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!

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Happy New Year

I know I’m late and that I’ve been absent for a few weeks. Suffice to say, when I can’t get my happy pills, just waking up in the morning and dealing with my dogs tends to be all I can handle in a day. That and the fact that my thoughts always turn rather morose during those withdrawal episodes kept me from wanting to write and bring everyone down with me. But I’m happy to report that good old Bulgaria has an unlimited supply of Zoloft and I have stocked up for the foreseeable future and after about a week back on them, I’m feeling much more myself again!

The last few weeks have been mostly quiet to be honest, so I haven’t missed much. We’re nicely settled in to our routine here in Gabrovo, though admittedly that routine has including a rather hermit-like existence for myself as I’ve been on puppy watch! I’ll go in to more details on her own post, but suffice to say that we have our second rescue dog of the trip, along with the seven adorable puppies she gave birth to yesterday. I know, what in the hell were we thinking. Stay tuned!

Our holidays here in Bulgaria were wonderful, aided by the fact that our hostess has already become more family then friend. We were included on all the festivities, and they even bought us some Christmas gifts. I managed to watch White Christmas on Christmas Eve, my personal tradition, and made everyone some American chocolate chip cookies.

Christmas morning Travis whipped up some an awesome American breakfast (we shared lots of home with our friends this holiday!) of pancakes, eggs, and bacon and of course, mimosas! I engaged in a game of monopoly with Sky, which I was obviously winning before we gave up. The kids were thrilled with their presents and I was so touched when we got ours. We also spent lots of time FaceTiming back with our own families back home, and I admit to more then a touch of homesickness.

The week between Christmas and New Years was marked by warmer temperatures and mostly by me complaining about the overwhelming amount of mud in the caravan. I can deal with a fairly high degree of mess/dirt, obviously, or I wouldn’t be able to travel like this with my animals, but even I have my limits. Mud, especially of this heavy, clay variety that sticks to everything and doesn’t easily brush or vacuum off is enough to make me break out into a full blown panic attack, which I did multiple times. Thankfully, Nefsi may be retired from public access work but he’s still on point at home and he was able to bring me around before I lost my mind. Wasi is doing his best but his idea of disruption is currently to launch himself in to my arms and slather me with slobber… a would be effective tactic except I hate dog kisses and it makes me even more strung out. We’re working on it, he will get there.

For New Years, Dee and I struggled to stay awake until midnight and ended up cuddled up in her bed with six dogs and who knows how many cats about two hours out. However, thanks to Wasi’s insistence that he could also fit (he couldn’t) and his repeated attempts to do so (I still have the bruises), we weren’t able to succumb to sleep before the year changed. We rang it in with sparkles and lots of noise and then hightailed it to bed.

Now we’re a few days in to 2019 and I’m taking a moment to look back over the last year. It’s been a long one, with some incredible highs and some seriously low lows. I want to say the ups outweighed the downs but honestly, I think it probably came out pretty even. All things considered, that’s better then expected so I’ll take it. I do know that I’ve had one incredible experience after another this year, from filling a lifelong dream of riding racehorses in Newmarket, England to taking the leap and embarking on this insane tour of Europe with my furry family in tow. No one can say that I’ve let PTSD take life away from me, that’s for sure, and since that’s my daily goal, I’m satisfied. This coming year I’m hoping to find a bit of the opposite of what I found this year: less questions and more answers, less drama and more peace, less restlessness and more stability… most of all, though, what I’d like to find in 2019 is a home to call my own, where I can reunite my horses, safely house my dogs and cats, and never have to worry about losing it all again. So here’s to that!

P.S. I also want a really good vacuum this year… my life in the caravan would be so different with a really good vacuum ūüėā!

THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Djordje and the Pig

When we were in Austria, we worked with a number of people, very few of them actually Austrians. Aside from the Finnish girls who we befriended immediately, we became friends with one of the other guys working there, Djordje from Serbia. We didn’t have much time to get to know him, as his time at the farm ended only days after ours started, but we liked him instantly and he promised to give us advice down the road when we were traversing through his home country.

