catalunya- vidalia Co-op
July 2022- November 2022
The first time I read about Vidalia, I had literal tears in my eyes...
We really struggled to find the types of communities we were looking for in the last year, and this place shined out in the darkness, ticking so many boxes for exactly what we were looking for...
They were in Spain.
They had a horizontal, non-hierarchical structure.
They prioritized the environment.
They had other artists.
They were financially accessible.
They were located between the mountains, the sea, and a big city. (not to mention, on a river, with a water turbine)
They had a leading permaculture activist living there already.
They had a free store!
They were a nice mix of locals and foreigners.
They were about 3 years old. Well established, but still very much in progress, meaning we believed in the potential for success, but still had a real opportunity to be involved in a meaningful way from the ground up.
They were just the right mix of not being too political but also not being too hippy dippy. It's a difficult balance to find
As with many communities, one must go through a series of visits as part of the process of possibly joining. We had to wait several months to hear back, but we finally managed to make it down there to visit.
Our first Prueba: One week: Early July 2022
We drove into the historic town of Cal Vidal with great anticipation and parked Louis under the massive plane trees. It's an old factory colony from the days of the textile industry consisting of 5 streets of row houses, an old school, a church, a bar, a museum, a sizable garden, and of course, a massive factory. Vidalia exists inside of this entire village, except the bar and museum, which are run by unrelated people. The town was slowly abandoned once the factory closed down in 1980. It is listed as a historical heritage site in the region, and consists of more than 100 living spaces, ready to be renovated and brought back to life. Think of the possibilities!
Of the 24 current members of the community, there are 9 different nationalities represented. Ben and I met 18 of them during our initial week and liked them all (something rather rare for us.) Ranging in age from 2 to 75, they were a fascinating hodge podge group with different interests and strengths. We helped out with two events while we were there, and the week passed so quickly. One member took us rock climbing with the kids in the Pyrenees. Another one took us on an adventure to a river beach.
We left, we visited Galicia. There was a terrible suffocating heat wave. We went back to the states to get married! We had a wonderful time. We came back to Spain and celebrated our one-year-on-the-road-anniversary. We visited other areas around Catalunya to get a feel for the region. We returned to Vidalia in September and it felt very fitting to end up there after our wedding and after our one-year mark on the road. A perfect time for a new chapter. A sigh of relief.
Our second Prueba: One month- September 15-October 15
This time around we shared a lovely house with an ex-dentist named Dom who had curly red hair, a big smile, and always wore green. We met the few people we didn't meet the first time, filling in the gaps. We got to sit in on their meetings, and got to know more in-depth what was going on with their plan for this massive project. We dove in.
The little bar across the street had live music on Friday evenings, which was frequented by locals of nearby villages. The museum brought in busloads of school kids and visitors regularly, making Vidalia seem far less isolated than many other communities we'd seen...
We had some challenges.
About one week in, I got really sick for the first time on the whole trip, which lingered fort the rest of the month. We realized the water filter was broken, and several bed-ridden days and a stool sample later, we still didn't know exactly what was going on with me and one other person. Our best guess was Giardia, a parasite that's very common and very difficult to detect. Thus 3 of the 4 weeks I was unable to participate as much as I would've liked, but I did the best I could.
The sheer scope of the project overwhelmed me sometimes... 25 people living in a town that used to hold over 600... how would we ever bring it back? Where should we begin? What are the priorities? 110 houses? Single paned windows that needed to be replaced with double-panes at 4 hours of work each? How many windows were in this place anyway? Thousands? 4,000 hours on windows, then? Is that a whole year of work on windows alone? More? Nevertheless, we were inspired. No idea was too big for this place, that's for sure. Our dreams went wild.
The aim of the project would change, depending on who you asked. I didn't love that, but Vidalia has gone through a few different iterations in its short life, so this seemed fairly normal to me as a consequence. They also prioritized permaculture less than we would've liked, and some of the members seemed extraordinarily concerned with the Catalan language being a pillar of the project. Some to an almost aggressive extent. We didn't agree with this either, but we were still excited about many other aspects, and we were willing to learn Catalan if need be (though one of the main pulls of settling in Spain is that we already speak Spanish.)
Our favorite parts:
We shared many beautiful and deep talks around the dinner table, doing 'sobremesa' almost every night. We were invited to a costume party in a castle in the mountains. We were included in future plans. We were starting to feel at home. Vidalia, like many communities, uses a system of organization called "sociocracy" which basically breaks down decision-making and work into various "circles" that make it more efficient. We discussed which circles would be best for us to join in the future and already got involved in some projects.
They had an entire costume room, just like a good house in New Orleans. This made me incredibly happy. They were really fun, and had a nice balance of social, political, and environmental activists. We loved how international it was. We loved how creative so many of the members were (three other painters, a musician, two other people that studied film, a writer, dancers) and how scientific others were (a mathematician, a PDH Chemist, an IT computer guy turned inventor, a dentist) and the rest were very socially active (a grant writer, a legal rep for animal rights activists, a kindergarten teacher in training, a midwife.)
