I always wonder, how do we choose the places where we end up living?
More people than ever are born with the freedom of this choice. We can travel, move around and stay almost anywhere in the world. So, what’s our criteria?
Well, it often starts with a negative decision: Where do I not want to be?
Both of us had a strong sense of that. We didn’t want to be in a city. We both felt that life in an apartment with a 9 to 5 job wasn’t for us. And most importantly – we wanted to feel that we’re doing something meaningful.
We met somewhere along the way towards finding our answer to that question. It was in Switzerland. Franz had just started his road trip 20 minutes earlier. He was driving down from an eco project in the Alps, where he had stayed for a few month, heading towards the south-west of Europe. I, Kasia, was hitch-hiking, and Franz stopped.
It was a special day for both of us. We had both independently decided to be open to the unknown. Franz was looking for new inspiration, not knowing what to expect. I had been travelling around, getting away from my life in Warsaw, feeling lost and tired, wondering, whether studying was worth my while, or if there were other opportunities waiting.
When Franz told me, “I’m on a road trip to Portugal with two friends. We are going to a festival and later I want to stay there and discover the country.” – something moved me to join them. If I didn’t follow this hunch, it felt like I would loose something very important. It didn’t make much sense at the time, but that was the way I chose.
A year later – after many adventures and ups and downs – we knew we wanted to have a place in Portugal, a place to call home.
Were we ready? Basically yes, but it was still a very big step, and we had to overcome many fears to say “Yes!” to this new lifestyle. To say “Goodbye” to the free travellers who we were, and become farmers instead.
While volunteering on several eco projects and farms, we realised that moving around forever wasn’t enough for us. We wanted to plant trees, watch them grow, and harvest their fruit. We wanted to see the same garden in all four seasons, to form friendships and allow them to develop.
When you are searching for a land, it is very good to know your criteria and priorities. It’s great to visualise what you are going to do with it and try to think from patterns to details – just like permaculture teaches. In the end, however, that is not the most important part. Every owner of a piece of land, everyone we know – including ourselves – made their choice guided by feeling.
There is some hidden connection between you and the place you choose for living. When you are there, you just know. It is the same as with choosing a partner. We might know what we are looking for, what sort of qualities we would like our partners to have, but in the end, the emotions decide.
We were lucky. It took us only three weeks of active searching to find the land of our dreams. During the excitement of signing the contract we wondered, “Are we rushing it too much?”
As it turned out, we never regretted our decision. Thanks to being open to our intuition, telling us, “This is it!”
Our lucky moment happened while many others in this area experienced the most terrible days of all times. In October 2017 the biggest wildfires anyone in the area had seen in the past 75 years, ripped through central and northern Portugal, destroying forests, villages, cities and the lives and livelihoods of many people.
We were just driving over the mountains, coming from further east, on our way to move to our farm, when we got trapped in a ring of fire. We got stuck on top of the Serra Estrela and had to watch the firestorm devastate whole mountain slopes, until finally the long awaited rain came later that night.
The hardest thing wasn’t watching the blaze of the firestorm during the night. Far more heart breaking was the following day, descending through the burnt out landscape – completely black hillsides; trees and electric cables fallen across the roads; burnt out cars abandoned on the roadside left and right – for kilometers and kilometers on end.
We drove into Vila do Mato, the village where our farm is located, and discovered that most of the Mondego river valley, including our land, had miraculously survived the flames, totally untouched. After the terrible devastation we had passed through, this was hard to believe!
Strange times followed. We felt we had no right to celebrate our happiness. We were surrounded by people in despair, people who had just lost everything, who didn’t know what to do next, where to go. We wanted to help, but felt powerless, not knowing anyone, being new to the area, having nothing but a piece of land, without a house to give shelter, with no tools to lend.
Remembering those moments now, we still feel shy about it, but very grateful for that big experience. Such terrifying events offer very deep lessons. We observed, with the eyes of outsiders, how the community quickly found a way to support each other. People offered whatever they had to those who had lost everything: homes, tools, clothes, cars, food, emotional support, money…
With the rains of winter the first grass grew from the ashes. Slowly coming out of the traumatic experience, people realised the importance of a supportive community. Seed swaps, swap shops, tool banks, cooperatives and craft markets – all of that got a big boost and stood up with force.
From a logical perspective it might seem counterintuitive, because the local economy lost so much of its productivity. But that is not always what drives a community. During these hard times we all felt what self-sufficiency really means. The word is so overused, that it lost its true value. Self-sufficiency doesn’t mean living as independent, isolated farmers, keeping everything for themselves. It means being open to the local energy flow, giving as much as you take, and allowing the resources to regenerate. So when you loose something, you know how to bring back the balance.
The fires also taught us appreciation by making us realise how easy it is to loose what we love. The most touching words we heard came from one lady who had lost her farm and was now rebuilding everything from scratch. She said, “Now I know, that nothing really belongs to me. That’s not something sad, but it makes me free. I don’t own my land, my buildings, my animals. It all comes and goes.”
These words helped us understand, that we are more than what we do, or what we have.