1. It’s not a small world after all
When we arrive excitedly at our new digs, unpack the bags and kick off our shoes the first thing we do is firm up a list of the things we want to see and do, narrow it down to a solid short list and then within a day or two we’ve hit the road. Being Australian may give us an overly optimistic sense of our capacity to cope with some time in the car on day trips in places like England (hey, we’ve often done 8 hours a day on the road). But, even so, an hour-long trip to each destination, no matter how anticipated, can very quickly become a chore. It’s not unlike the grind of a daily commute (but then it’s actually totally different). To illustrate our kids feeling on this point, the first thing they ask whenever we get in the car is ‘how long till we get there?’ and then follow the satnav like a hawk the entire journey. And when promised a visit to Alton Towers (aka MASSIVE theme park) during our stay in Leeds, Squirt flat out refused to go on the grounds that it would be a 4-hour round trip. I haven’t heard of a child refusing to go to a theme park but we seem to have pushed the kid’s tolerance for car travel to the edge. So, we’ve reined in our expectations, shed silent tears over the more distant attractions that have dropped off the list, and enjoy the experience of keeping it closer to home.
2. Housesitting rocks
By the time we’ve posted this we’ll be near to completing our fourth housesit – all in England so far – with another three planned for the upcoming summer, including six weeks across two properties in Switzerland. We started looking into housesitting months before we left Australia (using Trusted Housesitters) and, let’s be honest, for the main reason that a few weeks of free accommodation would help us stay on budget and give us a little more to spend on activities. In reality, what we unexpectedly gained from these stays has been so so so much more than that. Staying in someone else’s home with their pets, house and garden to care for immediately makes it feel like our home. And when travelling long term that feeling of being home is nurturing for the soul. Having a purring cat around or a chicken to put to bed or a dog to walk gives us and the kids a whole lot of “lurve” and a welcome focus. We’re immersing ourselves in a vast array of new board games, revelling in a full complement of kitchen utensils and languishing in the joy of some different DVDs. Last but not least, we get to know the home owners themselves and a neighbour or two … and connecting with local people has to be the most satisfying aspect to our travel. Hands down.
3. Sickness sucks
We’ve now had two spectacular all-in bouts of gastro in the first five months. In between, we’ve had more than our usual smattering of aggressive head colds, sore throats and sinus infections. It’s like we’re an alien race just landed on Earth and susceptible to the full force of every germ that passes within a nose of our highly innocent and under-prepared immune cells. The gastro kept us locked in a world of pain and immobility for a week each time. Awful. More so for Bug who ended up in the Leeds Infirmary for a not so memorable day during TeamBuss SuperGastro Week No. 2. Yes, we missed out on some local sights each time, but thankfully we’ve had the luxury of time to just sit, ride it out and recover. And in between periods of utter despair and misery there’s been ample space for some semi-positive family time … watching movies, drawing, reading, playing games and going for (very short) walks. Hey, gotta look on the bright side.
4. Hooray for really slow travel
We are big fans of slow travel. When planning BussAbout we promised ourselves a minimum stay of one week at any one location. Within a couple of months we stretched the minimum to two weeks and now we all get super excited at the thought of bunking down a whole month somewhere. But then what’s the benefit of long stays in one location if we still run around like crazed tourists each day? It just becomes fast travel “day trip style”. We don’t want to burn out – because that does happen to some families – and, in the process, forget that one of the main reasons for this adventure was not the adventure at all but to hang out together doing the small things (see our word map below) and try living like a local. Within a few weeks we had to make a mental adjustment, allowing ourselves permission to chill, seek out nearby community events, and not to mention shop, wash, cook, clean, wash……… did I say wash?
5. The planning never ends
It’s weird to say that staying “in the moment” during this trip has sometimes been a distant dream, no pun intended. I honestly need to say that I’m surprised at how much effort is constantly needed to plan our next day, next week, next month, next …. but then I’d not given the mechanics of long-term travel nearly enough thought beforehand (the theme underlining this entire blog), having overlooked the fact we’re not kicking back the entire time on a beach lounger with a bucket of margaritas before toddling back onto a flight home. Even if we had unlimited budget and don’t need to vigilantly scan for good deals, the practical aspects of living every day in unfamiliar surroundings requires effort to navigate. We spend hours most nights in the company of Google and the faint unromantic glow of a screen searching for accommodation, things to do, flights, local groups, things to do, places to like buy food and stuff, car hire, schooling ideas, budgeting and, oh, things to do. But don’t get me wrong… thank goodness for Google! I do love you so, but we need to spend a little more time apart. Honestly, it’s me not you. Just don’t let me miss out on the next great flight deal!
