Lockdown Road Trip Begins

First, an update.

Well, we’re officially on the road! On November 12., Valentin and I began travelling across Europe in a campervan. With COVID-19 scuppering plan A, B and C, we’d had to rethink the first leg of the route, which will take us from Bavaria, through the Black Forest and up to the Ostsee in Germany. Inevitably, our start date had coincided with the UK November lockdown, resulting in my last-minute flight from Birmingham to Munich (booked the day before.) For your own amusement, see previous post here.

A month into the journey, we’ve finally finished developing our multimedia travel site, Proceed with Caution. Here, you’ll find weekly content documenting life on the road, as well as updates, music videos and poetry.

You’re overdue a post from us. So, here’s day 1:

Written November 12. 2020.

I’m already knackered. I don’t know how this will work with Covid, but I do know that we’ll be without a toilet for the next month and a half, as Germany’s campsites have closed. As of yet, neither party has broached the subject of the toilet. Tonight, I discovered a shovel in the van, and felt I didn’t need to ask.

The last few days of preparation were revealing. I come from a family of hobbits, the sort who will go for a Sunday stroll and then take great joy in an open fire for the rest of the day, Valentin, from a direct line of Bear Grylls’. (The legend goes, he came out of the womb with a flame torch.) After the last few days, I am certain this is true.

I spent the weeks leading up to the start of the journey, on Valentin’s parents’ farm. It’s a good place to be in the autumn. Sunsets at this time of year come as early as 5 o’clock, dramatic, sky scorchers, as sharp as the air. The Beech trees in the surrounding fields are burnt red and rust orange, their leaves continually airborne in the flight path of dogs or ducks.

Pygmy Goats on the Farm

Theirs is a hands-on, welcoming family of horseback riders, windsurfers, and Antarctic explorers. I hail from the suburban Midlands of England, I’m not legally allowed to drive, and my experience of snow sports goes as far as the bi-annual trip to Birmingham’s Snow Dome. You’d laugh yourself senseless watching people come a cropper on the ice rink, gape incredulously as your own legs disappeared from under you, and then go eat a burger – they were simpler times. Sometimes, on the farm, I feel more than just the language barrier. I’ve grown up with completely different life experiences.

This morning, I found Valentin with his head in one of the cupboards in the van, on the floor, what the Germans would call a “Kabel Salat” (Cable Salad) of wires and pipes. From inside the cupboard, he was having an intense conversation with his father about the van’s plumbing. There was a lot of gesturing going on, interspersed with some guttural sounds, as his father considered the installation with scepticism. I stood in the background, keen to be part of the decision, but with limited knowledge in either plumbing or the German language. I felt like Boris Johnson in a cabinet meeting. I think I remember putting a nut on a washing machine back in 2006.


Packing the van had been a three-day military exercise in which Valentin’s parents had dug out the entire back catalogue of bizarre and wonderful travel devices. I’d spent the weekend, batting backwards and forwards like a runner for an obscure game show. My personal favourite was the “pocket medieval rack”, or at least that’s what I assume the R&D team had initially pitched. It measured a ruler length across, a metal disc positioned beneath four sets of vertical grills. The image on the packaging showed it standing ceremonially over a flame. It was in fact a toaster – a travel-sized torture apparatus for your more unsavoury breads. Once you’ve stretched your slices over the frame, you put the disc on the hob and turn on the gas. It sounded very satisfying.

The Rack Toaster

Later excavations of the upstairs bedroom produced a set of plastic clips with which an entire tent could be fixed to the side of the car for more space, a solar-powered car battery charger and a portable shower sack which could be filled with warm water and hung from a tree. It was all packed with matter-of-fact indifference, as if to travel without an inflatable boat would have been somehow primitive or foolish. I’ve always considered my family outdoorsy. We own a rucksack each and are partial to a chip butty after marching up Snowdown, but as I watched Valentin and his father fix kitesurfing equipment to the roof of the van, I had to re-evaluate this. Perhaps a butty at Pete’s Eats doesn’t make you an explorer?


My theory is, when you spend longer periods of time in a language you don’t speak fluently, you get better at blagging – this is something I have learnt over the last three years. (It was in place of the subjunctive mode.) At first, a stranger’s “What’s the time?” or “Which way to the nearest supermarket?” would have felled me, triggering a violent and unnecessarily loud “I DON’T SPEAK GERMAN” (in German). Having amassed more vocabulary over the years, you start to blag it. I might begin my response with a “Naja…” (well) to give myself a little time. If you think you’re going to need longer than that, you can complement this with an “Es scheint mir, dass…” (it seems to me that…) and you get the idea. Speaking German is really a case of jamming as many filler phrases in there as you can. This is to give the brain some time to sort through the three different genders, 16 definite articles and God knows how many plural endings, so you can construct the three-word sentence you wanted to say in the first place.

