Katie Fitzpatrick loves a challenge. She moved to France for three years after college and became bilingual. Now she’s traveling the Americas for two years in her 4WD Syncro Westy with her husband, Greg. Along the way, they are sharing the French culture with locals by cooking crêpes out of their van! Learn more -> interview with Katie below.
Photos above and below by Crepe Attack
Meet Dexterous & Wandering Katie
How did your trip come to be?
I’ve always loved languages. I studied French, and after college, I moved to France, set on becoming bilingual. Three years later, I came home with a French boyfriend and a crisis…I had achieved the dream I set for myself 20 years prior. Meanwhile Grégoire, who sold his VW van in France to pay for his plane ticket to Nashville, set about getting a new one. A real-life McGyver, he bought two old, cheap Vanagons, cut them apart, welded them together to make a 4WD camper. After a few years of frugal living and work on the van, we had some savings and an amazing expedition vehicle. I wanted land to plant fruit trees and raise chickens, Little House style. Greg wanted to drive around the world. We still speak French together, but as a math teacher in an urban public high school, I know how much more I could do for my many Latino students and parents if I spoke Spanish. Our trip came together perfectly for both of us—I’m learning Spanish in a modern covered wagon while Greg lives out his wanderlust in his dream vehicle.
Why the VW Vanagon? What are the pros and cons of this vehicle?
I’m partial because I watched this particular Vanagon transform from an empty metal frame to a top-notch rolling home, and I’m traveling with the person who built it! Shorter than most sedans, Westy Vanagons provide lots of living space thanks to the engine in the back, (which also cuts down on noise). I love to cook, so I need the sink, fridge, and indoor stove. With the poptop, we can stand up, plus we have two double beds, one in the back, and one “upstairs,” for guests. We also love being off the grid. Greg installed a diesel stove, a modern fridge, and a solar panel than supplies power to everything. As long as we have diesel, water, and a few hours of sun, we are 100% independent. One downside to our Westy is that you can’t stand up with the top down, so it’s not discreet once we’re settled in.
To me however, each downside has its upside. Being less discreet provides more opportunities to meet people. Since the cab and the living area form one space and we roll with the windows down, our “home” gets dusty. Still, I can grab a snack out of the fridge without pulling over. Another typical upside/downside of Vanagons is their cult following and uncertain reliability. For many people, the breakdowns are part of the adventure, but the VW community makes up for it with support. In our case, Greg put a 2013 engine in his 1986 baby and upgraded literally everything himself, inside and out, so we have the following from the VW community without the breakdown stories. Price is another traditional downside to a 4WD Westy, but our DIY Frankenvan is the exception. It was PERFECT before we left, so every time a pebble leaves a scratch, (and every time I grind the gears), it hurts Greg’s soul, but he’s toughened up!
How far along are you in your journey?
After 7 months and 25,000 miles, we’re in Ushuaia, at the VERY end of the road in Tierra del Fuego. We’ve budgeted for roughly two years of travel. We spent a shakedown month driving through the US, a month in Mexico, another in Central America, and then slowed down once we got to South America. We plan to wander until we feel ready to head back north, meandering through the countries we sped by on the way.
Explain the concept of “crêpe attack.”
We’ve Couchsurfed for years, and crêpes were always an easy way to thank our hosts. The idea evolved as we questioned what we wanted to get out of this trip and what we could give back. More than anything, we seek cultural exchange, and sharing a home-cooked meal provides that opportunity perfectly.
What are locals’ responses to your food?
“¡Muy rico!” Typically, curious children peek into the van, which leads to meeting families and offering crêpes and a tour of our casa-on-wheels. They consistently respond with an outpouring of generosity and homemade food that makes our little offering of crêpes seem paltry. We also make crêpes and sell them in town squares. (We don’t give them away so that we won’t hurt local business. Instead, we charge just enough to recoup the price of the ingredients and only make them for an hour or so.) People flock to the van, and we can’t keep up with the demand! Our crêpes are nothing to sneeze at, but the real draw is the culinary journey of eating French food made by French-speaking people.
How do the different countries influence your cooking?
