words anna weber | images timothy pakron & kim-julie hansen
For Kim-Julie Hansen, becoming vegan came as a complete surprise. “I was the opposite of a vegan," she admits. "I would look at a cow in a field and think, 'Yeah, that’s food.' I would make fun of vegans and vegetarians." Now, Hansen is the personality behind the wildly popular @brusselsvegan Instagram account; moderator for the equally renowned @bestofvegan Instagram account; and author of two e-books, The Practical Vegan and Simply Delicious. How did this happen?
"About a year before I went vegan, so about five years ago, I watched a documentary called Food, Inc.," Hansen explains, "and that was the first time I became aware of factory farming. But I thought, 'As long as you buy organic, it’s all good.' I didn’t see anything wrong with actually eating meat."
In 2011, Hansen decided to write an essay for one of her classes about veganism—and how it's unnecessary. "Every book I could find, every documentary I could rent," she got her hands on, Hansen says. "I started doing so much research for myself because I became so curious." In the end, Hansen's own research proved her wrong, and the title of her project became, Why Eating Meat Should Be Illegal. "That’s how I became a vegan overnight," she says. "And I never looked back. After about two years, I started eating raw vegan. Now, I would say now I eat mostly raw vegan.”
Hansen was born in Berlin, where her mother currently lives, but she's not a Berliner. And, in spite of the @brusselsvegan handle, she doesn't feel quite Belgian either. She's somewhere along the borders, feeling comfortably out of place. "It’s weird because I started traveling on my own when I was sixteen," Hansen says, "and after I had traveled for over a year around the world—and so I was seventeen—I just remember that feeling of having my home and my bed. I don't miss that now. It's been awhile."
While Hansen made the transition to raw veganism, she also made some major changes to her life, ditching her apartment, her possessions, and her plans to get a PhD so that she could make travel her way of living. "About a year after I started Instagramming myself," Hansen says, "I started selling everything I owned." The night before Hansen left Brussels, she gave away the last of her things to random strangers and stood in her emptied apartment, with just a backpack, ready to go out into the world.
“It feels so surreal, like it was a whole different life," Hansen says. "It feels like it’s been ten years since I left Brussels." You’d think the logistics of world travel with no foreseeable end would be complicated, but Hansen refutes this assumption. After she made the decision to leave, she started to create a plan. She knew that she wanted to visit the United States and India, and tried to find the cheapest flights available.
"I went to the travel agent and I started pointing at places around the world with my finger. I had to be in New York in August and in India in December so I just had to fill out the in-betweens," she says. A good friend lived in Tokyo at the time, so Hansen thought, "If I could just go all the way around the world...” She planned the trip from San Francisco to Tokyo in advance, and left the details in North America for some last minute spontaneity.
This meant months spent wandering the dusty roads between Montreal, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Miami, Texas, and Los Angeles as she made her way from the East Coast to the West. Lodging was offered from acquaintances old and new, in particular from other members of the international vegan Instagram community. As of now, Hansen still hasn’t stayed in a hotel since she’s left Europe’s capital—and she's also traveled to Japan, India, Germany, and England, with multiple visits to New York and Belgium in between.
Many on the outside assume that her “restricted” diet and way of living would have made travel difficult. Not so. Financially, Kim says everything’s always fallen into place; she started by saving up money over a few years, sold everything she owned, and ended her lease in Brussels. She also sold her retirement plan in Belgium to pay off her student loan debt. Lodging has always been free, and being in no rush to get anywhere, she leans towards taking cheap night buses when possible. Plus, learning how other vegans eat around the world has been one of the most fascinating parts of her trip. “Sure, it’s challenging, but it’s a very small price to pay for something you care about,” she says. And, teaching non-vegans who open their doors to her about veganism has also been intensely rewarding. “It’s just been nice telling people about it,” she adds.
Currently, Hansen is working on developing her blog and publishing more e-books, while also gearing her enterprise more towards veganism, the environment, and health. But travel will still play an instrumental part in how she lives her life and presents her ideas. Most importantly, travel has taught her “how unimportant material things are," she says, "I think twice before I buy anything. It’s freeing—even now, I have some more stuff than usual and I just want to get rid of it."
Ideally, she’d like to keep country- and city-hopping, only staying three or four months in one place at a time before moving on to the next. "Sometimes, I think it would be nice to live somewhere—right now, I want to live in Brooklyn, but I also want to live in other places," Hansen says. "If I could make money online full-time, I could go everywhere.”
So why is she still "Brussels Vegan" if her new normal is not being chained to any one place in particular? “Because Brussels was the first place I ever felt at home,” Hansen says.
where do you live — Good question. I don’t know. The world?
favorite neighborhood dinner — My friend Timothy Pakron in New York runs the @MississippiVegan Instagram account, and he makes the best food I’ve ever had. His presentation is impeccable. He knows where every little herb came from; he’s so passionate about it; and he puts so much love into his food. It tastes even better than it looks—I know it’s hard to believe.
luggage — My red backpack because it represents my whole life in one bag, and I love that.
gadgets — Right now, since I’m doing my blogging, my laptop. I also find my coconut jack indispensable!
favorite accessory — I have a little yoga mat that doesn’t take up a lot of space, but I always need to travel with it.
favorite charity — Right now, my favorite charity is the Mino Valley Farm Sanctuary. It’s run by a girl I met whose name is Abigail, and she’s amazing. She became a vegan and decided that was not enough, so she devoted her entire life to getting animals out of slaughterhouses and situations like that, to spare their lives. Ten percent of all my book sales go to her.
favorite hotel — The Savoy hotel in Chamonix, France (now operated by Club Méditerrannée). I’ve worked there twice, once in 2006-07 and then again in 2007-08. I love it because it has a particular charm that I can’t really put into words. It is located right at the foot of the Mont Blanc mountain and the view from it is breathtaking.
favorite apps — Instagram.
favorite airport — Not Dubai...I would say Brussels.
favorite airline — Emirates.
home is...Where I am.
where would you like to live — Brooklyn.
where & when were you happiest — I think whenever I’m surrounded by a lot of nature. I think because that’s not where I go, a lot of times. One of the happiest places on earth for me was Waiheke Island in New Zealand because it felt so timeless.
what do you consider to be your greatest achievement — Whenever I can inspire someone to—I don’t want to say "go vegan", because for me it’s not just for diet purposes—but whenever someone really becomes aware of all lives and begins to think deeply about it. That’s the only thing that’s my goal right now: to make people aware of that issue and take action. Whenever someone tells me, "You helped me change something, or made me aware of something," that makes me the happiest.
what is your current state of mind? — “We’ll see what will happen.” Taking it one day at a time.
how many trips do you take a year? — It really depends on the year. Could be a lot, could be a little.
how many of those are vacations — I mean, I don’t really do vacations in the typical sense. My family never went on vacations. We would visit family for a few months, but I never learned to do the touristy things when I was growing up and traveling with family, so now I don’t do that. I just really like to go to learn and to see how other people live. And now, when I’m traveling, I’m still always working on something.
without traveling, you relax by — Doing yoga.
won't board the plane before/without — I’m super chilled out about flying, so nothing in particular.
Indispensable in your carry-on — My music and my books. My Kindle and my iPod.
take-off routine — I make sure I get the window seat and then I chill out.
first thing you do after landing — I find something to eat!