Camper Van Food and Our Evening Routine – 15/4/12

Homemade Egg Mayonnaise

Homemade Egg Mayonnaise

Every evening around 20:00 our evening routine begins. By then it’s started to get dark and we will have already chosen a place to park up for the night.

If we’re staying in a campsite we’ll have put out the table and chairs and walked around the site to get a feel for the place. We close all of the blinds and draw the curtains around the driver and passengers seats and clip them together in the middle, then we turn on the lights – there are four of them – and often I’ll put on a local radio station at a background volume to distract Iva from any peripheral noises outside the van which might get her thinking about camper van murderers or bears.

Galette Complete with Veggie Sausages

Galette Complete with Veggie Sausages

Generally it’s me that cooks dinner.

This year we’ve learnt from our previous experience and so on most mornings we stop at a supermarket to buy food (and diesel) for that day. I love cooking in the van because it’s a culinary and logistical master-challenge that demands nimble fingers, nerves of steel and a heat-resistant face.

The hob has two rings, the chopping board and sink can only be used one a time, water and space are in limited supply and anything that gets dropped on the floor disappears immediately into Klara.

Shopping each day for that day this year has meant that we’ve eaten much better and thrown a lot less food away.

Asparagus with Mushroom and Potato

Asparagus with Mushroom and Potato

In 2010 we were so excited about setting out on our trip that we completely filled the van with food on the very first day and ended up constantly having to use things up (and throw quite a lot of stuff away). Today for example we bought green asparagus and we ate it tonight with fresh mushrooms and chives, and potatoes and crème fraiche from yesterday.

Another advantage is that we can keep our eyes open for local produce available only in that part of the country. I had quite a bit of fun experimenting with Galettes in Brittany, and we’ve also been working our way through the various cheeses which differ from town to town.

But mainly we just love going to supermarkets and do that almost every day.

Paprika Ragout and Veggie Meatballs

Paprika Ragout and Veggie Meatballs

After dinner, we wash the dishes, put everything away and one of us will feed Klara and then take her out for her evening constitutional (i.e. walking in circles on the nearest patch of grass until she pees).

You have to be pretty organised living in such a small place because every surface serves multiple purposes. We have about 6m³ to play with and depending on the time of day it’s our bedroom, kitchen, living room and dining room. Oh, and of course our car. You don’t want dirty pots in your bedroom, or dirty undies in your kitchen and you definitely don’t want your living room to stink of diesel and wet dog.

Le Grande Tasting du Cheese

Le Grande Tasting du Cheese

Most evenings we put the heating on full blast for 10 minutes which raises the temperature very quickly and is enough for the rest of the evening. Since finding out that we can’t replace or refill our gas bottles here in France we’ve been rationing our gas a little bit, but the van is well insulated and it hasn’t been a problem fortunately. Once that’s taken care of we watch a film or an episode of whichever TV series we’re currently ploughing our way through (currently Downton Abbey, mixed feelings on that one), I drink some beer and Iva eats some chocolate biscuits. Eventually I usually also eat some chocolate biscuits and in mean time it’s gone 23:00 and we’re ready for some magical sleepy time.

The last bit of the routine is also the best bit.

Chickpea Fajitas

Chickpea Fajitas

The roof of the van folds down and extends to create a sleeping space above the living area. It’s claustrophobic and cosy in equal measure, and learning to get up there elegantly (and safely) took quite a bit of practice: left foot on the bench, right foot on the work surface, pull, swivel … and with a bit of luck you’re cocooned in for the night.

Then it’s lights off and sleep, which pretty much always comes easily after a day of travelling.

Posted in Camper Trip April 2012 | Tagged , , , | 3 Comments

La Rochelle and the Dune du Pilat – 11/4/12

Camperissimo 2012!

Camperissimo 2012!

After spending the morning walking around La Rochelle, we returned to the van to drop Klara off and give us a couple of hours of human time.

Since we usually drive on every day – at least a little bit – we tend to develop general impressions of regions and areas of a country, rather than specific opinions on towns or cities. Still, we both really liked the town, which was pretty much exactly as described in the guidebook (well-preserved, charming, lively), but were looking forward to moving on later that afternoon.

Us

Us

Eating out has been a bit of a challenge so far in France. Although we’ve seen countless young, modern-looking restaurants, they tend to offer fixed menus, which I just assume contain rabbit or partridge or langoustine, thanks to a recent over-consumption of Masterchef. Our experiences over the last two weeks have confirmed overwhelmingly: nobody in France speaks English* and our attempts to translate menus have been fairly fruitless. In this case, however, we happened upon a Tunisian restaurant with a more formulaic menu and had no problems ordering vegetarian couscous, which was great.

