When is a holiday not a holiday?

People assume we are on holiday.  “When are you going home?” we are asked after the usual small talk about where we are from and what we are doing.  It’s a difficult question to answer; we don’t know.  In fact, “we don’t know” is the answer to a lot of questions relating to our trip.  Ultimately, we don’t know where we are going, how long we will travel for or even whether we will actually enjoy it.  We have plans, outlines of a journey and destination but until we actually do this, we don’t know whether it will turn out to be the life we are hoping for.

It is hard not to feel like we are on holiday.  We expected it to feel like a holiday at first, but thought we would arrive at a turning point when it would change.  I expected to find myself feeling like a traveller – not that I know what a traveller feels like – I just expected to feel different. 

However, we are on day 57 of our journey and I still feel the same.  If anything, it feels like we are taking a number of holidays one after the other, as we move from country to country. 

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Taking a turn at the helm

Steve feels differently from me.  He explains it as having left behind a cluttered life and it taking a while for all that clutter to slip away from him.  He now feels clear of his clutter and is living in the present; thinking about each day at a time – where we will drive that day, what we will eat, whether we need fuel or water.  He doesn’t feel like he’s on holiday but that he is living his life like this and turning his mind to future projects that we will share.

Maybe we just express things differently, as I also feel that I am living each day in the present – perhaps that is the difference between feeling like you are on holiday and feeling like a traveller: when you are a traveller your mind is not focused on the end.  You spend so long planning and looking forward to a holiday that when it arrives it is hard not to think “only 10 days left”, “only a week left”, “only 3 days left”.  That feeling has truly left us and with it the stress of having to enjoy every minute.  It’s ok to have a bad day, because there is always tomorrow, and tomorrow will be better.

My son once described me as the ‘stressiest’ person he knew.  I was quite hurt by the statement at the time, but thinking back to family holidays I can understand what he meant.  I remember the months of looking forward to going away and then the stress of not enjoying myself; the disappointment of things never being as good as I hoped.  We are supposed to have amazing holidays.  On returning home, who answers the question “did you have a good time?” with an honest “no, not really”?  The pressure to enjoy a holiday is immense, for me anyway.  The inevitable disappointment when things don’t go as planned leads to stress.  I have the impression that I suffer from this more than most, but maybe other people just don’t admit it.

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The old port in Marseille

I found that this anxiety about whether I was having a good time was the first thing to go.  Maybe that’s when I became a traveller without realising it.  That’s not to say that there is no longer anxiety.  A life-long sufferer from emetophobia, I am used to living with anxiety.  I accepted this as part of who I was when I was young, and accommodated my life to it, rather than challenged it.  As I’ve become older I have recognised the impact my anxiety has had on my life and resented it.  I have also seen its impact on my children’s lives and tried to teach them to challenge and rationalise their anxieties from an early age.   The only way to deal with anxiety is to challenge it, to venture outside the comfort zone.  This was one of my goals in embarking on our journey.

Steve and I previously talked about what we thought would be the most challenging thing we would face on our travels.  I knew the answer immediately; it would be my anxiety and fear.  I also realised that Steve’s biggest challenge would be dealing with my anxiety and fear.  Although, like anyone, he has fears, he rationalises them and doesn’t suffer from anxiety.  He therefore sometimes finds it difficult to cope with mine. 

The first time we camped together was a wild camp on Kinder Scout in the Peak District.  We took sleeping bags and a ground tent up onto the moor in August, hoping to see the annual Perseid meteor shower.  In the August evening light, camping on the moor was wonderful.   However, when we emerged from the tent after midnight to watch the sky things appeared very differently.  The meteors were invisible to us, behind the low cloud that had enveloped the mountain.  Walking just a few feet away, the tent disappeared and the ghostly atmosphere felt very different from the evening before.  Giving up on the meteors and getting back into the tent, fear set in.  Every sound became an approaching threat; I imagined creatures both real and mythical.  Keeping Steve awake with my constant “what was that?”, he learned how much fear I suffered and I learned how little he did.

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Steve making friends with a chien de Bordeaux called Chewbacca

The first time we camped in the roof tent in a strong wind we both learned more about how close to the surface my fear lies.  I lay awake listening to the sound of the wind all around us mingled with Steve’s snores.  In my mind the wind was a hurricane, powerful enough to sweep the roof tent off the car, or to lift the car off its wheels.  I was unable to rationalise the fear and fight the anxiety it created, waking Steve and depriving him of a night’s sleep in the process.  I didn’t believe his protestations that everything was fine, that the wind wasn’t that strong and that both the tent, and the Land Rover could stand far more.

