When we planned this journey – to visit every country in the European Union in a year, in a van, we thought, “How hard could it be?
“The European Union is not that big, we will have plenty of time for lolling about on Greek beaches, soaking up the atmosphere of cities like Ljubljana, and dropping into quaint Balkan villages, far off the beaten track, to sample genuine peasant food.”
How wrong could we be? We have just arrived in country number 11 – Slovenia, and we have only 15 weeks left to complete 90 per cent of our odyssey, with a two-week trip to Malawi in July just to make things that more…exciting.
As a former staff journalist, working on an evening paper, I am used to deadlines. In fact I relish deadlines. I can’t write unless my adrenaline is pumping, my heart beating, and my hands shaking ever so slightly (and I wonder why I have high blood pressure?).
Nigel, the driver and route planner, is more…thoughtful…than I, and will take time to think things through carefully. As a result, he is panicking a bit more than I am.
“Och we’ll manage fine,” I say cheerily, “And don’t forget we are going to do the UK and Ireland after we get back to Hull, so we only have 15 countries to do before 2 September and our MOT deadline.”
“Yes, dear,” he responds quietly, while poring over maps and calculating the fastest route between Copenhagen and Helsinki, one that doesn’t necessitate flying.
We will make it. We have packed a lot in these last eight months since Tuesday 20th September 2016, when we left Edinburgh on our dream road trip.
We’ve crashed the van. Spent nearly three months in Greece, including Christmas, soaking up that country’s special atmosphere and the winter sunshine, while making the transition from our former lives to this one.
We have had two wonderful holidays with our grandchildren, one in Cyprus and one in the South of France.
We have thrown a coin in the Tivoli Fountain, drank port in Porto and been to a Mozart recital in Salzburg.
We have eaten octopus tapas in Salamanca, visited the Hymer museum in Bad Walseee and tasted Gigondas red wine in the hilltop village where it is made.
We have spent time with old friends in the mountain villages of Liguria, got drunk in Gibraltar, with a journalist of course, watched Trainspotting 2 in Gozo with fellow Edinburghers, and talked politics in Madrid over red wine and coffee with another ex-pat Scot.
And still there is more.
Sometimes it seems our brains will burst with the sights, sounds and tastes of Europe.
There is so much history to ponder, so many cathedrals and museums to marvel at, art in abundance and of course crowds of people of all shapes, sizes and colours to enjoy.
We have even found time to earn some money, copy-editing a book on forestry, which promptly disappeared into the black hole we laughingly call our budget.
And we have raised some as well, to fund a new toilet block in Malawi, after a Malawi friend of mine put a plea out on FaceBook for his local school in Zomba.
Social media has been our constant companion.
Our grandchildren keep us up-to-date with their wobbly teeth and army cadet manoeuvres on FaceTime. Close friends WhatsApp me the latest gossip.
We follow the disaster that is President Trump on Twitter and USA podcasts. And we throw our tuppence worth into the UK General Election any which way we can. Which reminds me I need to download our proxy voting forms.
I sometimes ponder whether social media detracts from our trip. Whether being in constant and instant touch with everything that happens back home means that we don’t fully engage with what is happening on the road, but then I just have to post a picture of our latest view on Facebook and my misgivings disappear into cyberspace.
Finding the time to keep our blog bang up-to-date is harder than we thought it would be. When we’re not driving, we have our van chores to do, from cooking three meals a day from scratch, to constantly emptying and cleaning the on-board toilet and filling the water tanks. Not to mention my regular trips to Lidl.
And when faced with the choice of going for a walk along an Alpine lakeshore, or writing a blog post, well, the ducks win every time.
Tonight I am cooking Greek briam, and hopefully watching Amadeus (if Slovenian wifi will let me download it).
Tomorrow we are off to explore Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, and search for orange wine – which is the next big thing apparently.
After that, well, there is Croatia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia….and ten more countries still do. And a 90th birthday party in Malawi.