After living in a campervan for more than a year, the author reflects on the limits of both settling down and rolling on forever.
SAINT MALO — It’s an old stone house lost in the countryside of France’s northern Brittany region, with a bright and spacious living room, and a beautiful green garden that opens onto a huge plot of land. And now it’s ours.
When my partner and I were at the notary’s office, signing the ownership title in our first home, we knew it was one of those big steps in life we’d never forget. But in our case, it wasn’t just the nervous excitement of opening a new chapter; it was also the bitter-sweetness of closing another.
Indeed, this is technically not the first home we’re buying together. In 2018, we purchased a white Renault Trafic minibus that we’d customize into a camper van where we could sleep and eat — and we nicknamed her “Foxy.”
At that time, we had decided to quit everything, jobs and rental apartment, to take a break from our routine, and set off with Foxy to explore Europe. What was supposed to be a six months away turned into a 14-month journey through 28 countries, for over 58,000 kilometers.
It was a unique experience of real joy and discovery — the freedom to choose where and when to go, and waking up in a different place virtually every morning.
Cold realities of van living
Foxy was indeed our house on wheels, a tiny but cozy space in which we fitted our home-made kitchen, bedroom and living room. From its windows we would wake up to amazing landscapes, from Norway’s majestic fjords to mountainous pastures in Romania and crystalline rivers in Slovenia. After cooking local delicacies on our mobile gas stove, we would drive off to our next destination, to visit a picturesque village or hike in the wilderness, before finding a new spot for the night.
Every day was different and brought its lot of adventures and discoveries.
It felt exhilarating to be rid of so many materialistic things, and just live with what’s essential to get to the next place. It was not only about living in the moment, but about living in the places we were discovering.
Still, full-time life on the road comes with its challenges, particularly in a small vehicle. No bathroom or toilets, not a lot of space for even minimal belongings, having to set up the bed every morning and evening, finding a spot to park or place to sleep, or water to replenish your tanks.
It felt like we were saying goodbye to a singular lifestyle that we enjoyed so much together.
It’s usually easy to forget about some of these inconveniences when it’s sunny and warm, far less so when rain and cold arrive, and your confined space starts to feel even smaller. Yes, this is part of the “reality of vanlife” not always as glamorous as some Instagram posts might have you think.
Driving along Norway's majestic fjords
When we came back to France at the end of 2019, it was time for us to decide what was next. Should we settle down? Continue living on the road? Or try to mix both lifestyles? Alas, the pandemic helped make the decision for us: once lockdown began, we both quickly agreed that we couldn’t work and live in a van at the same time.
And though we would still take Foxy for the occasional long weekends and holidays around France, we were ultimately heading down the road to that bittersweet day last month in the notary office. While buying and fixing up an old house had always been a dream of ours, it felt like we were saying goodbye to a singular lifestyle that we enjoyed so much together.
What would it feel like to really commit to settling down? Would we get itchy at some point when the view from the window is always the same?
It turns out that, since COVID, recreational vehicles have become increasingly popular. That has brought some new downsides for van life: spots are becoming more and more crowded, inexperienced users leave trash and don’t respect their passing neighbors. As a consequence, towns are implementing more restrictions. Height barriers, no parking and no camping signs, boulders to block access…
Sleeping amid fresh snow in Romania
Finding your roots
We’ve met a lot of other people and their vans during our travels, some of whom became good friends. Like us, they love this travel mode and some have indeed chosen to make their vans their permanent homes.
But more and more are also settling down, buying and renovating a house… or a plot of land, as a base for their homes on wheels. Indeed, it may not be the financial and comfort aspects that you get tired of when living on the road, but something else: being rooted to a place.
It’s a glimpse toward a hopeful future.
Maybe it’s because we’re all now in our 30s and this is a moment in our lives when we feel this need to have our own base somewhere. When you’re constantly on the move, it’s harder to see your family and your friends, and make new ones. You meet nice people along the way, have a great evening over a drink, then you leave and sometimes never see them again.
Best of both
So, does signing for the house mean we are bidding adieu to vanlife? Well, not entirely. Foxy will still be there for weekends and holidays, as we enjoy the flexibility offered by the van — deciding on your destination at the last minute, depending on the weather or the mood of the moment. And if one day we feel the urge for a longer trip, we can always rent out our house?
For now, we are focusing on renovating parts of this old farmhouse before moving in at the end of the summer. But recently we spent our first night there… on the land, in Foxy, along with friends we’d invited to come with their own vans.
It’s a glimpse toward a hopeful future: two homes, so we can settle down and see the world.