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Ben Quesnel: Doing #Vanlife the French Way

After leaving his job at Facebook in Silicon Valley, French brand marketing manager Ben Quesnel traveled the roads of France and the United States in his two Volkswagen vans, Joziane and Jozette. An adventure that became a lifestyle, and then a profession.
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Baja California, Mexico. 
© Andy Best

At the start, it was just supposed to be a trip. Yet three years later, Ben Quesnel is still on the road. And what could be more natural for an expats’ son than to continue exploring the world? After arriving in the United States at the age of 26, he began his career at Google just outside San Francisco. He then joined the marketing teams at Facebook and bought a 1985 Volkswagen van to drive on weekends. “I had already traveled extensively and I wanted to save a bit of money to start out as an entrepreneur,” he says. Comfortable with fixing things up, he repaired the engine and his hobby gradually became a project. In late 2019, he decided to set out on a race against the winter and traveled to Alaska via California, Oregon, Washington State, and Canada. The trip took him six months and saw him drive for more than 6,000 miles. Two years later, while vacationing in France, he bought another vehicle – a 1992 Volkswagen Doka truck converted into a van – and set out along the byroads of his native country. Like any self-respecting French person, he named them both: Jozette (in America) and Joziane (in France).

“There’s a huge road-trip culture in the United States, encouraged by the vast spaces and the heritage of the Old West,” says Ben Quesnel in a phone interview from Oregon. “There are more facilities and public land where people can camp. There are also longstanding fringe populations who have been forced to adopt this lifestyle because of skyrocketing real estate prices. These people gather in small, mobile villages, a far cry from the idealized #vanlife splashed all over social media.” During his trip through France, he was surprised to “have had no difficulty in finding places to park and sleep.” In fact, RV and van culture has boomed in Europe, and mobile apps now help travelers find accessible rest areas. Despite public enthusiasm, a growing number of French towns have started putting up barriers to prevent high vehicles from driving along certain roads and parking. However, the advantages of this nomadic lifestyle far outweigh the disadvantages, according to Ben Quesnel. “As soon as you drive over a mountain pass and discover different landscapes, accents, and architecture, it’s all worth it. I realized that I knew very little about my own country!”

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Ariège, France. 
© Ben Quesnel
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Baja California, Mexico. 
© Ben Quesnel
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Northern California. © Lawrence Rickford
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Nuevo León, Mexico. © Ben Quesnel
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Wyoming.
 © Ben Quesnel
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Black Rock Desert, Nevada. © Josiah Q. Roe

The day-to-day reality of living in a van requires a practical mind and a sense of organization. “You have to take a vow of minimalism, but also constant optimization,” says the former brand marketing manager. Fortunately, this mindset corresponds to his personality. “I never leave anything untidy. Anything that I get out of its storage space is immediately packed away as soon as I no longer need it.” Nothing is left to chance: cooking, teeth-brushing, and work are part of a strict, precise, compartmentalized routine. “It might be paradoxical for people imagining nomadic living in a Volkswagen van,” he says, busting a lot of the usual hippie myths. Vans are also particularly exposed to bad weather. “A cold snap means you have to use your resources frugally, because the solar panels stop charging and the heating eats up the battery. And if it rains, you have to find land where it is unlikely to flood, and store your wet clothes and shoes in a waterproof bag.”

There are also different incidents to contend with on the road. “One day, I found a tarantula on my ice box in Monterrey, in Mexico. Another time, in the same region, my van got stuck on a river bed as a storm was closing in. I had to use my camping table as a traction board to get out of there in time.” Far from being discouraged, Ben Quesnel has decided to use his adventures to start a business. As a graduate of Sciences Po in Paris, he was quick to identify the sector’s potential. “With Covid, the #vanlife market is booming!” He launched a first business as an alternative lifestyle consultant before founding Simpler Ways, a platform for buying van products, in December 2021. The site’s offering includes mugs and garden chairs for summer, blankets for winter, and refitting kits aimed at anyone who wants to transform a vehicle into a house on wheels. He can keep working while on the road, and his business helps him “build bridges” between the tech sector and his new community of modern nomads. Before getting back behind the wheel, he says: “It’s the best of both worlds!”

 

Portfolio published in the October 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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