Planes, trains and automobiles: A student travels through Europe


I’m currently on a plane going from Basel, Switzerland, to London, England, for a layover back to France. Below me, the Rhine River winds by misty hillsides in this region where the German, Swiss and French borders meet.

It’s the end of a long trip.  Switzerland was the sixth European country I visited during my term abroad at the University of Rennes, France.

My travels began on Monday, Sept. 1, in Sunapee, N.H. I put on my turquoise golf shirt and made sure for the 10th time I had everything. My mother wasn’t going to let me leave the house without the proper provisions for the fierce winters in western France.

From Boston-Logan Airport, my first stop was Reykjavik, Iceland. Stefan Hamaway ’16 and I met up in Reykjavik, because he flew in from JFK.

Iceland has a plethora of geothermal energy (in fact, the country is completely powered by renewables) and much of the excess energy is used to heat swimming pools. In downtown Reykjavik, we visited a couple of outdoor pools, all of which stay open in the height of winter. We also saw the Blue Lagoon right before we hopped onto our plane to Paris.

If I’ve gotten an education in anything during my term abroad, it’s been how to work public transportation. All major European airports have train stations, so from Charles de Gaulle Airport, we took the Regional Express Network, or RER, commuter rail into the heart of Paris.

Stefan and I did touristy things around Paris, like going up the Eiffel Tower and walking the Champs Élysées. I had already been to Paris before, but some of the highlights from this trip were the Musée d’Orsay and the park next to the Palace of Versailles.

From Paris, we planned to take a flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Rennes, the city where we would be studying.

After strolling around the Jardin du Luxembourg we took the RER train back to the airport. We arrived at Charles de Gaulle Terminal G about 45 minutes before our flight, which was a problem, because Air France check-in lines move like molasses.

The attendants, for whatever reason, were making phone calls for each check-in. You would think they would have a more efficient system, but this is France, and, of course, Air France was on strike a week later, anyways.

By the time we reached the head of the line, the attendant refused to check our bags, since it was 1 p.m. and our flight was scheduled to leave in a half hour.  What a pain.

With trains and flying out of the question, I was left with the American solution: rental car. It turns out that 21-year-olds can rent cars in France.

As a disclaimer, I very much don’t recommend renting a car in Europe unless you are up for the challenge and can drive manual transmission. I had just turned 21 two weeks earlier, so I only had a temporary paper license and my expired license. After being declined by the Hertz affiliate, the Avis guy gave me the go-ahead.

I’d bought a SIM card in Paris from Free Mobile, a really cheap cellphone company in France, but it provides data service nonetheless, so fortunately Google Maps was functional on my phone.

Between Stefan, my luggage and myself, the little sub-compact Opel was packed to the roof. Somehow, I managed to drive three hours to Rennes with neither a real map nor a real driver’s license.

As if getting to Rennes wasn’t enough of an adventure, for a month and a half leading up to my vacation, I had been traveling every weekend throughout Western Europe.

One of the first weekends of the term, I visited my family friend Katrin in Munich, Germany, for Oktoberfest. I took the TGV, France’s high-speed train system, to Paris, and then changed onto a sleeper-overnight train direct to Munich.

In any case, Munich is a spectacular city. After running with one of the brewery parades, Katrin gave us an extremely quick tour of downtown Munich. Then she said to me, “Now you’ve seen most of Munich, you should take my car and go see Salzburg, Austria.”

I guess the drive to Rennes was foreshadowing my drive down the Autobahn. Katrin claimed that her Volkswagen Polo would only go 130 km/h (80 mph), which was probably her way of saying I shouldn’t drive too fast. On one of the straightaways without a speed limit, I did get the Polo to redline at 170 km/h (105 mph) — in the middle lane, mind you. Meanwhile, in the fast lane, Porsches and Lamborghinis were humming by at a much, much faster clip.

The speed limit on the Autobahn is automated according to the weather and traffic, so as soon as the digital signs change to the no-speed-limit symbol, which looks like a white circle with a couple of white lines diagonally bisecting it, everyone steps on the gas. It’s as if the scenery around you abruptly speeds up, but the cars stay in the same place. I’ve never experienced anything like it.

After Munich, we did several group excursions with the whole Union group. We’ve toured around Brittany, the region where Rennes is situated. In Normandy, we visited all of the famous World War II sites.

Other side excursions I’ve done on my own include visiting the City of Nice, in the Côte d’Azur region, and the British Island of Jersey, right of the coast of France. I’ve been staying in youth hostels, which cost about $20 to $40 per night.

In Europe, most students have a vacation mid-semester, around Halloween. My plan was to make good use of Ryanair. So with a one-day layover in London at both ends of my trip, I flew from Dinard (just north of Rennes) to Venice, Italy. Stefan, Ashley Egner ’16 and I spent a few days marveling over the canals and the Italian architecture.

From Venice, Stefan and I (Ashley went to Scotland and the Netherlands) took a train to Lucerne, Switzerland, which is a city surrounded by lakes and mountains.

In Switzerland, Stefan and I bought a Swiss rail pass, valid for all trains, boats and public transport within the country. Even the tiniest villages in Switzerland are accessible by train.

From Interlaken, we took the narrow-gauge Berner Oberland-Bahn train to the ski village of Grindelwald, at the foot of the Eiger, one of the most prominent mountains in Europe. We even took a train to the Jungfraujoch, the highest train station in Europe, which is right next to the Eiger.

I’m in decent physical shape, but walking up stairs at 11,000 feet put me out of breath. The view at the top of the viewing platform was crystal clear. All of the snowcapped Alps towered above cow pastures and villages.

After Grindelwald, we spent a night in Geneva, and our Ryanair flight left from Basel.

Knowing how to speak French has been helpful in France, but I’ve been speaking English everywhere else I’ve gone.

It didn’t really hit home until my host mother, who can only speak French, asked me what language I was going to speak in Switzerland. “English,” I responded with a chuckle.

And then there’s the money. Everything in Europe, save health care and education, is many times more expensive than in the U.S. On top of that, the sales taxes in several countries add up to 20 percent (Switzerland was only 5 percent). The taxes were especially shocking for me since we don’t have sales tax in New Hampshire.

And the gas — yikes!  Gas is about $10 a gallon. To fill up a quarter of a tank in Katrin’s tiny Volkswagen cost me around $45.

I’ve already spent a couple thousand dollars, but considering how much I’ve done in two months, it’s been completely worth it. I may not have many more chances left in my lifetime to explore another continent extensively.

Union’s term abroad in Rennes has given me an extraordinary opportunity to see Europe.

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Drew McCalmont
Hi, I'm Drew, the layout editor and former world editor of the Concordiensis. In my free time, I run, ski, hike, travel and fly airplanes. I study Physics, French, and Mathematics. I grew up in New Hampshire. I hope you enjoy many of the visual changes that we are making to the website and the print edition of the newspaper.


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