Downshifting FAQ

cat near the stove

We thought it would be nice to share publicly the exchange of emails below. Elisa was lucky it’s winter and I found the time to answer. The cat in the picture is Brida, my muse for this enormously long text :)

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Name: Elisa
Message:

Dear all,

I am an Italian girl of 24 years old, I write to you to seek for a practical advice. […] I’ve been living and working in Hungary for three years, here I met my boyfriend […] We are long sick of the life in Budapest, working in offices and living in a grey and polluted city, and we often fantasize about moving to Romania to some small village to start living closer to nature, with different life rhythms, with our own land and some animals. I have just discovered WWOOF, and on their website I read about you as well. It seems like a good idea to start working for a WWOOF host as volunteer, since none of us has ever had any previous experience; we both grew up in cities. […] I think we should first work for others, so we can learn to work with animals and land without having to invest our money right away, also to verify personally if this is really the life we want.

So what I would like to ask from you, based on your personal experience, is: is this sort of life really possible? If after one year of „practice” at some host’s farm, we started our own family owned farm with for example vegetables, chickens, goats, maybe bees, would we be able to „survive”? If one of us had also a normal job on the side, at least a part-time, could we lead a normal life, or we would constantly struggle? Except the food that you grow to provide your families with, where do you get the money to buy a few things/get petrol/pay bills from?

I know that there are plenty of variables and I can’t expect a definite answer, but it would be really helpful for me to hear your point of view, since you are already there and having that kind of lifestyle…

Do you have any advice about how we should prepare for this, before physically moving to Romania?

I thank you very much for your time,
Have a great day,
Elisa

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TeoB:

I am myself born in a grey city and the local culture I grew in was teaching young people to „go to another city, less grey, and become an important person”. As I travelled i learned that cities are actually a problem and the most progressive people that i admired a lot were talking about moving out.

The key message, (especially as a Romanian that grew up with a certain image of villages) is we move forward towards a more sustainable future of ourselves as persons and, i hope we contribute towards a more sustainable future of society as whole. We do not „move back to countryside” seen as hardship, poverty, conservative views.

I encourage you to follow the instinct of learning before taking radical decisions. Traveling for a whole year and learning the gentle way as volunteers will mean a lot for you, regardless the later decisions and outcomes.

One of the first things i realised after living in the countryside is the yearly cycle. In grey cities people are expected to work regular hours regardless the time of the year, with support of artificial light, caffeine, over heated spaces in winter and air conditioning in summer. In my farm each month is very different. This is why I advice to do it for a whole cycle.

Regarding the „survival” – it would be a waste of time from me to write too much about my own opinions. The quality of life is a unique blend for every person. Only by experiencing different ways of life you can decide what is the most important for you. You will find hosts those life barely differs from the city, working as freelancers and still shopping in supermarkets, but taking advantage of a cleaner environment (which they sometimes pollute with their cars) and, in the case of a community, a richer social life. I am being very honest with this description, it applies to me often when, because of worries „how to survive”, I take too much work in town :)

You will also find hosts that are very blunt and radical about their needs and cheerfully live well with very small amounts of actual money. You will find people that go as far as possible from cities. Others that stay close and engage in exchanges. Some love animals, grow them with care and also eat them. Others are radical vegan or vegetarians. There are lots of ways of living!

The quest of your journey will be to find from the many experiences your unique blend that would give your life a purpose and joy.

Once you found a pattern of hosts that are similar to your views, you will naturally learn the strategies to go beyond survival towards striving. With no effort, just by living with your hosts, you will learn how to structure your day, how to manage your food, how much interaction you need with others whether neighbours or outside visitors, the activities that give you joy and the ones you will want to avoid and how to turn things you like into money for things you cannot produce yourself.

As for ”where do you get the money to buy a few things/get petrol/pay bills from?”, there is no standard answer. Different people I know in a similar situation have developed various strategies, based, again, on an unique blend of interest and skills and local opportunities.

