13 November 2017

Our amazing caravan

When we finally hit the road with our beloved Mercedes Vito and Wilk Stern 700 caravan, these are the places we visited:
Switzerland, France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Germany; with day trips to Austria and Luxembourg.
[For those just joining in now, we were constrained by the Bi-lateral Visa Waiver Agreements, on where we could go and when.]
Sometimes we would move every day, and at others we'd stay a week, most times it was 2-3 days in one place.  This 'freedom' wasn't easy nor carefree.  In fact it was darn right difficult even with the up-to-date ADAC (equivalent to NZ's AA) annual camping guide that listed private and municipal options alongside the camping grounds.
The idea was to stay at park-over properties instead of camping sites, to save money.  For the size of our family, camping grounds would have cost similar to a motel each night.  You generally would pay for the two vehicles and for each person, as well as electricity and utility charges. Park-overs were usually a minimal charge per unit (not per head) but which may not even provide water and power (both extra costs) - just a car parking space.  On average our daily charge for somewhere to overnight was EU10 in Germany, EU5 in France, free in Spain and Sweden, EU30-35 in Netherlands and Denmark.
We had three major challenges to finding somewhere to rest our weary heads at the end of a long day.
The first was that we were travelling with a caravan.  This is not the done thing unless you are a gypsy, and as a result we were tarred with the same unfavourable brush.  The issue of us being self-contained didn't seem to factor into it at all.  Caravans there are towed to an official park, set up and left year-round.  They are not towed around the countryside!  We repeatedly encountered prejudice at it's finest.
Secondly we had a very long rig at over 13m when attached, approx 4 + 9 separated.  Many of the park-over properties were only for vehicles up to 6m.  Manouveuring into spaces that were long enough for the caravan, even if we had to park the Vito elsewhere, was invariably a nightmare.  The number of times we had to unhitch, re-position the van; or even use sheer brute man-power to guide the caravan to where it needed to go was too numerous to count on hands and feet.
I could tell you the story of driving it through one of many small quaint French villages and getting so stuck not being able to make a right turn even with the caravan unhitched, that the local police had come to see what the activity was about and ended up not only helping us rock it back and forward (along with a patron from some neighbouring restaurant) around the corner distorting the tyres so much I thought they would blow; but then afterward provided an escort to the parking lot on the Seine river where we were intending to head.
I got very used to doning my hi-visibilty vest, which is mandatory for every passenger in every vehicle, and scoping out what was in front and behind us, yelling all the while to Atlas who would try to interpret it, to get us out of trouble.
Then there was the abiding issue of lack of wi-fi, to check these places were what they said they were and to ask if they'd allow us to be there.  Or to try and find another one at the end of a long day because we couldn't stay where we had planned.
If we were to do it all over again, the one things I would do differently would be to position ourselves for a month in one place, and make day trips from there.  
Finding a place to overnight, a petrol station for fuel, the supermarket for food, public wi-fi if at all and generally orienting oneself with the environment day in and day out is FAR TOO MUCH STRESS.  Finding a place to stay longer that was not a camping ground would still be a challenge, but I reckon possible.
Do I miss living in a caravan and travelling Europe?  Yes absolutely!  It did give us a sort of freedom and flexibility albeit at the very high price of stress.  It was the means to our end, the vehicle for us to even consider being able to make the journey.  Without the van and caravan we could not have gone where we did, seen what we have nor experienced the culture and life of so many countries and people.
It was great that you weren't living out of a suitcase and packing and unpacking every day.  In the caravan everything had it's place and everyone did too.  The children had pictures on the walls, toys and games in the cupboards.  It was fun to outfit the kitchen, in particular, with the essentials of what we needed and realising that it really wasn't that much.  The fundamental needs of running a household on wheels were stripped down to 'do we have enough water?', "where can we dump the toilet?" and "is everyone fed and warm enough?".
This lifestyle was nothing new to me, as growing up my parents were able to provide me with holidays in a caravan; but for the other six it was a new frontier.  The simplicity appealed to my minimalist nature; but not so much to the children.  The boys missed their Lego & toys, Gemma missed her space; and Vega missed her sewing.  Some days when the homesickness was in full swing what the child missed became so huge they were not able to see what else they did have that they didn't at home.  I guess a case of the grass is always greener.
