Our first few days at Coueillas

Being Human

Time flies, it really does. Today is Saturday. We arrived here on Wednesday night. And this is the first time I’ve had my computer out to write something. In part, this is because we don’t have internet yet, despite our best attempts. And in many ways, what a relief. It has allowed us to get on with just moving in and sorting things out rather than worrying about work.

So chronologically. We left La Plagne on Wednesday morning, at quarter to eleven, with sandwiches, and a very full car. The valley was full of clouds and we knew that down below would be grey and murky, but up in the mountains it was a bright blue sky day, the dark pine trees dusted with snow, the air crisp and dry… just how the mountains should be in winter. Immune from the grey mediocre nonsense of the world below.

However needs must, and it was into the grey gloom we descended. It turned out not to be all that grey or all that gloomy, and we drove along having a lovely conversation about what it was like to be young, the curious things we remember, and how the smallest of moments in our childhood can be extrapolated into parables and metaphors for life, shaping our futures and our reasoning. It is strange that even though we all remember moments like this, we still like to think that we can shape the future for our children.

The journey passed incredibly easily and quickly, down to Grenoble, and on to the Mediterranean coast, through Nimes and Montpelier, heading west into the sun to Carcassone and Toulouse.

There is a mill at Montesquie Volvestre which has been working for, I think, four centuries, grinding he very best flour. We were going to try to stop in to pick up 20kg of spelt , but alas we were about an hour too late (packing up always takes longer than I think it will) so alas we had to pass that by and keep on going.

The sun had just set when we arrived, eight hours after we started, and there was light snow on the ground. It’s a stone house two foot thick walls and not a great deal of insulation. It’s not draughty, but it’s not intrinsically cosy, either. It takes a few days of non-stop fires to heat the walls and get the place comfortable, so the very first thing was to light a fire. Fortunately it took quickly. Normally I’m not very good at lighting fires. I’m too impatient and don’t give it time to build the heat, draw in more and more oxygen, and slowly creep its way into existence. By the end of this year, though, I shall be a master of fires.

We unpacked, made some tea, dinner, and enjoyed the moment of having arrived.

It is incredible when dreams come true. I have been wanting to move to this part of the world with a wonderful lady for almost a decade now. And here we are. It’s happened so quickly, really. Or it seems to have done.

How to light a fire

Fire needs three things: fuel, oxygen, and heat. Lighting a small camp or stove fire also takes time. More than you, and certainly I, might expect. So take it slowly and give it time to establish itself before asking too much of it.

  1. Ensure there is ventilation in the hearth. If there is a grate, ensure there are sufficient gaps inthe grate for air to flow through.
  2. Loosely scrunch some paper into a ball, so that the air has plenty of space to ciculate
  3. Wigwam the kindling over the paper, ensuring that there’s still plenty of paper visible. The conical tent shape gives a wide base for the air to be drawn in, and provides a column for the heat to rise through, thus perpetuating the self-fanning action.
  4. Have larger kindling standing by. The driest you can.
  5. Light the fire from the back, sides, and front. If you have a tea-light of candle end, you can place this in the centre of your fire to act as a firelighter. Or use a firelighter.
  6. If you have tall flames, you can lean the larger kindling over the top of these to start these warming so they burn more easily.
  7. As the fire fire collapses into itself a little, build a new wigwam of the larger kindling.
  8. Build it up slowly in the same fashion, adding new wood only when you’re sure you wont be straining the fire by doing so. Remember that each piece you add may be adding fuel, but will also be restricting the flow of oxygen, and also removing heat.
  9. If the fire doesn’t take, deconstruct it and have another go whilst there is still warmth in it.
  10. Practise and feel superzen about the whole thing.


Our bedroom doesn’t have much natural light, so it’s quite hard to get up in the morning. I must get back into the habit of responding to my internal clock and not a solar one. I do love waking up with the sun, whenever that is during the year. I must remember that when looking for a house to buy.

We took a walk to Arbas, the nearest village with shops. Just along the road since it’s the most direct route anyway, and it makes sense to establish our bearings before going exploring. It’s about an hour’s casual walk, and we had lovely sunshine all the way. Plenty of dogs trotting out into the road to say hello, horses to run the noses of, and buzzards and kites calling from above.