One important warning: life in the countryside is not ideal and the hosts do not „know it all”. Quite much you will learn from problems you have yourself adjusting to new experiences, another great deal will be from witnessing the problems the hosts experience themselves – like adjusting to parenthood of their children or an aging parent or their own aging. Life is a continuous change and transformation. Whatever will happen (and generally whatever happens in our lives) is for learning and personal growth.

After a full circle you will start a new one, adjusting your life to your new selves. There is no „move back to the city and start all over again”. Even if you decide that life in a farm is not for you, you will know a bit more about what makes your life happier, wherever you will be. 

I hope this message answers a bit the essence of your questions.

Irina: 

For me, moving to Stanciova (after a few visits in the village, a 2 weeks vacation from work spent volunteering at the Teodora’s place) was not so much a leap into the unknown. Both me and my partener are Romanian and originally from nearby cities. I read a lot about permaculture and moving to the countryside was a natural step in doing what my heart was telling me to do, to be able to experiment. It wasn’t so much about self sufficiency, which we knew we won’t achieve and we still don’t believe in the concept, it was mostly about finding and taking part in a community. Financially, we still had some savings, parents helped with buying the house and some bigger expenses like buying a fridge or some construction work. We found that expenses are far smaller then we ever expected, even though we still buy most of the food. We pay electricity, the gas bottle ( or however it’s called), the taxes for the house, some maintainance works from time to time. A lot of the staples we buy in bulk online, placing a common order, it’s cheaper then buying from supermarket. In summer we all have gardens with something growing, some of us put more energy, some less ( last year I was too exhausted after giving birth and caring for a newborn so we didn’t cultivate much, but we still had planty of perrenial plants to harvest, given that our permaculture garden seems to be quite resilient). We also gather wild plants and mushrooms when in season.

The excess we preserve in various ways. Some of the extra preserves are available for the community visitors on our product shelf, in the association’s house. Right now we’re not organized about that but it’s something we sometimes talk about in order to make this practice more efficient. We often practice gift economy among us and encourage others about it, as well. Sharing surplus is, I think, something we have in common. Also we sometimes trade goods or services among us and other village people, thus avoiding the use of money.

We don’t have a car, and we’re very grateful to those who do and help us move around. So no big expenses here. Most of our money flies when we go to the city and sometimes dive in the consumer culture, buing some fast foods we crave, going to a bar, buying clothes from second hand stores ( but seriously those are si cheap I wouldn’t count :) ). And now, with a baby, we buy diapers, but most of the baby items were gifts from friends and family.

Personally, a source of money is my making soap and other care products. I have no clear idea how much money goes in and how much comes out, but I like doing it and feel satisfied enough to continue. I think finding a craft that makes you happy and can help other people in a practical way can be a source of income, even without having to leave home to do it. I send the soaps by mail or people buy them from here in Stanciova. Of course it takes time for people to get to know your products or services and for you to have the experience needed to do a good job, but if you like what you do, you just do it. Also I make some small graphic design work, most of it is being payed in honey, beeswax and gratitude, and I tell you it counts!

I don’t think we ( me and my partner) ever thought a lot about how we’re gonna survive. We were pretty sure we’re gonna thrive, or, if not, move away and do something else. I still think we’re thriving, even though sometimes we don’t see it.

A whole lot of trust that the universe provides is necessary, sometimes we need to be reminded in order not to worry. Also, a goos reminder is that being part of the universe, we can make things happen.

OK, this was my answer for now. Take care!

P.S.: we wouldn’t have made it without the internet. From growing your garden, making preserves, fixing a stove, caring for a baby or buying a couch, I couldn’t see myself doing what I do without it.

