We have survived our first month on the road! It seems unbelievable that a whole month has passed already – yet, on occasions, it feels more like an age.
We have just arrived on a campsite after nine days on Aires without electricity or Wi-Fi, and we are feeling rather chuffed with ourselves. This life is a million miles away from the creature comforts we were used to at home.
I don’t think it is any coincidence that the last nine days have been our happiest yet. Just this morning Jonah said, “Mum, I think I’m learning a lot about myself on this trip”. He tried to explain that he was enjoying living a ‘poor life’. He may not have necessarily selected the best words to make his point, but I understood what he was trying to say. He is enjoying a life without the luxuries we have previously taken for granted…
Here, we don’t have an endless budget – in fact money is VERY tight; meaning that our food cupboard is simple and has to be rationed. There is no room for toys or a fancy wardrobe. We can’t afford WiFi so we look for places that offer free internet access. We can’t afford toll roads so we take back roads (much to the detriment of poor Colin!). We can’t afford launderette’s so we hand wash. We don’t have an endless supply of water so we snatch outside freezing cold showers anywhere we can. If something breaks, we do not have the money to replace it. Most of the time, we window gaze at delicious chocolates, sweets and ice-creams without being able to afford them.
But, surprisingly, living this basic existence has been the making of us. We have found that we prefer freezing showers to hot ones. We only need one pair of shoes. We don’t need our phones. Hand washing is fun. There is no leftover food in our van – everything we prepare is appreciated and devoured. Toys are sacred. Sweets are a luxury. Fatty foods are over rated. Electricity must be used wisely and sparingly. Fresh water is a prized commodity. Cleanliness is an impossible battle.
Yet the benefits of ‘travelling’ far outweigh any compromise. We wake most mornings at 9am to the sound, or view of water – whether a bustling port, glorious lake, lazy canal or sandy beach. We watch the sunset with a picnic most evenings. We take two hours to enjoy lunch together. We discover something new every day. We meet fascinating people and converse in various languages. We take time to enjoy the beauty of the great outdoors. We cycle paths that cars cannot take. We read and paint in the sunshine. We watch bats swoop around the van at night. We jump huge waves. We fish. We play catch. We skim stones. We sip cheap wine and watch the kids collect conkers, shells or pinecones. Life is simple – we don’t have anywhere to be or anything to do…
Up until nine days ago, I think we were really struggling with the last statement. We have always had somewhere to be, or something to do. I recall, after our second night in the van, our friend Justine said ‘The feeling of freedom has to sink in – it’s a bit like learning to swim again’. I really get that now. Freedom is not just a tangible pleasure, it is also something you need to feel deep inside. Chris and I have been slaves to the system for so long, our heads were still struggling to let go.
I don’t know if it has been the glorious weather, or the ambience of the last two Aires, but we have really turned a corner as a family. We have started to ‘feel freedom’. We find ourselves smiling or chuckling when we are alone, or we ask “Are we really free? Are we really doing this?” Some days we have to pinch ourselves to believe that we are really living the dream.
Relaxed isn’t something we now feel, but something we have become. How can one not be happy and relaxed living this life? Our children are seeing things and doing things that only a vivid imagination could conjure up. They are blossoming before our very eyes. Just last week, I witnessed our (usually fidgety) Jonah sit in a row with four French Fishermen; rods in hand, waiting for a bite on their lines. Each day, every man caught many fish but every morning and every night Jonah returned with an empty net. Rather than moan or complain (which is what we would normally be subjected to) he got up exceptionally early the next morning and headed over to watch the fishermen set up – He asked, with the little French he knew, and a whole lot of hand gesturing, what bait the fishermen were using. He then cycled off and returned with a pot of squirming maggots. That afternoon Jonah caught four fish using his new bait. His little face was a picture. He showed them off to everyone, and enjoyed the praise before returning them happily to the sea.
If this is what freedom feels like, I think we can all get very used to it!
Our only worry now is that it is going to be very difficult to return to ‘the system’. Once you have experienced freedom and lived a basic, nomadic life – how do you go back? But we keep telling ourselves that we are only a month into the adventure. It is still early days and a lot could change. We must live in the moment and enjoy the ‘here and now’. Fretting about the end will only distract us from the brilliance of the present.
And boy, the present demands our attention – as it can change in the blink of an eye! From a bump in the road to a split second decision to turn right rather than left.
Before we left the UK many of our friends asked “So, what’s the plan?” and we would reply “There is no plan; we will go with the flow”. The advantage of ‘no plan’ is that we can really embrace the feeling of freedom. The downside is that we really have no idea what we are doing or where we are going. It can make for fun times when we reach a crossroad!
At our last Aire in Gastes we met a British couple (now living in France) who were simply wonderful fleeting neighbours. We explained, over lunch, that we were travelling for 12 months and were thinking of heading to Greece through the South of France and Italy – we didn’t know when, or how, but that was the basic idea. They returned the following day and asked if we had considered spending the winter in Spain and Portugal. We told them that we had no plans to visit Spain – it was slightly out of our way and we were trying to avoid a mass of ‘Ex Pats’.
As a matter of politeness we listened to Dave and Judy describe the advantages of good weather and nice company, paella festivals and Sangria-fuelled Christmas celebrations. Though we would not be able to avoid the hundreds of other retired Brits ‘wintering’ in Spain, we were promised good fun and unbelievable prices for fuel, accommodation and food.
So although Spain and Portugal were not on our dream list of destinations, we have decided to turn right for the winter! We are currently pitched at a fabulous campsite at Saint-Jean-de-Luz waiting for the arrival of a book from the UK – ‘All the Aires in Spain and Portugal’. Once it turns up, we shall be entering Spain for at least 5 months of sunny weather. Unless we hate it. Then we shall make a U-turn.
Oh, and in terms of bumps in roads changing the present….
On the way here we hit a rather large speed bump at 20mph – sending Colin and his entire contents skywards. Unfortunately the bike rack took the brunt of the hit and sent our four bikes heading south quicker than us! Without the ability to find or fund an alternative bike rack, the present required us to act quickly and find a temporary solution that would enable us to get here in one piece…
So, in a flash of brilliant innovation, we decided to chop up Chris’s only flip-flops and stick them together with super glue to form a rubber bond that would lift the rack enough to balance the weight. Tentatively, and bare footed, Chris managed to get us here safely.
We may have survived the trip – but we now have to find a shoe shop – something we did not have planned for today’s excursions. I expect another curveball will be thrown tomorrow, or something will change that will always ensure ‘the present’ is diverse and interesting.
It’s all part of the fun of travelling. If you have no plans, you can have no expectations. With no expectations, there can be no disappointments.