There’s a paragliding school in the village so we stopped in there to say hello and introduce ourselves to the owner, Vincent, explaining that we’d like a refresher course and to do some deal with him whilst it’s still quiet. Not constrained by a 9 to 5 of an office, we’re reasonably flexible about when our work gets done, so if it’s sunny and lovely we can go out for a fly and then just work later that evening to catch up. He has our name and number now and is going to call us for a half day play to see how we do and what we know the next time it’s convenient.

Next stop was the butcher to see if we can reach an amicable understanding with him about bones and meat for Lola. She eats only a raw meat diet. He is an incredibly friendly man – large bellied and moustachioed, enthusiastic about his craft and his village. His wife is a translator and they’re hoping to build a small website and have mornings when all the English and Germans from the area, who typically don’t speak much French, can come and meet each other and practise their lingua Franca. The butcher has realised that they’re scared of speaking French, and so are more likely to go to supermarkets where they don’t have to talk to people, rather than coming to the small shops of Arbas. It is ironic that so many people move here for the quality of life and cuisine, but in so doing diminish its existence. Needless to say he was pleased to find that he had a young couple who did both translation AND websites, and began working out the details of the project immediately. Healthy barter is a wonderful thing. This will mean free dog food for many months, and hopefully friendly deals on the large joints of meat we buy for friends and parties. He gave us a large bone, a half kilo of meat, and some sausage as a present, and we bought a very sizeable wedge of paté for just 2 euros.

The Mayor of Arbas, he tells us, is a great man: young, an architect, and who cares about people who want to live here, no matter where they’re from. The population of Arbas has doubled during his two terms – at least that’s what I think the butcher said. I guess he’s a hit with the ladies.

The weather had closed in a bit, the air had turned cold and a light rain was falling, so we walked home. As on all journeys, the way home was faster than the way out, and we took a small short cut through the woods. Not that much shorter, it turns out, but far more pleasant to walk through woods than along the road, and steeper and so healthier.

We had the remains of leek and potato soup for lunch, with some bread and pate, and finished off getting everything in place: the last of the clothes away, making some legs for the desk, and so on.

Saturday night.

We’re all unpacked. The house is warm. The fire is looking like the perfect fire, with a spread of flame rising from a rich, variegated orange hearth. I’ve just poured a whisky and started on a curry. Ali is doing yoga in front of the fire. Lola is resting from her bone and is sprawled and contended on the sofa.

If we had internet right now, my facebook would read “Ed Dowding is trying very hard not to be irritatingly smug.”

You know those weeks or weekends when a group of you get together and rent a place and go walking, eat good food, drink port late into the night, look at the stars, all help of the washing up, and have a really marvellous time – like the very best of times that there can be, for what greater fun might be possible that good friends, good food, and a nourishing environment? And then we all pile into cars or get lifts to the station, and wonder why it is we have to go, and what a shame it is that it all must end? This is like that, but without the going home part, for we are at home.

Of course, I’ve never really understood why we leave these sorts of situations at all. It’s the third millenium, and we really should have worked out satisfactory ways to be able to stay in a low-cost, friendly place more or less indefinitely. In truth, I suspect it’s fear which prevents this. There’s a thin line between opt-out and drop-out, and it’s one which even very educated people don’t seem to be able to discern particularly well.


Lola was up in the night feeling a little ill, so I let her out and it has snowed! Amazing going to bed with a light rain and then waking up to see everything blanketed in white, complete with the accompanying silent, beautiful calm.

Looking over the living room of this house is a beautiful thing. It is our house. It is beautiful. Outside there are trees, a river, and mountains. Never far away is Ali, a wonderful, beautiful woman whom I love and loves me. Everything is in its place. Everything is where is should be. Everything is perfect.

Ed Dowding

Ed Dowding

Founder, strategist, writer, gadfly, TED talker, world-record holder, and (foolishly) reality-TV farmer. DOES: Innovation, Product, Advocacy THINKS: Regenerative Systems, Institution design, 300 year horizons

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.