Going on student exchange by train
I first went on exchange to Mainz, Germany, in 2019. While there, I experienced a kind of awakening to environmental citizenship during a visit to the local Real hypermarket, seeing all the shelves heaving full of animal-based products. I decided then and there to stop eating meat. My last meat dish ended up being a doner kebab that I had after a night at the bar.
I feel that I have been brought up to be a pragmatic person who also has a fondness for numbers. I believe that nearly everything can be measured numerically. This includes emissions. So I started calculating the emissions generated by air travel and comparing them to the emissions generated by land travel. No matter how much I kept tweaking the numbers, it was clear that flying is many times more harmful in terms of emissions.
As a university student, I cannot claim to be ignorant of the emissions generated by travel. Years from now, could I honestly tell my children that I was unaware of transport emissions?
So, based on what the cold, hard numbers were telling me, I decided to change my behaviour.
I do not think that we should stop travelling, however, as travel has always been a part of being human.
The legendary ancient hero Odysseus journeyed for a decade across the Greek world to get back home to his wife, Penelope. In the second century, Pausanias travelled through Greece and wrote an account of all the things that he saw during his travels.
While you can get a comprehensive picture of another culture just by reading, it can in no way compare to actually living in another culture. I decided to keep travelling in the future as well, but only by land.
After my exchange was over, I loaded my luggage on to a train and headed north. I had a ticket to Hamburg, where I stayed the night before continuing on to Aarhus. After one night there, I continued on to Stockholm, from where I returned to Finland by ship.
During my journey, I noted that travelling by train was surprisingly easy. Eventually, I decided to apply for another student exchange.
I wanted to go as far away as possible, while still remaining within the borders of Europe. With this in mind, I chose the remote A Coruña in the northwest coast of Spain as my destination.
I set out by land, of course. Arriving at Hamburg Central Station after my first day of train travel, I felt like I had returned home. This is what travelling should feel like.
I travelled across the entire continent by train, with the forests of southern Sweden, the small towns of Germany and countryside of France whizzing past my window. Arriving in Spain, I felt bewildered: was Europe really this small?
Last spring, I went on one more exchange for my master’s degree studies. This time, my destination was Bordeaux, the train station of which I had passed by on my way to A Coruña.
For the first time, I also received financial support from my university for travelling by land. It felt to me like there was a paradigm shift in progress. Students were no longer being encouraged to make sustainable choices with just a pat on the back, but with concrete actions.
In a perfect world, we would of course have pricing mechanisms that would make flying more expensive so that this kind of support would not be needed.
I ended up taking the conventional route to France: an overnight ship from Turku to Stockholm and a train from Stockholm to Copenhagen, from where I took another train to Hamburg.
While we were nearing the German border, the train had to suddenly stop because someone had jumped on to the track.
We ended up waiting a couple of hours in the pouring rain outside until the track was reopened. The passengers were not being informed of the situation, so we decided to take the initiative and hop on another train. I eventually reached Hamburg two hours behind schedule.
After spending the night in Hamburg, I continued my journey via Frankfurt to Paris and on to Bordeaux.
When travelling through Paris, you have to transfer train stations by metro, just to keep travelling by land from feeling too easy. The Paris metro is prone to disruptions, as a result of which you may end up having to walk up to a kilometre to get where you are going. Luckily, this time the metro was operating normally.
Had I been travelling by air, I would have been able to reserve my tickets from a singe website, but travelling by land meant that I had to purchase three different tickets: one for the ship from Finland to Sweden, another for the train from Stockholm to Frankfurt and a third for the train from Frankfurt to Bordeaux.
If my train to Frankfurt had been one hour late, I would have had to buy a new ticket to France, paying out of my own pocket.
The complexity of buying tickets has also been noted by the European Commission, and in the future we may be able to purchase tickets from a single website.
Travelling by Interrail Pass eliminates the problem, but unfortunately Interrail Passes are often more expensive.
After spending just over 48 hours travelling, I finally saw the lights of Bordeaux through the window of my train car. My journey, which had started with a Föli bus ride in Turku, had taken a total of twelve interchanges and transfers – the final one being a tram ride to my new home.
At my destination, my landlord was aghast upon hearing that I had travelled to Bordeaux by train.
I did not eat any meat during the welcome dinner.
“You are the Greta Thunberg of Finland,” my landlord laughed, winking at me.
Despite my landlord’s joke, I do not consider myself a climate activist, as my actions are passive in nature. After all, anyone can sit quietly in their seat. Anyone Finnish, at least.
During my exchange, environmental consciousness was not particularly visible at the university. Even the vegetarian options at the student cafeteria sometimes consisted of nothing more than rice and salad.
Environmental considerations were plain to see in the urban spaces of Bordeaux, however. Compared to Turku, there were a lot of new cycling lanes under construction, and the tram network had been expanded to cover the entire urban area.
The residents of Bordeaux were especially proud of the extensive pedestrian city centre, which they claimed to be expanding every year. What’s more, the first Sunday of every month was a car-free day.
I took full advantage of the city’s great transport connections during my exchange, travelling as far as Palermo. I was able to reach Chambéry by bus, where I spent the night before taking a train to Milan.
From Northern Italy, I then took a night train to Palermo. The journey on the night train took over 20 hours. In the morning, I opened the curtains of my train cabin and was greeted by the coast of Salerno.
I sat there for a full fifteen minutes just admiring the view. This was something that you could never see on a plane.
I want to serve as an example by travelling by land, but I do not want to push it on anyone.
My companion had started questioning the very concept of travel because of the emissions generated by air transport. In spite of this, they eventually started thinking about travelling to France by land to visit me.
I helped them buy the tickets, and so they set out for France. After two days of travelling, they arrived in Bordeaux.
“It was surprisingly easy,” they stated as we hugged each other at the Bordeaux railway station.
I would like to encourage everyone to at least try travelling by land. At worst, you might discover that you enjoy travelling slowly!
Jalmari’s tips for a successful train journey:
- Reserve enough time for interchanges and transfers
- Plan your routes so that you have as few interchanges and transfers as possible.
- Pack according to how much you can comfortably carry with you.
- Take a positive attitude to travelling and download a whole bunch of TV series on Netflix.