Six Month Reflection

It’s almost impossible to believe that today marks six full months of travel. If you had told me this time last year that I would be in Bulgaria, having been on the road for 26 weeks, been through 15 countries, seen countless incredible sights, made so many wonderful friends, and managed to add seven more dogs to my Menagerie (oops), I would have rolled my eyes and told you you were crazier then I am, and that’s saying something. Yet here I sit, tucked in the little caravan that has been my home for the last six months, and I have done all of those things and more. It’s weird to contemplate how different my life is then I thought it would be a year ago, and more, to really grasp how I feel about the changes.

I “knew” travelling with all my animals around Europe with no plan and little money was going to be challenging. Everyone knew that. But I had no idea just how plain hard it would be. I could never have anticipated the stress involved with not being able to afford campsites, food, gas, and vet care. I couldn’t have known how often we would be coasting in to a truck stop on the last fumes of gas, or what it would be like to not be able to find any rest stops as the last rays of sun were setting behind yet another mountain. When we lost phone service and reliable WiFi we faced a generational challenge that I know our parents would have laughed at… but you can’t find truck stops on a map!!

The reality of six large dogs and five cats cooped up in a tiny caravan and car is actually brutal… there is nothing fun or exciting about it. It’s dirty, hairy, smelly, and crowded. No amount of vacuuming or wiping down can keep the sheer volume of animal at bay. On the days when there’s no place for off leash walking, the dogs pick fights with each other and the cats to work off energy. Or they bark incessantly until your head wants to explode and you can’t think straight.

I’ve struggled with nightmares and insomnia for years due to PTSD, but on this trip sleep has become a distant memory. The few hours I do catch are often interrupted by high beams at truck stops, drunks throwing up in front of the caravan, or dogs and cats simply stepping all over me in an effort to find a place to lay down. And the fact that I haven’t had any sleep doesn’t stop the fact that they all want breakfast, potty breaks, and walks at the crack of dawn. There’s no option to just throw the door open and let them run around the yard for a bit like back home… it requires fully getting up, getting dressed, putting on leashes, yelling for everyone to shut up and sit down so you can do all those things, and then being dragged out the door and across a parking lot to the nearest grass so the business can get underway. This is rain or shine, snow or blazing heat, day and night. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve closed my eyes and wished myself back to England in my great big house with my huge fenced garden and a husband to lean on when it gets to be too much for me. That’s not an option out here on the road so we just get on with it, albeit with plenty of griping and swearing at the animals and at each other when Trav and I have reached the end of our ropes.

Other challenges are more unexpected. Laundry has been our biggest shock. Laundromats such as we have back in the States are not a thing through much of Europe, especially not in small town, rural Europe where we spend the vast majority of our time. We can go a month between finding laundry options and while I have enough clothes to get through it, poor Travis suffers. More, the bedding suffers. Usually I would change sheets once a week at minimum… I’m used to hair but this is a whole different ball game and it drives me crazy. Showering is another issue. In countries with good truck stops we did okay, but when we entered the Balkans, things weren’t so easy. Here in Bulgaria we have access to a house and shower, except it’s winter time, and the pipes freeze regularly. We’ve gotten real good at washing by baby wipes or showering in 60 seconds when there’s enough hot water to do so. They claim that not washing your hair too often is actually good for it… well mine is being put to the ultimate test; I’m not sure I’m impressed.

The reality of life on the road is that there isn’t a lot of what you see in the photos or on those travel shows. We sight see once in a blue moon and in some counties have missed the best sights altogether because they aren’t practical with dogs in tow. It’s not one big adventure day to the next; most of the time it’s just trying to stretch the last few dollars to feed us all until next month’s pay check and be able to afford the gas to get us to the next country or safe place. It’s wondering how to cook food with no stove and no place to start a fire, and how to stay warm with no electricity when the temperatures drop below zero (the animals are real helpful there)! It’s never knowing where we are or where we’re going next, and often not being able to read the signs that are directing us there. It’s a lot of communication by hand and Google translate and often knowing that neither party has a clue what’s been said. It’s hard and it’s depressing and it’s frustrating and it’s often lonely even with each other and the animals for company.

