Van Life: Adapting to COVID-19

Blog Audio

Day 2 of 365 ¼. We’re on the side of the B308 somewhere between Oberjoch and Schattwald (I’m told it’s not actually pronounced Shat World), three minutes over the Austrian border. Racing against the sun, we ended up plumping for a strip of concrete for the night — one of those make-shift carparks that stretch along the side of the road like a runway in miniature. This one is dotted with haggard looking wooden tables that somehow remind me of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” I was impressed by South Germany’s infrastructure – back in the UK, the emergency picnic is so infrequently catered to.

The Emergency Picnic

A people carrier rockets up the B308, on the back seat, an egg sandwich in a critical state of sogginess. Ballsy mother-of-three, Greta, realises that making it to grass and anywhere away from continual lorry traffic, will no longer be possible. Negotiating a hairpin bend, she takes the wheel and swings down the runway with a two fingered dispatch gesture to little Günter: go go go. The youngest son bails out of the window, Cath Kidston picnic blanket in hand. I can see them now charging towards one of the younger looking benches. They form a crowd around the bread roll as the eldest daughter, Ingrid, begins CPR. Valentin interrupts my train of thought: “What are you thinking?” I say something about tomorrow’s lunch.  

Camping in a Light Lockdown

Tonight, I can see the impact of COVID-19 on travel. In place of hangry kids and mums with Tupperware, this picnic spot is home to a motley collection of vans struggling to find a place to park now that Germany has closed its campsites. I haven’t felt this atmosphere in years -the vaguely commune-y.

It’s dark, and our solar-powered jam jar is starting to fade now. We’re coming into a Bavarian winter and the sunlight hours are getting shorter. I’m at the pull-out table, waiting for a passing lorry to illuminate my way to the sink.

In the passenger seat, Valentin is playing guitar softly. There’s slow jazz coming from a van two neighbours down, the kind of music used so frequently to cover up sex, it now acts as an advertising board: HANS AND BIRGIT ARE GETTING BUSY. In the distance somewhere, a baby gurgles. It’s peaceful, but noticeably there is no knocking on windows, no chatting between cars. Social distancing still applies here. People keep themselves to themselves now.

Van Life Without a Toilet

Well, that makes the toilet situation a little easier. Having been in a long-distance relationship for the past three years, Valentin and I get the odd milestone that occurs a little later than usual. Tonight marked a new first in the relationship – our first late-night stroll in the woods with the intention of having a shit.

Germany’s light lockdown means open public toilets are sadly few and far between. Once on the autobahn, we’ll be using service stations, but only two days into the road trip with no facility on board; we’d reached the inevitable. I must admit, I was taken off guard by Valentin’s matter-of-fact invitation. He was standing at the door, raising his eco toilet roll and an eyebrow and my heart sunk. In a parallel world somewhere, I remained curled up on the back seat, shaking my head in an all-knowing, patronising way, sort of like a horse getting rid of a fly. “But darling, there’s no need. I’ve been socially conditioned to pretend I don’t do this. Valentin would slap palm to forehead with a little noise of remembrance. “Quite, your waste is excreted in giggles not shits.” We share a tinkly laugh at how he could possibly have forgotten, and he leaves to do his own, less-civilised, business.

Back in reality, I get the shovel.

Better now than in broad daylight. Head torches on, we walk grimly through the darkened picnic area, which now looks like a cemetery for garden furniture. We’ve decided on a wooded area an appropriate walk away from the carpark. It is close to 11 o’clock now, and from somewhere up ahead, we hear that shrieking bird that seems to play an integral part in 80’s horror films.

We reach the edge of the woodland and stand there in unchartered awkwardness. I can’t quite look him in the eye, though perhaps that’s the red beacon shining out of his forehead. We are armed with a shovel, a bag and a toilet roll, as if murdering a very small person. There is clearly no euphemism to sugar coat this experience, and so I stifle the urge to give him a peck on the cheek and tell him I’m going to powder my nose.

One of us says “well” because there is nothing more to say. This is where we part ways, like a pair of sheepish glow-worms, knowing entirely what the other is doing, into the night.

I watch as he disappears, a faint red light between the trees.

Written Nov.13 2020. Audio edit and music by Valentin Jann.

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