Svanholm: Organics, Communal Living and decision-making for positive growth

Lidiya, Liam and myself made our way to Svanholm after several very interesting days at the Floating City in Copenhagen, with the amazing Signe as our host.

Lidiya and me playing on a Christiania bike at the Floating City, CopenhagenOur arrival at Svanholm was semi unannounced. We got in touch with the right people several months in advance, but closer to the date we couldn’t get a reply to confirm an arrival date. I was a little nervous on arrival, but five minutes after Rene greeted us, we were all ecstatic. We arrived to volunteer, or rather live as guest workers, for about a month. The conditions, or better, the quality of life for all members of Svanholm is really incredible. We had access to the largest kitchen I’ve stepped foot in, decked out in nothing but organic, and largely local produce. The accommodation was in very comfortable and beautifully placed in the south wing of the historical estate.

Svanholm's main buildingSvanholm's main buildingSvanholm is a an international collective, based in Denmark, sharing common ideals concerning ecology, income sharing, communal living, and self government. The 32 year strong community runs their own commercial organic farm, sowing grains, potatoes and veg of all kinds; agricultural produce is sold to supermarkets and used for the communities own nutritional needs. Livestock are organically kept also; milk is sold and the meat is used by the collective. Surprisingly for me there are only two vegetarians in the approximately 150 person large village. I was something of a wonder because I eat like a vegan. Most members like their meat and the manure the cattle provide is essential to the organic farming process.

An income sharing economy is in place which originally saw the income of all members going directly into the collective economy. All necessities were in turn provided. Less than ten years ago a reform took place and now the economy works on a 80:20 ratio; where 80% of each member’s income goes to the economy and 20% is received to do whatever you like with. Most members work in a professional capacity outside of the community, but internal jobs are created as well; several people are employed by the Building, Kitchen and Agricultural Groups, as well as in the Organic boutique, the kindergarten, in the main office and without doubt some other places I’m not aware of.

For electricity, two windmills are owned and operating, with excess energy being sold to the national grid. Several cars are shared successfully, managed by a booking system. A very new wood chip burner heats everything, the radiators and water. The wood chips are provided by the community’s sustainably managed and outstanding forests. When we arrived in mid October, the weather was still warm and Liam, Lidiya and myself were running or walking almost daily through the tall and powerful trees decked out in the height of autumn.

Svanholm's forestSvanholm's forestMeals are cooked in the evenings by the kitchen staff and the food is fantastic. And meals are shared in a great dining area, joining the equally great kitchen. These times are very important I feel, it’s the time when the community is most visible. Everyone lining up to fill their plates, sitting together, talking, kids running around tables, or in the play room on the upper floor; it’s very much a large family. The dishes are taken in turn with all members of the community involved and on the weekends, kitchen staff get a rest and again community members take up their share. I stayed for two months in total and after the first, guest workers are asked to take up these responsibilities also, which is more of a treat than a chore. I always felt grateful for having food cooked every night, dishes washed… So when the one or two nights a month of your service arrive, it’s a nice feeling to put in your bit.

The main answer I received when I asked why people moved here was to bring up kids; it really is a paradise for them. A kindergarten operates within the village which is public and the surroundings are dotted with the most interesting and beautiful playground pieces; another community company creates what you could call very interesting, alternative and natural playgrounds.

Babies sleeping outside at the kindergartenMemories

My fondest memories from my time here include, cycling north to a local castle with one of our fellow guest workers and friend, Nis. I distinctly remember feeling the winds force increase as we descended our first gentle hill; the sound of speed and ease of movement increased and I seemed to involuntarily fill my lungs as full as can be. I exhaled slowly, felt a warm and relaxing current flow around my body and saw flicks of Liam’s, my brother’s, hair curling out and back giving way to the wind; Lidiya cycling in front of him; Nis in front of her. With the sense of relaxation came a thought; Here we are and this is what we’re doing and I’m quite sure this is how we’re feeling.

Tom impressed me much, a very young spirited man, who continues to lead an incredible life. He is part retired, but still drives a bus, and changes the world everyday. He visited us for an evening to show us photos of the most incredible houses he built in Sweden and we spent another in his little cabin in the woods, fire stoked and stories flowing.

