Episode 2

Homeschooling in a Campervan with Jen Taylor

Published on: 27th January, 2021

In the 2013/2014 academic year, Jen Taylor and her husband Neil, sons Adam (15), Matt (13) and daughter Katie (9) travelled around Europe in a campervan. In this podcast, Jen explains the reasons for their trip, what they all learned, the obstacles they overcame and how they managed on a daily travel budget of €10 per head.

They blogged about their trip here: travelteachtalk.com/travel

And in this post, Jen explains how they budgeted €50 per day for a family of five: travelteachtalk.com/how-dumb-is-a-travel-budget-of-10-e-a-day

Finally, these are the role models Jen mentioned at the end of our conversation: www.losbalcones.com/quienes-somos

Note: Jen's interview starts at 17 minutes. Before that, Helen and Maribel have a conversation about the 'fall' of humankind, the rise of the ego and the root causes of the climate crisis, based on the book The Fall by Steve Taylor. The other book mentioned in this episode is Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari.

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Music: Pablito's Way by Paolo Pavan

Transcript
Helen:

Jen, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us about your goal, about your audacious goal, which we think is utterly audacious. Can you tell us first of all, just to remind our, or just to tell our listeners, what was your goal?

Jen:

We decided as a family to go away traveling for the best part of a year in a camper van and to take our kids with us.

Helen:

Okay, and what made you want to do that?

Jen:

Partly because it was the last chance we would probably have before our kids were too old - the eldest was 15 at the time. Partly because sometimes, if you procrastinate and put things off, you never do anything. That was our target.

Helen:

Okay, fantastic. And were there any, then, obstacles that stood in the way of achieving your goal? And what did you do to overcome them?

Jen:

Probably like most people, one of the biggest obstacles was the financial one. How would we manage to pay for our travels and work possibly at the same time? So that's what I did, I worked a bit at the same time, and I worked super hard beforehand. So I'm self-employed, so I've got the possibility of working long hours if I want to, or less hours. So I worked a bit when we were traveling. And we set a budget, quite a strict budget, and we stuck to it throughout the year. So that was our main thing with the financial. The budget, if it means anything to anyone, but for us, the budget was 10 euros per person per day. So it was 50 euros for the five of us. And we wrote a blog post, lots of blog posts, about doing that, to try and explain how we managed to do that. But to be honest, it wasn't that difficult. In fact, it made the journey better rather than constrained in any way, because we had to wildcamp, we had to connect with people who were local, we had to eat locally. And so a lot of the things we did, we had to help on farms. We didn't have to, but we did. We volunteered. So I think the financial constraint was a good one.

Helen:

Okay.

Jen:

Second obstacle was pets. We've got lots of animals. So it was difficult to know what to do with them. And as it turned out, and not as planned, people we had coachsurfed with a couple of years before, we put a feeler out on social media if anyone might be interested in house-sitting for us. And they said yes. And that meant that we had not only the house sitters, but also animal sitters. And it was an adventure for them as well, because they came from the Netherlands for a year to France, and they lived in our house.

Helen:

Wow. Excellent.

Jen:

And the last obstacle: administration, I would say. Always difficult organizing pet passports, because some of the animals were going to be coming with us originally. The education of the kids, how to organize that, things like that, or insurance or Visa requirements, all the admin things. But little by little, you just work your way through them.

Maribel:

I was just listening to you, Jen, and I automatically started wondering, I mean, this is a huge, if you look at it as a project, like a huge project management challenge here. And there are several stakeholders. And if my maths are right, that means you guys have three kids in different ages, how was the reaction of them to when you suggested to do this? Or did you include them in the decision making? How did that work?

Jen:

Yeah, well, they were involved right from the beginning, really. So they were keen to go as you can imagine, if you're offered the possibility of not going to school and maybe schooling in another way, it's maybe a tempting offer. But we involved them in where we went because we didn't really have a route, a specific route, we had a rough idea, that we would head in a southerly direction as it got colder for the winter, because we had no jackets. And they helped us day by day to plan and I think that's only right, really.

