Eurotrip Lesson Part 3:
Ever since I first discovered people converting vans and using them for road trips or full time living I have been enamoured. I spent hours upon hours watching conversion videos. Looking at for sale vans. Trawling Instagram and finding inspirational pictures of beautiful people, in amazing destinations with fairy light laden vans.
What I never stopped to notice was that none of the people in the pictures, or conversion videos looked like me. None of the people who’s stories and journeys I’d been following were black.
Note: I’m going to stress at this point, this is just my experience. I’m sure there are black male van dwellers out there that have made videos.
I searched ‘Van conversion’ in Youtube and there were 0 in the first 25 videos (though there was 1 black woman – go off!). That woman was also the only black person in the first 175 thumbnails (I stopped searching after that). Which gives a little perspective as to why I wouldn’t have casually seen any without specifically searching. Like I say, this hadn’t even entered my mind at the time.
So I spent a year learning to drive, searching for a van and completing my very own van conversion. Wow. I was so proud of my work and in love with the end result.
My adventure began.
My first encounter
By the time anyone saw me with my van I had made it to Salzburg, Austria. I was staying with a friend who invited me to stay at his place for a couple of nights. When I pulled up on his street there was a woman exiting her house that I greeted and asked if it was ok to park there. She told me that her husband would park there later but the space just a few meters behind was fine. I thanked her profusely and moved my van back.
I wasn’t in my van much for the duration of the stay except to grab a few things and drive to a lake once. But when the morning came to leave there was an older lady shouting things at me from a distance. I apologised and said that I don’t understand (the language). I paused for a moment in case she wanted to come a little closer to chat (I felt it would be rude to just continue). Instead she shouted a few more things and shoo’d me. She shoo’d me…
Now, I’m a fully grown man that (not that it should matter) was dressed fairly smart and so for the most part I expect a certain level of decency when it comes to communicating with strangers. However, I remembered my vanlife interview with Izzy (who’s not black) and her bad experiences in residential areas. So I brushed it off, smilingly wished her a nice day and continued on my way. No big deal.
I’ll brush over my first stop and search by the police too because it’s a van with UK plates in a foreign country. And to be fair they were also pretty friendly once they confirmed I didn’t have any weed or knives.
The second came shortly after arriving into Croatia. I had been driving for a while and there were some beautiful views, so I pulled over to stretch my legs and admire them. As I was walking back to my van a police car passed me, stopped abruptly and rapidly reversed, parking diagonally in the road to block my van.
The 2 officers that exited the vehicle were nothing like the first set of police. They were massive! I’m not going to lie, I was a little nervous (despite having been searched by the police many times in England before I started driving).
I stand at 5’11” (180cm) and compared to me they were not only tall, but incredibly jacked. Their demeanour was (I imagine intentionally) intimidating and being from the UK (where police don’t carry guns) I immediately noticed they had hand guns on their waists.
Don’t say the wrong thing…
They asked for my license and without saying a word I hurried to give it to them. They asked me a couple of questions, things like “Is there anyone else in the vehicle?”, and I answered nervously only by saying yes or no. Next they asked why I had stopped. To which I told them I was just stretching my legs for a minute after driving.
I should explain that, I wouldn’t say I’m posh but fairly well spoken and after having lived outside of England for a while I tend to enunciate pretty well. Put a pin in that.
The last question was asked while telling me they were going to search the van. But once I answered, the main officer immediately returned my license and told me I can continue on my way. The second who was still heading to search my van protested slightly before conceding. They both returned to their car and left. I was relieved and to be honest, slightly shaken. I’ve had past experiences with aggressive police so adding guns into the mix is uncomfortable to say the least.
This wouldn’t be the last police stop of the trip or the most belligerent (that came the following day).
Finding a place to sleep
Before Croatia I had never stayed in a proper campervan campground, or really met any other people travelling in vans. So when I arrived at my first one I was quite excited. I had been told about the community. How you immediately connect with people and sometimes even continue your travels with them. This was what I had been waiting for. ‘My vibe attracts my tribe’ – or so I was always reading.
I pulled up, unsure if I was in the right place and was greeted cautiously by an older lady that came over to the driving side. It’s worth noting at this point that I had read many reviews on Park 4 Night about how friendly this lady was. She seemed friendly but slightly distressed as she asked me if I was alone, how long I was staying etc. She mentioned the police being active in the area a few times which I didn’t really take note of until she said that they’re often looking for immigrants and “you have the face of an immigrant”.
You know when you’re shocked, but all you can do is laugh because you can’t quite process it. Yeah, that.
“You have the face of an immigrant”
I showed her my passport with my biggest smile and explained about my trip around Europe. I was only staying for 1 or 2 nights before continuing to Budapest. She seemed unconvinced but said maybe I can stay for a night before I would have to leave.
It was weird, I felt thankful to be able to use a service that I knew so many had used before me without incident. I pulled up, exited my van and began talking to another man (of a similar age) from Spain who had been staying there for a little while with his girlfriend (who was also not from Croatia). He seemed nice. I could already see us sharing stories around a camp fire in the evening.
I explained what she had said to me and he seemed a little surprised too, but we laughed it off. The same way you might when recalling a racist/sexist/homophobic (delete as appropriate) comment from a grandparent. After a few moments the lady came back and with an arm around the Spanish guy, began telling me about the people staying there and how she treated them like her family. It seemed like a happy and welcoming speech. Until she got to the end and told me that I would be better finding somewhere else to stay.
I was not part of the family…
As I got in my van and backed out I remember the Spanish man looking down at the floor, almost apologetically, in silence.
That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t like the glossy bohemians on their vanlife adventures. No matter how much wooden cladding or fairy lights I put in my van. I was black, and black, foreigner + van = immigrant. Quick maths. It was like a detective film where all the pieces start to fit together. That’s why the police changed their tune when I had spoken. My voice broke the immigrant image they had in their head.
Is Vanlife for Black People?
The insidiousnous of anything to do with race comes with a degree of self doubt and psychological turmoil because, well it could all be in my head. My van isn’t the prettiest from the outside. Maybe it’s that? Then again neither was the other vans staying there. I’d probably even say they were more damaged and dirtier in fact. It could just be a standard aspect of vanlife? It could just be in the less diverse countries? I hope so. But all I have to glean from my experience is that I “have the face of an immigrant”. No matter my income. My company. Education. Nationality. I have the face of an immigrant, and that’s why I couldn’t stay where the other people could.
I’m hoping it’s just my unlucky experiences.
Which is partly my reason for writing this. I’d love to hear from other black people that have had the complete opposite experience. I really hope you’re out there. You can contact me on Instagram or e-mail.
I know I’ll probably receive more flack than support for writing this and that makes me a little nervous. But hopefully it reaches the right people and the right eyes.
I’ve tried to keep this blog as honest and informative of my experiences as I can and I hope you appreciate that.
Until next time. Stay loving.
Love, Kallum <3