Never knowing where you will sleep tonight is not for everyone. But, for Chantal Febvre and her family this is pretty much the norm. With three kids, ages 3, 5 and 8, Chantal and her husband Antoine are full-time on the road. So far, they have traveled in Europe in a tiny Mercedes van, and in the Unites States with a vintage travel trailer. When the kids are a little older, the family hopes to travel by bicycle, like they did before having children. According to Chantal there are three crucial things to make the most of your life: Never make important decisions based on fear, live fiercely accepting both the ups and the downs and appreciate what you have.
Bella: well, Chantal, I have to tell you how lucky I feel that I managed to make this interview with a real nomad family! I really don’t know where to start from…so, let’s take the things from the beginning…
Chantal: Haha, I never really think about us as a nomadic family, but I guess after having been on he road for quite a while I guess we are indeed.
B: I suppose you had the same ‘typical’ life, as most of us, before you started travelling, what made you change your mind?
C: We have had somewhat of a regular life for about 8 years before moving into our travel trailer. You know, buying a house, a dog, a cat and having babies. But before we settled down we traveled the world by bicycle. After 8 years in one spot in Colorado, we literally felt landlocked. With kids almost out of diapers, we figured that there may never be a better time to rock the boat and get moving. Because really, is there ever a good time?
B: How did this idea of living like nomads come about?
C: We could clearly see how little we had really traveled since we moved to Colorado when we were in Maine for two weeks. The years before that we did visit my home country a few times, mostly visiting friends and family. Other than that, we relied on camping trips on the weekend and going on a family trip to the mountains one week a year. Tent camping with small kids in Colorado created a huge amount of stress, requiring more time to prepare and clean up than there was time to go into the forest. On top of that, it is so crowded in Colorado that it is not easy to find a camp spot, even for a tent, within a reasonable drive of our town. When we were on vacation in Maine we met a Dutch couple, traveling full-time in a van. I was pregnant at the time but that spark was immediately there. Somehow we felt that we could pull this off, that we did not need to be stuck in a 9 to 5 rat race. That is when we started preparing for departure. It still took us two years before we moved out of our house.
B: Have you regret for leaving something of your previous way of life behind?
C: I don’t regret leaving our life in Loveland. Sometimes I miss the comforts of my home, and the security that a life in a stable situation provides. This is also one of the reasons that we did not sell our house but are renting it out. You never know what life has in store for you so it is nice to have a home base if needed, especially with three young children. All the time though, I realize how privileged I am that I am able to spend time doing what I love. Including its ups and downs, don’t get me wrong.
B: Everyone knows that travelling long distances can be inconvenient at the times, but travelling with 3 kids must be even harder. How it is for you?
C: Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with me. When my kids act out because they are tired, overstimulated or simply hungry, I doubt myself and question our decision. It can be really hard to stay strong when your kids are overwhelmed. In a regular home situation you feed your kids, give them a calm bath and tuck them into bed. We do the same thing of course, most of the time. But when you are traveling things happen. There are long flights with unrealistic layovers, days when you just cannot seem to find a proper place to park your travel trailer and spend the night. Or we get carried away by everything we discover and misjudge our timing. Life happens, whether you are traveling or not. It just seems to be all a little more intense when you are on the road.
B: Has traveling with kids made you more “inventive”?
C: I don’t know if I would call it inventive, although I think we are creative travelers by nature. We always seem to find unique and unusual places to spend the night, whether that was in fire stations when we biked or on a Naval Base like last night. I would say though that traveling has stretched my comfort zone and improved my flexibility big time. Before we left, I thought that the sheer fact of adding a third baby to our family totally changed me as a mom. No, I would have to add that I am not the same parent or even person as I was before. Heck, I could not be who I was when I just had one child to care for. Imagine me changing my first baby into a clean outfit every time there was the tiniest bit of spit on her chest. Now we make an effort to keep clothes free of food stains, but besides that I couldn’t care less about clothes that are dirty from playing and having fun. We are not usually visiting the queen of England after all!
Of course the need to be flexible is imminent when you are dealing with breakdowns (or meltdowns for that matter) and when things just do not go smoothly. Ultimately, if mom does not keep her sanity, nobody does. Which, by the way, does not make me perfect in any way. It just means that, if I melt down (which happens), things don’t turn around until I get over it. So I’d better keep my act together. I am learning that setting boundaries is key to keeping everything smooth sailing. We may miss out on a thing or two, but we are not on a vacation here; this is our life.
