In 2017, my novel Speak Its Name was shortlisted for the Betty Trask Prize, for the best debut by an author under the age of 35. I was the first self-published author ever shortlisted, which was pretty cool. And it was a great prize to be shortlisted for, because everybody on the shortlist won a Betty Trask Award and three thousand pounds.
So what do you do when you’ve got three thousand pounds that you’re pretty sure you’re meant to be spending on travel? Go to that place you always meant to, of course. Do that thing you always meant to do. In my case, that was loads of places. That was InterRailing.
I asked my friends for suggestions of where to go, and what to do when I’d got there. They obliged. Stockholm. Nuremberg. I knew I wanted to see Prague and Vienna. I wanted to visit the Miniatur Wunderland in Hamburg and look up family history in Stuttgart. I went to Stanford’s in Covent Garden and spent a happy lunchtime looking at maps and books and ingenious gadgets designed to improve the life of the traveller. I came away with a Rail Map of Europe and a book called Europe By Rail. Taking this home and reading through it, I immediately discovered several more places that I suddenly really wanted to visit.
I asked advice of a friend who does this sort of thing all the time. Travel first class and skimp on the accommodation, she said. Take a Tupperware box and a knife that you’re allowed to take through Eurostar security. Download the InterRail and Deutsche Bahn apps. And wear comfortable knickers.
Gradually, the outline of a plan began to emerge in my head. Scandinavia first, because it’s the most expensive. Then south. Prague, Vienna, maybe Budapest. A week that might or might not be spent messing around in Switzerland. That felt like enough planning, given the fact that it wasn’t even Christmas yet.
I bought my InterRail pass in the December 15% off sale, and spent the next few months feeling that I ought to be booking other things. By the beginning of April, I had worked out what the first week should look like, and had booked:
– three weeks of annual leave
– a night in the youth hostel across the road from Saint Pancras
– Eurostar tickets out to Brussels and back to London
– accommodation in Hamburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Berlin
– reservations on trains in Denmark and Sweden
– a berth on a sleeper train from Malmö to Stockholm
– a berth on an overnight ferry from Trelleborg to Rostock
It didn’t feel as if I’d booked nearly enough; on the other hand, it wasn’t exactly spontaneous. I told myself that I’d found a nice balance, and left it at that.
A colleague lent me a wheelie suitcase. It had cute little cartoon animals all over it – not at all my usual style, but it was in all other respects exactly what I wanted (lightweight, with carrying handles on both the long and the short sides) and even the cute little cartoon animals would serve to distinguish it from all the other travellers’ baggage.
My friend had advised me to book the Eurostar leg via the Belgian railway operator’s website, because they give a discount to InterRail pass holders. I did this. My only regret was that I had to phone them up to rebook the outward journey when SNCF strikes led to the cancellation of my train. It was a relief to discover that the call centre offered me the option to speak to someone in English. I could have done it in French, but it was much nicer not to have to.
After that, all that I had left to do was pack.
There’s a youth hostel opposite Saint Pancras station, and a pub next the youth hostel. I summoned such of my internet acquaintances as might be in London, and at a loose end, to come and see me off, and we drank white wine and ate nachos and talked about books we’d read and people we knew and places we’d been to.
When they’d all gone I went next door to the youth hostel, and checked myself in, and took myself up to the third floor, and bagged a top bunk. I bumbled around a little bit finding my pyjamas and sponge bag and phone charger, double-checked my morning alarm, and went to bed. It had begun. I hadn’t got very far yet, but it had begun.