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On the Road

Julia Schygulla is one of those women who inspire me. She and her partner travel around with their adopted cross-breed dog in a self renovated Volkswagen van, capturing everyday moments on a 35 mm camera and surfing in their free time. She is a real modern hippy in the most positive sense of the word.

Julia, tell us something about yourself. What is your background?

I ´m a freelance graphic designer based in South West Germany, focusing on corporate and editorial design with a special interest in sustainability and social relevance. Aside from that I work at the local school of architecture doing PR and in-house design for the faculty, as well as teaching master students layout design. While I like my graphic design quite rational, functional and clear and my commissioned photography is mainly reportage, documenting my road trips is more charged with emotion and expression of my personality. I live in an apartment in the vicinity of the city with a view of the trees. When I´m not at work, I ´m probably out and about in the countryside with myself renovated Volkswagen van — or repairing it. It´s a VW LT from 1977 with a rough engine, little horsepower and classic wooden furniture; and I love it unconditionally.

You travel around in a camper van with your partner Pierre. Why did you choose that type of travel?

As I grew up, my parents passed on their connection with nature to my siblings and me. In my childhood we spent our holidays in our garden, by the French Atlantic coast or in an off-grid alpine hut in the Swiss alps, sat by campfires and returned late from hiking tours with headlamps on. Later, a tight budget caused my first camping trips, sleeping in a tiny tent, with surfboards attached to the roof of my boyfriend´s old VW Polo. We noticed the inspiring community of van dwellers, driving with their rusty vehicles from one surf spot to another. We were convinced by the many advantages a rolling home could bring. I always wanted to see more of this world, off the beaten path, and put the idea into action right after having returned from a semester I spent in Iceland in 2014. Six years later we still can´t imagine a better way to travel. Now especially, in these times we feel privileged to be able to escape to nature whenever we take the time to do so.

Share some of the biggest illusions people have about vanlife.

It definitely became a hype quite far from reality. Sometimes I can´t decide if I feel embarrassed about the romantic idea of it or if I´m happy about it. When I bought my van, people reacted worried and in disbelief that I could maintain an old van (especially as a woman) and enjoy that kind of slow traveling and deal with a shortage of space. Now people are more curious, the van community is large and it´s easy to find inspiration, help or like-minded people. But I would say, it isn´t for everyone. No matter how luxurious you would convert your van, it is still camping and you are quite close to nature, all the time. You have to think about water supply, water disposal, your waste, toilet discharge, electricity and technical issues of the vehicle. Resource-saving travel will become necessary, which means conscious renunciation in vacation. Depending on whether you consider this as an advantage or disadvantage, vanlife might be right for you – or not.

This might sound silly but why do you travel? What motivates you?

My curiosity and the fascination of our planet with its amazing nature and different cultures motivates me. I´m convinced traveling educates us regarding tolerance, solidarity and ecological awareness. Learning about other people´s living conditions and traditions makes you appreciate diversity and often leaves you thankful for what you have. I can live on the experiences and memories I´ve made on the road for a long time. Getting away from it all from time to time, recovers my balance and clears my mind.

Can you name a destination that most lived up to the hype?

I usually avoid hyped destinations, as not to contribute to overtourism. One thing I like about van life is that you can visit places without leaving a trace, as long as there´s a road leading to it. If too many people are visiting the same place, locals will feel disturbed. The consequence is prohibition or expansion of infrastructure, the once pristine place will not be the same. A good way for unique experiences is to choose routes instead of destinations and to let yourself be surprised what you´ll find along the way.

World travellers usually meet a lot of people. Do you have a story about a memorable person you´ve met abroad?

Of course there are many chance meetings with interesting people, but the most memorable encounter was planned. In 2018 we drove all the way to Lithuania to stop by a dear friend who I first met during my stay in Iceland. She lives with her family by the Baltic sea and I already visited her by plane, which took me less than 2 hours. I never experienced a distance so intense like driving these 2.000 km slowly, 80 kph maximum. It was one of my happiest moments to finally park the van in front of her door, as if we were living right in her neighbourhood! We appreciated the time together even more.

"No matter how luxurious you would convert your van, it is still camping and you are quite close to nature, all the time. You have to think about water supply, water disposal, your waste, toilet discharge, electricity and technical issues of the vehicle."

Do you spend a lot of time documenting your journeys?

Documenting my journey is very important to me, but I like the fact that there is no brief, that I´m free in the way I record my experiences photographically. Capturing a moment in a way that it conveys the mood I felt at that point of time, makes a good picture to me. I mainly take pictures of situations that actually happened like that, so there is a story behind. To keep spontaneous, I´m not a fan of too much equipment and have my full format camera solely equipped with prime lenses. I like the limitations they give to me in the image section and think they push me towards more interesting compositions. As I find joy in looking at the work of talented photographers I´m happy to share mine with the community to satisfy someone´s wanderlust too.

Last year you adopted Sparks, the grand German Shepherd, from an animal welfare shelter. How is it to travel with a four-legged friend?

He would be flattered if he heard this. Actually Sparks is a crossbreed that looks very similar to a German Shepherd, but he will always stay no more than knee-high. It is the perfect travel size! He is a rather timid but attentive dog and a faithful companion on the road. We travel slowly, often do stop-offs and choose camping spots in natural surroundings. I think he enjoys it as much as we do, to run freely, splash around in lakes and cuddle up under warm blankets. Of course we have to be considerate when we take a ferry or stay in hot temperatures. I´m curious to see how it works when sightseeing and visiting exhibitions will be possible again.

What are the main challenges living on the road?

I only live in my van part time but could imagine to do so for longer periods. I have not because it´s accompanied by giving up your steady job, your home and storing away most of your belongings. You need an idea for how to generate remote income and if you have a partner, you should share the same plans. I guess living in such a small space is easier during leisure time than on a daily basis. There will be cold and rainy days as well as long dark nights when replacing your gas bottle outside is not a joy. Sometimes it is not easy to find a secure place for the night or a whole area turns out to be not very van friendly. A car breakdown means house breakdown, there would be nights spent at car workshops or in spontaneously booked accommodation. Limiting oneself can get exhausting. But nonetheless I´m sure that an experience and freedom like that will give so much back that it´s worth it.

Once it is safe to travel freely again, what is at the top of your lists?

This might be the most difficult question, because there are amazing destinations in every direction. Portugal and Morocco fascinate me, I would like to travel to the Balkan countries, drive up to the North Cape. Dreaming bigger, I would love to go to Georgia, passing Turkey and drive round the Black Sea. Or ship the van to the United States and visit its national parks and then go further over Canada until Alaska. In the meantime I take pleasure in all the beautiful places right on the doorstep where you do not even consume one full tank of fuel.

VIew more of Julia´s work on her website and Instagram.

WORDS Ingunn Eyþórsdóttir
PHOTOS Julia Schygulla