For me, being home now 7 months I do appreciate our house is big enough, whereas prior I had wished we could have afforded an extension so children didn't have to triple up in a room.  I have continued to hold minimalism and the process of constantly re-evaluating an object's usefulness (as you need to do in a caravan and also while long-term travelling) in focus.  We have in our home what we need, and the rest sits still in the shipping container for sorting, selling or storage.
One other mindset change was that whilst overseas if we did really need something we had to buy it.  At home we had always tried not to buy something new if we could make do but this wasn't possible overseas.  Having the right item for the specific task did make things quicker and easier. 
What this means for me, is for example when I wanted to paint a couple of stripes around the boys' room I calculated what I would need, and went and bought tester posts from the hardware store in the exact 2 colours instead of trying to mix them from the mis-tints and leftover paints we might have had in the shed.  Ok, so it may not sound like a big deal to you, but to me it is.  It wasn't an expensive splurge either, but I was giving myself permission to make my life easier and that feels good. 
In contrast I have just hauled a (free) wooden pallet home from the other side of town balanced precariously on a bicycle so I could make two headboards of it for the same boys' bedroom.  The difference was that I wanted to have a go at up-cycling something from a pallet and this was finally a practical project.
I dare say that each one of us will continue to have these little mind shifts and revelations especially as we individually and communally process our 17 months abroad.  For that I am grateful for the O.E. that was.
07 June 2016

Tightrope walker, Esslingen

Before setting out traveling with a family I hadn't read about how hard it could be.
I'd read the round-up posts of other's tour highlights, the statistics posts, the occassional whacky account of things that had happened along the way; but not about the character-testing, stress-creating, tear-inducing reality that I experienced in the first three months.
So here dear readers is some of my raw reality.
We technically ran out of money.
We'd brought at least a month's worth of budgeted expenses with us in cash, but we hadn't reckoned for our accommodation to be under-equipped and requiring us to buy kitchen utensils and for opening a bank account to take so long.  We ended up having family at home transfer our rent for several weeks so that I could stretch the cash I had for food, and we reimbursed it through transfering money from our NZ account into their NZ account.
So okay we found a way around it, but it was so frustrating especially when I know that you can walk into a bank at home and walk out with a bank account the same day.
It was also somewhat embarrasing to have to ask family to 'take care of business' as it looked as if we were ill-prepared.  Ill-prepared for the intense bureaucracy and lack of common sense therein perhaps.
The children all had homesickness, especially at around 3 and a half weeks of arriving in Germany.  They all wanted to go home.  So did I - not just this one time though, it was almost a constant tug-of-war for me.  That's the conundrum.  I was exactly where I wanted to be - back in Germany, but I needed life to be a little easier at least.  Back home I knew where to find groceries in the supermarket, I knew how to get where I was going and had a car to do so, I knew how to find out what I needed to know in my native tongue. At home I wasn't the only one that knew these things either - every member of the family did too.  At home each person could share the burden of running a family.  In Germany they couldn't or not without my support.
My recommendation is that you are in this for longer than 3 months.  It takes you that long to get past the first couple of bouts of homesickness and steel your reserves for what is to come.
The roof in our house (in New Zealand) began to leak again 2 months after we left even though we'd had a roofer come in and repair it prior to our departure. 
Trying to work out what to do about a maintenance issue we thought had been taken care of caused division and contention.
We contacted the roofer about taking on a total re-roof instead and it took weeks to hear back from them.  In the end a family member drove the 450km each way to look at the problem and add to the fix that was done; which I only hope will hold.
I hated only shopping for one day, then two days and finally only 5 days groceries at a time.  Having a tiny fridge, no pantry, freezer or extra supplies and having to physically carry anything we bought.  Some days this felt like 20kg on my back under which I almost passed out one afternoon in the dastard cold.  
The supermarkets are not the same, and the lay-out in a German supermarket proposes no logic that I could find.  It takes hours to weave back and forth to find what you need for the simplest of meals.  Some of the most basic things at home were hidden in an international section (if it had one) or very expensive here.  What they call sweet potato, from Spain, (supposedly like a kumara) attracted 19% tax instead of the 7% of the other core food items, and yet other Spanish products were the lesser - why?  
You learn very quickly to eat like the locals as it's too expensive or not even possible to make many familiar meals.  Although that's one of my strong suggestions to help children through the transition, try to make a few of your family favourites especially in the first weeks regardless of the cost.  I had a file on my phone of recipes from home that I carried with me so I had all the ingredients listed.  We didn't have an oven in our first place so that ruled out a lot of meals too - another frustration.
