Last Christmas, I made a decision to go on the road for a little while. I didn’t have much of a plan, but I knew I was adventure-starved and needed a change. And if you’re going to make a change, sometimes it might as well be a big one. So I decided to move out of the house, sell my stuff and drive across Europe.
I don’t know how long or successful this little tour will be, but getting here has been a major part of the past six months. And I’m really fortunate to have my friend Sam here for the first month. Some of the mishaps so far would have been truly scary alone. If you’re tempted to do the same — based on my experience so far, these are the things to know.
One. Spot the opportunity.
I think in some ways the longer life goes on, the more complicated it gets. In other ways, as Pierre the retired Belgian engineer*, would tell you, it gets easier. He meant we begin to see life more clearly. And that’s often true.
I’m talking about the practical side of life. You get settled, build ties, hash out some sort of career — even get married and have children. Untangling yourself gets hard. I don’t have the latter, but I’m thirty-two and have had time to settle into life in Newport.
What I’m pretty confident about is that there’s probably never a perfect time. But there might be a good enough time. A window of opportunity.
For me, I knew I didn’t want to stand for re-election and that I’d finish with the Council by the 5th May 2017. At the same time, I’d accidentally, fortuitously, built a little business. I can work anywhere with good internet. There was my window.
I know — probably because I’m older and wiser — that I’d soon get tangled up in something else. Either opportunity or finances would nudge me — politely, but firmly — onto another path. And I didn’t want that.
So if I was going to do something, that was the moment.
Two. Start your planning early.
A lot of work goes into making it look easy. The more I thought about it, the harder I realised the ‘sell everything, pack up and just go’ thing is. The impulse is easy, the execution a little less so.
If you’re leading a pretty settled life, it is especially tricky. I’d been in Newport for almost 11 years and had accumulated a corresponding amount of stuff. As we all tend to find out when moving house, we own a lot more than we expect.
Then there’s contracts, obligations to people and arrangements. They inevitably finish at different times. And a deluge of loose-ends which seem determined never to leave you alone. To make it as liberating as it should be, front-load the work. Beaver away early and you’ll be able to drift off, unencumbered. I sort of managed it.
Three. You need so, so much less than you think.
I’ve always found packing light difficult. Any airport terminal would suggest I’m not alone. I found there’s two types of thing — one for the road, another to be stored with friends or parents.
There are some things — or at least I found — that you just can’t part with. I have a shoebox full of cards, letters, tickets, maps and trinkets that I can’t get rid of, but I can’t take with me. There’s also more practical things. I don’t want my suit, but I’ll be pretty glad of it when I get back.
The process of deciding what is necessary is complicated and time-consuming. For me, it wasn’t so much procedural; it was a shift in mindset that took time and intent.
Start easy. Clean out old paperwork that you obviously don’t need. Clothes you haven’t worn for two years can go to the charity shop or get recycled. Be methodical, but don’t be hard on yourself. I’m sure it took me ten or twenty passes around the house. Something that survived one pass wouldn’t survive the next. I began to overcome my hoarding tendencies and become comfortable with owning little.
Even now, ten days on, I already know I brought too much.
You may find it easier than I did — but it’s good to take your time. Making the decision in the first place is the hardest part.
Four. Pack so you can walk away.
I bought a 2003 Saab 9–5 for £795 for this trip. As I write, it’s in the garage, and we’re spending a few days ‘stuck’ in Ljubljana. It won’t start, and it seems like it might be a problem with the fuel pump.
I mention that because when I began filling my bags, the temptation to take more than I needed was high. My rule was: if the car breaks in the middle of nowhere, the essentials must fit in the rucksack and shoulder bag. Anything else needs to be disposable.
I’ve got a tent, sleeping bag, food, supplies, emergency pants, towel, running shoes in the boot of the car. You can keep to the spirit of travelling light with leeway and ways to keep things cheap, like camping.
Five. You’ll encounter resistance.
There is inertia against doing this, I think. Not that the world is conspiring against you, but that things are set-up for a particular style of life. A lot of things are quite tricky to ditch. The contracts, final bills, exit fees and all sort of other things will come to try and grab a piece of you.
In a car the faster you move, the more wind resistance you get. That’s sort of how I felt. There’s a reaction to your actions, and they’ll try to pull you back. Becoming a person of no fixed abode is quite difficult, as it turns out. It’ll cost your more money and time on hold, but you’ll get there.
And ten days in, outside a cafe in Ljubljana, I’m certain of one thing. It was the right decision.
*Pierre and Jeanine were travelling from Canterbury to Ghent and lift-shared with us. They found our trip on BlaBlaCar.