COVID CONVERSATIONS: NIEL

A conversation with Niel Van Herck

A travel blogger who won’t be able to travel for quite some time. That did spark some interest! In comes Niel Van Herck, for some of you better know as “Tjoolaard”, who runs a multiple award winning travel blog. The way things are going, it’s safe to say we’ll be lucky if we can cross the borders of our provinces. So how is a guy that lives to travel and explore cope with that? No need to wonder, because we just fired up our laptops and had the following conversation with the man…

How’s it hanging? How’ve you been the last couple of weeks?

“Left side (chuckles). I’m starting to get used to it (the current situation). At first, it was a bit of a quest for structure and distraction, but gradually everything falls in place. Also with the advertising agency, Supermachine. I just hope it’s not going to carry on for much longer. I miss the outside world and am getting tired of video calls.”

What was your first reaction when you heard the news about the lockdown?

“I was on a ski trip in Austria at the time, so it felt very surreal. Almost like if I was on a candid camera show. Especially because in Austria everything was still quite normal. As in: a lot of drunk Dutch people singing folk songs. But I already knew that this could be the last trip for a long time. Driving back to Belgium was also special, with those border controls. Kind of felt like a war zone.”

If there was actually more time to prepare – and everything didn’t close almost overnight – would you have handled differently or done something else?

“Gee, maybe made some stops at Brico for extra DIY stuff to work on my house. Although most of that can also simply be ordered online… Maybe have my bike repaired and buy loads of stock shares of Zoom. Might’ve looked around for a girlfriend… In the end, I was especially happy that I was able to enjoy the mountains just before the quarantine. A luxury position.”

Do you notice things yourself? Changing mindset, new insights, …?

“People are more conscious about hygiene, for sure. In addition, budgets will be classified differently. So a lot of little ones are going to have a hard time. I also fear for overtourism at first and then everything will stagnate. Traveling in your own country will of course be popular this summer and it will be a challenge to give up aquired habits (seeing your children / parents all day, a lot of independence by working from home, …) as well.”

Not to make it too painful, but out of curiosity: what was initially on the Tjoolaard agenda for 2020?

“South Korea in May / June, the Tokyo Olympics and the World Expo in Dubai. In addition, some smaller trips to Germany, Austria, Portugal and the Balkans. I also ordered a van a long time ago, but it’s also stuck in production. Obviously I’m also sad that the Waking Life festival and of course the Ghent Festivities can’t continue. There goes my French kiss marathon (a tradition during the Ghent Festivities, ed.).”

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen a fellow travel blogger do in lockdown?

“I especially enjoy hearing foreign colleagues now. What does quarantine look like in their country? What do they do? Like Eva Zubeck, for example, who spends quarantine on an uninhabited island.”

Other things that made you say “NICE …”?

“The enormous wave of solidarity and creativity is a great thing to see. And places that are normally overcrowded with people are now deserted. Great to experience, ideal for photos.”

Staycation in your own country or far obscure trip?

“The further and more obscure the better. Although, Belgium can also be freaking obscure.”

What do you think? Will everything be okay?

“Optimist till I die! Everything will be fine… In any form. In the end, a person is a kind of cockroach. We always adapt. By the way, did you know that our DNA is very close to that of the cockroach? Now, I wouldn’t go to cinema with a cockroach right away… But still!”

Tjoolaard = travel. And it looks like we won’t be able to do that for a while … Have you already come up with alternative options to provide your (how many award-winning?) blog with relevant content?

“Well, I’m probably going to shine a decent light on the south side of Belgium (Walloons). I think a bit of road tripping might be nice there. And for the rest it will mainly be more content made in and from Ghent itself, hidden gems in Flanders, some recaps of previous trips, perhaps some opinion pieces… But I do feel that I’m going to be tired of this very soon. Plus, all other travel bloggers are now doing the same thing, so it’s a bit of a search to keep creating original content. I’ve heard that I can dance very sexy, so maybe I should put on a webcam show… (laughs)”

Fast forward to the near future: many consultancy agencies predict that people’s behaviour will change. There will be more self-centredness, less sharing everything online and less urging to belong. Which would eventually translate into a new wave of people that will have more of a ‘meh, I’ll just stay home, order some food and invite some friends” feeling than “let’s blow our bonuses on an all-in trip to Ibiza and show it all off on our Instagram accounts!”. What do you think of this speculation? Could it become a new trend? Or don’t you see things going that direction?

“I think it will mainly depend on the prices and how they’ll turn out. What will happen to the airline tickets? Will they just get massively more expensive? Or are they going to be cheap because all the tourist services will want to lure you to their destination? Besides that, I don’t think we’re going to see massive behavioral changes. Rather small habits. A bit more afraid to walk around in crowded places, more mouth masks, those kind of things. After the series of terrorist attacks, they had also predicted a new world, but I don’t see much of that in our behavior today. However, there’s more security since then, though. Hopefully we will attach more value to the concept of travel. Travel had become too “hip” recent years. Travel because it’s cool. Because it fits nicely on your CV or on your Instagram. You have to travel for other reasons: to lose and find yourself, to escape, to learn, to broaden your perspective and to overcome fears.”

Suddenly, many see the light and start to learn new languages, (re) discover hobbies such as painting, exercise a lot, … You too?

“I am now the master of sawing and placing baseboards. So I learned a lot, especially in ‘construction’ and DIY. In addition, I’m trying to refine my Japanese, but it is very busy at work. So there isn’t much extra time. I talk a lot to my plants, but yeah… not much of a conversation going on there…”

What lessons do you think people should learn from their isolation?

“Learn to be alone. Learn to entertain yourself and attach less importance to what the outside world thinks about you. Go fucking weird!”

And the government? Less traffic by working from home, for example… Perhaps imposing 1 mandatory day of working from home in certain sectors could do wonders for our CO2 emissions?

“I am pro. Create collective moments of awareness. Like in Rwanda, where there is a national cleaning day. Everyone cleans their sidewalk / street / garden at the same time. This can be done around ecology, but also around meat consumption, around more attention for your family, for the elderly, etc.”

Fast forward into the distant future: Virtual Reality traveling…. Now, I know you, and know you would be all too excited to try this out. But go ahead and tell the makers who are working on why it will never get close to the real deal.

“That is no longer a distant future. Yesterday I was fishing all by myself in virtual reality. With a cup of tea next to me, music in the background and, well, fishing. Go fucking weird, remember. But of course you will never have that total mix of stimuli. Traveling is smell, color, sound, touch, stories, suffering, planning, transport, impulsivity. Certainly the latter. Everything is pre-programmed in VR, but not when traveling. My best travels are those that were overflowing with unexpected events and encounters.”

Shrimps or steak?

“Born and raised in Oostduinkerke, so of course shrimps.”

Road trip or hiking?

“Combo! But if I have to choose: hiking. I can’t sit still very well. Surprise-surprise!”

Imagine: Belgium’s tourist office asks for advice to support the restart of tourism in the country. Which 3 points would you present to them?

• Do crowd control. Mass tourism destroys locations and the hospitality of locals.

• Think about inclusive tourism. Make sure everyone can enjoy a holiday.

• Pay Tjoolaard 100.000 euros for his beautiful words.

What are you doing this weekend?

“Undoubtedly weird things that I’m going to be utterly ashamed of the next day.”

>> Stay in the loop. Follow Niel’s Instagram here!