Climbing out of the tent at dawn, bleary-eyed and bad-tempered, the wind hadn’t abated.  But standing outside in daylight, I could feel that it was no more than a stiff breeze and that the cause of my fear was just the amplified noise created by the canvas around me.

Every experience that takes me out of my comfort zone challenges my fear and helps me to cope with my anxiety.  But I know that the further we travel, the more fear I will have to face and I know how hard it will be for me at times.  But I also know that deciding not to do something for no reason other than fear is the worst way for me to live my life and the only thing I will regret.

I have found that after spending the best part of two months sleeping in the tent I am already much less anxious than I used to be.  I spend less time listening to every noise and imagining approaching threats.  But being out wild-camping as night falls still makes me uncomfortable and I am yet to venture outside the tent during the night.  I realise that it is very un-feminist of me, but I see night-time excursions (to check the severity of the wind, or to secure an awning) very much as Steve’s department.  Since part of my reason for travelling is to challenge and overcome my anxieties I will push myself out of my comfort zone and get up in the night one of these days – but perhaps not just yet!

Leaving Scandinavia has meant staying on campsites again, as wild camping is illegal in most European countries.  I always feel more comfortable on a campsite, which makes little sense when you consider that most harm comes from other people, and campsites are where other people are found.  I suppose it is the familiarity of being within civilisation that makes it feel comfortable, despite the potentially higher risk that being around other people brings.

We found a lovely campsite in Denmark, near to a coast known as ‘Cold Hawaii’.  We understood why when we found that most of our co-campers were young Danish and German surfers.  They disappeared each day in their assortment of camping vehicles, and returned in the evening to cook in the communal kitchen and dining area and to share stories of their day’s surfing.  At least, we assumed they were talking about surfing, but understanding neither Danish nor German we can’t be sure.  Spending two days on this campsite, renting a little wooden hut as the 90 km/h wind prevented us sleeping in the roof tent, we appreciated the advantages of campsites.  We were able to cook and wash up in a proper kitchen with running hot water, and to eat in a heated dining room.  There was free Wi-fi, hot showers, clean and well-lit toilets.  There was also the comfort and familiarity of being around people.  The anxiety of wind and wildness being removed I enjoyed two worry-free nights in the little wooden hut.

Travelling south through Germany, Holland and France we stayed on many different campsites, some very enjoyable and some anything but. 

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Curious garden artefacts displayed on the roadside in Germany

The worst was next to a motorway near Dusseldorf where the roar of passing goods vehicles didn’t abate all night.  The best was outside Nancy in France, where we stayed for three days to catch up on some washing and clean out the tent and car. 

A weekend in Marseille tempted us to trade the Land Rover in for a ketch and live a life at sea rather than on the road. 

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Sunset aboard a ketch

We took a detour to Marseille to visit Steve’s son, Tom.  With a group of twenty-something friends, Tom had chartered a ketch for a day and invited us to join them.  We didn’t see the ketch to its advantage as there wasn’t a breath of wind that day, just a beautiful hot sunny Mediterranean sky.  While the younger generation jumped off the boat into the clear water, we sat on deck with Antoine and Joelle, the ketch’s owners, drinking wine and talking about our respective travels.  We loved their beautiful boat and envied their plan to sail to Odessa via Istanbul and the Black Sea.  Given that I am terrified in a roof tent during a stiff breeze it is hard to imagine how I would cope with a storm at sea – but that day a storm at sea seemed unimaginable.IMGP4715 (2)

We are now in the Camargue, staying for two nights on a free campsite next to a vineyard.  Apart from the mosquitoes it is a lovely place, with the added advantage of an adjacent ‘caveau’ selling 5 litre cubies of wine for €12.50!  Having enjoyed sunny and settled weather since leaving Denmark the cold has caught up with us, driving us south to Spain and Morocco.  France is comfortable and familiar to us.  Steve’s knowledge of the country and fluency in the language makes travelling here effortless and I have been happily existing within my comfort zone.  I anticipate that Morocco will be much more challenging, providing the first truly unfamiliar environment we will encounter.  I hope that what we experience there will stretch the limits of my comfort zone, making the prospect of further and more remote travel less daunting.

Not knowing when you’ll return home is certainly one thing that differentiates travel from a holiday.  More than this, though, it is challenging yourself to live life differently and to accept the discomfort, fear and anxiety that unfamiliarity can produce.  We were advised to write a statement of why we were travelling to refer to when things get so bad that we wonder why on earth we are doing this.  The statement is written but we haven’t reached that point of referring to it yet.  Maybe when we do we will feel like travellers.  So far, the moment I most felt like a traveller was when my children said that their friends enjoy reading our blog and thanked us for being cool.  That’s good enough for me.

abbaye de gaussan

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