We had a "G-themed" going away party. Everyone dressed in costumes starting with the letter G (Ghost, Gaucho, Ghandi, Greta Thunberg, a Giraffe, a Goth, Gato, Guapo, lady Gaga) and we had Greek music. We cooked redbeans and rice. We drank a bottle of Greek Ouzo we'd been saving for nearly a year and passed it around the fire. The night ended in a wood-powered-hot-tub made from an old wash basin, drinking Spanish champagne called Cava. "This is quite the send-off" I said, "There's a reason for that" one memore said. We felt very loved.
After our month was up, and I finally got antibiotics and kicked my illness, and we headed down south towards our permaculture design course, which we'd signed up for months ago. We celebrated Ben's birthday in the protected area of Cabo de Gata, and learned of the horrors of big agriculture in Almeria. So much desert. So little water. So many greenhouses. Beautiful sea, though.
Vidalia would vote on our application October 31st, about two and a half weeks after we left. We anxiously awaited this day and when it finally came, we were filled with nervous excitement. What happened, instead, was that they told us they weren't able to come to a vote during the meeting, because there had been so much discussion on our application that they ran out of time. What?
They said they had some feedback they'd like us to respond to before they made a decision, which they would send in the next day or two. This was pretty disappointing to us because of the expectations we had, but feedback is normal –we also gave them feedback when we left two and a half weeks before... We waited impatiently for what turned out to be 5 long days, loosing enthusiasm as time went on. We wondered what was taking so long. Wondered what the concerns were. Wondered what was wrong with us.
The feedback was carefully worded, and mainly consisted of things we'd already spoken about at length. They reiterated the importance of children and of Catalan. The new information we hadn't heard before began with an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. They basically told us we were somewhat impatient and critical, and that Ben's way of expressing frustration would need to be addressed. We knew the social element of living in community would be the hardest for us, so this feedback wasn't surprising. They said they had many systems in place to work on these things, and that everyone is in a process of self-growth.
We agreed again to learn Catalan. We repeated that we were happy that kids were involved in the project. We thanked them for their gentle feedback about our attitudes and personalities. We want to work on ourselves. It's not easy to live in a group when we're raised in a society that is so individualistic. We have a lot to unlearn.
We started our Permaculture course. We waited. We were distracted. We had another video chat with three members before their next meeting. We reiterated everything. This all felt so unnecessarily dramatic. They were only voting on whether or not we would be invited for a year, not forever.
And then, at long last, we got a phone call from a close friend at the community. She told us they weren't able to come to a consensus. Which means the answer was no.
Vidalia, like many communities, makes decisions based on consensus, which means everyone has to say yes for something to go through. You're not allowed to say "no" just because you don't like something though, you must have a deeper concern to defend your position. They weren't sure they would be able to live up to our expectations, and weren't sure if they could deal with our frustration about that. Some didn't like our direct way of communicating.
This was particularly upsetting because their approach with making any decision is to ask "Is it good enough for now, safe enough to try?" Apparently we were not safe enough to try. This was truly shocking and felt like a 180 from where things were when we left. What happened?
This caused somewhat of a schism in the group, as many members were as crushed about this outcome as we were. We were already included in long-term plans for many. They urged us to keep an open mind. Promised us they were going to try to review and reverse the decision. They wanted to fight for us. They wanted us to be there. We had phone calls with many people. One asked us to move nearby and wait, and perhaps in the not-too-distant future the community would feel differently. Perhaps. One said coming back for an additional trial period would really prove to Vidalia that we were serious, but they couldn't promise that we would even get that offer yet. What kind of loyalty test was this, though? Why? This all seemed like a huge red flag.
We felt like we and Vidalia had fallen mutually in love over the summer and began to plan our long term futures together. Until one confusing day when they started pulling away and acting distant, then finally dumped us. We realized that the "person" we fell in love with wasn't who we thought they were. and that perhaps we'd been seeing them through rose-colored glasses all along. Then they were asking us to maybe take them back, but weren't willing to commit to anything. Just like an all-too-familiar toxic relationship dynamic. What a pity.
We realized, even if they did invite us back, we might actually not have the patience to deal with this process – especially in this particular project. There were too many windows to change to spend 50+ collective work-hours on simply discussing two peoples applications, not to mention the months and hours spent on educating and integrating us before that, and for what? Vidalia plans (and desperately needs) to grow to be 80-150 people. We are no longer convinced this will happen if even our application was so controversial, which is a shame because they do not have the capacity to take care of that massive place without many, many more hands on deck.
This was, and still is, very difficult for us, as we really put all our eggs in one basket here. We already cared about many of those people, and were looking forward to finally having friends and stability again. Having a mailing address again. Having space to do yoga and wash our clothes again. Having a project we cared about to dedicate our lives to. We didn't necessarily love Catalyuna, but we loved Vidalia. Writing this is an attempt for me to try and process it all still, but there have been many sleepless nights and tears shed. I do believe that everything happens for a reason, and that it probably really wasn't the right fit for us. Nevertheless, we're pretty crushed. Nobody likes to feel unwanted...
Many people have told us living in community in the way we're searching for doesn't work. The Vidalia member that delivered the bad news to us told us "I hope this doesn't make you give up on living communally all together" but it's really hard to believe it's possible when we haven't been able to find what we're looking for after all this time. Nevertheless, we refuse to give up yet...
Until further notice, the search continues...