Jorn, showed me how to work with leather, supplying his tools and skill. Toke and I had some great conversations which have given me so much rich material to grow with, some of it incredibly timely as to consider if it was coincidence or not… If you ask…

A leather sheath I madeI remember our dance evening. Carina, another part-time guest worker, anthropological student and very gentle person, her boyfriend Christian, a fantastic and attentive teacher and person, the super aforementioned Nis, along with Lidiya and myself shared our little combined dance knowledge and waltzed, tangoed and Irish danced an evening away; after the evening went we invited the night and it accepted. 🙂

Tats, a Japanese guest worker with a passion for welfare and dream of building an ecological cafe with the aim of supporting people with special needs, worked enjoyably with Lidiya in exchanging words and sentences from Japanese and Bulgarian, a beautiful cultural mix.

I wrote on my Bulgarian blog last year about self-questioning the fact that I seemed to not miss people so much. I happily concluded that I simply long for the next time we’ll be together and don’t like pulling on the past, but honestly I missed my brother when he left. We are running a marathon in April, the Connemarathon, and our training very enjoyably started here. We travelled together for five weeks and did some incredible things. He now publishes his work at ( I haven’t asked, but I don’t think he’ll mind me putting up one of his pieces 🙂 )

Pencil and pen drawing of a flower, by Liam O'HanlonI could spend several full and energetic lifetimes with Lidiya and she would teach me something new every day and keep my spirit warm. The memories are uncountable and to explain any further right now would take from the whole brilliance. 🙂

Martina, Signe and Lidiyasigne, Martina and MeWhat did I learn?

A wealth of things, but I will give my greatest impression from the collective; the decision-making process; simple, beautiful, encouraging creativity, solidarity, cooperation, construction, the building of paths to reach a shared vision where all are happy.

In short, monthly meetings are held, decisions made everything involving the collective are based on complete consensus. Everyone must agree for things to move forward. In similar democratic systems, this means painfully slow change, where one blocks the road, rejects a decision, and holds up everyone else. Here is you say ‘no’, it is necessary that you work towards a solution that sees everyone agreed. That might mean the decision is deferred from the meeting and a smaller group is formed between those putting forward the idea and those objecting; together you must find a shared solution.

This is simple, but there is hidden magic here. Firstly a divide isn’t created. If you have a majority consensus, you automatically create a two way split after a decision, pushing people apart; some get their way and others have to live with it because they are the minority (I’m aware some definitions of majority consensus democracy include that decisions be made with respect to minorities). So a complete consensus is a beautiful idea on paper. But in some cases, as I’ve been told is the case in the anarchist community, Christiania, in the centre of Copenhagen, one person can simply object and that’s that, the proposal is dead. It’s key that ‘no’ does not mean ‘no’, it means ‘no, but I am willing to work on something that will work’.

There are oceans and planets of distance between knowing what you don’t want, and saying no, ‘I don’t like, take it away’, and knowing what you want, or at least making an effort to uncover what you want through positively intended and creative efforts and collaboration. I asked whether those who have lived and experienced the model think it could be applied to governments and the answer was an outright no. There are limits within which this self-government effectively operates, and here is within those limits. I don’t think there it is by chance that the population of Svanholm hovers just under Malcom Gladwell‘s magic community number of 150.

The Great Oak, the heart of SvanholmI have to finish because I still page a list of notes I will continue to get caught up and we all have lives to get on with. 🙂

I had a very strong feeling that it was important for me to come here, that what I would learn would be incredibly enjoyable and support me for the rest of my life. And I’m happy to say I was very right. I recommend to anyone to come and experience Svanholm.

Svaholm's forestSvanholm main buildingSvanholm's forest

Amazing iciclesSvanholm in winterSvanholm in winter


Journey to the Vendange: A series of challenging events :)

From Slovenia, with thumbs held high we continued our journey to France and the grape picking that awaited us there and passed through Italy.

