Armando & Mel

This post was originally published in Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.

Armando & Mel, an Italian-American couple, call themselves "digital nomads." They support their travels through remote work: Armando is a film director, and Mel is an online writer. They chose to live in a van so they could go anywhere they need to go.
Together, with their dog Ziggy, they discover new countries through their cultures and traditions. They connect with locals and how they live instead of watching it on a TV screen. Through their blog and videos, they are inspiring others to find work that allows them a life on the road.

Square Feet: 80

A hotel with a million stars.

Years Living Mobile: 4

It’s been almost full time. We had a couple of stops on the journey: one in 2013 in Bulgaria (we had to wait for some documents in order to get married), and one in 2015 in Milan (when my mother passed away).

Currently In: Europe

We’ve pretty much traveled all across Europe in the last four years, full time, while working from the road as digital nomads to pay our expenses.

Make, Model, Year: 1995 VW T4 California Westfalia

We call our van "Mork." He's Caribbean blue, which seems to catch a lot of attention. And he’s extremely well made. Like all Westies, this one is designed and built for compact living.

It’s enough to live comfortably and travel. It’s about the size of an average 1995 minivan.

Why did you choose this particular van?

Mork chose us. One night in Prague, I was staring out the window of a local hostel and saw Mork parked out front. I ran down just to ask some questions to the owner, and it just so happened he wanted to sell it. One week later, I was the new owner, and Mel and I started our journey.

We always thought about having a small van that would give us more freedom to travel and park wherever we liked.

How did you choose the name "Mork?"

When I bought the van in 2012, we had to travel from Prague to Sofia (around 1,000 miles). When we reached the border of Serbia, the line was long. We had to wait for a while, so we had time to think of a name. We liked the name Mork because it brought us back to our childhood watching the TV show, "Mork and Mindy."

Why did you decide to travel around in a van?

Things just happened. I’d lived and worked in Bulgaria for many years as a film director, and in 2012 I was really bored with life there. Mel had lived 11 years in Brno, in the south Czech Republic, and she was an English teacher and writer. She also had the same mindset as me.

First, we decided we wanted to travel, and we got rid of all our useless things to try to travel light. Then we thought that a van would be the best solution for us, so that I could bring my film gear, computers and clothes with us.

What was the process like to move into your van?

When I bought the van, Mel was still living in an apartment, and our original plan was to try out the van while still having the comforts of an apartment.

But things went differently. The day before I bought the van, I had a call for a movie production back in Bulgaria and had to be there the day after. I called Mel and told her that in a few hours she should be ready to go. We drove all night from Brno to Sofia, stopping by the Danube in Budapest for a quick dinner.

When we were in Bulgaria, we parked Mork in a 1920s NYC film set, and we had more time to organize things. We bought stuff for the kitchen (in Budapest, we cooked some hot dogs on the gas flame with a fork), we organized the bed and we started to get to know the van inside and out.

We had my mechanic check the usual suspects: oil, filters and a main overall. 

Did you have to do any renovations or conversions?

Westfalia campervans come out ready to go with all you need inside, but we made some upgrades in order to continue working online while traveling. For example, we added a solar panel system on top, which keeps our computers, batteries, camera, etc., charging. We also have a solar shower from our sponsor Gowesty. All the rest was pretty much ready and still working.

How do you fund this trip?

Like I mentioned before, we both work as digital nomads. After 20 years of experience each, we now use that knowledge online to pay for our travels.

We started by checking on Google for online jobs, and we found a lot of marketplaces with jobs available remotely. It took time, but we were able to build an online reputation and get better and more stable jobs.

I work mainly as a videographer, video editor and 2D animator. Mel is an online writer and social media manager. We also started a blog in 2012 that’s now become a website where we share our adventures and useful tips on how to work online while traveling in a van. We like to help the community that is quickly growing with our knowledge. From our website, we’ve also gained some sponsors that have given us nice stuff for the van and our work.

How do you balance work and living in a small space?

It’s not too difficult for us to work from the van, and we both enjoy our work. Our mornings are spent with a few cups of coffee outlining our days or deadlines. Sometimes we schedule time to work, because if the weather is shoddy, we can’t both use solar.

