“I don’t like Italy too much, but when I go on holiday, I miss it very much.”
We talk with our friend over lunch in Modena. As we have become accustomed, the produce is superb; wonderful olives so full of flavour, buffalo mozzarella with an inside of pure creamy goo, Parma ham, preserved courgettes, bread, and a Gorgonzola Capable of making your eyes water. I opt for tortellini, a dish which has its roots firmly in the local area, its delicious. We also make light work of a hefty bottle of red between us.
I have spent much time on this trip wondering, worrying about finding happiness, and so it’s a relief when I can readily recall the things that make me happy during the conversation; family and friends, music, riding my bike, design and interiors, and of course, food and drink.
I have written about how good it was to arrive in France, with the abundance, and quality, of the produce. To that end, Italy is a sort of France plus plus, with the added bonus of being more at ease, and more playful than the French appear on the surface. It’s undeniable that a smile breaks from the face of an Italian more freely than that of its neighbour, and the fuss made of our daughter is touching.
Our friend seems a little embarrassed as “there’s not much to see in Modena.” I tell him that the colours of the buildings, the cobbled streets, deli shops selling hams and cheeses, tailors’ windows, and the public buildings may be the norm for him, but for us they are a visual treat.
I am not a romantic man, but italy is a romantic, and infectious place. I’m looking forward to spending more time here…..
Another van arrives and dithers around for a minute, before turning around and parking in front of us. An older couple get out, our eyes meet, and for once they don’t pretend we haven’t seen each other. The lady comes over with a smile and says hello. They are French, though their English is excellent. After a bit of a chat, the husband joins us too, he is also very smiley and friendly. Most odd.
We talk a little about how long we’ve been in our vans, are we on holiday, where have we been…… I’m taken aback.
‘Yes” she says laughing at the madness of it.
“Wait, China?” I say again, confused. “You drove to China and back in your van?”
It turns out they took part in an organised trip with a number of vans to drive to China and back, via Russia, and the ‘Stans’ (some of which I have to pretend I’ve heard of).
This is incredible, these people are incredible, and indeed a very rare breed. Mainly because not many people ever go to these places, certainly not overland, and not (without being rude) a bit later in life.
They are the breath of fresh air I need, and in fact, camped out for two night by the side of Lac Cenis, we chat with two or three friendly and slightly mad couples doing something different with their vans.
Since we left Britain 5 months ago, I can count on my two hands the amount of people I have had a conversation with beyond a seemingly reluctant exchange of hellos. People in our age demographic, certainly less than five.
This has been a real shock to me, and frankly a huge disappointment. Before we left, we began to open up, and try to connect with people doing similar, travelling longer term, or even living in their vans. We found a few, mainly on instagram, and some blogs like ours. Though, if you look through social media, it would seem every man and his dog are at it. Casual shots of women in bikinis taking solar showers in remote beach spots from the backs of their vans. Guys standing on roofs triumphant from their 8 hour hike in the high mountains…..
All I can say in my personal experience, thus far 12,000 km of it, is that this, is bollocks.
Every day we turn up to old people in £75000 motorhomes sitting around in their chairs, doing fuck all. I can’t for the life of me understand what it is they ARE up to actually. It appears they stock up before they leave home, and never venture from the saftey of their vans. The first thing they do when arriving at a spot, is get the satellite to auto tune itself, shut most of the blinds down, and stay put. Quite why they feel the need to leave the comfort of their own homes is beyond me, and what they tell their friends on return is an even bigger mystery.
As you may be able to tell, I find myself irked by this. A large part of the trip for me was to connect with people, and see how other peoples lives looked, not necessarily lives in vans, but how their ‘normal’ lives are, and alas, I’d have had a more enlightening experience in solitary confinement. It is true, and fair to say, my language skills are all but absent (except a little french). I accept that to that end I am as much a part of the problem as anything else, but honestly, language or not, the body language, behaviour, and general interaction, has been at best, closed, and worst, non existent.
To that end, we are thinking of placing ourselves for several weeks in the the coming months to try to establish a connection, a feel for a place, maybe even make a friend or two in different areas?
I mean, it’s not like weve publicly come out and said we want nothing to do with the Europeans after all…..