Maribel:

How old were they at the time?

Jen:

Adam 15, Matt was 13 and Katie was nine.

Maribel:

Wonderful. Wow, I can imagine they were really looking forward to having no school, or not having to go to school. How did that work? The homeschooling?

Jen:

Well, we knew that there were people who went traveling long-term with very young children, but we didn't realize until we started researching that there are actually a lot of people that go traveling with teenagers and older children as well. You just need to find them online and that's very easy to do nowadays. And so we connected with lots of people who were already traveling or who were planning on traveling or who had traveled. And in terms of education, our plans changed radically as we went through the year. So it was very different. Our imagination of how it would work and how it actually worked him as the year went on.

Helen:

What changed?

Jen:

When we started off we contacted the school and we got the usual permissions. And our plan was for all the kids to go back to school at the end of the year, and if possible, carry on where they left off. So we had the goal of keeping them up to date with the specific curriculum, that is the French curriculum where they go to school. And on Day One, we said, okay, so two hours in the morning we're going to study, then we're going to have a break, and then we're going to have lunch, and then we're going to do activities. And I think we lasted a couple of days.

Helen:

So kind of quite regimental at the beginning.

Jen:

Yeah, we thought… we were worried, I think, at the beginning that the kids might not be able to keep up so they might need to repeat their year. But then we said to them, Look, if you want to go back to the school with your friends at the same level, this is roughly what they're doing and divide it up yourself. And they did. And they took an awful lot less than that time to do it.

Helen:

So it sounds like they became a lot more autonomous in their learning, is that right?

Jen:

Yeah. And I think the less we pushed, the more they did. The more we pushed, the less they did.

Helen:

What do you think the kids got out of it most?

Jen:

Out of the trip?

Helen:

The whole trip.

Jen:

Adam thought, we spoke about it a lot, and Adam thought probably experiencing cultures for real, or experiencing history for real. He'd done a lot at school but in books. Matt, I think just generally enjoyed the experience. Katie loved us all being together for the year. I don't know what they would say now, maybe if they were asked now. But we talk about it fondly anyway, it's not as if it was a terrible experience for any of us.

Helen:

How many years ago was this?

Jen:

2013 I think it was or 2013 and into 2014.

Helen:

So six and seven years ago.

Jen:

It made us, and when I was talking earlier about our radical change to how we perceived schooling and because they did go back to school in the same year with their same friends but had done half an hour maybe real formal type work, you know, maths or French or whatever, we kind of started looking into alternatives and the efficiency of the system and how it worked. And that's why we ended up ultimately radically changing our future plans. And Katie was home educated after that

Helen:

Oh really? So after you came back you home educated Katie?

Jen:

Well, she went back to school for the year, they all did. And then we gave them all the choice at the end of that year of staying off and carrying on with educating them, well educating themselves as well. I think that is correct to say, educating themselves because it is much more learner-led, child-led, self-directed. But the boys were very close, both of them, to exams, one which is like ‘O’ levels, and one, the Baccalaureate, which is like your ‘A’ levels or your SAT's maybe? So they stayed on. So they were almost finished and they decided to stay on because by then they were 16½ and 15.

Helen:

Now you live in France. So you took them out of the French system, which I understand is not an easy thing to do.

Jen:

Well, actually, it is an easy thing to do. It's just that not many people know that you can do it. There's a lot of emphasis placed on the fact that education is compulsory. But people often say that schooling is compulsory, but it's not the schooling that's compulsory, it's the education. And that can be done in multiple ways.

Maribel:

I wonder, Jen, what about you and your partner? What were the major things that happened during that year that changed you? Maybe you came into this year thinking like, the example that you gave us with the schooling, this is what this year is about and this is what I'm going to do and then the year decided to show you something different? What changed in you?

