Thursday, August 25, 2011

Downsizing - less is more

Hard work pays dividends
It’s been five years since we took a conscious decision to alter our lives drastically, abandon a decent full-time salary and downsize, abroad. Asturias on the north coast of Spain had captured our imagination and hearts when we came here on holiday several years previously.

Since relocating, many people comment on how lucky we are and how idyllic our lives must be. We are and it is, but not in the way some people believe it to be. Yes you can sit on the terrace and drink gin and tonic, you can laze away your summer days on the beach and you can eat out fairly cheap, in fact some people do opt for the extended holiday type existence. The problem is those who opt for the sun and sangria approach soon get bored, they find that their social circle is, in the main ex-pats, and they moan constantly about how much better it is back in the UK.

Downsizing and relocating brings with it many challenges, in fact twice the challenge of just relocating. For a starter, it can be hard work. Living on a reduced income means that you do what you can for yourself over and above hiring someone to do it for you or buying it in. Leaving family and friends behind is a wrench but on the positive side, they have a holiday home whenever they can get over...

Given the option to fell a tree, generously offered by a neighbour, knowing full well you will have to: use a lethal weapon (chainsaw) to chop down a 30 foot dying cherry tree; process it into firewood size chunks; transport it; stack it; clear up all the non-usable stuff, or to buy a lorry load from a local merchant, we opt for the former.

Growing vegetables year-round does never just happen. After 5 years, we rarely buy vegetables but they come at a price. There is ground to be dug, compost to be made, manure to be brought and added to the beds, seeds to be sown that will need daily care, pests and diseases to contend with that could potentially devastate your crop, tying and staking, watering and weeding, and hopefully, harvesting.

You have a glut of vegetable, several times a year, all requiring processing or storing. This results in full days in the kitchen making pickle, pisto, pesto and jams. Whilst you wait for things to cook, you decide to make bread, which eventually becomes routine as you rediscover the pure satisfaction that is home-baked bread. You cook fresh food and rarely long for convenience food, instead you develop your own and freeze it. Over time you become increasingly imaginative with courgettes and beans, you soon learn that there is more than one way to preserve the fruits of your hard work. Tomato jam, now there’s a first for many.

Home-made soap - nothing better...
DIY takes on a new meaning. After several bad experiences, DIY has come to stand for  “do it yourself as you can probably do it much better than someone else and considerably cheaper”. You learn new skills through trial, error and advice from great neighbours past (Terry and Bob) and present. You begin to realise that small-scale building projects and ongoing maintenance work doesn't necessarily need an estimate nor a shaking of the head that signals this is going to cost. You begin to believe that “actually, I could do that myself”.

Downsizing has never only been about having less money to spend but a conscious decision to try to be more responsible with the earth’s resources. Reduce, re-use and recycle has become the new mantra. In addition, something that was told to me by my mother on more than one occasion has become second nature as we assess our need for more possessions i.e. “Do you really need it and can you really afford it? If the answer is no, maybe, not really or possibly, then we do without. We have reduced our need for stuff considerably by leading a simpler life where it isn’t necessary to be virtually attached 24 hours to a transmitter, where television isn’t our main source of entertainment and where shopping trips are planned when real need arises. We make do and mend where possible and entertain ourselves in much more creative and productive ways.

There is no doubt that this change of direction in our lives has resulted in a complete re-think and re-evaluation of what is important in life. Gone are the days when we sit in traffic jams on our way to work for organisations that are so wrapped up in the politics of managing that they have forgotten what they are there for. Gone are the days when we would spend silly amounts of money on the latest must haves and holidays that were over before they began. Gone are the days where you sit daydreaming and wishing your life away as you cannot wait for the weekend to arrive.

Our new life isn’t perfect, but whose is? The joy of living in a place that you never tire of discovering, the taste of home-grown food, the sense of pride you feel in what you build, make and mend, the daily walks though traffic free country lanes and caminos (small lanes and footpaths), the time to pursue your hobbies and interests and the never-ending motivation to get out of bed in a morning as you are really looking forward to your day makes it all worthwhile.

Overall, it has been the right decision for us. What has become clear is that relocation has been the vehicle and stimulus for change. Downsizing is much easier when you do not have the constant competitiveness of careers, when you are not constantly bombarded with advertising telling you that you life sucks without possessions and when you can take the necessary steps to take stock and re-assess what is important. On reflection, we could have downsized anywhere and not necessarily relocate abroad. The trouble is, when you are in the thick of it, those brief moments of sanity when you think “there has to be more to life than this” are swept away by the constant stream of detritus that comes with a life of convention and expectation.

Chemical free food

Ian Hicken 2011 ©


  1. Anonymous2:42 pm

    sounds pretty ideal life to me - but then I think maybe we are on the same page :)

    using a chainsaw? luxury! we have to use bowsaws ;)

  2. That was a lovely post. Thank you.

  3. What a great post. I certainly agree that a simpler life with less 'things' and less TV, gadgets etc is better, and we try to achieve that here in Madrid, increasingly making do with older things that still work rather than constantly having to upgrade to the 'latest' of everything that keeps being upgraded year after year... One day we'll finally manage to do it surrounded by wonderful nature like you guys do!

  4. Lovely post, guys - lovely blog!

    Glad to know it's working out for you - sort of thing I'd like to have done given my time over.

    Nice batch of bread you've got there!

    Best wishes, Paul (Nobreadisanisland)

  5. Thanks everyone for your kind words and emails. Still a long way to go but the journey is often more important than the destination.

  6. I'm happy for you....... Iam interested in finding out how three of us traveling through Asturias this march could experience the best of the food culture. We love the Michelin experience; yet we equally love the hearty simple food handed down by generations. We are looking for a rural and urban food experience in, Gijon and Oviedo as well as the country surrounding the two big cities.

  7. @robert - Food culture - phew what a broad subject matter. Similar to anywhere else really - the better restaurants will be listed in various guides. Fairly traditional tastes with minimal external influences. Eating where the locals and workmen eat is always a good indicator of value and quality. Menu of the day is often great value ranging from 7 - 25 Euros depending on clientèle and location. Lunch is the main meal of the day. Spaniards eat late both at lunchtime and dinner. The nearest Michelin eatery is Casa Marcial in Arriondas. March maybe too cool for picnics but if not, source your products from local markets, bakery and butcher - many recreational picnic areas around the region. Cider is big and comes complete with its own rituals. Local cheeses are super but expensive. Cured meats are good (so I am told). How to enjoy all this? Go with the flow - no rushing, be social, share dishes, speak some Spanish (not many English speakers here). Enjoy yourselves. If can be of any other help email.

  8. Hi Ian, i have just come across your blog while looking for similar stories. I will be moving to Asturias and i'd just like to say how interesting your blog is. I know it will be a real struggle for me but i'm determined to make it work.

    Thanks for the tips.



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