Stagones, « drops of water

Greece, june 2014

After a few days in Athens – staying as couchsurfers with a pair of great anarchists – here we are on our way to the island of Euboa. We are going to spend some ten days with Greeks who, for two years, have taken up the challenge of settling in the fields. In the coach driving us away from the capital city, a middle aged man sadly tells us : « but… you know there is no beach there, don’t you?! ». For the time being, the landscape we passing through on the mountain slopes, is just magnificent and we are not sorry to leave Atehns, the “concrete city” as the inhabitants have called her, behind us. Yiannis, one of the boys from Stagones comes to pick us up in his pick-up in the little village of Vlachia… and it proves very useful to face the end of the road which turns into a trail through the mountain. Then we walk for a while on a path which winds amongst the trees… before reaching the site of Stagones, perched in between the sea and the mountain! (the possibility of taking the dip does not seem so far away at the end of the day).

Nikos, Yiannis and Natalia, the initiators of Stagones, have lived through various experiences before choosing they wanted to live away from the lights of the city and embark on this adventure. Nikos, 29, studied economics for 6 years before turning to organic farming and learning the trade in in various farms as a voluntary labourer. Yiannis, 39, started his professional life as an engineer in industrial building, then he worked in tourism. After living and working in a town, then working in a town and living in the country… he decided to live AND workin the country. They met in a workshop on baked earth building methods, organised by the Cob Gr network… before becoming the co-organisers of training periods for the same association. It seems that the workshops see nice meetings happening since it is also in such a workshop that Yiannis and Natalia (then a student reading architecture) met… Once the idea was launched, then they only had to find the site…

Andreas and Stella, a couple of friends, had already chosen to leave the town to settle on the euboea island. Nikos and Yiannis (and other friends, family, voluntaries…) helped them build a small paradise that they took us around. A small house, with a structur made of wood and straw bales, an outside kitchen, a cob oven, and even a wonderful kiosk! After working on the site for three years, Yannis, Nikos and Natalia decided to buy a site in turn, a little higher still in the forest.

      

Why “Stagonès” ? « It means ‘drop of water’ in Greek, Yiannis tells us I remembered a painting representing the world in a drop of water. This image appealed to us, and we decided to choose this name … but don’t jump to conclusions! We had to to choose a name for practical reasons » A word which is a good omen, when we know that they bought the plot of land and picked up the challenge to connect it to a spring in the mountain. Listening to the neighbours’ advice, they eventually found one a few miles away, and they set long hoses to the spring, making sure that their work does not disturb the natural balance of the surrounding areas. The spring is supplied by the rivers till the beginning of summer. Then, they have to rely on the reserves stored in two huge tanks.

When we ask Yiannis about the organisation of the community life, he corrects us in a nice kind of way : « in fact we chose not to be described as a “community”, to avoid being locked up in a dogmas. Here, there are no predefined rules, except the rule of common sense. For instance, you are not going to be told to come here if you are not a vegetarian or any other stuff like that…. » To evidence it, one of the new comers did hang a big piece of ham on the ceiling, in case…). Many people come to Stagones, some for a few days … and others for a chunk of their lives, if they like it here! Each and everyone finds his place according to his skills or desires «we share the costs for food or the common needs such as water reserves, but above all we share our knowledge and our experiences…» Dimitri who has been here for a few months is an excellent chef who enjoys cooking almost every day for the whole gang. He is also a welder, second to none. He decided to live here after his family’s firm went bankrupt. His parents left to find work in Germany… and he decided to stay in Greece. Dominique also joined the gang on the way. This English carpenter seems to have been living various lives. From India to Australia, he went through France as well, and built many houses before becoming a teacher in England for some time, where he met Natalia (who was a student in the architecture school in those days) who invited him to Stagones. He fell in love with the place, became friends with the boys and made his skills available to the project. Now he is thinking about buying a plot of land in his turn… A little further lives another Yiannis. Before choosing this type of life, he used to work in advertising: « I used to like inventing short stories… But in 1991 it all changed, I was asked to imagine adverts to create new needs. I just could not do that, that is mapulating! So I left this work … and I bought a small plot. ».

 

Stagones is not an eco village either. And it comes out of Dominique’s mouth: « for me, eco house and all such new concepts mean nothing at all! The house must be nice and lively, and its beauty comes from its shapes and natural materials. My key word is “build sexy! » The first two houses were built in bales of straw coated with cob. Thanks to dominique’s help, they designed a nice wooden structure which has been turned into the common life place and the outdoor kitchen. The solar panels provide the electricity for the fridge, a washing machine and even the internet « If we had to leave, those two houses could be completely taken to pieces. There would be nothing left, apart from the eight concrete pillars, » says Yiannis. We understand that the road is far away and that must have been a problem when it came to transport all the materials needed to build the house and to prepare the land « In the beginning, we brought a certain amount of beams and straw bales in a wheelbarrow, on the path … then Dominique arrived and he came up with the idea of building the flying fox : a zipline through the trees. It did boost the site ! » Even if that complicated the work, it was in fact a real choice to be far from the road. Natalia tells us « When you have to carry each item yourself on the path to the house, you do learn to choose between what is essential and what is accessory. For me, the house must be there for you .. and not the other way round! When I was a child, my parents’ was always spotless : we could leave fingerprints on the worktop since it was absolutely clean! Here it is the other way around : you can drop something on the floor without having to wash since it is an outdoor kitchen… My mother spent her life cleaning, clearing up… I simply did not want to follow suit !»