Jen:

Well I also decided to use the extra free time I had to do a Delta, which is a teacher training qualification a bit like a Master's for teaching English to foreign students. And I did that partly because I had more time, but also partly to try and show myself as a role model for studying. And I was the one in trouble all the time for not handing in my homework on time or… So that didn't work out how I'd anticipated. For my husband, for Neil, he loves fixing things, and he had to fix a lot of things. He's a mechanic, so he was really excited every time we had a puncture, or, and I think, in my eyes, I mean, he's always been a very handy person and a great person to have around in terms of the practicalities. But when you're stuck in a desert, and you have a puncture, and you have a mechanic, they seem a little bit godlike. So I think in my estimations, I was like, Wow, that's really great to have such a practical skill.

Maribel:

So that was really good for your marriage, you fell in love again?

Jen:

Well, I mean, I'm not saying it was all roses, because you live in a little box for a whole year. And it's you, you know, you can touch each other no matter where you are in your little box. But you have to, I suppose you have to sort things out faster, because there's less opportunity to hide in another room or in another building

Maribel:

Did you surprise yourself about how you handled something? What did you learn about yourself?

Jen:

You know what, I don't know if I learned much about myself, because I think I know myself quite well. I know, you know, good things and bad things. But we learned a lot, just in general, we learnt a lot, particularly about different cultures, how to integrate into a community, those kind of things. And they were the most incredible experiences. It wasn't so much where we went but who we met. They’re still the fondest memories as well of the traveling, the new connections that we made.

Helen:

Fantastic. I'd be interested to know, what were the reactions of your friends and family when you first told them that you wanted to do this?

Jen:

We're kind of known for upping and moving to France, or for taking off and doing something. We went traveling before, Neil and me. And I think one of the reasons why we wanted to do it again was so we could have, not the same experience, but we could have an experience with the kids that we'd already had ourselves. So I'm not sure that anyone was overly surprised, because we've done a few things like that in the past. I mean, lots of my friends were like, super encouraging. And I think it maybe goes back to when we were very young when Neil was 23 or 24 and I was 21. We had quite a bad car accident. And we stopped the whole procrastination thing there and then, because we said, well, if we don't do it now, we're never going to do it. So it was a good lesson at the time. And we got that lesson very young in our life. Sometimes people get it when they turn 40. Sometimes people get it on their 50th birthday. You know? It depends when you're going to get this knock. And I think our friends maybe weren't quite so surprised, because we'd started doing the kind of things that you put off doing quite early in life.

Helen:

In general, how important do you think it is to have the support of friends and family when you want to do some kind of bold or audacious goals?

Jen:

Very important, I think. I mean, even if you were to separate out the home education, that's something quite unusual still nowadays to do. And we've got lots of people who are extremely supportive, but it's still a difficult decision to make to go against the flow or to be in the minority group. And we do feel that sometimes. And it's only out of a sense of protecting our family that people might say, Oh, no, don't do that. Or because it is something a little bit different and out of people's comfort zones. So that's been a challenge, assuring people that, you know, it's not going to be a disaster.

Helen:

Yeah, cuz I think, like you say, it's because people care about you and your family that they have their, you know, that they're bringing their own fears perhaps into situations, not knowing how your, what your plans are and how you're going to deal with it.

Maribel:

And if I decided to do something as bold as that, what would you recommend me, Jen? What are the things that you'd say, Oh, this is really important. Do you think about this and that?

Jen:

Well, I mentioned earlier that we kept a blog and one of the titles of the blog posts is “The best way to get something done is to begin.” I don't know whose quote that is, I mean, it's an anonymous quote that I couldn't find the author of.

Helen:

It sounds like a good piece of advice though.