PS. We absolutely recommend Trail Wallet to track daily and total budget. A life saver.
6. The kids are alright
Kids are natural travellers. They deal with our wandering life better in some ways than we do, content with any sort of accommodation in any location and comfortable with not often knowing what tomorrow will bring. They’re also natural learners. Schooling-on-the-go for us mum-teachers causes us much anxiety but reality is that kids are curious about many things and fearless in following whatever sparks their passion at any point in time. We quickly let go of any notion of set lessons following a standard curriculum and give them instead as much a diversity of experiences and resources as we realistically can. They’ve all shown their natural drive to learn this way. And Bug is a changed kid; less anxious and much happier. Some things of course haven’t changed (ie. they argue every day, meltdowns happen, tears flow). But before we left Adelaide, the question on our lips was: will the kids not just cope with this life, but thrive in it? We know the answer to that now.
7. We score a B+ for packing
How well have we packed? We’re pretty happy so far with the added good fortune that this last European/UK winter was quite mild. We always intended to buy snow gear once we were over here and Lisa and I found snow boots at Aldi in Holland and were very fortunate to be gifted kids snow pants and a couple of jackets from my generous Dutch cousins. Even without actual snow, these heavy duty winter clothes helped us get out and about on frosty days when the wind chill plummeted below zero, including at Disneyland Paris.
The packing cells full with summer clothes were used briefly on route in Thailand and then became a burden to cart around for five straight months of winter travel. Thankfully, we were able to store these for a couple of months with a friend in London leaving us with the remaining three bags of winter clothes, kids books, toiletries and whatever other stuff they’ve accumulated along the way (nerf guns, playdough, dress up costumes, slime, lego, soft toys). If we decide to avoid a second northern hemisphere winter we’ll courier home our down jackets, boots and scarves and buy a set of light soft shell rain jackets. We’ll always keep thermal tops and leggings as they are handy for unexpected cold snaps in any season and double as comfy pyjamas.
On reflection we should have bypassed Thailand, flying straight to Europe with just winter clothes and then planned to buy any needed clothes on the road to match the seasons. Our kids are growing so fast anyway that the summer clothes risk being too small by the time we truly need them again. And doing this would have avoided the need for a fourth bag!
8. Winter travel comes with more pros than cons
We are firmly in the grip of a UK spring at the moment, with more sunny days (although it did hail yesterday), an abundance of blossoms and hoards of Easter holidaying kids in every playground, zoo and museum. We can now look back at five months of European winter travel and ask ourselves if we’d do it again? Well…. we’ve loved the traditional Christmas markets, celebrating Christmas and new year with our Dutch family, playing in the snow, chilling in front of open fires, soaking in heated pools while watching steam swirl from our breath, slurping hot chocolate, going berserk in massive indoor playgrounds and standing for way too long staring at the pastries in warm bakeries. We also fell in love with near empty attractions and deserted roads and rockstar car parks. We luxuriated in the joy of not having to wait in line for anything at all, even at Disneyland, or jostle with tour groups to catch a view or pay high season prices or worry about sun screen. The main cons were that certain attractions were closed over winter (but not all so we honestly didn’t feel like we were missing out) and that it was hard to find other kids just out and about to play with. So, in short, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’!
9. Our confidence is slowly growing
After so much planning and tearful goodbyes we were super excited to get on the plane on 4 November last year and start BussAbout for real. Lisa and I were also totally and utterly terrified. We’d never travelled for this far and for this long with our kids and had not only dreamt up all the high risk scenarios but catalogued and filed them all in our heads with administrative precision: crossing over a busy road, getting lost at the shops, catching nasty germs, falling off a bike, drinking unsanitary water, extreme carsickness, falling down the stairs/cliff/rocks, being stuck in a snowstorm, suffering crushing homesickness, getting separated at a train station, having stuff stolen. Logic tells us that home can be no less unpredictable and fraught than most other places (excluding war zones which don’t happen to feature on our itinerary) but the unknowns of our future life was playing with our heads. Time and experience have slowly chipped away at our internal monument to parental insecurity. Oh, bad things have happened. But we’ve found we can cope and adapt (so far, touch wood!) … I suppose much like life at home. Who would have thought?
10. The boot is a seriously important thing about a hire car
Yes, it seems like we’re mining deep but this last one is not just to make up the numbers. When we search for a hire car we look at these three things first: number of seats (five please), boot space and price. Compact cars are good value for money but are definitely not all built the same. After many attempts at “luggage tetris” we can list by heart the model cars that have the requisite 380 litres of boot space needed to just fit our luggage plus a bag or two of remnant peanut butter, breakfast cereal, baked beans and tomato sauce that seem to follow us everywhere. Boot space is important people!