One of the boys takes her around. We find the solar shower, hidden in between the leaves and the dry toilets: a nice cabin, high up, made out of recycled shutters… And when you are using the toilets, you have a beautiful view over the mountains. Dominique tells us laughing : « it was a big discussion: was it necessary to keep such a beautiful place for that? I was in favour since, and it must be remembered, we do spend a great deal of time on the toilets ! ». Compost is used after a few months to feed the fruit trees they planted.

We have arrived at a time when it was rather quiet, which enables us to discover this place and its inhabitants in a soft introduction. « The first year, we worked such a great deal, almost 10 hours per day, since we started from nothing ! Yiannis says. Now we are trying to slow down a bit to get our strength back. The vital elements are there: two rooms, an outside kitchen, water, a few platns… but there is still a great deal to do… » Nikos introduced us to the various terraced kitchen gardens surrounding the two houses. He gives great care to tomatoes, courgettes, salads… according to the “natural agriculture” developed by Masanabu Fukuoka (that Francesco also used in his kitchen garden at the la Casetta del nibbio in Italy). The production is only in its teething stage, but they are hoping that soon they will produce enough to get their own food. Nikos says « do you realise the work put in by the generations before us to build such stone terraces and cultivate here? And then … the factories settled in the region, and the farmers left for the town to find jobs which would not be so painful. Nature took over, the forest came back… and here we are again, a few years later, clearing up those former terraces…»

The end of our stay here is marked by a workshop. It is the opportunity for the group to transmit their knowledge, to make their project known and the make the site progress. Some thiry people come to learn the cob technique and help build the new outside kitchen: a bread oven and a big worktop. The participants have motivations similar to those people we met in the previous workshop. After studying, a life in town… many would like to turn to a way of life closer to nature, and be less dependent on the whims of “economic science”, slowing down in Greece as everywhere else in Europe, it seems… Dimitri sums it up« our grandparents had to leave the country to find a job in town. Our parents toiled so that we could go to university… We followed that path … and we realise today that what was actually hoped for is neither desirable nor appropriate. So we go back to the country but, malaka, not to live as they did in the Middle Ages ! »

The place for the outside kitchen was chosen because it is a magnificent point of view over the sea, and because it is a little away from the two houses. Since if Stagones is an open place, it is also important for the permanent inhabitants to have some kind of privacy. Andreas and Stella also told us that they somewhat became victims of the successful work they did on their plot : «many people come to see the house, some with a real wish to understand/learn, but others simply because they are just curious to see the eco house… Moreover, this year, and against our wish, we sometimes had to close the gate to avoid seeing surprising visitors in the garden !…»

Each and every evening, after the workshop, we all gather around Tassos, a senior bouszouki player from Thessalonica, who has somewhat become the uncle from Stagones. The soft melancholy of his oriental tunes under the stars (and the hot wind blowing from the south) makes us feel that we are not far from Turkey !

Our stay comes to an end, and we are moved to leave this happy gang who made us so welcome and offered to share a chunk of their life with us… We were hoping to leave with lighter bags, and yet we are leaving laden with small ‘homemade’ gifts and amongst them an envelope filled with seeds entrusted by Nikos « to exchange with those people you are going to meet on the road … and so that when you come back, you can create your garden with plants from the whole world ! » In the meantime … we have made up our minds, we are going to do our utmost to disseminate the great energies given to us, hoping that we will be lucky and meet other people who are so generous and inspiring.

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Workshop in progress

Greece ,june 2014

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On the road for almost a month and a half, we are leaving Italy for Greece by ferry. After crossing the Adriactic, it is early morning when we reach Corfu, one of the islands furthest north of the country, with a very specific shape (We leave it up to you to imagine which), which feed myths and legends. Katarina offered to help us during our stay on the island (she has heard about our adventure from her friends in Stagones, a project borned by several Greeks who built ecological houses east of Athens). In fact she transforms our stay in Corfu in an almost organised tour: she introduces us to her girl friend, Vasiliki, who lets us enjoy her flat for several days; she introduces us to a couple of friends who are building their house themselves; takes us to several small creeks which are both lovely and hidden away… Katarina is very much involved in alternative initiatives in Greece – and also in France with the Hétérotopies project. For a few years now whe has been taking part in the squat’s life, which was set up in a former vegetable farm, in the outskirts of Corfu. The members organise evening films/debates, discussions about books they enjoyed. They have also helped undocumented immigrants offering to put them up there for some time…. « The famous demonstration movements in Greece, such as Occupy, have not really led anywhere in particular… yet, they gave birth to many small initiatives, and have woven a local network, very strongly committed. The people have gone back to the basics if getting involved, talking to each other and listening to each other.

