Living in a van sounds so romantic and adventurous. “Van life” is something for those picture-perfect families, who never get sick while traveling. Their kids never get bored or whine. The father has a beard and wears a checkered shirt – or a cool t-shirt and cap. He loves to cook over an open fire at a beautiful camping site alongside a forest lake, while the mother reposes in a hammock. The kids play with the dog and everyone’s in a good mood. No one falls and scrapes their knee. And nobody needs to cry.
Van life can also be a cause of anguish. I would love to live the van life dream, but I already know it is impossible. We can’t even manage to drive to Brandenburg, only an hour outside of Berlin, without a flare-up or some kind of incident. Nonetheless, we continue to give van life a chance, because life without the van would somehow be utterly dreary.
So, we decide to catapult ourselves to the next level and drive the van to Montenegro.
This is where my family has planned a get-together. Aunt Lydia and her husband, Uncle Alex, my cousins, and their dog Marli, a dachshund that looks like it is three hundred years old, will all be there. They will be flying and we will meet in Lucice, a pretty Montenegrin village right on the coast.
I like the plan. There is something old-fashioned about it. People living in various spots around the globe journey across thousands of kilometers in order to see each other and dine and drink tart wine together in the evening. This will be nice.
As for the drive, I mentally prepare for the worst. Our young daughter can’t even sit still for five minutes. How on earth are we going to manage such a long distance? We decide to depart in the late evening and to drive the whole night through.
As it turns out, this was a wise decision. We get through the night and the next day surprisingly well. As the mood begins to turn, we stop and spend the night in an olive grove near Dubrovnik.
It is a night for which I would trade a thousand other nights. The chirping of the cicadas, the aroma of unfamiliar, nocturnal vegetation, and Orion, silently yet powerfully hurtling over our heads through the universe. It is one of those mild summer nights when you can gaze endlessly into the wide heavens above and be certain that everything you have done in your life is wrong. If you could only live here in an old stone house in the middle of these trees, you would be the happiest person in the world forevermore. But we are just one night here, and we sit still as if intoxicated by the beauty surrounding us. From afar, we almost look like the perfect van life family, but only from afar.
We set off again the next morning. The border crossing to Montenegro is just a 30-minute drive from here.
We leave Croatia and drive along the Montenegrin coast. A warm Mediterranean breeze blows through the window. Watermelons are sold along the side of the road. We drive by ugly shopping centers, nice beaches, and pretty villages. From time to time, we manage to catch a wide view of the dark-blue sea. Almost every hour we take a pause and eat watermelon. The crossing on the ferry is the highlight for our young daughter.
On the way to Lucice, we visit the city of Kotor. Everything here looks like it’s out of a picture book. There’s a gorgeous, medieval old town, narrow, crooked lanes, countless restaurants, and many tourists. We discover a Serbian-Orthodox Church and meander through the Church cemetery. Colorful mallows grow along the yellow fence. A white cat sleeps in the shadows. It is very hot. Time for an afternoon nap.
In the evening, Kotor looks like a film set. Everything here is geared towards tourists and we ask ourselves whether any locals live here at all. Where are the elderly? The children? The playgrounds? Where does real life take place beyond mass tourism? We continue on our journey. Lucice is now less than 50 kilometers away.
My family and I participate in a peculiar ritual. Once a year, we all get together at a different location somewhere in the world. And, as part of the ritual, I alone weep with emotion. It happens again this year, except that instead of waiting for my emotional outburst to subside, Uncle Alex climbs into the driver’s seat of our van and nods his head in recognition. Marli, the three-hundred-year-old dachshund, makes himself comfortable in the passenger seat. We are proud that we covered such a distance with our mobile home.
From this point on, however, we spend the nights with our family in a small guest house and make day trips exploring the area. Once, we even drive to Albania.
The landscape is beautiful, but something is lacking and I can’t pin a name on it. I yearn for an experience that is more real than the souvenir shops on the promenade. Apropos, Roger Willemsen, one of my favorite writers, offered a relevant observation: “The tourist always wants to take a snapshot (…) and then quickly leave. The traveler asks, ‘What goes on here when I am not around? What is life here like?’ The traveler searches for another reality.” And just as I am about to give up all hope of finding another reality, we experience our catharsis.
We get lost while driving. We end up in a desolate area, where we see the ruins of two houses. It looks something like after the eruption of Pompeii – completely windowless, crumbling mortar, and façades overgrown with ivy. Behind them, surrounded by a low fence, lies a small, tidy cottage with an orange-colored tile roof. This is the home of Milena. She keeps goats, cats, and dogs. Here, she produces her own goat cheese.
Milena is 85-years-old and prefers to be called Mimi. She is very slight, gaunt, and has sparkling eyes. She wears men’s clothes and green rubber boots. “What happened here, Mimi?” we ask.
Mimi talks and reveals the puzzle pieces of her life. She tells us of the earthquake that took place here over 35 years ago. Of the houses that were destroyed and that fell into ruin. And of her animals, especially her goats. She has 15 goats in total. She had more, but the motorists drive too fast and are not careful. It is hard to lose an animal every month.
When she was young, Mimi studied languages in Paris. At once, she switches from perfect English into perfect German. She also knows French and Russian, she says with a wink.
Then Mimi takes us to the goat pen. It smells of animals, straw, and fresh milk. This is the scent of my childhood. And all at once, I sense that I have to cry. Mimi milks a goat and gives my daughter a glass of fresh goat’s milk. To our astonishment, our child drinks it almost all up.
It is amazing to see how this tiny, old woman manages to do everything on her own. She is proud of what she does. And this includes getting up every day at 4 A.M. She spends whole nights watching over pregnant animals and helps with deliveries.
Mimi loves what she does. She is connected with the land, nature, and all that is alive. I marvel at her strength and knowledge. And she knows what she wants from life. “I returned here from Paris because I can’t live without the land,” says Mimi laughing.
As we bid Mimi farewell, the violet evening sky hangs over the mountains. Insects chirp in the grass and the air is soft and mild. We decide to spend the night here, not far from Mimi’s farm. We have since become an efficient team.
Dinner is quickly prepared and our daughter is put to bed. This is what van life should be like. Except we don’t have a hammock. But things can’t always be perfect.