We have been on the road for 6 months now, and we can start to reflect a bit over the lessons learned so far. What works and what doesn’t. We can share our experiences about the pro’s and cons of traveling long-term as a family.
Understandably, many people are interested in our experience in traveling with a small child. Most people think that what we are doing is fantastic. Others are much more reserved. And yes, there are a few downsides to all this traveling.
Anton has developed tremendously since we left home. He is talking in the most natural ways about all the things he is experiencing. He knows a lot about animals and geography that most other kids of his age will not learn about until they have been to school for quite a few years. He speaks fluent danish and german, and he understands most of what is being said to him in english. By now, he can even talk back in english! He appreciates the orderly fashion of our everyday life and finds security and comfort in the daily routines that we are quite strict about. Toothbrushing, hygiene and other important routines are followed. And in the morning he is often the first one to ask if it isn’t time for some breakfast. He turns off his music or the iPad by himself when it is time to sleep. In many ways he is ahead of other children of the same age.
But there are also some areas where he is behind. For instance, he is still wearing nappies/diapers. We do not really enforce the potty training. It is not so easy when we are staying in caravan parks with either cold or filthy toilets. Some days we are driving for many hours. Both are factors that makes it much more practical for us - at least so far - that he is still wearing nappies. If he had been with his friends in the daycare center in Copenhagen I am sure he would have been out of them a long time ago.
Many days our patience is being seriously tested by our little golden prince. He is, of course, behaving like a three-year-old. He is doing the complete opposite of what he is being told. He is extremely slow when eating his breakfast or evening dinner. And oftentimes he is a really “messy” eater. When he plays it rarely takes him more than 2 minutes to get dirty and 5 minutes to make holes in his pants. Oftentimes he is just plain hysterical for no apparent reason. In those cases it would be nice to just be able to call friends or family to ask how to deal with such incidents. Or a daycare educator. Is he normal? What do other parents do? Etc. But in general, I’d say that things are going very well and we can really feel that Anton is thriving with our current lifestyle. If he wasn’t, I am certain we could tell!
Of course we are carrying modern facilities that come in handy when we want to stay in contact with friends and family. So the bigger and more important things can be discussed with others. But with our current time difference of 11 hours between New Zealand and central Europe we cannot always call right away, when things are “boiling over”.
The ongoing contact to friends and family is another area where we, as travelers on the other side of the globe, have to live with some sort of deprivation. We are communicating through our website, and sharing big and small things on facebook and twitter. We know that many people are following us in whatever extent they can and feel like. But we hear very little from them. This is in no way meant as a complaint! We KNOW that this is the way things are! We have both tried to live abroad, away from friends and family. When you are the one going away, you have to understand that their everyday life continues, as it should do, and that they will get absorbed in their daily routines. We also know that one simply do not get to make that phone call or send that short mail, just to say hello. It is not lack of interest or feelings. It’s just a fact of life. So we are aware that we have to initiate most of the contact we want to have. Many are the times when we have called over Skype, and the first remark has been: “Oh sh..! I had been meaning to call you, but I just hadn’t gotten to it yet!” - exactly as I would have said, had I been absorbed in my daily routines at home.
Having said that, there really are many people writing and sending us regular feedback. We truly appreciate that! Also, Anton's grandmothers are completely excluded from any resemblance to other parts of the family or groups of friends. They are often complaining that we do not Skype often enough.
And many times we are actually the ones absorbed in our daily life - if “daily life” is an accurate term here. We have stopped looking at this journey as an extended holiday. It actually never was anything like that. This is more a “Grand Tour of Life” for all of us. Mostly you think of young people traveling for a year, working their way forward, but in my opinion you can never get too old for long-term travels. We have chosen to invest in our future quality of life through this journey. So, this is to be taken seriously! We have to make sure that we get everything we can out of our daily experiences. We need to be present wherever we are in order to absorb all the impressions. If we do not treat this wonderful opportunity to travel around the world as a family with respect, we will not get full “value for money”. That would be unbearable!