A few days later we are leaving Corfu for the « main land ». We hop on a bus (which goes on the ferry to leave the island!) for Thessalonica, the second most important city in the country. From there we go to the village of Trilofos to participate in a three-day workshop organised by the Cob GR network. This Greek network has been alive since 2006 and is offering, in the country but also elsewhere in Europe, baked earth construction workshops, and more specifically cob ones : a mixture of clay, sand and straw, traditionally used in various places all over the earth. « We did not think that so many people would be interested in our workshops, says Panos, one of the co-organises of the workshop.». « Many people want to get back to those lost know hows and win some sort of autonomy. The economic crisis the country is going through has been a speeding up lever » Panos grew up and worked for some ten years in a huge firm in New York, but decided to call it a day and settle in his country of origin, Greece. « I took part in a workshop with Cob, and that was the starting point… now it has become my job. Even if I cannot really call that a “job”! » ! » When stressing the big discrepancy between his previous life in New York and his current one, he smiles and says : «That can’t be denied ! But it all came step by step. I had no idea that in leaving the States, I would start that. I just followed what I wanted to do and that gradually led me to a new way of life ».

 

The programme for the three-day training read : « come and join us to build a fairy house and several mushroom houses for the children of the “School of Nature” ». We find out that this alternative school is a small eden for children: a big yard with trees and grass, impecably groomed, a zipline, toboggans, a rope bridge, a hen house with peacocks and other colourful birds, a vegetable garden… It is a private school (we wonder about the fees !), but a few places are reserved for children from lower middle-class families. The three-day workshop coincides with the school party because the holidays are drawing near : parents and children have been invited to take part in the construction of the house and at the same time several meals, small concerts or workshops are being set up. When we hear that some sixty children are going to come on site the following day, we are somewhat apprehensive of the chaos !

In the first evening party, we meet the participants in th workshop. Most of them are Greek and speak English very well : so no problem to communicate. We find out that the very good level of English of the Greeks is not, overall, the result of the efficient publics school system, but rather the result of them attending private language classes! After dinner, Kostas, the organiser explains :« this workshop has been designed as an initiation. The idea is for you to be able to grasp several techniques and natural materials to see what you are interested in and what you like to get deeper knowledge of later on… You are going to understand that building is in fact very closely connected to everyone’s feeling.» Then he introduces the agenda of the three days: work on site from 8:00 to 2:00; theoretical session from 3:00 to 5:00; and practical session again from 5:00 to 8:00. the days are quite full : the objective is to fill the wooden structure with a mixture of earth/straw, then to coat the walls with cob; to build an open fire place and a small bench all around it and finally to decorate the inside of the house … on top of setting up two small reed mushroom houses !

Each one of us is invited to introduce himself/herself. There are very varied profiles: we find out that amongst us there is a poet, a school teacher, a chess master (!), a nutritionist who has become a farmer … and unlike what could have been thought first of all for such a workshop, there are a great many women. If some of the participants are already thinking of specific construction projects, we notice that they see their attendance to this venue as a global approach. For isntance, Eleana, who came with her partner and their 10-month old daughter says : «I have been teaching IT for a number of years, but am not convinced. In fact it was not a choice. Now I am getting ready to leave my job to become a yoga teacher. With my partner we intend to set up a small community. We came here to learn a few techniques… and we also hope to meet people who would have experiences to share, or would be interested in embarking on our project… »

In the group there are also many young architects. Verda, from Istanbul, introduces herself « I worked for two and a half year in an international architect firm. I eventually left because I grew fed up with using only concrete and steel and with being away from the site. Today architecture is too often going fast to make up money…»

After a night under the tent and an early breakfast, working on site starts. While some of us are erecting a small bedrock, others are preapring the cob for the coating. Some uncertainty can be felt for some time, then everyone dives in and the recipe is precise: one pail of sand for one pail of clay, a handful of straw and some water. Then the mixture has to be stomped on to get a homogeneous mixture. We understand why many popular dances were born from such rhythmic stomping. For the time being, the mixture is getting ready accompanied by one of the teachers’ playlist. Some songs are nice reminders : « Hey, teacher, leave the kids alone ! » – the Pink Floyds are singing, or also Zaz’s famous song which reached Greece « Je veux d’l’amour, d’la joie, de la bonne humeur, ce n’est pas votre argent qui f’ra mon bonheur… » :

