Our travels in times of corona

To move, to explore and to be free. That is what traveling means to us. Whenever we will look back on our journey in the future, there will be a time ‘before’ and ‘after’. Before corona and after corona; BC and AC.

We have been riding the wave of ‘yellow countries’ ever since we left on our second leg of our journey in August. Our timing turned out to be perfect. We travelled through six countries without any problems. The only difference: wearing a mask to the supermarket.

The biggest change for us though, was that it wasn’t up to us anymore where to go. We could still move and explore, but the sky was no longer the limit. We determined our route based on the coronavirus statistics and that’s how a little bit of common sense and luck got us all the way to Greece.

When we arrived in Greece in October the country was still one of the ‘safest’ destinations in Europe without travel restrictions. That changed from November on, when Greece went into a strict lockdown. The government ordered a ban on traveling between regions and people were not allowed to leave their houses anymore without permission. Overnight the country transformed from one of the best places to be to one of the worst; from paradise to prison.

As the infection numbers were going up everywhere in Europe, the restrictions didn’t come as a total surprise. We knew the virus would catch up on us again at some point, but we didn’t expect a complete lockdown, considering the fact that the number of cases were not that high compared to other European countries.

When the lockdown was announced we were in the most southern tip of the Greek mainland. After spending three months on the road without a plan, at this point we needed a plan and we decided to look for a nice place to stay for the upcoming weeks. We found a beautiful spot in the dunes to park our van. Ironically we got stuck right at the same spot where a big ship stranded on the beach forty years ago.

The lockdown was supposed to last 24 days, until the 1st of December and we were determined to spend it in one place. We met some other travellers who decided to stick around as well. One of them gave us an official form from the Greek government that allowed us to get groceries once or twice a week. There was water, a cold beach shower and – most importantly –  space to go for a walk without the need to fill out a form.

All in all not a bad place to get stuck. Every day we got to know our ‘neighbours’ a little bit better. Most of the time it didn’t feel like a lockdown, but more like a beach retreat. The weather was nice, we did yoga together on the beach, invented silly games and cooked each other festive meals.

In the meantime other vans stopped by for a night or two and took off again. All of them told us the same story: they travelled around without once being bothered. Then the Greek news reported that the lockdown probably would be extended. At this point we decided we didn’t want to stay in the same place until Christmas, or spend the whole winter in Greece for that matter. On day 17 of the lockdown we left and hit the road again.

Without the perspective to be able to move around freely in the near future, we realise and accept that our journey is coming to a natural end. The only way forward is back. Back to The Netherlands. We are ready. The only question now is how: overland through the Balkans or oversea via Italy, the same way we came?

We hoped to adventure back through Eastern Europe, but traveling overland concerns crossing a lot of borders, taking corona test and freezing temperatures. That brings up the following three questions which are characteristic for travels in times of corona: What is still possible? What is the sensible thing to do? And what do we desire to do? Only the first two questions really matter right now. To take the way of least resistance is – at this moment – in everyone’s benefit. And there you have your answer: overall the oversea route is probably the easiest, so we are going back via Italy.

For over 500 days we have lived and travelled in our van. It has been – and still is – an incredible adventure. We are ready to end this journey and look forward to building up a new routine back home. Grateful for our time on the road and excited about what’s coming next. See you all soon, but hopefully not too soon. After all those days of traveling, we have adapted a pretty slow pace of life. We will try to stick with that as long as we are on the road and will see you when we get there.

Our plan is no plan

While the world hit the pause button, so did our travels and this blog. Although it feels like time stood still, a lot has happened over the past six months and it’s about time for an update. When we were still in isolation in the woods, my brother cut down some trees in his backyard to make room for us. In the first week of April we moved from our hiding place into my brothers garden in the north of Friesland. A safe place where we could be at ease, catch our breath and stay for as long as needed.

From the day we arrived, everything in me screamed for a plan. We needed a plan. Our travel days were over, we were back in The Netherlands and we couldn’t go on living forever in my brothers garden. We needed a plan to pick up our lives again, to find a new home and get ourselves an income. In that specific order. My travel- and life companion was more relaxed about it and if there had to be a plan, he thought it should be in the exact opposite order.