Jen:

It’s really true! So what we decided was, we didn't know where we were going, we didn't know what we were going to do with the house. We didn't know what we were going to do with the animals. We didn't know what we were going to do financially. We didn't know what we were going to do about education, but we decided to go. So we told everyone that we're going before we had made the practical decisions about all of the other things. Sometimes you do it the other way round. I don't know if that's a good thing or not, but it definitely stops procrastination. Katie asked us one day when we were leaving, and I said Oh, a Wednesday. And we didn't really know even where we were going at that point, but we just knew we were going. So I think once you've made your… once you've clarified what your goal is, then leave the practicalities and the organizational things till after that, rather than making up your mind after you've thought about the practicalities, because you could go round and round in circles. Our house-sitter, for example, we had no intention of that happening, of someone that we'd contacted for two nights on a couch-surfing basis was going to come and stay in the house. And that wasn't even in the original… it opens up the doors if you just let things evolve after you've made the decision.

Helen:

That's fantastic. Did the goal change at all? I know some of the practical parts of it, for example, you mentioned about how you approach the education. Did anything else change in your ultimate goal? Or was the ultimate goal so vague anyway?

Jen:

Yeah, I mean, the goal was to go away together for an academic school year as a family before our family moved off into their own worlds and their own lives and left home, basically. So yeah, where we went didn't really matter that much, no.

Helen:

So the destination or the vision was more or less clear. But how you got there, that just let itself happen. Let itself be.

Jen:

Yeah. And I think, Maribel, you were asking for giving someone advice if they wanted to do something similar. I think an assumption that we make is that no one has done what you're going to do before. And that's never true. There's always someone who's done what you're going to do before, or nearly always, and the internet for all its faults, puts people like that together. So we started doing research. And there are lots of forums of teenagers and families who go traveling and it seems less scary if you've got people who are actually doing it already maybe.

Maribel:

And then connecting with them?

Jen:

Absolutely!

Maribel:

Learning from what they're doing?

Jen:

I was just going to say, with the blog, I mean, the blog initially was because we've got form as well for getting lost, we're really good at getting lost. And so it was just to keep people, our family and our friends, in touch with where we were because we were in some quite remote places. But it ended up, lots of people connected with us from other parts of the world, looking for advice on, How did you do this? or How did you do this? So it became a source maybe of information as well, because we received so much information before we set off.

Maribel:

Okay, now I'm curious, Jen, where did that travel take you? What were those remote places you visited during that year?

Jen:

Well, it started off not very remote at all. We thought we were going to drive from France to Spain and Portugal and go south into Morocco. But we actually took a couple of days through France and into Spain, that was the original plan. But we took, I can't remember how long, but maybe a month or two, a couple of months to get through France, because as we drove down there would be a sheep festival that we hadn't heard of, or something else that another campervanner told us about or something that we saw on the way. So if we'd had specific targets and specific plans, we would have missed quite a lot. So we went France, Spain, Portugal. So that took us four months, maybe five months. And Morocco. We were there for three months, like on the day that we had to leave to get back because you've got a three month visa in Morocco. We left on the day we had to leave. It was an amazing place to be and then we drove back up through Spain and got the ferry across to Italy, because you've got to be careful with things like insurance. Our insurance would have been invalidated if we had gone back into France halfway through our travels because it was an annual travel insurance. And so we had to go from Spain by boat to Italy to avoid going back through France. And then we traveled up through Greece, we went over to Greece and Macedonia and Serbia and Hungary and Austria and we kind of traveled back round in a circle. Time goes really quickly when you're traveling and we wanted to go further east. And we had a spell, because we'd already planned it in the year, that we were going to go over to Thailand, not with the van. But my mum and dad came over to Spain, met us, used the van while we were away and we went to Thailand, because my husband and I, Neil and I, did a month in Thailand when we were in our early 20s. And we wanted the kids to have, or to see the kids having that experience, they can obviously have that experience anytime they like, but it's very precious seeing them having the experience. So that was about it, we came all the way back around in a circle. So it was kind of a circle with a hop.

Helen:

Fantastic. I really like the idea that things just came up on the way and it took you longer because you wanted to experience it and you weren't rushing, you know, according to any, like you say, plan that you had beforehand.