But all that being said, I wouldn’t take back a single moment of the last six months. We maybe be living rough, we may be taking the longer, tougher road, but damn are we living life to the fullest. No one can say that we haven’t taken the bit in our teeth and ran with it.

I’ve bathed in a lake in Denmark and stood on the spot where two seas meet. I’ve traversed most of Poland in an attempt to enter the Ukraine (which admittedly failed). But I’ve walked the castle in Krakow and gazed through the gates of Auschwitz. I’ve ridden native horses in the Czech Republic and watched traditional song and dance at one of their local village fairs. We made friends there, from both the Czech and from all the way from China. In Austria we may have seen some of the worst of life, but we also saw some of the best. I drove Standardbred racehorses and summitted my first mountains. I rode in ski lifts with my service dogs and danced on the streets of Hallstatt with Wasi. I saw Vienna through my family’s eyes, rediscovered Austria’s beauty through them when it had all gone a bit sour. The friends we made it Austria will be ones we keep for life: we’ve revisited some already and have others coming to see us next month! I finally made it to Italy, and the magic of Venice. There’s more to discover there but at least I got a taste. A dear friend joined us there and made it all the more special.

Entering the Balkans, we had no expectations, no ideas of what life would be like here. In Croatia we were introduced to Rakia (ewww by the way), perfect beaches and the friendliest people around. Bosnia and Herzegovina stole my heart with its unexpected charm and harsh mountain beauty. There I rode horses free across lands littered with the ruins of ancient people’s. The recent tragedy only made the people’s determination to move forward all the more inspiring. We lived in a town that had been at the center of the war, where houses still bore the bullet holes and bombed out craters of the violence. Our hosts there has experienced the war first hand, one on the front lines, another having to give up his eight month old daughter to keep her safe. The shadows of what they lived through was often still visible in their eyes and their hard exterior, though when you got to know them, they were people just like us who wanted peace and prosperity just like people everywhere. They shared their stories and it was impossible not to feel their pain. It was humbling and frightening and inspiring all at once.

Our time in Serbia was too short but we reunited with one of the friends we made in Austria and he shared life there with us. We met his family, had dinner made by his grandmother (amazing by the way). We helped move a (very large) pig and played with some piglets. Our friend shared his family’a story with us, how life had improved for them but there was still more they hoped to do with the house. We talked about the protests in Belgrade and how politics are the same no matter where you are in the world. And again it was brought home to us how very alike people are, no matter where they may be… we’re really all the same at heart.

Now we’re in Bulgaria. In the last six months we’ve rescued two dogs and successfully rehomed one. The second dog has a home waiting for her when she weans her puppies. Somehow I’m once again raising a litter of six puppies born on my bed, nearly seven years exactly since my Nefsi was born. I was just divorced then too; how’s that for life coming full circle? My own dogs and cats are happy and healthy. Wasi will celebrate his one year birthday tomorrow; he will have spent exactly half his life living on the road. That’s one well travelled pup! We lost our precious Sami but we’ve never forgotten her, not even for a moment… she’s still apart of our Menagerie in spirit.

I don’t know what happens next. I don’t know where we will go when our time in Bulgaria is up, or how we will get there. Outside factors have made life all the more difficult right now; especially financially, but I imagine we will get through it. I long to return to England, to my horses, my friends, my life there, but I know it’s not possible right now. There’s so much more to see, so much more to do, and we’ve finally gotten the hang of this life on the road so I suppose we should take advantage; lord knows I’ll never do a trip quite this way again! But it’s certainly been one hell of an adventure so far, and I’m glad it’s not over yet!

LOOKING BACK: When the Heart Breaks Again

The above photo has gotten the more traffic on Facebook and Instagram then any other post I’ve made.  It was taken on 16 October 2018, in Flachau, Austria.  For the viewers, its probably because it captures the essence of what travelling in a minuscule caravan with too many animals actually looks like.  For me, the photo is one that makes my stomach hurt, in both good and bad ways.  It’s a frozen moment, a moment on our trip that will be with me forever in crystal clear clarity, one I’ve relived many times since and will likely continue to do for some time to come.