After long walks and intense talks we agreed to not agree. We simply decided not to act. To let it be. We reached an impasse and decided to indulge in it. To stay with this uncomfortable restlessness, to wait and trust. Not knowing what to do and in what order, we made a pact: our plan is no plan.

“Doing nothing often leads to the very best of something.”

Winnie the Pooh

And so our adventure continued in the backyard of my brother. We spent four months parked up in his garden and enjoyed an unexpected and sunny spring time in The Netherlands. Being here meant we chose Wout and Madelief to be our ‘corona family’, one of the few people we got close to in these weird times of lockdown and social isolation, sharing unforgettable moments together.

In this big garden we also got the chance to finally catch up with some close friends and family again after a long time of traveling. All corona proof, meeting outside, one on one and keeping our distance. After about two months we slowly expanded our radius a little bit and explored nearby overnight spots in our home country. Our home base still at my brother’s, where we spent most of our time. We both found some temporary work we could do from the van – it practically fell right into our laps – and without this ever being the plan, we kind of turned into digital nomads.

We never knew how long we would stay. One day on our daily walk I proposed to leave once the corn would grow over our heads. We witnessed famers planting the seeds back in April when we had just arrived. Months went by and we watched the crops and animals around us grow. Endless fields of dirt changed into flourishing potato plants and little lambs turned into sheep. Then August came and the cornfields rose above our heads and we knew it was time to go.

“There is a time for departure, even when there is no certain place to go.”

Tennessee Williams

Without a permanent job or a house of our own, we could go anywhere. Over the past months we earned some money and we decided to spend it on traveling, as long as corona would let us. Before leaving, there was one thing left to do. Something we had been wanting to do for a long time. Paint the van! We liked the idea of green, but somehow ended up with orange. After the job was done, the plain white van we started off with, finally looked like our van and not from some random plumber. All set for another adventure!

The first chapter of our journey started in July last year when we drove all the way along the Atlantic coast of Western Europe. In part two we follow rivers, hide in forests and cross mountains. Not only a beautiful way to explore our continent, also a good way to stay away from the crowds and lay low for a while.

On top of the Alps the views are breathtaking, but from up there we could hear the sea calling again. That’s how we ended up in Italy. Cruising along the seaside, like before. The Italians welcomed us with open arms and we got a second chance at exploring Bella Italia, after we fled half a year ago because of corona. September in Italy was like a fairy tale. The summer didn’t seem to end, trees were heavy with ripe fruits and a golden glow lit up the countryside.

In the beginning of October we reached a destination we desired to go from the moment we started this adventure. From the south of Italy we took the ferry to Greece. Even more than before, we feel extremely grateful for every country we get to explore, every day we get in this journey. We are so excited to take a look around every little corner of Greece, but we also do realise we are dancing on the edge of a volcano right now.

If there is anything we have learned in the past year, it is that none of us knows what comes next. In that way our plan not to have a plan still applies. As long as our journey lasts, we enjoy every minute of it. It feels like we finally understood vagabonding, the art of long term traveling. And so it seems, our home is where we park it. Our garden always changes, but wherever we go, we take our home and ourselves with us. This is how we travel, this is how we live. For now…

Our weeks in the woods

Days turn into weeks and we are still in the same spot. In the armpit of our home country – of all places – we broke the record for sticking around. A unique experience in our nine month journey so far. On our travels we would usually stay somewhere for one or two nights, five tops. Time was on our side all along and only now – ironically – we are able to find rest and peace for days in a row in one place. What also helps, people don’t seem to be bothered by our long term stay and we haven’t been send away… yet.

Not being allowed to move around anymore is the biggest shift in our lives at the moment. Living in a van provides a massive amount of freedom, but right now our radius – and thus our freedom – is very limited. From the moment we drove into these woods two weeks ago, we had to surrender to the circumstances and let go of this freedom and all of our plans and dreams that go with that.

We wake up by the sound of birds, walk the dog, pick flowers to bring ‘home’ and watch the forest getting greener by the minute. When we go into the woods, we sing songs or do a little dance together. We make up countless nicknames for the dog and laugh at our own silly jokes. Although we sometimes feel like we are slowly turning mad, we try to enjoy this weird time capsule and make the best of it.