While the cob is getting ready, other participants ae mixing clay and straw to fill the walls, in bath tubs made of straw bales and a tarpaulin. This place changes into a discussion room (with almost free clay feet treatment!) or also a mudbath where the children are having a hell of a time. Since, gradually, they left school to join us on the site. Looking at the grown-ups with puzzled eyes, they are enjoying it fully now and the roles are being inverted – the grown-ups are staring at them amazed as they are playing in mud and we are all feeling a bit jealous of their spontaneity. The headmistess spoke at the beginning of the workshop « please, let the children take part in the the cosntruction, give them the opportunity to touch, to feel, to smell… » Those tiny ones are already autonomous in a way. Even if it is a bit noisy, their presence gives a magic touch to this workshop. Dimitri, one of the participants, tells us with a big smile « it’s so fantastic to see them having a good time with the ground like that. It gives us quite an energy and we get back to childhood ourselves (even if, as far as I am concerned, I think I have never actually left that stage !) ». In the bath tub, there are also several mothers with babies on their backs and an elderly man (a neighbour?) who spend about two hours stomping the mixture. Many people come and go to see the progress on the house, and they eventually end up helping. No need for tools : just roll up your sleeves and take offf your sandals! No need either for any specific skills : advice and orders spread by word of mouth. Self management is getting established naturally. More so than getting an initiation to construction, it is a means to experiment collective labour. At the end of the first day, the four walls have been filled with straw/earth and the cob coating can start. Soon enough the house is covered in many fingerprints (since small holes have to be made for the next coat to stick well), both children’s and grown-ups’.

The last day sees the beginning of the famous small mushroom shaped houses. Reeds have to be intertwined around the wrought iron framework prior to coating it with cob. This technique is a reminder of the « architrenchio » technique we saw in Italy, in the casetta del nibbio. Padelis, one of the participants goes on « many traditional houses in Greede used to be built following this technique. In my grandfather’s, for instance, the inside walls were built like that, in reeds and cob. It was strange since they were flexible: they used to move a bit when we touched them. The advantage is that they could easily be taken off to change the organisation of the house. And such walls are perfectly well adapted to our climate ! ».

Little by little, the inside of the Fairy house is getting built. The chimney is done. It has been built in baked earthen bricks, modelled on the first day and dried in the sun. The flue outlet has been covered in strips of old clothes which have then been coated in plaster. Under the hands of the participants, the flue outlet changes into a tree with fruit and birds in the branches. All around the chimney, small benches (children size of course) are built in earth bags, bags filled with earth and compacted, which are also used to build superabobes. On the walls, other animals appear: a cat here, a snail there or symbols: a boat, a flower, and eye… Building a house for children is a good excuse for the grown-ups to give vent to their imagination and creativity. The fairy side of the house is maybe in the pleasure to create with one’s own hands for other people. One of the Greek women says « When I shape the earth like this, I think of nothing at all. I am simply here, in the present day, in what I am actually doing. In fact, it reminds me of meditation somehow…

At the end of the workshop, a young girl from Latvia launches an idea to use the same materials but a somewhat different technique to build: « why not make small straw bales, no bigger than bricks ? » Kostas first brushed her idea aside a bit fast, but after second thoughts he says « it is not a stupid idea ! Do you know what ? I am going to try in the next building site ! » In a nutshell, this is the essence of self-building: thinking, trying out and progressing together…

The three days go bye very quickly indeed and if the house has progressed it is not completely finished, and that is also due to the tain which was not expected. But, as Kostas says « what is more important than the construction of the house as such, is to have spent three days together, learning from each other. » He will meet those who wish to in September to finish the building. Some are already certain that they will be there and with them, new comers will contribute to this happy house.

For us, after a few days in Athens, we are on the way to Elba where former members of the Cob GR group have vowed to build houses which would be environmental friendly, in the middle of nature…

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La casetta del nibbio

Italy, may 2014

After two stops at friends’ in Florence and Spoleto, here we are on our way to our very first working site. We are going for about ten days to Francesco’s, near the small village of palmoli (by the way, very few Italians have heard about the place since it is so small!) in the Abruzzo region. We got in touch with him through the Help X website. Although there is only little information on the working site itself, the enthusiastic comments from the previous voluntary workers have enticed us. And it proved a good idea: we are going to experience ten wonderful days.

To go there we are testing the Italian car sharing system (the BlablaCar website is also in full swing here and, on the contrary to what is being done in France, connecting people is still free!). Leonardo, the driver, is a very friendly percussionist. He makes us listen (too loud!) to a few contemporary music pieces his band is playing while driving through the magnificent hills of the Abruzzo. On one side we can see snow-capped mountains and on the other the Adriatic Sea, which can be discovered just after a bend! As we are driving by the sign to Aquila, the town which suffered a tremendous earthquake in 2009, we tell Leonardo that we intend to go there to shoot a documentary on a small community of citizens who worked on the rebuilding and went for environmental-friendly flats. Leonardo tells us that he was there on the night of the earthquake and informs us about Berlusconi’s governments making promises that never materialised. That is neither the first nor the last incitement to go there….

