“Mom, how many more countries until we get home?”

/ July 26, 2016
Read this article in Romanian on PressOne.ro

“Make sure you don’t portray me as some kind of inspiration, or anything like that. No. I’d like people to realize that, hey, it can be done. To open their eyes a little, to see that it is possible. We didn’t meet any other families traveling in a rig like this along the way, but that doesn’t mean we’re the only ones; other people probably do it differently. As long as you teach your child to travel, whichever way you choose, I think it’s a very very good thing.”

Mihai Barbu is passionate about the four-month journey he just completed with his girlfriend and their four-and-a-half-year-old son, Vladimir. As a matter of fact, one of his dearest wishes has always been to make it possible for Vladimir to see the world in a more authentic way than through the eyes of a travel guide.

They told friends they might be back in two weeks if they didn't like it. They returned four months later. Photography: Mihai Barbu's Facebook Archives-

“His greatest joy was that he was with his parents for four months, 24 hours a day, which is, sadly, an opportunity most children don’t have. I think the most important thing in the world for a child is to spend as much time with their parents as possible.”

You can’t disagree with Mihai Barbu. In fact, Vladimir never once asked when he’d be back home during the four months they spent wandering around Europe and Africa. He is the reigning champion of sleeping positions, his father says, especially in the heaviest of rains.

“We bought this motorcycle to ride it, to spend as little time as possible at home. We thought we’d take it out for a spin to break it in, to see how we get along and if we like it. Our first test was a tour around Europe. What can I tell you, it sure ended up being more than a break-in test, it became this huge tour; I can’t say we planned it that way when we left home”, Mihai says.

After he had bought Zair (he says his bike is a “he”, not a “she”), he was nervous. He realized his boy had never been on a motorcycle before: “I was nervous, thinking maybe my kid won’t like it, maybe he’ll be afraid. I was very far from the truth. And I can guarantee you there isn’t a child in the world that wouldn’t enjoy a ride in the sidecar of a motorcycle. I ‘m willing to put that in writing”.

The red line represents their route: 41 countries on two continents.

“We were riding along the Dalmatian coast, on this road I love, it was absolutely fabulous. Mid-September, low season, the sun was setting and there were no cars, no traffic, just us in the sunset. We had the sea to our right, the mountains to our left, alternating curves, meandering… and I remember slowing down to tell Oana – and I wasn’t lying – that if I could freeze this moment, I could ride on for another million miles without stopping”.

Perhaps that’s what bliss looks like.

For Mihai Barbu, it wasn’t just the Dalmatian coast that was beautiful; there was also Norway, Ireland, and the razzle-dazzle of Morocco, all taken in slowly.

“To give you an idea of Vladimir’s perceptions, when we were in Istanbul he asked Oana, ‘Mom, where are we now?’. Oana replied, ‘We’re in Istanbul’, and he then started explaining to her, ‘No, mom, you don’t get it, Istanbul was the country we crossed to get to where we are now, in Turkey’. Another time was when we entered Romania, ‘Yeah, we’re in Romania’, and he starts asking Oana from his sidecar, ‘and how many more countries until we get home?’ So, his thoughts on this are total hodge-podge, but we’re very glad of his enthusiasm”, his father says.

This type of travel, which entails camping and cooking outdoors on a propane stove next to the tent, is something everybody can do, but it’s not for everyone. You have to pass a test: “If you’re ready to open the clothes’ box and not be shocked by the stench… one, or several days in a row, then this is for you. But if it bothers you, it’s not for you, and there are many other ways to travel”.

The travelers have learned common sense is the only rule you have to follow to have a smooth trip.

Oana, Vladimir and Mihai spent an average of 2,000 euros a month, but the trip could have been less expensive if they hadn’t relied on ferries so often. They traveled through 41 countries, and even more importantly, Vladimir was able to see reindeer, camels, monkeys….and even Santa Claus.

In Morocco, they slept outdoors on a hotel roof. The hustle and bustle of the city below was blending into the infinite stars above. It was beautiful, however Norway was even more beautiful, where Paradise is apparently nestled on some islands.

“Your eyes hurt from all the beauty. And this beauty permeates your being”, Mihai Barbu recollects.

Back home he was once again faced with the “revelation” of the stubborn fierceness of Romanian society:

“Honestly, the moment we entered Bucharest some friends were waiting for us at a bar, so we said we’d stop by to have a cup of coffee before going home. From the sign that says you’ve entered Bucharest, it took us 45 minutes to reach the bar downtown. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but during these 45 minutes we saw some things in traffic we had not seen for the entire four months we’d been on the road. And I don’t mean the traffic per se, but the way people drive. I mean simply the aggression, the hatred we saw during those 45 minutes. I give you my word of honor, we didn’t see anything like that anywhere in Europe for four months. I think the “revelation” we were left with, in huge quotation marks, was: we must get away from here. Somehow. Somewhere.”

"I decided to get a motorcycle with a sidecar to have an additional seat" - that's how Zair came into the family. Photo: Mihai Barbu

Until then all that remains are the memories, a map on which their route is plotted in red, and the story of a vacation that Mihai isn’t sure how his son will remember. One thing is certain, he says, that the road is a good foundation for Vladimir’s education because he will never be afraid to travel the world, enjoy its breath-taking beauty, ask questions, and learn new things.

Mihai Barbu is a photographer and the son of the famous Romanian cartoonist Ion Barbu. He worked in the media, where he was employed by “România liberă” and “Evenimentul zilei”, two Romanian newspapers, as well as Reuters press agency. In 2009 he traveled by motorcycle to Mongolia and back, 16,000 miles and 13 countries. The story of that trip is in a book called “Vând kilometri (Miles for sale)”, published by Art and currently in its fifth edition.

At the end of this year’s sidecar trip, Mihai Barbu wrote this on Facebook: “Almost every time we’re making a stop who-knows-where and someone asks me something in a different language, and I answer, Vladimir listens inquisitively and then asks, ‘What did he say, daddy? What did he say?’. I tell him, in a secretive whisper, that people have heard the world’s greatest motorcyclist is traveling around Europe and they’ve asked me if I have seen him. Then I go on, ‘I told them I haven’t seen him, I didn’t tell them it’s actually you.’ The corner of Vladimir’s mouth rises with a complicit smile, he says ‘aha’ approvingly, and goes about his business. I smile too, every time, not because it’s funny, but because I have never lied to my son. Not even now”.

We were riding towards Nordkapp, stopped to take a picture of a rainbow, and next to us was a parked car that was taking pictures too. We didn’t see them, but they saw our license plate number and said, ‘Wow, you’re from Romania, cool…’, Then the woman gets out of the car and the guy very enthusiastically tells her, ‘Look dear, see, we’re not the only lunatics here, we thought we’d be the only lunatics to drive all the way up here’. In my book this way of thinking, ‘My goodness, I must be insane’, when you get in your car to drive to Nordkapp is not ok, because you’re not insane at all. You’re simply normal. There is a huge parking lot there, where you can barely find an empty spot; you park your car, does that make you insane? No. Everybody does it. That’s normal.

Mihai Barbu