Lots of things were frustrating.  Not having good internet.  Not being able to register as resident due to a law change.  Being thwarted opening a bank account due to not being able to register and not having good internet. Being told different stories from different people in the same bank about opening an account. Only have a 2-element stove top that didn't really work properly. Not having a working kitchen.  Not having a readily accessible washing machine.  Not being able to register a vehicle due to not being allowed to register as resident.  Not being fluent in the language.
Despite it being 25 years since I last spoke German I do understand a lot more than I realised I would.  However it is still not enough to permanently stash away the dictionary, or carry on a conversation using technical terms.
Walking out of the regional government buildings after seeking advice about registering a vehicle I was in tears; held together only because I had the two boys with me.  It was so excruciatingly hard to ask the questions I needed to ask, and understand the answers.  Many times in the day-to-day usage of the language I can find a way around saying something, if not the perfect way, and I am understood; but other times people are not so patient or understanding.
It is also hard to be the only person in the family that can readily communicate with the 'outside world'.  That's a lot of responsibility that I'd like to be able to delegate.
While we had planned to be in one place for 3 months, we couldn't find something that stretched our budget that long-term.  Germans rent for years not months and when landlords found out we only wanted to rent 3 months the doors closed.  In order to have any hope of setting our overseas adventure in motion we found ourselves in holiday accommodation that ate up our funds more quickly than we hoped so we needed to find somewhere else for the remainder of our time in Germany.
We thought we'd found a bigger, more functional alternative home to rent; so gave notice and cleaned the place we were in from top to toe on the day we were to pick up the key for the other.  Then we were told we couldn't have it any more.  No reason, no apology, nothing.  We were physically homeless with 5 dependents.  
We were invited to come back later in the day to discuss another place, but at double the price, not being able to use it as a registered address and less freedom and privacy, it felt like a 'bait and switch', and we walked away from that too.
That was the night that we spent (with permission) in an abandoned building sleeping on cardboard boxes on the floor, with a few sleeping bags and blankets lent to us by some kind souls we had met only 2 weeks earlier.
That was the night I cried and cried.  I was gutted.  How could I do this to my children?  What were our options?  Had I really dragged them half way around the world for this?
We try not to make an issue in our family that we might be dis-advantaged by our size, but we are.
If it were just Atlas and I, the above challenges wouldn't have been so difficult.  We would have found a way around or through them.  We would be more flexible and resilient.  So who cares if we had to sleep on someone's couch for a few nights!?
Having children traveling with you is another totally different level of responsibility.  Parents will know how hard the days in a family's regular environment are, with regular routines, and so many variable personalities and potential for conflict.
Take that and throw it into a sea of change and instability and it seems to be a recipe for insanity.
A family of 5 would still have it easier than ours.
No matter how much care I thought we'd taken to tie up our loose ends at home, we have still had to rely on family.
We had organised for my folks to receive, scan and forward our mail, and look after our vehicle in Auckland where we flew out of; but now had to rely on them to organise our money transfers, and fix our roof.
Without them we would be stuck.  It doesn't seem right to not give them a choice.
Without the generosity of the kind souls providing us with sleeping gear we might have been more uncomfortable and cold the night in the old building. 
Then there are the very kind folks we have never met who have let us stay in their hut in the woods when we had no where to go after that.
Another couple drove us and our stuff in their cars, then left us with a small car for a couple of weeks!
And yet another couple who let us use their town house when we had to move out of the hut for others one weekend; and chaperoned me driving their car to the hospital when Atlas needed treatment.
It is hard to be on the receiving end of such generosity, but we have so needed it.
It has been these acts of humanity that have kept our hearts tender against the scars of the challenges.
There have been many times I have just wanted to book tickets and come home.  The stress of trying to organise everything with the odds against me has been excruciatingly hard and lonely, and it's not over yet.
There is always something that needs planning.  Always something that needs doing.
It always feels as if the odds are against us no matter how hard I try or how focussed I am.  This is the part of the journey that I do not like.
How do other families really make it work and enjoy it day-to-day?  Is it a case, that we are somewhat dis-advantaged having to work within a budget too?   Will we look back on this adventure and remember only the good parts, and what will they be?   Will even the bad times be good?
31 May 2016

Our Mercedes Vito

We didn't anticipate that getting our own vehicle to drive would be so difficult.
