2020 is by no means an average year. The pandemic found its way into our lives and locked us down, life was limited to the indoors. Excitement was dulled down to the moment the banana bread came out of the oven, or when you took your first step outside for your government-permitted walk. Day in and day out, it was fair to say that for almost all of us life in 2020 has become a lot more boring. For that, this year won’t soon be forgotten.
But whilst most of us have spent much of the year locked away in our homes, for some 2020 has been a year of adventures and exploration. Not down the unknown walkways of your local area, but instead around the countries of the world.
Meet Emma and Ruben, the couple who know 2020 to be the year they packed up their old lives and started a new, adventurous life on the roads of Europe, living out of their van Remy. (It should be mentioned that the couple left the UK in February this year, and didn't make some sort of illegal getaway).
The Devon born couple are a part of the recent and upcoming trend, #vanlife, where earthy house-foundations are replaced by four alloy wheels and an engine, and your address is wherever you’re parked. It’s a nomadic life that is gaining more and more attention by the year and has developed a serious sense of community and culture around it. You won’t be hard-pressed to find glamorous photos of these mobile homes looking out to views any homeowner would pay a generous price for. Emma and Ruben have their own Instagram full of fantastic scenery they’ve come across on their adventures that would make anyone wish they had been as smart as them at the start of this year.
Earlier this month, I got in contact with the two to discuss their journey and get their reflections on the last 6 months of their life. First video-calling them on a Sunday morning, they were sat on a bench in a park in Slovenia, having just traversed through the mountains. The gorgeous scenery around them was enough to showcase the incredible benefits of such a life, and was a welcome sight to a man suffering a rough hangover in Birmingham. A week later, they had travelled through Austria, on their way to go to Italy for the second time. Not only was it one adventure after another, they were also freely entering all the countries many of us brits had dreamed of escaping to this summer.
Previously working as a product designer and having trained as an architect, their van Remy was no less glamorous on the inside as their vistas on the outside. Designed with a compact kitchen, dining space and a raised double bed (under which there was a garage in a van), their living space proved to be both comfortable and space-effective, meaning they could also include some luxuries to improve their time on the road, such as their bikes. The project wasn’t a simple or quick build either, as Ruben explained.
I really enjoyed the build process. For me my background is in product design, so it was
nice to finally do my own project and do lots of problem solving and research. Figure
out what the best way to do the van build was. It was really hard work but really
rewarding. Quite addictive actually, we’re already talking about doing another one at
They also talked about the support they were able to receive from the online community, particularly the various Facebook groups available that offered various tips and tricks to help design the perfect living space.
The process of building up the van took half a year itself, Emma explaining this as Ruben’s high-standards as a product designer.
If you talk to a lot of people you hear about builds that take about six weeks or two months, you know. But Ruben has the highest standards I’ve ever known of anyone. So we did everything to the highest standard we possibly could. I think [Ruben] said that it’s not just a means to an end, it’s not just something we can go travelling in.
Ruben even called it a “labour of love.”
Since departing in February, the pair have been subject to excellent views of the French alps, Tuscan countryside and have had their fair share of beautiful cities and fine cuisine to experience. But they were quick to discuss how these luxuries weren’t without severe payoffs. Most of these regarded their basic hygiene needs: wild-wees and poos in shady forests are more frequent than they were before. Fortunately the van had a toilet installed, however they explained that this was an emergency measure, designed for illness or the most serious desperation- that's no surprise when it sits in-between the kitchen and the bed, central to the entire living space. Though they have a shower-head attached to their back-doors, it isn’t so easy to keep clean with it; forever conscious about water supply, showers have to be much more limited. It also doesn’t help that those showers are a much less private affair than they were in their home.