But for the time being we have arrived in Vasto, a small sea resort. After a small take away pizza eaten on the pavement near the train station, we start looking for a bus that will take us to Palmoli… and that is going to take us 4 hours almost! We eventually understand that we are in the wrong place and that we have to walk up to the next town where we will be able to catch this bus. With the help of about ten inhabitants and shopkeepers we finally reach the right place. Without their help we would never have been able to find it since there are no road signs and hardly any signs on the roads either, all hidden to our eyes by other cars parked on them! The next bus is leaving at 6pm (there are only two in the day, so we have to make sure we do not miss it!), so we enjoy a well-deserved fruit juice while waiting for it.

Like good students, we wrote down Francesco’s sentence since he is used to welcoming voluntary workers and he has made it easier to find the place, which we are supposed to show the driver, « i.e. vorrei scendere dopo il bivoo di fresagrandinaria e il laghetto dell’immerse vicino dove abita Francesco« . The driver understands straight away. We drive past the small village of Palmoli, and after a good half hour drive winding through the green hills he tells us: “there you are !” We step out on a path way that leads to the small hamlet, excited to embark on this new adventure. Will there be other people? What are we going to do on this work site? Where are we going to sleep (in a house, under a tent)? What are we going to eat? How is Francesco going to react when he sees the camera? We are taking bets…

      

At the end of the pathway, we can see a first house with lovely with oval eyes, a mud-wood house. Behind it, another small house, with a great bird painted on the façade. We step in and find two children playing in a colourful living room. Then Francesco greets us with a broad smile on his face: “Welcome! Let me introduce Soleima and Benjamin, they also speak French !” »

Our first evening is very pleasant indeed, we are trying to get as much information and clue as possible to guess who our host is: a German “Atomkraft, nein danke” (Nuclear, no thank you) flag is flying above the wooden desk. A great many wicker baskets of all sizes, are hanging on the walls. Several pieces of furniture have been made in tree trunks (especially the mezzanin bed in which we are sleeping!), and a lovely earth tree sculpture on the wooden cooker, is given pride of place in the room.

The first task Francesco entrusts us with is to cut bamboo canes in small chunks for the fire. A few days later we understand that it is a precious local resource for the house: it is the fuel needed for all the energy sources (to cook, heat the water to have a shower…) and also a building material we will come back to. When the sun shines, Francesco also uses a solar oven to heat both the water and the food. We are amazed how fast that works: barely 15 minutes and the water for the tea is boiling when, the evening before, it took us almost half and hour to have warm water for a shower….

The house also produces its own electricity: a 500 watt solar panel on the roof provides electricity to three to four bulbs and one computer… The extra (according to the weather) may be used to charge the mobile phone provided the intermediary battery is full. We are taking advantage of a bright day to fully charge the batteries for the camera and our laptop! We are already learning a great deal: it makes us a little bit aware of how much each device needs. And Benjamin, 6, frowns at Olivier who forgot to switch off the bathroom light. Both taps in the house are worked by pedals: a clever system not to waste water. An then, there are also the dry toilets, with the garden leaves (which works just as well as with wood chips)… No doubt… we are indeed in an eco-house !

 

What about the work site? We find out the small house (the third one) Francesco is building following a technique he developed, the archintreccio (literally “woven architecture”): the round structure consists in a crossing of bamboos, covered with a mixture of earth/straw. It could not be more local here! The small house is just below the land, hidden in greenery. The view over the village of Palmoli, which stands out on top of a hill, is splendid. The work site is already well on its way: Francesco has now been working on it for almost three years, helped by “Helpers”, but also neighbours and friends, eager to understand this technique. He is hoping to finish the main part of the building by the end of summer.

