It was a ‘Gap Year’ style holiday unlike all others. Look no further for sun-kissed beach bodies, drunken out-of-focus photographs of the Full Moon party, fluorescent face paint and sky diving. You won’t find them here. This holiday, my dear reader, took me to Europe for a tour of gastronomy. I think holidays reflect our personalities better than we realise.
Although inter-railing isn’t unheard of for a pre-university bunch of nineteen year-olds, it is unusual for them to visit Germany and Austria when their peers are downing Sambuca shots on a beach somewhere in Asia. Culture, good food and ‘The Sound of Music’ tour in Salzburg does not appear on many young peoples’ agendas when there are drinks to consume and cheap bars on the beach to frequent. In between our superior sight-seeing stops, including many attempts by my friend Suzie to convince us to pay for a old-fashioned-style group portrait, complete with costumes and one of us, most likely David as he was the only boy, sitting in a tin bath, we certainly managed to find those drinks to consume and cheap bars to frequent, albeit not on a sandy beach with a cocktail but on a pebbled shoreline in Nice with a plastic cup of 3 euro rosé in hand, or in the depths of a basement tavern in Prague.
That said, five countries and nine cities in a month does not leave much time for relaxation, so most of it took place on the trains zipping us between cities and across borders, usually involving Suzie falling asleep with her mouth open.
It is interesting, six years later, to reflect on the particular anecdotes which stick clearly in my mind. After a night of merriment at a bar in Berlin designed entirely with books – the lampshades were books, the door to the toilet was a bookshelf – we found ourselves in a club called Matrix. The sheer amount of sweat produced in these underground vaults hidden beneath the railway arches was shocking and every photograph from that night shows one of us or a stranger looking somewhat drenched. The gymnastic thrusting of the scantily clad men in cages, the smoke machine and the beer tasting like ketchup was an unforgettable introduction to the holiday, and one I enjoyed so much I ended up visiting again a year later. I like to think I have slightly matured since then.
Real life events collided with our European excursion. After a rainy day sheltering in gelato parlours in Florence we were shocked to discover Amy Winehouse had died. We then spent the night silently listening to ‘Valerie’ in our hostel room. Our visit to Rome was happier because it was Suzie’s birthday. The day before, my friend Sophie and I dashed around a local supermarket hoping to find a birthday cake. I can now safely say birthday cakes do not exist in Italy. In the UK whole aisles are dedicated to birthdays, covering both sides with all forms of mass-produced confectionery. Meanwhile, in Italy, Sophie and I found a cake-like flan, flat as a pancake, but at least sponge. To brighten it up we bought a jar of chocolate spread and candles and what resulted was a slightly mangled, smeared and sorry-for-itself birthday cake which made me as proud as if I had baked it myself.
Although we were exploring Europe, home to some of the most delicious food in the world, eating out for every lunch and dinner unburdened my flesh-coloured money belt/girdle at a worrisome rate. Gap year travels are not known for their glamour, more for how to save money for the next cheap bottle of wine. So when a hostel came with a kitchen we took full advantage. In Prague, Suzie made us carbonara, not authentic Czech cuisine but still wonderful and I gobbled it down in a few mouthfuls. In Nice, I emailed my dad for his famous sausage casserole, packed with apple, tomatoes and potatoes, thus ticking the boxes for filling and healthy, which we had greatly surpassed during the previous weeks.
In Rome, David, who is a fantastic cook, discovered gnocchi. These stodgy dumplings were new to all of us, some liked it more than others, but it became David’s staple, served with tomato sauce on evenings when money was short and energy low. David also became our pseudo-house boy, cooking us tomatoes and mushrooms on toast for breakfast one morning. After three weeks of plastic-wrapped bread rolls, UHT milk and whatever breakfast we could buy at the local Carrefour, a hot homemade meal was mouth-watering and I ripped apart that toast rather like a lion attacking an antelope.
One moment in particular remains in my memory. We were leaving a sadly wet and grey Salzburg (although it had provided an excellent array of cake, jaunty versions of ‘Edelweiss’, and Suzie had finally got her wish and we dressed up in multi-coloured dirndl dresses although the fun stopped when we tried to get David into lederhosen).
On a station platform surrounded by greenery and mountains we were waiting for our connection to Venice, and I was, as always, peckish. Scraping together a couple of euros I wandered over to the vending machine and selected my favourite, a Bounty. There is always that heart-stopping moment when you fear the vending machine won’t deliver your snack and instead swallow the money in malicious greed. Slowly, the rung holding back my Bounty released itself and the chocolate bar dropped into the chasm. However, the rung didn’t stop. It continued to unravel, causing a SECOND Bounty to fall. I stood open-mouthed in shock before eventually crouching down to open the hatch and feeling the two Bounties lying there, confirming what I’d just seen. Two Bounties. I hurried back to the group, bursting with excitement, which incidentally was caught on camera.
The rosy glow of two Bounties did not wear off for the rest of the day. It’s the little things and the minute pleasures of Europe, more so than sweaty nights out or sight-seeing around the Sacré Coeur, that nestle a memory firmly in your mind.