Remzi from Kosovo with Lidiya in his fruit store and bakery

Remzi from Kosovo with Lidiya in his store in Kobarid, Slovenia

Remzi, the first person from Kosovo I’ve had the privilege of meeting, fascinated and enticed me to the country he was born in as Lidiya and myself sampled his plums and two delicious croissants gifted to us to aid our journey. 🙂

Elia and Me in Portoguaro

Elia and Me in Portoguaro, Italy

Elia, picked us up and shortly after stopped in his home town of Portogruaro, Italy, without announcement starting a walking tour of a place he was clearly taken with. The unexpected stop off meant a very connected or real contribution to what otherwise would have been a flyby of the incredibly rich and beautiful country.



Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

France was crossed in a day, passing through Mont Blanc to a truck stop within 100km of Bordeaux thanks to a fortunate series of hospitable truck drivers, from Poland, Bulgaria, then France, sharing their mobile homes with us.

Aosta, Italy, close to Mont Blanc

Aosta, Italy, close to Mont Blanc

Preparing our bed

Preparing our bed

Zdravko, a driver from Bulgaria

Zdravko, a driver from Bulgaria

In Bordeaux a series of unexpected and what I have no referred to as challenging events began. Delayed grape picking work, the vendange, meant ten days of waiting and searching. A night’s rest thanks to the fantastic Ivana, a friend from Macedonia, who Lidiya met in the States several years back, gave us a well needed pit stop. We spent a couple of nights camping at the Saint Émillion train station, thinking and acting on the possibilities our thoughts resulted in; knocking on Château doors looking for other work, before that which we had months before secured started. A group of French Roma were staying at the parking lot of the train station and helped us greatly during our short residency there. They kept an eye on the heavier part of our baggage during the day while we searched, gave us some advice on finding work, which they were also hard searching for, drove us to a nearby village and invited us to have dinner with them. Their support and company made train station life considerably more pleasant than I imagine it would have been without.

The streets of Bordeaux

The streets of Bordeaux

Our temporary home; Saint Émillion train station

Our temporary home; Saint Émillion train station

Saint Émillion, France

Saint Émillion, France

An unhelpful phone call ended up being our most promising opportunity and we gambled and took a taxi to a vineyard in hope. The secretary there was cold to say the least. I have a rake of other appropriate descriptive words quite clear in mind now, but I will put them aside; they’re all a little gray and I prefer my life and writing to be in colour. 🙂

Grapes on the vineThe positive outcome of the last effort was that we ended up at our assigned vineyard seven days early and settled in quite well. Staying in one place was much welcomed, we had a shower and bathroom, albeit with cold water and we had figs and apples, perfectly ripe and perfectly tasting.


Beautiful apples

Beautiful apples 🙂

The surroundings encouraged regular stops to just look and breath, they brought a very happy calmness that was especially appreciated after the inelegant series of events just mentioned. I picked a sheltered spot for the tent and faced it a little south of east so the first brave peak out of the partly unzipped entrance most often saw sleepy eyes greeted by the most incredible glowing sky, preparing itself for the sun; the pre-rise. Maybe because of the elevated position of the vineyard, the sky always seemed vast, a particular vastness that seemed unique to this area, that opened you up a little.

Pre-sun rise

Pre-sun rise

Sunset from the Château

Sunset from the Château

Liam, my brother joined us and was welcomed by a little drama, but the following morning with positive minds and bodies the week’s work started and continued very well.

Lidiya and Liam in Saint Émillion

Lidiya and Liam in Saint Émillion

A short stop off in Paris was made perfect with the company and guidance of Elena, who lead our eyes to the greatest and warmest part of our experience in the city.

A bus across Belgium and Germany, interrupted by a short and pleasant ferry ride, brought us to Denmark, the country we’ve decided to identify as the last leg of this trip, although our travels will by no means end here. For Denmark, I have something I want to discuss and I need a bit of space for that, so I will end this quick and very summarised summary of events here and let photos fill in some of the blanks.

