What is it like to live on an island?
I get that question alot. Somehow it is a circumstance that facinates people, also Danes, even though Denmark, in addition to the main Peninsula, Jutland, is made up of no less than 1.419 smaller islands, out of which over 400 are inhabited.
Just this past week two different lovely women (who are currently both living in the Copenhagen area) wrote me on Instagram to ask me that same question: What is it like living on an island? (and more specifically Ærø). They ask because they are considering moving here, or at least moving out of the city.
Which means it is quite a "responsibility" I take on when I respond. My dear friend Maj My writes beautifully on her blog (in Danish) about slow living and homeschooling/unschooling and about her and her family's move from the city to Ærø. As does my "new" neighbour Maria Fynsk Norup. But I am going to attempt an answer as well because they and I have very different stories and very different relationships with this island.
Before I dive into all of this and our lovely existence here, I have to make one thing very clear: Ærø is not a utopia. The "problems" and sorrows, the social challenges, that exist in the city, or on the mainland, also exist here. Your problems will not magically disappear by moving to a small island. There are also alcoholics, drunk drivers, suicides, traffic accidents and neglected children on Ærø. If you are struggling with personal issues, those struggles will also be here. All in all, moving to Ærø will not magically make your life better.
In fact I am convinced that the moments of happiness my family and I experience here, the life and home we have built here, we could also find in many other "outer" areas of Denmark or Scandinavia. The close knit community where people know eachother and care about eachother, the closeness to nature, the affordable houses, the small schools, that feeling of space and being able to breathe! The solitude and the silence.
I will reveal something to you right away: if it wasn't because Ærø is the only place in the world my husband wants to live and where he feels most at home and most happy, I would not be living here. I know that I could be just as happy (if not more so) by the roaring sea on the Danish West coast, in the deep woods of Sweden or in the mountains of Norway.
But I am getting ahead of myself.
Let me start at the beginning...
When I was young I would sail with my family from Fyn to Ærø and swim and dive in the very bay I now look down at every day from our little farm house. When I was 19, I moved here for a year to live and work as a waitress before starting University. That's when I met my husband. 15 years ago. The very first time I met his parents, about 2 weeks into our relationship, (in the very house I sit in now writing this) Bjarne's father told me that he would one day be taking over this property. I didn't really think about it at the time, but I have always known at the back of my mind that if I wanted to be with Bjarne I would have to live here. And that certainty (to someone like me who thrives on change and dreams) would later drive me towards much unnecessary anger and resentment.
My job as a waitress also included tending bar at night. And through that job I met many kind people (mostly men) who turned into very (in varying degrees of harrasment) unpleasant people after spending a few hours at the bar. I dodged many potentially dangerous situations during that year, and saw many broken families, and witnessed many human disasters, both incredible anger and incredible indifference and so much sadness that I sometimes wish I hadn't.
For many of my friends who have moved here, their first few encounters with the island consisted of sun, swimming, summer escape, Cafe Aroma's homemade icecream etc. Basically it was love at first sight. My first impression of the island and my first experiences with its population was a very brutal one. What I saw and can never un-see, was the dark dark underbelly of this small community.
While the 1½ hour spent on the ferry each way used to annoy the hell out of me, and in many ways have limited my ability to grow my business and my client base over the years, I now enjoy it immensely. It feels like a proper transition to prepare you for the slower pace that awaits. One of the reasons I hate flying and much prefer roadtrips or trains is that the pace of movement seems to bring me off balance. It always takes my mind 24 hours or so to catch up to where my body is, when I fly from place to place. But when sailing my mind can keep up.
The houses here are cheap. We would never be able to buy and keep a place like Sigridsminde on the mainland. I grew up in the country, and have always known I wanted to give my own kids that same gift. Here on Ærø, we can afford to do that without having to work 24/7 to earn the money to pay for it.
It wasn't until about 2 years ago that I started to see the island with fresh eyes, to see the brighter side of it, and see the side that attracts all the tourists. The side that feels like a summer's dream. Up until that point I had a very unflattering love/hate relationship with the island. Feeling like me living here was holding me back in too many ways for me to ignore. But now I can honestly say that I am very happy here. I see all the possibilities, the friendships, the potential. I find moments of pleasure in my everyday, not just on weekends or holidays.
In general I feel safe here, and I feel that my kids are safe too. Should they ever need help when I or my husband is not around, chances are they will pass someone they know.
People here are generous. We share our surplus with eachother. We give away lots of fruit and apple juice every year. All the clothes the kids grow out of we give to friends who have smaller children, in return we get lots of fish during summer. We all offer rides to school on rainy days, and playdates or dinner when someone is overworked or stressed.
In our case, family, and thus daily help, is close by. My sister-in-law lives 50 metres down the road to one side, and my parents-in-law 300 metres down the road to the other. This was very useful when my husband was out at sea for 1 month at a time. I have no idea how I would have survived those baby years and early years in business had it not been for my incredible mother-in-law.
I am (despite my dreamer tendencies) a very realistic (sometimes even cynical) person, and I don't buy into that whole American dream / if you work hard and believe in yourself your dreams WILL come true. I don't believe the universe makes any such promise. So you have to be sensible too. As an island is per definition a limited area, there is also a limited number of jobs. So unless you already work remotely, run your own business and can do that online/from anywhere, or see a gap or a need that is not being filled or met and create a job for yourself (like I did), the job situation is something to consider before moving to a relatively isolated place. I don't think I could stand to live here if I had to take the ferry to work every single day of the week. But I know people who do, and who don't mind.
It has taken me around 10 years to realise that living here could be an advantage. I was SO focused on all the things I couldn't do, all the clients I couldn't say yes to, all the money I couldn't make, and all the people I loved spending time with that I couldn't see. For years I felt extremely lonely here, and I "escaped" every chance I got. But the past few years, so many incredibly driven, interesting, creative people have found their way to the island. Friendships and collaborations have come to life. I no longer feel lonely. And I changed my mindset. As I saw it I had two choices: divorce my husband, move away and try to make it on my own with two kids (a very depressing scenario). Or I could see my circumstances and location as a unique asset, a vehicle to get me closer to my dreams instead of something keeping me from them.
Over the past 9 years I have created a niche business photographing couples from all over the world who elope and get married here on Ærø. But now I am slowly transitioning out of that and am in the intial phases of the whole Sigridsminde project now. I am very intentional and specific in the way I approach all of this to make sure that I have both short term and long term plans as to how I create several streams of revenue. I think you have to be when you live in a place like this. To a certain extent you have to create/build your own life.
Apart from the two very tourist-busy months of July and August where town and beach feels like a frantic ant hill, it is immensely peaceful here. There is very little drama, even the nature here is quite modest and cosy. But it is close to us. The sea is an ever present influence and joy in our daily life. During summer, swimming is not limited to well planned out weekend outings, it is a daily pleasure, also on school days. During the long winter months, nothing clears my head like a long walk along the coast being pounded by the fresh West wind. We can see both soft sunrises and spectacular sunsets over the bay.
This may be the messiest, most non-sensical, disorganised blogpost I have ever written. But I hope at least some of it made sense. And if it didn't you are so very welcome to write any follow-up questions in the comments below, and I will update the blogpost with the answers.