Fast forward over three months and here we are in Serbia. Djordje has been in touch as we’ve drawn ever nearer, and even sent us a complete itinerary of things not to miss here. By pure luck, it turned out that Djordje would actually be in Serbia around the same time we were driving through (he’s currently working in Holland with his girlfriend, Annika, one of our Finnish friends). We made tentative plans to try and meet up, and low and behold, as we sat down yesterday for dinner at a McDonalds rest stop, Djordje messaged to say that we were a mere 15 minutes from his hometown. Thrilled to be able to make the meet up work, we arranged to meet just off the highway and join him for a drink.

One of the things we’ve really loved about the Balkan countries so far is how unbelievably warm and welcoming the people are here. It’s not like this in the States, England, or the rest of Western Europe. Here, it’s not just good manners, but genuine joy that these people feel welcoming strangers in to their midst. And Serbia is the same. Djordje’s family not only welcomed us with warm smiles, they let us use their shower, insisted on feeding us a home cooked meal, and offered us both beds inside for the night (I opted to stay with the dogs in the caravan cause I really can’t sleep without them, but Travis was thrilled to take advantage of a night out of the drivers seat).

In the morning, Djordje went to the bakery with Travis and brought back a late breakfast of traditional items. We spent the day relaxing in the house watching Animal Planet (I was shocked to see so many American TV channels here). We were originally planning to head onwards to Bulgaria today, but Djordje wanted to introduce us to his maternal grandmother (we’re staying with the paternal one; she’s head over heels in love with Travis). So we extended our stay another night and how glad we are we did.

Djordje’s family has pigs (the babies piglets are so stinking cute!) including the biggest sow I’ve ever seen in my life. This sow needed to be moved to his uncle’s farm as she will soon be having another litter of piglets and needs more room. A few days prior to our arrival, they had attempted this transport for the first time, and 100 metres in to the drive, the pig had jumped out of the horse trailer she was travelling in… which they didn’t discover until they’d arrived at his uncle’s farm. This was a shocking feat, as even a horse would struggle to make that leap, let alone a 300 kg pig! This time, they were prepared to prevent any escapes. Unfortunately, the sow seemed less then impressed with her last trip, and point blank refused to get in the trailer. No amount of coaxing, bribery with food, or pure pushing would budge her up that ramp. After 45 minutes, where I was impressed to see the genuine love they had of this animal who was clearly trying everyone’s patience, they managed to convince her to go in by putting one of her piglets in there. Djordje’s brother was so impressed by the little piglets quick accomplishment of the mission that he insisted I take photos of the little miracle worker. No hardship, the piglet was adorable!

The sow made the trip without incident this time, and we were introduced to an uncle, an aunt, a cousin, a grandfather in law, and a friend while enjoying coffee and rakia at the farm. From there we went to Djordje’s grandmother’s house, where we met another uncle (twin to the first) and had a home cooked Serbian meal. His grandmother’s stuffed paprika peppers were the best thing I’ve eaten on this trip hands down.

In 24 hours, we’ve met half of Djordje’s family and been made to feel like honoured guests… there’s few places where such an overwhelming welcome would be extended to strangers that Djordje literally knew for less then four days before we parted ways. This is why we travel, because such amazing experiences exist, with amazing people that we would never meet otherwise. Serbia will long remain one of our most treasured stops of this journey.

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.

THE PEOPLE WE MEET: Petra & Anamarija

I recently watched Into The Wild for the first time, a movie I found somewhat difficult to like. ¬†However, the lesson of the story, essentially that people need people, struck a heavy chord. ¬†No matter how stunning the architecture, how beautiful the views, how rich the culture or intriguing the history, nothing compares to the memories we’ve made with the people we’ve met along this journey. ¬†Travel without people, without connections and relationships, is lacking. ¬†Our travels have not been lacking.

