This past summer we decided to push further on the mobile office concept and our “togetherness” tolerance and live in a pop-top camper van — a Ford Nugget — for thirty days stretching over part of July and August as we toured Europe. Finally, “the Nut Bus” lives up to its name!
We would start off in Sevilla and drive to Italy, south of Florence, where our friends from Rye (the Pretorious family, now resident in the UK) had rented a house and generously invited us to stay with them for a week, along with the Heldman family, still resident in Rye and also friends. We would camp along the way to Tuscany and afterwards as we drove up through northern Italy, Bavaria and Switzerland before heading back westward and down through France and Spain. How hard could that be?
Well, the first lesson we learned is that camping — including van camping — is heavily regulated in Europe, and in general there is no sleeping rough. You must stay in the designated campsite, and those campsites usually have the feeling of suburban trailer parks, in part because the Dutch (OK, it’s not just the Dutch, but there were many, many Dutch people in these campgrounds. And also Germans) use these places as inexpensive summer-home getaways. They often rent a spot for the whole of the summer — sometimes for the whole year — and so have set up their site with outdoor kitchens, televisions and lawn furniture. In Switzerland the campground residents even had garden gnomes! Because the summer visitors are in the same place each year, they have friends around them and so the children are running and playing in groups and the adults are gathering for drinks or dinner parties in the evening. Which is all fine, but it feels odd to roll up for one night in the Nugget and pull out a pup tent and some ramen.
The second lesson we learned, on our arrival in France, is that Europeans outside of Spain have strong opinions on our dog. For example, at the pebbled beach in Marseilles, where men slept under the piers and where we saw human feces by the boardwalk, we had two French women approach us separately within the span of thirty minutes to tell us “no dogs allowed here; you can have your dog over there …” (with each woman pointing to a different beach area) “… but not here.” In Italy people were mostly concerned that Stella remained on leash, while in Germany and Switzerland people would approach to ask us why Stella was not free. “Why is she on a leash?” they would ask. While on a hike in Switzerland one older British woman went on and on about how her dogs were never on leash; it was just not how she raised them; she raised her dogs to respect her, and they never strayed; some people just didn’t have the discipline to raise their dogs correctly.
“What kind of dogs do you have?” I finally asked her.
“Pugs,” she said.
Fortunately Stella was not offended. She sniffed and gamboled and charmed people with her soft ears and genteel manner wherever we went.
There were some other lessons along the way, such as that Tuscany can be incredibly hot in the summer, even at night, which means that the picturesque un-airconditioned villa with views over vineyards can be … warm. And that swarms of mosquitoes come out of the vineyard when the sun sets, which means that sleeping with the windows open can be … challenging. But with enough wine, and some fans from the ever-resourceful Chris Heldman, we were able to sleep enough to have a terrific time, and sight-see and talk and drink and talk. We saw beautiful art and buildings and bridges; visited wineries and bought jars of truffle honey and olive oil; swam in the pool and sang songs. The truth is that we were having so much fun that during our visit I didn’t even think about the mosquitoes and the heat.
After our week in Tuscany we drove north to see some old friends from Dubai — the lovely Francesca and her children Eugenio and Emilia — who spend their summers in the tiny town of Tesido, in the Dolomites. Eugenio and Emilia went to the same school as Ibby, Mimi and Benji when we all lived in Dubai. We had a very pleasant few days of hiking in the mountains, playing games, and visiting nearby towns. [One funny discovery: Francesca and her family were pronouncing the name of their town incorrectly. It’s TeSIdo, with the accent on the second syllable, but they — and everyone else in the town — were pronouncing it TEsido, with the accent on the first syllable. Finally, an American arrived to set it right!]
Also news to me: the northern part of Italy, known as South Tyrol, speaks German first and Italian second. And serves German food in the restaurants! Ja, es ist wahr!
After the Italian adventure we headed even further north — ahh, blessed coolness — into Bavaria, the Swiss Alps and socially chilly France, starting with what Brook called the “Castles and Concentration Camps” circuit.
I’ll talk more about that in the next post: VanLife Part Deux. Just know that there was lots of time in the Nugget — so much that Benji said afterward that it was his favorite place we ever lived.