a Lincolnshire village, and nurtured my understanding of what it is to be truly European, and not simply British or English.
How times have changed, with children visiting Spain, France and Italy, and often whilst babes in arms. Overseas travel has become both easily available and affordable for many people. However, not all are able to benefit from this new freedom.
Although many young people have plenty of time on their hands during the long summer holidays, they often lack the financial resources to do anything particularly worthwhile, and most do not have the funds to undertake travel that could enrich and broaden their minds.
Despite the low cost and ease of accessing other countries by using one of the cheap airlines, often the best way to see Europe is to travel by train. This is the reasoning behind an important European Union scheme for young people that is frequently ignored in the UK, which is a free Inter-Rail Pass to allow teenagers a full month of free travel around Europe.
The European Commission has set aside 12 million euros for between 20,000 to 30,000 teenagers from all over Europe to collect a free rail pass for use during the long summer holidays. The pass will allow students from the present 28 member states to ride on trains, buses, trams and ferries to visit any corner of Europe that they wish, and all free of charge.
The idea behind the initiative is to encourage young people from all backgrounds to connect with other Europeans to develop a European identity. What better way to see the sights whilst travelling relatively slowly, and absorbing the cultural idiosyncrasies of a variety of nations. Chatting to other people and sharing experiences whilst they travel will often create friendships and memories that could last for a lifetime.
I suspect that this early induction will lead to a lifelong addiction to rail travel, which is something that I doubt low cost air travel will ever achieve. Travel is a rite of passage into the world and I sincerely hope that, despite Brexit, government-funded European travel projects will continue in some shape or form. This is life education at its finest.
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© Barrie Mahoney