So, there are days in between where we are the ones not really communicating with other people. Sometimes it is simply because we are in areas where there is no coverage what so ever. No phones. No internet. By now, we have learned to appreciate the days when we have no other things to do than just read an old fashioned book or just sit down and talk. We have not really watched TV since we left Munich in April, except for an occasional children’s program wherever possible, and for our time with Sandra and Erich in Melbourne, where we stayed for almost a month. I am the first to admit that I thoroughly enjoyed my daily fix of TV News when we stayed there. But in general we do not miss radio or TV at all. We are, however, listening to quite a bit of music. In fact, constantly when we are driving around. And I often find my headphones in the evening to listen to MY music for just a little while. My dear old iPod Classic, that I have carried with me everywhere for the last 8 years, is still running 3-4 hours a day. As Anton is starting to build up his own opinions about what is good and bad music, he has inherited Alexandra’s old iPod Touch, and a pair of headphones. Thus he can listen to whatever he wants at all times.
As we have often indicated in previous blogs we are currently living the life that we hoped we would, by taking a year off exploring the big, wide world. We do not distinguish between a monday morning or a friday afternoon. We live “here and now” and it is mostly our current surroundings or circumstances that determine how we will spend the day. We take our time! It happens quite often that we do not leave the caravan park before 11 in the morning. The previous hours have then been spent on a slow wake up, long breakfast, a shower and maybe a long chat (or more chats) with other guests around us. It will be quite a change back to “normal life” when we are back in a daily routine in Munich!
One of the main advantages of exploring new countries and places is that you start to look at your own homeland with different eyes. In fact, you get a completely different perspective! Much of my wanderlust and travel fever certainly came from a dissatisfaction with my previous life. I truly believed that the grass WAS greener on the other side of the globe.
Needless to say it isn’t so! In Thailand, Australia and New Zealand - the countries we have been through so far - there are quite a few things that I do not like at all. Then you suddenly see that things back home in your backyard are not that bad after all. Denmark and Germany are among the leading countries in the world in terms of environmental protection, green energy and energy saving. Three terms that not many people care about in Thailand. In Australia and New Zealand we are often appalled by the lack of actions in terms of saving energy. Even in newly built houses insulation is not really up to standards as we know it, even though temperatures do get low (and high during summer) and lots of energy could be saved if houses had better insulation. Another area is consumer information: Around here this seems to be decades behind. Apparently it is up to the manufacturer to “educate” the consumers, thus ending up with a rather polished and “over the top” consumer declaration and guidance. We laugh when we see that milk is “97% percent fat free”! Why not just say that it contains 3% fat? Well, it certainly sounds better in marketing terms when something is “free”... Another example is from the Weet Bix cereal products. We do love these products and eat them every day. Yet their explanations are laughable: “Contains 71% wholegrain wheat (that’s for lasting goodness and fibre) ... plus iron & B-vitamins (this helps your energy)”... Well, maybe this is the way forward? It just seems strange to us, as we are not used to this being “bent in neon” like this. And like most of my fellow danes would be, I get suspicious when things like these are written in smart and clever “marketing terms”... What are they HIDING in these packages?(!)
The good thing about seeing things in a different perspective, away from home, is that you can start to appreciate certain aspects of life back in Denmark or Germany, that you would otherwise still think of as irritating or even downright stupid. For instance, I find the duopoly in Australia between the supermarket chains of Woolworths and Coles to be completely out of proportions. The price of normal, basic food is a tremendous burden for many australian families. And it is not because the farmers are shoving a fat profit down their pockets. God only knows where the money goes. But families with children and people with less money are the ones suffering. In Denmark we also have two very dominant supermarket chains, but our government seems to be much more interfering and dictating. We too have some of the worlds most expensive groceries, because of the lack of competition, high taxes and salaries. But I must say that I was chocked when I had to pay approx. 2 dollars for a liter of milk in Australia. Or well over 5 dollars for a bag of white toast bread. Things are not that bad in Denmark, even though this does not at all make our prices more reasonable. In Germany groceries are even cheaper, so I am looking forward to be able to get a liter of milk for about 90 cents when we are back in Munich. Or a heavy, wholegrain rye bread for 5 dollars at the bakers. (REAL ryebread - not something white and fluffy!) That is, if Alexandra do not start her baking of bread again.
Bread... One of the things that are nowhere as good as they are in Denmark and Germany. Every single traveler that we have met have said the exact same thing. Around here you are only getting bread by name, but in reality it is nothing more than toastbread, which is not really bread in my opinion. It is the same in both Australia, New Zealand, USA and Ireland, so we will have to wait for quite a while until we can once again eat proper bread. Come April next year....