Our time in Germany could be epitomised by the domino effect.
One thing didn't happen and therefore the next couldn't either.  Or conversely one thing happened which meant something else needed to.
Initially we were looking for an 'oldtimer' motorhome - something more than 30 years old that didn't have to comply with the emissions standards and therefore we could drive anywhere we wanted without restriction.  There were only 2 of these that were for sale - one needed body work straight away and didn't already have the 'oldtimer' registration; and the other wasn't well set out at all nor did we get a good feeling about the private vendor.  The reality was also that we didn't have the money or expertise to throw at something that potentially would need maintenance faster than a newer vehicle.
Then we started to look at newer motorhomes and only found about 6 (in Germany) in our price bracket so we increased our budget a bit and went to inspect one.  Sadly this was over-sold and under-delivered and didn't have the appropriate allowance to drive through the ever-increasing list of towns that demand a Euro 4 emissions standard or above.  Advice we'd received from other motorhomers was that you wouldn't want to be taking a motorhome into the big towns anyway - you park it on the outskirts and take alternative transport in.  That's okay for those who have a scooter they carry on their rear tailgate for two but didn't solve our mobility issues. Many of the motorhomes able to squeeze 7 in for sleeping only had 6 seatbelts for traveling too; and retro-fitting these is not as easy or legal as one would like to hope either.
So we turned our attention to buying a 7-seater vehicle that could tow a caravan.  This seemed to open our options up a little bit more at least as far as being able to go where we wanted, when we wanted together.  I didn't and still don't like the idea of un-hitching the caravan and leaving it at an overnight camping spot but have to hope with a few security devices we have no problems as there doesn't seem to be any other way.
Atlas found a vehicle that fitted our requirements, visited it, put a down-payment on it and the next week we were picking it up to be deposited at the mechanics yard until we got registration.
The websites that are the place to look for new and used vehicles, including motorhomes and caravans are mobile.de and e-bay.de/ebay-kleinanzeigen.de.  (Mobile.de is incidentally owned by e-bay). 
You will find both commercial and private vendors using these sites.  One thing to note is that private sellers are under no obligation to provide you with any guarantee that the vehicle will keep running.  Dealers on the other hand usually are bound to offer 24 months after sales service for a limited range of issues - some which you have to prove existed when you brought it!
The usual way to go about registering a vehicle is for one to be registered at a permanent address (more than 90 days) which requires a rental agreement or a signed form from a landlord.  We hadn't been able to get this.  
We had goverment officials suggesting that we either register at a hotel which you are not supposed to be able to do, avoiding letting them know that you had no intention of staying long-term; or at a friends address avoiding telling other government officials in that town that we had no intention of staying; register the vehicle and then unregistering ourselves the next day.  The few people that we'd relayed this to were not comfortable with it or were unsure if their contracts allowed them to technically sub-let, even though it is a fairly prolific things for Germans to do, it does carry with it a fine of EUR50,000 if you knowingly do it for someone who has no intention of staying at that address.  
Then another official suggested we register as homeless, but get this...you can't register as homeless without first being registered so you can unregister - so that wouldn't have worked.  
Yet another government employee put us on to a slightly dubious accommodation facility where they issued the necessary paperwork for registration for people known to be there less than 90 days but they were full.  Yes, we did actually explore this option.
One of the last options was to register at a real homeless shelter for a week or so to get the paperwork to say we were at this address and take it from there.
So it seemed that no-one in the whole of the European Economic Community could register a car without a fixed place of abode at some point.
None of these option seemed right to us.  The bottom line was that we wanted to do what was right and honest.  We honestly didn't have anywhere to call home and we weren't allowed to be in Germany for more than 90 days.
The other part of the process of registering a car is obtaining at least the mandatory insurance (Halbpflicht = third party).
As we have always tried to be responsible for our use of vehicles on the road, having third party only insurance didn't seem quite right to us, so we intially requested a broker look at full comprehensive insurance.  Then we saw the price!  INSURANCE IS HELLISHLY EXPENSIVE in Germany and it doesn't seem fair either.  Compared to New Zealand the first policy we were quoted was 400% more expensive. 400%. Wow.
