Trailblazers Tour Week 2
Another restless night. It was Zoë’s turn to be haunted by home, kept up fretting about a tough time her family’s going through. We both tossed and turned, were up and down. The irony(?) is that this is the most peaceful spot we’ve stayed at. But no matter how calm and quiet your surroundings, you can still be bothered by the disturbances in your head.
My journaling in the morning risks this becoming more sleep study than adventure diary. Well never fear, because today’s focus is even more mundane – work! I’m back at my day job and Zo has some retouching work to do. It’s the promise of 4G that brought us to this secluded spot, as much as the panoramic views of Provence. We navigate using our mobile router like a compass, watch the wifi like shepherds watch the skies.
My biggest fear about getting in the van, aside from “what if we actually hate living this way and it turns out we’ve wasted our life savings and a year of a life, and now we don’t have anywhere to live or any money to live off”… apart from that, I was worried about being able to get work done. Luckily, the rumours of great internet coverage proved to be true. Apparently, in the whole of Europe, the UK and Germany are the only countries with truly terrible internet. The two places we’ve lived, so you can excuse my skepticism.
We did a run-through yesterday, got all our gear out on our swivel desks, sat in our swivel seats (vanlife is a lot of swivelling) and spent a few hours taking care of business. I was surprised how easy it was to focus, with the lack of distractions around us, and our new commitment to give ourselves the grace to take care of one thing at a time. Now that we’ve detached, we can choose to plug ourselves back into the productivity matrix one body-port at a time (it’s too early for these metaphors).
It’s a familiar sensation to when we left London 13 years ago. To get out of the rat race, we physically had to take ourselves out of it. For the past couple of years, we’ve been trying to escape this feeling that we’re not doing enough, that something’s wrong with our planning or organisation, that we should be doing more, or doing it “better”, that we’re somehow failing at being content creators/change-makers/entrepreneurs/whatever else we’re “supposed” to be. It’s only now that we’ve taken ourselves out of Berlin, out of the UK (again!), out of homes and home offices, and away from the influences and expectations of other people, that we can just… be.
This feels like a very first-week-of-van-life revelation. Maybe I’ll look back at this and wonder how I could be so naive, to think that life can be this simple and straightforward. I might plug myself back into work and WAC and whatever else and instantly fall back into old habits and toxic traits. But right now, I’m going to step outside, enjoy the sunrise and work out in the brisk morning air.
Zoë’s turn to have a nightmare. Briefly awoken by me closing the van door on my way to work out, she went on to dream that I ran off the edge of a cliff, with her watching on her phone as my location tracking went dark. A worst case scenario that belies the fact that we don’t really know what’s out there around us when we park somewhere for the night.
Turns out it’s hunters we should be worried about. Yesterday a big black lump of a dog ran up on Olive while we walked through the forest, followed by his owners who explained his hi-vis jacket was for the benefit of careless, often drunk hunters. That explains the distant cracking sounds we’d been hearing. Do I need to wear hi-vis when I go running now? Or at least not all-black?
Are you impressed by our French, and the conversation we managed to have? Don’t be – the couple were Welsh! They moved here a few years ago, when they bought an ancient farmhouse to fix up, planning to split their time between Cardiff and the Côte d’Azur. When John survived prostate cancer only to feel like his business might kill him, he suggested that they sell everything and move here full time. Lisa immediately said yes!
John and Lisa didn’t mention any kids. They’re in their 60s, old enough to have grandchildren, and they made a drastic, semi-permanent (at least) move that would have affected the other people in their lives – but this never came up. We weren’t about to be those guys, asking people we’ve just met about kids. Maybe we should have subtly brought up the project we’re working on. Or maybe we all just gave a little gift to each other, a lovely meeting with strangers in a strange place and *that topic* just never came up.
They seemed impressed by what we’re doing, but honestly, I think they’re braver than we are. OK, they have money and they don’t have to worry about work, but they’ve committed to a place they don’t know, in a way we’re actively avoiding. When we moved to Berlin, we were half their age, young enough not to worry about having no jobs, no friends, very little of the language and even less of a clue what we were doing. We’re leaving the (van) door open to the possibility that we’ll fall in love with a place we visit, and want to settle down there. But I know how hard that can be, and I can’t imagine doing it at 60.
