It has been proven more than once that mobility requires substantial funding; resources are necessary to make it possible for everybody to truly experience mobility. The importance of funding for student mobility has also been underlined with studies such as the ESNsurvey. But how much money do you actually need to explore Europe?
Our generation has the greatest opportunities: you don't need a visa within the Schengen area, using our smartphones we can have access to maps, the internet is basically everywhere, and hostels and buses are cheap. How much do you need? I wanted to ask this question, but I started the other way around.
How far can I go and with how little?
As I had just finished a job in Finland and was between jobs, I took it upon myself to find out and set the following rule for myself: No money! That means no ATM card, no cash, nothing. Ok, but what should I pack? As I wanted to keep it as realistic as possible, I packed just the normal stuff, like I would do for any other trip, so no outdoor gear of any kind. My trip led me from the North of France to 14 European countries, more than 30 cities and a total distance of just over 4500 km. Two thirds of this distance, I travelled by hitchhiking, the other third I walked. I explored the countryside of all of those countries, I had the chance to see small villages in Belgium, mighty forests in Germany, beautiful fairytale landscapes in the Czech Republic, the Coast of Croatia, the Alps and everything in between.
The most frequently asked question during this adventure was, for sure, “What are you eating?”, which always made me smile. When I was in a city and couchsurfed with either fellow ESN members, former Erasmus students or just strangers I met through couchsurfing communities, each and every one of them took good care of me and there are no words for how grateful I am for all the support I received from them during this trip. Outdoors I used what I learned in the Scouts and in the military; I ate wild turnip, apples, plants, vegetables and fruits of different kinds and shapes. Even during the autumn, if you know what you are looking for, nature is a great provider.
The greatest part of this whole adventure, hands down, was the friendliness and hospitality of people. Although we live in difficult times, my travels proved that there is always a bright side. Wherever I was, walking across fields or hitchhiking with a complete stranger in a random town, the people were friendly and helpful. In Belgium, a farmer invited me to have lunch with his family. In the Netherlands, one of my rides demanded to take me for coffee. In Croatia, a stranger I spoke with about the history of his country insisted on inviting me to a Croatian Christmas treat. Some strangers drove a long distance on the highway just to get me closer to my destination, even if it wasn't on their route. I can't say how much it made me feel like belonging to one large European family of amazing ESNers, who welcomed me with open arms, even if we were strangers at first. They tried to organise a couch for me for the night and, if they couldn't host me, they asked friends and family. This was, and still is, a great feeling, to be a part of such an incredible family of volunteers.
Was everything great?
Absolutely not. I ripped two backpacks apart and finished my travels carrying 18kg mostly on one shoulder. I picked Autumn for this adventure and during the nights, especially at the beginning of December the temperature was often below zero. I had to give up a lot of comfort. I don't suggest you should do it the way I did it, I took a serious challenge to see how far I could go. During all of this, I saw unique spots, experienced so many different cultures, saw historical places and met some of the kindest people of my life.
You don't like couchsurfing?
If you are not a fan of counchsurfing then go to ESNcard.org and get a cheap deal for a hostel. Hitchhiking is not your thing as it takes a very long time and is hard to predict? BlaBlaCar or long-distance buses are cheap nowadays. Not a fan of scavenging your food in the wild? I hear you, go to student cities and eat in student bars or restaurants. The only thing right now stopping you from going abroad is your idea of comfort, but there is so much out there.
In the end I would like to thank each and every person who made this possible, I couldn't name them all, but you're all part of this: ESN International, ESN Belgium and all its sections and soon to be sections, ESN Czech Republic for taking care of me so well, ESN Slovakia for welcoming me as their spontaneous guest (Thanks Jakub for the fried chicken), ESN Croatia, and so many many more: Johannes, Stefanie, Antonia, Jan, Liliana, Ivčica and all others.
Written by Benjamin Helm