Why a third house? “my philosophie is to build small houses with small rooms. It is important not to see too big. It will come of use for my children in a few years’ time. And then, I still hope that one day I can put together a small community with other people. More and more people are reverting to a life closer to nature. Fifteen years ago,we were seen as extra terrestrial beings … and today … even the Mayor has understood that it is in his interest to support this type of life which boosts the local network.” . Since it is raining for several days (it is difficult to believe that we are in Italy!), the work site is slow to start and we are doing some small jobs. Finishing the opening of a window, and preparing the mixture for the future walls. Our second task its to pull down, then rebuild one outer wall which had fallen down: “unfortunately it was built too quickly ! Some ten volunteers were attending a workshop I had organised and I could not follow the building as I should have done. There has been too much air between the bamboo weaving and the earth… and then it did not hold.” Self construction is a very demanding practice, which requires time and care. The wall is consolidated with bottles and bricks (which is a reminder of the earthships method). While helping him, we spare a though for those people who had worked on that before… one can lose one’s heart on that. “That is part and parcel of experimenting !” he tells us. This extra work does not look as if it had weakened his determination. The reeds that we are taking off are collected to feed the fire, and the earth goes back to the earth, to feed the new coating … nothing goes to waste ! Once the wall has been repaired, we start on the inner mezzanine coating. It is great fun to put our hands in clay. And then, we are working carried on by music! Francesco is listening to Yann Tiersen, Joan Baez, Queen, Brassens, … and also to traditional Italian music and Fabrizio De André, the Italian Brassens! We make him discover Zoufris Maracas. And his two young sons are listening with passion to audio stories on the site itself, while watching around them…

Francesco has named this house “the casetta del nibbio”. The nibbio (mauve, in French) is a type of bird, rather rare in the area, which seems to have decided to live in the neighbouring hills. When the weather is nice, it can be seen hovering above the house, its orange tail shining in the sun. “Its my totem bird”, Francesco tells us. Sometimes I dream of it. It is never far away.” And of course this is the bird he painted on the façade of his first house. During the last days here, we are fortunate to see several of them above our heads. Nibbio …. “nid-bio” (organic nest) could we say in French … and once again, words do not just happen to come up, there is a reason !

Here, we are not just building, we also take part in the every day tasks: starting the fire, cooking, working in the garden… If the house doe not need any outside imput of energy, Francesco has also chosen to be as self sufficient as possible as regards food. On his big piece of land, he is cultivating on ridges and following a biodynamic calendar for vegetables and fruit (tomatoes, figs, apples, olives…) and he dries some of them in the sun to keep them in jars. The cereals (wheat, bran, millet…) are bought from neighbours “before I wanted to be self sufficient so as not to depend on others. Now I want to depend on others, but only locally. Just like in the olden days in my village…” On a rainy day, we are baking bread with the children, gressini (small Italian sticks with sesame and rosemary) and falafels in the oven he built. Another day, we are eating an omelette made with eggs given by the neighbour. I must admit that we are somewhat missing chocolate and dairy products … but we are getting used to new flavours !

      

But what is maybe more striking in Francesco’s food is that he eats a great deal of edible wild plants he goes and picks himself. “As far as I am concerned this is the best of food. I tried to grow some of them … but it is not the same!” So we go “shopping” with him, around the house and along the pathway. We come back with several baskets full, and he makes us taste a salad of sage, rucola, spinach, chard, dandelion; pasta with burdock; thistle and spinach soup … and an omelette with wild asparagus. Twice we had the opportunity of going with him on such walks to discover edible plants, on which a lady is initiating a small group of people to the discovery of other plants while telling them about their medicinal, organoleptic properties… and also the legends and symbols that are associated with them. The biodiversity of the area seems exceptional: on the first day we just walk about 500 m by the side of a road and we pick up some fourty different plants! The second initiation ends up with the visit of a thousand year old oak tree, hidden away in a sourrounding hill. The force that comes from this tree (which must have seen so many events!) is quite moving. Most of the participants have come with small natural offerings, placed in the heart of the tree, the “natural cathedral” as it is referred to.

Through those ten days, we wonder if we would like to adopt Francesco’s lifestyle. Not quite sure (for the time being anyway!) … One morning, on the breakfast table, a sentence written on one of the tea mugs catches our eyes “sometimes it’ hard to be a hero”. We tried to associate that to Francesco…, but in spite of the apparent harsh lifestyle of his, he seems serene and seems to be enjoying the sweet freedom he has managed to build up for himself.

With our heads full of memories, now we are transiting through the nice town of Chieti, for a few days, a little bit north, before our next stops. Andrea, Francesco’s brother, has decided to look after us (we are staying at his place!), leading us through the discovery of the town he likes, where he comes back to in between two contracts on the other side of the world, for an oil company. He knows it inside out and everybody knows him. We are having very interesting discussions as to the future of his town (in the context of the regional and European elections), and more generally about the future of his country. He complains about the waste of money and the surrounding corruption, which gradually abandons the rich cultural heritage… There is a rather striking contrast between the two brothers, but they certainly share their hospitality and their availability !

Throughout our stay with Francesco, we managed to shoot pictures and you will soon be able to discover our montage…

hitchhiking’s joys

France, may 2014

On our way! Now we are on the Louviers road, heading for Paris, on this Saturday at the beginning of May. The sun is shining. We would have liked to leave a day before, but the last preparations delayed us, and any way it was raining. Is it a sign ?