Since we left the UK, Mabel’s observational skills have come along nicely, though her timing and use of language to express such could do with a little tempering. Out of the mouths of babes, eh?
Of course, she’s not wrong, it does stink. It stinks so bad that you can not only smell it, but taste it when you breathe through your mouth.
We are of course in France, and the source of the stink I write about today, is our fridge. It’s laden with several types of cheese, fresh salad ingredients, wine, and garlicy cured meats. It’s no secret, I love France. I am a foodie, who loves drinking, and mountains, why would I want to look anywhere else? Except Italy perhaps…..
We had a slightly disappointing time travelling down through the Black Forest. The roads can be very steep, the van’s oil leak had got to the point where it needed attention again, and our overnights (based on not really being able to travel around freely) left us wanting. I was keen to leave Germany, and cross the border into France, partly because I can speak a tiny bit of french, and partly because I have spent some time in France holidaying in the past. I guess ultimately, after 4+months of exploring, I craved a bit of familiarity.
The girls had a scheduled stop in the UK, so I was home alone for ten days, and so after dropping them at Basel airport, I headed back north to find a garage to fix the van. Easier said than done. But, after a day of head shakes, and looking anywhere but at our van, I found a place to take it on, and not only that, they could do it the next morning. The details are dull, but a few hundred euros, and a simple parts swap later, the van hasn’t leaked since, and with a few more improvements I’ve subsequently made, its running better than ever.
Once fixed, I hopped in the van in the blazing sun, and drove over to the Alsace region in France, where I took some much needed time for myself.
Nice simple food, a bottle of something chilled, relaxing in the sunshine, is how many people like to relax.
Bagging eight cols….. and the brutal planche des belles filles over four days, maybe not so much……but it certainly helped me to unwind, and regroup ahead of the return of the two women in my life.
Having had such a nice few days, I was keen to show Liz the sights I had seen, and so we pottered down from there after I collected them, south through the Jura mountains to where we stand now, just west of chambery perched on the edge of the hottest lake in France with the alps before us. The views are (in my opinion) the best weve had since Norway, and genuinely breathtaking, The climate is favourable, and we’ve treated ourselves to a couple of nights at a campsite so we can all unwind, and enjoy the feeling of a bit more space.
I bloody love France!
Today was an exceptionally uneventful day.
We didn’t drive hundreds of kilometres over picturesque roads. We didn’t visit any stunning scenery or noted historical landmarks. We didn’t even stay by a body of water (which, if you have followed our adventure so far, you will know to be a favourite of mine).
What we did do, initially, was all wake up in a bad mood. Yesterday hadn’t gone quite to plan. I had enjoyed our first day in the Black Forest the previous day, so had high expectations. They didn’t work out. We’d driven rather a lot, to a place as soon as we arrived we knew we wouldn’t stay, and then realised the natural feature we wanted to see we’d have to pay to see… we didn’t.. we looked at a tacky clock shop instead as there were mechanical bears that entertained our toddler for all of five minutes (which is actually a long time by toddler standards).
After getting our toddler dressed and sitting down to breakfast this morning, we considered this an achievement for the day and anything else would be a bonus. Then it started to rain. Hard. And it hasn’t stoped all day. Okay, so you know what, we said we would have even less expectations for the day. And you also know what, I think this was the best thing we could have done.
What we have done today, after waking in a bad mood and the rain pouring down, is effectively have a tradional rainy Sunday (I know its not actually Sunday but today felt like it). We went food shopping, but just for today’s food. We watched Finding Dory, without feeling guilty we should be outdside doing something more educational or constructive. We played in a make-shift tent with all the stuffed animals rehearsing the same scenario over and over (for over half an hour the rabbits ate radishes and then hid from Mr McGregor, over and over, and over again). We did eventually go outside the van to splash in puddles and play with the water dripping off the wheel arch. So what we didn’t go any farther than 2 meters away. We had a hot shower with lots of bubbles for Mabel (if you live in a van you will understand how this is pure luxury). And then we had a kids comfort meal of fish fingers and mash.
A pretty good day really. Nothing exceptional. But good for our souls.
I asked Sylvie if she’d like a haircut before we left. She went a bit shy, a bit red, and didn’t really know how to answer. She asked if I thought she needed one.
