EUROPE IN A VAN ~ WITH AYSHA MONTICONE
Aysha Monticone is the creative mind behind Kinfolk and Co, a consciously crafted homewares brand she runs from Byron Bay in Northern New South Wales. This talented mama to Layla, 10, and Noa, 3, is also one well-travelled lady, having done two, two-year stints in a campervan around Europe. She generously took time out to chat with us about her incredible adventures, which she described as some of the best times of her life.
We adore your brand. Tell us about the beginning of Kinfolk and Co?
I wanted to create a business that combines all my passions and that represents what I feel strongly about. As a former interior designer, I love to create and design beautiful spaces. I also have a strong passion for cooking, fermenting and growing foods. This combined with my passion for sustainable and ethical living, inspired me to create Kinfolk and Co. My business works with artists and independent makers to create incredibly beautiful yet entirely functional and natural kitchen, table and homewares.
From the beginning to the end of the process, I am conscious of our environmental impact. Our product selection takes into consideration the sustainability of the materials used, the production process, how easily the product can be recycled in the future, as well as the intended function and use of the item. I believe in slow design, mindful purchases and less consumption; in being connected to each other and the stories behind the goods we choose for our homes.
You’re an avid traveller. Can you tell us about your travel adventures pre-kids?
The first trip I did overseas was with my family to Bali when I was around 14. It completely opened my eyes to a whole new, amazing world. Once I finished high school, we travelled to Spain as a family. I loved every minute, from the food to the culture and the wonderful slow pace of life. When I returned home, all I could think about was saving money to go back over to Europe to live. My partner and I eventually made the decision to move to Spain in our early twenties and spent the next two years working in Spain and Ireland where we also bought a camper van and travelled through other parts of Europe. Eventually, the money ran out and we had to return home to Australia knowing that we hadn’t finished our adventures and that we’d be coming back for more.
We’d love to know all about your two-year trip with your daughter and what it was like travelling with a little one in tow..
Shortly after returning home to Australia, we fell pregnant with our daughter and lived in Brisbane for a couple of years. During this time, all I could think about was how we could travel back to Europe. We decided when Layla was almost three that we would rent out our home and start an adventure around the world with our little family. Most people thought we were crazy but somewhere deep inside, I new it would be great and that we’d make it work. We began our journey in Bali for four weeks, which was familiar and very easy to travel mainly due to our friend who lived there and was so happy to show us around. We then went on to Sri Lanka, which was very different to anywhere we’d been. We decided to hire a driver to take us along the south coast of the island. My partner is a keen surfer so we were discovering beautiful beaches and waves along the way. We ended up spending the majority of our time in Arugam Bay, a gorgeous little town on the east coast. We spent our days reading, swimming, surfing and eating the most delicious Sri Lankan food. Layla adapted quite well to this way of life - she had a handful of toys that she took almost everywhere with her - and enjoyed meeting new people. Finding food Layla liked was a bit tricky as Sri Lankan food is very spicy so she basically lived off bananas, rice and roti bread for the whole four weeks!
We then caught a flight to London, where we stayed with family friends in Oxford and began the search for our camper van, which would predominately be our home for the next two years. We found Harry the Hymer in Norwich and proceed to take a ferry to France. From here we travelled through Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia and Croatia. As Australians are part of the Schengen Visa, we were only allowed to stay within certain European countries (including France, Spain, Italy, Germany etc.) for no more than three months. We worked out that if we spent three months within these countries and three months outside, we could stay in Europe for a prolonged time.
Places like Croatia, the UK and Morocco were all outside of the Schengen Visa so we tried to stay in them for as long as possible. We stayed in Croatia for almost two months, travelling from the north all the way south via many of the islands. It was in June/July that we happened to be here so it was peak summer and incredibly hot and beautiful.
From here, we caught a ferry to Italy and met up with family in Sicily then travelled in our van north to Rome, the Cinque Terre and eventually Barcelona where we celebrated my partner Mark’s 30th birthday with a bunch of friends from Australia.
From here, we travelled to Northern Spain - to one of our favourite parts, San Sebastian in the Basque Country. We then travelled along the northern coast of Spain across to Portugal, and then down the west coast of Portugal and eventually back into Spain were we caught a ferry with our van into Morocco. Originally, I was unsure if we should go to Morocco – I was worried it would be unsafe especially with our daughter - but I quickly realised that once you understand the culture and travel with caution, we were quite safe. We also met up with a few other travellers in vans at this stage. These fellow travellers soon became our close friends and gave us a huge sense of security as we did everything together; from market shopping to cooking, sharing meals, surfing, yoga and playing music around the camp fire each night. It was a memorable time to say the least and I’m so grateful to still be in touch with these friends who feel more like family.
