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How to Navigate #Vanlife Problems with Your Partner

A Brooklyn writer with wanderlust imagines setting out on the road with her partner, and all the pain/joy that could theoretically ensue.

Ryan Valasek

Lately I’ve been thinking about taking a road trip. Not the Jack Kerouac kind (too meandering, too many manic men, not enough food) or the Cormac McCarthy kind (too dystopic, too many bandits, not enough food). I’ve been thinking about the kind that starts with a hashtag and winds toward the edge of a canyon or the base of mountain or a stand of redwoods. The kind where campfire dinners replace sushi-delivery, and daily swims through crystalline lakes supplant my fluorescent-lit gym in an off-kilter Brooklyn brownstone. The kind of road trip where a destination isn’t really the point at all.

To my own cynical chagrin, I have become entranced with #vanlife. Un-ironic, #blessed and #grateful #vanlife.

It may have something to do with living in New York City shoeboxes for a decade, never having access to my own thermostat, craving closet space like a flittermouse craves darkness, and listening to the children above me learn to walk, then run, then embark upon terrible twos with brassy zeal. Or the fact that I have spent much of my career living out of a suitcase. Maybe it goes back even further to the trauma of being shuffled in and out of something like 25 different houses before the age of 18. Home has always been somewhat of a moving target, often just out of reach. Now, it seems I have Stockholm syndrome for constant motion.


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Problem: Objects in motion tend to stay in motion.
Solution: If I lived in a van I would never want for motion.

Every year around the same time, I get the itch to pack up and leave New York behind. To scatter my belonging across the sidewalk, list all of my furniture on Craigslist, bequeath a prolific booze collection to friends and neighbors. In the past, things have gotten tricky when I bring this up to my partner, Tony. Tony is easy-going, maybe the funniest person you or I have ever met, and exceedingly curious. And yet somehow the concept of just picking up and going somewhere else eludes his ease and humor and curiosity. We’re freelancers, goes my argument, we can live anywhere we want. Should we go to L.A.? New Orleans? Do a year in Paris? A season in Barcelona? Inevitably, my suggestions are met with pleas to be logical. And yet, when I bring up #vanlife, inexplicably, Tony is enthusiastic.

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His version includes a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with a king size bed. He wants a space in which he can stand up (he’s a large man) and shower twice a day (a large, cleanly man). Mine is more like a converted Ford Transit with a stowaway sleeper that transforms into a writing desk. I need a shelf for books and a window perch for my cat. Thankfully, a Venn diagram presents itself: we both require a gourmet kitchen and a reliable toilet. (We acknowledge we’re now in Airstream Flying CLoud territory.)


Photo: Ford

Theoretically speaking, this could work. But, inexorably, there will be issues. Using what evidence I have gathered over the course of our seven-year relationship, I’ve worked through several hypothetical complications that #vanlife with Tony might present.

Problem: Passenger responsibilities. Tony prefers to drive. I prefer to pretend Tony is my Uber driver.
Solution: Though I believe road trips are the most efficient way to work through a year’s worth of The New Yorker and a season of book reviews and a dozen novel galleys that are, by this point, already on shelves, Tony cannot bear when I do anything more than stare out the window. “Why aren’t you talking to me? Don’t you want to have a sing-along? Pay attention to me.” The pleading is relentless. Thus, I have begun stockpiling a library of epic-length audio books (George R.R. Martin, Harry Potter, Tolstoy, My Struggle, The Iliad, Ursula K. LeGuin’s entire oeuvre, Stephen King’s entire oeuvre) to distract from the fact that I am busy digesting 12 months of outdated media and literature.

Problem: Parking. Namely, parking a large recreational vehicle that contains your home and all of your belongings.
Solution: Did you know there’s a whole how-to-backup vehicles genre on YouTube? Everything from 18-wheelers to tractor-trailers. Some #vanlifers recommend using FaceTime to give your partner an extra set of eyes while performing this feat, and to avoid screaming matches in public parking lots. We have yet to park anything larger than an SUV, but whenever we argue, Tony FaceTimes me from another room in our apartment to break the tension with a Cranberries serenade or an improvised dance routine, so we’re familiar with the concept.