I love incorporating local ideas and ingredients—fava beans here, chicken feet there. It’s essential to supporting small-scale vendors instead of chain grocery stores. When you shop at local markets, you cook with local food and get advice from local cooks. A gringa who haggles over beets leaves with beets, new ways to eat them, and blessings for safe travels. I tried my hand at a Peruvian stew to great success, though I credit the vendor’s pointers and her fresh produce. I miss baking, but we learned that most Andean villages have a huge wood-fired oven somewhere, and you can drop off a chicken and some potatoes and pick them up an hour later for 50 cents! We also love seafood, and Greg often heads out with his fishing pole and comes back with a fisherman who insists on giving us his fish and showing us how to prepare them. Greg enjoys our culinary adventures as well, but French people need French food. We sometimes trade cilantro and rice for a bottle of wine and ratatouille made with our waning stock of Herbes de Provence.
Take a photo of your five must have items for road travel.
1. My Grandma’s favorite poem. The first line sums it up: “Is anybody happier because you passed his way?” She read it every night, and Greg and I do the same.
2. A NICE knife. Cutting vegetables is my stress-relief!
3. My Teva flip flops. Incredibly comfortable, pretty robust, and almost classy if they’re clean.
4. My Diva Cup. I won’t go into great detail, but this is She Explores, after all! It’s an alternative to tampons and pads that is better for your body, your wallet, and the environment. Getcha one.
5. My journal. I don’t typically use a diary, but without it all of our adventures would run together. Writing every evening also provides continuity among all the different steps on our journey.
What have you learned about Greg that you might not have without this experience?
I’ve learned (and so has Greg), that he needs a project to feel content. In planning this trip, Greg negotiated for more time on the road. 6 months turned into 10, which turned into a year, then 2. He dreamed of isolated wilderness, accessible only with 4WD and time to kill. I thought I would want to trade vanlife for a yard with a garden, or at least, a parking spot with wifi. Turns out, the opposite is true. I’m happy unconnected; Greg likes populated surfspots. I’m ready for the next dirt road; Greg dreams of settling down somewhere. It’s not homesickness, though. After all, he’s lived in the US for 5 years, so living away from home and family is nothing new for him. He’s project-sick. Both convinced that his wanderlust knew no bounds, we overlooked the driving force behind it—proving that he made the best van out there. He’s facing the same aimlessness that I felt once I had learned French. Greg reached the goal he set for himself—build a top-notch expedition vehicle and travel the world in it. We still have traveling to do, but he’s itching to buy some land and get his hands dirty on a new project. We almost wish we’d break down so that he’d have something to fix, but this van just keeps going!
Do you have any safety tips for roadtrippers/panamerican travelers?
We prepare for the worst but expect the best. We’ve had zero problems since we left home. No theft, no threats, no bribes. I won’t discount luck, but we also don’t take chances. We hide EVERYTHING of value EVERY time we stop, even if we feel safe or it’s only for a few minutes. A small hassle, it reduces the temptation of breaking our windows. We keep our flashy technology to a minimum both inside the van and out. Bumbling but patient at police stops, we kindly refuse to pay. We talk to people wherever we stop to sleep. They tell the truth, which is typically positive, and if it’s not they offer help. As in, “If I were you, I’d stay in front of the police station. My son will show you on his bike.” Or, “This isn’t a safe neighborhood, but if anyone bothers you tonight, just honk and I’ll let my dogs out.” People understandably worry about safety, but a quick internet search and you find the same advice over and over again.
Instead of safety tips, I wish that I had gotten more practical tips before I left. Here are a few of mine: Bring screw top bottles because flip tops spew shampoo and olive oil when you change altitude. A kilo tub of yogurt makes the perfect emergency potty. (Number 1 only please.) Cook with the utensils you think you need for a month before you leave. Bring resealable containers for dry goods so you can buy in bulk. Use the stuff that keeps throw rugs from slipping to stop your dishes from rattling. Bring crayons and paper for kids and thank you cards for grown-ups. Rig up a way to dry clothes while you drive. Men, bring extra shoes if you wear an 11 or higher because they are hard to find. Buy babywipes. Trust us on that one.
Where are you now [May 28, 2015], and where will you be in one month?
We are in Ushuaia, Argentina, enjoying the cold weather and trading crepes for lessons in mate. We set a goal and met it—drive until there’s no more road—so we need time to reflect on our journey, our relationship, and our next steps as we prepare to U-turn and head north. It’s been an incredible ride, and we can’t wait to see where our Little Home will take us next!
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