Well, in terms of food things are actually not bad at all. In Thailand we would eat thai food. Also dishes that we had never heard of before. In Australia we had kangaroo and emu. Alexandra also tried a crocodile schnitzel. In New Zealand we have tried the fruit Yam. And then you have many dishes that are prepared with well known ingredients, but just prepared differently from what we are used to, thus making them completely different experiences. In other words: Our “Culinary World Map” is constantly expanding during such a journey. And Anton has started to take an active part in this. Recently, during a shopping day at a local farmers market in Dunedin, he was the one deciding what we should have for dinner that evening, when he saw a box of crushed ice with fresh fish.
Traveling the way we do it, the world keeps expanding and yet it also gets smaller and smaller. This may sound a bit “indecisive”. But the world is huge when you are traveling approx. 4-5000 kilometers a month driving on narrow and winding roads in a campervan. At the same time it gets smaller and smaller as you, step by step, kilometer by kilometer, “demystify” it. Australia and New Zealand have both always been quite exotic, far away destinations for me. And now that I have seen them both and had an everyday life as a traveler here, I do see them with completely different eyes. This is not at all bad, and only natural, I guess. And as with many other matters of life, it has turned out that my first “gut-feeling” mostly proves to be right in the long run. Already on the first day in Brisbane we both had the feeling that we could easily settle down and start living there. We met quite a lot of australians during the following months that all helped to strengthen that initial feeling. The feeling that we were welcome in their country. It is the same in New Zealand. You feel welcome here as well. But so far we have not yet been in contact with that many native “Kiwis” and we still do not have that same feeling that we could live here more permanently. New Zealand is incredibly beautiful and breathtaking. But we are both too much “city people” to be able to live here, I guess. Auckland is a fairly big city, but none of us really liked it there. But then we have been to many smaller cities that we really liked a lot. Including the capital Wellington. But to live there permanently? It would certainly require a very exciting job! In Australia we would not have any problems settling down in either Brisbane, Sydney or Melbourne. Again provided that jobs and housing were in order and looked very attractive. Both of us have previously “jumped all in” and moved abroad. All “external” factors looked perfect, but we did not have signed contracts. If your excitement about living in a new country or city is to be of the lasting kind, you have to have a job, roof over your head and a good network of people whom you can ask about all the big and small things. Otherwise you have to spend too much energy, mentally and physically, to get established. And then the initial magic disappears before you you can start to enjoy life. At least, that’s how we feel...
And now, half of our journey is over. Around the same time we could celebrate 6 months on the road, we were standing on the very southern shores of New Zealands South Island, looking towards the horizon. None of us had ever been so far away from home. And now we have started to go north again. It will take us another 6 months before we are back in Munich, but there was a certain symbolic meaning in that.
Every day is an adventure for us all. It gives us a lot of satisfaction and pleasure to see Anton and how he slowly is getting better and better in observing and commenting on the things that he sees. He is making remarkable comparisons and parallels that even we, his parents, did not see. Often Anton is the first of us to spot something in the horizon. Alexandra may be reading up on our next stop and I will be concentrating on the driving. Also in the nature around us he is quite attentive. It is yet too soon to tell whether he will develop into a passionate mountain hiker, like his Oma and mother, but so far it looks pretty good. Also, he is no longer shy or rejective of new people that he meets. He will often see children play and walk straight to them and start playing along. Of course it will be good for him to have longer, and more lasting friendships when we get back to Munich, but so far he seems to be coping quite well.
The “mix” of traveling that we are following has turned out to be the right one for us. We actually thought we would be spending more time (and money) in hostels or hotels. But the campervan has turned out to be a big hit for us! We have everything with us at all times, and this also means that Anton’s things are exactly where he wants them to be. Bed, pillow, toys etc. However, by now we can already see that we will not be able to travel like this through the US. They simply do not do camping like this. Moreover, we are arriving in early November so I guess it will be too cold. Maybe we will be campers again in Ireland. I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter. We have learned so much about ourselves and each other during these months of camping. I am sure we will learn just as much by other forms of travel.
We have established that we are fairly good travel partners. Many would probably find it more comforting to have fixed “goals” for every day, pre-booked accommodation, fixed eating times and places etc etc. Thankfully we are both completely relaxed when it comes to this. In spite of traveling with a child. Anton will eat when he is hungry and he does have his fixed times for his meals. No matter where we are, we always make sure to have food with us for him. But WHERE we are eating and when we, the parents, are eating is another thing. Also, where we are staying and seeing things is completely up to the current surroundings, the current weather and what we feel like doing. It may sound completely fundamental, but many couples are not at all in sync when it comes to these things. It is a factor that many forget to think of when planning their travels.