Writing at the vineyard under our small lamp at nightMe peering through some grapesI intended to write about this thought, the something I want to discuss, and the first part of our Danish experience, but this post is what came out. I remember reading Screenplay, a book on screenwriting by Syd Field, which suggested a solution for writers block; to just write what comes regardless if it’s the direction you want to go in. Once you start writing anything you are no longer blocked, you are writing, and once then undesired or distracting thoughts, where ever they come from, have been written down maybe it will clear the path for that which is desired. I feel this is somewhat the case here, I had to get this onto some kind of paper to begin the next piece. A piece of something that I feel is taking form, I’ve named it, but I don’t feel like sharing the name yet. 🙂

Life is beautiful and people come in such colours as we can not imagine. 🙂




Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

Verona, Italy

A Russian Soul, Slovenia, Irish drinking and Generalisations

Feyda gave Lidiya and myself some home work the other day. To observe and talk to the people in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, and then to compare our experience during the day with our perceptions of Irish and Russian people. He said Russian people have something unique about them, that they are Russian Souls. Surely all peoples have something unique about them, but in this case I think he meant something particularly special to him.

So we started to observe. We asked questions, searched for differences from the moment we walked into the daylight and left Iztok’s house. We arrived in Kranj, Slovenia, after dark the previous evening after a long days driving from Croatia. Two days previous, September 14th, Lidiya and myself started hitchhiking from Sofia, on a mission to France. After a short trip to and walk across the Serbian border we were exceptionally fortunate to be picked up within five minutes of sitting to rest and enjoy some Bulgarian plums. The outstanding people who picked us up were brothers, Iztok and Feyda and Vlasta, Feyda’s wife, from Slovenia.

They were travelling in their motor home on the return leg of their trip from Slovenia through Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina, Albania, Greece and Turkey. Their route home saw them making a roughly straight line through Bulgaria and very happily for us, through Serbia, Croatia and back to Slovenia. We were to journey with them until the city of Niš (Ниш), at the centre of Serbia, but after an hours conversation we had planned to continue with them the next day all the way to Slovenia, the half way marker for our journey. That evening we dined in Serbia, in the small town of Cubura (Чубура), struggled some with ordering a meal without meat, and tucked in for the night in our tent under some trees by a parking lot at the edge of town.

Cubura was poor. We parked the camper in a lot, beside which was a bombed out building with yellow tape crossing the entrance deterring entry and a sign supporting the tape’s indication that stated cameras were not to be used. Iztok and Feyda started up some conversation with a local who said the town’s economy was in bad shape to say the least; the factories that once employed the majority of people their were now vacant and dilapidated, many other buildings in the centre appeared long disused also. The gentleman told us that there was no work for the people, that life was difficult because there was no money and that the future looked dull because there was no sight of investment of any kind to come into the little town, no potential stimuli for the people.

The bombed out building really made an impression on me. I saw young people walking and meeting in front of it, dressed modernly, they wouldn’t have looked out of place in any more western country. But, the backdrop of the building contrasted their appearance; the building looked like it should have long been buried. It was striking, that after such a long time, a little over ten years, nothing had been done with it; it hadn’t been taken down or reconstructed. I wondered what effect it has on the youth. To grow up in such an environment is completely normal there, to have the constant reminder of war, of falling bombs, of a lack of money to repair, to redevelop, to grow… How does this kind of environment effect the culture of the people; their thinking, there attitudes to life.

The most positive impression from Cubura was the fruit and vegetable market, the Bazaar. The produce was as inexpensive as Bulgaria and the quality as high, which is to say the best I’ve come across anywhere in the world. All local produce, in season, and mostly grown traditionally, which means with little or no chemicals, although the idea of organic is little known, understood, and not at all advertised at such a market. The old scales, the big space full of colour and merchants, is the type of place I gravitate towards in towns and cities. The many kilos of beautiful peaches, plums, grapes, peppers and salad we picked up here were quickly missed as we continued west and watched prices rise and quality deteriorate. The highest contrasting purchase came in Italy were we bought something, labelled peaches, which looked like fruit, but was not fruit. I give much consideration to what I view as wasting food, but in this case the item in question, these peaches, were not food; ten times the price of Serbia or Bulgaria with no immediate taste, followed by an unexpected and very much undesired aftertaste. They went swimming.

