Balance, Choices, and Sustainability

By alison - June 19, 2015 (Updated: June 14, 2015)

Balance Choice Sustainability

We’ve been on the road, on our European Motorhome Adventure, for a month and a half now. We’ve travelled through 24 departments in France and spoken to dozens of fascinating people – chefs, farmers, hoteliers, naturalists, wine-makers, artisans, tour-guides, and more. No matter where the conversation begins, we always arrive back at the same themes: Balance, Choices, and Sustainability.


Way back in December, I decided I would choose a theme for 2015. It was something a number of productivity bloggers were recommending. Because 2014 had been my busiest year yet, career-wise, I chose the theme of ‘Balance.’ I knew maintaining a reasonable work/life balance, while embarking on our Motorhome Adventure, would be difficult. I wanted to keep this goal at the forefront of my mind. I had no idea how much this theme would resonate through our travels.

But resonate it did, in ways I never expected. Of course, there was my original intention – achieving a work/life balance. Forty-five days into our travels, I still haven’t mastered this, but I’m starting to understand the direction we need to move towards.

For the first month of our travels in France, we had organised back-to-back press-trips, thinking we would be able to work early in the morning and in the evenings. This rarely ever happened, as our agendas were jam-packed and driving distances where much longer than we originally intended. We learned quickly if our agenda from the tourism office allotted 30 minutes for driving, we would need an hour. A 3.5 ton motorhome is not as zippy as our little Prius was.

By the end of a packed day of visits, reviews, walking tours, cycling trips, and driving winding country roads, we were so exhausted all we could do was fall into bed.

In our old life, an early morning was 9 am, but now we are up with the sun and driving to our next destination by the time we used to be stumbling to the kitchen to make coffee.

When nature is the inspiration, we know the meal will be amazing!

When nature is the inspiration, we know the meal will be amazing!

Our other dilemma has been internet connectivity. In Brussels we had two high-speed connections and were attached to our phones like life support systems. These days, wifi is a blessing to be cherished quickly before it disappears. While, on the one hand, we are enjoying experiences without feeling the need to be ‘wired’ all the time, doing our jobs requires internet access. The balance is off kilter.

After a full-on five weeks, we have just completed our final press trip, and we’ve decided it will be the last for some time. We need to hunker down and work. I need to write about the experiences we’ve had so far, before they drift from my memory. We need to realign the balance.

In our travels through France, we’ve realised we’re not the only ones who struggle with work/life balance. We’ve spoken with so many people who moved from, what seems from the outside, a glamourous life, to something simpler, but more challenging at the same time – The chef who worked at a 3-star restaurant in Lyon, who moved to the Dordogne to spend more time with his young family; The pilot who gave up planes for hot-air balloons; The Kinesiologist who gave up his practice to give tours of the marshes in Pas-de-Calais; The city dwellers who gave up stable careers to grow bio-wines in France, with no agricultural background whatsoever – each one made changes to achieve balance.


This brings me to my second point – choices. I can’t count the number of people who, since we publicised our plans, have called us brave and/or lucky. I have a hard time with both of these labels.

Believe me, I felt anything but brave, when we were selling off our possessions and setting off in our motorhome.  I was scared and excited in equal measure.

A month in, there are mornings I wake up thinking this is exactly what I was meant to do. But there are many others when I wake up thinking ‘what the hell have we done?’ Brave and crazy are simply a matter of perspective.

But I also wonder if moving towards a dream is bravery or simply inevitability. While our choice to undertake this adventure may seem spontaneous from the outside, to us, it’s been something we’ve been working towards for the past three years. True, we accelerated it by a year, but the end goal remained the same. For us, it’s the achievement of a goal we set long ago.

We could pay for a campground every night, but instead we choose to support local farmers by buying their produce in exchange for a corner of their land to park on.

We could pay for a campground every night, but instead we choose to support local farmers by buying their produce in exchange for a corner of their land to park on.

As for luck, we’d never deny our good fortune in life. We have our health, the support of amazing friends and family (no matter what crazy thing we tell them we’re going to do), and the means to achieve our goal. But we also know it wasn’t handed to us on a silver platter. We’ve made some tough choices over the past ten years, to get to where we are today.

Wouldn't you rather sleep here than a crowded campground? We would!

Wouldn’t you rather sleep here than a crowded campground? We would!

Right now, all we own in the world is Amelia, our motorhome, and whatever we’ve managed to stuff inside her (and our cats of course, but then again, they own us). We have no debts, but we have few assets either.

We’ve chosen a life of uncertainty. And while it may seem glamourous from the outside (and some days from the inside too) there are days when it is anything but. But even when we’ve spent the night sleeping in a parking lot, woken at 6am by garbage trucks, struggling to find a moment of decent mobile coverage to frantically download our work emails, we’re living the life we chose and there is something to be said for that.