“Society, you’re a crazy breed
I hope you’re not lonely without me
Society, crazy indeed
I hope you’re not lonely without me”

Into the Wild

And here I was already worrying during our travels if I would ever fit into our ‘normal’ rat-race-society again. All of a sudden that society no longer exists. And I am not so sure whether things will go back to ‘normal’ any time soon. But for now, being back in The Netherlands, not having to make choices and the absence of a better alternative, helps us to relax.

In a strange way our life on the road has been a good preparation for these times in isolation. For months we didn’t engage in social events, didn’t go shopping or went out for a meal or drinks. We are used to enjoy the simple and – mostly – free things in life, like walks in nature, preparing a good meal, reading a book or just taking a rest. We experienced though – like a lot of people do now – that it doesn’t always come easy. It’s not that simple to just let go of your routine and relax. Especially in these worrisome times.

On one of my early morning walks I met a 86-year-old woman who temporarily lives alone in her holiday home in the area. She told me she was having a difficult time. “This is worse than the war”, she said. The old lady was 6 years old when the Second World War broke out and back then she was still able to go to school, go to church and visit her grandparents. “The only thing we can do now, is stay away from each other. This is so unreal.”

It is unreal. It is weird, worrisome an awkward. We can’t be with the people we need right now and we can’t be there for others who might need us at this moment. We have to sit and wait. Take it day by day. As long as we don’t think too much ahead, we’re doing pretty good. What our future will look like, is still one big question mark. But it was like that from the moment we left our jobs and house behind anyway. I guess, the only difference now, is that we have returned to a different world. We have to adjust to that and we are not the only ones.

“That’s life, that’s what all the people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June”

Frank Sinatra

Our travels in crisis

Here we are. Travelling in a world where the borders are slowly closing in on us. The world is sick and we try to navigate around it. I can safely say by now we are no longer moving around as carefree as we started off.

In the summer of 2019 we left our home to travel around Europe. Because, why wait until we’re old and grey if we can make it happen now? On top of that: being European provides us the advantage of crossing borders and cultures without a hassle and that suddenly felt like a privilege we should enjoy as long as it would last. We are living in tumultuous times with Brexit coming up and the rise of populism and lack of solidarity throughout Europe made us wonder what comes next.

Nine months later and we are in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and economic crisis. All of a sudden it’s real. The world is changing as we speak. The outbreak of the coronavirus has a huge impact on everyday life. The earth is holding its breath and I still can’t wrap my head around the total impact of this all.

I think we were in the north of Spain when we first read about the outbreak of the coronavirus in China. Troublesome, but also far away. Driving through France we knew there was one reported patient in the country who had been in China, but it all seemed under control, as the virus didn’t seem to spread. In the meantime China had put cities in complete lockdown and we got a bit more alert. At the time we just arrived in Italy, the first cases in the north of Italy got confirmed. Even though we were only a couple of hundred kilometres away from the affected region, we didn’t worry about it too much at that point.

Then things started to evolve fast. Within a couple of days the virus spread really quickly, towns went into lockdown and public life in the north of Italy was about to put on hold. The turning point for us came about four weeks ago. We went to a public swimming pool near Genova to take a shower and the lady behind the desk was crazy-busy answering phone calls. As soon as I got her attention I commented: ‘Wow you’re busy hey.’ She replied: ‘Yeah it’s the coronavirus… We should already be closed today.’ I knew enough. This was bad news. The virus was spreading faster than any test could catch up on or any news report could cover. We had to trust our gut and use our common sense. At this point Italy was no place to be just for fun. If we would go down south, we would risk getting stuck. All in all we decided to get the hell out of there and continue our journey east towards Slovenia and Croatia.

The past few weeks felt a bit surreal. While traveling along the beautiful and peaceful coastline of Croatia, the virus spread all around Europe and the world. Our home country got affected by the virus and so were many other countries around us. Every minute new safety measurements were taken by some country and every country reacted differently. In the meantime the situation in Italy got worse and worse and we felt overwhelmed by the sadness of it all.

“Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go it will be trouble. If I stay it will be double. Come on and let me know. Should I stay or should I go?”

The Clash

Since we left Italy, a big cloud hung over our heads. Would we still be able to continue our journey like we had in mind and travel all the way to Greece? More and more we realised the virus would catch up on us and we were not going to escape it anymore. We could already be spreading it by now actually. Torn between feelings of fear and responsibility we didn’t know what to do for a while. A lot of countries advised people not to move around and to stay at home. Where would that leave us? Since our van is our home, we decided to find a peaceful place in Croatia, close to some basic facilities like water and groceries, and stay put.  

That’s how we ended up in the little village of Gradac in Dalmatia where we met a bunch of locals drinking beer outside a gas station. ‘What are you doing here? Corona!’ was their first comment. We shrugged and explained our situation. They offered us a beer and assured us we could stay in the village and offered help if we needed anything. One of them fled from Bosnia to The Netherlands during the war in Yugoslavia in the nineties. He was very grateful for the help he received: ‘Nederland zit in mijn hart.’ What a special encounter in this unusual situation, where we are the refugees now and very happy to get a such a warm welcome.

We didn’t last long though. On our first morning we were woken up by two police officers. They wanted to know how long we had been in Croatia. Over two weeks by then. They liked the fact that we had not crossed any borders lately and started to relax. They understood our situation and told us it was alright to stay for now. The next day we got another knock on the van. This time it was from officers of the municipality. More and more people got anxious about the virus and had called the police about that foreign licence plate at the edge of town. We could not stay anymore and the officers escorted us out of town to a deserted parking lot in another village where ‘people are more used to strange people.’

They all really meant well. Some random locals even offered us a parking spot in their garden, but we didn’t want to overstay our welcome. At this point it became very clear to us. Croatia was preparing for a long and painful crisis, as were all the countries around us, and we had no good reason to stay any longer. The only way out was home, so that’s what we did. We set off early next morning and said goodbye to the sea and our travel plans.

To get back to The Netherlands we had to cross four borders. Since some countries already closed their borders and others were planning to do so, we had an exciting journey ahead of us. It was going to be unusual and weird for sure. With ups and downs we drove north. Happy and thankful for all those months of traveling and sad and afraid for everything that’s coming our way. Vulnerable because the future is so unsure and strong at the same time because we’re in this together.

“I got you to hold my hand.
I got you to understand.
I got you to walk with me.
I got you to talk with me.
I got you babe.
I got you babe.”

Sonny and Cher

We were checked at every border and we got an extra check up from the border patrol in Germany where we had a short pit stop at a gas station. They asked us where we came from and where we were going. So no detours anymore, that much was clear. Apart from that, it all went smoothly and we made it safely back to The Netherlands.

Home where everything has changed and where we don’t have a home anymore. We decided to find ourselves a quiet spot in the north of Groningen to go into self-isolation in our van for a while. In a way our lives haven’t changed that much. We enjoy being surrounded by nature and let our natural sense of rhythm take over. If anyone is able to live in isolation, without friends or family and without the purpose of having a job and all the common distractions of modern life around, it should be us. In the past year on the road I feel like we at least made it through the introduction course.

Of course we worry. Will there be enough care available for all of those getting sick around the world? How long will people keep on dying alone? Will there be enough food for everyone in the long run? Where will our ‘bigger-better-more-economy’ – which is holding on to a string – leave us after the virus is – hopefully – under control?

Also questions about our personal situation come to mind. Will we find a house or job again? But there is not much we can do about it now. Nor can we foresee the future and anticipate on everything that is coming. I think this situation provides a lesson for all of us to take it day by day. Let’s be kind to ourselves and to our mind. Take a rest, stay healthy and we’ll catch up with all of you later.

And so it seems, our journey is not really over, our journey continues…..

Our time of our lives

Time is a funny thing. Often when you’re most busy, you get a lot of things done. Apparently when there is little time, you manage to squeeze everything into your tight schedule. But when we have all the time in the world, it goes by so damn quickly.

It might be the most valuable thing in life. Yet often we spend it on running from one thing to another, without any time to stand still and reflect; to explore, think, read, observe and broaden our horizons.