* I don’t expect anyone to speak any language except for their own, and I truly wish I spoke any real French, but this is the first country we’ve travelled through communication has been a real challenge, despite our collective knowledge of English, German, Italian and Croatian. I should add that people have always been friendly and very willing to wildly gesticulate in lieu of verbal communication.

Iva on the dune

Iva on the dune

We had parked the van just across the street from two museums we were planning on visiting: the Museum of Automaton and the Museum of Scale Models. Joint entry was €12 per person and ultimately I was pretty disappointed with both, although in some regards they were impressive. Despite their names, neither was really a museum, but rather both were exhibitions of one man’s enormous toy collection. Still, the overall presentation was cheerful and they let me use their toilet.

Back in the van, we had a moment of tiredness and doubt.

Don't worry, I'll watch your shoes

Don't worry, I'll watch your shoes

After two weeks on the road and almost 3000km on the clock, neither of us was sure that we wanted to continue driving south.

The next step of our journey should have been a further 350km down to Irun on the Spanish border to meet up with David and Oihana, friends that we had met in Romania in 2010, but continuing as planned would now definitely leave us with 2 or 3 very long days of driving at the end of our trip.

After some deliberation we decided to drive on as far as Bordeaux to visit Europe’s biggest sand dune, the Dune du Pilat, and then take a sharp left and head west.

At the very top

At the very top

Feeling better for having made a clear decision we left La Rochelle and parked up about an hour south in the entirely unspectacular village of Samussac. We parked in a public car park in the town centre and managed to give Klara a 20 minute walk before the rain started, together with weather that reminded us that it’s still only just the beginning of spring. Blinds down, heating on, feed the dog and then some dinner.

Not forgetting the compulsory – but thus far entirely unsuccessful – search for unprotected wifi connections in the area in the hope that we would be able to use Skype and download some episodes to watch. As usual, all that we could see were private networks and the standard French Telecom connection for their mobile customers.

Iva, Iva and Iva

Iva, Iva and Iva

Somewhat frustrated and not one to give up easily, I used my phone to do a little online research and after a little while found a post in a French forum with a list of user accounts and passwords for the FT wifi network, which we’ve been using every night since then … 😉

Klara was here

Klara was here

The drive to Bordeaux the following morning found us in mixed feelings, because the weather was looking very dodgy and climbing up a massive heap of sand in the rain sounded more like punishment than pleasure. Still, we persisted, and so did the run of luck we’ve had with the weather gods for the entire trip so far; by the time we were within a few kilometres of the dune it was sunny and bright.

When I was a kid, my family visited France on camping holidays every year for several years, each time venturing a little further south. I’m not sure of the exact year, but about 15 years previously we had visited the dune and a few other places in this region, including a huge water park, “Aqualand”. For old times’ sake we stopped there for a couple of photos before arriving at the car park at the foot of the Dune du Pilat. By this point, Iva had started to realised how absolutely massive the thing is … until then I suspect her agreeing to visit a sand dune had been partly out of politeness.

Quick snooze after all that action

Quick snooze after all that action

Anyway, it’s MASSIVE. From the top it feels pretty much standing at the top of a ski slope, and the views out across the Atlantic and back inland are breathtaking. We took our shoes off to feel the sand on our toes and Klara ran like a mad thing in circles up and down the sides of the dune until she was so tired that she actually started eating the sand.

After such a fantastic experience we were both left feeling partly recharged and we decided not to completely skip the very south-west of France. Our next stop would be the town of Pau, and then on to Carcassone, before heading back through the Massif Central.

Posted in Camper Trip April 2012 | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Easter in Carnac: Keeping Family Traditions Alive – 8/4/12

Our Eggs for 2012

Our Eggs for 2012

My brother and I both moved away from home a long time ago and now it’s only on rare occasions that all four members of our family are in the same place at the same time. So even though my family is not religious at all, we use every opportunity, be it Christmas, Easter or Hanukkah, to spend time together. Mostly these gatherings are encouraged (some people might say “forced”) by my mum, and the holiday is really just an excuse to bring the whole family together in our family house in Rijeka.

Since the purpose isn’t to celebrate religion, but rather to eat together and use our laptops in the same room, our holidays have a pretty loose structure. There are certain traditions that we follow though: like moving the fake Christmas tree, already decorated from the past year, from the cellar into our living room, or opening present on the morning of Christmas Eve, almost two days before anyone else. On Christmas Eve we eat dinner with our extended family, and for Easter we paint boiled eggs and my mum and I each paint a religious painting and a dog portrait which my dad then has to grade (embarrassingly, this is a very recent tradition).