There’s also a constant need to be on top of van admin, and make sure all supplies are in check for their journey. Fuel and water are always at the forefront of their mind, and if they were to forget something even trivial, it would become very problematic very quickly. One of their most recent issues was the greywater tank, where much of the dirty water from the washing-up bowl goes into. While they often regularly clean it, one week they managed to forget about it entirely - meaning the water overflowed into the kitchen-cupboards. The consequence of this was what they described as the worst smell they’d ever experienced. However, they had said that every issue was something the experienced together and resolved together, and they both agreed their team-spirit was certainly at its highest.
Another issue, perhaps less pressing but no less important was Instagram, as Ruben explained.
One thing we didn’t expect to come across was Instagram. It’s a really good platform for us to keep in touch with our friends back home, and is quite rewarding in a lot of ways – being able to share things and getting a lot of feedback and speaking with like-minded people. But it does add a lot of underlying pressure to keep it up all the time. Whenever we’re out we’re thinking “would this make a good Instagram post” or “should we be capturing this to share.” But really we should be enjoying the moment, not have this underlying pressure all the time. It’s a sort of constant battle whether we should be on Instagram so much.
Emma continued the point.
I think we can try and tell ourselves it’s good for us as well: we have this record of our travels and it’s really lovely. But it’s not totally true that it’s just for ourselves. It’s also really addictive.
With this in mind, I followed up asking them whether there was this pressure to always make their life in the Van seem glamorous. They agreed, Emma joking that there was no way they’d share a photo of the van in its current state.
I think in the community there is an awareness of it. I’ve noticed in a few of the accounts we follow there’s the hashtag #realvanlife, or something like that, where people are trying to share what it’s like in real life - the unglamorous parts we were talking about before. But there is a lot of girls in bikinis in the back of vans and such. We’re really quite anti that kind of content. It’s not realistic it’s just for likes and comments.
This isn’t just an issue for their lifestyle either, a short documentary film by Canadian, Forrest Stevens, explores this issue in much more detail.
Other problems presented themselves as well: security of the van and how easy it could be stolen, ending their entire adventure in one foul swoop. Issues of pace and money were also very present. Though they were grateful for the freedom they had given themselves, especially given the scene in the UK that they had escaped, they definitely had interesting takes on the pressure such a freedom can bring. Emma explained the issue.
It’s an amazing thing, but it does constantly present these dilemmas in how we should be using our freedom. We struggle with that in a few ways. There’s so many ways of doing this trip, we’re constantly wondering whether we’re travelling too slowly and not seeing enough countries. Or whether we’re travelling too quickly and not getting under the skin of the countries we are in. Whether we’re spending too much time in cities and urban areas, or whether we’re spending too much time in nature. Are we getting the sense of a real culture of a place, and what it is actually like.
The issue of whether they were being too generous with their spending limit, or too frugal and limiting their experiences, also meant there was a constant pressure there to ensure they were enjoying themselves but also being smart. Ultimately, they said it was a game of finding the right balance. Having spent six months on the road, they were at peace understanding this was less a holiday now and much more a lifestyle, and freely admitted to spending days tucked comfortably in the van binging on Netflix, without any guilt.
Asked about what they thought would be the essentials to living in a Van, the couple said it depended on what was needed. Ruben made a case that you could live in a Van very simply by just putting some sort of mattress there, however their life required more than that.
We’ve got a fridge, a big kitchen with hobs. A big thing is that we’ve got a big electrical system, we’ve got two big solar panels on the roof and a big battery bank that can allow us to run normal household electrics.
Emma explained the need for a battery bank for the jobs they continue to do whilst living on the road.
We almost had to have a really powerful system because we both work on the road. I do pretty regularly… and [Ruben is] a bit more sporadic. We work from laptops and we had to account for that in the design so that our systems were able to take a lot of use.
Ultimately, our discussion got to the main issues I wanted to figure-out: was Van life a much more freeing lifestyle than life in a traditional house, and had the idea of a home changed for the pair?
On the former issue (which we had already discussed a little earlier) Emma and Ruben agreed it was as freeing as it was restrictive.