“Time is the coin of our life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

Carl Sandburg

On the road we moved into a routine where we take our time to wake up and sleep late if we feel like it. We have a slow breakfast, go on a walk, drive a bit, have a coffee break, look for a spot to spend the night, make ourselves a nice dinner, go over our day together and fall asleep.

We might not get a lot of things done, but we make many memories. Much more than in our day to day working routine. Those 200 days on the road so far have been way more intense and memorable than any random 200 days at home. Same amount of time, but different kind of perspective. Being on the move, crossing borders, meeting new people, change of scenery, it all adds up to this amazing intense experience.

At this stage in our travels we are happy to be in this unique position we are in right now. We chose to reset and take control of our time of our lives. And yes, time flies when you’re having fun and we just love to waste it together.

Our dull days

Traveling equals lots of quiet places and lots of time to be alone with your thoughts. Those thoughts, regardless of the circumstances at that moment, are not always happy thoughts or questions. Often they pop up in my head the moment I wake up in our van. Why on earth did we go on this journey? Where to go next? What do we do today? Where will we finally be at peace and stay around in one place a bit longer?

Meet the voice in my head. You probably have the same one. That voice telling you that you should be productive and get stuff done. Leaving our home and our daily routine of work, appointments and to-do-lists behind, does not mean it has left us yet.

“Travel is glamorous, only in retrospect”

Paul Theroux

After more than 100 days on the road we have made lots of happy memories. When I scroll down our Instagram account, it is all sea views, sun sets and scenery. And we take it all in, but we have experienced that apart from the wanderlust, traveling is full of dull moments as well. Just like at home, we get dreary and rainy days. On those days our van life suddenly feels very small, while – ironically – we are exploring the world.

Aldous Huxley once wrote: “Your true traveller finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure.” Well, I am not quite there yet. What Huxley describes is definitely the next level of traveling.

The truth is, I hardly know what to do with this ‘excessive freedom’ Huxley writes about. This limitless chunk of time without any particular purpose, restrictions, rules or schedules. One could say it’s pretty frightening actually. Sometimes it seems like we forgot how to play, be curious and follow our interests. It turns out those dull days are probably there for a reason and I need to get through the boredom, to experience this new way of life to the full extent.

Luckily beauty and excitement are always around the corner. When I pick up my laptop and walk to the beach to write down my thoughts, I stumble upon a perfectly shaped pink shell. I sit down on a formation of rocks, which is almost as comfortable as a real chair. The waves quietly roll in and the gentle autumn sun touches my skin. In the distance I hear a kid speaking perfectly French. Totally normal being in France at the moment, but this always lifts me up, small children speaking a ‘foreign’ language. I take a sip of my coffee, already turned cold, and the only thing left to do right now is watching the tide go in…. and out.

Our life on wheels

Being on the road for almost 3 months in the UK and Ireland means we developed a nose for free overnight parking spots. Until now we have only paid for a camping spot once. Stealth camping offers better views than any campsite and provides a sense of freedom and privacy, but it comes with some challenges and limitations as well. We would like to share some tips and tricks for those who are keen on taking up wild camping in a campervan themselves or anyone who is interested in our new lifestyle.  

How to find a spot? We often use an app called ‘park4night’. Travelers share and review overnight parking spots all over Europe. Throughout the UK the National Trust provides great free car parks in the middle of nature, next to walking trails and sometimes there’s even a toilet. Good spots to spend the night can also be found at viewpoints – because of the pretty views of course – harbours and marinas, which are often free of charge, like in Edinburgh. Beach car parks – if there is not a height boundary – are great to stay overnight as well, as are spots near churches and grave yards – often pretty located and a quiet night guaranteed.

Going by like true tramps we learnt that you go a long way as long as you don’t bother anyone. Don’t park sideways on a busy car park – although it can be tempting and we did try this – and try to keep out of sight of residential areas. It all seems pretty obvious, but if you’re desperate for a nice and free spot, you tend to stretch your limits a bit. One day we had the nerve to park in a very posh neighbourhood in Glasgow and someone left a little note under our windshield which said: “If you stay overnight, your van will be damaged. A fed up resident.” The message was underlined twice and made it pretty clear we were not welcome. Fair enough so we moved on to another part of town for the following night.

