For Canadians, backpacking Europe is a rite of passage. Unlike package tours, backpacking is a struggle, full of discovery and disappointment and chance connections. It is about late-night conversations in a Berlin bar with someone who lived in the communist east or balancing a baguette on your knee in the Jardin du Luxembourg or about sitting in a café next to the Pantheon in Rome reading about the reign of Augustus. Backpacking Europe is not about relaxing, but being in awe of the grandness of the continent. Most of all, it is about focus – on something different from our own life, when we can lose ourselves in a new world, if only for a moment.
Well, that’s what backpacking Europe is supposed to do. That’s what it used to do before modern communications, social media, commercial hostelling and Google maps. The adoption of the euro hasn’t helped either, making parts of Europe breathtakingly expensive for no change whatsoever in the quality of the experience or product. The tourist hubs of Paris, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona and Rome can be crass, overpriced circuses of faux authenticity.
Older Canadians would not recognize the Europe that they backpacked in the 1960s, ’70s and even the ’80s. Far from a rugged adventure into exotic cultures, the European experience has been packaged and prettified from London to Larnaca, Greece. The relationship between the place and the traveller is almost purely transactional, and those transactions are shockingly expensive. Once an oddity, even in places like Naples, travellers are now ignored by the locals, who are tired and jaded after the many millions who have passed by their streets. The spontaneity that once characterized the experience has been shattered in part by the Internet. Now you will never again get lost or show up without a reservation at a place that has 600 reviews on TripAdvisor.
A few years ago, I took my then 60-year-old father on a backpacking trip across part of Europe and Turkey. As he is an experienced traveller and someone who possesses a keen sense of adventure, I decided that we’d travel on a budget, staying in hostel dorms, only occasionally eating in restaurants and keeping an open itinerary. Two things surprised him at the end of our journey. First was how technology-based budget travel had become: Young people were so directly connected to home that they were hardly away in any meaningful sense. Second, the lack of connections we made with locals in any country no matter how much we tried. Instead of making us feel closer to a place, he found hostelling actually made us more insular, being with like-minded people became too comfortable.
For him, backpacking through Europe in 1969 was about independence, struggle and being away for the first time with almost no lifeline. He travelled by hitchhiking, relied heavily on the kindness of strangers for room and board, lingered in destinations he liked, and was in awe of how cheap things were. A letter home would only reach its destination weeks later and when he ran out of money, he took a job at a public utility in London. No doubt, he was amused by our fellow travellers who treated their four-week excursion in Europe as one of the greatest challenges of their lives despite being on the phone with friends and family three times per day.
Last summer, nearly a decade after I had trudged around Europe with a backpack, I decided to try it again for a few weeks and see what had changed. By the age of 28, I had already backpacked around South America, Oceania and the Middle East. This time, I began in Marseille, France, to an inauspicious start. A girl whom I was sharing the dorm room with was Skyping with her parents back home when I arrived in the early afternoon. I went out to explore the city and to buy some groceries at the local street market. When I returned in the evening she was still on Skype, in bed in her pyjamas rambling on about gossip in her hometown. In the kitchen I met an Australian girl who had just arrived that day from Greece where she had spent three weeks. During our conversation she said she had visited the “Apocalyptico” and only after a short argument was she finally convinced that she meant the Acropolis.
Though I met some travellers who were really interested in the journey, it seemed that most were content with staying in the common area, joining a bar crawl with fellow travellers or checking off historical sites, but not before putting them all on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter without even the slightest idea of what they were.
There was some room for hope. While technology distracts from the beauty and history before us, there were also ways in which it helped us to connect with our surroundings. Websites like Airbnb and CouchSurfing have made it easier to stay with enthusiastic locals and, more important, allow people to live like locals. CouchSurfing doesn’t just offer a free couch but also helps organize meet-ups between locals and travellers. The online marketplace Dopios offers a chance to meet locals through “curated” experiences like a personalized city tour or even a sail boat trip for a small fee. Though TripAdvisor often makes you question the palates of travellers, it does sometimes help weed out the tourist traps from the real gems.
Backpacking can never be the way it was for our parents’ generation, but a little delving into history and culture before leaving, and bravely dispensing with any electronic devices while travelling, will help give young travellers a taste of the glory days. Getting off the well-plotted route of the Lonely Planet guidebook might also do the trick. It might even make for a better trip.