Just before this photo was taken, I received a text message from a woman I loved more then I have ever loved anyone else in this entire world.  The text message was part explanation, part defensive accusation, and reading between the lines of those two things, part pleading for understanding.  The message served the purpose of shattering the few remaining intact pieces of my heart, while somehow simultaneously giving me a way of taking the first step towards putting those very same pieces back together.  To say that I was emotional when this photo was taken would be an understatement.  To say that it was one of those precious moments when travelling with every single one of my menagerie was 100% worth it would be entirely accurate.

A few weeks prior, I had been notified that this woman was now romantically engaged with my husband.  There’s another frozen moment of this trip, one I thankfully don’t have a photo to remember by.  That moment was sheer devastation.  The fact that I had “known” for many months, that I had “suspected” for even longer, and that it was this very “unfounded fear” that had ultimately ended my marriage didn’t change the force of the shock that blew through me.  It was even worse to realise, in that moment, that I was still hoping for a reconciliation, that I still loved my husband.  There are few betrayals that can compare to when your best friend and your husband fall in love, let me tell you.

And that was the first feeling I had, that I had been betrayed.  Then there was a trickle of relief, that I hadn’t been crazy after all.  This was followed by an unexpectedly soft feeling, one that I can only describe as joy; joy that two people I loved had found love in each other.  Which was quickly overridden by anger: vicious, bright, hot, ugly anger.  And then finally, that emotion that has ruled the entirety of my feelings towards the failure of my marriage: grief.  While the other feelings would cycle in and out over the next days and weeks and months ahead and I imagine, those that I still have to get through, the grief has remained constant.  First he broke my heart, then she broke my heart, then they broke my heart…  its a lot of things to grieve for at the same time.

In this photo, I am smiling.  And it is for that reason that I decided to share this moment here.  This was not, no matter which angle I examine it from, a happy moment.  A bitter one, yes, and a bittersweet one, undoubtedly.  Yet there I am, smiling away, and its not the least bit fake.  Part of that smile is for those that are surrounding me, comforting me, in my time of need.  Being under a furry pile of love is certain to make even the most horrible moment bearable.  The other part of that smile is for me.

I only read her text message one time before I sat down and typed out my response.  I typed for ages, pouring my heart out, refusing to censor myself, letting all those feelings of betrayal, rage, confusion, joy, and grief roll through me and in to my message back to this woman I had considered my soul mate.  When I was done, I pressed send before I could go back and read what I had wrote.  So much of what had led to this moment had been dishonesty, lies, claims of trying to protect someone from more hurt, accusations of wrongdoing or not doing enough; all of those nasty little things people tell themselves and each other to try to avoid the painful reality of what was actually going on.  I wanted my response, I wanted this moment, to be nothing but truth, my truth, no matter how ugly that honesty may be.

I thought I would have written back something that I’d later be ashamed of.  I thought I would have called her awful names, accused her of breaking up my marriage and ruining my life.  I thought I’d have told her how stupid she was, how foolish, how arrogant to think that he would be any different for her, after she’d watched the affairs he put me through, held my hand through what he’d done.  I was so sure that all that would come out was hate, that hate must be that overwhelming emotion that I couldn’t seem to identify through the confusion of all the others that had built up over the years and months, and most recently, weeks since I had found out.  So you can imagine my surprise to discover that the message that I wrote was one purely, singularly, overwhelmingly, of love.

In that photo, I’m smiling because in one of the darkest moments of my life, what burned most brightly inside me, what poured out of me, what I wanted her to know most of all, was that I loved her, that I loved them.  Love.  Even as I grieved, I loved more.  There is a version of me out there, somewhere in my past, that would not have ever found this inside of me.  The frozen moment this picture captures is thus not only one of pain, but one of pride, for the woman I am becoming, one who is still very capable of love.

The conclusion to this moment doesn’t exist yet.  This situation in its entirety would eventually trigger the biggest mental breakdown I have experienced since I first came forward about being raped five years ago.  All those emotions swirling around inside me continue to do so, sometimes soft, sometimes hard and painful.  Every day since I found out has been a battle for my own sanity, but I like to think that even when I don’t win every daily battle, I’m winning the war.  That’s helped along by the fact that a few days after I responded, I got a message back… This time, she was also full of nothing but love.  I hope that as long as I live, I’ll look back at this photo, at this frozen moment, and remember the lesson it taught me: love is always stronger then hate.