Jen:

We only had one date came up that was a specific date. And that was, Adam signed up in Thessaloniki, in Greece, he signed up to do a half marathon or a 10k, he was too young to do the half marathon, but he was allowed to do the 10k. So he was 15 at the time and months beforehand, he knew that we were possibly going to end up in Greece. So we tried to maneuver ourselves so that we’d be there on the day of the marathon. But that's the only time we've ever had a target. And that was a wonderful experience for him because he had months’ worth of training beforehand as well.

Helen:

Fantastic.

Maribel:

Yeah. I would like to hear how your experience was, in terms of being able to do some work, and do all the traveling. I had myself this year a three week vacation and we were traveling on our bikes and I had all these plans that I was going to work this much. And that didn't work at all. How did the traveling and the amount of work that you had planned, how did that play out?

Jen:

Well, jobwise, I'm lucky in that I work for a company where you can have a week-long contract doing an intensive English course. So I would leave for a week. I only did this maybe six or seven or eight times during the year but I would leave for a week, do the intensive course and then meet the campervan wherever it had reached on the way back. So they carried on their journey. But we traveled slowly so I didn't normally have to go very far.

Maribel:

So you went back to France?

Jen:

Well, no, it wasn't to France, it was to other countries. So I would go to another country for a week and then go back home to the campervan at the end of the week. But as I said, I only did that a few times because I had the studying to do for the Delta and I was doing some online writing as well, which is easy to do anywhere, you know, materials writing or writing articles and things.

Maribel:

And what about Neil? He took the year off?

Jen:

Well, he was the ‘on road baker-mechanic’. So he had a busy year. He's a baker and a mechanic, it's a strange combination, I know. But he was indispensable on the journey.

Maribel:

So Jen, we were also wondering what were role models for you? Is there a particular person, role model that you'd like to share with us?

Jen:

Most people when they think about role models is someone famous or some big name, but actually it was a couple. She's Canadian, he's Dutch and they live in Spain and they have, in 1972 I think, they set up an organic farm. And on our travels we stopped and helped on this farm and stayed there for a couple of months when we were in Spain. And they were incredible. It was before anyone was aware of environmental awareness. They were really forward thinking, they had a little restaurant that served organic food. And they had a bin that was tiny at the end of the week. And you see people normally who have bins and bins and bins of rubbish. And water was precious, because they weren't connected to the mains. Electricity was precious, because they had a generator. And now they do have electricity, but it's still precious to them. And they had such a profound impact on us. We were early 20s when we first met them so it's 30 odd years ago. And we've been backwards and forwards lots of times since, in fact, Katie and Neil, COVID regulation if that allows us, are going to go down for a month in November to help out, because they're in their 80s now. An incredible couple. They've got their son who works there as well, who's my age, he's almost exactly my age. But Katie helps with the animals, Neil helps with the machinery, just to share a little bit of the, it’s a huge load they have, especially now that they're a little bit older, but they're incredibly capable, more capable than anyone I know. So they probably don't need us. It's probably…

Helen:

More for your own benefit? And what is it about these two people that inspire you? Why are they your role models?

Jen:

Well, they kind of paved the way in terms of being aware of energy consumption and organic food. And they had a tiny little restaurant or a ruin when they first arrived, which they've turned into a restaurant and a farm. And it just shows what a couple of people can do if they go for it. Neither of them were Spanish. And they just went for it. And I think they've had an incredible life as a result.

Maribel:

Super, thanks very much for sharing that role model.

Helen:

Okay, I'd like to ask you one final question, Jen. And this has to do with the name of our podcast, which as you know, is called AudaciousNess. And the audacious part relates to you having the audacity to come up with this goal in the first place, saying This is what I'm going to do, it's going against the grain, but I'm going to do it. And the word ‘ness’, and we only found this out when we were researching the name for this podcast, is used to describe actually a piece of land, a spit of land, which juts out into the water. And if you can imagine you've got this piece of solid ground and all around, you're surrounded by the sea, you know, the tumultuous sea as it's going on there. So what I want to ask you is if you are the ness, if you are the spit of land, the solid ground while life is going on, everything is going on around you while you're achieving this goal, what was it that gave you that solidity, do you think, to persist and to continue with your pursuing this goal while everything else was changing? What was it?

