Words: Elizabeth Neilson
Images: David Bebber

The decision to jump into a camper-van and drive off around Europe was a now-or-never moment in our lives – and I thought about it for less time than I took choosing our kitchen tiles. My partner David and I had our first child, a boy called Dieter, at Christmas and since his birth have been renovating our suburban semi. I was planning to go back to work at the start of June; my partner had taken a few weeks off when Dieter was born but had been back at work for months. All that lay ahead of was our old life with the added complication of a son.

My other half is self-employed so paternity leave is a moot point. But the summer can be quiet for him so the idea of me going back to work just as the sun came out, and while he had the prospect of some spare time, suddenly seemed idiotic. This was our chance to be together as a family sans internet. So we took it: I added a few months to my maternity leave and he took a ‘sabbatical’. We found a campervan (five days before we left), packed a few essentials – Yorkshire tea bags, Marmite, Ella pouches for the baby – and set out for Calais with a rough idea of visiting as many European National Parks as we could over the next two months.

In short, we didn’t really plan anything. We had a few cousins to see, a wedding to go to, and some friends who we hoped wouldn’t mind if we turned up and used their washing machines. We planned our route as we went, seeking out decent places to swim, sleeping and eating along the way. All we wanted was some time together, to go on some good walks and to see some of what Europe has to offer.

The idea of me going back to work just as we had the prospect of some time together as a family, suddenly seemed idiotic.

In the weeks before we left, as our dinner party conversation seemed to be becoming a reality, I started to get nervous. It’s hard being a first-time mum. For a start there’s the sleep deprivation – and decision-making is not easy when you can’t think straight. Then there is the mess to contend with: the bodily fluids, compounded by having no washing facilities to hand. But I felt I could get down with it.

The lack of proximity to doctors as our son was not up-to-date with his immunisations when we left was something that bothered me. But we were not going to any high risk areas so I told myself it would be fine. Finally there was our relationship to consider: could it handle 24/7 contact with no tea and cake mum moments for me, to ease the pressure?

These things started to jumble around in my mind. People told me it would be hard – but I figured being a new parent is hard so we might as well do it in the sunshine.

We saw eight countries in as many weeks – our route took us through France, Belgium, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Italy and back into France again. The fact that I loathe driving and we planned to clock over 3,000 miles didn’t really get discussed. My partner cannot breastfeed, so we each had roles we were comfortable with. I did start out with the intention of driving. I even got us on the road but by the time we got to the petrol station at the end of our street I was shaking after one near miss and my other half pointed out that I would have to drive over 30mph if we were going to get to the ferry on time. We drove 5646 miles, if I drove more than 46 of these I would be surprised.

Our van has three seats up front so Dieter sat between us and we entertained him with five toys on rotation and a lot of singing. There were a few emergency scream stops but not as many as I thought there was going to be. I half-expected us to make it to Germany and then turn back. It was always an option and that probably relieved the tension at times.

There was also our relationship to consider: could it handle 24/7 contact with no tea-and-cake mum moments for me, to ease the pressure?

There were trying moments – getting devoured by mosquitoes in the Haute Alps, inundated with deer-ticks in the Bayerischer Wald, and there were more epic faecal moments than I could possibly record, the best of which were combined with dangerous high altitude driving. But there were also high times – walking and swimming in the French Pyrenees, seeing the Škocjan caves in Slovenia, swimming in the karst lakes and waterfalls of Croatia, seeing our first glacier together in the French Alps and watching Dieter gorge himself on white peaches whenever he had the chance.

I was and am still breastfeeding. We started Dieter on solids while we were away but I hardly cut down his milk intake. He loves playing with his food and I am hopeful that some of it goes in as now he won’t accept a spoon in his mouth and insists on feeding himself whatever he can get his hands on. Any notion of routine seemed ludicrous on the road and now we have to pay the price with a baby who has never got himself to sleep alone and has always been within three meters of us. For the first week back he cried when we walked away from him, but now he is happy to be with anyone, as long as he gets his milk…

I am back at work this week and already I can feel things shifting. He’s still not crawling which is perhaps because he spent the last ten weeks either strapped to one of us or his car seat but he’s getting there and I am certain the bigger kids at nursery will get him mobile in no time at all.

Being back is a bit confusing, like it was all a dream. We are yet to edit the pictures, send the thank you cards or finish the diary I planned to pen, but I still have the flush of joy when I think about the sunrises we saw together and the magical moments with each other that can never be taken away.


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