B: What about the school?
C: The urge to travel has opened our eyes to different ways of educating children, beyond the default of participating in public school. With my mom and sister both being teachers, I have always assumed that there was nothing wrong with public school. I still believe that on average, regular education offers opportunities. However, knowing what I know now, and how I experience my oldest two having completely different styles of learning, I am so happy that we are homeschooling. In the United States homeschooling is a very normal thing to do, as opposed to in my home country The Netherlands. We have the opportunity to adjust our curriculum to what it is that our children show interest in. Of course we still cover the basics, which goes a lot faster in a small setting than in a classroom full of different kids, but we are flexible on when and how we do school. I guess there are so many educational experiences in our lifestyle, that you could say we do school all day long. But the kids certainly do not experience it that way and are so eager to learn whatever they encounter.
B: Has ever happened an incident that made you think ‘’ok, now it’s time to go back to safety?
C: Not at all. Sometimes we have months that we break down on truck or trailer just a little more than we have financially planned for, and then I do get a little anxious. At that point, it seems easier to just roll into a regular job, than to put our financial plan together in bits and pieces like we do now. But, as a whole, I feel like we are getting better in the groove of traveling as we go. We figure out what works and what doesn’t, become aware of our priorities and what our life now actually looks like. It is easy to fall into tourist modus while it is important that we are serious about our projects. Especially since daily life takes a little more effort than in a comfy home, we need to make sure to not waste our days away.
B: What kind of dangers have you encountered in your journeys?
C: In our travels with the kiddos we have (knock on wood) not encountered dangerous situations. Uncomfortable situations for sure, like when our five year old became friends with a homeless person and we needed to set some boundaries, or when an addict knocked on our door in the middle of the night when we were overnighting somewhere in a parking lot. We try to be very vigilant and never ignore our gut feeling. Before we had kids we have encountered several dangerous situations on our travels, like when we had to take a ferry into The Gambia and arrived in the dark, were followed and ended up blocking our hotel door that we hastily booked under the circumstances. Not less dangerous would I consider our encounter with the Bulgarian police when we had a conflict with the owner of a hostel. We barely hung onto our passports. Then there was one time that I thought that someone was shooting at our tent in Finland. It turned out that some drunk guys threw a bottle at our tent while we were asleep. It scared us so much that we set a record in unzipping and jumping out of our tent, and it upset my nerves for days.
B: How many places have you visited already?
C: We don’t really look at our travels as in marking off places we visited. Because some places we have actually seen, and in some places we have mostly spent time working. As a family, we have merely crossed Europe to end up in Spain, while on our bikes we inched away the trails, seeing every corner and hearing every bird. But while we were crossing Europe with the kids, we met old friends with their young families, traveled in trains, buses, metros and boats and did our groceries in different languages using different currency. After Europe we drove our travel trailer to Alaska to stay there for the summer, and currently we are headed down the pacific coast of the United States.
B: Have you ever been in Greece? Would you like to cross it at some time?
B: If I ask you to tell me about your favorite place, where this would be?
C: I enjoy almost every country when the weather is somewhat decent. I can certainly handle rain, but that visit won’t make it on my list of favorites. As we travel and discuss pros and cons of an area, we seem to really like small towns with some urban feel to it, but close to nature and lots of outdoor opportunities. In spite of not being a fan of rain, I really love a lush and green environment. Interesting debate, isn’t it? Looking at all of our travels though, we have really good memories of San Louis in Senegal. That does not mean that I would want to live there, though. It felt a bit like an oasis, and having just crossed the Sahara Desert by bike has probably something to do with that experience.
B: Sea or mountain?
C: That’s a tough one. I suppose if I had to choose it would be mountains for me, with some decent rivers to row on. I love exercise and a view. My kids would probably vote for sea. There is never too much sand, rock or water in their world.
B: As a yoga teacher I suppose you practice a lot of meditation during your journeys- especially when things get tough. Do you think that the closer we are to nature the closer we get to the divine inside us?
C: It seems impossible for me to make time to actively meditate, meaning sitting still with my eyes closed and chanting ‘ohm’. The challenge in my journey in practicing yoga and meditation while raising children, not having access to childcare of even a space to myself, is to find yoga and meditation in the little things. Don’t get me wrong, I greatly admire those parents who do pull it off to prioritize their wellbeing in order to be a better mom or dad. That is really how it should be. But instead of being frustrated about not getting the chance to work on aligning mind and body, I try to squeeze in bits and pieces. You will find me stretching in line at the grocery store, or breathing with my kids when they are frustrated. I do still have my hopes up for a little more time for myself and do take yoga classes here and there. When we go on hike and take in the stillness around us, it is easy to instantly be in the moment. Those are times to treasure, to go deep and touch base within ourselves. But once again; if there just isn’t time for that, a few really deep breaths of air in full awareness is great too.