So we continued on to Ljubljana and to Feyda’s homework. Something that occurred to Lidiya and myself quite soon after starting our comparison of nationality traits was the lack of data we had for Slovenians from the capital. A days experience is no time at all from which to make any kind of generalisations. The only concrete experience we had came from the handful of encounters with locals, mostly asking for directions during the day. The people seemed happy, the responded very readily and helpfully to aid our sight seeing. Aside from the people the city was suprisingly attractive, very clean, with many impressive buildings and edifices of the old quarter lining the river Lublinitsa and is nearby surroundings. It was a pleasure to explore. On the bus from Kranj to Ljubljana we noted some differences also. The road sides were neat and trim, the quality of the roads was high, the houses, gardens, fields were rich, green and well maintained. A gentleman who picked us up in Bulgaria spoke of the corrupt politicians who, especially during 2008, pocketed much of the funds from the European Union for infrastructure development, among other things. He pointed to the overgrown roadsides and potholes in quite a lot of anger, saying that such a thing can’t be seen in western Europe. I have become quite used to the condition of the roads in Bulgaria and perhaps because I’m not a driver I don’t value neat roadsides so highly, but when this man’s complaint came to mind in Slovenia the difference was stark.

I have visited several of the countries of former Yugoslavia (I excitedly await the treasures to be found in those countries I have yet to had the pleasure of tasting) and it is apparent to me Slovenia has jumped miles ahead. I have no idea what the countries were like under Yugoslavia, but my assumption is that they were similar in their level of development. How Slovenia had such a great and immediately visible lead on it’s former communist neighbours interested me greatly. I asked Iztok had Slovenia’s entry to the European Union had much to do with this and he told me no. He quite firmly believed that the difference came from the people, that Slovenians were hard working and that this trait was the main force, if not one of the main forces, responsible for driving the development of Slovenia forward. My knowledge of the powers of change and growth isn’t sufficient to argue or to put forward opinions of my own, but identifying this gap has made me more keen to observe and understand these factors. What are the keys that separate countries, causing such a large developmental distance with such a small geographical distance between them? Production, trade, tourism, natural reserves, key political decisions… I feel I need to understand more in order to compare and balance with any accuracy the effect a cultural trait of the people has had in moving a country forward.

The reason I mention this is to tie together my more general observation of the country, with the more specific observation of Ljubljana and it’s people. The result of both my searches led to people, culture, identity, traits… and generalisations. From here I’ll stay a little from my tourist trail into the associated workings of my mind to analyse generalisations and their potential effects on the world.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in my mind testing the pros and cons of generalisations; the dangers and benefits. When Feyda asked to note the difference between the different peoples, it seemed to require the identification of generalisations of each country and I wanted to more soundly concrete my understanding and definition of a generalisation before using it as my primary tool for comparison. Iztok stressed the importance played by the hard working nature of the Slovenian people. Can such a statement be valid, useful or harmful? I started by asking what a generalisation was and listed some examples to help with this.

Irish people love to drink a lot
Bulgarian police are corrupt
Turkish people are very hospitable
Italians love pasta
French people love wine
Americans are fat and stupid
Roma people are lazy don’t want to work

These came to my mind in this order and I just wrote them down as they came. I think it’s not necessary to say if I believe any of them to be true, and I realise some are favorable and some are not so favorable. This also doesn’t reflect my preference or bias to any country, I love them all, it’s just to provide contrast for the deconstructing of generalisations.

Before defining, I asked whether I could start with a simple black and white result and say that generalisations are either all good or all bad; should they be completely avoided or not. I started by stating and believing that they are bad, that a country, for example, is made up of individuals and to label with a generalisation is to stifle diversity and to create a false and rigid picture of what someone from that country looks and behaves like. In achieving this, the generalisation accomplishes no useful purpose and only does harm, breeding falseness. I’ve back tracked a bit from this hard line view though and instead have found that a contextual value judgement needs to be made per generalisation, that is to judge each generalisation individually, on a case by case basis. I believe several factors can be considered to assist in judging the positive or negative value of such statements. These factors, are what I hope, will be the practical and useful result of my thoughts now, the purpose and aim of my mental wandering.

I believe that you can generalise and make a statement based on your experience with members of a certain people. For example, if you spend some time in Dublin and on every social occasion during your stay, of which there happen to be several per week, you notice that your fellow socialites drink an incredible amount. You have a lot of first hand evidence and experience to justify making a statement like, Irish people drink a lot. In making such a statement it should be understood that the statement does not mean that all Irish people drink, but that a high percentage of the Irish population drink and it should be remembered that such a statement is informed by your first hand experience. The percentage isn’t so important and is rarely necessary to be stated so long as the people involved in the discussion share an unspoken agreement that it means a majority. So in this case the statement can be said to be true and useful in that it defines a common cultural trait of the Irish people quite accurately.

