There is a giant shrimp staring down at me.
Its beady black eye is the size of my head, and it feels extremely judgemental. Around its hard-shelled body falls a cornucopia of foodie abundance: a halved avocado, bulbous raspberries, a veiny sugarsnap pea, tumbling slices of lemon.
Elsewhere, blue tinged butterflies perch happily on ears of waving corn while red chillies float languidly in empty air. A snail inches its way past a bunch of purple grapes. I can almost see its wet antennas twitch.
With my head angled upwards, I stumble without realising. I think I might be in someone else’s trippy, cosmic dream. Possibly one which belongs to Salvador Dali.
Wait, where actually am I?!
Standing beneath the psychedelic mural which covers the huge curved ceiling of Rotterdam’s central food market is actually a good metaphor for my current situation.
For the last few days I’ve been living a life completely unlike my usual one – driving around Europe in a converted van with a band of South American musicians on tour. Because why not?
This five piece guitar band flew into the UK from their home country of Chile in late March, accompanied only by their acoustic guitars, ukeleles, mandolins and a couple of drums.
Throughout April, the band were scheduled to play sixteen gigs in nine different countries – and when the opportunity arose for me to join them for some of the dates, I jumped at the chance.
Our shared home for the week was Isabella, a horse box converted into a fantastic tour bus thanks to its owner’s prowess with creating insulation from patterned Turkish carpet, securing doors with bungee cords and warming us up with a wood-burner stove.
Despite its modest appearance, Isabella is actually surprisingly roomy. Six or seven people can sleep inside on bunk beds, two sofas which convert into sleeping spots, a fair amount of floor space and a duvet-mattress hiding above the driver’s seat.
So how does touring actually work?
I met up with the band in London at a venue close to my flat, and after watching them play for the first time we jumped into the van, setting off for the Channel Tunnel and the French countryside.
In just seven days the van careered through five different cities – London to Paris, then onward to gigs in Ghent, Rotterdam, and Amsterdam – but despite being in such gorgeous locations, the necessities of tour life meant there wasn’t always a chance to explore our surroundings.
Often the bulk of our sightseeing was conducted through Isabella’s wide windscreen instead!
Newsflash: touring with a band is not as glamorous as it sounds. Each day meant a new gig venue to play in; each evening meant a new part of the world for us to park the van and sink into sleep.
Mixed into that daily process? Driving multiple hours along busy motorways; deciphering errant addresses for out-of-the-way venues; unloading the band’s gear on the pavement and hauling it inside before their soundcheck began; and hunting down local food to sate sudden onsets of hunger.
Moving so quickly through Europe was surreal in itself, too.
I watched in fascination as the urban landscapes changed: elegant Parisian buildings transforming into wonderfully higgledy-piggledy ones in Belgium, the bizarrely brilliant architecture of Rotterdam, and finally the bridges and canals for which Amsterdam is world-famous.
When we did have a spare afternoon, it was wholeheartedly embraced. We snatched up moments to devour croissants in French bakeries, drink beers beside the Siene, soak up bursts of sunshine – and occasionally indulge my obsession for street markets.
Making the unusual accessible
Of course, the huge benefit to exploring Europe alongside a merry band of touring musicians is experiencing everything through a musical perspective.
Instead of solely being tourists, we were welcomed in with open arms by the teams of people working at each venue, who offered us coffee, use of kitchens and showers, and cooked up evening meals – often in parts of each city which I’d never have known existed.
In Ghent, Belgium, the Chileans played inside the sprawling redbrick buildings of a former military hospital. Before their gig began, we sat out in the evening sunshine to eat a communal dinner of vegetable curry and lentil salad alongside the Belgians who ran the venue space and the French band who were also playing that night.
This is what tour life is like, apparently: immediately being welcomed by strangers who know you through the music you play, or your association with it.
Each evening I sat back and listened to the Chileans play their set in a different venue.
One crooked room had old cinema seats set against one wall; another was more of a mosh pit; and a third, effortlessly quiet thanks to its thick black curtains, invited the audience to sit on the floor.
After each gig (and a fair amount of scoring complimentary beers from the bar), I usually made my way to the van to sleep – but occasionally we managed to score accommodation somewhere made of bricks and mortar instead of metal.
The best experience? Sleeping in a building on a bridge in Rotterdam, which dates back to the 1900s and used to be a squat. Now it’s home to over thirty people and a rather playful kitten, with unparalleled views across the river and a fantastic sense of hospitality.
Sometimes a room filled with mattresses and blankets is the most generous thing a person can offer!
How has tour life affected me?
By the time I left Amsterdam on a ten hour bus ride back to London, it was with a huge grin on my face. My feelings of openness and freedom were bigger than ever, and my desire to get back to proper travelling has been completely reignited, too.
I used to travel so much and absolutely defined myself as a pretty low-maintenance backpacker, but three years of living in a London apartment makes it very easy to feel like creature comforts are necessary for a normal life.
So I was amazed to see that a complete lack of personal space in a van didn’t affect me the way I thought it might.
I wasn’t precious about where my various possessions were scattered; didn’t seem to care too much about not showering or washing my hair; and loved the nights we spent with the wood-stove burning while seven people fell asleep in a van.
I don’t often realise how much pressure I put on myself to self-motivate – and how much I chastise myself when I don’t achieve what I’ve expected. But sometimes it’s necessary to relinquish responsibility in life. And if you’re not quite able to let go of it yourself, sometimes you have to let other people take control.
Not planning or scheduling my life for a week was such a relief. Instead, I followed five Chileans and a Scotsman as they set about the tour life — and I was stupidly happy because of it.
Since I left them in the Netherlands, the boys have been playing gigs in Denmark and Sweden and Germany, while I’ve kept track on social media. Next week they’ll play in London again and I’ll get to spend some more time with my little van family.
A week of touring re-taught me how to chill. How to relax into the situations that I can’t control and which I too often allow to rule over my mood and mentality.
I’m keeping hold of this feeling as I look out towards the horizon again. I’m in a good place. Better than I have been for a while, I think.