Dispatch is a series of first-person stories from the road. Readers can share their experiences, from the sublime to the strange.
I wanted to get back to the way I used to travel, alone with a backpack, exploring new places on trains and buses. Minimal plans and open to the possibilities the road has to offer. But could I do that alone with my two girls?
My husband was supposed to come with us. But three weeks before leaving for Norway, my freelancer hubby dropped the bomb: "Honey, I have to work for the 10 days of your train trip." It was a major dilemma. Would I really be able to backpack across Europe to Rome with a five-year-old and a nine-year-old by myself? Would we be safe? Would the kids get bored? Was it too much to take on?
I didn't want to back out now. So I rolled the dice and booked our train tickets from Oslo (where we'd been visiting with my family) to Rome.
On the first leg of our journey, doubts were still in the back of my mind when the conductor took our tickets. The kids had their faces pressed to the windows pointing out the cows, grain fields and vibrant red barns. We'd left Oslo and were travelling through the deep forests and big lakes of Sweden. "Tickets please," called the conductor and they handed them over. "You girls are going on quite an adventure," he said. And the sight of my girls giggling as their eyes sparkled with our adventure chased away my worries.
At least until our first delay outside of Stockholm. It looked as if this was going to be a boring layover until we started chatting with the international mix of passengers waiting for the train. My two girls became instant rock stars and everyone wanted to play with them or chat about Canada. Watching my children made me remember that the people you meet on the way become a part of your travel story. The most memorable moments of any trip happen during the unexpected twists and turns.
The night train arrived and I was glad I'd bought two "luxurious" beds (for €150). Even though the room was hot and smelly, it was totally worth the extra money to get a good rest. I had one bed and my two girls were happy to share. Early in the morning our train stopped in Malmo, Sweden, where we changed trains to cross the Oresund Bridge that connects Sweden and Denmark, finally stopping for breakfast in Copenhagen. We ate with some of our new friends from the train station, and the girls were in a good mood after the first eight hours of our train journey. Nothing tastes as good as a real Danish (or wienerbrod) with fresh-pressed orange juice and, for me, a cup of bold dark coffee. But we still had such a long way to go.
Back on the train, we watched the forests of Sweden give way to Danish cornfields and windmills, and then the train rolled onto the ferry that took us across the Baltic Sea from Denmark to Germany. My youngest got really excited: "I have never been on a train that goes on a ferry before!" she cried.
We changed trains again in Hamburg and made our way through the German pine trees and farmlands. Surprisingly, the kids embraced the rhythm of the train without electronic gadgets. A phone was the only tech I wanted to carry, and as an added bonus, that meant they didn't argue about screen time. Our train ride became the entertainment.
After our 24 hours non-stop travel, we walked out of the Munich train station and eventually found a pricey room for the night. Generally speaking, looking for a room by the train station is not a good idea, but I was tired and not thinking clearly. Over burgers at dinner, the girls and I discussed our travels so far and the obstacles conquered. We'd travelled a lot before (road trips, plane rides and hiking in all kinds of weather) but now, well on our way to Rome, I was grateful they seemed to enjoy what I missed so much: the backpacker style of travelling.
The next day, on the way to Milan, we watched the Alps roll by with scenic views of picturesque villages full of Tirol houses with red geraniums blossoming in veranda boxes while the kids sipped hot chocolate and munched on fresh rolls with cheese in the restaurant car.
Then, in Bologna, Italy, we got some good news, some bad news and some worse news. The good news was the only train available was an express train. The bad news was we had to pay extra. The worse news was the train was so full, we had to sit on the floor. The kids were not happy. "I wish Papa was here. Are we there yet?" they kept whining as I convinced everyone (including myself) to try to sleep a little on the floor. I became the mattress with the kids sleeping on top of me. Random acts of kindness from fellow passengers saved my girls (and myself) from a total breakdown.
I think I have never been more happy to see a train station as when we rolled into Rome. We'd made it. My fears about crossing the continent alone with young children evaporated. In Rome, we did many of the usual touristy things; we ate pasta, pizza and gelato as only a kid can. We went to the Spanish Steps, Vatican City and swam in a pool in the shadows of the Colosseum. And then I got sick.
The day before our departure, I developed such a cough and serious tummy trouble that I became genuinely concerned. I was sick and alone in Rome with two kids watching Italian cartoons in our darkened hotel room. I had to see a doctor or I couldn't get back on the train home to Norway. It took too long to find one, but the wait gave me time to think, and reflect. My girls were rolling with this latest adventure as they'd rolled with the others. I could see that they'd entered the state of travelling that countless backpackers have done before them: They'd discovered that the journey was as much the adventure as the destination. The trip home would be a breeze.
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