So, several years ago – inspired by the Bouvier sisters and too much swooning over Roman Holiday – my best friend and I decided to Interrail around Europe. To this day, pretty much everyone we know can’t quite believe we did it.
It’s understandable, I suppose. I have never owned a pair of walking boots – or, indeed, anything that could practically pass for walking shoes of any kind; camping makes me feel physically ill; scruffy people morally offend me. At eighteen, we’d also never left the country without parental supervision before. I think our families feared the worse. Still, donning our bright pink backpacks [filled, of course, with truffles, novels, and sundresses], we set off courageously in search of pizza, romance, and high adventure. We found plenty of that, of course; but that’s not to say our nearest and dearests’ predictions about our incompetence were entirely misplaced.
You see, Steph and I are, in many ways, quintessentially English. We like complaining; we like scones; we dislike bad grammar and queue-jumpers. We are also completely, utterly, [but, we naively hoped, endearingly] bumbling. After all, we hail from Britain – “the land of embarrassment and breakfast,” as Julian Barnes so wonderfully put it – and we certainly did our heritage proud during our jaunt on the continent.
Getting lost whilst going from King’s Cross to St Pancras – which are in the same station – before we even left England was the first sign of things to come. And it only went downhill from there…
One memorable incident took place early on, on our night-train from Lyon to Florence. The journey began pleasantly enough, with a stroke of unexpected good luck: it turned out that we had a whole couchette compartment to ourselves! Night trains in Europe are a bit of a mixed bag, especially when you find it impossible to decipher the native language whilst booking them; for the same standard-price ticket, you can end up with a squashed seat between a nun and an irritating German couple, or – as we discovered this time around – four bunk beds between two of you in your own lockable room. Tres North by Northwest!
Whilst Steph carefully laid out her toiletries, I busied myself exploring our new abode. Spotting a metal bolt on the door with a big hole in it, I – quite naturally, I thought at the time – gave it a prod.
Which turned out to be a mistake.
“Um, Steph…” I said nervously, after a few minutes of increasingly frantic door-pulling. “I think we’re locked in.”
Steph didn’t look up from unfolding her pajamas. “No we’re not, just turn the knob.”
“No… we’re not locked in there… the bolt’s stuck.”
Steph leapt to her feet and rattled the door herself, before rounding on me. “How did that happen?”
I swallowed in trepidation. “…I pushed it.”
The air around Steph practically crackled with uncomprehending rage. “Why would you do that? WHY?!”
“I don’t know!” I wailed. “Why did they put it there if they don’t want people to push it?”
“Because they assume children can’t reach that high!” Steph snarled, before turning her attention back to attempting to force the bolt down. “Oh, God, we’re really locked in… Help! Help us!”
A passing American couple stopped as they passed by our compartment, peering in through the window. “Are you OK in there, honey?” asked the woman.
“No!” Steph replied, verging on hysteria. “We’re locked in!”
“Don’t tell them I did it,” I whispered shame-facedly, from my position slumped on the bottom bunk by the door.
“She did it!” Steph pointed at me accusingly. “It’s all her fault!”
“Um… OK, honey.” Our good Samaritan was a little non-plussed, but cheerfully determined to be helpful. “I don’t think you’re stuck. Just turn the doorknob.”
“I’ve tried that!” Steph barked. “It’s the bolt at the top! She shoved it in, and now we’re stuck!” At this point, I was beginning to get a bit claustrophobic – and had just made the mistake of glancing up at our would-be rescuer, which meant I now noticed the big red fire hammer positioned on the corridor wall just opposite our compartment. “Oh, God,” I groaned. “They’re going to have to smash us out! Steph, they’re going to smash open the door to let us out!”
“Um, we’ll just go get the conductor,” the kindly American cut in, dragging her husband away – she had obviously quickly realised that she was out of her depth. Meanwhile, I buried my head in my hands and muttered, “We’re going to get covered in glass when they smash us out, Steph!”
“Oh, for goodness’ sake, no we’re not,” Steph snapped irritably. “I’ve just fixed it.”
My head snapped up. “What?”
Steph sighed as she slid our door miraculously open. “I just managed to slide my nail in and wiggle it up. I’ll go let those Americans know not to worry about the conductor. You stay here, and just… don’t. Touch. Anything.” Too relieved for a retort, I nodded meekly and collapsed onto the bed with a sigh of relief.
Of course, Steph’s fury was entirely justified; but by the end of our trip, neither of us had escaped unscathed from our uniquely English brand of blundering and humiliation. [Just ask Steph about our return journey back to England, which featured too much pink champagne on the Eurostar and some hair-raising moments on the Underground, and watch her turn red… but that’s a story for another day!]
Yet despite our ineptitude and our share of shame-faced moments, we still managed to snatch first kisses on the Ponte Vecchio, ring the wishing bell on Bled Island, swim through bat caves in Corfu, and watch Audrey Hepburn movies on outdoor screens in Paris. That’s one Sparkles & Crumbs lesson I firmly believe in: the adventures are worth any mishaps along the way.