Strange mixed feelings and emotions: excitement, nerves (sure we have not forgotten anything ?). We are looking at each other: do we understand that we are about to leave for two years? Not really. For the time being, we are on known ground, on this road which we have travelled on so many times. And eventually that is a good thing: just like our project, it is a smooth departure. Only Chloé’s brother is there to accompany us. We managed to bid farewell to all those dear to us over the last few weeks, which wraps our departure in some kind of simple thing.

First objective: reaching Lyon tonight, thumbing a lift to it, where we are expected at a friend’s! Then spending our Sunday there to see a few pals, and take the road again (thumbing a lift!) on Monday for Torino, where we will be sleeping at a couchsurfer’s.

Why did we start thumbing lifts? Already we wanted to feel some sort of adventure on our first few miles and because we also wanted to meet people we do not know. So we put up a sign on the Louviers roadside, holding some lilies of the valley from the garden, to present to our first driver, as a lucky sign for him/her!

After some ten minutes, a first car stops : a father steps out of his Scenic. He is taking his three children to the zoo in Vincennes. Once in the car, he tells us with a broad smile that we can see in the mirror « usually, I never take those thumbing a lift, but for once I decided to do so! My daughter recognised you, you came to her class! She told me: « Daddy, you know, they are travelling around the world, we have to help them ! » !” Indeed, two weeks earlier, we went to meet the pupils who are going to follow our project, and amongst them the first year class attended by this girl. Quite a nice symbol for the early days of this adventure that a father, confident thanks to his daughter, decides to help us. And it is not just a lift: when we arrived in Paris, he drives for some thirty minutes to find the best place to drop us off for the next stage of our trip.

He is Congolese, from Brazzaville, the city in which Olivier’s father is living. Laughing, he tells us that he may meet him on the market this summer since he goes back there on holiday with the whole family. This nice man’s name is… « Juste Patience » !(Just Patience) ! That is really true. Afterwards, during a long four-hour wait at the road for Lyon, we realise that life can be fun, since we met someone called thus. We guess this is a sign which is going to follow us all along our trip. Something to take with us, in a way, which suits our project to a T. And what if all we needed was to take our time?

During the two days it took us to reach Torino, we met further interesting people with those drivers who stop to take us a bit further. « And where are you heading to like that ? Lyon ? » «We are… but in fact we are leaving for two years… ! » Various reactions will come to support our report. In Paris for instance: we have already been waiting for a good hour porte d’Orléans when a gentleman takes us on board for a few miles. Whe he hears about our project, he is simewhat on the defense and says « you are talking about ecology and you are not going to take the plane, that is good but the cars and buses you are using to travel also use up energy… one cannot have it all! » and he goes on « Today, it is an upping process, money has to be earned to meet the family’s needs, there is always one word ‘buying’, making gifts… In a capitalistic world, a project like yours, will not change much. We are in a selfish world, nobody helps nobody… » Indeed our project is a drop in the ocean, but some things are changing gradually, most likely due to small initiatives, like picking up those thumbing a lift. A remark that brings a smile to his face, and the conversation ends here since we are already where he can drop us off. We thank him, somewhat frustrated because we did not have time to speak more.

A little later, we find a new driver (we understand that to be successful thumblifters, we have to get in touch with people and motorway stops are wonderful places). The next people proved enthusiastic when told about our project. Mickael is young IT person and works at HSBC. He has just travelled back from Paris to Annecy to pick up his new car, a kind of hybrid 4×4 (we have never ridden in such a new car !). From Montargis to Mâcon, it gives us more than two hours to talk. He tells us that he does question his work a great deal, especially when he compares it to his partner who is a nurse. « She does something positive, she treats people, but what about me ? How can be useful to other people? » They intend to leave for an African country on a humanitarian mission, in a year or two.

 

On our second day, still thumbing a lift from Lyon to Torino, in the Maurienne valley, a pleasant gentleman takes us on board his car. He is very enthusiastic about our trip. « You are right, you are young and it is now that you can travel like that. For our generation it is work, work and more work. I am close to retirement age, I have not yet made up my mind as to what I am going to do, but for the time being, I have not been able to travel. Yet, my two sons have been on long trips. The youngest has come back from a trip around the world with his girlfriend. But, it was more traditional, They flew and everything, well. If you want, I can call him so he can give you some information! », which he did straight away !

Now we are once again on a motorway stop, and after some fifteen minute wait, a young chap walks towards us : « I saw you when I stopped just before, I am going to Torino, I can take you if you want! ». !” He listens to us very carefully, then he laughingly says « Well, I work in non ecological building ». He is an engineer for a big company setting up petrol platform everywhere in the world, and he has the opportunity to go on missions in Oman, China, Indonesia… In the Frejus tunnel leading us to Italy, we are talking about cultural differences, about our shared liking for travelling « you are right to take your time for this project. I am lucky to be able to travel, but always find it too short. Sometimes a few months, often a few weeks. And the worst experience was a return flight to Brazil in two days, and a trip from Paris to Scotland, for 4 hours there…».