B: I want you to describe me the first most intense picture it comes to your mind, something that you’ll never forget.
C: Going back to our travels before kids, I was invited to visit a small health clinic in Guinee-Bissau in 2008. We were staying with missionaries who were the main health care provider in the area. Outside of the clinic were women sitting in a circle, taking care of their infants who were born in the days before. Nobody was inside the clinic, except one newborn. The baby was born the day before, and mom had not survived the birth. Dad was not in the picture in this situation (which apparently is common here) and the baby was considered an orphan. The next day we found out how this clinic has great limitations, with no doctor available and few nurses, and no reliable electricity. The hospitals in the area are either just across the border in Senegal, or across the river in the capital. But at night the border closes, and the ferry does not run. People in need of emergency care at night are isolated and out of luck. I wasn’t a mom at that time, but this situation was pulling on my heart strings.
B: Do you think that the alienation of ”modern” people from nature is what causes the psychological imbalance in our society?
C: Although going into nature, feeling connected with nature, can be a wonderful tool to get in touch with your inner self, I don’t believe that it is the only way to be balanced within. That being said, there is an awful lot of distraction in the world and many are not even aware that there is such a thing as finding stillness within. I don’t know enough psychology to really have an opinion on the relationship with nature, but I do believe that being in touch with your inner self helps you be grounded, and more able to weather whatever it is that comes on your path.
B: Modernization has literally destroyed huge parts of our living planet and nature takes revenge through climate change. Do you believe that there is still time to stop the destruction of the Earth?
C: Just in the last week or so scientists have brought attention to the fact that we are really in the last few years of having the chance to turn around parts of current climate change. Considering the current political situation in one of the most negatively impactful countries in the world, I am quite negative about the future. It pains me that so many people are so selfish, and I almost feel the need to stand up myself and encourage those around me to do their part. I suppose I do, but then realistically seen, it is not us individuals that can make a difference. For instance, in my country of citizenship The Netherlands, they are very strict in how energy efficient a car needs to be. So somewhat out of compliance, but also because most Dutch people actually do care, cars are on average less bad for the environment than for instance in the United States. And it does cost the Dutch citizens a pretty penny. At the same time though, we find out that big ships at sea are able to circumvent all rules and regulations. They burn crude oil, causing ships to create more environmental pressure in one day than all environmentally conscious cars in the entire country can compensate for in a year. At first, I didn’t even believe this information, but unfortunately it checked out. That does make me feel a bit hopeless.
B: The way you live your life is more than fascinating to me because I’m a nature lover too and I am dreaming of leaving the big city for a small hut near the sea but, the first thing that comes to my mind is how I’ll make my ends meet. And, here it comes the question…does living as a nomad family cost you a lot?
C: It costs us less than living in our house, since we are willing to put up with a much lower level of comfort. We choose to overnight for free a lot, which is less secure than sleeping in an expensive RV park. Our water heater broke and we are holding off to replace it, so we boil water for dishes and for a simple bucket shower. But I still find that our travels in Europe, the United States and Canada are expensive in the sense that there is no way around the cost for food. If you are conscious about what you feed your family, it is expensive in a house as well as on the road. Maybe that will get better when we travel in a different part of the world. I also think that this lifestyle costs a lot in terms of my sanity. It isn’t easy to live life on the road with three little ones. On the other hand, our life is so rich and filled with quality family experiences, that I try to keep the hardships inperspective and focus on the incredible gift that this life is.
I wish that everyone has the opportunity in some form to explore more of the world than the 9 to 5 retrace. Don’t get me wrong, a nomadic lifestyle isn’t for everyone. But being able to be mindful about your every day and even hour opens the door to a deeper quality of your life. Being outside of the mortgage shackles makes that a lot easier to attain.
B: Thank you very much for this talk. I really hope this interview help people to see beyond the material world and find a meaning in real life…
C: You’re very welcome Sotia. I hope I was able to give your readers a peek into our life.
Find all the stories and adventures of this amazing nomad family on their blog https://earthnomads.com/
Interview: Sotia Bella