A lot of professional and personal projects are happening in my life right now. Which is not really news to people who know me. But there is a very special project taking shape, a project of which I have dreamt for a long time and that is now finally getting off the ground. By chance, almost.
Though I really like living in big cities, they do have their disadvantages. They are noisy, chaotic, hurried and not very green. This is why, at one point in my life, I would like to have a place in the countryside – ideally in the north of Spain or in Italy, close to the mountains, in rugged nature, a place that is bereft of human influence. In this second home, I would be able to reconnect with nature, write my articles and books, do a bit of bed-and-breakfasting on the side, retreating into contemplation and mindfulness while also keeping the door wide open to friends and family.
Such a house has come on my path, but it is not in the Mediterranean area. Rather, it is in the Belgian Ardennes, in the municipality of Durbuy to be precise. My partner found a job in the north of Luxembourg, which is not the most interesting area to live and it is too far for a daily commute from Brussels. So we found a solution – in the middle, as compromises are a matter of give and take. We bought an old farm in the Ardennes, which is right between Brussels and Luxembourg, and have been renovating the place for over a year now.
Since May, I have spent a lot of time in the countryside, now that my partner has moved into the house that is not quite finished yet. In fact, I was there for a large part of the summer. Busy times in Brussels have commanded that I can only be there during weekends, but nonetheless, I made some observations about living in the countryside. Though it is in Belgium, I guess that the experience will be similar to living in rural areas in Spain or Italy (apart from the weather and the aperitif culture).
First of all, life is quiet and slow on the countryside. This of course is no surprise, a no-brainer. But if you experience it day in, day out, rather than just going for a weekend, it really does something to you. Think away the tourists in the Ardennes, and all you have is nature and farms. There is not a lot of other activities or cultural sights/cities in this area. So you as a person, also need to become quiet and slow. That means soaking up the solitude, going for long, silent walks with the dog, be patient with slow service / responses of people with whom you engage, find comfort in the limited company that you may find.
To be honest, I am not there yet, accepting this way of living. For me it is a bit too quiet, especially if I am working from home, and my colleagues are far away (in Brussels, London and further). I also can get annoyed if you make an appointment with an organisation to, for instance, fix your internet or deliver a couch – and then they come at a different time or even day, without telling you. Which is – if I understand my Dutch builder correctly – is entirely normal in the Ardennes. One owner of a gîte confided to me: ‘If you ask someone to do something for you, make sure you just don’t get the day and month right, but also the year.’
Secondly, connecting with nature certainly is a dominant feature of a rural existence. There are various walks into forests commencing straight from our house. In our wild garden, there are dozens of different plant species – the garden itself is in Natura 2000 area. When we bought the place, there were even beavers behind our house who made a dam and created a beaver-made lake! Also, I haven’t seen so many butterflies since my youth.
Every week you can see the vegetation change; even in October there are certain flowers blossoming which is wonderful. In the meantime, hunters close some roads in the weekends in order to fulfil their annual killing spree. Which is a necessity because the wildlife is quite sprawling and too many deer and wild boars, for instance, can be a hazard to the natural environment and also for drivers.
And then the stars at night…. An evening without ‘light pollution’ can make the sky pitch black and you can see thousands of stars with the naked eye.
A third and more challenging point is connecting with people. The inhabitants of the Ardennes are not known to be the most open Belgians. In our village we have quite a few ‘import residents’, notably from Brussels and the Netherlands. When we after a few months living there, brought around some home-made cookie jars to introduce ourselves, most of the local people were a bit reluctant to talk to us and didn’t invite us in, while the ‘import’ neighbours usually were more welcoming, offering us wine and beer instead of a short ‘merci’ and a closing door.
You’d also really need to speak French. In touristy areas you can get away with Dutch and English (the Ardennes are very popular with Dutch and Flemish visitors, but not vice versa), but once you are in the normal life, French is the norm, the only language in fact. This is not a problem for me, but something you need to be ready for. People here also tend to be carré in their thinking – which means not flexible at all. Last weekend, our builder told us we could buy some stuff for the renovation at his account at the hardware store. When we informed the cashier about his approval, she started fuming, telling us that he should have called her first, and then complaining she had to rescan our handful of items.
The jury is still out whether we will be able to build a proper social life in the Ardennes, it is much too soon for that. But it will require a lot of time and effort – at least, that’s my gut feeling for now. Networking and making friends is so much easier in big, cosmopolitan places. But these connections tend to be flaky, transient. Now that I think of it, most of the people that I befriended in Brussels, have already left in the meantime.
Fourth and last: distance. I really have to get used to the idea that the nearest (proper) supermarket is a fifteen-minute drive away. That there is not even a bakery in the village. That also the gym is more than ten kilometers from our house. That all my friends are 100-200 kilometers away. And this is still Belgium! What if we moved to the Pyrenees, how far (and unbridgeable) would the distances become then?
So if you have any plans or dreams about moving to the countryside, I would recommend to just test the waters. Rent a place for a while, don’t plan too much touristic stuff but also lead your life as if it was your daily routine. Slow down and look around. Try to talk to the cows and see if you manage to get their interest. Sit down next to a river and feel if the silence and lack of stimuli makes you excited, or nervous. (Just don’t drink the water, it can make you sick with all the untreated water being dumped!). It is great to park your car easily at the supermarket, but are you prepared to be dependent of a car to get your groceries? And as the evenings are quiet, would you be happy with books, tv and Netflix as the main distractors (apart from your partner / family of course)?
For the moment, I have concluded that I will want to spend the majority of my time in the city, to be closer to friends and colleagues, not having to work in a virtual environment. Which is not so strange, given the fact that I have lived most of my life in big cities. But the life on the countryside holds also much potential – a promise that will yet need to be uncovered, and requires patience and dedication.