She didn’t, but I thought it was a nice gesture to ask. I was indifferent either way, and to be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d be in the mood to do it anyway. After a day, she said, in slightly broken English, that she thought it would be nice. On our final night, the four of us enjoyed a meal, and some wine, and when our little ones were in bed, she went to wash her hair.
I took my tool belt, picked out my favourite pair of scissors and a comb, gowned her up, and began.
The wide tooth on my comb carves a neat line through her wet hair, from her crown, over her occipital bone, to her nape.
It is a feeling I love. The cleanness of the section, and the ease with which I do it makes me happy.
She has nice hair to cut, and a good head and face to work with. We hardly speak whilst she has her cut, and, under no pressure, I find myself enjoying the freedom to create a new shape for her.
I know she was nervous before, she said she doesn’t like getting her hair cut. It’s a complement that halfway through she says she feels relaxed; though she needn’t tell me, I already know. She sits with her eyes closed and head slightly bowed, and I can feel the calm in us both.
As I finish with my scissors, I scrutinise my work. It’s nice, opening up around the eye socket has lifted her face, and the texture is looser and more playful. It suits her spirit.
I was a good hairdresser.
Most days we move on. We pack down the van, plot the coordinates into our sat nav, and head for pastures new.
Each day we arrive fresh and new. A chance to begin again.
The issue I’ve had is, each day, the new day, means facing the same old me. We have driven for 10,000 Kms, we’re into our 9th country, and the one thing I have learnt, is you cannot outrun yourself.
I wanted to strip myself back on this trip. Get away from all of the shit that I felt clogged up my life; to feel light, happy, and grateful.
The last 110 days haven’t quite gone to plan. I find myself, again, sat in a beautiful location, at odds with myself, torn between who I am, and who I want to be.
I think I’m a better person than I was (though thats not hard). I knew that I would find elements of the trip hard, especially emotionally, but knowing something will be tough does not equipe you for when it comes.
I want to start writing the blog again, but feel like my mindset has been such an over bearing factor in our trip so far that not mentioning it seems somehow insincere, and posts feel like they lack context.
So tomorrow morning we will pack down and move on to a new destination. And like before, I will be there ready and waiting for me when we arrive, trying to be a better person than I was yesterday.
We left Sweden over a week ago, have traveled through Denmark again for a few days, and are now in Germany. On our last evening in Sweden, we are sat on the beach and I can see the orison bridge dissapearing off in the distance and I think we can see Copenhagen in the pastel shades of far away. I feel like perhaps we haven’t given Sweden enough of a chance. I feel this with most places to be honest, but I feel it more keenly now than I have previously.
Perhaps it is because we raced from Oslo to Stockholm, then Stockholm to the west coast again. Our plans to then slow down quickly changed by discovering a diesel leak, and the oil leak our van had, looking even worse. Or perhaps I’m not sure if we’ve actually SEEN Sweden. Have we really taken it in?
We did find a few great places to stay in our time here at least. A lake to swim in on the first night,a peaceful canal with tiny wild strawberries just outside the van door the second,and one of Craig’s old clients kindly put us in touch with her brother who lived just outside Stockholm.
He and he’s wife were very generous to us strangers and let us park on their land, which happened to be just across the road from the royal palace! We spent a couple days with this as our base to explore, a very hot, Stockholm, with the added benefit of being able to jump in the lake at the bottom of their home each evening after returning, tired and sweaty. They made us feel very welcome and were so interesting to sit and chat with.
Leaving Stockholm we decided to find another lake to swim in and discovered a place near a national park, that although it was busy in the day, it was lovely in the evening with a community of vans. We talked to the most people here since the start of our trip. So this, along with the ability of swimming in a very beautiful and refreshing lake, enticed us to stay two nights.
With a predicted day of rain the following day, though, we drove some miles and stoped at a campsite, not to be recommended, before visiting the Ikea museum th next day, to be recommended.This is where we discovered the diesel leak. And so a very worrying drive to the coast ensued.
We had no idea what would need to happen to fix the van. Could we patch it up? Would we need a new engine? Or more stressful still, would we need to cancel our travels and head back to the UK? Our van is our home, our vehicle, the main piece of the puzzle to allow us to do what we are doing. When it goes wrong, you realise how much you rely on it.