As you might have guessed, we were told you have to be registered to an address to be able to be insured too so this first quote wasn't even for us as the policy holders, it was under a German resident's name, and listed us as drivers only.  This appears to be accepted as perfectly legal with parents doing it for children etc.  The children in that instance benefit from the no claims bonus of their parent.  In our situation our car would have been seen as the German resident's 2nd vehicle and started at a measly 2 years no claims bonus discount to that end. 
None of our clean driving history would count towards the premium - the policy holder's does if at all.  You still are of no fixed abode so the only advantage that I see for insurance companies is that the responsibility for your whereabouts then falls on the policy holder.  You sign a direct debit form so the cost of the insurance is automatically deducted into the holder's account.  You are the same person (as one who might themselves want to hold a policy yourself); so in my mind this system still defies logic.
Then it gets complicated.  Sometimes you are still allowed to register your vehicle (or at least the one you paid for) in your name with the insurance in someone else's name and sometimes not.  If the later then you may feel the need to draw up a letter of ownership that acknowledges that you own the vehicle although the insurance and registration is in someone else's name.  Only the person with their name on the registration papers can sell the vehicle though so that adds another complication if like us you intend to own it for a fixed period of time and sell it thereafter.
So we decided that the only way to again, be honest, responsible and hopefully save ourselves some money (by being able to apply our no claims history) was to look for an insurance company that would work with us directly.  You have no idea how many we tried.  Local ones, national ones, UK ones, US ones, NZ ones, ex-pat ones etc.  Then we contacted the online insurer that the vendor of the vehicle used, and started the process of clarifying their policy.  They were fine with knowing that we were only at the address we used temporarily (not officially registered there) and were more focussed on it being in the same area as where the vehicle was to be registered.  They agreed to apply 10 years of our total no claims history to their policy.  We increased the forecast kilometres three-fold and they still came in at about half the price of the first one through the broker.
We had the insurance but still no permanent residency so seemed little further ahead to driving the vehicle we owned.
As I wasn't getting anywhere dealing with people or they were evading my questions I turned my focus to see where in the law it says you have to be registered as a person to register a vehicle.
The most pertinent one of around 5 or 6 inter-related pieces of legislation was the Fahrzeug Zulassungsverordnung (FZO) which I read several times from beginning to end, convincing myself that I had found a possible alternative (FZO 46.2.2) but not being sure, as I was no expert in German law let alone German language.  Oh, and you never, never, never tell a German official in any way shape or form that they don't know how to do their job!!!  EVER!  Just like you can not expect them to know anything about any related department or law as "it's not my job"!  
Anyway, a kind soul in a high ranking military position started to phone various registration offices for us to sound them out; and like us were told one thing by one person and another by another, being swept up a bit in bureaucracy themselves.  Then the day came that we were both convinced that there ought to be a way forward and I should go in for the third time to the car registration office and try my luck.
The short story was that it worked.  The slightly more useful discourse was that we had to speak to the boss, and instead of applying the specific law I found chose to apply a law meant for gypsies (Landfahrer) or those without a permanent residence outside of their mobile home (ohne festen Wohnsitz).  He was the only one in the entire registration office that knew about this possibility.  The only additional document we needed was an authority to appoint a person as an agent for service (Erklärung zum Empfangsberechtigten) that appears as the official address in the national vehicle register.  This person agrees to forward you any mail you receive regarding the registration, taxation or fines for your vehicle in a timely manner.  We already had that form filled out, much to the utter surprise of the gentleman, as this was part of the solution I was hoping to apply.  
For the record the forms you need to register a vehicle in Germany are:
* Ownership papers part 1 & 2 (Fahrzeugpapiere Teil 1&2)
* (Electronic) insurance policy code (eVB)
* Direct debit authority for tax (SEPA für Steuer)
* Passport (Reisepasse)
* Current warrant of fitness and emissions test (HU / AU)
and the most important document in this case is the appointment of an agent for service ("Erklärung zum Empfangsberechtigten" form). 
You will also need a set of license plates to have the official registration stickers placed on.  You can either have these pressed at any of the private plate pressing companies located near each government registration office or online prior to your visit. We already had ours.
Two weeks after our first frustrating attempt to register our vehicle we walked out with our official license plates etc to drive our own car.  It did not sink in for a while.  Someone said 'yes' and finally made it possible for us.  We had paid for the car, we had insured the car, and we had registered that car all without needing to be resident.  Who would have thought?!  

If this post helps you or someone you know register a vehicle more easily (as a non-resident), we'd love to hear from you - it would make our trials worth it.