We ended up spending four glorious months in Morocco over the winter months. We had Mark’s family visiting us in Portugal so it was time to leave and make our way up to Lisbon. From Portugal, we travelled back up to Spain and eventually France where we said our goodbyes to Mark’s family. Mark and I had always dreamed of going to Scandinavia so this was where the next adventure led us. We had also just discovered a couple of amazing websites that meant we could stay in Europe for longer than we had originally intended. They were Workaway and Helpx, which were websites that link people looking for help and people wanting to help in exchange for food and board. This was a different travel experience for us all together. Our first ‘job’ was in Sweden with a beautiful family that lived in an eco village in a home made from mud bricks that they built themselves. This couple were living off the grid with their two daughters. We spent our days here swapping a few hours of farm help for food and board each day. We witnessed first-hand the benefits of a slower and more connected life based around home grown organic food, locally-made products and sustainable practices. We then travelled up to Norway were we did more exchange work with a family that owned a farm on a fjord. It was peak summer while we were here and being the midnight sun - the sky never got dark at night. It was lucky we had block out blinds in the van!
From here, we travelled back down south to Germany and France where we did another job working at a yoga retreat in the French countryside and other in South France with a beautiful family. Finally, our last exchange was back in Northern Spain with an English family that owned a farm and lived entirely off the grid. My family had decided to come over and visit us again (my Mum was having withdrawals from seeing her granddaughter!) so we met them and spent the next few weeks in Spain. After our family left, we had decided it was time to come home and start a life back in Byron Bay, Australia. We sold our van to a couple from New Zealand in the train station parking lot of Biarritz and boarded a flight to the UK where we eventually flew into Bali. We ended our holiday with a few weeks in Bali where I attended a 10-day retreat at our friends detox centre, Natural Instinct Healing. This was the perfect way to end a two-year stint in Europe!
What was one of your most precious memories from the trip?
The beautiful meals shared with friends and family. It was always a time that we would come together and cook, share stories, laugh about the day’s events and connect. It’s these memories that will stay with us forever.
What was the most challenging part about travelling with a little one?
For the most part, travelling with Layla was incredible. She made friends easily at the playground and had her toys and pencils and paper that she took with her everywhere and would entertain her. Sometimes it was difficult if we wanted to stay longer at a gallery or restaurant or go for a long bush walk because she would get tired and want to go home. I guess we just learnt to understand her limitations from the start and always respected how she was feeling and what she needed. I sometimes felt guilty that Layla didn’t have any other children for friends. We met some kids along the way but no one that we saw consistently for a long time. I was worried she was getting deprived of social connection with children her own age as she was spending a lot of time with adults. The exchange work we did helped this somewhat as each of the families that we worked for had children around her age so Layla could create friendships and play with children while we worked. Another challenge was that Mark and I had no time together. Unless we had family visiting and they were happy to babysit, Mark, Layla and I did EVERYTHING together EVERY DAY. This was incredibly bonding and beautiful most of the time but sometimes it was hard when Mark and I just wanted time alone.
Why did you decide to travel with your daughter? What do you think children gain from travel?
We always knew we wanted to travel and never thought that having children would be a reason to stop; if anything it’s a reason to start! Children gain so much from travel and even though I’m not sure Layla remembers everything, I know that her senses remember the smell of fresh croissants from a French boulangerie, the smell of the pine forest in Sweden or the sound of the call to prayer being sung from a mosque in Morocco. Through travel, I hope I am encouraging our children to be brave in the world and to not let anything or anyone stop them from chasing their dreams. I want to show our children new experiences and cultures so they can have open minds and see what life is like for others.
What were the most inspiring destinations and why?
Ahh so many! I’ve put it down to three favourites:
Basque Country, Spain, for its beautiful beaches, amazing countryside, incredible food and wine culture, surf and interesting, friendly people that are still so traditional and passionate about their culture and retaining it.
Copenhagen, Denmark, as I love the bikes and how everyone uses one to get around the city. The culture is progressive and the people are generally open-minded, intelligent and trusting. They have an amazing eye for design and the food culture is so avant-garde. Everyone is just so cool and good looking [laughs].
Italy as there is something about the chaos that I love. I love the narrow streets, the crazy driving and passionate people. It’s also the amazing food, history and the way of life. I have an Italian grandfather and it’s an unusual feeling but every time I visit Italy I feel like everything is strangely familiar.
Do you have any other adventures planned with your tribe?
Absolutely! We just returned home from a month in Europe and hope to return again next year. We have so many friends there now that we love to visit, I’m hoping we will be able to go back every year and see them and discover new places and hopefully even do some exchange work again.
Do you have any tips/advice for other parents embarking on long trips with little ones?
My biggest piece of advice would be to not pack too much as most of the time you can buy it there if you really need it. When we lived in the van, Layla had one box of toys. As she got sick of games or toys, we would take them to second hand stores and replace them with other second hand toys. She loved it! We also brought a lot of her clothes from second hand stores as she grew out of things along the way. We found going to a playground almost every day was must and that community libraries are a fantastic way to spend a rainy afternoon. Ask the local tourist office what kids’ activities are on as they are usually very helpful and we found some great activities for Layla this way.
How important is conscious travel to you?
So important! We found that during our long trip away with Layla, we were free from the distractions of work, our social lives and all the daily noise. All of a sudden, we had so much time to be present and live mindfully. We spent far more time in nature, reading, writing and meditating and I felt more connected to myself and those around me. It taught me what was important in life, what I wanted for our life in Australia and what I was happy to let go of. I refer back to these life lessons that I documented during this time and remind myself of them still to this day. I feel so grateful for our experience and will always remember those years in the van as the best years of my life.