An example:

“Which way to the nearest supermarket?”

“Well, it seems to me that I can’t see a supermarket in the vicinity, so to speak, and in my opinion, I’m not from here. I am English and if you ask me, my German is not, in my own words, very good.”

This way, you feel as if you’ve had a quality interaction with a German native, when in reality you haven’t been able to help at all.

Down and Out

This afternoon, Valentin asked if I’d fill up the van’s water cannister. He began to show me to the hosepipe, midway through a stream of instructions, when he checked himself – “What am I saying, it’s just a hose.” He disappeared to solder something or find his hydro-electric shoe polisher. I paused for a moment. Well, it seemed to me that I didn’t know what the water cannister was, so to speak…

His dad was cutting logs in the yard in front of the van. I went to get the hose from the holder next to the horses, unravelling it behind me as I gingerly stepped around horse urine in new boots. (The only new pair I’ve had in years, but it felt important that I would wear them today, to complement a “city idiot” exterior.)

After some probing, I’d located the cannister in the back of the van and managed to extract the opening valve. Leaving the end of the hose on the ground, I turned on the tap and walked back to the van to see it dribbling, the sort of water pressure you get when you’re coming to the end of a long wee. I turned the tap another 180 degrees. It sprang to life, writhing like a worm under high sun, and blasting an unsuspecting pygmy goat in the face.

Covered by the sound of Valentin’s father chain sawing, the hose and I performed a merry dance around the yard, punctuated by athletic lunges on my part in an attempt to catch the head. A short while later, in turning to pick up another log, Valentin’s father caught my eye. I believe I got away with it, smiling absently. It was only mildly undermined by my dripping chin and thumb vibrating over the nozzle end of the hose. Around it, a little halo of spray gave away the raging pressure that battered behind it. I put the hose into the cannister and regained a sense of control. For a moment, it was euphoric standing there with my knees man-splaying around the cannister, hose blasting away between my legs. So, this is why women get she-wees, I thought.

After a while, it dawned on me that it was a good ten-second sprint to turn the tap off. I imagined the havoc I could cause in this time with the hose left unattended. Valentin’s father was busy butchering a trunk. I couldn’t ask him – it would be admitting that I was an imbecile who’d chosen a jet stream you could have used to dislodge an eyeball.

I considered my options, as the tank rapidly reached its capacity. In the end, after a furtive glance over the shoulder, I decided to take the hose with me, half-propelled by the force of the water like the scene in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone where Nevil’s rocketed all over Alnwick castle. In my flight path, ducks dived to the left and right to avoid having heads knocked clean from their shoulders. The same goat from earlier got another blast between the horns. A short and violent scurry later, the tap was off, and I and most of the outside of the house was soaked.

Wearily, I turned to wind the hose back round its holder. To my dismay, the length of it had fallen in the horses’ yard, and was now floating in a mixture of piss, shit and straw. Wearily, I bent to straighten a kink in the piping, but the more I tried to unravel it, the more the pipe jumped back to its original twisted position; it was an arsehole’s magic trick. I bent it, I stretched it, I squeezed it, I begged it, I offered to buy the damn thing lunch, but it seemed to know this was an empty promise.

In a flash of horror, I imagined the way Valentin’s father would move, riding trousers making that efficient, swishing noise. The “Ach du scheiße” (Oh shite…) as he found what looked like an elastic band ball on his hose holder, piping slick with animal shit. I felt like Basil Fawlty when his car won’t start, I felt like throwing the whole thing in the duck pond. Twenty minutes later, in a state of despair, I had manhandled the pipe into as respectable a shape as I could manage (think balloon animal) and crept away from the scene of the crime.

Wet and vaguely urine-y, I popped my head into Valentin’s room to report, with an air of weak victory, that the water cannister was now full. He was uploading films to an external hard drive. He looked up for a second and smiled, “Oh good”, before returning to the screen.

He would never know what I had gone through.


That afternoon, I assisted as Valentin constructed surf boards and tinkered with sink plumbing, wondering incredulously how I’d managed to get to the age of 22 without these skills. What the hell had my parents been teaching me as a small child, while Valentin was out spearing boars and installing miniature solar panels?

It was almost sunset by the time we set off. It didn’t seem quite real, like most milestones I suppose. The trip has been three years in the making. Now, somehow, we’re on the road for a year during the most unstable time I can remember.

A View over Schwangau

Twenty minutes into the journey, we both began to hear a rattling noise from the side of the van. I took off my seatbelt to get a better look at the connection, where the pop-up roof attaches to the ceiling. Projecting the appearance of someone efficiently assessing the situation, I felt a sinking feeling – I hadn’t a fucking clue what was wrong with the roof.

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