Digital Nomad Backpackers Upsize to RV; Drive Around Spain For The Summer

or: European-Inspired Ideas on Ways to Pass The Time Before You Die

In the German language there’s at least three different words for “food coma”, but it’s actually a Spanish menú del día that has me passed out in the alcove of the RV. Most of the time we cook modest meals on our two-burner stove; least of all because it’s cheaper, most of all because grocery stores, the mundane places, are much better than tourist spots if you want to get to know a place. It’s the difference between the plastic smile of a posed portrait, and the surreptitious snapshot you steal from the subject when they think no one is looking.

At an Italian truckstop I’m impressed by the wide variety of DC-powered espresso machines, and pornography. In Spain every grocery store has at least one aisle full of jamón ibérico: an entire leg of cured pork; bones hoof, and all. In France it’s frozen snails and three aisles’ worth of cheese. In Germany Florian stocks up on liverwurst. “It’s the real stuff,” he beams, comparing it favorably to pâté. Like many modern Germans, he’s generally uncomfortable with non-sports-related expressions of nationalism, but it seems very important to him that I acknowledge Germany’s superiority over France in the arena of spreadable meat paste.

Today’s menú del día is advertised on a chalkboard for 10 euros, including two courses apiece, a bottle of red wine, dessert, and coffee. We decide to splurge on it, splitting our primero and segundo platos with each other. Half a lentil soup, half of a bowl of pasta with bacon and cream sauce, half of a fish I’ve never heard of smothered in herbs and butter, half of an order of peppered pork ribs, half a flan, half a cup of pudding, a coffee, and more than half a bottle of wine; they all share responsibility for the predicament I’m in. Call it Verdauungskoma, call it siesta— whatever it is, it’s the delicious reason I can’t move.

We drive in what feels like the middle of nowhere, looking for the museum. Supposedly he was some kind of artistic genius who was passed over for a grant, so he built his own gallery and spent the rest of his life filling it with his work. Finally, we see a house. Much of it is shaped like a man’s face, with large cubes protruding from the middle, and a what can only be described as synthetic stone webbing comprising the dome. Yes, that’s probably the place the artist built, I think.

We park our RV a little ways out and approach, looking for the ticket office. A young, bemused man asks us what we’re doing here, we ask about the Salguti museum, and he tells us to wait a minute. An old man emerges from the main house to give us a tour. He shows us the pieces, tells us that he is the artist. He asks me what I think of his work, I tell him I don’t know much about art but I’ve never seen anything like the contrast in textures, smoothly blended colors as a backdrop for thick, jagged overlays. He tells me that’s from a technique he invented, some kind of finely-porous spatula. We look some more, chat some more. He asks us where we live and I have to tell him, “nowhere.” Florian and I have been traveling all over the world for the past 4 years, but are spending this summer driving around northeastern Spain in an RV. Then we buy some postcards, thank him for his time, and go.

We’re on a via ferrata, which is a cross between a hard hike and rock climbing; like a multi-pitch scramble. The moves are easier than rock climbing (often with ladders or other additive features to help you) but you’re clipping into a steel cable, not a bouncy rope. While the clips will save you from death in the event of a fall, it will be only slightly more pleasant. Maybe less pleasant.

I’m walking under a waterfall, trying not to slip on the wet rocks. Next it’s climbing up the steel handles embedded into the cliff, trying not to look down or around, at all of the exposure that surrounds me. I get to the top of the waterfall and notice a cave that’s partially damming the waterfall. I also notice that the steel cable of the ferrata leads inside, into the black tunnel of rushing water. I’m not happy about that. But I’m even less happy about going down the same way I came up, so I move forward. First I try to avoid the water by stemming my hands and feet against the walls of the tunnel, pressing like a curtain rod to stay up, but eventually I can’t see anything; I don’t know where to put my hands or feet anymore. Flo notices that I’m not progressing and tells me that the water’s not deep. I drop down and slush the rest of the way until I get to the other side, where it opens up to a canyon.

We sit near the placid stream above, before it becomes the rushing in the dark from which we just emerged, and we eat cake that Flo brought in his backpack. I look around and tell him that, even though we spend most of our time in the kind of surroundings people envision when they’re trying to relax, babbling mountain brooks and the like, I still feel anxious from time to time. “You’d be crazy not to, after that ferrata!” he laughs. I thank him for the reality check.

I’m chopping up vegetables for curry. We’ve pulled just off of a side road into a forest, chosen a secluded spot to stay for the night. In the three months we spent in the RV, we never once paid for a place to park.

Florian is naked outside, pouring water over himself from a plastic 2 liter bottle. We have a shower in the RV, but it doesn’t work. There’s a leak somewhere, so instead we hoard plastic bottles and toss them in the bathroom. We have so many now that it’s like a ball pit every time I go to brush my teeth. A lot of times people get the impression that, since we’ve been traveling for so many years, we must be expert planners. That’s not the case at all — what we are experts at is not caring when things go wrong.

I stop chopping from time to time to heckle him or squirt him with water from the spray bottle that I use to wash the dishes. I think it’s funny how big his grin is, how happy he is to be naked outside; I still shower in my swimsuit, prudish American that I am. But I’m not completely overly-cautious — not five minutes after Florian finished showering and came inside the RV, a caravan of cars passed by on the dirt road. Had he been a tiny bit slower, or they only a little faster, the whole family would have gotten an unexpected eyeful of surprise German bratwurst in their serene Spanish forest. He’s unrepentant. Before we leave this spot the following morning, Florian runs naked laps around the RV. “You can’t do this just anywhere!” He exclaims, his manly bits flip-flapping in the sun. There are many things that I could say about what I’ve just witnessed, but not a single one of them is that he’s wrong.

