It was an adventure in the true sense of the word. They sold the apartment in Copenhagen, bought a van and set off on the roads of Europe. The destination? Alentejo, Portugal. The stop off points? All of them and none of them. They went as a family and found out as much about what it means to be a united family as the places they visited.
By Adriana Santos
Photography courtesy of Josie Ekstrand
Illustration by Josefine Ekstrand
It was a trip like no other. This is the best way to describe the adventure of Josie and Emil Ekstrand with their two children, Leopold, 5, and Hilma, 3. An adventure that began in 2019 in Copenhagen, Denmark, and ended six months later in the Alentejo, Portugal. Their idea of travelling around Europe in a 1960s-era van had come up two years ago when Josie and Emil met a couple and found a new perspective on life. “We met an old couple one day, sitting in front of an old autocamper, sharing a bottle of wine near the beach, watching the sunset. Emil started talking to them. Meeting them was such a fresh awakening. They’d travelled the world with their kids and for us this was truly the answer we’d been searching for”, shares Josie, 35. So were the first lines written in a new chapter of the Ekstrand family.
LEAVING WAS NOT THAT HARD
The decision to leave everything behind was made shortly after Josie and Emil, 36, met the travelling couple. One grey day when nothing seemed to be going right, Josie realised it was time to create family memories outside the Danish capital. “I was picking the kids up from kindergarten on my bike. My son had a bad day again. The sun hadn’t been out for weeks. I was stopped at a red light in the pouring rain. I called Emil and just said Yes! Let’s do it! Buy the bus, baby, and let’s go!” To tell the story correctly, we should say that although the decision to leave was made at that time, for years the couple had been organising their lives in such a way as to have more freedom. Buying the van was just the last step to a new life. “We decided to clean up and clean out”, says Josie, explaining that over time she noticed that material goods not only take up space in the home, but make it impossible to see beyond the patterns of everyday life and routine. The simple act of getting rid of the junk they had accumulated helped clear their minds and gave them the energy to focus on their dreams and desires.
The decision to leave had been taken. But in a society where having a home, a stable job and a good standard of living is so important, convincing the people around you of the advantages of losing the things that tie us down is not always easy. The first few times the couple talked about their travel plans with others, the only feedback they received was just a few laughs. “I remember how sad it made me feel. They didn’t believe in us and they certainly didn’t take anything of what we were saying seriously. We have definitely experienced how unbelievably wise people can try to be on your own behalf. The lack of support has honestly been hurtful and it’s fair to say that a journey like this makes you realise what is worth your time and what is not!”
TRAVELLING IN A VINTAGE CAMPER VAN: AMAZING BUT ALSO PRETTY HARD
Josie and Emil bought and restored a vintage camper van, making it a house on wheels and a safe space for Leopold and Hilma, at the time four years old and one. “We built a room in the back of the bus with lots of storage under their beds for toys, clothes and so forth. We tried to find portable home appliances, like the oven and the stove, so we could easily cook outside and also have more space in the kitchen for creative projects. But we were living with little children and they are messy creatures. Sometimes you just have to accept you are going to have a messy van, with clothes and dishes everywhere. Everything looks three times messier when you are living in 12 square metres and there’s no place to put things away.”
But even though they worked hard to create the perfect space, driving and living in a giant, old van is not simple. “Turns out that when you’re dealing with a vintage vehicle you never really know what challenges lie ahead. Getting new auto parts can be a very time-consuming affair. We had to learn new routines, learn how to live with solar power, save energy and be very conscious of our water use. It was definitely a challenge in the beginning!”
HAVING NO PLAN IS A PLAN
“As a young girl I never really had the big ‘road trip’ dream, but after I became a mother something changed. The urge to see the world, meet new people and collect memories with my own little family began to grow inside.” More than exploring the world and introducing it to their little ones, Josie saw the journey as an opportunity to simply breathe in more freedom. They wanted more time with the children and to dedicate themselves to the family project, the LeoLeo Copenhagen children’s brand. “Is owning an apartment in the city, working two jobs to pay rent and bills and then working on the dream of starting our own business LeoLeo Copenhagen really the best way for us to live? We wanted to find a way to be together as a family while setting out on adventures, seeing the world and teaching our children as much about the world through travel as possible. When you’re looking for freedom, you don’t always stick to the big plans. You follow the wind and accept that, yes, you can miss some incredible places, but there will surely be other wonderful things that happen randomly. “Sometimes you take the wrong exit and end up parked under a big tree for some shade only to discover we had apparently parked in front of the southern version of Narnia. You just can’t plan these things and that’s exactly the beauty of it!”
