This summer we were interviewed by journalist Suzanne Antonis. The interview was published in October 2016 in the Belgian magazine Onderox.
You can read the original dutch article here: “Gelukzoekers – Wonen op wielen”
Happiness seekers – Living on Wheels
(English translation, including links to related posts)
Kempen/Europe – A house on four wheels, that does not stand still. For the “Kempense” (i.e., person from the Belgian region called Kempen) Nicole and her dutch boyfriend Elmer life goes forward. Since 2014 they travel through Europe with an overland truck. Only for family or if their job requires them to, they return to their country of origin. Last month was such a moment and we were able to catch Nicole for an interview.
Nicole (32) is a doctor in Psychology with specialization neuro. Elmer (41) is a flight attendant in the airline sector. A busy job, but that does not withhold them from exploring the world. “But we are not permanent on vacation”, emphasizes Nicole immediately when I comment that an eternal camping life surely has to be blissful. “It’s our lifestyle. We live and work in our truck, on eight square meter. We made that decision because we definitely wanted to travel more, but at the same time still had to make a living. With proper organization it works perfectly*. I work for a center of expertise in stress and burnout and give keynotes and workshops. When I need to be on-site, I simply fly there. Elmer can leave from almost anywhere in Europe to the airport where he picks up his shifts as a flight attendant.
*Own note: “Perfectly” might not be entirely true. But our combination of work and travel wouldn’t be feasible if we didn’t keep track and plan the things we need to do, and are ready to adapt quickly to any change. Most importantly, we make it work
You probably met in the air?
Nicole: ” You’re right. Although the circumstances were not immediately the best. In Zaventem (i.e., Brussels Airport) they were on strike, delaying my flight to Chicago. Once on the plane I switched to a seat with a malfunctioning entertainment system. So I had nothing else to do than to chat with the flight attendant. This was Elmer. Quickly the conversation turned to our favorite activity: traveling. In English as we discovered only four hour laters we both spoke Dutch. I mentioned that I wanted to travel more; he had a long trip planned with his camper jeep (i.e., Jeep Wrangler converted into an overland vehicle). When the plane landed and we both needed to go our own way, we exchanged contact information. By the time I was home, there was already a long message on my Facebook Messenger. It was from Elmer, how much he enjoyed our talk and if we could meet again. Few months later we were both in Georgia, traveling for five weeks with the Jeep.
Did this first trip go well? Since you only knew each other briefly.
“We were not at each other’s throat, if that is what you mean. Living 24 hours per day in a tiny space with not the best weather outside is a excellent test to see if it works or not. But everything went fine. We share the same interests and both like driving. My dad is a retired police officer and passed on the enjoyment of driving to his daughters. When Elmer and I decided upon pursuing this travel lifestyle together and we bought our truck, I was the first one to get my drivers license for the truck. Also because Elmer did not have the time for it.”
But you left a lot behind. An interesting job at a university, for which you studied long, your family, a social life,…
“That has been difficult indeed. At that moment I already had some doubt about my career standing in the way of my dreams. I realized that with time the work pressure wouldn’t diminish, rather the opposite. And that while I wanted more freedom to travel. But I did not want to give up everything either. Work is still an important part of my life. However, when I decided to travel the world with Elmer I had to give up my job, my colleagues and a strict daily schedule at once. I had to give up a lot at the same time. Thus, it became a matter of setting priorities and to slowly rebuild my life.”
Living on eight square meter, how do you find enough space?
“The overland truck is a combination of a lorry and a container, respectively from the Austrian and German army. Not so expensive and strong as an ox. But we did invest a lot in the interior and after two years of fixing and shuffling around we are almost finished with the truck. You have to think twice about how you will use the space. We drew each idea down on-site so we could physically feel: is this large enough and is nothing standing in the way. Almost everything is custom-made and as much as possible multifunctional. Our sitting area is an office during the day, we eat there and in the evening we change it into a lounge where we can stretched out and watch a movie. Our bed folds back to the ceiling and is adjustable. This way we can still sleep straight when our truck is parked askew. Many ideas we found in Germany where there is more expertise for this kind of interior. For the electrical system, the heating and the solar panels we ventured to a company in Haasrode (Belgium).”
