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Six months in a van: an extraordinary Erasmus adventure

Six weeks before his departure to Portugal, where he was to spend six months as an Erasmus student, MU Faculty of Informatics student Petr Knetl began to wonder whether he could live in his family’s van to save on rent.

Although the idea seemed crazy at first, the more he thought about it, the more he liked it.

“I always wanted to see what it’s like to live in a car for a few months and I must say that despite the obvious shortcomings, it was a great experience. All the disadvantages paled in comparison with waking up to a different fantastic view each morning, sometimes at beaches where I had surfed the previous day. And sometimes I would park the van right in front of the university so that getting to class in the morning would only take a few minutes,” says the master’s degree student.

Petr left for his Erasmus stay in the autumn semester just as the second wave of the pandemic was picking up across Europe, but he got lucky: the classes he had enrolled in at the University of Porto were taught in person. No matter that the windows were open wide all the time and that the students had to wear masks and sit two metres away from each other, the most important thing was that the classes were not online – otherwise, as he admits, he would have gone mad after six months alone in his van.

Moreover, the coronavirus restrictions in Portugal were far from drastic in the autumn and almost all the services were functioning. This meant that he could work and study at the university library; otherwise, the limited space in the van would have been much more of a challenge.

“Thanks to the open libraries, I was able to continue working remotely for the Muni Helps volunteer centre. I signed up to become a volunteer last March at the start of the pandemic. I started by connecting volunteers with the people who needed help and later on I transitioned to developing a volunteer database app because the original Excel file became unusable due to the sheer number of volunteers. We began developing a mobile app in the summer and it is now used by thousands of people even outside MU, which makes me very happy,” says Petr.

Although his Erasmus stay in Portugal drew to a close at the end of January, Petr plans to remain in Porto until June. Classes at the MU Faculty of Informatics continue in fully online mode this spring semester so attending lectures is even possible from Portugal. However, he now attends the classes from an apartment he rented in Porto rather than from his van. “After six months in such a limited space, a regular-sized room and not having to shower in your friend’s apartment is a welcome change,” explains Petr with a laugh.

His trusty van remains with him, and he now uses it for trips around Porto. He also plans to take a long route home through Spain, France, Italy and Austria. “I visited the Azores and Madeira and have travelled a lot around Porto, so I have enjoyed my Erasmus stay despite the pandemic. I’m often in touch with the other international students too, so I don’t really feel socially isolated.”

Although Petr has previously been on another study exchange in Switzerland, he still learned something new on his second one. “I learned to keep my cool when dealing with issues. In the first days of my stay, I was incredibly stressed due to a broken windscreen on the van, but it turned out to be quite unnecessary and I realised that most problems are easy to fix. You just need to stop taking everything so seriously.”