Nomads in Europe: What I Wish I’d Known about #Vanlife

May 26, 2016 |

This is a guest post by Mel Candea of Westfalia Digital Nomads.

Four years ago I was living in Brno, in the Czech Republic. I was edging out of teaching English and edging steadily in to online writing.

I got a text, saying only: “Look out your window.” I ran out to my balcony and standing in the middle of the street was my Italian, Armando, holding 2 large bags and wearing a mad grin.

We didn’t know it then, but that was the start of our journey.

In 2012, the term ‘digital nomad’ was only being loosely toyed with; the (hashtag) ‘vanlife’ revolution hadn’t truly begun; and we had no clue how we’d travel. We just knew that we had to.

If I were sitting across from then-me, armed with what I know now, I’d have a few pivotal points of advice.


Living in a Van as a Couple Is Tough Stuff

You may think that’s kind of a ‘Duh!’ moment, but when we started out we had two priorities: to travel together and to work remotely, while traveling. We hadn’t considered the full impact of a 24/7 co-existence—in a small space, no less—with no one but ourselves to blame.

We had to figure out communication remedies almost immediately. I’m a fairly calm and reclusive American; my partner’s an Italian extrovert who has a tropical temperament at times. Beyond hailing from different countries, we also had to adapt to very different personalities.

What I wish I’d known: The weather is only your friend when it is impossibly perfect. When it’s raining, or too windy to even take a walk, tempers flare. Even the kindest person can become snarky after being pent up going on day 3.

Or it could be the opposite, like we had in Morocco. Getting slow-roasted without a hint of a breeze, no trees for shade and both of us having work deadlines to meet. Imagine the tension of sharing our small table across from each other. We didn’t speak often. Ha.

We’ve learned to allow the funk and express it. Not to an extreme, not playing the blame game, but giving each other a corner and time to do what they like. I think instinctively you want to try to smooth things over and make it better. But there’s nothing you can do about the weather, so take it in stride.


Rich Months, Poor Months & Eking

I should give a little background about our digital nomad beginnings. I’d started writing online in 2008, doing part-time jobs. I didn’t actually move to writing full time until we were already on the road. Armando (then boyfriend, now hubby) had done some film footage for iStock and began getting passive income from it.

We both started getting work from sites like Mandy, Craigslist (yes, really—and it paid well) and online job platforms. But we both noticed that freelancing really is feast or famine. Either we’d get 10 job offers in a 24-hour timeframe, or we’d be scrounging for work. We’d get stuck in places, waiting for a.) clients to pay, b.) Paypal to process, c.) work to be okayed or d.) a combination of all of the above.

What I wish I’d known: Build up your skills as much as possible in the down times. By that, I mean that I could have spent a lot of my twiddling time reading up on copywriting and SEO. Or I could have done Purdue’s proofreading materials to bone up.

One of the reasons we’ve been able to still be digital nomads, traveling in our van, is that we’ve branched out and increased our skills. But truly, I could have done so much more!

I also wish I’d known it’s perfectly acceptable to ask for a deposit and milestones, rather than just the full drop at the end. It helps with maintaining expenses and it leaves less room for bad clients.


Words and Names Won’t Hurt Me

Perhaps it was naïve of us, but we’d never considered the perceptions other people would have of us in choosing our lifestyle. Living in a van, or #vanlife, was simply a way for the two of us to be able to travel together, in the most comfort.

A van made heaps more sense than flying/trains/etc. because of Armando’s film gear, both of our computers and our clothes (1 bag each). The thought of being perceived as being homeless, dirty or even thieves hadn’t crossed our minds. It took other people to do that for us.

So a few details about our van (his name is ‘Mork’): He’s a T4 Westfalia, a bright turquoise color called Caribbean and he has Bulgarian license plates.

The van itself is pretty domestic looking. No huge daisy flowers painted on the side, it’s in good condition and we rarely pop the top unless we’re in a place we know it’ll be ok.

Yet we get nose-wrinkles at our plates. Bulgarians, it seems, have a bad reputation in Europe. Which is quite unfair to Bulgarians, but who says bias has to have logic attached?

We get looks at our clothes when people find out we live in a van, as if to check for smears of mud or holes. We get discreetly sniffed. They usually try to find out in a roundabout way why we’re ‘homeless.’

What I wish I’d known: For every one of those negative or judgmental people we’ve come across, there are at least two that understand what we’re doing, and why it makes us happy. Those people who don’t ‘get’ us don’t need to. And that’s all right.

We’ve seen the dramatic change in our quality of life. It’s so much more than it was in our former ‘static’ lives. People’s opinions might sting some days, but your happiness doesn’t require their approval.


Wanted: A Bubble Bath with Scented Oils

The idea of living in a van and being a digital nomad is easier for some than others. More specifically, it’s harder for girls to live this lifestyle, over a prolonged period of time.

I could probably write several dozen articles on this point alone, but I’ll keep it short. Here are just a few of the daily difficulties:

  • Toilets, showers and other hygienic stuffs
  • Lack of privacy (people just stop by to say ‘Hi,’ even if you have the curtains closed)
  • Not enough room to swing a cat or cook your favorite specialty (in my case: baking casseroles)
  • Dealing with female-specific issues, monthly
  • Missing a little romance—no clue when last date night was

No, it’s not that women are pickier. We’re biologically different. Which means not being able to pee standing up (there are products like the Lady P, though) and having our periods are a thing.

What I’d wish I’d known: Living in 80 square meters means kiss your privacy and girlish notions of ‘female mysteries’ goodbye. You adapt, figure out solutions on the fly and generally get on with things—without a fuss—because you realize that, no.

No, it’s not the end of the world if you use a bucket to relieve yourself in emergencies. No, you won’t hear a collective world gasp of horror if a stranger gets a glimpse of your tootsies.

And yes, date nights can be so passé if your love brings you a flower they picked on a hike, taking some much-needed alone time. Yet thinking of you.


I wish I’d known many things when we started out as digital nomads and as vanlifers. Would I change any of it? Never. Not even the darkest, dankest and most debilitating moments. Even those remind us how lucky we are to be able to do what we do.

Traveling together, being able to experience amazing places and helping others follow their hearts is a dream come true for us. Now that is something I wish I’d known when we’d begun.


Mel CandeaMel Candea has been writing offline for 20 some years and writing online since 2008. She’s written for online magazines, business needs and creative projects; does voice overs; and enjoys a bit of photography. She currently travels and lives on the road 24/7 with her Italian husband, a Moroccan dog named Ziggy (Stardog) and a T4 Westy named Mork, bought in the Czech Republic. You can find her travel and #vanlife posts at Westfalia Digital Nomads. She also has a brief blog with tips for writing online here.

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