When standing at the foot of a mountain it’s best not to look up.
As tempting as it is, if we had have thought too much about all the things that needed doing as part of the van conversion, we would have felt utterly and soul-destroyingly overwhelmed. Therefore, we tried quite early on to make a list of the most important jobs that we wanted to get done over the next week and then simply get on with it all as best we could. Writing up a perfect and exact ‘to-do’ list though was pointless. In the end nothing works out as you hope it will. Things take longer to complete. Parts take an eternity to be found. Whole days seem to be lost inside DIY stores and life in general isn’t too worried about knocking at your door and presenting you with appointments and other reasons to change your plans. So we found out pretty early on that creating wonderful, exhaustive lists and schedules was just a waste of time. And another way of procrastinating but fooling yourself in to believing you’ve done something productive. I can be quite good at that if I’m not careful.
The top priority after buying the van was to get it to the workshop and have a mechanic look it over in detail. There’s no way we wanted to put so much time, money and effort in to the project if the foundations we were building on were junk. This first meeting between our mechanic and our future home proved hopeful but hope can be a cruel and fickle mistress and it turned out to be the first of many, many meetings. It would seem our vehicle quite likes the attention.
At this first check-up the diagnosis was small. New tyres were required and a little bit of work would be needed here and there but overall, it was good news and we were given the green light.
From this point on we became a little bit obsessed with the project. But also more than a little terrified. The realisation of - “This is it. We really have to do it now” - struck a potent cocktail of terror and joy to our hearts and every free moment we had, seemed to be filled with a certain cycle of madness. Order parts…research regulations…research how to install,repair,use it…actually do it…discover problem with vehicle, visit mechanic…scream and shout…order parts…research regulations…research how to install,repair,use it…actually do it…discover problem with vehicle, visit mechanic…scream and shout…order parts…etc! Our life went on like this for about six months. But there were, I have to say, also some amazing moments. Moments of pride, moments when you realise all the things you’ve achieved, things you thought and you had been told you could never do, moments when you learn how to deal with the feeling of desperation, moments, and these are the most important, when you learn and really, truly, fully understand that getting angry and frustrated, or the flip side of that, worrying all the time, really will not help a single thing. It’s quite a rollercoaster and it’s easy to focus on the lows but the highs shouldn’t be forgotten either.
After our visit to the garage we began work inside the van. We didn’t have any tools or space of our own to work on the van and certainly didn’t have the money to buy all the tools needed and rent space. We were very lucky therefore that my partner’s parents allowed us to work on their driveway. Also her father used to sell tools so there were plenty at hand in his garage. The first job was to clean the inside, deal with rust, which luckily we didn’t have too much of, and take out the divider-wall behind the driver’s cabin. The van is thirteen-years old and was previously used as a work van, so to say it needed a bit of a clean and some TLC would be an understatement. To top it all off we began work in winter and this was unavoidable but not a good idea. In east Germany this meant the days felt incredibly short and bitterly cold. A gloomy, snowy misery seemed to engulf the whole project and until about mid-May we felt like permanent residents of Mordor. Beggars can’t be choosers however, and next up was the first half of our insulation. We went for a combination of reflective foil and glass wool. We dealt with the glass wool much later on in the project but the reflective foil was a nice easy job for us to get done in the beginning. It gave a nice feeling of quick and easy progress…didn’t last long. After this nice and easy introduction to the conversion we decided it was time to crack on with some proper work…the windows. The area of the van that was to become our permanent home for at least a year had no side or roof windows originally, we put them all in ourselves. Amazingly for us, this was some of the easiest work of the whole conversion. Building cabinets and getting up the walls was much more stressful than putting in the windows. It’s pretty scary to put a big hole in your vehicle and even more scary to put three in it but as long as you take the time to think everything through and ideally, measure up about six times before you put the power tool in your hand, then you should be fine. It’s actually fairly straight forward, especially if you get a camper window that also has an inner frame (for inside the van). We managed to get some great deals on eBay and our windows are second hand but did the job perfectly. However, one of our windows is unfortunately without the inner frame and this meant we essentially needed to build it ourselves out of wood. Neither of us have any experience of working with wood however, so that was…interesting.
Up until this point we had been planning on using an imitation wood linoleum on the floor. Our thinking was that it would be fairly easy to fit, easy to clean and relatively cheap. Well I don’t know about the former two because we didn’t get that far. After a visit to the DIY store our assumptions about the price turned out to be very wrong indeed. Even the cheapest stuff wasn’t that different in price to laminate flooring. We shopped around at plenty of other stores, in fact we’re now pretty much on first name terms with the staff of all the DIY stores in our area, but the only decent price to be found was on eBay and we were a bit hesitant about buying the flooring before being able to see it first in ‘real life’, so we were left in limbo wondering what to do. We decided to first get on with over things, somewhat under the motto of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. A few days later however, suddenly and quite out of the blue, the issue was solved for us. Our neighbour from one floor down, full of excitement and enthusiasm for our project came to us with a load of good-quality wooden flooring. His parents had recently ordered too much for some renovation work they were doing on their home and he thought maybe we would like it. The crazy thing is, we hadn’t spoken at all with him about our flooring ‘problem’ and yet he was there with our solution just when we needed it. Nice when things work out like that. His parents would have just burnt it so he didn’t even want any money from us…result!
Once we had the floor down it was clear that the van was really beginning to take shape. There was still a great deal to do but with the sun shining through the windows that we ourselves had installed, the rays sparkling off of the lovely wooden floor that we ourselves had also installed, well, we felt pretty damn good about ourselves. We took a few steps back to absorb it all and enjoy the moment.
And then it was time to get going again. After all, we knew there was still so much to do. Just how much though, we hadn’t quite realised yet.