 

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The questions that came with the next messages I just structured one under another:

Q: So would you suggest to „try” different hosts instead of spend a whole year with the same one?
Definitelly try different hosts! Typically hosts on WWOOF or Helpx or Workaway agree with 2-4 weeks hosting time to get to know you and if they feel really comfortable with eachother you can discuss about longer periods. But if you ask from the beginning for a period over a month, people get suspicious. Even if you like very much your very first host, it is impossible to fit completely with every aspect of your lives. Seeing more people, including not so nice ones, makes you appreciate the good places. Myself i preffer to invite to stay for longer people that passed through at least 2-3 experiences before. My advice is to plan the first 2-3 months with different hosts in different situations (professional farm versus city downshifters with side jobs; animal farms versus vegetable farms; mountains / hills / flat land; binational couples living in Romania to see how the foreign partners copes; if you ever plan to have children, then definitelly visit a farm with children and see how they deal with schooling and so on). Once you made the round, you will know to which farm you will want to return and experience the rest of the year cycle. You might even want to explore even more… You will know.
Q: In your experience, did you find your neighbours/elderly people living in villages and keeping farms willing to help young people with advices?
I personally have learnt a lot from my neighbours (they are few years younger than me) in terms of animals and practical constructions. But we disagree a lot about the garden. Self-irony and humour are crucial. Some people can actually become annoying and you do not want their advice. In case you might want to experiment with permaculture and other similar methods you will preffer to learn from books, internet and your own mistakes. Elderly in the village typically use labour intensive gardening methods and they would not understands for example mulching (saving water by covering the space between plants) or other methods.
Q: How does „living in the association house” work? I read in Stanciova’s blog that you can even move there.
We have a house in the village that is owned collectivelly by an Association. The idea is that people can live there as a try-out, before investing their own money. In the first ten years we usually had foreign people / couples that lived there for 3-12 months and after more travelling / saving, they started their own farms in the the countries of origin. A French couple stayed for a year and then bought their farm in France, a German one stayed for 6-7 months after graduating University and then went back to live in a house with garden, a German female gardener found inspiration to start her own farm near Munster and so on. A recent example that expanded our community are Brandusa and Anselm. They first visited me for various times, then they moved in the Association’s house and for two years they built their strawbale house in the village. This article in Romanian describes very practically their experience.   We decide as a group who lives there and only after getting to know the future inhabitants for at least 3 weeks (as written on the general presentation on the blog).
The opportunity is good compared to other places that might request important financial contributions but it is not ideal, you will not want to live forever in a collectivelly owned house with a constant flow of strangers passing by ;)
Q: The will to leave the city is there and strong, but the biggest question is: how do you put this will into reality? What are the steps, what should I be prepared to, what should I plan?
Some people plan a long and careful transition corelated to their professional route, some just decide one day. As an example, my transition was very long, it took 10 years from the first dream to move to the countryside to the moment I moved to make a a permanent home in the village.  Meanwhile some friends were fine with the job opportunities they found in the area and  moved in after three years, spending the rest raising their child. Another couple in the village saved money during their studies and decided in a matter of months, after visiting us for a couple of times. Keep on listening on different stories and make your own scenario. There is no perfect solution, it is in your power and responsibility how you plan your life. It depends much on your personality and skills but also on the opportunities you find locally.
 