Iva, Deep in Concentration

Iva, Deep in Concentration

My favourite tradition of all is Easter breakfast, and I love it for a few reasons.

Reason one: Easter breakfast includes, among other things, the boiled eggs painted the day before. As I said, my mum doesn’t really care about the tradition as long as we’re all together so she’s mostly sloppy with colouring the eggs and ours were almost always the ugliest. On Easter morning, as a Croatian tradition, people receive a painted egg as a gift from family and friends. We used to pass the gifted ones on because ours were too plain to be given as a gift.

I, on the other hand, love painting the eggs. I appreciate originality but the most important thing is that they are nicely painted. Jay, being a perfectionist in almost everything he does, agrees with me on that.

Jay the Perfectionist

Jay the Perfectionist

The last two Easters we spent alone, just the two of us. Last year we were in Olympia, in Greece and this year in Carnac, in France. Both years we tried hard to keep the tradition going. Last year we painted our eggs with ballpoint pens we had lying around in the camper van because the markers we attempted to use just rubbed off the egg’s surface. This year I almost had a panic attack when I couldn’t find a proper egg-colouring kit in the French Hypermarché. Jay somehow managed to convince me that the watercolours would work just as well so I reluctantly agreed to buy them (even though I was really sceptical). And they worked wonderfully! We spend the whole Saturday evening in the van, laughing out loud listening to a Louie CK stand-up comedy CD and painting the eggs.

An Impressive Spread

An Impressive Spread

The second reason is, as I already mentioned, the big breakfast on Easter Sunday. Breakfast is always my favourite meal of the day, but this one consists of everything at once. Boiled eggs, spring onions, cheese, ham (for non-vegetarians), bread … jam, Nutella, cereal … Everything, sweet and savoury, one can find in the fridge. And you eat until you can’t eat any more. My mum always puts a lot of effort into decorating the table. I attempted to do the same in Camperissimo, as much as I could with a few of our plastic bowls and plates.

The third reason is “tucanje”, or a game you play with the eggs. Each person chooses an egg, takes it in the hand and smashes it into their opponent’s egg, attempting to break it without damaging their own. Winning is mostly based on luck, except for my late grandad, Nono, who used to adopt a special tactic of almost hiding his egg within his fist and then smashing his whole fist against our eggs. He won mostly. Jay and I also played the game, which is not as exciting when you have only two players. Jay’s egg won this year.

Our Camper Van Easter

Our Camper Van Easter

The most important reason, though, is about being together. It’s about sitting down together, having a long, relaxed meal and enjoying each other’s company.

And even though I missed the rest of my family this Easter, my little family – Jay and Klara – were excellent company. Immediately after breakfast I emailed our photos to my brother, my mum and my dad and received photos of their breakfast in return.

So even though we were far away, we were following the same traditions, thinking of each other and managing to find a way of being together.

Posted in Camper Trip April 2012 | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

Keeping Camperissimo Alive – 11/4/12

Checking the Gearbox Oil with Boris

Checking the Gearbox Oil with Boris

Much like the crew of a rusty tugboat, once we’re on the road, each of us adopts certain everyday responsibilities.

Iva takes on the tidying, cleaning and most of the route planning. She is also designated expert in irrational outbursts and conspiracy theory. I’m responsible for taking the bikes off and putting them back on the bike rack, choosing the music and keeping Camperissimo alive.

On the bad days it feels like Camperissimo is teetering on the verge of unceremoniously falling apart into its cheerfully rusty component parts, never to be be reawakened.

Jay investigating the underside for suspicious oil spots

Investigating the underside for suspicious oil spots back back in 2011

No sooner have I mended one thing, a second and third problem have made themselves known. The van is more than 20 years old now, and so it would be unreasonable to expect entirely plain sailing. When it comes down to it all we really care about are the basic and obvious functions of moving and sleeping. Keeping bits from falling off on the motorway is a “nice to have”.

Still, these past few weeks have dealt more than their fair share of issues and at times being responsible for the van’s wellbeing can be exhausting.