Problem: Allergies. Tony is allergic to many things, including bees, cats, pollen, and listening.
Solution: Back when we had that good health insurance, we stocked up on EpiPens. I have no problem stabbing him with a needle (in fact, sometimes I fantasize about it), but this doesn’t mitigate the possibility in which the EpiPen doesn’t work and Tony goes into anaphylactic shock. Dragging his 225-pound body down a mountain/across a grassy meadow/through a stand of redwoods and back to the van might prove challenging. In preparation, I have begun towing heavy things around at the gym and doing a lot of pull-ups. Also, I consistently beat Tony in leg wrestling, and everybody knows that half of heaving around large objects is in the legs.

Read about the perfect travel workout here.

Problem: I need a lot of space. Though I am half Tony’s size, I require a pretty wide physical and emotional buffer, whereas Tony prefers to be in a constant physical and emotional meld.
Solution: I haven’t totally solved this one yet, but I imagine I’ll get super into meditation. And noise-canceling headphones. And no-talking-until-noon policies. And sleeping in a camping hammock.

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Problem: Work. We were not bestowed with benevolent/wealthy dead relatives, and therefore, we sing for our suppers.
Solution: Tony sells and makes television and I’m a writer. Between us, we have the hustle and the skills to write, sell, and make a scripted pilot, a reality show, a documentary, and a podcast about #vanlife detailing each and every gruesome problem-solution scenario imaginable. Tell me you wouldn’t want to watch a couple negotiate parking a 25-foot Airstream into an RV lot in Mississippi? Or root for a 5’1, 105-pound woman dragging a 6’1, 225-pound man down a mountain to save his life?


Photo: Eric Yang

Before I met Tony, my 1000-square foot apartment was populated with a bed and a lone, rather expensive sectional (the latter of whose purchase caused a crisis of conscience – now the possessor of such a large, pricy piece of furniture, I could no longer flee on a whim). Now we have an entire life’s worth of stuff crammed into those square feet. A kitchen table, a full set of dishes, real linen napkins, a dozen matching wine glasses, back-up toilet paper and laundry detergent and kitchen sponges, and a “reading chair” that neither of us ever sits in. The place is, like, a real home. We made it all together. And now we’re considering leaving it behind. Or at least putting it in storage for a while. What does this mean for the idea of home? For our relationship?

The way we see it, there’s not a major difference between any of those hypothetical hurdles and the ones we face in our not-#vanlife. Tony and I are constantly negotiating space with one another – a 3,000-square-foot house wouldn’t change that. Push and pull is a major part of our dynamic; we’ve realized we need a healthy amount of tension to drive us forward. All a van does is shrink the world down; the road more readily reveals anything simmering beneath the surface.

The major difference actually lies in translating the idea of home from a steady, static address to a space that literally shifts with the geography. The thing is, my gravity – my idea of home – has never had a whole lot to do with street addresses or solid spaces. When I get the itch to get up and go, I’m always trying to figure out how to enlist my partner-in-crime. Because he’s the gravity. This large, allergic-to-everything, attention-hungry, two-shower-a-day, interpretive dancing man. So wherever he is – L.A., New Orleans, Paris, Barcelona, the hypothetical van, the theoretical Airstream – that’s the address where I want to live.

Problem: Home is not a place.
Solution: Make your home in a person.

Editor’s Note: Leslie Pariseau is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She’s a co-founder and features editor at PUNCH, and has written for The New York Times, Slate, Vanity Fair, AFAR, The Ringer, GQ and Esquire among others. Leslie is the co-author of the James Beard nominated SPRITZ and is earning her MFA in fiction at Hunter College. She’s at work on a novel. www.lesliepariseau.com

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