What about healthcare and retirement benefits?

I have European health care from Italy; Mel doesn’t have any because we’re not residents in a country.

We’ve gone back and forth debating about whether we should or not. We usually decide not to, simply because we travel for long amounts of time. We have had our share of mishaps (I ripped off a toenail fishing, and Mel dislocated her knee), but nothing insurmountable. And we are in no way sponging off of the countries we visit.

We’re looking for ideal "nomad" insurance, especially because we plan on visiting the US in the near future. But so far, we haven't found anything.

Retirement benefits aren’t a concern. The retirement benefits in Italy and in the States really don’t pay off when people retire now.

What's it like maintaining relationships on the road?

As a couple, wow. What a steep learning curve. It really took some getting used to, since we’re both very different people and independent.

We had to learn how to resolve issues quickly and how to communicate clearly.

You can’t play games in such a small space. It’s important to trust each other to get through difficulties. It’s just the two of you.

On the other hand, we’ve grown a lot closer and more accepting. We can give each other space, and we get to experience some unforgettable moments together.

Friends and family aren’t so difficult, thanks to technology. Facebook, Skype and "traditional" emails work fine. We’ve both been travelers for a while, so I think people have adjusted to the distance. Though yeah, we do get homesick from time to time and just want the comfort of the knowns.

Where do you park?

That’s mostly my job. I use Google maps to find the right spot from the top view. We know what we like: a peaceful place, near water and not too close to big towns. We have a portable router, and in each country we visit, we just buy a data SIM card that usually works even from a remote forest or cliff top beach.

We’ve also stayed in cities like Berlin, Prague, Athens, Bilbao, Lisbon and Amsterdam. Most of the time we ask locals where the best place is, as in the safest and quietest.

Where do you shower?

It depends on where we are. We have a nice road solar shower on the top of the van that we can use when it’s warm outside. It’s pretty good. Last summer, while in the north of Spain and in Portugal, we used an outside shower on the beach.

We bathe ourselves inside the van by warming some water and using a washcloth, which is a good method in the winter. We’ve used public swimming pools, because with just a few Euros, you can swim and have a nice hot shower. Sometimes we trade work for campsites or bed and breakfasts. I will produce a short promotional video for them and in turn, we receive a free shower or room.

But we always sleep in the van. We just like to be home.

What's been your favorite place to visit so far?

It’s difficult for us to choose just one, because there are so many for a variety of reasons. We love Meteora and Greece for being breathtaking, Kaunas and Lithuania because we were "adopted" by a brilliant older couple when we there, Romania for the scenic surprises, Portugal for the welcoming warmth of the people and the list goes on.

What has been the most rewarding thing about living in a van?

The most rewarding thing about van life is the amount of freedom and genuine happiness that is in constant renewal. The close second would be the continual inspirations that happen daily.

What is the most challenging thing?

Bad weather is the worst. Tempers flare. It gets uncomfortable. We panic to get work done when we don’t have solar power because going to a cafe becomes the only option. Also saving money can be challenging, because unexpected costs come in (fixing our muffler a few months back), and that can add stress.

What is your advice to others who want to live small and work on the road?

Give it a go. You can always test it out by renting a van for a week or so. It’s certainly not for everyone. But if you have the curiosity or the passion for it, you won’t regret it.

The road is your oyster.

Do you plan to go back to your previous way of living?

No. Not in the foreseeable future.

As long as we’re both happy, why would we?

What's next? Any news you want to share?

We are working on a vanlife app, a documentary about European vanlife and an e-book about vanlife in Europe, listed by country.

We’ve been talking for two years about it, but it’s tentatively planned for this year: visiting the States. We’re shipping Mork by ship from Germany to Canada to spend some time there and then exploring the US for a while. Our big plan is to travel to 50 states in four years.

Our lifestyle isn’t for everybody, but we love it.

Follow Armando & Mel of Westfalia Digital Nomads

Produced by Kathleen Morton of Tiny House, Tiny Footprint.
Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Armando Costantino and Mel Candea.