Luck is winning the lottery – not executing the plan you’ve been working on for over three years.

In our conversations with the people we’ve met, we’ve found the same thing. The vintners living on the idyllic plot of land overlooking the Dordogne weren’t gifted that life because they were lucky. They sacrificed all of their savings and struggled for years to build a successful brand, which could with any harvest, succumb to the whims of Mother Nature. The same goes for the artisan salt marker on the Ile d’Oleron, or the owners of the B&B in Auvergne – One bad season could see their ‘luck’ evaporate. That is the real lottery. But ask any of these people if they would change what they’re doing and they’d all tell you no. This is their choice.


The final theme that has come up again and again, over the past month, is sustainability and this theme has become increasingly more important to us with each conversation.

In the two worlds we find ourselves immersed in the most often: travel and food, sustainability has become the buzzword. For some, it’s trendy and fashionable to be ‘eco’ this or ‘green’ that. But the closer you are to the land and our food source, the more important sustainability becomes.

Organic farming means your crops may have to share with 'weeds' but isn't it more beautiful?

Organic farming means your crops may have to share with ‘weeds’ but isn’t it more beautiful?

What we’re learning, more and more, is sustainability is just a fancy way of saying ‘balance.’ It’s the equilibrium between what we need from the land, and our impact upon it. The more we talk to those who work with the land, the more we want to lessen our impact on it.

This isn’t easy when you drive a 3.5 ton, diesel-guzzling house-on-wheels every day. This was one of our biggest struggles when we first decided how we were going to travel.

As regular readers will know, the decision to travel in a motorhome was taken so our cats could travel with us. But it wasn’t a decision we took lightly. Knowing how heavy our reliance on fossil fuels would be, we wanted to do whatever we could to lessen our footprint. And while she isn’t perfect, we think our life in Amelia has a much smaller footprint than our life in Brussels ever did.

Yes, we do burn diesel when we drive, and until someone develops a hybrid motorhome, this is something we can’t avoid. (Note: If you happen to have built a hybrid motorhome and are looking for a reviewer, please contact us.) We try to offset this by not travelling on motorways (part of our Slow Travel mandate) and we’re looking into a carbon off-set program.

A free Aire with a magnificent view in Normandy

A free Aire with a magnificent view in Normandy

When we drive Amelia, she charges the battery we use to power everything inside: our lights, electrical outlets, water pump etc. Amelia also has a solar panel on her roof that charges this same battery if we aren’t moving. We are only actually plugged into electrical mains about once a week – and even then, it hasn’t been something we were in desperate need of.

Our water consumption has gone way down too. Because the size of our fresh and waste water tanks is limited, we’re always careful about how much water we use. Showers are limited to a few minutes and there are no more long, lingering soaks in the tub. In the future, we’d also like to fit Amelia with a composting toilet, so we have even less impact on the environment.

Our minimalist lifestyle means everything we own must be functional, and most items serve more than one purpose. We simply don’t have the space to be mass consumers anymore – and honestly, we like it that way.

This cabin in the woods inspired our minimalist / eco-living dreams

This cabin in the woods inspired our minimalist / eco-living dreams

Now we certainly aren’t advocating everyone in the world sell all of their possessions and take to the roads in motorhomes. But we do hope we can get you thinking about some simple things you can do in your own lives and when planning your own holidays that will lessen the impact on the environment.

On our travels, we’ve also seen the downside of motor-homing in Europe – vast campgrounds with thousands of campers packed side by side, without a tree, bird, or barely a blade of grass in sight – but there are four waterslides… And while we can see the lure of all-inclusive resorts – whether campgrounds or hotels – we’ve also see the impact they have on our planet and we believe there’s a better way.

Who needs entertainment other than this gorgeous sunset? Not us!

Who needs entertainment other than this gorgeous sunset? Not us!

The travel industry from the 80s and 90s has a lot to answer for, when it comes to environmental impact, but we no longer have to be a part of the mass-tourism industry to have a wonderful holiday.

Over the past weeks, we’ve visited all kinds of environmentally responsible holiday accommodations – from luxurious eco-lodges, to tiny, family-friendly campgrounds. They span the range of budgets and are in some of the most beautiful corners of France we’ve seen. There’s so much to do, in nature, we promise you won’t miss the waterslides. We’ll be sharing proof an environmentally sustainable holiday is not only possible, but affordable (and luxurious if you prefer), and relaxing.