How lucky to even have that as an option. It’s been a long, hard road to where we are, but I know we’re in a place of privilege. We’ve left behind our society’s pressure and expectations – for a second time – and can create a calm(ish) life lived actively and intentionally. My main concerns are needing to drive to top up our batteries and food, finding wifi for work, and getting around to this plumbing fix. Lots of people would kill for “problems” like those.
I don’t want to come off as smug or self-satisfied. Just know that we recognise that not many people get to live like this. Maybe they wouldn’t want to, as my feet freeze and rain pounds on our tin roof, and I have to work out where to drive our home to next. I can take the rough with the smooth, safe in the knowledge that I actively choose to be here. I’ll try not to take those choices for granted.
Our friend Kat died last night.
It wasn’t a surprise, but still somehow a shock. She’d lost her fight with cancer a while ago, and moved into hospice earlier in the week. Deceptively sweet with a doctor’s gallows humour, she was texting darkly funny memes until the end. But it still feels too soon; she died so young.
Kat was a university friend of Zoë’s sister, but she was more like an extra member of their tiny family. If I’m the son they never had, Kat was their third daughter. She always supported this project, and really helped us out by letting us stay in her house rent-free when she was in Japan earlier this year. I’m so glad she filled some of her last days with travel and experiences and food and fun.
Kat was warm, generous, thoughtful, talented and endlessly curious. She spent her days healing folks, came home and kept on tending to the people, pups and plants around her. Her house is full of ingredients for new recipes, musical instruments she was teaching herself, her impressive amateur photography, books full of ideas for new projects, and mementos of a life well-lived. My heart goes out to her husband. How do you live there now? How do you live with this?
Without tokenising Kat, she proved to the people around her just how rich and rewarding a life without children could be. And she inspired us to make this adventure happen, to not give up and give in when things got hard, because tomorrow’s not guaranteed. We’re going to try to live for today, doing what we love with the people that we love. For Kat.
Lolsob. I woke up thinking, remember when we thought a broken shower door was bad – but it just works now? Well, next thing I know, I’m stuck in the shower with that frigging door half off its runners again.
Anyway, that’s nothing compared to what’s going on with the van now. We woke up yesterday with all our electrical systems dark, and no idea if or when we’d be able to get them running again. For reasons (both technical and boring) it turns out we can’t hook up to charge our batteries at most campsites and available access points, and the backup of just turning on the engine to charge isn’t working. Which is a problem in winter when solar power alone isn’t enough.
Thankfully, when we drove off on a mission to find a multimeter (never thought I’d own a multimeter), Dolly woke up from her beauty sleep. And the sun on her panels and on our faces went a way to restoring us all to our former glory. But a lot of the day was spent racing against the dying of the light to find a campsite that was a) actually open, b) has a hookup that works for us (kinda) and c) can lend us a Windows laptop (they can! And don’t ask). Well friends, we made it. We must be the only visitors to Tourrettes-sur-Loup for whom the Alps are just an inconvenience, in the way of our true destination: tech support.
As someone commented on our Instagram, this is the side of van life no one shows you. And maybe no one wants to see it, or hear about it! I do though, especially because I wonder if these are the kind of teething problems everyone experiences or if we’re being… tested? This year, I’ve pondered if we’re being punished for daring to live life differently. Is this more of that? Is there some truth to that paranoia?
We’ve set ourselves a high bar as first time #vanlifers. We want the freedom to live off-grid anywhere we choose in Europe, but need reliable enough electricity and internet to be able to work five days a week. And we’re doing this year-round, including right now when the sun ain’t sunning enough to give us everything we need. At least not in France. Maybe in Greece or the Canary Islands or anywhere else we could make our way to, but we’re scared to leave the one country we understand (ish) and can rely on for our basic needs (ish) without knowing how and when we can fix these things. Not to mention the grey water pipe that’s been broken since day one!
*Googles “teething”* Teething can last two years (who knew?!) I hope it doesn’t take that long for our daughter (van) to lose her baby teeth (reliably pull in the correct current at hookup and wake up the buck boost when the engine is idling). Nailed that metaphor. Wish us luck!
Photos by Zoë Noble
Words by James Glazebrook