“With Heidegger we choose this, we choose a project in full awareness that being is always being towards death… When we choose a project we want to choose one that will make of our life a complete thing, a thing with meaning, a connected story, a story worth telling. So that’s the idea, is that the recognition of one’s own nothingness, and one’s own death is the ultimate possibility. This recognition and acceptance frees us for our projects…. Heidegger here says, look, If you really internalize your self story, the knowledge that you too will be dead, gone, nothing, that will be a freeing and liberating experience, but you need to work through it, as it were.”
Rick Roderick, The Self Under Siege

We listen to a lot of philosophy courses. I learn that in Ancient Greece Epicurus wrote that nothing will satisfy he who is not satisfied with little, and he was maybe the first to observe that advertisers manipulate by suggesting associations between their products and the deeper needs we are unconsciously trying to sate. Foucault noticed that the knowledge that we are all being observed can be its own type of prison, incarceration in which self-consciousness is all that is needed to keep people confined. Nietzsche wrote that we killed God, entombed him in the sepulcher of dead, empty churches, and further implied that we replaced religion with the marketplace as the center of meaning.

The main takeaway for me is that I’m not crazy for thinking these same things, not crazy for being disinclined to sell my life to the highest bidder. Working for someone else is fine when the job is enjoyable, the project is interesting, or there’s something important to save money for, something that I need to buy. But as a default lifestyle, trading time for money as a habit, for lack of a better idea, when time on this earth is something not a single one of us can buy more of — that’s what’s crazy to me.

I enjoy Fight Club and Mr. Robot for their critiques of the vacuousness of consumerism in a society of debt-bondage. I’m alarmed by the assumption that waking up from the American Dream is accomplished by blowing up buildings and destroying the world economy. Is jihad really a more obvious alternative than seeking fulfillment outside of acquisitions? The assumption seems to me a hazy midpoint between understanding that laboring on the hedonic treadmill can be running in place, but not seeing clearly enough to stop feeling like achieving the bourgeois fantasy is an American birthright.

In other words: you don’t beat a scammer by subduing him, forcing him to give you his merchandise. The scammer loses his power when you no longer want what he’s teasing you with. You win when you realize that what you really want is something that the scammer can’t sell you, because he never had it.

I’m leaning against Flo on a bench made from wood pallets, and we’re sharing a cold beer. There’s a musical trio onstage, and one of them is playing the saw. We came to Frías, a medieval town on a hill, because Flo saw it on a list of Spain’s most beautiful places, and I believe it’s earned that distinction. We don’t know that there is a musical festival happening until we make it to the castle at the top, and see that hundreds of dread-locked youths have set up tents in the grass by the church. We park just outside the city and stay for a few days. The organizers have rented portable bathrooms, and I take my only indoor shower of the trip. The energy is so creative, so lively; everyone is having a great time enjoying their lives. That is, until the third night, when the drum circle goes on past 4 am. Florian and I are no longer having a great time, no longer enjoying our lives. We decide we’re too old for this hippie bullshit and drive 10 minutes to the river outside of town. We fall asleep to a much softer sound of the flowing water accompanying a croaking frog cacophony.

I’m at a professional programming conference. I’m intimidated because I only started learning to code two years ago. Everyone here knows more than I do, I think. I wonder what they would think if they knew that I found us a lavanderia yesterday, so my clothes wouldn’t smell like I live in an RV. I wonder what they would think if they knew that I’m not staying at the conference hotel with everyone else; that Flo and I found an empty parking lot on top of a mountain just outside the city. There are horses there (and a giant fork statue, for some reason). In the evening, we bring out lawn chairs and drink wine as we watch the brilliant sunset paint the mountains red. In the morning, we make breakfast and Florian drops me off at the convention center in the city. Really, I don’t think anyone would mind if they knew.

I probably only think I’m weirder than they are because I already know what makes me weird; I don’t know the same about them. Whenever I chit chat with a stranger, and they ask me where I live, and I have to say, “nowhere”, and explain what that means, they seem pretty interested in the answer. They were probably expecting something short: Barcelona, Paris, Munich. They ask me how we do it. Everyone thinks that it’s hard. No one knows how incredibly easy my life is. And I’m happy, because I attended a talk about something I had done recently, a project for a client — one of the ways I’ve made money without a job — and I didn’t learn anything new; I had already done everything he instructed. My Imposter Syndrome is abated, for the moment. You can learn a lot over the internet. This is a great time to be an autodidact, and a great time to work from anywhere.

The lake is so crystalline. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a more gorgeous reflection of a more gorgeous mountain, on a more gorgeous morning. We’re not in Spain anymore. We’re on our way back to Germany via Italy, right around Lago di Como. This is the first time I’ve seen the view properly — we found this spot on accident in the dark. It was late, time to sleep, and we found a parking lot that was safe but boring. We decided to keep going through a tunnel, and that led us straight to the lake. It feels appropriate for our last morning in the RV this summer. Waking up to the beauty we didn’t know we were looking for until we went and found it.

All images copyright Florian Blümm