THE CITIES OF EUROPE: THOSE THAT GOT AWAY AND THOSE THAT LEFT AMAZING MEMORIES
“It’s alarming how many places we wanted to visit but unfortunately missed out on. It’s hard to describe how it actually feels driving a big vintage bus, but let me just tell you – it’s not easy at all. Our big bus was too big to go through some cities! We planned a trip to Barcelona, for example, but the heat wave was insane. We also took many wrong exits and ended up somewhere else than where we were first planning. If you make a wrong turn with the bus and the GPS says it will take half an hour to reach the destination, expect it to take double that!” Although with difficulty, the van was able to take the four of them to some more touristy stops which remain in their memory for the best of reasons. Arriving in Valencia, Spain, in the middle of summer, they fell in love with the playground in Gulliver Park, despite the heat wave. Hilma’s second birthday was celebrated on the island of Majorca. To get there, they had to manoeuvre the van onto a ferry and park it next to some trucks. Still, the day was memorable for both adults and children. They camped in Paris in a park right by the River Seine, next to a diverse cast of camper van Rock Stars and elderly couples. “We took a trip to the Eiffel tower with Leopold and Hilma and it was an amazing milestone on our trip”, says Josie. But it was those wrong exits which led the Danish family to some of the most beautiful and friendly cities they visited. “I think we experienced another glimpse of reality on this trip. Small and unknown cities with absolutely no tourism or fancy attractions. We met local people with everyday lives that had nothing to do with fancy travel guides. Totally non-Instagram-friendly restaurants with food that was so good you forget about everything else.” In the end, they had travelled through seven countries before hitting Portugal: Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Spain.
WHAT SIX MONTHS ON THE ROAD CAN TEACH YOU
Travelling as a family isn’t just fun; you also learn a lot and grow. That’s what happened to this family of four. “Looking at us now, I can see how much we actually know each other and how much we see ourselves as a unit. I think Leopold and Hilma have formed an unbreakable bond and quickly realised that, when travelling, you might only have each other. You have to be good friends and treat each other with respect, even when you can’t stand one another [laughs].” Not everything was easy. There were many doubts. Would the trip be too much? There were times, Josie admits, when they wondered if she and Emil were being good parents. But even those moments of doubt were overcome. In the end, Josie realised, “although our children were small, they were actually very conscious and were clearly positively influenced by us and the travel.”
RUNNING A BUSINESS WHILE TRAVELLING THROUGH EUROPE
LeoLeo Copenhagen is the couple’s brand, created when Josie was pregnant with Leopold and which has become the family business. The brand has accessories for children, toys, bedding and even decoration for bedrooms. As everything is dreamed up by Josie and Emil, the aesthetics of the pieces perfectly represent the Danish couple. When they went on the road, LeoLeo was already a known brand. So in addition to the adventure of driving an old van, taking two children around Europe and having to live in a small space, there was a business that had to be managed. “We pretty much tried to continue business as usual. It was all about having a seriously strong WiFi connection, no dead batteries and lots of sun to charge up our solar power! We were definitely pretty naïve at first about travel, family, slow living and business”, confides Josie. They learned the hard way and make no secret of the fact that the greatest difficulty was really fitting everything they had (and wanted) to do into just 24 hours a day. Because although the products were not manufactured by the couple as they were when they first created the brand, there was still a lot to manage. “Many hours were spent on everyday chores such as doing the dishes or washing clothes by hand. It’s really time consuming especially when you have 100 emails to reply to and also need to take care of customer service, retailers, manufactures, shipping, sales, designing and creating. It was hard. The worst part was not being close to our products and letting someone else do the packing and wrapping. I love to wrap our products with love and dedication and that was all on hold on the road.”
From the beginning of the trip, there was only one final goal: the Portuguese coast. “It was always the plan! Our dream was to settle in the south and, for us, Portugal had everything we wished for: amazing weather, beautiful nature and excellent production facilities for our business”, shares this Danish businesswoman. While their address is now in the Alentejo, the road is always calling and the desire to see more and expose Leopold and Hilma to new experiences is always present. Josie can’t hide that she’d love to make another trip, “and take some new wrong turns to new places and new friends. Meeting different people with different backgrounds is a good learning experience for the children. Besides, life is beautiful through the eyes of a five-year-old!”