Julie Toebel and Kai Branns put in over 800 hours of work into rebuilding the American school bus they now call home
Two years ago, tattoo artist Julie Toebel and her partner Kai Branss, a director and videographer, bought an old American school bus, rebuilt the inside to meet their needs, and from then on called the vehicle their home. Having been featured last year in our Hit the Road book, we caught up with the pair to find out more about their new life.
For everyone that didn't have the chance to hold Hit the Road in their hands: Please tell us how you got to living on an old American school bus?
We found the bus by chance on the street. It was standing in front of a car repair shop in Berlin. It needed German papers and was up for sale. We gave ourselves a night to sleep on it and then we decided to buy it. So you could say it was coincidence or fate, but I like to think it was fate since the bus has changed our lives dramatically (in a positive sense).
What were the greatest setbacks, but also the high points for the two of you while rebuilding the bus?
The bus was in a fairly bad condition and had a lot of rust, sadly on parts of the body. To fix all of that took substantially longer and cost more money than we first had anticipated. Hence the rebuild took all in all one year, we never thought it would take so long.
We've had some high points though. If you've never rebuilt a bus, then everything really ends up feeling like a success. You're thrilled about every hinge that actually fits and works. My greatest personal success was the installation of the whole electric work, this was the part I had the most respect for. In the end, everything worked like it is supposed to and still does to this day.
Is there any helpful advice you'd like to pass on to people that want to reconstruct a vehicle for traveling?
First, hang on to your plan as you might experience some bumps. You'll be rewarded for sure. Second, only do a rough rebuild and go for a trip for a couple of weeks. Here you can review your work, then recharge your ideas and continue with the rebuild. Remember to do this because at some point you might forget why you are putting in all this effort. Taking your vehicle for a first spin will give you insight into what's really essential: In the beginning, you might plan a lot of details, but in reality, you might not need as much. We noticed that with our roof garden, we hardly ever use it. This was the opposite of what we originally pictured.
You probably don't want to share your favorite destinations for setting up camp. But do you have one secret spot you'd like to give away?
On our very first trip on the bus, we found such a place in Italy. Up in the mountains, there was this spot with an incredible view onto Arco and Lake Garda. We were completely alone, so lit a bonfire and enjoyed the pure silence. The next day we told some fellow travelers that we met. When we returned to our "secret spot", there were three campervans the same night. No silence anymore. Lesson learned!
Please describe the highlight in your fairly young van life?
It's the total of all moments that make living in a vehicle so special. Yesterday, for example, we sat during sunset in a small bar in the Ficajola Bay on Corsica, had a beer, and took in the beautiful landscape. Afterward, we went home (into the bus) and baked a loaf of bread and made dinner–I guess its simple life and celebrating taking everything really slow that has become the best part of living on wheels for us.
Living in reduced space-any tips on how to best organize everyday life?
Tidiness is everything when you live together in such a small space. Otherwise, there will be chaos immediately on the bus, you wouldn't believe it. Put everything away immediately and always in the same spot (laughs).
Is there anything you felt like sacrificing while living on a bus?
We actually customized the interior of the bus to our needs. That's the good thing about starting from scratch instead of buying a ready to go campervan. I don't have the feeling of missing out on anything, but I guess that comes with a certain mindset. You have to be aware of living in this kind of space as it isn't a 100 square meter apartment, so you can't expect as much. Even so, we've managed to make our interior pretty luxurious considering.
What are you currently reading on your travels?
Our library consists pretty much only of maps, climbing books, and a cookbook. And then there are several books on psychology, Buddhism, and two to three novels. I'm currently browsing a book by Bronnie Ware, 'The Top Five Regrets of Dying' and Julie is reading a crime novel by Jean-Christophe Rufin called "100 Stunden".
What are your plans for winter? Where will you hibernate?
This year I would finally like to follow my dream and stay in Spain or Portugal during the winter. Take a lot of photos, write, work on new ideas, surf, climb, and also work, of course. Julie will stay in Berlin and work in her studio. Hopefully, she'll visit me often. For work, I will fly to Berlin and leave the bus in a secured parking lot. That's the plan so far. Maybe I'll drive down to Morocco. We'll see what happens.
How do you organize the serious things in life-do you have a tray for documents, where do you get your water, how do you know, where you can park your bus to sleep?
We keep our tax papers in our closet and we have a big bookshelf that suits the space for miscellaneous as well.
We fill up our fresh water tank at wells, there is actually a lot of them around, you just don't notice them. And if not at wells, then most staff at gas stations are friendly most of the time and provide us with water. We only had to buy water once at a campsite in the UK. The best spots for sleeping we find through Google Maps. There are parking Apps for that purpose too, but we hardly use them.
Kai and Julie were generous enough to share one of their recent road trip playlists with us, so enjoy! Make sure to follow them on Instagram for inspiring photos of their van life.