I would say generally it’s much more free because you’re not tied down by house-bills and 9-5 work, but there are things that do restrict you. For example each country that we’re travelling in, there are all sorts of varying laws over parking up in the wild. In some countries it’s really easy, like France you can go pretty much anywhere in a camper van and you’re pretty welcome. Some countries, like Austria that we’ve just been in and Slovenia before that, it’s a lot more restrictive. A lot of the tourist places crack down on camper vans and you don’t feel so welcome. You have to hide a bit out of the way in the woods somewhere, and you’re a little bit on edge sometimes as to whether you’re going to get woken up in the morning by police and get a big fine. Luckily we haven’t had that so far but it’s always at the back of our minds when we’re in a country like that.
In this case, the three of us agreed on the idea that, in living such a nomadic lifestyle, freedom comes from the ability to be adaptable.
On whether the past six months had changed their understanding of “home,” Ruben hadn’t noticed his understanding shift too much.
For me, the word “home” almost has this kind of association with family. It’s a kind of permanent and safe place… But, it’s not to say that the van doesn’t feel like home, it definitely does feel like home, but it always has this kind of feeling that it’s temporary. It doesn’t feel like it has the security of a family home. It’s a moveable object and we could crash it and suddenly we would lose our home and it would be a write off, we’d have to start all over again.
Emma agreed that, whilst their van could serve as home for now, it wasn’t going to be forever.
We do agree that this isn’t going to be our home forever. We have this amazing opportunity but we don’t have the means to adapt this home if we were to start a family at some point in the future. So it serves such a specific purpose and it does an amazing job as our home right now.
However, she also noted the feeling of ownership they had, which was entirely unique to any other home she’d lived in before.
We have this ownership of this thing that, not only do we own it, but we designed every aspect of it to suit our needs. Neither of us have ever had that experience with a house or a home before. Even in our parents house, the first place we think of home, you don’t have that freedom to change things in that home.
Our conversation finished on some final sentiments about what they had taken away from their new life in the last six months. Emma especially had noticed a big shift on her perception on how she should lead her life.
I think one of the main things I’ve learned is that you don’t have to live to work. We’ve been working in order to live these past months and it’s really changed my whole attitude towards work actually. I think I was maybe a little bit of a workaholic in London and couldn’t imagine a lifestyle where that wasn’t the main priority. Yeah, life has taken centre-stage now and it’s really nice.
Emma finished her thoughts with this profound statement.
Just finally it probably will never feel like the perfect time to do something really scary, like give up everything and go travelling in a van. But if you can do it, then maybe now is the best time to do it. If you’re even thinking about it maybe you should do it. We’re so glad we made that decision and maybe it wouldn’t have been the same if we hadn’t have been talking about this a few years later.
We speak to a lot of people who say “I wish I could do what you’re doing” and then make up a load of excuses about why they haven’t done it. But I feel it’s not as hard as people think it is to pack it all in and do Van Life… I would say it’s well worth it to take the plunge.
Our conversation finished and the video-call ended, from there Emma and Ruben made their way to Italy to continue their adventure. I’m sure this would have been a perfect moment to have some sort of video where we watch them drive off over the horizon and into the sunset; however my life in UK lockdown didn’t permit me to be there to make that video.
Emma and Ruben are still on their journey as this is posted, and are constantly updating their followers on their whereabouts on Instagram (@RemyRelay) with no vision of ending this journey any time soon, regardless of what new issues arise.
If this is something that has caught your attention or has been a topic of interest for some time, I’ve put some links below for articles and films I used to learn about this topic. Before the end of the year, I’ll be making a short 10-15 minute film out of this, using pictures and videos Emma and Ruben have given to me during their adventures. It’s also worth looking out for the new Chloe Zhao film on the subject, “Nomadland” which has a cast full of people who live in their vans in real life.
The Unglamorous Realities of #VanLife and How to Make Life on the Road Work
The Dirty Secrets of #VanLife
The Reality of Living in the Back of a Van
The Reality of #VanLife - Full Documentary Movie - 2018