Changes are not really bothering us any more. We adapt daily. It may be the temperatures changing. The scenery. The country. We adapt and enjoy the company of each other in the front of the van when we drive, or in the main cabin in the back, which is our bedroom, living room and kitchen, at all other times.
The cramped space is sometimes a bit if a challenge though. Our patience is oftentimes tested. Especially when it is pouring down outside and you have to step out of the van in order to make room for tidying and cleaning. We do try to keep it neat and tidy, even though it can be an uphill battle when staying in rainy areas and flooded caravan parks. Then everything gets muddy! On such days it would be very nice with a utility room with heated tile floors and mats for drying your shoes. It would also be nice to have your own bathroom, with a tub filled with hot water and bobbles that you could just sink into until all the soaring muscles are re-charged after lying too many nights on thin mattresses in the campervan. Sometimes we really do miss our own beds. But then we usually check into a hotel or a hostel.
And then there is the fact that we cannot just slam the door and leave if we get too much on each others nerves. Giving the other ones some space is not always easy. And needless to say, all three of us need this from time to time. Alexandra loves her books and can spend hours with her nose buried in them. Anton will often spend time up in his bunk bed with his favourite toys or he sits by the table drawing. That is when he is not playing outside with other kids. I like to listen to music and spend quite a bit of time writing. The good thing is that the “goodwill account” that we all share together, is well maintained by a daily life on the road that actually works quite well, with only few and small exceptions. As in most other relationships we do have to work and have ongoing focus on our internal communication. We do not always agree on everything. But I dare say that we are much better at talking about things and setting our expectations straight than we used to be. Just the fact that we do have plenty of time at our hands helps communication. There is time to reflect and talk things through and really no excuse to bear a grudge. Not that it is in our nature anyway. In other words: You get to know each other really well and in ways you might not do otherwise.
Anton certainly feels that we are taking much better care of him and with much more patience even though we are quite clear about the rules and boundaries. But in spite of more patience, of course, he is still capable of pushing just those buttons that can make us hit the roof instantly. However, I am convinced that we are taking more deep breaths and counting to ten more times than we would have done, had we still lived in a flat in Copenhagen, with long and dissatisfying hours in the office and with a strong wanderlust in the back of our minds.
We may be half way through our first, long journey together. But I do not think that this will be the last one. We can easily see ourselves embarking on more journeys in the future. Headed towards other, far away corners of the globe. We have, however, realized that a home base is essential to us. We cannot enjoy traveling indefinite. We need to have a “foot in both camps”: Traveling AND a home that is really HOME. We are in contact with other couples and even families that are traveling indefinite, having said goodbye to their home bases. It clearly works for them. Some of them have jobs that they can do from an online computer, which does make them geographically independent (a thing that I would certainly also like to be!). But I need to know that I will always have a base that is home. Otherwise I cannot enjoy and appreciate all the experiences and impressions that I get when I am out in the big, wide world.
And this is a rather new and surprising fact to me. Well, you live and you learn!
So by now, as we have been away for 6 months, we can establish that the mission is completed. We are a much more “harmonic” family than we were. Once again, the little things (that in the end are those that really matter) are in focus. It’s about Antons pure joy when it snows in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. It’s about pulling up fresh, orange carrots from the ground on a farm, teaching him about the origins of what we eat. It’s about those cute little lambs at the Merino farm, only 30 minutes old, that sniffs at us with interest, and let us come really close.
We do not have ulcers or are frustrated over an everyday life in an office where our career expectations and ambitions are not fully met. We do not have to feel guilty about bringing Anton to daycare early in the morning and pick him up again very late in the afternoon. We know that everything we are experiencing right now, will forever stay with us in our minds. We know that we will adapt a more sustainable lifestyle once we get home, and be much more aware of where we buy our groceries. An example is the local farmers markets that we have come to love here. They are unfortunately not quite as common in northern Europe, and we will miss them. We will also be hiking more in the mountains. There should be plenty of room for that in the Alps. And all those new opportunities for Anton: He shows an interest in swimming, climbing and exploration of animals...
Yes, this is definitely worth every single penny, and thus it is a really good investment in our future!