To be able to travel freely like we do, you have to be self-sufficient. For cooking we use a big gas bottle that lasts about 1 or 2 months. Power seems to be infinite, since we have two solar panels on our van which charge a big battery. That works amazingly well, even in rainy countries like Scotland and Ireland. Our biggest challenge so far is that we run out of water pretty quickly. We only have space for two 19 litre canisters for clean water, which basically means we need to get water every other day. Luckily a lot of petrol stations offer free water. Although there is often a sign which says the water is not drinkable and the taste is maybe not the best, the water is really fine. And hey, we are still alive!

When it comes to public toilets Britain is the best. In almost every little town you can find one. There is even an app that shows where they are. If there is not one around, again petrol stations save the day. We do have a portable toilet in our van, but we only use it occasionally for number 1’s so it lasts a bit longer. Where to empty your chemical toilet is another one of those challenges. In some countries you can find service points where you can ‘get rid of your shit’, but that’s not the case in the UK and Ireland. In return for a fee, you can dispose your toilet waste at most campsites though.

The main reason for us to stay on a campsite now and then would be to take a shower. But often you have to pay for a shower on top of the fee to stay overnight. We prefer to go to a leisure centre once or twice a week to get a good scrub. Sometimes we even treat ourselves on a sauna and steam room for a few pounds extra. Another good option is to check out petrol stations along the motorway. Some offer – paid and unpaid – showers for truck drivers and other customers.

Staying overnight in the middle of nature is the best. If you like to park by the seaside, another thing to keep in mind is to check the tides. We learnt this the hard way in the far north of Wales. We neglected a sign which said: ‘Car park liable to flooding’ and woke up in the middle of the night discovering seawater was at our doorstep. Quite a scary adventure. Later we found out that it had been a day after new moon and springtides are common around those days. The difference between low and high tide at that time was about 8 metres. We still love the seaside, but since this particular incident, we prefer to stay on higher grounds.

One more thing. Don’t mind the prohibition signs. Especially England is full of them: ‘No overnight camping’; ‘Prohibited to park overnight at any time’; ‘No motorhomes between 11 pm and 8 am’ etcetera. Bend the rules a bit and ask around. Locals are often very friendly and interested and often encourage you to stay. As we continue our journey south, without a doubt new challenges and adventures will come up. We will keep you posted!

Our story of stuff

We’re off. Suddenly our life has changed from living in a three bedroom house to sharing one tiny space to eat, sleep, relax and drive. Everything we own is right here with us, in our van. Living like true minimalists. Sounds simple and so far I haven’t missed one single thing. But to get to this point and eliminate all the stuff out of our lives that we don’t need on this trip – or not even at all – has been quite an adventure in itself.

“The things you own, end up owning you.”

Fight Club, 1999

You should know, this was not the first time I went through all my stuff. And by going through my stuff, I don’t mean: reorganizing. I mean, properly sorting everything out, one item after another. Completely according to the KonMari method: the Japanese art of decluttering. Marie Kondo tells you to take every item in your hand and ask yourself: ‘Does it spark joy?’ If not, throw it away.

It works. Well for me anyway. Does it make it fun? Or easy? No. Decluttering is hard work and after a while there is not a single spark of joy left in my body. No matter what I pick up. It’s a dirty job – to find out what on earth I have collected in all these years – but it has to be done. It had to be done in order to break free and take this next step.

We quit our jobs and gave up our house. Ironically, to get to this point of ultimate freedom, it’s essential to make a plan and stick with it. Our plan was to leave on the 1st of July and that was indeed the day we moved out of our house and into our van. It took some hardcore planning and perseverance to make that work. Both of each categories – what do we take with us and what needs to be stored? – had to be reduced to a bare minimum.

We sold our car, some furniture, our beloved espresso machine and many other things I already forgot about. At some point no one would leave our house empty handed. Friends and family adopted some of our plants and books. We donated clothes and burned our old paperwork. Only the most necessary items we took with us on our trip. What was left and too good to throw out, went to a storage place. All packed into 6 square meters. And I cannot deny, once the job is done, it feels pretty good.