Now we are in Torino, proving that thumbing a lift does work ! Juste Patience did indeed bring us luck and life reminded us that it is worth looking closer: it is possible to work for big multinationals and help those who thumb a lift (!) and aspire to a fairer world. Something to be kept for the rest of our trip…

Arriving in Torino, we are witnesses to a nice solidarity chain. We are asking the way to a waiter to find the address of Federico, our coachsurfer. He calls two young people walking bye. They are palestinians recently arrived in Italy, and they have first lived in a refugee camp in Lebanon. They are doing everything possible to help us: they phone, they walk to the bus stop with us, call our host again and insist on waiting with us till he turns up. Have they experienced such a careful welcome here when they arrived for the first time? We have a coffe with them before we meet Federico and his girlfriend… who take us for our first pizza !

After a day travelling by train along the magnificent coast of the “Cinque Terre”, we are now in the nice city of florence for a few days at a friend’s, before leaving for our first building site… Our eyes wide open, on the lookout for any signs that we have left France, we are slowing understanding, our adventure has started and this departure was a good sign…

 

Many thanks to all those drivers who, miles after miles, have made it possible for us to reach this place !

To be followed… ….

A great website on thumbing a lift, which we found: http://hitchwiki.org/fr/Accueil

Toziels, the hybrid house

France, September 2013

Before taking to the road for a shooting for two years, at the end of September, we went near Carcassonne, to meet Roj and Lez for our very first participative building site.

Tipi de l'atelier Toziel

Once we arrived at our guests’, we discovered where we are going to live for the next ten days and especially the great tepee in which we are going to sleep! It was built by Roj to accommodate the many volunteers who have come to help on this site for almost four years now.

The day after our arrival, we walk around the site while Roj explains how he has built the foundations and the lower section of his “hybrid” house.

A guided tour !

The first step was to find out where the walls were going to be, then to dig for the foundations. Once this work was done, tyres (filled with rubble) were staggered where the walls were going to be erected. In-between the tyres, rather than a concrete slab, Roj and Lez opted to fill the space with gravel (at least 25cms to prevent water from infiltrating through the ground), prior to cover it all with soil.

On the tyres, they placed the lower section, made of big sacks which had previously been filled with soil. These sacks were then settled with the help of a mass, then tied one to the other with barbed wires or straps. Last, a coating (a mixture of earth and straw) was applied to smoothen the base of the future walls and to protect it from the rain water.

When we arrived, the foundations and the lower section were already finished. During our ten-day stay in the “Atelier Toziels”, we are going to build the walls of the dry toilets which, on a small scale, are going to be a test for the walls of the house. For Roj and Lez, there is no such thing as experimenting to learn, from successes as well as from failures! For us this is a nice opportunity since it was the occasion to learn to build loadbearing interior walls made of bales of straw from A to Z.

After coating the bales of straw with slush and cutting them, they are placed one on top of the other, in-between the wooden studs, and linked together through straps. The interior and exterior coatings complete the smoothing of the bales of straw, to form strong, waterproof and breathing walls.

Here is a video showing this work.

Our hands, sometimes in the earth, sometimes on the camera, we are shooting our first pictures. We realise that doing both at the same time requires some organisation, and this is a good training for the big trip! Step by step, we eventually move on pretty well, helped and supported by Roj who, while working, tells us about his trips to the Yogis in India and his personal career development… (soon to come, a sound interview to get to know him).

Ten days later, mission accomplished: the four walls have been erected !

Such unusual walls present many advantages :

  • Easy to build: in ten days with a good tutor, we learnt the basics of this technique
  • Cheap: the earth comes from the site. The bales of straw have been bought for €1/piece from a neighbouring farmer. The planks which frame the straw are shuttering boards, therefore cheap.
  • Ecological: any and all the materials are local and require no expensive transformation, whether resource or energy wise.
  • Breathing: no need for complex expensive ventilation system to air the house.
  • Fireproof: there is almost no air in the walls thanks to the compression of the bales of straw and the earth/straw coating. (refer to the story for children: “the three Little Pigs”)
  • Very isolating: straw is a temperature, sound and acoustics isolation material which is very efficient. The earth, which is found in the soil, the lower section and the coatings of the house will contribute to reduce the low thermal mass of the straw.

We did not stay long enough to participate in the building of the frame and the roof, but we do intend to return to Toziels when we complete our trip to be able to see the final result (and find out if this loadbearing straw wall system managed to convince Roj and Lez for the rest of the house…) Far more than actually learning to build straw walls, this first building site spurred our curiosity and confirmed our thirst to travel and meet eco-builders! It is a good sign for the rest of our trip, which will no doubt be rich in meetings and learning experiences. Thank you Roj and Lez for your welcome and generosity. Good luck to you for completing your lovely house!