Jen:

It's a great name for a podcast. Did you sit over a glass of wine and then come up with it? It’s really good, it's really clever. I suppose in terms of, you know, one of the biggest constraints for most people, is the financial one. How can you afford to do it? And while we were away traveling, we were really grounded by our 13 year old accountant. So he was the bookkeeper and every time we went out, he said, Have you spent any money? And I would go, No, no. Did you have a coffee? Oh Yes, sorry, I did have a coffee. So he was great. He kept us financially grounded. And in terms of everything else, I think, dividing all the tasks, not a task, really but dividing what you need to do, amongst lots of people seems to be a good way of going about things, rather than holding it all to yourself. We were totally reliant on a nine year old, a 13 year old and a 15 year old for various aspects of our a journey. And that's not to say that we were trying to push too much responsibility on them, but I think they enjoyed being part of the decision making process. When you've got a strict budget, you either need to choose to drive, because nearly 50% of our budget went on fuel costs. So you either need to drive or stay still and do things while you're there. So you can't do both. So we came up with what we were going to do all together. And the research was done by Adam and by Katie as well. So maybe that helped. And I think we've been thrown lots of curveballs before, in life. The accident I mentioned before, but when we were traveling, we were broken into, we had our bags slashed, just the little things, we had a bike stolen. So all of these things, when you have to cancel your credit cards, but you're in Macedonia, and you don't know how to get them back, or all of these things. If you knew they were going to happen in advance, I suppose they might be scary, but you just have to deal with them one at a time, I suppose.

Helen:

Brilliant. So sharing the tasks, and just dealing with things as they come up without thinking about it. Two good pieces of advice.

Jen:

And also keeping connected, Helen with other people who are more knowledgeable than you are. I think that's important. And if someone is willing to share their mistakes with you, without you going through the same process of making that mistake, it's a very generous thing to do.

Maribel:

Absolutely. That's a fantastic example of parenting through empowering your children so that they learn. I love it.

Jen:

I mean, there are lots of ways, it's not the one and only way to deal with the education of your children but it worked well for us.

Helen:

Thank you very much, Jen, for sharing your story with us. It's been a fascinating journey and we've learned so much about you and about your homeschooling. I knew a little bit about it before, but I've learnt a lot more about it. Maribel, would you like to say anything else at the very end?

Maribel:

Yes, I'm just impressed how brave Jen and Neil are. Thank you so much for sharing that because that's exactly what we're looking for. You're a role model and I'm sure that this experience will be very useful for other people to hear. Thanks, Jen.

Jen:

Thank you too, Helen and Maribel, for asking me on to your amazing podcast, AudaciousNess. It's all relative, isn't it? I think the word audacious is, it depends. We didn't think we were being very brave, we just thought that we were losing a huge opportunity by not doing it.

Helen:

Well said, well said, Jen. Thank you again.

Maribel:

Thanks.

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About the Podcast

AudaciousNess
A solid grounding on which to practice your audacity.
AudaciousNess showcases individuals who have set themselves bold, audacious goals and have worked to achieve them. Our purpose is to inspire people to act with the courage to create a positive impact in the world.

Through interviewing 'regular people' about their audacious goals, we highlight the fact that role models are everywhere. Each and every one of us can have an impact in some way. Our goal is to enable a courageous community that honours their genius and lives their calling.

The name 'AudaciousNess' has two components: audacious, meaning 'bold', and ness, meaning 'a strip of land projecting into a body of water'. We believe having a solid grounding on which to practice your audacity is crucial, or, in the words of the great philosopher king Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 4.49):

"Be like the promontory against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it."

About your hosts

Maribel Ortega

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I help women find their worth and be confident so that they can use their voice, speak up, take new opportunities and ultimately lead fulfilled lives.

Helen Strong

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I run an eco-friendly, vegan B&B in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland. This is just one of the many audacious goals I've pursued in my lifetime.