If however you have never met an Irish person and have only encountered other people who possess and use a statement like ‘Irish people drink a lot’, then caution needs to be exercised, you then have no personal experience to justify using this statement. The statement becomes not something valid or useful in describing common traits of a people or culture, it becomes a separate entity which takes on an existence of it’s own, loses connection with the people it’s intended to identify with and from then on can turn into something harmful. A game of Chinese whispers takes place where the generalisation is passed on with increasing distance from the original form, possibly gaining inaccurate claims, and so falsely describing the subject of the statement. Take the unfortunately false statement, for example, ‘all Irish people own their own leprechaun as they are given out for free at birth in Ireland’. It is born of assumption and false information without real connection to Ireland or Irish people. The more it gets used, the more it is believed and without reevaluation or experience, connection, with Irish people this statement can held as true by some people half way across the world, or living in even closer proximity. Coming into contact with an Irish person for the first time would most likely cause the false statement to come to light, at which point the person holding the statement would be sadly disappointed to learn that very few Irish people possess their own Leprechaun. I’m personally not disappointed by this ‘truth’, but constantly look forward to being friends with a Leprechaun instead of owning one, in doing so, avoiding the new Leprechaun human rights laws that would undoubtedly be required to deal with Leprechaun ownership, while enjoying the benefits and cultural exchange and learning from said Leprechaun. 🙂

So for my factors for consideration

If you make the generalisation, where are the roots? Do you make it from your own experience? If so, really what are the experiences that make up your claim?

If you hear and adopt a generalisation from someone else, really, how valid are their experiences upon which the claim is founded? Has the person passing on the generalisation  just re-passed it on after hearing from another person without any supporting experience of their own? Claims from uncertain sources can be considered in quarantine until you attach some verification. For example, if you have heard and somewhat believe that Americans are fat and stupid, but this is second hand information and you have yet to meet an American. Meeting a slim and intelligent American, or one of any other description will inform and hopefully seriously damage such a falsity; you will re-evaluate the generalised belief.

Thinking about the source is important, especially concerning negative generalised statements.

I’ve simplified my goal to outline some things that were really bothering me about generalisations. I was searching in conversation sometimes for effective ways to counter people, in a constructive way, who made statements like, ‘but they’re Muslims, they asked for it’, or ‘gypsies live by stealing from others’ or ‘I don’t believe in generalising, but it’s the reality, Americans are fat and stupid’. My search started from a desire to better communicate my opinions on these matters, statements I saw as harmful. I see my ability to communicate effectively as very important. I don’t want to convert opinions to my way of thinking, but to open thinking a little bit, to encourage questioning. Then, all things considered if, what I see as, negative or discriminatory comments remain the same, at least they have been brought into question and at least I’ve tried with what is for now my best.

This thought became intertwined with Fedya’s question and homework and has very satisfactorily reached a conclusion for now, while at the same time opening a much larger door of question; specific cultural traits of people and the effect they have on a country’s development. I hope to practically apply this to the differences in development of Slovenia to it’s neighbours as I mentioned a little earlier in this post. Also, with a little groundwork covered on generalisations, I hope to now tackle more specifically negative statements and stereotypes which enforce the discrimination of people. But I’ll take a break now. 🙂

Feyda, my report is as follows. I can only comment very positively about Slovenia, but can’t possibly cite differences between the Irish culture after such a short, but amazing, experience. I will have to return to your beautiful country to do a little more research. 🙂 I have met even fewer Russians than Slovenians, so the same applies for my comparison with them, the Russian Soul I am still far from understanding or appreciating. Thank you for the very stimulating questions, I look forward to more the next time we meet. 🙂

(Update May 22nd 2013: I moved to Ljubljana, with Lidiya in February-June 2013, and wrote a little about my experience. Also, I have just launched one of the first Slovenian self-study language programs, Learn Slovenian Online, with my Slovene teacher, Valentina. Our goal is to create the best resource for learning the Slovenian language on the web.)