[Editors Note: Our friend and copywriter Alex left Portland last January to start a new life in the French Alps. This month, he’s returned as Guest Editor of The Thought Kitchen to share some of his experiences.]
“Everything on a boat must have a place.”
My father taught me that. He’s a sailor, but I’ve found that the rule applies whether the vessel in question is a 30’ ketch in the North Atlantic or—as in my wife’s and my case—a 10’x14’ French Mazot floating among the landlocked Alps. While it doesn’t take long to clean 140 square feet, it takes even less time to make a complete mess of it. So, though the nearest harbor is some sixty miles away on Lake Geneva, part of life in our Alpine anchorage is keeping things ship-shape.
We moved into the Mazot—a French word that I usually translate as ‘hay shed’—in June. The first thing we learned, from the hand-painted board on the deck, was that our new home had been built in 1806 and was named Le Bouet Nir. (Like boats, houses in the Alps all have names.) The second thing we learned was that it was very, very small.
Of course this wasn’t much of a surprise. We’d known what we were getting into from the start; indeed, the smallness of our new home was part of its appeal—at least to me.
Ever since 2005, when I first saw an article about a 2.6-square-meter dwelling called the Micro Compact Home, I’d been fascinated by the idea of living in a small house. Like a bonsai tree, the beauty of the MCH lay in its combination of perfect execution and miniature proportions. When compared with the McMansions of the 90’s, to me the MCH seemed to be on a scale closer to my own. I wanted one.
Later, while working at Nau, I met Dee Williams and learned about her Little House on the Trailer. (Nau’s film profile of Dee, with over half a million views, is still on The Collective). I visited MoMA’s exhibition of pre-fab housing and read Mimi Zieger’s book Tiny. I seemed to be falling in love with one of the micro-trends of the new 21st century: micro-living.
So when the chance came to move into our Mazot, my wife and I jumped at the chance. We were newlyweds. We had love, optimism, and—perhaps most importantly—blissful naïveté. Maybe it was the kind of idea that only a writer and an out-of-work architect could love, but the romance of a cottage in the mountains overwhelmed the scent of cabin-fever that our friends and family caught in the place. “You’re going to live in there?” our parents asked when we sent them a photo. “Of course!” we replied. “Isn’t it great?!”
And so we set about moving in and finding places for all our stuff. Of course, the easiest way to do this is to just have fewer things. For some, this is part of the appeal—being a smugly self-satisfied minimalist is one of the clichés of small-house living—but we weren’t really into counting all our things and only keeping 100. Instead, we took what we needed, and the rest ended up in a friend’s basement.
This done, we settled, quite snuggly, into our new home. The grand tour takes but a moment: The main room has a bed, a table, two chairs and two small dressers. Behind that, a 4’x4’ kitchen sports two electric burners, a mini-fridge and toaster oven. A similarly sized bathroom manages to fit a shower, toilet and sink. What more, we asked ourselves, could we need?
We’ve found living in a small space to be, above all, practical. It’s less money and less work, meaning we have more time to enjoy the mountains that we moved here for. To us, the choice to ‘live lightly’ isn’t primarily about having a smaller environmental footprint—though that certainly is a byproduct. It’s a choice to have the time to focus on the things that matter to us, by keeping the necessity of shelter in perspective.
We find ourselves visiting our friend’s basement less often; the stuff in storage, it turns out, isn’t all that important. Most of what we really need fits. When the weather is fair, we eat outside in the yard. If it rains, we curl up inside or read on the porch. And when we get cold, we make tea: the mugs are warm in our hands and the stove heats up the whole house.
And when the house is a mess, we take a few minutes and put things back in their places. After three months in such a small home, you find that it’s not just your things that find their rightful place, but you as well.