On Saturdays, two of the local girls from Kupres come to the holiday farm to ride some of the horses and, in their own words, get a break from school and home and take in some good old fashioned horse therapy. ¬†I’m fortunate that the girls are eager to show the newbie a good time, and are happy to take me on some of the longer, more intense trails that I miss out on riding on my own every day. ¬†Today was the first time that I was able to ride with both girls together, and they definitely took me for the ride of a lifetime, and not only because of the stunning scenery and the pure thrill of a ride through this countryside.

Petra is 17 years old and has one more year left in high school before she heads off to university. ¬†From her description, the school system here in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) sounds pretty similar to what I’m used to in the States. ¬†She isn’t sure what she wants to study in college yet, but continuing her education seems to be a given: “There is nothing I can do with just this schooling.” ¬†On the trail, she’s a source of interesting information I’ve never heard before. ¬†She introduces me to berries that are edible and instructs me to sort of roll them around in my mouth to fight off thirst. ¬†If ingested, these berries are a great way to clear out the system. ¬†Her English is excellent (both girls’ is) but she asks about what we call pine cones, and then tells me that their presence indicates how fresh and clean the air is. ¬†I’m fascinated by how much she knows about her environment, this is not an area where I am very knowledgeable.

Anamarija is 15, though you wouldn’t guess it. ¬†She wants to move to America one day; she isn’t sure where yet, anywhere will do. ¬†She’s almost as obsessed with The Lord of the Rings as Travis is, and after our ride, I make the mistake of getting those two on that topic (don’t get me wrong, I love LOTR, but since Travis has watched all million of the movies no less then 100 times since moving to England ten months ago, I might be slightly soured on the them for the moment). ¬†Anamarija leads most of our ride, and she’s a wonderful guide. ¬†She also rides at a riding club where she does some show jumping, and when I express a longing to be able to jump again, she agrees to take me along with her next time she goes!

Both girls are essentially self taught equestrians, and incredibly impressive ones at that. ¬†They’ve been a part of the team at the holiday ranch for almost ten years (more then half their lives), and have not only watched it grow in to the success it is now, but have played an integral part in making it so successful. ¬†The girls work here full time during the summer holidays, guiding trails and interacting with guests. ¬†They’ve been on board for the breeding and breaking of almost all of the current riding string, and the horses are absolutely a credit to their knowledge, ability, and pure skill. ¬†I spend hours listening to them tell me about the horses I’m now riding, about what they were like as babies, cooing at foal photos and admiring both of their photography skills.

These two girls may be young, but they have already accomplished so much that they can be proud of, and I’m incredibly impressed. ¬†With their passion for horses (and all animals… they’ve insisted on meeting, and loving on, all twelve of mine too) and their dedication to a work they love, they remind me of myself at that age. ¬†Its a bittersweet reminder, perhaps one I needed but didn’t know I was looking for. ¬†So often I boil my life down to the first twelve years of my adulthood, which have been strewn with considerably more trauma, failures, and disappointments then they have with passion, pride, or success. ¬†Spending the day with these two girls, I remembered the girl that I used to be, the one who loved horses, who knew exactly who she wanted to be when she grew up and what she wanted to do. ¬†They reminded me that my foundation in life isn’t the last twelve years, but the eighteen years that came before that, and that I had a childhood that was full of love, family, passion, clarity, pride, and dreams. ¬†In making me remember some of the best moments of my past, they gave me an unexpected vision for my future. ¬†I’m grateful to them.

As a side note, we had a proper gallop through the mountainside forest today, and as I was flying along, dodging trees, bending around turns in the trail, and letting my spirit soar with the sound of hoofbeats, a scene flashed in to my head. ¬†You know the one, where Arwen is riding with Frodo through the forest to escape the wraiths? ¬†Yeah, we were doing exactly that… I got to have my very own LOTR moment, and it was seriously awesome.