You need to grab chances as they come, because if you don’t, you might miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. When I heard about the Interrail flash sale, I knew that was an opportunity I simply had to seize.
The Interrail pass
For the 50th anniversary of Interrail, all train tickets that allow travel through 33 European countries were 50% off for 24 hours only. That meant one month of unlimited travel cost about €250.
While that was a great deal, I couldn’t help but notice that an extra month of travel only cost €24 more, which would already be worth it if I would travel one month and a day. For €274 I bought the two-month Interrail pass with unlimited travel days.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to take two months off work, partially because that’s considered unacceptable and partially because I have been told a company relies on its employees being there. As I don’t have two months’ worth of vacation days, it was, all in all, an unrealistic plan.
But the one blessing Covid came with is remote work, which I’m a huge fan of. So as I puzzled around with my vacation days, I figured I could probably do it if I were to work on the way. My employer isn’t as big of a fan of remote work, as we are supposed to be in the office about three days per week, but when I proposed it they didn’t exactly tell me ‘no’, which I took as a ‘yes’.
I am also starting a masters in September and the Interrail pass is valid for 11 months, so I knew it would be now or never.
I initially planned to go to the borders of Poland and Romania and potentially Western Ukraine. To see friends, but mainly to report stories of the people living through and fleeing from the war. Especially now, months after Russia brutally invaded the country, people’s attention has shifted, making it ever more crucial to show the realities of war.
Unfortunately, after a lot of research and speaking to war reporters, I found out that the risk of going as a journalist without having a big, experienced newsroom backing you, is high.
It was around that time that I met an Albanian journalist and political refugee in Belgium. He invited me for a beer to discuss documentaries he made and the work I do about the Belgian labour market and discrimination towards non-EU citizens, in this case Albanians.
The first thing people think of when you mention Albania, he rightfully pointed out, is the mafia. While he speaks English fluently and completed a truck driver course in Belgium, it is impossible for him to find a job as soon as he shows his ID card, which says both “Albania” and “refugee”.
I also got to know his daughter, who faced similar discrimination at school. Only she and her Iraqi classmate failed the year, while the rest of the class – all Flemish and Dutch students – passed. While the feedback on her final assessment was very positive, the conclusion was that her work was insufficient.
The mystery that is Albania
The first thing I know about Albania is from a vague memory when I was around 8 years old. We were on a holiday on the Greek island Corfu with my mum and her friends, and she pointed to a coastline. “That’s Albania,” she said. “We can't go there, it's a poor and dangerous country.”
The second thing I know about Albania is the skinny, blonde guy who secretly lived in our attic while taking care of a massive weed plantation. Four months long I had no idea we even had an attic, and the only time I saw him was from my window at 5.30 am in handcuffs while police officers pushed him inside a car.
The third thing I know about Albania is what the journalist and his daughter told me, and my former two experiences told me they were probably right – Albania is seen in a horrible light.
This was enough to convince me I had to find out more about this country. I don’t know anyone who has been there, and as it sits somewhere between Greece and Croatia, I can only imagine it to be stunning.
I’ve also been curious to visit the Balkans in general, as I have many friends from Bulgaria and plenty of other reasons to be intrigued by the region. I’ve only been to Bosnia and Croatia and I absolutely loved it, so I can’t wait to experience more.