Q: How did it happen to you all, what did you do, how long did it take to start learning the basics of agriculture starting from zero?
We still do not know agriculture. We experiment with gardening and running a household. I keep on learning and experimenting every year with different things. I started with some easy vegetables (onion, peas, beans), transplanting ready grown plants (tomatoes, peppers, aubergines). Year by year i reached the point to have a plant nursery and a winter garden, which i currently dismantled, to start a new one. For a while I experimented diversity of annual plants. Now i am more into perenials. You start learning from those around you, you do lots of mistakes, you will be also curious and excited and you will learn. Books and online resources are usefull but also limited because your micro-climate may have certain particularities that does not fit in the recipes.
Q: Is it easy to buy a house and land in the villages?
Depends on the country, the region, how far you are from big cities, if it is a depopulating village or a booming suburbia. That is why you should travel and explore first!
Q: Do you have any extra activities except the farm to keep you going and what are they?
Living on the land does not necesarily mean the income has to come from agriculture. We are fortunate to live in times where technology offers lots of opportunities. I make most of my income as a freelance consultant and trainer, working in paralel towards increasing the income generated by the farm through small scale tourism. A random list on how people i know generate their income: making home made cosmetics, working online as traffic controler for a logistic company, psychologist in the nearby small town, freelance architect, crafts person, sesonal work abroad, bread backer and small scale tourism, English teacher touring the villages around, programmer that has set up a vegetable box scheme, project manager in EU funded small projects for local development… The more you will travel, the more stories and inspiration you will find.
I insist again, moving in a small place does not necesarily mean a step backwards to plowing the land with an ox. For me it meant moving forward towards a creative life, where i have a sense of control of aspects that are important to be such as: food, a different type of community, being in touch with my body through physical work, working in the yearly rythm of nature, having enough space to experiment and create.
Q: Can you easily sell the products you don’t consume (eg. eggs, jam, milk) in markets, or is there a strict quality control and a slow burocracy?
I personally preffer not to sell directly the surplus but exchange it in the small circle around me. This is because we live in a society that has completely distorted views on food and its importance. Prices and perceptions of buyers in markets too are perverted by an artificial abundance of the supermarkets and i personally think it would be a waste of time and energy trying to fit in this system. This includes the quality control and bureaucracy issues. This is why in Romania people making a living from growing food are looking for alternatives such as consumers groups making contracts with producers or raising the value of their products through tourism. If you plan to live as a food producer, have a look on the map Romania Altfel and you will find some interesting examples to learn from. In Transylvania most food producers combine their work with agroturism. My favourite farms are Bioferma Albastrea (vegetables and fruits plus tourism), Casa de pe Deal (Confiture de lait, first stept with tourism), Moara Veche (bread, cheese products, tourism), ferma lui Willy Schuster in Mosna (diary products). People producing just food tend to settle near big cities like Tomatina near Bucharest (tomatoes) or Curtea Culorilor near Timisoara (social housing for single mothers producing also dairy).
Q: Is there something that you did not imagine (positive and negative) when you decided to live in the countryside and now, if you think back, you would have liked that somebody had told you?
I really did not imagine my life as fulfilled and beautiful as it is now. I did not imagine myself growing into the grounded and happy person I feel now either. The only regret I have for the past is wasting too much time trying to imagine the future instead of living the present moment :)
How related is my present state to the fact that i decided once to live in a village, i do not know. What i remember is that I  was not happy as an immigrant in Germany so i turned around and returned to Romania. Then a common dream was born in a circle of friends and i followed that. It was not the ultimate solution, I still had too many expectations. Life unfolded itself, challenging me. One turning point was when I realised that I feel really alive at the limit of the comfort zone. So I started to seek challenge instead of feeling a victim of challenges.
Moving or not moving to the countryside as a decision is just an exercise. The most important issue I see is about your life, how to live in a fulfilled way. It might be leaving the grey city and its routines, it might be about coping with it. The most important issue is staying in touch with your deepest self, aware into the present moment and decide fearlessly.
Anunțuri

6 comentarii

  1. Hello,

    As someone which also moved to Transylvania searching for a „better something” I found a lot of connection with the text above so I decided to contribute something which defined my quest. Everything takes a lot more time than expected, but it’s well worth it in the end if you persist. This includes searching and finding a place, acquiring that place, sorting paperwork, etc.. And money, even if required, as always, is not, by far, enough. You need time, energy and a lot of good will (from you and the others). This can be most of the time measured in years but in the process you will change, for the better. And in the end, there will be this time, at 4am, when you wake up to put some wood in the fire, and enjoy some time to read and comment online, surrounded by an unfinished place which you call your own :)

    Nice finding this blog,
    Len

  2. Foarte frumos si pertinent, multumim Teo pentru cum ai sintetizat experienta ta! Mi-a dat noi aripi visului de a pleca din orasul cenusiu…;-)

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