Luckily, another friend put us in touch with one of their friends and luckily, they lived close by! And even more luck for us, they are wonderful people. So the negative of having to get the van fixed turns into a positive and being able to spend time with this welcoming family in Lund actually turns out to be the highlight of Sweden.
They helped find a mechanic, let us use their little pool (very welcome during the mid day heat), and we enjoyed a good couple of nights of food, drinking, and being merry.
So we left Sweden via Malmo over the Øresund bridge, with a somewhat patched up van, but more importantly a warm feeling in our hearts from the genoristy and kindness of people we hardly knew taking us under their wing. The time we spent with them will always be a fond memory of Sweden and the kindness of people to help when you need it.
Craig asked if I wanted to go see the sunset. I said I wasn’t sure. I went anyway.
I walked and watched as the sun turned into a bright glowing orb. Like glass being heated to it’s hottest point, the colour was rich and full of anticipation. I had moments before this spectacle, realised, or perhaps always knew but never said aloud, that we actually had no idea why we were doing this trip. We don’t really know where we are going, why we are going, and what we are trying to discover while we go. There are ideas but nothing fully formed.
But then I thought, what actually matters is that we are going. We are discovering.
And perhaps, like the sun changed to glass that is now dipping below the waves, cooling to take on a new form for the new day, we too will take on a new form at the end of this process.
Well, since i last posted we have smashed out the kilometres, and have not only dispensed with Oslo, but Stockholm too on our way back south and east.
I’ve always liked having a plan, and part of the trip was to try and let go of that a bit, though its not easy. As we near ‘completion’ of each country, I find myself becoming itchy to get on with it, and get to the next place. It’s not a problem as such, but we have both flagged up the speed in which we move, and whether we are still rushing a little too much.
I loved norway; I can’t remember if I’ve Said it before, but it is the most spectacular and beautiful place I’ve been. That said, by the time we got to our most northerly point, I was desperate to turn around and start heading south again. I’ve tried to have a think about it, I don’t think I felt homesick, truth is, I’d been through a bit of a rough patch, and I guess I just wanted to draw a bit of a line underneath it all. Whatever the reason, we put in some longish stints in the van, and found ourselves high up in a campsite in Oslo days after we were in Kristiansund, our most northerly point.
Oslo was a mixed bag for me, it will be amazing, and we have said we will return, once the building work has finished. I read that an old industrial area (I’m sure it was approximately 1 square kilometre) had come into the hands of the city, and as a result, a large area around the waterfront is in development at the moment. A bit of a shame, though the vision for the future is most impressive, and the architecture is a treat.
The opera house as its centrepiece is complete. A solid wedge of white stone rises from the sea like an iceberg. Walking up the slanted side of the building affords a great view of the harbour and over what will eventually be the new Munch museum, but right now, its covered in cranes and concrete. I loved this building, and the use of space, you could walk all over the roof, makes it a real triumph.
Along the strip is a collection of high rise buildings collectively called the barcode. Designed by a trio of architects, it too is an impressive new pice of architecture in the city, the gaps between being as important as the buildings themselves.
After being relieved of £40 a night to stay on a slightly grim campsite (showers and electric are extra!) we headed off, and over the border. First stop in Sweden is an obvious one. Having been on the road for 2 1/2 months, we have compiled a small list of things we need for the van. And so, to our favourite flatpack outlet, the heart of everything Swedish, the lifeblood of the country, we found ourselves sharpened pencil and tape measure in hand, wandering the yellow (and blue) brick road around Ikea.
Returning with our swag, we needed to replenish food stocks, and so keeping the blue and yellow theme, we were pleased to see that unlike Norway, Sweden has Lidl supermarkets.
I’m sure I’ve mentioned the cost of Norway before, but shopping in Norway is depressing, food is so expensive. I guess a mixture of climate and the fact that so much of the land is un-farmable puts a strain on costs.And the fresh produce you can get your hands on isn’t the best. Hunt the most expensive thing in the shop soon got boring, So now to have a lunch of ciabatta, tomatoes, cheese, cucumber and grapes has been a joy, even if it is all from the budget German supermarket.
Delighted with our haul of bounty, and able to breathe a sigh of relief that we may well be able to regain control of our spiralling budget, we hopped back in the van, next destination Stockholm.