Is something still missing?
“The indoor shower! Until now this always took place outside. A luxury by the way with gorgeous weather, but a misery in the winter. In addition, not every country appreciates it that as a woman you’re washing yourself outside. But for the rest we have everything on board. We can take 430 liter water with and have a kitchen where we can cook properly. With a big fridge and freezer to stock produce. That was a must for us because we do not want to give up a beautiful place to go search a store. Our mini-washer, which runs on solar power and is developed in Korea, is now available in Europe and Elmer presses his uniform with a mini-iron. Of course we have to calculate what we can run at the same time since the energy in our truck is limited. We do generate electricity while driving as well and at the moment we’re figuring out how to heat our water on diesel instead of solar power.”
What do you not compromise on?
“This one is difficult. We definitely do not experience our truck as too small or narrow. During the day we enjoy the outdoor life since that is one of the reasons why we chose this way of living. It is more a matter of prioritizing, I think. We want to spend money on traveling and being able to return to our families. Yes, maybe, we did not want to compromis on comfort. We invested a lot so we could do things like home but then in a smaller space. We both like to start the day refreshed and well rested.”
Note: read here how this question haunted me after the interview
Where has your overland truck already been?
We already crossed through Germany, Slovenia, Italy, Croatia and Romania. One by one magnificent countries where often you can still park your truck freely in nature. We choose consciously for beautiful spots where few tourist come. If we’re in the vicinity of a city, we prefer exploring the unknown alleys and markets. There we find the best produce to test the local cuisine. Of course we do visit the most important sights. You can’t visit Istanbul without seeing the Blue Mosque.
Ever got into trouble?
“Real precarious situations we have not yet experienced. However once we were – friendly but firmly – sent away when we were a kilometer away from a military base, near the Russian border. And when we were in Turkey and heard planes heading to Syria for the first attacks, we realized we shouldn’t continue heading that direction. We do love adventure but we don’t go searching for risks. And yes, at the border controls the custom agents almost always check our truck. But they do that more because they are curious about how the truck looks like on the inside.”
How do you decide upon the destinations?
“We don’t. Only a rough schedule in which region we want to be, for example next spring and currently this still partially depends on the work that needs to be done on the truck. However, it is a conscious decision to stay in Europe. We often get the question if we are on an around-the-world trip. We tell them then that Europe is also a part of the world. Here we still feel we are Belgian and Dutch. Once we are on a different continent we are Europeans and they expect that we can tell them something about Europe. But we do dream about Canada and Mongolia. We will see, life is still long.”
When do you move on?
“When we are starting to get bored and we say to each other: “I want to do something or discover something new.”
Almost always underway, is there still something that fascinates you about the Kempen?
“Oh yes, of course. Recently I spend a few day with my sister on a campground in the Ardennes. Then I realize how beautiful our country really is. I find myself returning to the places I went to as a child with my parents. The sea, the Coo waterfall, going kayaking on the Lesse are also part of the experience. And biking in the Kempen forests of course. Every time, I rediscover things I had forgotten. And the fries and mossels of course. When I leave the truck behind to return home for work or family, I still experience the Kempen as my roots.”
This way of living, it looks like a fantastic and interesting adventure that is not meant to be for everyone. Who do you and Elmer want to say “thank you” to for making it possible?
“In the first place our parents. It is easier to follow a different path and take risks when you can return. A secure base is important for us. And we definitely also say “thank you” to each other. We couldn’t have accomplished this without each other. The type of job and the view on life we both have, makes this possible. And also because we both have a past that we partially left behind, we can encourage each other as kindred spirits to follow our dreams.”
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