  • One of the four hinges on the back doors has rusted and snapped and now we can’t open the back of the van at all. Practically speaking this isn’t such a big problem, since it’s only really in summer that we would open the back doors to create a breeze, but it’s particularly annoying because our garage claimed to have solved this problem by welding the two bits together.
  • Currently the clutch and/or gears are not working as they should. Second gear requires a strong forearm, while first gear is a distant dream; fortunately, given the van’s gear ratios this isn’t too much of an irritation and it doesn’t seem to be getting worse. We’ve checked the oil level in the gearbox which is fine – based on my knowledge of cars I’m guessing this is an issue with the clutch or the synchronisation of the gears.
  • The heating itself works fine, but a problem with the ignition is draining new batteries after a day, rather than a year. It’s easy to pull the batteries out to solve this one, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
  • Contrary to what I was told in Munich, it’s impossible to replace or refill our gas bottles in France, hence we are now balancing out how much we use – particular with heating the van – to avoid running out before we get back. Not being able to cook in the van would be a major downer.
  • After 22 years of proud service, yesterday the double-sided adhesive tape holding the mirror to the wall in the back of the van (a.k.a. the bathroom) handed in its notice. Smash!

And that’s about all for now.

The Hinge of Death

The Hinge of Death

Neither of us regrets buying Camperissimo for a minute – the travelling we’ve done over the last two years has been unforgettable – but opting for an older vehicle brings with it significant ongoing costs, higher fuel consumption and more frequent head-scratching when things go pear-shaped. In just 24 months we’ve replaced the windscreen and the engine; I’ve remounted the solar panel, dealt with rust on the outside and fixed countless smaller items inside the van.

I love repairing things and I’ve learnt a lot in the process, but today is one of those days where the harder I try, the longer the list seems to get. Hence we’re both happy about the prospect of selling up once we’re back in Munich and starting off fresh in a year or two.

Posted in Camper Trip April 2012, Repairs & Modifications | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Boris the Beekeeper and the Isle of the Machines – 9-10/4/12

Our Walking Tour of Nantes

Our Walking Tour of Nantes

We met Boris parked up on a cliff top in Romania, overlooking the black sea. When we arrived, the field we were parked in – in fact the entire length of the cliff – was filled with Romanians who were camping there for a music festival weekend. By chance we had parked next to Boris’s Nissan 4×4 truck with its bomb-proof camping unit attached to the back. It’s a camping setup that looks like it could carry a man across a desert and back, and as it turns out, it has.

We introduced ourselves and invited Boris to join us for a beer. We found out that he was a retired beekeeper from near Nantes in France who had already travelled extensively in his rugged looking camping machine. Soon we were grilling him on how exactly his camper worked and he happily treated us to a guided tour.

Camperissimo Egg for Boris

Camperissimo Egg for Boris

That weekend we made a new friend and learnt quite a bit about the philosophy of travelling in a camper van from him, things that have been really helpful for us. We exchanged email addresses and headed off in our respective directions: we were heading a little further south along the coast and then westward through Bulgaria, Boris further south still to Istanbul, to rendezvous with his daughter for a few days.

A few weeks ago I sent Boris an email to let him know that we would be travelling through France. Actually, I’d forgotten where in France he lived, but by chance our route passed just a few kilometres from his house in La Chapelle sur Erdre and he invited us to visit him along the way.

And so – after an overnight stay in Guerande on the Atlantic coast – yesterday we set out to visit him at home, catch up on two years’ of travelling experiences and witness the man in his natural habitat.

A Mechanical Heron

A Mechanical Heron

Having met someone in such a random and fleeting way is a wonderful thing. For me the sheer improbability of the friendship that develops brings with it a feeling of lightness and separation from everyday life. Way out in the countryside we spotted Boris’s 4×4 camper from a distance, a small house surrounded by green, about 15km north of Nantes. Seeing his face brought back memories of 2010 and over lunch we talked about Romania, our current experiences in France and my inability to pronounce even the simplest French words correctly. Over dinner Boris briefed us on the finer points of sexual reproduction amongst bees, confused us with his in-depth knowledge of electric cars (of which he has three) Iva had her first taste of Guinea Fowl (which we had to look up in a dictionary).

The next morning we breakfasted on bread and “laughing bee” honey, from Boris’s own bees. As a gift he gave us a big jar to take with us on the road and we decided to spend the rest of the morning visiting a very unusual museum/gallery in Nantes. We had planned to go there in advance and as it happened, Boris has never been: The Machines of Isle of Nantes.

Boris and I and the Elephant

Boris and I and the Elephant

A small team of artists and engineers conceived of a project involving the design and construction of life-size, mechanical creatures in the visual style of nostalgic science fiction a la Jules Verne. These machines are fully functional and absolutely amazing. The main attraction is a very, very large mechanical elephant which carries museum visitors on regular journeys around the grounds of the museum. It was an amazing place to visit, highly recommended.

After an hour walking through the city centre together we said our goodbyes to Boris and headed off in our separated directions again: him back home in his super-charged electric Peugot 305 and us, in Camperissimo in a vaguely southerly direction.

 

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