“I could be working as a Social Scientist by now,” shouts Sergio over the stuttering engine of the communal van, “but I prefer picking up grapes!” As we bounce up the potholed road to our little re-occupied village in the hills, I remember a few of my more respectably employed friends back in England, and (bad English aside) I think he might have a point.
For the past six months I’ve been living in a small community of Neo-Ruralists in a village in the Spanish Pre-Pyrenees. The name describes a movement of young people who are choosing to spend their days rebuilding ruins and planting onions rather than struggling to find work in Spain´s climate of 50% youth unemployment. The rural landscape is littered with little villages left to crumble when the population moved towards the cities in the 1950s. Some of these are now being given a new kind of life.
The grapes in question are in the back of the van, threatening to slop over the edges of three enormous blue bidons. We’ve been able to get them because a friend of a friend agreed to give us as much as we could take in exchange for some help with his harvest. To make the most of the deal we took turns to strip off and jump into the bidons to press the grapes with our feet as we picked, and now we will spend a couple of days picking the stems out by hand and lugging bucketfuls down the village street to the ruin we’ll use as a bodega. It’s no small amount of work, but to have wine for the year it’s well worth it.
With this type of arrangement we’ve secured ourselves supplies of almonds, honey, olive oil and plenty more. The Spanish countryside is littered with ageing farmers who, now struggling with the farms they spent their lives building up, have found that their children just aren’t interested in taking them over. A young and enthusiastic Neo-Ruralist is just what they need. One is even offering his entire farm, livestock and all, to someone who is prepared to take it on.
The movement has grown up in an atmosphere of disillusionment with the city lifestyle. “I was in the city, trying to live without giving my money to supermarkets”, explains Sergio, “but I had some friends who were starting this kind of self-sufficient life, and it appealed to me.” Together with a couple of friends he found a house in one of the 700-odd crumbling stone villages littered across the hilltops of this region, and over the course of three years they’ve built it up from a ruin into something roughly habitable.
In a sense, recycling could describe most aspects of this type of life. Almost everything in the house has been salvaged or haphazardly constructed; the kitchen tiles were collected from the local dump, and the kitchen tap made from old hose, wire and part of a bicycle wheel. It’s a bit like living with the borrowers. Even the beautiful round glass bottles for fermenting the wine came from a pile of dumped rubbish found behind a church, and when we finally bottle it, we’ll use our neighbours’ cast-offs.
Our village is a little different from most, in that it also houses a variety of people from all over Europe bringing with them very different levels of financial investment, some even treating their houses as holiday homes. Most of the villages our friends live in were found empty and essentially squatted, reconstruction beginning from almost nothing. Villages cooperate a lot, trading produce and advice, and helping each other out with big projects.
Among these can be found a vast range of different systems and philosophies; one village keeps goats and bees and maintains a remarkably high quality of totally independent life, another group believes in hard work as the route to happiness and cut no corners. In my house we accept a certain level of disorder in exchange for a relaxed life. We also pick up agricultural work when we can in order to pay for the odd luxury, and to care well for the young baby and the dogs. “To start with, we didn’t want a chainsaw – we’d cut firewood by hand and huddle round one log with blankets.” explains Juan, misty-eyed. “Most groups start out that way. The Spartan style. But, you can’t do that with a baby. There are compromises.”
Even the philosophies of these little communities seem somehow reconstructed, each group feeling their way towards a combination that works. The backlash of this self-invented lifestyle is a certain loss of individuality. Common aims are essential; although some other cultures regard the Western style as being excessively individualistic, compromising on personal goals can be a shock to the system. But with a little pushing and pulling, and a lot of very Spanish frank discussion, generally it’s possible to find something that everybody feels good about.
The refreshing thing here is the directness. “We’ve exchanged money for work” laughs Juan, “If you want something, you just have to work to make it happen. The only thing you could do with money in your pockets here is lose it.” Along with this goes a far closer relationship with the land. Life here changes drastically with the seasons, with waves of eating nothing but wild mushrooms or tomatoes when they’re in season, and when light and solar power are low in winter it’s best to just sleep more.
“I learnt plenty when I was at University, but this is different. This is like a rebirth” says Sergio gravely. “You learn 800 new things a month, but it’s not to do with maths or science, it’s the real basics of life. Things about construction and gardens and food and how to plan things out yourself.” It’s an important point. These people are well-educated, they’ve grown up within the cities and the system that their parents believed in, but they’ve decided to find their own way of living from the bottom up. Rather than rebelling within the system, they’ve just quietly stepped outside. Juan sums it up: “The philosophy of our house is based around self-sufficiency, and then, creativity.”