Looking at the ticket stub in my hand, I gulped. For a two-hour train journey from Düsseldorf to Münster, my first in Europe, €42 felt like an awful lot. I was an exchange student in Germany for three months, and budgets were tight. Worse still, this was only my first day.
When in January 2015, I was admitted into the University of Münster, I was told I didn’t have to pay any tuition fee. Education in German public schools and colleges is free. I did, however, have to pay €220 for a ‘Semester Ticket.’ Back then, sitting in Mumbai, I had little idea about the kind of money this ticket would help me save. Having this ticket meant I did not have to pay for public transport in the entire state of North-Rhine Westphalia, which included cities like Köln, Düsseldorf and Bonn. That €42 I paid was an exception. I went to university the next day to get myself that semester ticket.
When you travel with limited funds, you learn how to make every euro count. At one point, I had made up my mind to survive on cheese and chocolates—they were the cheapest food items in the supermarket. I needed my euros to travel. I had 12 weekends in Europe, and I intended to travel to at least a dozen new destinations. That, after all, is the beauty of the Schengen—26 countries, one visa.
Stepping out of Germany for the first time, I decided to go to Paris. When buying tickets, I accidentally paid pounds instead of euros. This one time, rather than penny wise, I was pound foolish. So, after a customary bout of panic, tears and recrimination, I planned better. I quickly learnt that public transport can be a best friend of sorts when travelling in Europe. It did, to a certain extent, break the language barrier. When you asked for help with a smile, most people cooperated. Unless you were in Paris, of course. Only speaking in French could help you there.
In my scrapbook of souvenirs, I have all sorts of day passes—metros in Paris and Rome, subways in Berlin, trams in Amsterdam and Ghent. By the time I was done with Germany, I had mastered the art of navigating cities and reading maps. No easy feat for someone who gets confused between right and left.
Free walking tours, I found, helped me hone my somewhat faltering sense of direction. A literary tour of Paris not only took me to Les Deux Magots, where Hemingway and Delacroix hung out, but also to the Church of Saint Sulpice. According to The Da Vinci Code, the ‘zero meridian’ passes through here. Everywhere I go now, I first plan my walking tours and then look for a place to stay. I am a creature of habit.
To this day, every trip I plan is shaped by what I did in my days as a student. These were, after all, the first journeys I had planned entirely by myself. I learnt my first lesson very quickly. If you have a tight budget, ask the students for a map of the city. Classmates in Münster, for instance, led me to a tiny Irish pub that had live music on Tuesdays. Better still, they also gave us students a discount. Now who isn’t a sucker for good looking men crooning about love and longing?
Budgeting apart, I also learnt how to manage my time better. I didn’t want to stand in a line for hours to buy a ticket to the top of Eiffel Tower. I was perfectly content to see it twinkle at night. I did, however, choose to stand in a line for over three hours in Amsterdam. I really did want to visit the Anne Frank House. Though the garish, bright red hop-on hop-off bus in Florence made me wince, it was the fastest way to navigate the city in a day. The luxury of long trips is undoubtedly seductive, but mine are usually shorter. To pack in as much as I can, I rely on excel sheets. They’re clerical, yes, but they also make travel a lot more effective.
In my 12 weekends in Europe as a student, I didn’t visit a dozen countries. (I managed only six.) But in the end, I felt like a little David who had conquered a Goliath of a continent. My budget might have been shoe-string, but my industry, I can proudly say, surely wasn’t.
Lubna Amir travels in the search for happy places (which invariably involve a beach) and good food. When she’s not planning her next escape, you can find her curled up with a book or researching recipes.