Of course, being in France, talking to producers, and loving food as we do, it’s no surprise we’re becoming even more militant about our stance on sustainable agriculture too. For years now, we’ve become increasingly aware the food we choose to eat has a huge impact on our health, but also the health of our planet. As consumers, we can’t keep allowing our food source to be dominated by industrial agri-businesses that poison the land with chemicals and limit the varieties of produce available.

We love it when farmers save some wild flowers for the birds, bees, and other wild critters.

We love it when farmers save some wild flowers for the birds, bees, and other wild critters.

Even if you think your food choices can’t make a difference environmentally, sustainably produced food just tastes better. Last week we enjoyed strawberries from an organic farm that actually tasted like the strawberries of our childhood. It was a revelation. And of course by now you know our stance on cheese – good cheese comes from happy cows. The same goes for any animal product, whether it’s eggs or meat, or dairy.

Happy cows make great cheese!

Happy cows make great cheese!

As modern consumers, we’ve lost sight of what the food chain should be. Instead of our food coming from the land, it comes wrapped in plastic at giant superstores. We’ve forgotten that meat comes from animals and vegetables grow in the soil.

As an adult now, I am so thankful I grew up with my hands in the dirt of my Grandfather’s garden. It taught me respect for the people who grow our food. How is it possible now that children don’t know what a carrot looks like or where tomatoes come from?

Organic food certainly doesn't need to be boring!

Organic food certainly doesn’t need to be boring!

We don’t have all of the answers. We know it’s not possible for everyone to buy food direct from farms and we know it’s not affordable for everyone to buy organic. But we do know it should be possible and affordable and that our current system is seriously flawed. The only way for us to change it, is to make our choices with our consumer dollars (euro, yen, rubles) whenever possible.

Choices – for balance and sustainability. There are those words again.

The more we see of this big beautiful world of ours, the more we want to preserve it for future generations – and the more we want to preserve our own health so we’ll have many more years to explore every inch of it.

We want nature to remain wild and unspoiled so we tread as lightly as we can

We want nature to remain wild and unspoiled so we tread as lightly as we can

We choose to strive for balance in our lives and to lessen our impact on the planet. No, we can’t change the world, but we can choose to be responsible for our small part in it. Imagine what we could all achieve if everyone chose the same.

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Big Cheese at CheeseWeb
Alison Cornford-Matheson is a Canadian freelance writer and travel photographer and the founder of She is the author of The Foodie Guide to Brussels: Local Tips for Restaurants, Shops, Hotels, and Activities. Alison landed in Belgium in 2005 and, over the years, has become passionate about slow and sustainable travel, in Europe and beyond. She loves to discover hidden gems - be they museums, shops, restaurants, castles, gardens or landscapes, and share them through her words and photos. She has visited 45 countries and is currently slow travelling through North America in an RV, with her husband, Andrew, and two well-travelled cats. You can also follow her work on Google+
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  1. Comment by Diana Van der Velden

    Diana Van der Velden June 19, 2015 at 15:35

    Nice article Alison! I enjoyed reading your thoughts on sustainability as it relates to tourism/travel. I have had many of the same thoughts, in thinking about balance and sustainability. I often say to my husband, about places I have traveled to, “this location is so beautiful, I hope it does not get discovered”. And the reason for saying that is not that I do not want others to enjoy some fantastic locations, but from fear that some locations will get over developed or over run with people. It is a balance and how do we, as travel writers, promote responsible tourism?
    We recently ordered a second printing of our book, “Prairie Paddling, Discovering Alberta’s Badlands by Canoe” and we did question if we wanted to have more people out on the river, camping. We do promote responsible camping in the book, i.e. camping below the high water mark, taking your trash with you, etc., but you always wonder if people will listen, once they discover the freedom of canoeing.
    Interesting discussion and thanks for sharing!

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison June 21, 2015 at 11:29

      It is tricky, Diana. We struggle with the same thing. On the one hand, our mission is to share ‘undiscovered’ places… but sometimes what makes a place special is that it IS undiscovered. We also know that many small places rely on tourism to survive, so in that sense, we want to help promote them. In the end, I think all we can do is continue to promote small-scale, sustainable tourism and hope that the industry has learned from the mistakes of the past. Hopefully, we can educate travellers by setting a good example of how to travel with minimal impact. I don’t think there will ever be a perfect solution.

  2. Comment by Beste

    Beste June 20, 2015 at 11:33

    Hello, I am following your block for several years already, and really enjoying it. I like this article particularly. We all struggle with balance in our lives, which is defined with choices we make. It was great to read your opinion on this which you wrote in a very open way, thanks! And all the best with your adventure 🙂

    • Comment by Alison


      Alison June 21, 2015 at 11:24

      I’m glad you enjoyed it and thanks for following along 🙂

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