 

THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Kristen & Krissy

It’s technically time for a “People We Meet” post, which I plan to do each week to highlight the best part of travelling: the connections we make with others.  But this week, with everything else going on, I want to talk about some people I already know, and who have known me, and supported me, through every step of life’s journey, not just this one: family.

Every Friday at 1400, the reminder on my phone goes off to Check-In with Kristen.  Kristen is my younger sister (only by 16 months and undoubtedly the more mature one regardless).  Over a year ago, Kristen learned from my mom the extent of some of the betrayals in my marriage.  She called me, furious on my behalf, but also frustrated that we didn’t keep in touch better and that she had had no idea things were so bad for me.  There was a lot of crying.  I’m not known for my keeping in touch skills, and though Kristen and I got on well enough in our adult years, we’d never been super close.  All that was to change, as she demanded that we have weekly check-ins to stay more involved with each other’s lives.  And so, every week since for over a year, Kristen calls me on her drive in to work on Friday mornings and we talk for 30 minute or so about what’s going on in our respective lives.  Occasionally we miss a call, always on my side due to inconsistent phone service or bad wifi; Kristen has never once failed to call.

On Thursdays I have another reminder set, this one for around noon my time.  This weekly call is with Krissy (ironically also a Kristin), my best friend of nearly 20 years.  Krissy drives to Harrisburg, a multi hour drive for her, on Thursdays for work, so we either talk on her ride in or her ride home for about two hours.  We miss our weekly phones call more often with me travelling because that time of day is a little harder for me to ensure I’m around wifi for (and the farther away I get into Europe, the later in the evening her ride home gets for me!), but we haven’t missed a single month in almost two years.  These calls started when my husband asked for a divorce… for nearly six months, she was the only family member I told or talked to about it.  It was a big deal when we started the regular check-ins, because there had been times where we had gone months, even close to a year without speaking, so this was completely unheard of.

For the past year and a half to two years, my life has revolved around these two phone calls.  I doubt either one of them realises how much they have come to matter to me.  No matter how bad the week has been, every Thursday, and every Friday, I can count on my phone going off and reminding me to touch base with two family members back home.  Often, I am busy, or distracted, or honestly just not in the mood to talk, but if I’m available, regardless of how I’m feeling, I either call myself or answer the call.  And I’m always glad I did afterwards.  Sometimes we talk about the crappy stuff, like my call with my sister today about what a mess I’ve gotten myself in to financially.  Sometimes all I want is to hear about their lives, especially because these two particular people are living what I pretty much consider to be the dream life (happy marriages, own their own homes, stable finances… you know, everything I’ve managed to screw up).  Ironically, my sister would probably argue that I’m the one living the dream, she wants to quit her job and travel Europe like me… the grass is always greener as they say!

Regardless of what we talk about, it soothes something in me to be able to count on the phone calls.  I left home at age 18 for college in Arizona (I grew up near Philadelphia, PA), and the closest I have ever lived to my family since was two brief months in 2010 in New Jersey with my aunt while I waited to go to boot camp… it was still a two hour drive from my parents and best friend.  Keeping in touch has never been my strong suit.  Homesickness didn’t plague me much, and I was generally content with just catching up when I was home.  I’ve always made new friends fairly easily so loneliness wasn’t often an issue.  But the last couple years have made me realise how much I missed out on by never making the effort.

I thought that these calls might die out while I was travelling, but though they are sometimes harder to make and often require calling each other back a million times per call, they’ve even more important to me then ever.  Connecting with or nourishing existing connections with the people we already know and love is just as important as making new connections, I’ve realised.  They offer a stability and sense of home that is very needed when travelling as I am, under the conditions my life is currently in.  They also serve as a reminder that there are people thinking of me, every Thursday and Friday if nothing else, which counts for a whole hell of a lot when your mental state is as fragile as mine often is these days (Yes, Mom, I know you are thinking of me every second of every day too!).  And they give a new perspective to my experiences as I share them, making my travel journey that much richer and more complete.  I think often in my life, I have spent so much time seeking out the new, the different, the adventure, that I’ve failed to value the familiar, the stable, the constant.  Kristen and Krissy remind me every week that I should never again neglect the connections that have stayed with me through every trial and every triumph.